Anti-Racist Organizer Michele Lefkowith Discusses Skinhead Movement in Pacific Northwest
An anti-racist organizer's view of Skinheads
Shocked by the appearance of neo-Nazi Skinheads on the streets of her hometown of Eugene, Ore., Michele Lefkowith began working with anti-racist groups seven years ago. For the last three years, she has been the director of Communities Against Hate, a project of the Community Alliance of Lane County (formerly known as Clergy & Laity Concerned).
She has focused on combating racist Skinheads at the grass-roots level, spending much of her energy on working with what she describes as true Skinheads — anti-racist youths with roots in an originally nonracist, multi-ethnic movement in England.
Tough-talking and streetwise, Lefkowith says that many in law enforcement have confused a movement that has many positive elements with the neo-Nazi groups that she says have hijacked Skinhead culture and tradition.
The Intelligence Report interviewed Lefkowith about her work on the streets, the situation in the Pacific Northwest, and her views of Skinheads and their history.
IR: Can you describe the development of the Skinhead scene in the Pacific Northwest?
LEFKOWITH: The number of Nazi Skinheads back in the late '80s and early '90s was pretty high up and down the I-5 corridor, in Portland, Salem, Corvallis, Eugene, Medford and Grants Pass, even in smaller rural communities. The American Front and eight or nine other Nazi organizations were operating in Portland, and there was a real surge of hate crimes.
At the same time, there were anti-racist Skinheads that were organizing themselves. There were various confrontations, and law enforcement really started to clamp down hard, so aboveground Skinhead activity diminished for a period of time. At the same time, many racist skins started recruiting aggressively underground.
What has happened since the early to mid-'90s is that many of the key Nazi leaders have been coming out of the prison system. And they're coming out much more sophisticated and much more committed to their beliefs. In fact, it's like a badge of honor for them. They get icon status if they actually end up in the slammer for a hate crime.
IR: What's the situation in the Pacific Northwest like now?
LEFKOWITH: We are seeing a resurgence of the Nazi Skinheads up and down the same I-5 corridor. They are definitely growing in numbers. I wouldn't want to inflate it, but I would say there are between 200 and 300 of them. There are about 60 self-identified Nazi Skinheads in Portland and 30 or 40 in Salem, and those figures are probably low because many of them aren't identifying themselves [openly] as Nazis.
They are operating on a single-man cell basis, unidentified with any organization. They're working in a sophisticated, underground way — they are in an organizing mode.
Volksfront, which is based in Portland, is probably the most prominent neo-Nazi [Skinhead] group in the Pacific Northwest. We are seeing a concerted effort on their part to strategically place older Nazi leaders, people in their late 20s, up and down the I-5 corridor.
One of them, who had gone to prison for hate crimes including attacking a black man with a hammer in Portland, recently came to Eugene. He brought seven of his goons and got into a verbal altercation with some anti-racist skins.
He went off with, "This is going to be a Volksfront town now. We're going to break your backs. We ran the anti-racist skins out of Portland and we're going to do the same here."
Another leader has been handing out Volksfront literature on the buses here, and he's shown up at one of the "Ska [a form of West Indian music] Against Bigotry" concerts that I helped organize.
IR: Can you give an example of other violent Nazi Skinhead tactics?
LEFKOWITH: They go on these things they call "fishing trips." They put the little guy up front driving. He'll drive by and see a person of color, for instance, and flip them off and try to engage them in some kind of verbal exchange. Then, all the Nazi skins jump out from under the canvas in the back of the truck and beat the hell out of the person.
IR: Are there other neo-Nazi organizing efforts under way?
LEFKOWITH: Volksfront is making a concerted and sophisticated effort to organize and recruit in prisons at the national level. They call it their "prisoner of war" program. Nazi Skinheads also recruit at [music] shows and places like malls, where disenfranchised and homeless kids hang out. That's a real ripe and ready arena for the Nazis.
There is also a real effort to recruit young people at the high school and middle school level. There were 19 neo-Nazi Skinheads at just one high school in Salem last year, and we're still seeing the trickledown effects of that now. They're getting young kids, 12- and 13-year-old kids who are really bright, and befriending them.
They're looking for the middle-class, upper-middle-class folks that have some brain, that will bring strategy and organizing ability into the movement.
They're even inviting really young people, kids who are 8, 9, 10 years old, over to their apartments. They build a personal relationship with them and don't indoctrinate them into politics until much later in the game. The kids don't know what they're all about and sort of think they look pretty cool, and so they start hanging with them.
I know of one older Nazi who tested kids: If they knew Hitler's birthday they would get a six-pack of beer, smokes or whatever.
They also prey on kids who have no place to go, homeless kids. They offer shelter to them, a roof over their heads, and food. It's a real manipulative thing.