Motley Crews: With Decline of Hammerskins, Independent Skinhead Groups Grow

Last Memorial Day weekend, three racist skinheads stood side-by-side to pose for a photo at the Imperial Klans of America compound near Dawson Springs, Ky., where the IKA hosts the annual white power gathering Nordic Fest. Two of them -- Eric Fairburn and Brien James, both founders of the Hoosier State Skinheads -- flipped off the camera while holding a red, white, and black flag upside down. The flag displayed the marching hammers symbol of Hammerskin Nation, a coalition of regional skinhead groups that dominated the United States skinhead scene for almost a decade. By posing with the flag upside down, Fairburn, James, and their accomplice declared the reign of Hammerskin Nation finished. Lest there be any mistaking their intent, the skinhead in the middle, a member of the Keystone State Skinheads, held his arms downward, fists closed, a deliberate inversion of the Hammerskin Nation signal of crossed arms up.

The photo is a remarkable symbol of the rapid and treacherous balkanization under way among organized skinheads in America, as well as a telling indicator of how the skinhead scene in this country, now more than ever, is less the revolutionary political movement its adherents claim than a disjointed criminal subculture. The skins in the photo are behaving like gangbangers, not race warriors. They're "dissing" the Hammerskins, their fellow Aryans, right down to the gang signs.

These trends parallel an alarming resurgence in skinhead activity nationwide, which continues to intensify. At the beginning of 2002, there were 18 skinhead crews active in the United States, most of them under the control of Hammerskin Nation. That count has now more than tripled to 59 active crews, only six of which belong to Hammerskin Nation.

As the power of the Hammerskins has waned, the skinhead scene has entered a free-for-all phase, with new and unaffiliated local, state, and regional crews proliferating rapidly. More and more of these newcomers subscribe to the ultra-violent ethos and disorganized crime profiteering of a chaotic band of Midwest-based gangster skins known as the Vinlanders.

While there's no skinhead census, and no official statistics on skinhead-specific crime, cops on the street that specialize in tracking skins say the facts are clear. "Skinhead activity has easily doubled in the last couple of years, and the Vinlander influence is huge," says Matt Browning, a detective with the Mesa, Ariz., police department who has investigated white power gangs in his region and their nationwide connections for 10 years, including two years undercover. "They're more violent, they're more technically savvy than before in terms of using the Internet to organize, and, while they're still motivated by race and politics, it's also about money now."

Bloodshed and Retaliation
The ongoing devolution of the skinhead scene began with what will live in infamy in skinhead lore as "the pool cue and blowtorch incident." It happened in mid-1999, when Hammerskin Nation's power was peaking, with about 600 Hammerskins distributed across five regional divisions. To become a Hammerskin, a skinhead who wanted to join had to be a "prospect" for one year, then a "probate" for six months. All this time, and forever after, they were required to pay $10 a month in dues to their local chapter, and $10 a month to Hammerskin national leaders in Dallas, who asserted dominion over skinheads nationwide, portrayed Hammerskin Nation as elite, and enforced strict codes of conduct.

Early that summer, these leaders issued a direct order to the members and two probates of the Indiana chapter of the Northern Hammerskins that set in motion a cycle of bloodshed, retaliation, and dissent that continues to shape the level and nature of skinhead criminal activity in this country and abroad.

The order was simple: Hammerskin leaders had determined that a certain Hammerskin was no longer worthy of membership due to his persistent sexual propositioning of a fellow member's wife. They directed the Indiana Hammerskins to seek out this offender, inform him of their decision, and then "remove" his Hammerskin "colors," meaning any patches, pins or other markers indicating his affiliation.

When a pack of five Indiana Hammerskins tracked down the offender, they not only roughed him up and tore off his colors, they beat him severely with a pool stick and threatened to burn off his Hammerskin tattoos with a blowtorch if he didn't cover them up with other tattoos.

The Hammerskin leaders were outraged and banished the attackers for exceeding their orders. Basically, the five Indiana skinheads were punished for being too violent. Eight of the other Indiana Hammerskins turned in their patches in protest of the punishment and together, the 13 former Hammerskins formed a new, rogue crew they called Outlaw Hammerskins, which represented the first serious challenge to Hammerskin Nation authority.

From their very beginning, the Outlaw Hammerskins represented a new breed of racist skinhead. They avowed white power, yet listened to black gangsta rap. They had neo-Nazi tattoos, yet dripped with gold chains. They wore Doc Martens, but also gold teeth. They formed close ties with the Hell's Angels, working security at the outlaw biker gang's events (the father of Jeremy Maske, one of the founding Outlaw skinheads, was the president of the Indiana chapter of the Hell's Angels at the time).

Within a few months, the Outlaw Hammerskins had chapters across Indiana and Wisconsin. Their creed was "take it to the extreme." If another skinhead crew mocked them for being "whiggers" (white "niggers"), Outlaw Hammerskins would beat them down. If attacked with fists and feet, Outlaw Hammerskins would retaliate with bats and knives. If a rival pulled a knife, an Outlaw Hammerskin pulled a gun.

"We do remain open and hospitable to other racialists who pass through our cities and states. However, we do not tolerate disrespect," they announced on their website. "Meaning we don't talk shit. There is no 'next time.' We'll light you up on the fucking spot."