The racist skinhead movement in the United States has entered its fourth decade. Since the first skinhead gangs surfaced in Texas and the Midwest in the early 1980s, this racist and violent subculture has established itself in dozens of states from coast to coast and has authored some of the country’s most vicious hate crimes in memory, from arson to assault to murder. The racist skinheads’ trademark style — shaved head, combat boots, bomber jacket, neo-Nazi and white power tattoos — has become a fixture in American culture.

The scowling skinhead has joined the hooded Klansman as an immediately recognizable icon of hate.

Unlike the Klan, racist skinhead culture is not native to the United States. And unlike the Klan, it is a truly global phenomenon, with skinhead gangs haunting major cities and towns in just about every white-majority country on earth. From Austria to Australia and Argentina to America, working-class youths can be found dressed in some local variation on the skinhead theme, espousing a crude worldview that is viciously anti-foreigner, anti-black, anti-gay, and anti-Semitic. In recent years, the Internet and cheap international airfares have allowed skinhead groups across the planet to communicate and organize in ways that would have shocked the original skinheads of the 1960s and ’70s, whose vision and turf was limited to the East London neighborhoods in which they grew up and lived.

The growth of the racist skinhead movement has mirrored the rise in non-white immigration to the West. As the skin hues of Europe and North America have darkened with steady post-World War II immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, a nativist backlash has appeared in both mainstream and extremist forms. The skinhead movement is the most violent and ideologically crude form of this backlash. Depending on the country, racist skinheads may have shadowy ties to radical parties participating in electoral politics. Skinhead groups in the U.S. lack such connections, but for those unlucky enough to encounter them on a darkened street, this does not make them any less fearsome

Origins

The first skinheads emerged in the late 1960s as just one of the many distinct youth cultures that flowered in postwar Britain. Taking elements of English “mod” and Jamaican immigrant fashion, these working-class London youths crafted an identity in self-conscious opposition to the middle-class “longhairs.” At various points in their early development, English skinheads positioned themselves as tough working-class counterpoints to foppish mods, long-haired hippies, mohawked punks and made-up goths.

The skinhead style first emerged as part of a non-racist and multiracial scene. White skinheads took on a persona that reflected admiration for and kinship with a new generation of working-class West Indian immigrants into the United Kingdom. Like the Jamaican immigrants of the time, the first skinheads were clean-cut, neat, and sharp-looking compared to the shaggier youth styles of the period. (White skinheads eventually lost their affinity for Jamaica as Rastafarian fashions became ascendant, with their overtones of black pride and pan-Africanism.)

Many early white skinheads were vaguely nationalistic and “proud to be British,” but their deepest loyalties lay with their childhood chums and the local soccer team, not the “white race,” as professed by today’s racist skinheads. While known for their youthful aggression, petty criminality, and soccer stadium violence, this activity was seen as borne out of economic hardship and a general spirit of bully-boy rebellion — not blind race hatred. Indeed, the first skinhead music was reggae and ska, both black musical forms; the earliest targets of white skinheads’ anger and homemade weapons were each other and rival soccer fans.

But a split between racist and non-racist skinheads was apparent and began deepening soon after the style was born. By the early ’70s, skinhead attacks on South Asian immigrants in London — the infamous sport of “Paki bashing” — had become an international news story. These violent skinheads had not yet acquired the trappings of neo-Nazi costumes and ideology, but they were already acting like Hitler’s goon squads, the brown shirts. One skinhead explained a typical “Paki bash” to a Time magazine journalist in 1970: “You go up to them and bump into them, and then you nut [forehead bash] them right, and then you hit them, and as they go down you give them a kicking, bash them with an iron bar, and take their watches and rings and things like that.”

More than 50 such attacks were reported within a span of weeks in 1970, triggering street protests by British South Asians. A definitive break between racist and non-racist skins had occurred.

During the early to mid-’70s, England’s skinheads went into temporary decline. They experienced a revival in 1976, when a new generation of skinheads started earning a fresh reputation for violence through attacks on punks, homosexuals, and immigrants.

Fueling these attacks and cementing the new racist skinhead identity was increasing association with two neofascist political parties, the National Front and the British Movement. The latter, founded by long-time neo-Nazi Colin Jordan in 1968, did the most to stamp a swastika on the racist sector of the skinhead movement. The British Movement ran candidates in the 1974 U.K. general elections who espoused neo-Nazi ideas and wore swastikas while handing out party literature featuring the image and words of Adolf Hitler. In 1975, the British Movement gained a charismatic leader in the form of Michael McLaughlin, who reached out to the racist skinheads and appealed to their sensibilities and skills by emphasizing violence and street-level hate.

Between the arrival of Michael McLaughlin in 1975 and the election of Margaret Thatcher as British prime minister in 1979, the first hardcore neo-Nazi skinheads were born.

Skinheads in the US.

The neo-Nazi skinhead phenomenon spread quickly to the United States. By the early 1980s, skinhead activity was reported in Texas and the Midwest, among other places. But the movement only started gaining national attention during the last third of the decade. It was then that skinhead gangs like the Dallas Hammerskins made a splash with violent racist attacks on immigrants and blacks.

The most important skinhead gang in raising the American movement’s early profile was Chicago’s CASH (Chicago Area Skin Heads), which made national headlines with a brutal 1987 crime spree that involved assaults on six Hispanic women, swastikas painted on three synagogues, and numerous incidents of vandalism to Jewish-owned business. The leader of CASH was an ex-con and former member of the American Nazi Party named Clark Martell.

In the mid-1980s, Martell played the role of a skinhead Johnny Appleseed, performing around Chicago with his punk band Romantic Violence and passing out American Nazi Party newsletters and copies of National Socialist Skinhead magazine between his band’s sets. Martell’s neo-Nazi recruiting drive caught the attention of Chicago’s numerous “traditional,” or non-racist, skinheads, including a number of African Americans. (According to Chicago punk lore, the city’s skinhead scene was founded by black, non-racist skins). Enjoying the advantage of vastly superior numbers, anti-racist crews such as Skinheads of Chicago (SHOC) routinely ganged up on CASH skins at shows and in the streets. “They grew out of what we are — the punk scene — so it’s up to us to combat them,” a member of the Chicago Anti-Racist Action (ARA) skinhead crew told the Chicago Tribune.

By the time Martell and the other five CASH skins were arrested for a gruesome 1987 attack on a former member, CASH had been more or less beaten into submission by anti-racist skins. But Martell had merely proven he was ahead of his time, and his defeat was local. When he first started recruiting for CASH, there were likely fewer than 200 racist skinheads in the United Sates. By 1989, when he was convicted of home invasion, aggravated battery, and robbery and sentenced to 11 years in prison, there were an estimated 3,000.

A major force behind this national growth spurt was Tom Metzger, a Fallbrook, Calif.-based former Klansman and longtime leader of the neo-Nazi group White Aryan Resistance (WAR). Around 1986, Metzger formed WAR Youth and launched an organized skinhead outreach campaign. Together with his teenage son, John, Metzger sought to ground the dispersed movement in ideology and direct its wild and chaotic youthful energy into building smart, well-trained, and obedient street cells around the country. In 1988, Tom Metzger organized the first major hate rock festival in the U.S., Aryan Fest, in Oklahoma.

It was also in 1988 that Metzger’s efforts bore their most bitter fruit. In November, WAR Youth representative Dave Mazella visited Portland, Ore., to train and guide members of a local skinhead crew, East Side White Pride. During this visit, a group of Portland skins under Mazella’s tutelage attacked a group of Ethiopian immigrants in the middle of a street with steel-toed boots and a baseball bat. One of them, graduate student Mulugeta Seraw, died from his wounds. Although Metzger would later lose a bruising $12.5 million lawsuit brought against his organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League — a suit that effectively wrecked WAR as an organization capable of putting skinheads into the street — he continues propaganda efforts to this day from a new base in Indiana. But Metzger’s current operation is limited to a newspaper, an “Aryan update” telephone hotline, and a website (resist.com) that is largely devoted to racist and anti-Semitic “humor.”

The murder of Mulugeta Seraw was hardly unique during the American skinhead movement’s growth years. Indeed, there were scores of brutal skinhead assaults around the country during the late ’80s and early ’90s, including the cold-blooded murders of black men in Birmingham, Ala., and Arlington, Texas.

Those responsible for these murders included members of the dreaded Confederate Hammerskins, a confederation of skinheads founded in Dallas in 1987. After spreading throughout the South, Hammerskin-affiliated gangs began appearing on the east and west coasts in the early 1990s.

It was out of these geographically disparate Hammerskin gangs that Hammerskin Nation (HSN) was formed in 1994. The idea was to unite all of the regional Hammerskin groups into a national and even international force, with affiliated chapters in Europe. And for a while, the plan worked. Hammerskin Nation established itself as the most powerful skinhead organization in the country during the mid- and late ’90s. At its peak, HSN directed nearly 30 chapters and ran a successful record label, publishing house, and website. The HSN symbol of two crossed hammers swept the skinhead scene. And an annual meeting and concert, Hammerfest, was launched in 1999, allowing HSN members from around the world to meet and organize. Throughout this period of Hammerskin ascendancy, the racist skinhead movement continued to grow and was responsible for hundreds of racially motivated crimes around the country. It was also during this period, in 1997, that Denver police officer Bruce Vander Jagt became the first American police officer killed in the line of duty by a racist skinhead.

Hammerskin dominance failed to outlast the decade, however. As early as 1999, Hammerskins around the country were complaining in private and on message boards about the heavy-handed and “elitist” leadership style of the organization’s top officers. The number of HSN chapters dropped off, with new regional groups rising up and loudly asserting their independence. Chief among these renegade skinhead groups were, first, the Outlaw Hammerskins, and then the Hoosier State Skinheads in Indiana and the Ohio State Skinheads, which in 2004 merged to form the Vinlander Social Club, a.k.a. the Vinlanders. In 2005, the Vinlanders hosted the first Blood & Honour USA Council, a unity meeting of regional skinhead crews also known as the Council of 28 (because B is the second letter of the alphabet and H the eighth), in Ohio. It is at this annual gathering that skins would, according to the Vinlander web site, “meet yearly with other crews and exchange ideas and debate direction and tactics.” And drink lakes of beer, of course.

Incredibly violent, full of swagger, and loathe to take orders from anyone, the Vinlanders were thought to represent the future in a more decentralized skinhead scene. But in the first weeks of 2007, Vinlander founder Brien James, a particularly violent racist, posted a notice on the group’s website announcing that the group was separating itself “from the racist movement.” The announcement explained: “We do not see anything positive being accomplished, for our nation or our people, by participating in the white racialist movement as it stands. We have attempted to change this movement from within and have not succeeded. It is our opinion that a large number of the people involved in the greater movement are paid informants, social outcasts, and general losers in life.”

The fourth decade of skinheads in America finds skinhead groups growing. The number of skinhead groups has increased dramatically in recent years, totaling 133 by 2012. These new groups are defined by a violent gangster ethos that is only partly informed by racist and neo-Nazi ideology.

Music & Culture

Along with exposure to extremist political parties and hate literature, music has always been a key element in the growth of the racist skinhead subculture. This is appropriate, as the original skinhead scene was based around clubs playing ska and reggae. The hard-driving rock-and-roll favored by today’s racist skinheads both exploits and channels the youthful energy of members and potential teenage recruits.

The importance of music in building the racist skinhead scene was apparent by the late ’70s, when a hate-rock scene exploded alongside the punk rock movement, spreading lyrics that were anti-immigrant, anti-black, and anti-Semitic. Groups such as Skrewdriver, Skullhead, and No Remorse forged a common skinhead culture in sweaty, beer-soaked, makeshift concert halls, with lyrics professing brotherhood among whites and violent, uncompromising antagonism to outsiders of all kinds. The early hate-rock skinhead scene in Britain coalesced around what were known as the “Rock Against Communism” (RAC) concerts, the first of which was held in Leeds in 1978. RAC shows were organized in opposition to the earlier “Rock Against Racism” concerts, a series of musical events meant to counter growing racist currents in English culture. A subgenre of punk that often veered toward racism was known as Oi!, which soon became global (if not completely accurate) shorthand for skinhead music.

By the mid-1980s, a racist skinhead culture defined by loud hate-rock, cases of cheap beer, bloody “boot parties” directed against immigrants and others, and the flagrant display of neo-Nazi iconography and paraphernalia had spread to Western Europe and North America. Although focused on a skinhead gang in Melbourne, Australia, the 1992 Russell Crowe film “Romper Stomper” paints a particularly vivid and well-researched picture of the day-to-day life of skinheads immersed in this culture. (A later film that explored the racist skinhead culture, this one set in California, was 1998’s “American History X,” starring Edward Norton.)

The importance of music in growing the worldwide skinhead movement cannot be overstated. William Pierce, leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance until his death in 2002, understood well the potential impact of hate-rock. “Music speaks to us at a deeper level than books or political rhetoric: music speaks directly to the soul,” said Pierce, author of the seminal hate-lit novel, The Turner Diaries.

Putting this insight into practice, Pierce purchased the ailing hate-rock label and distributor Resistance Records in 1999 and built the company into a major force in the world skinhead movement. Resistance Records had been originally founded in 1993 by George Burdi, a young Canadian skinhead who also started the band RAHOWA (an acronym for Racial Holy War), which was one of the most popular and influential hate-rock bands of the period. Bernie Farber of the Canadian Jewish Congress has described Burdi as one of the most effective recruiters for the movement in history. (Burdi has since renounced hate and embraced Eastern mysticism.)

The first label to seriously challenge the dominance of Resistance Records was Minnesota-based Panzerfaust, named after a Nazi-era German anti-tank weapon. Before imploding amid a scandal involving the non-Aryan heritage of its founder, Anthony Pierpont, Panzerfaust was best known for a failed 2005 plan to distribute 100,000 hate-rock sampler CDs in schoolyards across the nation.

The impact of U.S. hate rock is not limited to the United States. Since the production, performance, and distribution of such music is illegal in many countries in Western Europe, the U.S., with its First Amendment guarantees of free speech, has become a main provider of music to skinheads internationally (just as U.S. computer servers host most European hate sites in order to keep their owners clear of European anti-hate legislation). This relationship was built in part by the outreach programs of Resistance Records under George Burdi, who used to offer Eastern Europeans CDs at 90% discounts, as well as free license to reproduce the music.

New media platforms — including social networking sites like MySpace and Twitter and video file-sharing sites like YouTube — are being used by racist skinhead groups to recruit and expose others to their views.

The International Scene

The connections between racist skinheads in the U.S. and Europe are not limited to hate-rock catalogs. With the rise of the Internet, groups scattered across the globe have been able to communicate and link up as never before, transforming the skinhead movement from an exclusively neighborhood-based phenomenon into a global culture with common points of reference and even annual events. The ease with which interested parties can access hate literature and music online has also given rise to the phenomenon of the “internet Nazi” — young fellow travelers who are not part of organized skinhead gangs but who profess allegiance to the movement’s code and support purveyors of skinhead paraphernalia with online orders.

The country with the worst skinhead problem today is Russia, where it is estimated there are tens of thousands of active neo-Nazi skinheads, including thousands in the capital alone. In recent years, immigrants, students and even senior embassy staff from Asian and African nations have been the victims of assaults and murders on the streets of Moscow.

As in Western European countries, Russian skinhead violence often dovetails with soccer hooliganism. A 2002 report in The Nation described the trend:

“In the past few years a curious synthesis of the soccer hooligan and skinhead movements has been observed steadily gaining strength in the city. It’s no longer uncommon in Moscow to see crowds of 300-400 soccer fans — dressed in the black bomber jackets and black boots popularized by German skinheads — loitering on the streets in the city’s outer regions, and not always on the same nights as soccer matches.”

Some of these skinheads, the article notes, have been seen wearing the armbands of the neo-Nazi Russian National Unity party, suggesting links between street hate and organized political parties. Such links are suspected to be common in many Western European countries, where radical parties participate in electoral politics, in recent years with sobering success.

Across Europe, radical parties are on the rise, exploiting fears over immigration. In several of these countries, associations have been traced between skinhead gangs and parties with representatives in regional and national bodies.