Anti-Racist Organizer Michele Lefkowith Discusses Skinhead Movement in Pacific Northwest
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.
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.
IR: The stereotype is that it's usually people like that — homeless kids, those from broken or dysfunctional or at least poor homes — who become Skinheads. Is that a true picture?
LEFKOWITH: I would never generalize about the Skinhead scene in that way. Some of them I know come from really prominent families, where Mom's a researcher and Dad's a professor. That is very true on the Nazi scene. A lot more racist Skinheads are coming out of prominent families, families that own major businesses.
One Nazi Skinhead I know of invited about 13 of his friends over to his parents' for Christmas, and his parents actually bought them each a pair of Doc Martens [boots favored by Skinheads] at $100 apiece! I have a group shot of that Christmas party.
Let me tell you another story. At an event I organized in 1996 [a showing of an anti-racist film], the mother of one of the leaders of a Nazi Skinhead group actually came to the event first to look the place over. Her son's group was planning to come over to disrupt the event and confront the anti-racist Skinheads, and she wanted to make sure her son was going to be safe! She supported him and his group.
She even provided him with the computer he used to create the Nazi recruiting posters that he put up all over their neighborhood.
IR: You helped one young man who was at that film showing, Scott Britt, to leave the neo-Nazi Skinhead movement. What happened?
LEFKOWITH: It wasn't like all of a sudden a light bulb came on. About 15 Nazi Skinheads came to that event, and their leader was Scott. He was the head of Aryan Pride in Salem, where he had organized a group of 40 Nazis. That night, he encountered Eric Ward [a local human rights activist], and Eric engaged him in a conversation.
Scott said later that here was this black guy, and he was really nice. The same night, this Jewish rabbi came up to him and said, "If you ever want to get out of this stuff, give me a call." The president of the NAACP talked to him, too. It totally surprised Scott.
He was also tired of all the backbiting and the violence and stress of the Nazi scene.
And shortly after that, his girlfriend had their baby. He started thinking about some of the things the Nazi skins talked about, like how if it comes down to race war they would go from house to house killing black families, even their babies.
He went and met with the rabbi, and actually gave him his boots and his laces [important parts of the Skinhead uniform]. He met with the president of the NAACP. He finally approached my organization. That was two and a half years ago.
IR: How did you interact with Britt?
LEFKOWITH: The first thing I had him do was to go up and make a public apology to the community of Salem. About 400 people showed up. He went up and talked about what he had done. I didn't get all emotional and fuzzy when he did — it was his responsibility to do that. I also had him do a formal apology in a publication I do called The Racemixer.
Since then, we've spoken together at high schools and gone on road trips to talk to human rights organizations.
I think Scott is still struggling with his racist beliefs. He is sincerely and diligently working towards rectifying what he was about. But unfortunately, we are still living with the residual effects of his [Nazi organizing] efforts in Salem.
Now, Scott has been targeted by the Nazi Skinheads. Just a few weeks ago, he was in the convenience store where he was working to pay his way through college. Some Nazi skins drove up and two of them came out and got into a verbal confrontation with him.
Within a matter of seconds, while one of them distracted him, the other guy sucker-punched him, drilled him to the floor. They broke his nose and may have fractured his jaw.
I'm just glad they did not shoot him. That's what they do. Everybody is at risk with these people.
IR: What other kinds of grassroots work do you?
LEFKOWITH: I try to create opportunities for young anti-racist activists and street kids, to formulate their thoughts. I'm not condoning violent acts, but that's what they know — it's their way of dealing with the white supremacist movement. I try to channel their thoughts and energies into nonviolent methods.
We meet on a regular basis and talk about different ideas to create a safe environment on the street level. For instance, we created this Nazi notification campaign, where we put up posters around town of the racists who are operating here. They give me an expertise about what's going on in the street, and we try to translate that into action.
I publish The Racemixer, and they contribute poetry and artwork and articles. I've taken them to anti-racist rallies and to speak at high schools and conferences about the racist Skinhead movement. In the last two years, we've had two "Ska Against Bigotry" concerts. I'd like to make them semiannual events.
IR: How did you become involved in this work?
LEFKOWITH: I have a couple of kids of my own who I raised Jewish, and they are in the public school system. One day, I went to pick them up at elementary school and there was a Nazi Skinhead who had been recruiting on campus all day. No one had asked him to leave! It turned out he lived two blocks from my home.
From that point forward, I started to notice Skinhead activity in the area. Soon, I started volunteering for Communities Against Hate, a group that was formed after rumors circulated that 40 Nazi Skinheads were coming to town to attack an anti-racist punk rock concert.
Then, in 1994, a couple of racist Skinheads shot up Temple Beth Israel, the only synagogue in town. No one was hurt, thankfully. But the shooting completely shattered the security of the Jewish community and several other communities traditionally targeted by Nazi Skinheads.
That was probably the biggest catalyst for me. I went on to become the director of Communities Against Hate about three years ago.
IR: The Skinhead movement began in the 1960s as a working-class phenomenon in Britain, connected to black West Indian music and later punk rock, and unrelated to any racist cause. What happened?
LEFKOWITH: A split in the movement developed because the [neo-fascist] British National Front saw these guys and gals as primary recruitment material. Like what we're seeing in the United States now, there was heavy anti-immigrant sentiment at the time and there was also heavy industrial downsizing going on.
The National Front really capitalized on these things and began organizing within the Skinhead scene. A split occurred, with "traditional" Skinheads ["Trads"] saying we don't want to be associated in any way, shape or form with any kind of racism or anti-Semitism.
Later, they called themselves SHARPs [for Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice]. So you had the Trads and the SHARPs, and then you had the Nazi Skinheads.
To me, the Nazis just robbed the Skinhead scene, taking on that look and that way of dress. They broke apart the working-class Skinhead scene, which had been multiracial up to then. When I refer to the Nazis, I call them "boneheads," not Skinheads. They do not adhere to the values and ethics of the real Skinheads. The Nazis are impostors.
IR: So how would you describe "real" Skinhead values today?
LEFKOWITH: There is a real pride in having a job, and a strong distaste for folks not carrying their weight. The anti-racist Skinheads run the spectrum of political ideologies. Many have leanings to socialism, communism, the left. But I know Skinheads who are card-carrying Republicans.
They have pride in working, getting their hands dirty and doing a hard day's work, and in building a community with a future. There is a patriotism on the Skinhead scene that is based on a real love of community.
The clothes are really important because of an image they want to project, that they are busting their knuckles and working hard and trying to do the right thing. It's all part of a positive image they want to project.
IR: Many people would say that's a very rosy picture of Skinheads. Some observers, and certainly many within law enforcement, believe that there's a culture of violence associated with both racist and traditional Skinheads. How do you respond?
LEFKOWITH: Part of the culture is wrestling around with each other, getting into it with each other, and it's a world I don't totally understand. They are into partying and causing a ruckus and drinking. But I would downplay the violent part of this.
The stronger part of their culture is the camaraderie, the bond of their working-class values and the heartfelt commitment to doing the right fight, the good fight, and to supporting each other.
IR: So a part of being a Skinhead is being able to fight...
LEFKOWITH: I wouldn't know a Skinhead who didn't know how to fight and didn't resort to an honorable fight, because a part of it is defending what they believe in. I would say that is definitely part of the culture, to be able to do the good fight.
They do ruck around with each other, sparring and flirting and getting into it. And sometimes it does end up in violence — but that is because the folks they are dealing with, the Nazis, are violent people. The Nazis are packing firearms. They are even more violent than they used to be.
There is a real concern on the street level: When is the next pregnant African-American woman going to get killed by a Nazi Skinhead? When is it that my kids are going to get gutted by the Nazis?
IR: Have you had to contend personally with threats of violence?
LEFKOWITH: I definitely have to think about how I live my life. I try to be as cautious as possible. I've had threatening letters and phone calls to my office. These are violent people. We are talking about people who murder.