As the power of the centralized Hammerskin Nation declines, a rise in independent skin crews may bring a new era of violence.
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."
On Memorial Day weekend 2000, less than a year after the Outlaw Hammerskins formed, three vanloads of Outlaw Hammerskin hooligans showed up at the Imperial Klans of America compound, looking to start trouble at Nordic Fest, which at that time was heavily attended by Hammerskin Nation skinheads. The Outlaw Hammerskins skins were heavily armed, and when IKA security refused to allow them into the festival, they fired a volley of shots into the air, putting Hammerskin Nation on notice.
The following year, Outlaw Hammerskins showed up in force at Nordic Fest, making it clear the event was no longer Hammerskin Nation's exclusive skinhead stomping ground. In part because of this loss of face, Hammerskin Nation membership numbers began to wither. Today, Hammerskin Nation is more like Hammerskin Hamlet. It's down to about 150 members. "Hammers have been dropping their patches all over the place," says Detective Browning. The decline of the Hammerskin Nation has been fueled by the insurrection of the Outlaw Hammerskins, lawsuits filed by hate crime victims, and widespread discontent with Hammerskin Nation's elitism among working-class, anti-authoritarian racist youths.
Still another big factor was the collapse of Panzerfaust Records, a hate rock music company that distributed popular Hammerskin Nation-affiliated bands like Max Resist, Bound for Glory, and the Mid-Town Boot Boys. Panzerfaust's owner, Anthony Pierpont, poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Hammerskin Nation festivals and legal battles after he founded the label in 1998, but had to scuttle the company last year after the Intelligence Report revealed he's of Mexican descent. (Despite being a "mud person," Pierpont is still active in the business side of organized hate. His most recent venture is manufacturing T-shirts for National Socialist Movement commander Jeff Schoep and National Alliance chairman Erich Gliebe; see Nazis Falling).
Rise of the Regional Crews
Infighting caused the Outlaw Hammerskins to implode in 2002, but by then they'd made an indelible mark on skinhead culture. Instead of leading to a return to power for Hammerskin Nation, the demise of the Outlaw Hammerskins sparked the still-ongoing surge of independent, regional crews that have continued the Outlaw Hammerskin tradition of openly challenging and disrespecting Hammerskin Nation and its only ally, the Portland, Ore.-based regional crew Volksfront.
Two of these new, unruly crews, the Hoosier State Skinheads and the Ohio State Skinheads, rose directly from the ashes of the Outlaw Hammerskins. The Hoosier State Skinheads were co-founded by former Outlaw Hammerskins Brien James and Eric Fairburn. James and Fairburn also attended the first meeting in Central Ohio in 2003 of the Ohio State Skinheads, whose founders include other former Outlaw Hammerskins. (Ohio State Skinheads now has three local chapters in Ohio).
The largest statewide crew now active is the Keystone State Skinheads, which formed in September 2001 in Harrisburg, Pa. (One of its five founders, Steven Smith, is a former Aryan Nations member who was recruited into the neo-Nazi movement while an Army soldier stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C.) The Keystone State Skinheads now has nine chapters across Pennsylvania and sponsors regular concerts and "white power picnics." Its logo is a pit bull or bulldog in a circle made of chain against a red, black, and white background (see logos chart).
The Ohio State Skinheads, Hoosier State Skinheads, and Keystone State Skinheads are all also part of the Vinlander Social Club, a.k.a. the Vinlanders, a skinhead "warrior clan" devoted to drinking, fighting, and a racist variant of Odinism, a form of ancient paganism once practiced by Vikings. Fairburn, James, and other Hoosier State and Ohio State Skinheads founded the Vinlanders in 2004; today, that group has about 200 full members. Unlike Hammerskin Nation, which requires even probationary members to renounce their allegiance to any other skinhead crew, the Vinlanders allow and even encourage dual membership. A Vinlander can be an Ohio State or Hoosier State Skinhead, and vice-versa.
"Everyone [in Arizona] wants to be Vinlander now," says Detective Browning. "The Vinlanders have very quickly gone from a little skinhead group in the Midwest to a national force with a great web presence. The bigger they become, the more power they have, and they're getting bigger."
On Oct. 22, 2005, on the Logan, Ohio, property of Ohio State Skinheads member Kevin Kislingbury, the Vinlander Social Club hosted the first official Blood and Honour council, a unity meeting of regional skinhead crews also known as the Council of 28. The meeting was attended by at least 60 representatives of more than a dozen skinhead crews, including Hoosier and Ohio State Skinheads, Keystone State Skinheads, the New Jersey Skins, the Canyon State Skins (Arizona), and the Maryland Skins (one of the fastest growing state crews), as well as the Imperial Klans of America and the National Alliance.
Conspicuously absent at the Blood and Honour council was anyone representing Hammerskin Nation or Volksfront.
According to the minutes of the meeting, the council members decided they would meet once a year in the future, and that any group "meeting the council criteria" would send two representatives. They also established a "uniform code of appearance and conduct" for "large scale public actions," and designated the neo-Nazi National Alliance as their official "political outlet."
The former Outlaw Hammerskins also reversed themselves on the issue of hate rock, according to the minutes, deciding by majority vote to "explore the option of holding events for the general public for profit." This was a major shift. Hammerskin Nation and Volksfront have a long history of organizing hate rock festivals to raise money and also of channeling hate rock CDs and neo-Nazi flags, shirts, pins, patches, and other paraphernalia to countries where such items are banned. But when the Outlaw Hammerskins broke away, they announced they would have nothing to do with the shady business of hate rock or recruitment commerce. With the exception of the Keystone State Skinheads, the council crews had all followed suit.
So what changed their minds?
Perhaps the hate rock company representatives who also attended the Council of 28 convinced the skinhead leaders there that if they would just put down their mead drinking horns and pick up their thinking caps, they could make serious money. "The Vinlanders have the backing of the hate rock record labels now, the labels are bringing money to the table," says Detective Browning.
White power music, after all, is a more lucrative underground trade in Europe than dealing in hashish, according to Interpol. The demand for American skinhead music is tremendous there both because there are far more skinheads and because it's illegal for hate rock bands to perform, record, or even rehearse in most European countries. So while skinheads in Europe for the most part consider their American counterparts to be drunken buffoons -- and with good reason -- they are dependent upon the disorganized crime of U.S. skinheads to supply them with merchandise they otherwise couldn't have.
For these reasons, U.S. skinheads wield huge influence overseas, especially in Germany and the former Soviet Union, where there are 30,000-50,000 skinheads in Moscow alone, according to Russian police. They terrorize and kill non-whites and Jews at a rate unimaginable in this country. In Russia, skinhead culture, much of it exported from the U.S., has brought death and destruction for a generation. (There is also some European influence on U.S. skinheads. For example, the Burnden County Hooligans, a New Jersey crew, consists entirely of Polish-speaking immigrants).
Skinhead criminal activity in the United States is still far less severe than in Moscow or, for that matter, Prague or Paris. But as independent crews continue to proliferate, and the ultra-violent skins of the Vinlanders and similar groups vie with the leftovers of Hammerskin Nation, it seems likely that skinhead activity here will grow, as it has recently after about a decade in remission.
So far, most of the serious violence has been contained within the white power world (for example, the vicious beating the Vinlanders gave a National Socialist Movement speaker and two of his comrades at this year's Nordic Fest). But as any gang cop knows, the most dangerous member of a street gang is not the "O.G." ("Original Gangster") with a well-established street reputation, but the newbie looking to do whatever it takes to make a name for himself and his gang. The skinhead scene in this country has become a land of the white power up-and-comers, each of them a human hand grenade, just looking for an excuse to pull their own pin.
Laurie Wood contributed to this report.