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A Better Way

On May 19, 2012, as many as 18 self-described anti-racists stormed into a suburban Chicago family restaurant and attacked a group of white nationalists meeting for lunch with batons, baseball bats and chair legs. The bloody attack highlighted the long history of endemic violence between white supremacists and “anti-fascists” that also includes the 1998 murder of two anti-racist skinheads in a neo-Nazi plot.

The affable skinhead slings ink at a college town tattoo parlor in Indiana. But he doesn’t use his real name with strangers. It’s just too risky given the decades-long blood feud with the boneheads. Now he has a family. So, he calls himself Nomad, a fitting nom de guerre for someone who’s been battling racist street crews all over the Midwest since he was 14. At 36, his Doc Martens are still laced up tight, ready for combat.

Nomad is a founding member of Hoosier Anti-Racist Movement, or HARM, which is part of a loose, nationwide network of mostly far-left-leaning activists of various ideologies, sexual orientations and colors under the battle flag of Anti-Racist Action (ARA). If the United Colors of Benetton had a military wing of flawed freedom fighters it would probably look a lot like ARA. Since its birth in Minneapolis, Minn., in 1989, ARA has been chasing, confronting and clashing with white power skinheads, neo-Nazis and their hooded allies – an axis of hate they call “boneheads.”

On the other hand, boneheads call “race traitors” like Nomad and his crew antis, baldies, politically correct scum who pretend to be righteous and tolerant yet are as quick as any Aryan warrior to resort to violence and throw a “boot party” for an unsuspecting fascist dumb enough to wander solo into the wrong punk show with his swastikas showing. A boot party is a beating with as much kicking, using steel-toed Doc Martens boots, as possible before the cops arrive.

“Dude, one of the biggest things I hate is being compared to boneheads,” Nomad says. “I’m looking for a viable solution to better my community. These guys are trying to install the final solution.”

At a Klan rally this March, one anti-racist wore a bandana emblazoned with images of brass knuckles.

The struggle the antis and the boneheads are engaged in – on the streets, in music venues and across cyberspace – goes back decades. So does the violence both sides sometimes use, with stitches and coffins to prove it. Indeed, race and reason don’t often mix well.

The Rough Game
Generally, their brawls and battles go unnoticed by the rest of us. For the most part, it is an underground civil war. Occasionally, however, it explodes into public view in spectacular fashion, such as the Greensboro Massacre. In 1979, before most of today’s race warriors were born, five leftist activists and labor organizers were gunned downed by a heavily armed alliance of neo-Nazis and Klansmen who arrived in a nine-car caravan at an anti-Klan march and labor rally in Greensboro, N.C. Incredibly, no one was ever convicted of the killings, caught in gory detail by a television news crew.

In 2002, scores of ARA and neo-Nazi skinheads beat each other up during a day of running street battles in York, Pa., a confrontation that resulted in at least 25 arrests and legendary status as the Battle of York. But York was a minor skirmish compared to the Battle of Cable Street. On Oct. 4, 1936, more than 100,000 anti-fascists confronted 6,000 mounted and on-foot police officers, trying to clear a path for 1,900 members of the British Union of Fascists to march through a heavily Jewish neighborhood in East London, historian David Renton writes in his book This Rough Game: Fascism and Anti-Fascism.

The anti-fascists blocked the main street with barricades of wood and trash and a passenger tram. Unable to break through, the police and the fascists tried Cable Street where they were met with a “flurry of missiles,” Renton writes, “beginning with water and rags, then bric-a-brac, clothes, bricks, possibly a piano.” Soon the Blackshirts gave up and went home and the “victory celebrations began that evening.” But the event that most rattled this generation of anti-racists, causing some of them, as one middle-aged skinhead put it, to grow their hair out and throw away their boots, occurred on July 4, 1998. In the desert, just outside of Las Vegas, two anti-racist skinheads — one black, one white — were shot to death. The leader of a neo-Nazi skinhead gang was sentenced to death in the case. The sentence was later commuted to life. The case was seemingly as dead as the murdered antis, when the Justice Department announced last year three more indictments in the killings. Two of the suspects, a brother and sister, could face the death penalty. Their trial is scheduled to begin in November in federal court.

“The players may change, the groups may change, but the conflict itself has a life of its own,” says Pete Simi, a criminology professor at the University of Nebraska and co-author of American Swastika: Inside the White Power Hidden Spaces of Hate.

The first tenet of ARA is to go to those “spaces of hate” and shut them down before anyone has a chance to utter even a single word, no matter what the Constitution says. Their justification is simple. All Hitler did was talk – at first. Their battle cry, “Never let the Nazis have the street.”

So disrupt and deny was the plan on Saturday afternoon, May 19, 2012, when up to 18 mask-wearing antis, some armed with batons, baseball bats and chair legs, fast-walked single-file into the Ashford House restaurant in the Chicago suburb of Tinley Park. Through the glass doors, they headed straight for a table towards the back where eight to 10 suspected white nationalists were having a lunch meeting of something called the Illinois European Heritage Association.

Bloody confrontations between racists and “anti-fascists” go all the way back to the 1936 “Battle of Cable Street” in London, when fascist leader Oswald Mosely marshaled his troops.

The gathering had been noted on Stormfront, the largest neo-Nazi forum on the web. One of the participants later told police the lunch was “the white nationalist May meeting.” Whatever it was, it was not a good day for the antis, also called antifas, for anti-fascists. No one was seriously hurt. But their image took a hard hit. Five of Nomad’s Hoosier homeboys went to prison. The young men are known as the Tinley Park 5 and have become a symbol of a good cause clouded by bad choices.

As the confrontation began, according to a police report, someone shouted, “OK, b------, ARA is here.”

A Constructive Force
As a young skinhead, Nomad was a “hardcore” member of the militant anti-racism movement in Indiana. He was a SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice). “This is a hotbed of racist activity,” he says. “Multigenerational hate groups, dude.” In the 1990s, the state saw what Nomad describes as an “explosion” of neo-Nazi street crews. “They’d come to shows eight, 10 deep, in brass knuckles, steel-toed boots, laying waste,” he says. “It was rampant. Us crewing-up was the only way we could protect ourselves.”

The Indiana antis followed the ARA script. Wherever the boneheads went, they followed, most of the time with chants and curses. But the specter of violence always hung in the air like mist rolling over a cornfield. Eventually, the scene simmered down. “It was through a lot of hard work, dedication and bloody knuckles,” Nomad says. The passage of time helped, too. Both sides were getting older, having families, bills, American Dreams that would not come true in a cell or a grave.

“I was calming down,” he admits. So much so that he thought his fighting days were finally over. So much so that he was happy about it. The Nazis were gone. The clubs were safe. Then about three years ago, his 13-year-old son came home from a punk show with a Nazi propaganda flyer in his back pocket. A bonehead was distributing them outside the show. They were back. “Actually, they’ve been coming back since President Obama got elected,” Nomad says. “There’s still a lot of deep-seated racism in this country.”

The Nazi flyer in his son’s pocket shook him to the soles of his Doc Martens.

“It really hit me,” he says. “My job was not done. We couldn’t allow these people to talk to our children.” He and some old comrades started organizing again, crewing-up one more time. They called themselves HARM and quickly allied themselves with ARA. Most of the people in today’s ARA are not skinheads. “There are a lot of anarchists,” Nomad says. “I am not an anarchist. As messed up as the system is, I still believe in it.”

But the Hoosier antis didn’t want to just “head hunt Nazis” like the old days of their youth. They wanted to be a constructive force in the community. They opened chapters in Bloomington, Indianapolis, Terre Haute and West Lafayette. They volunteered at homeless shelters. They provided security at a gay pride event. They organized a food and clothing drive. Plying his trade, Nomad, free of charge, covered up a gang tattoo for a juvenile offender sent over by the probation department. For another young offender, a budding racist, he covered a swastika with a rose.

“We’ve got our hands in so much good, socially conscious community work,” he says. “But if you Google HARM, the only thing that is going to come up right now is the Tinley Park incident.”

Call to Action
A group of Chicago antis found out about the Tinley Park meeting through a tip or during their constant trolling of white supremacy websites. They issued a call to action, seeking volunteers for a Saturday afternoon of heckling and harassing the enemy. Nomad could not make the two-hour trip. But five of his HARM comrades – brothers Jason, Cody and Dylan Sutherlin, their cousin, John Tucker, and friend Alex Stuck – piled into a red Dodge Neon and set out for the southern suburbs of Chicago.

As it turns out, they were headed toward ancient battlefields. Chicago played a pivotal role in the earliest days of the great Bonehead-Anti War. It was home to perhaps the country’s first true racist skinhead gang, Romantic Violence, also known as CASH (Chicago Area Skinheads). “Because the city is so segregated, it was really easy for the racists to recruit people,” says Tiffini A. Travis, a former skinhead-turned-University of California librarian and co-author of Skinheads: A Guide to an American Subculture.

Chicago was also home to a pugnacious band of anti-racist skins that included several African Americans such as Marty W. “As things became more polarized in the larger society, the kids got caught up in it,” he says. “In a few short years, there were all these Nazis sprouting up. In a few short years, it was all-out gang war.”

Christian Picciolini was one of those new Nazis. A high school football player from a blue-collar Chicago suburb, Picciolini took over leadership of Romantic Violence when he was just 17. Later, he became a co-founder of the Northern Hammerskins, part of the Hammerskin Nation, one of the most violent racist skinhead organizations in the country. “Nearly every kid either belonged to our skinhead white power crew or the anti-racist crew,” he remembers. “It was a gang mentality. They were just as violent and ignorant as we were. The agenda wasn’t anti-racism. It was just opposing us. These days, I think, the organizations are more mindful of what anti-racism means.”

He is, too. He left the Hammerskins and racism behind in the mid-1990s. A few years ago, he helped create a new non-violent anti-racism organization, Life After Hate. He has also written a gripping, yet-to-be published memoir he calls Romantic Violence. “My feeling is that violence is never the answer,” he says. “It doesn’t matter which side it comes from, it’s still violence.”

But Marty W. says if he wanted to stay on the skinhead scene, a scene free of racism, if he wanted to be able to go to a punk show without constantly looking over his shoulder, especially as a black skin, he had no choice but to fight for his few feet of earth. “You couldn’t reason with them,” he says. “You couldn’t get in a dialogue with someone who believes you’re subhuman and you’re not worthy of life. To me, the Tinley Park 5 should be congratulated.”

The Confrontation
When the men from HARM arrived in the Chicago area, they got a few hours’ sleep, joining more than a dozen fellow antis squatting in an abandoned grocery store. Then the group had breakfast at a Mexican restaurant and headed for the Ashford House restaurant in a six- to seven-vehicle caravan. In the parking lot of a big box store, the group discussed its next move. It was almost lunchtime. “Let’s kick their asses,” someone suggested. But others, including Alex Stuck and John Tucker, said it should be a peaceful protest.

“Stuck stated that the protest plan was for them to enter the restaurant and shout anti-racist slogans,” according to a police report.

Stuck also told investigators “that he usually protests and does not get violent.”

Unfortunately, the other antis didn’t listen to him.

Moments later, the group hurried through the doors of the Tinley Park restaurant.

Tucker and Stuck brought up the rear.

Prosecutors last May charged (from left) Jason Sutherlin, Cody Sutherlin, Dylan Sutherlin, Alex Stuck and John Tucker with felony mob action after the attack on diners at the Ashford House Restaurant in Tinley Park, Ill. TINLEY PARK POLICE DEPARTMENT

According to a police report, Steven Speers, who had traveled to Chicago from North Dakota by train for the lunch, saw the antis coming when they were still in the parking lot. He jumped up from the table and warned Beckie Williams, the organizer of the event, to get ready for a fight.

Others at the lunch had come from Maryland, Florida and Wisconsin. Some of them were connected to the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement (NSM) and the white nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC). Afterward, they insisted they were simply meeting to discuss economic development for European Americans.

As Speers wrestled with an anti, his lunch-mate, Brandon Spiller, 29, was hit in the head. It took seven staples to close the wound.

The confrontation was fast and furious. Most of the antis were in and out of the restaurant in less than a minute. They left behind overturned tables and chairs. Broken dishes, silverware and food were scattered across the floor. “It appeared that numerous struggles had occurred in this area of the restaurant,” a police investigator wrote in an incident report.

Terrified restaurant patrons, who had nothing to do with either side, dove for cover under tables. A man, celebrating his daughter’s graduation from a local university, picked up a chair to defend his family. He was hit in the head with a baton.

The restaurant owner chased the antis outside and jumped on the slightly built Stuck’s back, dragging him to the ground. Stuck’s friends punched and pulled the owner off and the five Hoosiers fled in their car. “They didn’t care who got hurt,” the owner, Mike Winston, says. “Going to prison is exactly what they deserve.”

According to a police report, a “heavy set” bald man, “bleeding from the head” ran across the parking lot and shouted, “I’m going to get the gun.”

Before that could happen, the police arrived. Later, they found a legally registered and properly transported, unloaded .40-caliber Glock pistol in a closed gym bag on the floor of Spiller’s car. In the glove compartment, “within the driver’s reach,” according to a police report, were two magazines with 14 rounds each.

The police also found an illegal semi-automatic handgun in the van of Francis Gilroy, 65, who had traveled from Florida for the lunch. It was loaded. Inside a light blue cooler, officers recovered an assortment of live rounds of different makes and caliber. Also in the van, “A large black wooden baton was observed on the right side of the driver’s door,” according to a police report, “and a metal baseball bat up against the passenger side door of the vehicle.”

Gilroy was arrested and charged with unlawful use of a weapon, a felony. Steven Speers was arrested on an outstanding warrant from Texas on child pornography charges.

As reports of the Ashford House incident crackled over police radios, an off-duty officer stopped the Hoosiers’ Neon shortly before 1 p.m.

“I approached the vehicle and observed all the subjects were sweaty and tired,” the officer wrote in her report.

Inside the car were a black baton, a green baseball cap with the words Anti-Racist and a black scarf with red letters spelling out HARM.

In early January, against the advice of their lawyers, the Tinley Park 5 pleaded guilty in a courtroom in suburban Chicago to three counts of armed violence. They had been locked up in the overcrowded Cook County Jail since May 19. Now they were headed to prisons scattered across the state. Jason Sutherlin, the oldest at 33, received the longest sentence: six years. His brothers, Cody, 23, and Dylan, 21, got five years each. Their 26-year-old cousin, John Tucker, and Alex Stuck, 22, received 42-month sentences.

Their lawyers were disappointed that the men did not go to trial. They thought they could win. They thought they had sympathy on their side. Sara Garber, who represented Alex Stuck, solicited letters of support from charities Stuck volunteered for in Indiana. One supervisor called him “sweet, genuine, and caring.” Another, who worked with Stuck at a battered women’s shelter, said she could “always count on Alex to make a space feel safe and supportive for women and children.”

No one else who poured into the Ashford House that May afternoon was ever arrested or charged in the case. The Tinley Park 5 refused to say who their comrades were.

Nomad was in the courtroom as the sentences were announced.

“I haven’t cried that hard in a long time,” he says. “Regrets? Hell, yeah. Jason has a son. Three of them are brothers. One is their cousin. The blow and the impact to that family alone is staggering.”

He regularly puts aside part of his paycheck and sends it to his imprisoned comrades. Every two weeks, someone around town hosts a letter-writing party. E-mails of support have come in from Europe to Russia, from Philadelphia to Portland, Ore. “It sucks that those boys were martyred,” Nomad says, wearing his bomber jacket with a patch of a swastika with a slash through it. “But the level of networking we’ve done because of it, it’s made our community a lot more cohesive.”

Still, he can’t help wondering whether maybe there was a better way to have handled that particular anti-racist action. “I keep telling myself that maybe if I had been there, I would have said, guys let’s handle this in a different way, but in the heat of the moment, you never know,” he says. “Morally and ethically, I can never see myself running up into a crowded restaurant and laying waste to some boneheads.”

Recently, he watched a video of more than 100 demonstrators, protesting a rally held by the National Socialist Movement and a batch of Klansmen in Charlotte, N.C., last November. Many of the demonstrators, who outnumbered the Nazis, were dressed as clowns, with rainbow-colored wigs and big red noses. They honked horns, rattled noisemakers, blew whistles, threw flour — “white flour”— in the air every time a Nazi shouted white power.

“The clowns made the Nazis look like fools,” Nomad says. “I must have called eight to 10 people and said, ‘Dude, you’ve got to see this video.’ It was absolute genius.”

No one got hurt. No one went to prison. No one heard the Nazis.

The people were too loud.