Thursday, August 09, 2012

Separating Skinheads & Punks from Ignorant Neo-Nazi Posers

With all the mainstream media attention suddenly (and rightfully) being focused on 'Hatecore' music and the skinhead music scene where Wade M. Page was a recognized figure, it's worth noting that not all skinheads and punk rockers are neo-Nazis.

My high school classmate, trusty friend and business partner James Blackburn read my blogpost yesterday about Page and his neo-Nazi ex-girlfriend Misty Cook. Like me and many different members of our West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South class, James was a big fan of punk rock, heavy-metal and alternative music in the late 1980's.

Last night he reminded me via e-mail that within the punk rock scene in the 80's and 90's, the numbers of peaceful skinheads who oppose the neo-Nazi influence of more right-wing skinheads, far outnumbered their goose-stepping counterparts. People unfamiliar with the scene have often mistaken music-loving skinheads with neo-Nazi skins.

The skinhead music subculture that emerged in England in the late 1960's was racially diverse, a product of the unique merger of the Jamaican reggae, 'Rude Boy', Ska and British Mod music scenes. Only in the 1970's when high unemployment left millions of UK youth without jobs, did the rising white nationalist ideology espoused by angry right-wing extremist groups like the National Front and Blood and Honor begin to merge with a revived skinhead music scene. Media attention tended to focus on the violent 'white power' skinheads, and as the hardcore music movement spread to New York and other cities in the US; punks were often mistakenly branded as violent racists.  

As 'punk rock' in the US grew in popularity in the late 70's and early 80's, 'real' punks and skinheads  began pushing back against being wrongly lumped into the same basket as their extremist counterparts and various efforts to distinguish themselves emerged. For example, some peaceful skinheads began wearing blue or yellow shoelaces in their Doc Marten boots as opposed to the red or white shoelaces often worn by neo-Nazi skinheads.

Influential hardcore punk bands like the Dead Kennedys began to incorporate their ideological opposition to fascist punks with popular songs like 'Nazi Punks, Fuck Off' released in 1982 which mocked racist skins for their views and violent behavior at hardcore shows and became something of an unofficial anthem.

In 1987, Marcus Pacheco and Steven M started Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, or SHARP as a movement to demonstrate that the skinhead and punk music scene was based on racial diversity and socio-political expression rather than hate and racism. James sent me the image of the SHARP patch above and told me that while he was attending art school in New York City in the 80's he often saw 'white power' skinhead toughs on the Lower East Side at places like CBGB's or over at the bars and head shops on St. Mark's Place trying to pick fights; but they usually ended up getting stomped on by SHARP-aligned skinheads violently opposed to racist skinheads.

I saw many hardcore shows at City Gardens in Trenton, New Jersey between 1985 and 1989 and the vast majority of people there to see bands were all about the energy of the music. Sure I saw a few 'white power' punks hanging around there, but as a 6-foot 7-inch, 260-pound black guy who played football, I was never intimidated by them.

I recall standing at the back bar of City Gardens one night waiting for the Ramones to go on stage and I saw this scraggly-looking white kid wearing a black t-shirt with a swastika on it. Having had a few beers, I walked over and asked him why he was wearing that shirt given the US and the Allies lost thousands of soldiers, airmen and sailors in their effort to destroy the Third Reich in WWII - he had no answer, he just looked kind of feeble and embarrassed and couldn't make eye contact with me. 

My older sister first took me along to punk shows in 1983-1984 in Washington, DC when we lived in Bethesda, Maryland. I remember going to see the influential DC punk band 9353 and how mind-opening it was to see Rastafarians, alongside punks and skinheads of all different races at places like the 9:30 Club and DC Space. It was my first introduction to a vibrant music scene based on social consciousness, alternative expressions of guitar and vocals; a culture that stood far outside the rigid confines of mainstream suburbia where I and many other alternative fans lived; and longed to escape.

Fringe 'Hatecore' assholes like Wade M. Page who try and use the scene to espouse their narrow-minded views of hate and violence are just blots on the radar, nasty splotches on the windshield rooted in ignorance and fear who will never co-opt the unique spirit and energy of this highly influential form of musical expression.

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