YOUTH

A growing menace

Violent skinheads are raising urban fears

January 23 1989
YOUTH

A growing menace

Violent skinheads are raising urban fears

January 23 1989

A growing menace

Violent skinheads are raising urban fears

YOUTH

They are easily recognizable, with their shaved heads, suspenders and steel-toed work boots. In Montreal, they frequent an east-end club called Les Foufounes electriques. Vancouver’s Granville Street Mall is another hangout, while in Edmonton the city’s tiny skinhead clique haunts the rear booths at Jasper Avenue’s Silk Hat restaurant. Canada’s skinheads are not numerous, Indeed, there may be fewer than 1,000 dedicated skinheads across the country. But because of the racist views that some hold and the menacing image that they project, the skinheads represent an ominous spectre on the margins of Canadian society. At the same time, skinheads in the United States, Europe and Britain—where the movement began two decades ago—are currently experiencing a resurgent growth marked by lethal violence and well-defined links to white supremacist and neo-Nazi movements.

In Canada, some teenagers adopt skinhead fashions without accepting their beliefs.

And even politically motivât-1 ed Canadian skinheads have so far avoided extreme acts of violence. But in Europe and the United States, skinhead gangs have amassed a record of vandalism, assaults and murder. Last October, in the northern French city of Lille, a 19-year-old skinhead was charged with murder after a young drug addict was attacked while he sat on a public bench and kicked to death. The alleged killer later told police that his victim had “looked stupid.” Late in 1987, two West German skinheads were sentenced to sevenand 10-year prison terms in Hamburg for stabbing a Turkish immigrant worker to death.

There have been equally violent incidents in the United States. Last June, 16-year-old Dean McKee was sentenced to life imprisonment for beating and stabbing to death a 41-year-old black transient in Tampa, Fla. In California’s Santa Clara County, Michael Elrod, 19, was convicted of manslaughter after he fatally stabbed another white youth who had taken a black man to a party last February. Later this

month, three young skinheads are scheduled to go on trial in Portland, Ore., on charges of bludgeoning to death 28-year-old Ethiopianborn Mulugeta Seraw.

There are also signs that the number of skinheads is growing internationally. According to police officials, newly formed skinhead gangs have appeared in France, Belgium, Swe-

den, Denmark and West Germany during the past year. In the United States, the New York City-based Anti-Defamation League, sponsored by the Jewish organization B’nai Brith, reported last October that skinhead activity, which had been centred mainly in California, had spread to 21 states. The league added that “membership nationwide has grown to an estimated 2,000 from a total of 1,000 to 1,500” only nine months earlier.

While such numbers are hardly a cause for alarm, the white supremacist ideology of many skinheads is. Race is the common theme underlying most cases of skinhead violence. Typically, Jason, a 19-year-old Vancouver skinhead who declined to give his full name, told Maclean’s: “I just hate Pakis, Hindus and Japs. They get jobs first. We’re from Canada and

what do we get out of it?” In Northern Europe, an influx of immigrant workers from Turkey and North Africa has helped fan the fears of skinheads and other workers, who are concerned that their jobs and traditional values are threatened. “They spout clichés like characters in a hate comic strip,” said Jean-François Csizmadia, a defence lawyer involved in the Lille murder trial. “But there’s nothing behind the words. They haven’t the faintest grasp of political or social issues.”

But other skinhead groups have developed links of varying strength with right-wing political parties. Some British skinheads have longstanding ties with the neo-Nazi British National Front. While some extreme right-wing political groups in France and Belgium have attempted to recruit skinheads to their cause, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of France’s right-wing National Front, has shunned them.

Now some U.S. skinheads have begun to

forge close ties with the extreme right. One important rallying point for American skinheads is Thomas Metzger, a middle-aged television repairman in the southern California town of Fallbrook whom the Anti-Defamation League has described as “the most visible hatemonger in the United States.” A former member of both the right-wing John Birch Society and the racist Ku Klux Klan, Metzger is the self-proclaimed leader of a white supremacist organization called the White Aryan Resistance and claims to have 5,000 followers. Since 1985, Metzger has attracted a following of skinheads, referring to them as his “frontline troops.”

Metzger’s main target is nonwhite immigration. “White people are on the way out unless they do something,” he told Maclean’s. “The

worst invasion is the biological invasion. They come here and have children and take over. It’s the same in Canada, which is allowing masses of people from the Third World into the country.” His proposed solution is straightforward. “White working kids have organized for their own self-defence. Violence has worked for the blacks. Every time they threaten violence, they get what they want.”

Social workers say that such a message can have a strong appeal to the kind of people who listen to Metzger. Skinheads, according to most experts, are typically young, poor and alienated from mainstream society. Many are high-school dropouts, and few have the ability to clearly articulate their concerns. One expert is Leonard Zeskind, research director for the Centre for Democratic Renewal, an Atlantabased organization that monitors hate groups. Said Zeskind: “These kids are the first generation of white people to not live better than their parents.”

Still, some skinheads in Britain and the United States have begun to reject racist and right-wing ideologies. “The number of skins is definitely on the increase,” says George Marshall, editor of the Glasgow-based Zoot magazine, a skinhead periodical. “But the last thing we want to see are a bunch of little Nazis running about and spoiling the return.” According to Marshall and other observers of the British counterculture scene, skinheads are becoming enthusiasts for a form of Jamaican music known as ska, a precursor of reggae. Said Marshall: “You can’t like black music and be a racist.”

Although some Canadian skinheads espouse racist views, others appear more interested in projecting a tough image than in pursuing a political cause. Said Paul Gott, editor of the monthly Montreal music tabloid Rear Garde : “Being a skinhead does not mean being a Nazi. I happen to have no hair, a black leather jacket and army boots and I get stopped all the time by people trying to preach nonviolence to me. I am a pacifist.” Added Gott: “The problem is that there are a few Nazi racist skins, and it is being exaggerated.”

Still, other observers suspect that skinhead racism may only be a symptom of a wider social problem. “The hard-line Nazi fascist skinheads are very up-front about how they feel,” says Iain Cooke, who sings with FAIL-SAFE, a Montreal band that is popular with skinheads. “But they are saying what a lot of people happen to be thinking. I think the extremists are the visible symptoms of a disease in our society—a disease that is more rampant than a lot of people would like to admit.” If there is any truth in that, then the failure of the skinhead movement to gain a significant following may be a sign of Canadian society’s underlying health.

BARRY CAME with PETER LEWIS in Brussels, JEREMY HART in London, DEREK WOLFF in Vancouver, ELAINE 0 FARRELL in Edmonton, LEIGH OGSTON in Montreal, GLEN ALLEN in Halifax, ANNE GREGOR in Los Angeles and LARRY BLACK in New York City