In the media, they are synonymous with hatred and violence, but anti-racist skinheads – including some who are black, Asian and Hispanic – are fighting to win back the subculture from neo-Nazi groups.

Skinheads indulge their passion for moshing at a show by the Oi! band, Oxblood, at the Bank, a Manhattan nightclub. [photo by James Downs]

The Other Side of Skinheads
Eric Deggans, Staff Writer, Asbury Park Press Sunday

June 25, 1995
Before you can ask, he‘ll hand you the card. Its simple black-and-white lettering speaks volumes.

„Pedro Angel Serrano. American Skinhead. Defender of Liberty. Scourge of Nazis.“ It’s such a paradox that some who see the plain white business card have to read it twice. Scourge of Nazis? Defender of liberty?

Since when did any of those titles fit a skinhead?

Answer: since Serrano and others like him began what for them is an everyday, lifelong quest – to reclaim skinhead culture and imagery from neo-Nazis.

Throughout the state, loosely organized skinhead activists are fighting to resist the neo-Nazi element – using both legal and not-so-legal means. Their aim is to retake a subculture many of them say has been hijacked by gangs of racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic „bone-heads“ (a not-so-endearing term for white supremacist skins).

A few examples:

- In Bergen County, a socialist skinhead’s bid for Congress last November won an endorsement from the National Organization for Women and support from some members of the Gray Panthers, garnering about 1 percent of the vote.

- Iggy Goleczynski, a 49-year-old Polish immigrant skinhead, runs Two Tone – a store in Passaic devoted to skinhead culture, minus the racist over-tones. That means iron cross jewelry, swastika patches and any other signs of bonehead culture are banned from the inventory.

- A small but determined coalition of skins from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut are working to resurrect the group SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) in Manhattan, hoping to bring ambivalent young skinheads into the anti-racism fold.

„People only know one kind of skinhead, because that’s all you see on ‚Geraldo‘ or the news shows,“ said Daryle Lamont Jenkins, a columnist for the Bridgewater Courier News and host of his own cable access television show, „Channel X.“

„I‘ve been hanging with non-racist skins for about five years now,“ said Jenkins, who is black. „It was a larger group back in the ’80s but a lot of them got old, tired of the stigma, or just moved on.“

Bucking the stereotype

Sitting in his cramped New Brunswick apartment, Pedro Serrano, a 36-year-old son of Puerto Rican immigrants, fits the classic skinhead image: closely shorn head, steel-toed Doc Martens and a braided string of a beard hanging from his chin.

But there are no swastikas, iron crosses or racist tatoos adorning his wiry frame. And, as the energetic skin spins tales of growing up in Newark’s Columbus Homes housing project („I am a product of food stamps and make-work programs,“ he declares, only half-jokingly), another truth emerges.

Serrano is gay.

„I knew I had this attraction to men, but I‘m not gay . . . I have sex with men, but I‘m not a homosexual,“ he said sarcastically, recalling his own denial before coming to terms with his sexual orientation. „Now, I‘m a crew of my own.“

Serrano has earned a reputation as an activist skin who opposes the subculture’s racist contingent. He helped spread the word about counterprotests against a 1993 neo-Nazi rally in New Hope, Pa., and organized a fund-raising CD, „Love is Best,“ for the Pride Center of New Jersey – a gay and lesbian community center in New Brunswick.

„A lot of times, skins want to avoid talking politics, because that divides people – and you have these left-wing and right-wing groups coming around with one agenda: recruitment,“ said Serrano, who is also developing his own anti-racist skin fanzine, Brother Outsider.

„But if we don‘t start defining this stuff, then somebody else is going to do it for us.“

A contradiction in terms?

If some news reports are to be believed, the term ‚‘anti-racist skinhead“ is an oxymoron.

Most experts agree the skinhead subculture emerged In late 1960s England, following the mixing of white British working-class kids and Jamaican immigrants faithful to the Kingston street gang known as „Rude Boys.“

According to criminologist Mark Hamm’s book, „American skinheads,“ the collision created a subculture that valued a distorted vision of the model worker. Jamaican immigrants brought close-cropped hair and a passion for ska music (an upbeat, danceable version of reggae), while the English contributed working-class pride, an aggressive machismo and love of beer drinking.

These newly christened skinheads – and their unofficial uniform, including steel-toed Doc Marten boots, work shirts and jeans – started as a transracial celebration. But within a few years in Britain, gangs of skins had begun bashing Pakistani immigrants, homosexuals and hippies, discrediting the subculture, Hamm said.

Now, groups that seem – at first glance, anyway – their modern-day descendants, are grabbing headlines: racist skinheads in Keansburg accused of violently breaking up a party whose host, they, said, was friendly with non-whites; gangs of British skinhead „soccer hooligans“ accused of rioting when nonwhite teams excel; groups of skinheads using computer networks to spread messages of violence, anti-Semitism and racial hatred.

The tales pile up until there’s no separating the terms „neo-Nazi“ and „’skinhead“ in the public mind.

Even the experts can‘t agree. „The skinhead movement in this country is a neo-Nazi movement – it started that way,“ said Milton Kleg director of the Center for the Study of Ethnic and Racial Violence in Denver.

Ask Kleg how many of the 2,000 to 10,000 skinheads he estimates live in America are non-racist and he ll tell you there aren‘t any. „You may have a pocket (of non racist skins) there on the East Coast, but I tend to think that’s an anomaly.“

Other hate group watchdogs – the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Klanwatch and B‘nai B‘rith’s Anti-Defamation League among them – admit both racist and non-racist skinheads exist. But ask what percentage is which, and you won‘t get much further.

„We don‘t really monitor anti-racist groups,“ said Laurie Wood, a researcher for Klanwatch, „so we don‘t know much about them.“

Even the ADL – which in 1993 estimated that no more than 400 skinleads, spread across 30 gangs, were active in New Jersey – doesn‘t really know how many non-racist or anti-racist skins may be a part of the subculture.

„We‘re talking, in large measure, about very young people who’se own attitudes are not fully formed, said Tom Halpern, head of fact finding on skinheads for the ADL’s Manhattan office. „We‘ve seen occasions of defection from the non-racist to the racist camps, which makes tracking tough.“

The group’s difficulty in monitoring skinheads reflects the mercurial nature of a nationwide, underground youth subculture.

A Passion for aggression

There’s another, simpler truth that keeps some minds closed to non-racist skinheads: Racist or not, the subculture’s foundation includes a tough, street-level ethic that values drinking, physical violence and territorial, gangland-style turf wars.

In short – as even anti-racist activists admit – non-Nazi skins are no angels, either.

„Basically, skinheads have this militant attitude … a passion … where they always want to question authority,“ explained Iggy Goleczynski, the non-racist, 49-year-old skin who owns Two Tone. „Skinheads like to brawl, because when people drink – especially young people – they want to fight.“

„You‘re dealing with kids who feel separated from society,“ added Greg Pason, the 29-year-old, non-racist skinhead who challenged powerful Democratic incumbent Robert G. Toricelli in last year’s 9th Congressional District elections.

„These are street kids for the most part,“ he said. „You can‘t make saints out of skinheads. These are disgruntled kids and they get into trouble.“

Still, Pason hopes to harness the energy of Manhattan’s growing segment of young, non-racist skins by revitalizing SHARP there. To avoid turning off young skins weary of political talk, their emphasis – at least, at first – will center on providing „safe“ spots for borderline skins to gather and share an anti-racist, non-homophobic vibe.

Now all they have to do is find some other skins who agree.

„It seems (a lot) of skins in New York aren‘t white – they‘re Asian and Hispanic,“ said Terry R., who requested her last name be withheld. A 21-year-old skinhead activist of Venezuelan heritage, Terry R. remains hopeful she, Pason and other activists can restart SHARP.

Though law enforcement agencies in New Brunswick and Passaic, Monmouth and Ocean counties could not recall any specific, ongoing problems with anti-racist skinheads, many remain skeptical of the activists‘ anti-racism claims.

„Though they may be SHARPS, they‘re still a gang by our definition,“ said L. Louis Jordan, a detective in the Monmouth County prosecutor’s office, and an expert on gangs and bias crimes.

„Not all skinheads are bad, but some SHARPS are involved with drug trafficking and other law-breaking, so we‘re keeping an eye on them,“ Jordan added. „And if they beat up some racist skinheads, that’s still breaking the law.“

Distorted by media

Many anti-racist skins say the assumption that all skinheads are neo-Nazis stems from a simple source – a sensationalist media searching for controversy.

„It’s become a movement, when it (started as) just a style and a way of life,“ said Trenton-based skinhead Travis Nelson, a singer with the New Brunswick-based ska band, Inspecter 7. „Now, we‘ve got to defend ourselves from all the crap.

„If you‘re against racism, it’s hard to say that’s a political thing – it’s just something you feel inside,“ added Nelson who is half black. He said he tried to set the record straight by appearing on „Geraldo“ – but said the talk show host was less than willing to listen.

„I talked for about two minutes and once he saw I wasn‘t a big anti-Nazi bigwig, he didn‘t want to talk to me,“ Nelson said, angrily. „He just wanted craziness like everyone else. I wanted to hit hm with a chair,myself.“

Too often, Pedro Serrano said, the media’s misinformation plays into the hands of racist skins – hoping to gain maximum exposure for their- own ideology of hate.

During a trip to a New York concert with Inspecter7, Serrano commiserated with numbers of black, Asian and Hispanic skins – drawn to the subculture by a love for ska or punk rock or each other, but dedicated to non racism by virtue of their skin color.

I ve had idiots ask me about being (a neo-Nazi),“ said Torrey Lloyd, a twentysomething black skinhead who lived for a time in New Brunswick with members of Serrano’s „crew“ of friends.

Wearing white shoelaces threaded through his Doc Martens – a White Power skinhead symbol sometimes worn by black, Asian or Hispanic skins as a show of rebellion – Lloyd seemed to take pleasure in shattering myths about what a skinhead should be.

„(People) wonder- why a black person would be a skinhead,“ he added. „But I‘ve always had a working-class outlook … pride in myself and where I‘m from. When I started hanging out at punk shows in CBGB’s the skins seemed to be the ones who really had it together.“

According to Goleczynski, the toughest aspect of fighting racism is matching the lockstep cohesion that binds their neo-Nazi adveraries.

Those who hate … they seem more dedicated to it than the people who fight them,“ the shopkeeper remarked. „A racist will get 200 acres, put together a computer network and these camps where people can drink beer and shoot guns. But there’s not (a) similar anti-racist who would dedicate all his time and money to fighting racism.“

As Eli Ritchey, a 30ish anti-racist skin from Ocean Township, put it: „Most anti-racists have better things to do – like jobs and lives.“ Ritchey is a counselor at the Youth Advocate Program in Middlesex Borough

There is a danger in opposing racist elements. „You can be targeted,“ said one skin who refused to give his name. Citing a 1992 attack by members of the White Rule Union and Eastern Hammer Skinheads at a party in Keansburg, the burly skin detailed other examples of racist skins beating and threatening to shoot those who are openly anti-racist.

But faced with a growing group of young skins who claim to be nonpolitical – usually meaning they‘re not actively racist, but prone to lean in any direction their fellow skins may follow – activists like Serrano, Pason and Goleczynski continue to spread the word of an anti-racist alternative. They regard their mission as a never-ending struggle to reach the minds and hearts of a subculture that seems to keep getting younger.

„People usually grow out of this by their mid-20s, but I‘m 35 and I‘m still in it,“ Serrano said, shrugging. „I‘m not sure if it’s a sign of arrested development or being committed.“