Swastika Style

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CHANGE [image, unknown] Skinhead Politics

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Growing-up: Swastika style
One winter in the Brick Lane area of East London five people were killed in racist attacks. The killers were mostly unschooled, unskilled, unemployed youths: skinheads. Their motives, sometimes as members of the neo-fascist National Front, were political. David Robins asked one kid why he chose fascism.

PEOPLE who still believe that England is basically a tolerant country are in for a shock if they ever meet Barry Watts. Bull-necked and shaven headed, decked out in leather belt, boots and braces, a bewildering array of tattoos cover his muscular arms (he's a body-building fanatic): MOTHER JULIET. WEST HAM UNITED. ENGLAND. WHITE POWER. On his skull is scrawled SKINHEAD. And on his cheek, immediately below his eye, is etched a small swastika.

Barry likes what he sees in the mirror. He feels his appearance adds to his manliness and fancies his chances as a professional 'bird puller'. But his confidence in his hardness is only skin deep. He prefers to go around with a group of white mates - for protection, he says, against 'the blacks'.

He's 2I and lives with his mum and dad on a run-down high-rise estate in the East End of London. You will probably be relieved to hear that he is near phobic about leaving his immediate neighbourhood.

A school failure, unskilled and constantly in trouble with the law, Barry' s job prospects, like so many of his generation, are pretty dismal. Once he was a kitchen porter in a local hospital. Now he spends his days looking for black kids half his age to ' hospitalise'. Evenings, he and his mates patrol the forbidding streets around Mile End looking to set on Asian workers coming home from nearby factories or daubing walls with racist slogans. To unemployed lads like this, the graffiti 'NF' doesn't just mean National Front, but NO FUTURE.

Barry may act like a stereotype fascist, but his experiences are filled with contradictions. He loves reggae music for example, and can understand patois, which he picked up from West Indian kids at school. He once had a close mate who was black, and still uses 'rude boy' slang, if only to crack racist jokes among his friends.

He wasn't always a Nazi. Some years ago, following a 'Rock Against Racism' gig, where he went to hear his favourite reggae band Steel Pulse, he had a brief flirtation with some comrades from the Socialist Workers Party ( Skins Against the Nazis), but soon left in disgust when he found he was being treated as a pet mascot convert. His interest in politics remained undimmed, however. He joined the National Front shortly afterwards. But even here, although attracted by the Front's reputation as 'the violent Party', or 'the hatred Party', it wasn't just the aggression that lured him.

'We're for the old folks, we're for them.' he says. 'We think they should get a better deal. And for the kiddies, somewhere for them to play. Better schools.' Why then won't he vote Labour, like his parents and grandparents? 'Labour's only in it for themselves'. Besides, he holds them responsible for immigration. But he hates the Tories too and the rich, the police, authority in general.

Recently however Barry has got fed up with the 'respectable racism' of the NF, their miserable showing in elections and all the subsequent Party splits. So now he follows the even more violent and explicitly Nazi British Movement, the BM.

He'll readily' admit, though, that the chances of any extreme right group getting to power are slight. And he sees his own personal prospects as equally bleak: 'I can't even afford to go to the away matches with West Ham.'

But one thing he is positive about. He wants his children to grow up feeling 'British and proud of it'. And that means not afraid to do a hard day's Work, not being dependent on charity and not afraid to stand up for yourself in a fight: 'Bomb the Argentine'

And if he died tomorrow, what would he like as his epitaph? 'An East End Lad Born and Bred'.

But the BM are Nazis, and the Nazis bombed the East End to the ground. 'I know we fought a War against 'em. But Hitler to me is like Napoleon was to you. Nazi... it puts fear into people. And they're the only ones who'll do anything about it.'
'About what?'
'About the coloureds, taking our jobs, our homes...'

Arguing with people like Barry you come away wondering whether the moon really is green cheese. Admittedly, he does represent the ugliest tip of the racist iceberg. Racial prejudice, we know, permeates right through our society so no wonder disadvantaged white kids like him are susceptible - especially when bands of black kids are competing to be 'top mob' on the streets. (And both black and white gangs pick on Asians for attack since they possess no such traditions of street organisation.)

But this disquieting fact remains: it is in Britain alone that neo-fascists and overt Nazi sympathisers have politically mobilised a significant section of youth ignored by the major Parties as too stupid or apathetic.

The extreme right have been helped not only by massive youth unemployment, but also because fascism is fashionable in contemporary youth culture. Post-war England has witnessed the rise and fall of a succession of youth subcultures - teds, mods, rockers, skins- each with their own rules and rituals, each claiming to be beyond the bounds of adult authority, each attempting to be more outrageously provocative than the last.

In their music and dress for example, the punks of the mid-seventies drew freely on sado-masochistic images culled from modern pornography - bondage, jackboots, Nazi uniforms. Fascism was in. A lot of youngsters voted NF in the 1976 Greater London Council's elections because they thought it was 'the trendy thing to do'. Chants of 'Sieg Heil' on the terraces soon became an established feature of the soccer scene. And this development among the young took place against a growing fascination with Hitlerism in adult culture generally: witness the obsession With Nazi chic favoured by so many of our film makers and Writers.

In the immediate post war decades, Nazism, like child molesting, was confined to the illicit regions of the profane. Such matters were censored out of classrooms, youth clubs and most homes. Today Nazi insignia provide a vital, provocative element in youth culture. Countless numbers, including very young children, are attracted to the shock effect guaranteed by throwing a Nazi salute at a teacher or scrawling a swastika on a youth club wall.

If you were born in 1968. 'Hitler to me is like Napoleon was to you'. The grimmest lesson of 20th century history might have fallen on deaf young ears.

But at a time when young people are increasingly superfluous to the needs of the economy and government policies are helping create a generation of criminals, what are the chances of convincing the young of more positive plans for their future? And the first problem is: who is to do the convincing'? When the anti-racist message is preached by teachers, priests and politicians who are too often seen as the voices of middle-class authority - it is likely to provoke just that residual working class chauvinism that people like Barry represent.

Perhaps the best anti-racist work is being done by young people themselves in their schools, clubs and colleges. The achievement of the largely youth-orientated Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism rallies was to show that for every Barry Watts there are thousands who oppose racism and welcome the realities of our multi-racial society.

Nevertheless, the contradictions and conclusions that young people carry in their heads (not only about race but about political solutions generally) remain. There are plenty who happily follow 'two-tone' bands like the Specials and still believe it best to send the blacks home. And for the vast majority of our youth. Whatever their race, class or education, images of riot and disorder, nightmares of permanent mass unemployment and nuclear holocaust base replaced previous generations' dreams and hopes of making a better life.

As for Barry Watts, soon his street crimes will lead him to a long stretch in prison. There he Will meet many prisoners and some prison officers who will tell him that he has been locked up, not as a dangerous thug but as a political prisoner, a fighter for a new fascist order to 'save old England from decline'. As one fascist street song goes:

He was only a poor little skinhead
He wandered alone in the night
Now he's joined the National Front
And he's found a reason to fight.

David Robins is co-author of Knuckle Sandwich: growing up in the working class city (Penguin Books 978) and We Hate Humans.

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New Internationalist issue 113 magazine cover This article is from the July 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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