Skinheads at Forty
Dusk was descending as a dozen skinheads eyed their counterparts across Lagoon Avenue. The ragtag crew stood their ground, the rubber soles of their Doc Martens defiantly gripping asphalt.
Across the street stood a mirror image. They too had close-cropped hair, ample tattoos, and punk-rock piercings. But as they stood facing each other that day, a chasm much wider than a busy Uptown thoroughfare separated the crews.
The Baldies were "traditional skins," which is to say leftist, anti-racist militants. They devoted their days to stomping out fascism, often quite literally. Any neo-Nazi spotted on their turf in Uptown was promptly treated to a "boot party"—three or more skins kicking the offending party mercilessly with steel-toed Docs.
Their boot-wearing rivals across the way represented a totally different breed of skinhead, a subculture much more familiar to the general public: nationalistic, far-right neo-Nazis.
The Baldies marched toward their rivals. Just as they were about to clash, a girl's voice rang out.
"He's got a gun!"
Pandemonium ensued. Gator—the boisterous young co-founder of the anti-racist skins—dove behind a car and braced himself for gunshots. None came. Instead, an adjoining parking lot became the scene of vicious hand-to-hand combat. The skinheads swung Louisville sluggers and ax handles recklessly into faces and bodies. Teeth fell to the asphalt like pearls from torn necklaces. Blood splattered the collars of flight jackets.
The riot had lasted more than two minutes when the neo-Nazis relented. "Let's go!" one yelled, and they all jumped into a white pickup belonging to the guitarist of local white power band Mass Corruption.
As the racist crew sped down Lagoon, the Baldies pelted the pickup with rocks, sticks, and beer bottles, shattering a side window. The neo-Nazis covered their heads from the raining debris.
Gator searched the ground for a projectile and came across a cobblestone lying alongside the curb. When the vehicle was close enough for Gator to get a clean shot at it, he jumped into the middle of the road and hurled the brick through the front windshield. The pickup swerved, regained control, and sped off.
WITH HIS POINTY GOATEE, tattooed forearms, and a ratty pink Mohawk peeking out from behind his checkered beret, Gator, 38, still exudes a punk-rock vibe 20 years later. But ever since having kids—two sons and a daughter—he's refrained from attending any boot parties.
"As you get older, shit changes, and you look at the world differently," he says. "If I see a Nazi today, I'm like, 'I don't have time for this shit.' If I fought every racist I saw, I'd be punching dudes all day." He laughs, then adds, "But it was a very special time. It was a great thing to be a part of."
The Baldies began as a small, insular group of friends hanging out, drawn together by a shared love of oi! music—working-class punk rock with unpretentious, street-level lyrics. Many were straight-edge—no drugs or drink—and all harbored a deep distain for racists, particularly neo-Nazis.
In the spring of 1986, Gator and his buddies Hugh, Danny, and Little Tim sat in a south Minneapolis basement and kicked around names for their newly formed anti-racist skinhead crew.
"How about the Undertakers?" suggested Danny, a scrappy blond kid with coal-black eyes.
"No," the others protested. "Too metal."
The foursome bantered back and forth. They needed a moniker to differentiate them from British skinheads.
"What about the Baldies?"
The crew brought together kids from all different backgrounds (most of whom requested that their real names be withheld in this article). There was Joe Hawkins, a stocky lad with pale blue eyes, often ribbed by his mates for being a "mama's boy" due to his early curfew and general aversion to partying. Casanova Frankenstein was a prim, brown-eyed chap whose nickname reflected both his freewheeling antics and his suave way with the ladies. And, of course, Davey, a tall, lithe, black kid from Atlanta who trained as an amateur boxer and was generally regarded as the finest pugilist of the crew.
They took fashion cues from the original British skins: Dickies work pants, thin suspenders worn over Fred Perry polo shirts, and, most importantly, Doc Martens work boots. They spent their days hanging around Lake Street, tagging buildings, skateboarding, listening to music, and going to shows. They exchanged albums from bands such as the Redskins, the Cro-Mags, and Blind Approach, a St. Paul-based hardcore straight-edge band whose frenetic power chords provided a fitting soundtrack to the Baldies' wayward lifestyles.
"They'd all come to Uptown and raise hell," recalls now-retired MPD gang unit officer Mike Schoeben, who was assigned to keep an eye on the crew in the late '80s. "They'd do stupid stuff. There'd be assaults once in a while. They seemed to me to be bored kids looking for attention."
Their ranks swelled as assorted punk rockers, misfits, runaways, and young activists took notice of the fledgling crew and joined as "fresh cuts" (their term for newbies). A veritable scene was taking root in the heart of Uptown.
ONE FRESH CUT was a young, square-jawed activist with steely blue eyes named Ciaran. Well-read and socially conscious, the 16-year-old sought to introduce a more explicit political bent to the crew's anti-fascist philosophy.
On a blustery day in the winter of '87, more than a dozen Baldies packed an Uptown Rocky Rococo's on Hennepin (now an Old Chicago pizzeria) to discuss how to broaden their influence.
"We have to organize ourselves," stressed Ciaran, clad in a Public Enemy T-shirt. "We need to get non-skins involved, too—people who share our views, but aren't necessarily into our music and style."
"I got a cousin in the King's Posse," piped up Gator, referring to SLK Posse, a mostly black crew of hip-hop kids and graffiti artists. "We should get them involved."
"Yeah," agreed Ciaran. "And student activists, too."
"Okay," someone said. "What do we call it?"
Ciaran was aware of Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), which had formed in the U.K. just two years earlier. "How about Anti-Racist Action?" he suggested.
ARA incorporated strains of left-wing, anarchistic ideology, incorporating anti-sexist and anti-homophobic stances into its platform. When neo-Nazis spray-painted a swastika on the Washington Avenue Bridge, ARA joined forces with the University of Minnesota Black Law Student Association to organize a demonstration on the University end of the bridge. One of the BLSA officers was Keith Ellison, who would go on to become the first Muslim elected to U.S. Congress.
"I remember he and the rest of the BLSA were friendly with us," Ciaran laughs. "I think they were just intrigued because we were so young and because we were anti-racist skinheads, which was weird to them."
That summer, two carloads of Baldies followed Blind Approach on their tour to New York City. For two weeks, the crew acted as the Johnny Appleseeds of the ARA, planting the seeds of what would become a national movement. They cruised the streets of Chicago; Milwaukee; Allentown, Pennsylvania; and Rochester, New York, shouting the international skinhead greeting to any Doc Martens-wearing, close-cropped chap they passed.
By and large, the crews encountered by the Baldies were scattered and unorganized. "Some didn't even have names," recalls Ciaran. "After hearing about what we were doing with Anti-Racist Action, some decided to just call themselves 'ARA' and started their own chapters."
A franchise was born. Soon after, West Coast punk fanzine Maximum Rock n Roll took notice of ARA and featured the burgeoning organization in an article. ARA became an intercontinental phenomenon. Today, it boasts over 200 chapters worldwide, and is considered one of the most influential underground anti-fascist groups in the world.
The Baldies had gone national.
MEANWHILE, BACK ON THE HOME FRONT in St. Paul, concerns flared that neo-Nazism was taking hold in the local skinhead scene.
"At first it was just rumors," says Hawkins. "A lot of the guys we were hearing about being into white power were actually some guys who used to hang out with us."
One night, Gator was cruising with friends Chasiu, a slight Thai kid, and Mic Crenshaw, a brawny African American member of the Baldies who'd just moved to Minneapolis from the south side of Chicago. They pulled into an empty parking lot on Humboldt Avenue just off Lake Street where a party was supposedly taking place. But there was no party–just a half a dozen figures silhouetted against the darkening sky.
As Gator, Chasiu, and Crenshaw approached the scene, they heard a familiar voice ring out. It was Little Tim. He was in the face of Paul Haulis, a short, stocky skinhead whose weathered face suggested an age beyond its 20 years.
"Say it to them!" Little Tim shouted at Haulis and pointed to the two newly arrived non-white Baldies. "Say it to them!"
Haulis remained silent.
"What's going on?" asked Gator.
"This motherfucker's a Nazi!" said Little Tim. He turned back to Haulis. "Tell them what you were saying! Tell them!"
Haulis stayed silent.
"Is this true?" Gator asked.
As the Baldies were preparing to leave, a hot-blooded member named Hugh ambled up to Haulis and spat in his face. "Fascist!" Hugh yelled.
It served as the opening salvo of a yearlong war. Haulis formed the White Knights, a crew of neo-Nazi skins, in a blue-collar neighborhood of East St. Paul.
"The White Knights were chumps," Gator says while shaking his head, still seething 20 year later. "We would talk to these guys until we were blue in the face about how full of shit they were, and they wouldn't understand. But if there was one thing these guys could understand, it was an ass-whuppin'."
On a bone-chilling, subzero day in the winter of '88, members of the Baldies' inner circle, including Gator, Davey, Crenshaw, and Casanova Frankenstein, entered the vestibule of the Uptown Theatre, hoping the warmth would restore feeling to their frostbitten hands. They had spent the afternoon wandering the neighborhood, their trademark wooden canes in tow. Unbeknownst to them, the White Knights had been watching.
As the four Baldies stepped out of the theater, they were greeted by nine White Knights, including an out-of-towner visiting from Washington, D.C.'s Hammerskin neo-Nazi chapter.
"What's up, guys," one of them said balefully.
"What, you wanna get your asses kicked again?" challenged Davey.
The White Knights exchanged confident looks. They had the numbers advantage and they knew it.
Meanwhile, Crenshaw was eyeing the Hammerskin. Seeing an opening, he leaped at him. The two fell to the frozen pavement, wrestling for position.
Members from both crews turned into a mass of limbs and fists
Well aware of their comrade's fighting prowess, the Baldies shouted, "One-on-one! Let them go one-on-one!" The Knights agreed. "One-on-one!" they yelled. "One-on-one."
Crenshaw gained position and started working over his adversary, delivering close-fisted blows to the skull. Looking to save his friend from a savage pummeling, one of the Knights lunged for Crenshaw. Seeing this, Davey cross-checked him with his cane and sent his target flying between two cars parked along the curb.
Suddenly, a flash of sizzling pain shot through Davey's head and into his neck. He'd been hit in the back of the head with a railroad spike. Trying to ward off unconsciousness, he wheeled around just in time to see his friend Danny deliver a crushing punch to his assailant's jaw. The railroad spike fell to the ground, followed shortly thereafter by its owner.
Danny and Davey turned their attention back to Crenshaw, 10 feet away, now being booted by two Knights. Davey hustled over and pushed one White Knight out of the way. Gripping the cane with both hands, he delivered a blow to the other's head ("It felt and sounded like a really good line drive," he recalls.)
Meanwhile, the Knight who had originally lunged for Crenshaw was attempting to get up and run away, but he was unable to find his traction on the icy sidewalk. Davey and Crenshaw cornered him in an alley next to Annie's Parlor (now Chino Latino) on Hennepin. Davey pinned him to the wall with his cane across the Knight's chest. Gator, Danny, and Casanova Frankenstein formed a semi-circle around Crenshaw and Davey, keeping watchful eyes on the rest of the Knights, who stood by helplessly and watched.
"I thought you wanted to go one-on-one," growled Crenshaw to the pinned Knight, who looked frantically for assistance. Seeing none, he tried to kick Davey in the groin. Davey tightened the cane against his chest.
"Crush him," said Gator.
Crenshaw unleashed a hailstorm of punches to his face, which came to resemble a crushed box of jelly donuts, a cloudy mix of mucus and blood.
Sirens began to wail. "Shit! Let's go!" The Baldies fled. No arrests were made.
THEIR SUCCESSFUL BATTLES against the White Knights quickly turned the Baldies into legends within the local punk scene. On January 24, 1990, they were introduced to the Twin Cities at large when City Pages featured the crew on the cover. In the photo, a serenely self-assured Gator perches front and center, a half-dozen or so of his comrades lurking behind him.
The accompanying article, headlined "The Lost Boys," captured the Baldies' youthful idealism. They railed against "the system." They lambasted cops. They ridiculed yuppies. Most notably, they defended themselves against the most frequent censure waged against them: that they were petty thugs who rationalized hooliganism.
"There's a place and time for violence and it has to be righteous," Hawkins told reporter Meleah Maynard. "But I don't want normal people to be afraid of me. They've got nothing to fear from me. Except for Nazis, I give everybody respect that gives me respect."
"Fighting racism is righteous," added Gator. "We don't condone violence unless it's righteous."
Yet as their name grew—by 1990, nearly 100 people identified themselves as Baldies—it became harder and harder to maintain a cohesive message and keep behavior in check.
"Guys who really didn't understand the underlying message and ideals started joining up," says Danny, looking back on it with 38-year-old eyes. "They just thought it looked cool. And some of them just wanted to fuck people up."
Also, the Baldies' reputation as invincible badasses made them frequent targets of non-aligned skins looking to make a name for themselves.
"A lot of guys just wanted to test their mettle," says Hawkins "And what better way to do it than to take down the Baldies?"
A group called the Minneapolis Oi! Boys (MOB) arose as a consortium of non-aligned skins and punk rockers. While generally apolitical, MOB adhered to a nationalistic, right-leaning philosophy. Unlike the East St. Paul-based White Knights before them, MOB was operating on the Baldies' turf.
"A lot of MOB were even former members of the White Knights," says Gator. "And some of them were dudes who didn't want to become white power, but were still sympathetic to it. And some guys just wanted to belong."
When some Baldies spotted a MOB kid walking along Hennepin near Lagoon wearing a T-shirt featuring Screwdriver—a British white power band—Casanova Frankenstein approached the young Oi! boy and confronted him. The day ended without violence and was quickly forgotten.
But three days later, as Ciaran walked out of class at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, he noticed four MOB members waiting for him. He gleaned from their menacing faces that they had it in for him. Payback. "I still don't know how they knew to find me there at that exact time," he says.
Determined to keep his composure, Ciaran walked up to them and asked, "What's the problem?"
The answer was a punch in the face. The foursome proceeded to kick him when he was down. Ciaran had just managed to pull one down with him when two campus security guards swarmed in and broke it up.
"I'm lucky those security guards showed up when they did, because I don't know how I would have gotten out of that," he says.
With that, the war intensified. Beat-downs became a daily occurrence. Members on both sides began brandishing weapons, usually baseball bats and ax handles.
"If I have one regret, it's that we didn't do more to reach out to MOB," says Ciaran. "Things got out of hand."
Other Baldies agree.
"Some of those MOB guys were cool," says Davey. "Our pride got in the way. It turned into a vicious cycle of needless violence."
By '92, the skin scene was dying. Part of it had to do with the MOB war, but the simple fact was that the crew was getting older. Some Baldies were fathers. Some, such as Hawkins, went off to college. Others, like Danny, had joined the military.
In addition, the crew's straight-edge ethos had worn thin. An increasing number of Baldies, particularly fresh cuts, were getting loaded.
"At that time there was a big culture of house parties in south Minneapolis," says Ciaran. "You could show up anywhere and you'd be welcome."
As the booze flowed, so did adrenaline, testosterone, and, all too often, blood.
"Things started getting out of control," says Hawkins. "I'd often leave early, because I could see where things were going. It wasn't fighting for principles anymore. It was just fighting for the sake of fighting."
Other factors, such as illegal drugs, contributed to the scene falling apart. It was no longer about ideology. It was about money. And as the stakes rose, so did the danger level.
"Crack was becoming really prevalent," says Crenshaw. "Things were fizzling out then—now there were guns involved. We wanted no part in that."
THREE YEARS AFTER calling it quits, the Baldies got together for one last mission under the ARA banner.
In the summer of '95, the St. Paul-based neo-Nazi band Bound for Glory, arguably the world's biggest white power band at the time, planned a show in West St. Paul. Worried that their homecoming might incite the wrath of the ARA and what was left of the Baldies, the band arranged a gig at an undisclosed venue—their fans were told where to go upon purchasing tickets.
"We did some digging and eventually found out where they were playing at some old hall," says Ciaran. "So we compiled a list of contacts—a lot of old Baldies and ARA guys—and tried to round up as many as we could."
The goal was to assemble a group of 100. They succeeded in getting 90. The night before the show, the crew papered the neighborhood with flyers.
"Bound for Glory is a band that promotes hatred and racist violence," the flyers warned. "Don't allow them to invade your neighborhood."
The next day, a caravan of anti-racist skins arrived from Uptown.
"You had several hundred activists and agitated community members surrounding the place," says Martin, an ex-Baldie who speaks at a rapid clip. "And inside there were about a dozen guys setting up who were just shitting themselves."
Fearing a full-fledged riot, the police arrived and told the placard-wielding mob they were shutting down the show.
"We weren't sure we could believe them, so we had a neighborhood resident go with the cops inside to confirm that they wouldn't be playing."
Bound for Glory never played another public show in the Twin Cities again.
ON AN UNSEASONABLY WARM January day, Hawkins, who, at 38, now works in law enforcement with at-risk offenders, sits in an Uptown Davanni's on Lake Street and picks at his pita wrap apprehensively. A roadmap of colorful tattoos peeks out from under the sleeves of his muscle shirt. His short, graying hair clashes with his youthful sky-blue eyes, which turn thoughtful as he searches for the right words.
"Sometimes I wonder if what we did had the opposite impact of what we wanted to accomplish," he says. "In some respects, we backed some people into a corner and made them get more into white power. It's one of those things I always wonder about: Would East St. Paul have become a hotbed of white supremacy were it not for us?"
Just then, the entrance door swings open. Hawkins looks up and does a double-take. His pensive frown transforms into warm smile and he leaps to his feet to meet the tall newcomer.
"Hey man, how have you been?" Davey asks, offering a hand.
Comically dissimilar—Hawkins is a short, stocky white dude, while Davey suggests a 'roided out Don Cheadle—they embrace in a bear hug.
"I just got back from church, man," Davey says as he eases into his seat. "Was eating brunch with the family. We're heading off to TwinsFest later on."
The words seem strange coming from a man heralded by his compatriots as one of the Twin Cities' toughest street fighters of his day. Now the disarmingly mellow 38-year-old is pursuing his Master's in social work from Met State while working as a counselor for drug-addicted kids.
Although they're no longer bashing skulls, the guys who made up the core of the Baldies still keep tabs on one another. A tentative reunion is planned for August.
After struggling with addiction through the 1990s, Casanova Frankenstein cleaned up and now works with an outreach program for the homeless in the Twin Cities.
Ciaran has maintained his leftist radicalism as a union steward and activist for the Industrial Workers of the World, a militant international union.
Mic Crenshaw moved to Portland in the mid-'90s to teach public high school, and also performs as a hip-hop artist.
Danny works as a security guard in downtown Minneapolis. More than any other former Baldie, his political views have undergone a transformation since he left the scene. His blue V-neck sweater, crisp khakis, and round spectacles make him look like a chipper accountant.
"I was young and looking for something to grab a hold of to match the intensity in my heart," Danny says. "I dealt with a lot of radical left-wing politics, which were close to my heart at the time. I think when I joined the Army, I kind of saw a different side of life. For me, it comes down to personal accountability. You're not going to be your best unless you keep your own nose clean. I'm real, real conservative on some things and real, real liberal on others."
Hawkins views it as growing up, rather than selling out.
"Now that I'm beyond my testosterone-fueled days, I see things differently," he explains. "I was one of those kids throwing rocks outside the system. Then I realized I could make more changes inside the system.
"But do I regret my days as a Baldie? Not for a second."
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