I’m 27 and I play in a punk rock band. I love it. We love it. We’ve spent the past 10 years writing, practicing, performing, recording, spending huge amounts of time, money, and aggravation, and primarily succeeding in not being famous. But through the years we’ve gotten better. Much better. And most of all, like I said, we absolutely love it.
We like go on tour. One of the towns closer to home that we always loved to play in was none other than Kenosha , Wisconsin. For a loud, fast band like us, Kenosha was a beautiful place to play. The locals were kind, friendly, and yet just unrefined enough to love cold beer and loud music in a crowded room. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, we always felt at home. The people bought our merchandise, and the bartenders made sure we were never thirsty. In the dead of winter, on a Friday night, 4 feet of snow piled up outside, there was still always a party wherever we went. And we were always happy to provide the soundtrack.
This is why we were so excited to play a gig at one of our favorite bars in Kenosha that Friday evening. The bar owner had not only booked our group, but also some very good friends of ours from St. Louis, and a couple of locals acts as well. We all drove up to the venue, we loaded in our equipment, and we prepared for another night of beer and loud rock n’ roll in Kenosha.
We were already in the habit of arriving very early to gigs, and because the St. Louis Cardinals were playing a double header that day, the start time for the show was pushed back an hour, so we had some extra time on our hands. This was fine, because, as I mentioned, we felt that this town and this bar were somehow our home away from home. So we each got a drink, and chatting among ourselves. We joked and watched the game and talked about what songs we wanted to play that night.
It was right about then that I saw a man in a uniform. Now, the uniform in question can in no way be considered “official”, but to a lot of people, it is extremely recognizable none-the-less. When a person dressed in this way, you knew exactly what they were about. He had on black combat boots, tied up with red laces; black jeans topped off with a silver belt buckle in the shape of a Maltese Cross, like the German pilots of WWI used to decorate their planes; a puffy, black “bomber” style jacket which he never removed; and he had no hair. He was a skinhead. He was a racist skinhead.
For those of you with knowledge as to complex nature of the term “skinhead” and appearance of skinheads, essentially that not all are racist, let me just say that the red laces gave him away. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center website, this meant that he very well may have shed blood for the white-power movement.
We had had a run in with these types before, and it didn’t end well . No one was hurt, mind you, but it didn’t end well.
Since that one experience years before, the very idea that a group of people like this could exist; that there actually were folks out there who stomped their feet, banged their chests, beat folks up, and quoted “American History X” like it was something other than a cautionary tale against intergenerational hatred..like it was some kind of mainstream tribute to their lifestyle...not only baffled me, but honestly, it frightened me as well .
But whether I liked it or not, I knew they were out there, somehow multiplying every day, and here before me was one of them. But he was only one. He was talking to people, but they were mostly girls, and there no one else seemed to match his dress code. He was outnumbered. I figured, “hey, this is our bar. We know these people. They aren’t like this guy. He’s not going to start anything in a place where there aren’t more skinheads to back him up”. So I ignored him and continued to socialize.
His face wasn’t even all that mean looking. He looked kind of soft, to tell the truth. But his eyes gave him away almost as well as his laces: they were angry. A kind of calm, cold anger.
An hour went by, the game finished, and the locals had all piled in by this point. The opening band played. They were decent. They finished their set, and we loaded onstage. We played our set and joked around between songs. After about 40 minutes, we hit our last note, and bar crowd reacted positively. We got our equipment off the stage, and headed back in to watch the next band, the local act.
Now, most of them looked harmless. They looked pretty much like any other group of guys we had run into at that bar. But the lead singer, his head was shaved. And he too had that calm, cold look of anger in his eye too.
It was then that I noticed that the “uniformed” skinhead from earlier had made his way to the stage, and this time he had friends. Some with hair, some without, but the all shared the same swagger. They were obviously most interested in this particular group about to play. As the band kicked into its set, they slammed around, spilling drinks, shoving at themselves and others, and generally being hooligans.
The words to the songs were snarled and indecipherable, but also very angry. About three-quarters through their set, the singer began to rant, most of it also very difficult to understand, and he eventually bellowed the following “….and everyone knows everything is just going to get worse with who we got in the White House now!” Without skipping a beat, the uniformed skinhead and his buddies responded with a tirade of racial slurs, calling President Obama the N-word, and even proclaiming that he should be lynched.
I don’t know if I had been in denial up to that point, but now there was no question, this was a racist band, and these were racist, racist people. But the most shocking realization of all was that no one else in the entire bar seemed to care or mind.
I realize now that I could have put my foot down right then and insisted that we leave, but our friends from St. Louis still had yet to play, and if there was any money that was to be made off of the bar, we would have to wait until the end of the show to collect. So I walked into the next room in disgust, picked up a pool cue, and tried to ignore the massive explosion of stupidity that was occurring just feet away from me.
Now, this is what happened, apparently, after I left the room. There was one in our group who was courageous enough to stand up for what he believed in, even in the face of blind, stupid, drunk hate. We’ll call him Rick, and Rick was the bass player with our friends from St. Louis. Rick is also black. When those goons started shouting racial slurs, he took it upon himself to jump right on stage, and calmly address the audience: “Excuse me guys. Please don’t use those kinds of words. I’m a person of color and I find it highly offensive. I’m not trying to start anything. I’m just asking that you please be a little more respectful”.
This was extremely brave on Rick’s part. Unfortunately, it was also a little like dangling a bloody seal in front of a pack of sharks. As soon as he stepped off stage, the uniformed skinhead, accompanied by a humongous, ugly, beast of a man, charged at Rick. The uniformed skinhead zeroed in on a pin Rick was sporting on his jacket that plainly displayed a swastika with a circle around it and a line through it.
“What the hell is that?!”, the skinhead demanded.
“It’s a pin.”
“What does it mean?”
“What do you think it means?”
“Yeah? WELL WHAT DO YOU THINK THIS MEANS?” And with that the skinhead pulled up his shirt and jacket to reveal a huge tattoo of Adolf Hitler on his chest. He then pulled out an 8 inch knife and held it out at my friend, Rick.
Again, I was not in the room, but Rick’s guitar player and my lead singer were. They rushed over, and got in between the skinheads and Rick and ushered him into the room where I was playing pool, completely unaware of what happened. Rick looked terrified. I know things like this had happened to him before, but I guess having one’s life threatened with a knife never loses its charm.
I asked again and again, “what happened?”, and finally Rick’s guitar player told me “SOMEONE PULLED A KNIFE ON MY BOY, AND THAT IS NOT COOL!” I was only further confused by this until I saw the sharks coming back to claim their prey. The skinheads were coming for our friend.
We immediately formed a human wall around Rick, and while no one sought confrontation, we made it clear that he was one of us. Eventually, the skinheads stalked away to watch the rest of the third band’s set.
After some quick discussion, I decided the owner of the bar needed to know what had happened. I went right to up him and explained what had just gone on, and insisted that he call the police to come get these very dangerous guys out of his bar.
“I’m not going to do that”, he said.
“You mean you’re just going to stand here and let what just happened happen? ”
“Listen, buddy, I’m sorry for your friend, but most of the people in here are on parole. It would be very bad for business”.
It was right then that that place no longer seemed like home to me. This was no longer our bar. It never had been. The people there were, at the very least, apathetic to what had been going on.
I went back to guys, and I told them what the owner had just said. We and our friends from St. Louis made a single unified decision: if our safety can’t be assured, the gig is not worth it. We were now behind enemy lines, and no one was going to protect us except for ourselves. It was time to go.
A group of us went to the owner and informed him of our decision. Suddenly, his entire demeanor changed.
“That’s garbage, man. This is my bar, and I don’t want you to think this is the kind of thing that happens here.”
“We understand, and we’ve been playing here for years, so you can imagine how much this sucks for us. But when your patrons put our lives in danger, I’m sorry, but we put our own safety first.”
He then cut a deal. “Tell you what: If you play, I will stand right by the stage and personally make sure nothing happens to your guys. But they have to play! There are people that came here for this show and still want to see them play!”
I don’t know what changed our minds, but the band from St. Louis decided that if the owner said he’d look out for us, then it was worth it to stick around and just play their set. We helped them get on the stage, and we each positioned ourselves close to the stage so that if something were to go down, no one would be taken by surprise. I even stood right behind the amplifiers and kept an eye on the crowd. I figured that if someone were to rush the stage with a knife, maybe I could see it before the band did, and maybe even intercept with a good kick to the face from that height. They never tried anything, so who knows if that would have worked, or if it would have just gotten me killed.
For the record, our brave protector, the owner of the bar, who said he would personally make sure that nothing would happen to us, was nowhere in sight during the entire set. One of our guys later claimed that he was seen in the bar doing shots, paying no attention whatsoever.
When they finished playing, it was late, and we noticed that a good deal of the crowd, including most of the skinheads, had left. I went to help Rick pack up his bass equipment, and he said with a smile, “Well, it’s over. We made it out alive!”
“What are you talking about, man? We didn’t go anywhere!”
It was the uniformed skinhead, along with his hulking, snaggle-toothed, ugly-as-sin compatriot. They stood just feet from the stage mumbling, smiling at us, and occasionally talking with the women left in the bar.
It was time to go…now.
My first instinct was to get all of our collective stuff outside, and pack up as quickly as possible. The other guitarist from my band, however, has this habit of drinking and socializing even more as the night comes to an end, instead of contributing to the process of going home. In addition, we had to wait for other people at the bar to leave because they had blocked our vans in.
And then I realized that none of the skin heads had left at all. They were actually just outside waiting for us. A crowd of them hung around outside despite the bartenders’ shouts for everyone to just go home. They didn’t rush us, or even attack Rick when he came out of the building. Instead, they seemed to be doing some macho horsing around, bumping chests, shoving each other, and shouting mock fightin’ words. The more they shoved each other around, the more they laughed and the more boisterous they became, and then the rougher they played still. It almost seemed like they were just waiting for one of us to accidentally get hit so that they could all gang up on whoever was unfortunate enough to be that person.
While our attention was on the group of skinheads making this entire ruckus, Rick noticed that the uniformed skinhead and his ugly friend from inside the bar seemed to be sneaking up behind us. We all bolted for the vehicles. Rick got in his van, but the skinheads crowded around the door: they were still after him. My lead singer somehow snuck him out of his van, and into our van, without the skinheads knowing. He told him to lie down on the floor until we started moving. The crowd began to disperse, and we were all ready to go. All except one, that is, the other guitar player from my band, who was now many sheets to the wind, an currently sporting some pretty big beer-balls.
He walked up to the uniformed skinhead, said something, and then walked very quickly back to our van, leaving angry shouting and fist pounding in his wake. He jumped in the car and said “Okay, we have to go…right now!”
“No kidding!”, I said, “what the heck did you say to him?”
“Oh, I just told them to F-off”
“OH, ABSOLUTLY BRILLIANT!”
We pulled towards the exit of the parking lot, but the uniformed skinhead was standing in our way, still shouting and threatening. My lead singer, stared him down, and hit the accelerator. He wasn’t trying to kill him, mind you. It was more of a combination flight and fight response. The skinhead dodged the van, and we were gone.
We drove through town, looking over our shoulders the entire way, and eventually made it back to the highway. I don’t think any of us relaxed until we made it back to Illinois. My genius guitar player, who decided to provoke the skinheads just before we left, must have been on some kind of adrenaline high, because he couldn’t stop talking about how much he had wished he would have fought one of them. I was in a kind of dazed state. I asked Rick if he was doing okay. Rick, who had the most reason to be shaken up, sounded unnaturally calm, and said that the experience really put many of his history lessons from school in a new light.
We haven’t been back to Kenosha since. I don’t blame the town. I don’t pretend to believe that Kenosha is the center of neo-Nazi racism. There are many such people in Illinois and all over the country. A sheltered, suburban white kid like myself, who has never seen a day in the ‘hood, would naturally be quite shaken up after such a dangerous confrontation. But it wasn’t the danger that scared me. What really scared me, and does scare me still, was that not only do violent people, driven by hate and insecurity still very much exist, but they are enabled by the communities around them. Not one person tried to intervene that night. Not even the owner of the establishment. And in that way, as far as I’m concerned, their apathy gave them away as skinheads too.