The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
Earlier this year I noticed what could generously be described as a trend in nostalgic punk journalism; revisiting war stories of leftist (or at least left-leaning) punks squaring off with young Nazis. After all, if we’re all going to write about Nazis, why write about the polite midwestern Nazi who paradoxically likes Seinfeld when you can rehash the glory days of punching a Nazi in the face? In mid-January GQ published a loose oral history of such confrontations, featuring interviews with punk greats such as Henry Rollins, Mike Watt, Darryl Jenifer, and, uh, the front man of Cracker who belittled an NPR intern for a 2012 essay she wrote about illegal downloading. A couple weeks later, Los Angeles Magazine published a similar trip down Nazi-punching-memory lane with a feature that included quips from X’s John Doe and less nationally renowned acts.
Feeling left out? No need; now is as good a time as ever to revisit Bill Wyman’s 1989 feature about a group of Chicago skinheads who were arrested after they beat up an out-of-town Nazi. At the front, Wyman’s narrative suffers from a jumble of names of splinter skinhead groups and the 20-something young men who shear their hair as members of said groups. But Wyman’s description of the Nazi at the center of the story, Scott Gravatt, leaves a quick impression:
… it was Gravatt’s tattoos that gave a new tenor to the evening. He had several: a miscolored American flag on the back of his head was the least of them. On one arm, he had a tombstone; around it were the words “Death to Race Mixing.” On his other arm a tattoo read “Orange County Skinheads.” Above that one was a blunt swastika, so crude looking that someone thought it had been done as a brand. And on his chest was a large Fred Perry garland (Fred Perry polo shirts are a skinhead fashion item) embellished with a swastika and the name “Whitey.” That was his name, Gravatt said: Whitey Powers. Gravatt was proud of his tattoos, proud of his association with Nazi skins in other states. He struck the Chicago group as a bit crazy, particularly when he pulled out an armband with a swastika on it.
The story’s conclusion feels muted in comparison to Wyman’s lengthy buildup. A coterie of local skins beat up Gravatt, hog-tied him, and placed him in front of Skokie’s Holocaust Memorial—and Lincolnwood police arrested the five skinheads on their way back to Chicago. But Wyman’s swift trip through skinhead history, its mutation and co-option by white supremacists, and its evolution in Chicago is worth a read.
Skinheads were in the spotlight in the late 1980s; in the fall of 1988 Oprah Winfrey interviewed a group of racist skinheads on her show. As Wyman pointed out, one of the protagonists of his piece, a black Cabrini-Green native and anti-Nazi skinhead named Dwayne Thomas, was in the audience during that taping:
Lost in the hullabaloo over the Nazi antics on last fall’s Oprah Winfrey show on skinheads was the fact that Chicago’s anti-Nazi skins were there in force; Dwayne himself spoke on the show and denounced the Nazis on the dais. “The first skinheads were black,” he said, and he was right.
Thomas’s confrontation with Gravatt feels minuscule in part because of the scene wreckage Wyman combs through as he marches towards the story’s conclusion. Before getting arrested in the north suburbs after he dropped Gravatt off in Skokie, Thomas was involved in an altercation at the old Dunkin’ Donuts on Belmont and Clark, better remembered as Punkin’ Donuts. Not to ruin the story, but it’s about a scuffle involving Nazi propaganda, a pit bull, and a motorcyclist who was stabbed and nearly killed.