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- September 21, 1981
- Vol. 16
- No. 12
With Ready Fists and Rage, Britain's Skinheads Alarm An Already Troubled Country
On the night of July 3 several hundred young toughs with shaved heads and tattooed bodies, most of them dressed in tennis shirts, combat-style pants and Dr. Martens' steel-toed work boots, headed for the Hambrough Tavern in Southall. They were Skinheads, adherents of an unorganized working-class movement that numbers perhaps 200,000 and has festered in Britain for more than a decade. The white, predominantly apolitical Skinheads revile the police and terrorize neighborhoods with their rowdiness. Their lives are typically a regimen of beer, speed, soccer and rock music. In a "big off," or street fight, their opponents may be other Skinheads, middle-class punks, followers of rival soccer teams—or residents of Britain's large communities of nonwhite immigrants. These outbreaks of racial violence have aroused concern that some Skinheads are more than social misfits.
The Skinheads en route to Hambrough Tavern that night were going to a concert by three rock bands—the 4-Skins, the Business and the Last Resort. In doing so, they were also entering an area populated by Asians and West Indians.
"We didn't expect any aggro," insists 4-Skins guitarist Steve Pear, using the Clockwork Orange-like slang word for trouble. Southall's Indian and Pakistani youths clearly did—and struck preemptively. They massed around the pub, and by 9 p.m. Molotov cocktails were flying through the windows. The riot lasted well into the night, and by dawn 87 police and 23 civilians had been injured. The Hambrough Tavern was gutted. Southall residents, sickened by the 200 incidents this year of "Paki-bashing"—the Skinhead word for assaults on nonwhites—were elated. The morning after the riot, some 6,000 people from Southall gathered around the ruins of the pub. "It became a shrine for the Asian community," said Borough Councillor Shambhu Gupta. But fear of the Skinheads still haunts Southall. Says Ranjit Singh Rana, 42, who was beaten by a Skin gang last spring, "I come out of my house for only 20 or 30 minutes a day now. I want to live someplace else—anyplace peaceful."
The Southall riot was the first episode in a summer of street violence throughout England which served as a diabolical counterpoint to the royal festivities. From London to Liverpool, frustrated whites and nonwhites took to the streets to burn and loot—and the violence, rooted in adolescent restlessness and unemployment, exposed a nationwide climate of rage. In London some Skinheads openly proclaim allegiance to two neo-Nazi groups, the National Front and the British Movement, whose members wear swastikas and vow to rid England of all but Anglo-Saxons. In other cities, Skinheads are aligned with the radical left. Most avow no political beliefs at all. As 4-Skins vocalist Gary Hodges puts it: "We ain't have no message—the music is just good fun. We're trying to have a laugh."
Yet on the subject of Britain's minorities, many Skinheads would agree with Steve ("Everybody calls me Adolph") Shearwood, 18, who served a year and a half in jail for stabbing five people when he was 17. "They take our jobs and our homes," he says. "If they went back where they came from, look at the opportunities there would be for us." Such thinking has helped to nurture the Skinheads' violent subculture. After the riot, the 4-Skins recorded a new song, Evil: "I like breaking arms and legs/Jumping up and down on chickens' heads/Don't like you, you're too much/Put my Martens in your crotch."
That song is characteristic of the Skinhead brand of "Oi" music—which takes its name from a Cockney phrase meaning "Hey, pay attention to me." "Oi" is the movement's codeword; such bands as the Cockney Rejects and the Lunatic Fringe draw attention in their music to the very real economic problems of Britain's youth as well as to the glories of brawling. Gary Hodges has three scars on his head and an 11-stitch slash on his right wrist from street fights, and he wears the marks of battle proudly. "You can't describe the feeling when a big fight is going on," he says. "When you're a couple of dozen against 200, it gets the adrenaline going—a terrific high."
The Southall riot led to enormous public alarm. In its aftermath the 4-Skins disbanded, and other Skinhead rock groups have recorded anti-racist songs. Some Skins, such as 21-year-old engraver Dale Gath and his fiancee, Terri Wild, 19, see the movement almost as a fashion trend. "We just fancied Skinheads and the way they dressed," says Terri. But even Skins like Gath and Wild share an anti-immigrant bias—and with a youth unemployment rate nearing 20 percent, Britain may have to cope with the Skinhead problem for years to come. Although the riots have died down for now, the conditions that ignited them remain. As Steve Shearwood puts it: "There's no work and nothin' to do. I'm only going to get into more trouble."
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