There was nothing very unusual about the circumstances that led to the unfortunate meeting of Scott Gravatt, who’d drifted in from Atlanta that day, and Dwayne Thomas and his four friends. Graham Burbank, one of Dwayne’s pals, considers it a credo that the scene takes care of its own. “If a guy comes in from out of town and needs a place to stay, you find him one,” he says. Graham wears round spectacles and has close-cropped, light brown hair. He looks like an intellectual Steve McQueen. During the day he’s a carpenter; at night he goes to the School of the Art Institute, which is what brought him to Chicago two and a half years ago. He studies painting and sculpture at the school, but his primary interest in art is tattooing. He has tattoos up each arm and he applies tattoos to other people as well. Graham’s classmate and roommate at the time, Chris Garver, does tattoos too; indeed, one of the reasons the kid from Atlanta ended up at Graham and Chris’s apartment that evening was that Dwayne was getting work done on a new tattoo on his right arm, an extravagant dragon, to which Chris was adding some color. Today the dragon remains unfinished; in the wake of the evening’s events, Chris went home to Pittsburgh.
As Graham says, the scene has an implicit element of solidarity, of taking care of your brother. If you’ve recently traveled, say, to Denver, it’s not unusual to get a call a few months later from the friend of a guy you met there. He’s passing through Chicago, have you got a place he can crash? Any news? What club is happening tonight? Someone put you up in Denver, now you put someone up in Chicago–that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and the way it works most of the time. To Graham, a strong romantic and an articulate philosopher of the scene, this solidarity is a cherished and overarching thing. “I think there’s probably 30 people I know that I would trust with my life,” he says–“people who’ve helped me out indirectly or directly, or who’ve helped out a friend of mine–and I wouldn’t think twice about helping them out.”
The solidarity of the scene–which is to say the skinhead scene, because Dwayne Thomas and his four friends and Scott Gravatt, the out-of-towner, were all skinheads–continues, even if events over the past few years have splintered the scene pretty severely.
There was a time when all the skins in town would hang out together, drink together, party together. They weren’t exactly bosom buddies, but they got along. “I remember back when we’d all meet in Aetna Park”–a triangular sliver at the intersection of Halsted and Lincoln and Fullerton–“on a Friday afternoon,” says David Weidman, Dwayne’s best friend and roommate. “Guys would start collecting there at three and four o’clock, and more would come at five, six, seven, and then by nine o’clock everyone would be totally drunk and we’d go marching up Sheffield to Medusa’s, almost like an army coming up the street, and you’d see skins sitting on stoops drinking as you went past. It was quite a scene.”
But tensions were brewing, and they came to a head more than once. A skin named Clark Martell–an older skin, really, for he was over 25 then–was the acknowledged leader of a bunch of skins from the south suburbs who called themselves the Chicago Area Skinheads, or CASH; they are also sometimes called Romantic Violence, after a small mail-order business through which they purvey tapes and other paraphernalia. They occasionally hung out with the guys Dwayne hung out with, who called themselves the Bomber Boys. One afternoon the Bomber Boys and the Romantic Violence crowd got into a little set-to in Aetna Park. Martell used a certain word to describe Dwayne, and a friend of Dwayne’s took offense and beat Martell up real bad. The word was “nigger.” The fight turned into a general brawl of 20 or so skins, and after that the Romantic Violence people didn’t come around too much. Since then the Bomber Boys have disbanded, but a few of them are still around, and Dwayne is often thought of as the unofficial leader of a dozen or so skins who still hang out on the north side. Many of these north-side skins refer to Martell and his associates as the Nazis. On the rare occasions when a Nazi is seen up north–say some unknowing kid shows up at a club in a white power T-shirt–there’s often a confrontation with one of Dwayne’s pals, or, more likely, with a member of a politically minded, explicitly antiracist group called SHOC (Skinheads of Chicago). As often as not the interloper gets “booted” and left to lick his wounds in an alley.
Still, there’s a bond among skins. So one afternoon last fall, when Dwayne heard that a skin from Atlanta was hanging out in a friend’s store and looking for a place to stay, he agreeably said that he and his roommate David would come by and pick the guy up. They were on their way over to Graham and Chris’s anyway, to get work done on Dwayne’s tattoo. It was ironic that they were, because 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. He wondered out loud why whites like David, Chris, and Graham were hanging out with “niggers.” A short while after that, Dwayne and his friends took Scott Gravatt for a ride. Six hours later, they were all in jail.
In Skokie, of all places.
Dwayne Thomas is lean and muscular. He has a charming grin and a touch of hoarseness in his voice. He’s “an outstanding and articulate fighter,” a friend says. He’s not only a skinhead, he’s a black anti-Nazi skinhead. But he’s been the odd man out before. He grew up in Cabrini-Green and went to private schools. His friends at Cabrini made life a bit hard for him because of the private schools; that his stepfather was white didn’t help any. He played football in high school; it channeled his energy, but not his temper, and eventually he got kicked off the team for being in too many fights. “I knocked some guy down or something,” he sighs. “I grabbed his face mask, and you weren’t supposed to do that and I always did it. After I did it about six times they were freaked. Every game I did it.” He did Golden Gloves for a while–he was best in his gym, he says–but not too long. “I got a little bit carried away and got kicked out of that.” He left high school in 1984–he says he graduated but never picked up his diploma–and spent some time running with a gang.
The gang experience may have sobered him a bit. “I got shot in the leg once with a .357. It took me six months to learn how to walk again. . . . We did a lot of stupid shit–a lot of things I’ll regret for the rest of my life,” he says. “There are no good gangs; no matter who you talk to, there are no good gangs. You go burglarize an apartment, stick a gun in some guy’s face–you’re going to go far in life doing that.” One day Dwayne met an older skin who gave him a pair of Doc Martens. (“Dr. Marten” is the name of an English working-class boot with reinforced toes–good for toe protection, if you’re a worker, or kicking people, if you’re violence-prone. The company has a bizarre lifetime guarantee that it will pay for the cost of any toe amputation stemming from an accident incurred while wearing the boot.) Dwayne was impressed by the skinhead credos of pride, honor, and solidarity, and shaved his head that night. He decided that he didn’t want to be a gangbanger anymore. “I quit the gang and they didn’t want me to quit. They said it wasn’t going to be that easy. The guy got beat up and it was real easy.”
Dwayne is charismatic and mercurial; he’s not really the leader of anything, since he and his friends don’t feel the need for any sort of organization. But he’s flamboyant and outspoken and he gets into the biggest scrapes. He gets arrested the way other 22-year-olds go to movies. One night a bunch of south-suburban Nazis tried to run him down with a car; he broke their windshield with a chain and ended up in jail; later that night, he says, after he was released, they caught him again and beat him with an ax handle in the walkway beneath his apartment. Then they broke into his room and tossed his stereo out the window for good measure.
Dwayne’s biggest run-in with the law was much grimmer. Memories of the incident are cloudy, but it’s said that one evening Dwayne ran into a couple of female Nazis passing out some hate literature outside the Dunkin’ Donuts at the corner of Belmont and Clark. They had a pit bull along for protection; Dwayne knocked it out with a cane. Even as he was being arrested for that, a male friend of the women had appeared on a motorcycle nearby, right in the midst of a bunch of other anti-Nazi skins. It was never clear whether the guy had come to mix it up or merely to pick up the women, or if it was a case of mistaken identity. In any event the skins jumped him, evidently, and the motorcycle rider was stabbed and nearly killed. Two friends of Dwayne’s were charged; some time later; he was charged as well. “They said I gave the order, basically.” Dwayne spent a year in jail before the charges were dropped; none of his arrests, he says, has ever resulted in a conviction.
Dwayne goes hot and cold, friends say; but when he’s “on” he’s polite and funny; it’s a quality that led a pair of reporters from the London Observer, in a rather superficial look at American skinheadism that enraged Dwayne and his friends, to label him “absurdly courteous.” The pair of observers blew into Chicago and wined and dined the group–with an emphasis on the wined–and Dwayne tried to respond appropriately. “I was just being nice to these guys because they were from England and they bought us all this beer–about 30 rounds of beer,” he protests. “I can really be an asshole–I’m the first to admit it. You look in the dictionary under asshole and there’ll be a picture of me. But why should I be an asshole when somebody’s being nice to me?”
Hearing these stories in the one-bedroom apartment where Dwayne lived until recently–with his girlfriend Alice, another Art Institute student, and their roommate David–one couldn’t help being struck by a hint of the incongruous. The apartment–in lower Uptown, just west of Truman College–was carpeted and refurbished; once-weekly maid service was included in the rent. The building used to be a hotel, and the lobby is outlandishly large, with wide expanses of rugs and polished floors. The apartment wasn’t large, but it was hardly a subculture den. It was filled by a large overstuffed couch and David’s huge stereo system and VCR. A few old punk posters and a piece of neon sculpture adorned the walls.
David and Dwayne met in a series of drunken parties at the Oak Street Beach four or five years ago. Dwayne, as David jokingly puts it, was “a local tough”; David was a novice, small-town skin who would come to Chicago on the weekends. They’ve been friends since and became roommates shortly after the Sun-Times published Dwayne’s old address, in the wake of the Scott Gravatt affair. For a while Dwayne and David and Alice, along with Graham and some other skin friends, were hoping to find a new place where they could all live, where Graham could do his tattoos and other skins could come hang out–the start of a new scene. But those plans seem to be falling apart.
The Observer article called David the group’s “token fat boy,” an unfair shot. He’s not lean, but he’s mostly stocky. He was born in Evanston but grew up in Savanna, Illinois, population 4,500, due west of Chicago on the Mississippi River. His parents were quite religious and quite conservative, but young David found a “hippie family” who introduced him to the counterculture. (“They dosed me [with LSD] when I was ten.”) His relationship with his parents deteriorated steadily, he says, and he first ran away at 15, ending up in Denver. Soon after, he met the only skinhead in Savanna, a guy who’d actually been to England. David shaved his head, grew it out, wore a mohawk for a while, finally committed to skinheadism. He’d been making frequent journeys to Chicago, hanging out with the local skins; in 1981, he came for good.
David is not without college; he briefly attended the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, and after he moved to Chicago spent some time going to North Central and living in Naperville. He’s also lived in various other places, holding various jobs; until recently, however, he’d worked for the same downtown courier company for two years. Before that, he flirted with crime and drugs. In early 1986, he says, he stole a fortune in downers from a friend who had a pharmacist for a roommate. He munched on pills for a month and grew steadily more depressed. One night, he sat in his near-north apartment with his girlfriend and spread all the pills he had out on the table, dividing evenly the Demerols and the Placidyls and the Quaaludes. When he finished, he ate the entire contents of one pile and advised his girlfriend to do the same with the other. He lay in her arms. “Hold me while I die,” he said. He woke up three weeks later at Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke’s Hospital, groggy and dazed and with tubes coming out of every orifice in his body. “And I mean every orifice.” He stays off drugs now, doesn’t even like marijuana, though he still drinks beer. His girlfriend got straightened out as well, some time before their son was born. She and David have since split up, but he still visits the two of them.
David and Dwayne’s extended group–roughly a dozen skins, including several women–inhabits a sort of unaligned netherworld in Chicago’s fractured skinhead scene. To their right are the Nazis, avowed enemies; to their left are the SHOC boys–a largely black group who lean left and flirt with black power. (The fifth skin who joined Dwayne and his friends the night Gravatt came to town, Marty Williams, is associated with this group.) The “scene,” such as it is, revolves around what the skins call “Belmont-Sheffield”–the diverse shops, restaurants, and clubs clustered around the Belmont el station. A particular draw is Medusa’s, an all-ages “juice club” that has been a central meeting place and fighting zone for years.
Besides these three groups there is another, rather calmer ensemble, sometimes referred to as “Medusa skins,” who generally associate with Dwayne and his friends. And added to this amalgam are the younger weekend-warrior skins from the suburbs, who are generally seen as callow–more interested in the scene, the glamour, and the girls, it is said, than in walking the thin line it takes to be a real skin.
While Dwayne’s group (which is sometimes referred to even today as the Bomber Boys) and the other anti-Nazi north-side skins would seem to have a common cause in opposing the white power kids from the south suburbs, the alliance isn’t as strong as it might be. The reason is rooted deep in skinhead history, which is taken very seriously by most mature skins–to the point of an occasional incongruous sneer at newer skins still wet behind the ears. “The trouble with a lot of these kids,” says Jerry, a prominent Medusa skin, “is that they really don’t have any respect for the older skins that came before them.”
It is generally acknowledged that modern skinheadism has some roots in the punk movement; but the skins’ more abiding and important heritage was the product, ironically enough, of a crucial crosscultural and cross-racial leap made by a group of late-blooming English mods in the late 60s. Though grounded in working-class values and politics, these first white skinheads reached far past the relatively evenhanded racial attitudes of their mod predecessors (primarily an affection for American soul music) and embraced the hairstyles and music of East Indian blacks in London. 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.
But the last gasps of the mod movement had other points to make as well. The ultrashort hairstyle (skins are almost never totally bald) was at once a scathing refutation of hippie decadence and a utilitarian device: it was impossible to grab in a fight. The dress was clean and neat: boots, tight heavy jeans, collarless dress shirts or buttondowns, and the ever-present “braces,” or suspenders. The British skins’ hangouts, at first, were clubs that played ska, and between 1967 and ’71 there was a flurry of skinhead hits, from cool stuff like “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker and “Guns of Navarone” by the Skatellites to silly stuff like “Skinhead Moonstomp” by Symarip. But football was at least as important as music, writes Nick Knight in Skinhead, and the violence that had followed English soccer around since the early 60s took a baroque turn with skinhead accessories like the steel-toed boot (sometimes with a spike welded to it!) and metal combs sharpened to a point.
Violence became a major part of the skinhead ethos, as it remains to the present day. One of its early manifestations was Paki-bashing, which seems curious for a group with roots among East Indian blacks; Knight suggests that “Asian immigrants had a different, closed way of life and did not blend with traditional working class or East End ways of living.” In the essential Subculture: The Meaning of Style, sociologist Dick Hebdidge notes that the skinheads’ two inspirations–black immigrants and the white working class–contained an implicit tension: “‘Paki-bashing’ can be read as a displacement manoeuvre whereby the fear and anxiety produced by limited identification with one black group was transformed into aggression and directed against another black [sic] community. Less easily assimilated than the West Indians into the host community, sharply differentiated not only by racial characteristics but by religious rituals, food taboos, and a value system which encouraged deference, frugality and the profit motive, the Pakistanis were singled out for the brutal attentions of skinheads, white and black alike. Every time the boot went in, a contradiction was concealed, glossed over, made to ‘disappear.'”
Paki-bashing soon expanded to queer-bashing, and with that the skinheads suddenly became a phenomenon. The press chronicled their exploits and pulp novels told of their cult of violence. Soon the police cracked down, and another development attacked the scene from within: ska slowed down, evolved, reggae grew more prominent. The music’s subject matter turned to the evils of Babylon and the joy that would accompany its fall, and even a pretty dumb skin could figure out that Babylon stood for the white man’s world. With the police hounding them on one side and their philosophical foundations crumbling on the other, serious skins began growing their hair out. Meanwhile creepy kids attracted to violence were cutting theirs short. The movement went into remission in the early 70s.
It came back with the rise of the punk movement in Britain in the summer of 1976. The punks, who were quite radical and contemptuously anti-patriotic, had little in common with the working-class, nationalistic skins of the early 70s. But soon a new breed of skins was about amid the orange hair and extravagant mohawks. Some came in on the back of a late-70s explosion of new music, which included a ska revival by groups like Madness, the Specials, and Bad Manners (this last led by a huge bald man named Buster Bloodvessel). Others, however, seemed more politically inclined, recreating the first wave of punk nationalism with a vengeance. These skins joined neo-Fascist groups like the British Movement and, later, the National Front. Certain musical figures flirted with such politics (most notably Sham 69’s Jerry Pursey), but most later recanted.
In America, the situation was less straightforward. Confused by the class implications of the musical culture in England, American kids of the new counterculture gamely flashed fascist imagery in the first few years of punk, only gradually dropping it as the skinheads, once just ten-for-a-penny punks, found themselves with their own music, a particularly bruising form of punk called hardcore. In LA especially, a tough club and concert scene (headed by groups like Black Flag, Fear, and the Circle Jerks) specialized in slam-dancing that sometimes spilled over into general internecine bashing. The jump from there to Nazism, however, isn’t straightforward, and the lines of evolution aren’t clear. Part of the trend must have had its roots in the English experience; a scene that produces fascists in London could just as well produce fascists in New York, if only by the power of example. Another element, however, could be the dual appeal of punk rock, and its special importance in music history. Punk’s seemingly blindered minimalism and deliberate harshness were just that: deliberate. Punk was at least partly a joke, a refutation of flaccid musicians. and wimpy songs. Follow this logic a step further, and slam-dancing–a peculiarly American dance variant practiced in front of the stage at most punk concerts–is a wry comment on the frug, the twist, and the druggy dance of the Dead Heads, the ultimate 60s throwbacks.
The only problem is that some kids didn’t get the joke. They liked harsh fast chords and jagged vocals, they liked to beat people up on the dance floor, and the subtle intellectual irony of punk was completely lost on them. In this part of the scene, potential Nazis might have been easy to find.
In England, in any event, the National Front got bigger, and by the halfway mark of the 80s a lot of American skins were catching on fast, boogying along with their English counterparts to the strains of Ian Stuart and his neo-Fascist rock band, Skrewdriver, singing along to songs like “Nigger, Nigger,” and “Race and Country.” Nazi regalia was in; kids with swastika earrings appeared in clubs across America, hanging around and looking for leaders.
In Chicago, they found one. No one seems to know who made Clark Martell or out of what clay he was fashioned, but he appeared on the scene around 1984. It’s interesting to note that, unlike most Nazi skins, Martell apparently came to skinheadism through white power, rather than vice versa. Jerry, one of the Medusa skins, recalls the first time he met Martell: “I was in a bar, and Martell was there, dressed in purple cord flares, a sleeveless, leopard-skin shirt, and a little mohawk. Funny shit! I was a skinhead, and he was passing out white power literature.” Even his foes, however, concede Martell’s propagandizing energy and his skill at gaining followers. “He’s a very charismatic leader, and a very good recruiter,” says Deborah Liebow, an attorney on the staff of the Chicago office of the Anti-Defamation League, which keeps a close eye on skinhead Nazism.
Much of Martell’s proselytizing is done in print. He was listed as the staff cartoonist in an introductory newsletter of the locally based American Nazi Party, and his group puts out a crude, handmade magazine called National Socialist Skinhead. One well-circulated comic strip from that publication shows a black mugger, dressed like a Zulu warrior, taking a yuppie’s wallet: “Han ova dat wallet hunky mutha!” The yuppie complies, and the mugger goes to his next victim, only to discover that it’s a gruesome-looking skin; the skin slugs the mugger. In the last frame, the skin’s girlfriend says to him, “Ah, thank you, Randy. just what I allways wanted, a grease and blood covered nigger necklace.” National Socialist Skinhead often contains references to “Jewish Communists” and long dissertations on the importance of skinhead women. “Some of the Chicago Area Skinhead girls,” reads one photo caption: “These beautiful white girls are working hard to keep the holy white race alive, bringing forth children of good race, excited about getting pregnant and giving life.”
But Martell is not simply a raver. According to the Anti-Defamation League he served a year in prison for firebombing a Hispanic household in 1984, and he has the distinction right now of being accused of no fewer than seven felonies stemming from four different incidents. Three of the incidents involve violence or intimidation against Hispanic women; the fourth, which has kept Martell in jail for a full year on a quarter-million dollars bond, stems from an alleged terrorizing attack on a former follower, a woman, who left his group. According to press accounts, Martell and five of his followers (including his girlfriend, her brother, his girlfriend, and another couple) were accused of breaking into the woman’s house, beating her severely, pistol-whipping and macing her, and trashing the place, leaving several swastikas painted on the wall, including one in the woman’s blood. So effective was their alleged persuasion that the woman didn’t even call police; it was only some months after the attack allegedly occurred (in April 1987) that police, investigating anti-Semitic vandalism on the 49th anniversary of Kristallnacht, heard rumors about it. They tracked the woman down and got her story, and last January the CASH members were indicted. Martell’s friends were all released on bail, but he, as the ringleader, was charged with home invasion, a class X felony under Illinois law. His $250,000 bond would require a 10 percent cash payment, and this Martell has not yet been able to raise.
When Martell joined the skinhead scene, tensions grew. One day he and some other white power types held a march in Aetna Park that stirred people up mightily. Additionally, his Romantic Violence crowd passed out racist and anti-Semitic literature and began recruiting among the novice suburban skins who came to hang out on weekends. They also drew lines, attempting to set skins against one another; that’s what happened the day Martell called Dwayne Thomas a nigger, when Dwayne’s friend beat him up and a brawl resulted. After that it was a major turf war, and fights broke out regularly. The Nazis were supposedly fond of using “boxcars”–razor knives–to inflict damage: an Asian girl, it was said, was cut up bad, and a non-skin nearly lost an eye.
Then SHOC appeared on the scene, and the routing of the Nazis was made permanent. “We fought you! We fought you on the streets and won!” crowed an anti-Nazi skin on the Oprah show. By ’87 things had calmed considerably; last year, with leader Martell in jail, the Nazis were scarcely seen at all.
Skinheadism, most skins will tell you, has mostly to do with things like pride and honor, “sticking together,” “belonging.” But the different skinhead groups in Chicago, obviously, do not see eye to eye beyond that. Dwayne’s disdain for Martell and the south-suburban Nazis is so deep that it almost surpasses words: “They are such fucking idiots.” Graham’s philosophy is more practical: “I don’t care what you believe as long as you keep it to yourself. What I can’t deal with are the guys who not only think they’re better than you, but they want to go out and persecute people. ‘Not only am I better than you, I’m going to kick your ass ’cause you’re not as good as me.'”
The SHOC boys’ philosophy is more explicitly political; they make the other anti-Nazi skins nervous because of both their leftism (the common term of derision is “communist”) and the black power leanings of a few members. “They’re just as bad as CASH,” says David flatly. One of SHOC’s members is Corky, a well-spoken 21-year-old community college student who is black but disavows any black power inclinations. Corky is a strong advocate of both networking with antiracist skins in other cities and his own brand of “Direct Action” confrontations with racists in Chicago. SHOC prints up anti-Nazi fliers and tries to get the local skins organized, with only limited success so far. However the intercity networking has produced some results: a conference in Minneapolis this winter with that city’s Anti-Racist Action group was considered a success by skins from both cities.
“Direct Action,” is a euphemism for beating up Nazis. “When someone oppresses you, you fight back,” Corky says. SHOC recently made a trip out to Durty Nellies, a club in Palatine where some Nazi skins were said to hang out. “Someone pointed this guy out to me, and said he was an associate of Clark [Martell’s],” Corky relates. “I went up to him and handed him a piece of our literature. He said, ‘Oh, that’s not for me,’ and I said, ‘What do you mean, “Not for me”?’ because I wasn’t going to attack the guy if he wouldn’t say what he believed in. It finally got to the point where he got mad, saying, ‘Yeah, I believe in white power.’ That was good enough for me, so I slugged him. People don’t realize that if you oppose them, just get enough people to oppose them, they’ll stop coming around.”
Corky was enraged to hear that some of the Minneapolis skins he had just made contact with were attacked at Medusa’s one night; they were set upon not by CASH members but by Medusa skins, who consider the Minneapolis skins communists. The Baldies (as the Minneapolis skins are called) were hurt bad–Corky saw one come up the steps of Medusa’s, his face a mass of blood. Corky ran down the steps and administered Direct Action on the local skin who did it. “He went around afterward,” says Corky, with some satisfaction, “saying that five Baldies had beat him up so bad. It wasn’t five Baldies. It was one Corky.”
This was the scene that Scott Gravatt walked into on a cold fall afternoon last year. He was born April 27, 1969; his full name was David Scott Gravatt, and sometimes friends, who generally called him “Whitey,” slipped and called him “Scotty.” Gravatt grew up in Orange County, California, a suburban nightmare of some two million people below LA. He left home, he told people in Atlanta, because of trouble with his parents, particularly his mother: she’d remarried, he’d said, to a Jew. He told friends that he was wanted by the police back in California (though the Orange County sheriff’s office says there is no warrant); once he said he was thinking about going back and serving his time.
He passed his late teens, evidently, as a traveling skinhead. He was said to be a nice, normal kid. He was into white power with a vengeance, but in the southern cities he visited–places like Memphis; Atlanta; Amarillo, Texas; and Panama City and Orlando, Florida–this was pretty well accepted among skinheads.
Gravatt’s last carefree trip ended in Orlando in the spring of 1988; from that point on, it seems, his luck deserted him. He and a friend he met in Orlando decided to hitch to Panama City, a touristy beach town of about 30,000 stuck way out on the Florida panhandle, edging the Gulf of Mexico. The pair caught a ride from a trucker outside of Orlando. At some point, while the skins were taking a piss by the side of the road, the truck rumbled and took off out of sight, their belongings aboard. They made it anyway to Panama City; it was mid-June, the heat was baking, and the place was hopping. Several skins, including a group down from Atlanta, congregated at a tattoo parlor there, where the heavily traveled Highway 98 coursed through town. Gravatt and a skin named Roger were crossing the street directly in front of the tattoo parlor when a small gray four-wheel-drive truck careened across four lanes of traffic and ran them down; it looked, said people who saw it, as if the driver had been aiming right at them. Roger was sideswiped and flipped up into the air; he was banged up, but recovered. Gravatt was hit straight on: he was pulled under the truck and dragged 60 feet. The truck didn’t stop. A friend came running up and nearly vomited when he saw Gravatt lying there. A pool of blood two feet square had formed around his head; his right ear was nearly torn off; his body was crushed and twisted.
Gravatt lay in a coma almost a month, and stayed in the hospital a long time after that. When he got out, his voice had changed–it was hoarser, “like an old man’s,” a friend said–and he didn’t act normal anymore. “He used to be a normal, intelligent guy,” says Tony, a friend in Atlanta. “After the accident, though, Scotty just lost all sense of reason and patience.” Once, friends say, Gravatt went into a pizza parlor with them; the counter person took some orders, but then went to attend to a ringing phone or some other business before he got to Gravatt. “He started shouting at the guy–‘Goddamn Jew! Aren’t you going to take my order?’–and Sieg Heil-ing him. He wouldn’t wait a minute.” Before, they said, Gravatt had acted “like a skinhead”–with all the cool the name implies. Now he was weird, he looked beat up, he’d lost weight and all his muscle. Worse things happened. He went up to Memphis and got himself arrested for carrying a knife more than four inches long. It’s said among skins in Atlanta–who heard it, it must be noted, secondhand–that the Memphis skins were cool and bailed Gravatt out. But it’s also said that Gravatt skipped town rather than face the charge–and, indeed, Memphis police have an outstanding bench warrant on him. The Memphis skins, it is said, now have bond agencies after them for the bail money. It is also said that when Gravatt left town, he took another skin’s stereo, TV, and cash with him. It’s said that the Memphis skins have put the word out on Scott Gravatt.
He appeared in Atlanta again a short time later, according to a friend named Zee, who is familiar with both the Chicago and Atlanta skinhead scenes. He was viewed as a loose cannon, Zee says: barely tolerated, and beaten up at least once. But most Atlanta skins knew of his situation and gave him some slack. Gravatt decided that he wanted to leave Atlanta and head north: he asked Zee about Chicago. Zee claims to have gotten a bad rap on this point. “Everyone thinks I sent him to Chicago to get beat up,” he says. “It’s not true. I told him that if he did go to Chicago, to stay away from Belmont, because that’s where my friends hang out, and they’ll kill you. I told him to go to Blue Island, where CASH lives, that they would take care of him.” Zee says that before leaving, Gravatt came to his place to pick up a business card from a north-side clothing store–this was the store run by Dwayne’s friend. Gravatt left Atlanta on Wednesday, the 26th of October, hitchhiking north. He made Chicago by early afternoon Thursday, the 27th. He may have tried to follow Zee’s advice: later that night he told police in Skokie that he’d spent a few hours on the south side; it’s possible that he tried Blue Island and had no luck, and figured that the north-side clothing store was a better bet than sleeping on the streets on what already looked to be a cold night. He was a skinhead, and skinheads take care of their own.
Gravatt presented himself to Mickey, the proprietor of the clothing store, at about 5:30 that Thursday evening. Mickey recalls seeing a not very attractive kid carrying a duffel bag and a beat-up guitar, no case. The kid had a swastika for an earring. The kid said he knew Zee and asked if Mickey had any idea where he could get in touch with some skins. “I told him that skinheads were kinda frowned upon by the police in this part of town,” Mickey recalls. “I told him, first thing I’d do is lose the earring. People are offended by it.” At that, Mickey says, Gravatt pulled up the sleeve of his shirt: “Would they be offended by this?” he asked, baring the “Death to Race Mixing” tattoo. Mickey sighed, but his store sells Doc Martens, and little fazes him. He, too, cites the skinhead code: “Any new skin, even a skin with stupid tattoos, they would have probably put him up. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, wait right here while I get a bunch of people to kick your ass.’ There was no hidden agenda.”
By sheer coincidence, Dwayne called the store at that moment; Mickey, as he’d done many times before, said he had a kid from out of town in the store–could Dwayne take care of him? Mickey dutifully reported that the kid looked like a Nazi, but he’d also mentioned the name of Zee, who was known to Dwayne. So Dwayne and David–on their way over to Graham and Chris’s–swung by soon after in David’s low-slung ’69 Plymouth. At the store they found a kid of about Dwayne’s size–five foot nine or so–but with pale skin and an assortment of scars on his face, neck, and head. (No one that night knew of his accident.) Gravatt was dressed in the official skin getup: Doc Martens, braces, a Fred Perry polo shirt–his shirt, however, had an added logo, “N.A.A.W.P.,” the acronym for a Louisiana white power group that calls itself the National Association for the Advancement of White People. Dwayne and David quickly concluded that this full-bore southern skinhead from out of town–who for all they knew represented the cream of the racist skinheads of the south–was not an attractive or impressive kid. “He looked like an inbred hillbilly with a shaved head,” says David. “He was a bit stocky, maybe a little cross-eyed. He was grubby looking. He wasn’t a blond Aryan at all.” Dwayne agrees: “He was a little redneck who looked like shit.”
Dwayne says that on the way over to Graham’s house he told Gravatt to be cool about his Nazism. “I told him not to talk about it, but he did anyways.” It was dark by the time they got there.
Graham is 19, younger than many of his friends, but he has a mature mien and is articulate beyond his years. He left his home in New Haven when he was 16: “I couldn’t get along with my mom, for whatever reason. She changed, she had a new husband, and I wasn’t ready to deal with it.” His vehement defense of skinhead solidarity comes from personal experience: When he left home, he says, “I was only out in the cold two nights.” Before long he and other skinheads had a major squat going in an abandoned clock factory; Graham lived there while he finished high school and later while he held down a job. He spent some time in the New York scene as well, and saw how skinheads kept other homeless kids both off the streets and out of the clutches of the various hells that Manhattan offers runaways and lost children. It solidified his commitment.
He had known Chris Garver, his friend and roommate, since childhood; Graham’s parents and Chris’s parents had been lifelong friends. After a long separation, the two boys met again at a summer camp when Graham was 14 and Chris was 12. “I was bald and he was bald,” recalls Graham. “It was like, ‘Oh, that’s what you’re into now!'” Chris followed Graham out to the School of the Art Institute.
Five or six people were hanging around Chris and Graham’s apartment when Dwayne and David and their out-of-town baggage arrived. While Graham worked on Dwayne’s tattoo, they all drank beer and discussed the skinhead scene in Atlanta. As Gravatt drank, the other skins say, he got more flamboyant; soon he was using the word “nigger” a lot and talking about his opinion of race mixers. Gravatt might not have known it, but he was including Dwayne in this latter condemnation, because Dwayne’s girlfriend is white. Gravatt even pulled out a swastika armband and put it on. No one really knows or will say when it started, but some people got the feeling that what they had before them was a prime candidate for “booting.” It’s possible that someone whispered to someone else in a hallway: “We’ve got a Nazi and we’re going to boot him.” But it’s also possible that Dwayne and his friends, who are not adherents of the SHOC boys’ Direct Action philosophy, merely tired of Gravatt and really meant it when the subject of Hell House came up. Hell House is a well-known squat for runaways and skins on Milwaukee Avenue. Marty Williams, someone said, knew people there. So they decided to take Scott Gravatt to Hell House, and stop at Marty’s on the way.
Marty Williams is 22–not much older than anyone else in the group, but he’s bigger and broader and looks a lot older. He was watching TV when Dwayne knocked on his door.
Marty was the odd man out that night. He was in SHOC, and he’s explicitly political; when other skins talk about SHOC’s being into black power, they’re talking about people like Marty, who’s studied black political history and expresses admiration for Louis Farrakhan. He grew up on the south side; he says his mother raised him, a brother, and a sister alone. Marty wasn’t a model child, and by 13 or 14, he says, he was pretty messed up. “I was into sitting around, drugs, not going to school, hanging around with crazy fucks. I just stayed in my room a lot. I was lost, you know. I ran away, but I just came back into the same situation.” Marty ended up in a state hospital. “Something like that, an institution. I was bummed out, ‘Fuck the world,’ you know. I had the blues, the terminal blues.
“I saw some serious fucking crazy shit there, though. People eating out of ashtrays, toilets, fags, schizophrenics, brain-damaged fucks, little kids, man. . . . After a while, my problems don’t seem so bad. I’m cool after a while.” A friend hanged himself inside. “After a while, you realize that your problems aren’t as bad as some people,” Marty says. “If you can just find some pride within yourself, some kind of fucking self-esteem. Skinheads are part of that. Everything’s open and everyone shares. You can find some sort of acceptance.”
Marty was into heavy metal for a long time–Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, the Doors–and looked for louder and faster music as well: Slayer, Metallica. At clubs he’d meet people. “They’d say, ‘Hey you, guy, you’re cool, shave your head, dude,'” he recalls. “After a while, that’s all I knew, were skinheads.” Still, Marty campaigns for an alliance between blacks and the working class, and while he sees the Chicago anti-Nazi skinhead scene as promising (“We’ll unite with them on that issue”), he’s sometimes pessimistic. “There’s no kind of real solidarity, real class-consciousness, going on,” he thinks.
Marty’s an enthusiastic practitioner of Corky’s Direct Action as well; still, he was surprised to see Dwayne on his doorstep at 11 at night. “‘We met this guy from Atlanta, he might be a Nazi,’ he said,” Marty recalls. “I figure, whatever, you know, what the fuck.” The guys couldn’t wait to introduce Gravatt to Marty. “Hey, Whitey,” they said, “show Marty your tattoos!” Gravatt obliged. “Where’d you get that, dude?” Marty asked. “It was free, man, it was free,” Gravatt replied, somewhat nervously.
Hell House wasn’t too far from Marty’s apartment, but it no longer seemed to be on the agenda. Some had felt it back at Graham’s house; others felt it now, once Marty got into the car: it was pretty plain to almost everyone by this time that they were going for a longer ride. “Let’s take him to Lower Wacker,” whispered Dwayne into David’s ear, and David zoomed his car onto the expressway. He got off at Congress and drove north on Lower Wacker, curving east at the river. Lower Wacker whizzed by, its green lights glowing weirdly. Gravatt would tell police later that he was on an “underground street”; police surmised it was Lower Wacker. Actually, David turned south off Wacker onto Columbus, then turned left (east) at the huge cavernous underground intersection of Columbus and Randolph. He knew the area well from his job as a courier. It was now close to midnight; the Loop towing garage was closed; a hundred yards away, the Metra commuter station lay still; to the east, the street dead-ended silently at Harbor Point; to the south was a huge concrete wall; to the north, a bit of sky could be seen below the two decks of streets above. On some pretext–“Let’s get out and drink here”–the car was stopped. David wandered off to keep a lookout on Columbus. The others gathered around the kid from Atlanta.
No one had a clue as to what Gravatt was thinking. “Christ, it’s cold,” someone said. “My Aryan blood will keep me warm,” riposted Gravatt. Everyone’s eyes rolled, and Dwayne took charge. “I hope your Aryan blood will get you out of this,” he said.
“I think I was the first one to hit him,” Dwayne recalls. He slapped Gravatt and then put him into one of his famous choke holds; Gravatt passed out for a minute, but then came to, and received a flurry of kicks and slugs. Later, David reflected on the uneven odds: “Now, they say that skins are wimps, because they don’t fight one-on-one. But we will fight one-on-one–I’ve seen fights that have gone on for 15 minutes, which is a long time when you’re fighting. But tactically, if someone deserves to be pounded, the cops are right around the corner, and one-on-one takes too long, and won’t inflict enough damage to make them remember.”
Gravatt was worked over well, but not excessively: “He was lucky I was the only one wearing boots that night,” Dwayne says. “We didn’t overdo it.” At the end, Gravatt was bloody, but he didn’t seem angry and he wasn’t crying. He didn’t fight back at all. Mostly, his hosts say, he was scared: Columbus and Randolph at midnight must have seemed like one of the most desolate places on earth. The gang gave him a choice when they were done: Do you want to stay here, or come with us? The vicinity seemed to bode enough ill that Gravatt chose the latter, and so began the second half of the adventure that befell him his first night in Chicago.
What followed was a confused, drawn-out period in which Gravatt was jokingly terrorized while the group figured out what to do with him. It was someone’s idea–probably David’s–to call the Anti-Defamation League and announce the blow they’d struck against Nazism; the ADL’s phone, however, wasn’t answered. The group may have driven all the way up to Evanston in its aimlessness; in any case at some point somebody–again, probably David–suggested that a real blow against Nazism could be struck by leaving Gravatt, from whom little had been heard since the suggestion that he be castrated and thrown into the Chicago River–on the steps of a synagogue. And where better to find a synagogue than Skokie? The Plymouth headed west.
The Skokie Holocaust memorial was dedicated on May 31, 1987; early the next morning it was desecrated by unknown vandals, who scrawled a swastika and the words “Jews Lie” on the pedestal. The memorial stands just half a block from Skokie’s central intersection of Oakton Street and Lincoln Avenue. It rests in a little square between the Skokie village hall, a quaint, two-story structure, and the village’s lavish new library, faced with beige brick and concrete. Behind the memorial, to the south, stands a large, red-brick apartment complex.
The memorial is essentially a polished marble pedestal topped with a statue about 15 feet tall; the statue depicts a young bearded man looking resolutely forward with a mixture of courage and foreboding. A woman with her baby crouches beside him. At his other side stands an older man, a small boy clutching his leg. The four sides of the pedestal each bear an inscription. The north side reads, “In memory of six million Jews and all other victims who perished at the hands of Nazism, 1933-1945.” The east side reads, “In honor of the ghetto fighters, the underground resistance and the U.S. Armed Forces, who helped defeat the scourge of Nazism.” The south side displays this verse from Lamentations: “Behold and see / If there be any pain / Like unto my pain / Which is done unto me.” The west side reads, “Remember the Martyrs, annihilated in Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Majdanek, Treblinka, and all other concentration camps.”
The skins spent a lot of time looking for a synagogue; it was David who hit upon the Holocaust memorial as a suitable substitute. Everyone had heard of it, in the wake of its vandalization, but no one knew exactly where it was. David wanted to ask directions, but figured that five skinheads looking for the Holocaust memorial would be too plain a signal to give anyone. So he wandered into a 7-Eleven and came upon a kid playing a video game. David was “totally slick,” as he remembers it: “‘Hey, man,’ I said, ‘We’re looking for our friend Nigel, man, and we heard he lives across the street from, like, this city park, where the Holocaust memorial is.’ He told us.” They cased the site, drove past it, and pulled into an alley. Gravatt was dumped out and tied up securely with his bootlaces, a bungie cord, and a roll of duct tape that had been found in the car. Thus bound, he was pitched back into the car–the group in the back seat piling in on top of him–and they headed back for the memorial.
David zoomed into the village hall parking lot, swung over to the monument, drove up over the curb and onto the grass. The fivesome, tense and nervous, noticed with pleasure that the village hall, the apartment complex, and the library made effective cover on three sides; and on the fourth, facing north onto Oakton Street, the view was obscured by hedges and a tall abstract sculpture. One thing they didn’t notice, however, was a video camera perched on top of the village hall and directed at the memorial. David, Dwayne, and Marty lifted Gravatt out of the car and over to the memorial, dumping him unceremoniously on the ground. They pulled his legs up behind him and taped them to his wrists, hog-tieing him. “I never touched the kid,” says David, “until the end; I thought it was overkill, and besides, I didn’t have my boots on. But I asked him, ‘Are you ever going to learn?’ and he said, ‘No,’ so I kicked him once as hard as I could. Dwayne wanted to keep his swastika armband, but I said it would look bad if we were caught, so we stuffed it in his mouth.”
They roared out of Skokie and down Lincoln Avenue, toward home. Dwayne and David insisted on stopping, however, to tell the world of their exploits. They tried to call the ADL again, with no luck, from a phone booth in Bones restaurant in Lincolnwood. Then David called WBBM radio to tell of their coup, and first he, and then Dwayne, merrily described their adventure. David then called the Skokie police to let them know that Gravatt was tied up at the memorial. By this time they’d been in the restaurant almost ten minutes, chatting away, and Graham and Chris were so infuriated that they were threatening to take the car and go home. “I’m talking to the police, Dwayne’s sitting there yapping his ass off with Newsradio 78,” David recalls. “Graham and Chris are freaking out. They pull the car around, totally tense. I say, OK, let’s get out of here.
“We’re driving down Lincoln, and all of a sudden all these cops pull up behind us and turn on their lights. I’m like, ‘Fuck, we’re busted, dudes.’ Graham’s like, ‘You dumb fuckheads.’ Chris is freaking out.”
The police took the arrest seriously: they arrayed the guys facedown on the grass; one cop put his foot on the middle of Dwayne’s back. For some reason they left David alone, sitting calmly on the hood of his car. It occurred to the skinheads that the cops must have thought a heinous crime had been committed–maybe they were under the impression that someone had been killed and the body thrown at the memorial. The Lincolnwood police took them back to Skokie, where they sat in jail for the next 12 hours. They were questioned extensively through the night. David, Graham, Chris, and Marty were released on their own recognizance the next afternoon; Dwayne, who was awaiting trial on another arrest, was kept at $7,500 bail. A misplaced zero caused him no end of trouble: when he raised the necessary 10 percent, the bond had magically jumped to $75,000. It took a judge to get the amount knocked back down.
In the months since the five were arrested:
David, Graham, Chris, and Marty, with Dwayne brought in from the jail, appeared in Cook County Circuit Court in Skokie November 8. Scott Gravatt wasn’t there, and the skinheads’ lawyer asked the judge to rectify the snafu over Dwayne’s bail, which she did.
The five appeared in court two more times, but Gravatt never showed up. “We’re unable to locate the witness, Your Honor,” the assistant state’s attorney said. “He seems to be a transient.” On December 14 the charges were dropped.
Marty looked for a job, traveled to Minneapolis to make common cause with like-minded skins there, and progressively became disenchanted with Dwayne and his friends. In January there was an odd altercation in a diner on Belmont; a friend of David’s said that Marty had called her a Nazi and thrown her against the wall. Marty said he’d been provoked, but this was just one element of increasing violence on the scene. Another bad sign was the fight involving Corky and the Minneapolis Baldies and the Medusa skins. “Sometimes,” says Corky, “I realize that all we’re fighting over is turf, and that really depresses me.”
Chris moved back to Pittsburgh as soon as his court appearances were over. He expressed an interest in not being a part of this story.
Graham took a semester off from the Art Institute and contemplated attending UIC in the fall.
David quit his courier job and looked into asbestos removal, which he discovered pays $17 an hour. He headed up the group’s efforts to find a big new living space for everyone, but arguing got in the way. In March he moved to the lakefront with a new roommate.
Dwayne was arrested on January 15 and charged with rape. He says it’s a case of mistaken identity and hopes to get the case thrown out soon; meanwhile he’s in jail. His friends say rape isn’t Dwayne’s style.
The night he was beat up, David Scott Gravatt told a Skokie detective that his interest in skinheadism “ended at about seven o’clock last night.” He said something similar to a TV interviewer: “I’m growing my hair out as fast as I can.” The Skokie police gave Gravatt a chit worth two nights in a motel, because he was homeless and without money. He disappeared and has not been heard of again in Chicago. Zee, his friend in Atlanta, said that he had heard that Gravatt had been sighted in Austin, Texas. The Memphis skins’ APB on Gravatt had reached Texas, apparently: As Zee heard the story, some members of the Austin scene came across Gravatt sleeping in a car. They dragged him out of it, Zee said, and beat him up.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.