In America during the 1980s, white nationalist recruitment was on the rise and so were misconceptions about any youth with a shaved head. It was in this hostile climate that Marcus Pacheco co-founded Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, better known as S.H.A.R.P. For Pacheco, a half-Puerto Rican New Yorker, being a skinhead was about identifying with a particular lifestyle tied to the genre of music he was into, not an ethos of hate. And like a lot of youth subcultures, being a skinhead had more to do with belonging to a group than a defining ideology.
After years of brawls between S.H.A.R.P.s and neo-Nazis breaking out at shows, clubs, and in the streets of New York City, Pacheco left and moved to the Bay Area. He still lives there , working as a respected tattoo artist. Presently white supremacist skinheads and other hate groups are experiencing a period of growth and emboldening in America. In the wake of new clashes between these groups and their anti-racist counterparts, we reached out to Pacheco for some insight into the true origins of American skinhead culture, and how he and his friends tried to use the S.H.A.R.P. movement to stop the influence of hate groups.
Can you give the backstory of Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice?
It was in something like 1987 when we started S.H.A.R.P. I came up with the name, but my friends and I were the ones who really started pushing it. Initially it was just a response to all the negative media attention that the skinhead subculture was getting, specifically because they were characterizing [all] skinheads as synonymous with neo-Nazism. I don’t know how much you know about the skinhead subculture, but the origin of skinhead style stems from the combination of the British Mod and the Jamaican Rudeboy subculture. Initially it wasn’t political or racist at all, because they were actually adopting the look and music from Jamaican immigrants that were living in London. Even the shaved heads was a style they borrowed from the Jamaicans, and the initial skinhead music was Jamaican music like ska on Blue Beat, all that rocksteady stuff from the ‘60s, and soul. When my friends and I and a lot of other skinheads got involved in the subculture, it was a reflection of that original style. When the media started pushing this idea that skinheads were synonymous with neo-Nazism, it made it really difficult for my friends and me. We were also really against the whole idea that it should be promoted that way. We made patches and flyers and stuff like that and just made ourselves identifiable.
We also wanted to slow down the wave. At that point it became really cool and trendy to be a neo-Nazi. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it was for a lot of young kids. One thing that I recognized at that point was that a lot of these kids just wanted something to belong to, something they thought was cool and tough.
Some of the people in my group of friends were from this band called The Press. It was a New York Oi! band and they were in the midst of having a record produced by a guy named Roddy Moreno, who was a skinhead in the U.K. He had a couple record labels—one that put out Oi! music and the other one put out ska music. When he went to New York to meet with [The Press] to get the tapes and all that stuff, he found out about S.H.A.R.P. and what we were doing, and he brought it over to the U.K. He started promoting it through the record label and that’s how we were able to have more of a world wide impact. At the time we had a PO box in New York and after he started promoting it in the U.K. we started getting mail from all over the world: Germany, Switzerland, Italy, England. We started getting invited to do local television programs and myself and a couple of my friends were on that infamous Geraldo show where he got his nose broken by some neo-Nazis from California that they flew out there for the show.
I don’t think a lot of people realize where skinhead culture comes from. How do you think the whole neo-Nazism element got mixed into it?
The original skinhead style and subculture started in the late ’60s, and then, like a lot of other youth cultures, it lasted for a few years before it died out and evolved into other things. But then there was a revival of it in the late ’70s, when the punk scene and Britain sort of collapsed and it became more of a mainstream pop thing. A lot of the kids were looking for something else to get behind, and so there was a revival of the skinhead subculture and it was a little bit more influenced by the punk subculture, a little bit more extreme with the look. They started listening to punk music or a variation of punk, which eventually became Oi! It was during the years that [Margaret] Thatcher was prime minister, and we were dealing with Reagan over here, and a lot of what was happening over there with the economy was terrible. So usually when the economy goes bad, a lot of racism starts to surface and bubble up. The National Front took it upon themselves to start recruiting young skinheads into the British movement and promoting the idea of nationalism. Originally it was much more of a nationalist kind of attitude. Then in the ’80s when it started coming over here to America, it was mostly kids who were part of the hardcore punk scene who started getting into the skinhead thing. It was already such an extreme version of punk, so there was a lot of extremism being pulled into it anyway. It evolved into something where it was much more of a fascist or neo-Nazi thing with an American slant on it. That wasn’t the whole picture, but because the idea was so promoted by the media in the ’80s, it really stuck. I think it’s unfortunate, but if you’re in the U.K., most people there understand that there is a difference because they know the history. It’s part of their personal history, but over here, most people have only heard of the distorted version of it.
How do you think these extremist groups were able to target youth subcultures and recruit members from them?
You know, I’m not really sure. I’ve never had anyone try to recruit me that way, but I remember hearing stories. My friend’s band played somewhere, like Connecticut or something, and somebody said that there was a car full of KKK people in the parking lot talking to kids and trying to recruit them. There’s a lot of young impressionable kids. Sometimes they’re really pissed off about something and then it’s just really easy to turn that anger towards a direction that’s more specific. I don’t think it’s that hard, unfortunately.
As far as what you were doing with S.H.A.R.P., was the mission to change the widespread cultural perception of skinheads? Or were you more like trying to actively get people who were a part of skinhead culture away from the neo-Nazi elements?
It was a little bit of both. We wanted to identify ourselves so we didn’t have to feel threatened by the general population by being ourselves. Then part of it was also to just give an alternative. There were a lot of kids that went from playing around with the idea of being fascists, and then when S.H.A.R.P. came around they just turned their backs on the fascist thing and turned to something a little bit healthier.
How do you feel that the current national mood in terms of racism compares to when you first started S.H.A.R.P.?
It seems to me that as soon as Barack Obama was elected president, racism really spiked in the country. A lot of white people flipped out about that. A lot of Americans were delusional in thinking we were a post-racial nation. The truth is we’re one of the most racist nations on earth. A lot of that is because of our founding history, and the structural elements of our government and our policing system. There’s a large portion of American white people that are incredibly racist and don’t want people coming over our borders and all that kind of junk, so I think that element has always been there. That’s one of the reasons why somebody like Donald Trump does so well, because you get a lot of not very bright people out there who think, “He’s saying what we want to hear.” They’re just pissed off people and they want to be mad at something, or somebody, so they go for the most common scapegoat.
Meanwhile the GOP establishment is freaking out despite the fact that they’ve been sort of fanning the flames.
Well, the Grand Old Party is used to using subtle racism to like drive their base. They’ll use a lot of dog whistles and a lot of buzzwords and a lot of things that are like a wink and a nod. They can’t use the n-word, but they can say this other word. They’ve been doing it forever and now here’s somebody who’s in their party who won’t hold back or pretend that he’s saying something else.
So what was it like being a skinhead in the ‘80s and trying to live around people who assumed you were a racist or a neo-Nazi?
I’ll tell you one specific experience that was the main catalyst for me starting S.H.A.R.P. I was on the subway with the girl I was dating at the time, who happened to be Jewish; and I’m mixed race, I’m half Puerto Rican. So we’re on the train in Harlem and we’re standing there holding the strap, or whatever, and there was a guy sitting in front of us and he looked up and asked me if I was a skinhead. I said I was, and he said, “Why do you go around beating up black people and Jews?” That’s exactly what he said. I said, “I don’t go around beating up black people and Jews, where did you get that idea from?” He said, “I saw it on television.” And I said, “Well, do you believe everything you see on television?” And he goes, “They wouldn’t put it out there if it wasn’t true.” And I said, “You’re really wrong, I’m Puerto Rican and my girlfriend is Jewish.” And he said, “Of course you’d say that because we’re all around you right now.” There was a large amount of African-Americans on the train and I was like, “You can believe whatever you want.” And then he proceeded to try to get a group of young menon the train to attack us by telling them we were neo-Nazis. The only reason they didn’t turn their attention on us was that he was outwardly feminine, and instead of turning on us, they started clowning on him, which was ironic. It gave us enough time to get off the train before the doors closed. So that was a pretty frightening experience, and just really off-putting. That was one of the reasons I decided we had to differentiate ourselves.
Were there a lot of neo-Nazi skinheads in New York when you started the movement?
We didn’t have any problems with neo-Nazis in New York City proper. It was from the outer boroughs, from New Jersey, or from Connecticut that would come into the city on the weekends and do their wilding and cause trouble and beat people up. Then they would go home to their little towns outside of the city and leave us with the mess they created. When I got into the skinhead subculture in New York it was multi-ethnic. There were black skinheads, Puerto Rican skinheads, Cuban skinheads, Jewish skinheads. I never saw it initially as having anything to do with racism until right before the media got a hold of it as a subject. So that idea hadn’t even been put out there quite like that.
But the response to S.H.A.R.P. was overwhelmingly positive. The whole time we had the PO box, we got one letter from a neo-Nazi. Everything else was from people who were supportive of what we were doing. I’m not going to say there wasn’t any racial tension in New York City as a whole, there was quite a bit back in the ’80s, but the scene, as far as i can remember, was trying to go against that.
Could you talk a little about what made you decide to turn away from being a skinhead?
I got sick of all the bullshit, to be honest with you. I got sick of all that all the negative attention—the media just wasn’t letting up on it. I also started getting more into my career and I just wanted to focus my attention on that. The skinhead subculture is strict and specific about the style and the clothes. The cuff on your jeans means something, the way you tie your laces is specific, the way you wear this or wear that. I felt that it was a bit restrictive and I just kinda wanted to do my own thing.
Once you removed yourself from that scene, did your social life change? Did you lose a lot of your friends or were people questioning your choice?
A lot of us turned away at the same time. Honestly, we just really got sick of going to shows and everything being ruined by fighting. There’s a part of us that just wanted to go out and have a good time and not get involved in all this crap. We weren’t looking to be super political or anything. We just got burnt out. I moved clear across the country, 3000 miles away. I wasn’t about to establish myself in the scene here. I was getting into my career and I just focused all my attention on that. I still go to shows once in awhile you know, especially now if an old band that I was into comes around or something.