Skin deep

Those who happened to drive or stroll past El Torreon on Memorial Day weekend might have noticed a boisterous crowd gathered outside — one that approached Chiefs tailgaters in reveling intensity. A closer look revealed that many of these partiers sported tattoos and close-cropped haircuts. At this point, the passersby might have quickened their pace or locked their car doors. It’s a response skinheads are used to encountering. Yet, for the second year in a row, the Streetpunk festival delivered two day’s worth of Oi!, at an all-ages venue serving alcohol by special permit, without incident. Still, event organizer Tim Nord understands the skepticism, to some degree.

“I fret about it,” admits Nord. “I worry that the show’s going to get shut down because of a riot. People equate skinheads with violence, and that’s a well-earned reputation. I’m not going to deny it. We’re not Boy Scouts. When getting the event started, that was the biggest obstacle I had to overcome. I didn’t use the word ‘skinhead,’ I didn’t’ use the word ‘Oi!,’ I told the clubs, ‘Oh, it’s just a big two-day punk love-in.'”

By working with an immense security force composed entirely of local skinheads, Nord was able to keep this year’s “love-in” violence-free by spotting and removing potential troublemakers immediately and, if needed, forcefully. “People thought we were being strict at the show with the way we dealt with fights,” he says. “We were pretty strong-arm, and some people got upset that they were manhandled a bit, but if Johnny punches Joey and then Joey gets mad and gets his friends, pretty soon the whole place is fighting. There’s an old adage, ‘You don’t shit where you sleep,’ and I don’t want them to screw my city up, because I still want to do things.”

To keep Kansas City figuratively feces-free, Nord orchestrated an assembly of travel-weary skins; he estimates that nearly three-quarters of his audience was from out of state. Thanks to fortuitous scheduling, Nord didn’t have to worry about a notorious subset of Oi! fans, as a white-power festival in Kentucky lured Nazis away from his event. In fact, the only minor flare-up at Streetpunk occurred when several radical antiracist skins took Nord to task for the event’s apolitical agenda.

“There are people that have strong feelings on that subject, and I don’t fault them for it,” he says. “But there’s a time and place for everything. There were no Nazis there, as far as I could tell, so why sit there and get mad that people are doing their thing?”

It’s not as if Nord has a history of political apathy. In 1988, he and a small group of Minneapolis skinheads formed Anti Racist Action, a movement to clear the city of Nazis that had been poisoning the scene. Later, the ARA grew to become what Nord describes as “the biggest hippie group there is now,” but initially the organization was a handful of skinheads focused on a concise mission.

Although Nord is no longer active in the ARA, he still has political beliefs. But he chooses not to voice them in his band, the Main Street Saints (in which he plays bass), or in his ‘zine, American Upstart. In a letter printed in the most recent issue of Upstart, one white-power-touting reader wrote to complain about Nord’s failure to take a stance in print on the issue of race. Ironically, it was similar sentiments from someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum that inspired Nord to start the ‘zine.

“When my band was first reviewed in Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll, we had a song called ‘Black Shirts,'” Nord says. “It wasn’t about Mussolini’s Blackshirts, it was just about wearing black shirts when you’re fighting. But because we never stated anywhere on the record that we’re not fascists, they assumed that we were and wrote about how we supported fascism.”

As was the case with MRR, many who see anything skinhead-related that’s not blatantly antiracist assume the worst. It’s a misinterpretation Nord deplores, yet it begs the question: If not waving the white-power flag or battling those who do, what do skinheads stand for?

“You could always give the tried-and-true explanation of ‘I’m a working-class Joe and I’m just here to drink,’ but I’ve heard that for so many years that I hate hearing it,” Nord says. “I’ve been in the scene for 16 years, and I don’t really feel like I need to explain myself. The spiel about skinheads is that they’re working-class, patriotic people who drink beer who got into punk rock but didn’t agree with the anarchist ideals. They’re constitutionalists, and they’re for personal rights. They’re for the working class, and it’s a dead-end road, so it’s either you work, you live, you work, or it’s you work, you drink, you play in a band and take out your aggressions, then you go back to work again.”

To some, this might not clear up the skinhead lifestyle or satisfactorily explain why someone would willingly make himself part of a group that incites fear and the prejudice that fear breeds. But Nord, along with his fellow skinheads, isn’t seeking approval or understanding from the outside world. He asks only that people judge skinheads by their actions, not by preconceptions.

“A lot of people say, ‘I saw American History X. I know what you’re about,'” Nord says. “You can try to explain it to people, but it’s a waste of time. But if they just watch us, they’ll see us smiling, having fun, and drinking beer. They’ll say, ‘They’re nice guys — they just look a little freaky.'”

Contact Andrew Miller at 816-218-6781 or

Categories: Music