The rampage of young toughs is the latest manifestation of racial violence that has resurfaced during the Reagan years. In 1984 members of the right-wing terrorist group the Order assassinated Denver Talk Show Host Alan Berg, then went on a yearlong spree of robbery and destruction. In 1982 in Cleveland, a member of the racist group Aryan Nations murdered two blacks and a white man he mistakenly thought was Jewish. Last week the National Council of Churches warned that such violence had reached "epidemic proportions" in the U.S. The brutal tally between 1980 and 1986: 121 murders, 302 assaults and 301 cross burnings. Concluded the council report: "Bigoted violence has become the critical criminal-justice issue of the late 1980s."
The skinheads appear to be the spiritual heirs of old-line racist groups. Membership nationally is estimated at a thousand, and growing. While some of the youngsters are obviously disturbed, others are simply leftover punk rockers, eager to shock the adult world. Jerome Kirk, professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine, believes that many skinheads just want to "get a rise out of straight grownups. Some of this has the same significance as the swastikas favored by bikers; it's a symbol. But what's behind it is much shallower than something like Nazism."
Still, members have been arrested for distinctly unsymbolic criminal vandalism and assault in California, Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Michigan, Florida and Massachusetts. Their makeshift uniform makes them recognizable everywhere: shaved heads and garish tattoos, flight jackets, black English work boots -- and a California touch, Fred Perry tennis shirts. Skinhead culture seems to spread through racist rock music. Tapes and records by white- power rock groups feature songs such as Nigger, Nigger and Prisoner of Peace, the musical saga of Rudolf Hess. One group is called the Final Solution.
The movement's ideology seems to be equal parts fear, envy and self- contempt. Many skinheads talk vaguely about dark-skinned muggers and immigrants' challenging patriotic white Americans for their jobs. Garth Edborg, 18, a skinhead from Huntington Beach, Calif., denies hotly that his group is racist or white supremacist, but rambles on about minority gangs and the "poison ideas on the streets" that come from other countries. Says he: "We mean to set things right with or without violence." William Gibson, a sociologist at Southern Methodist University, believes the "element of warrior fantasy" is strong among hate groups. Reason: they feel so abandoned by a changing America that they want to take matters into their own hands.
Clark Reid Martell, 28, of the Chicago Area Skin Heads, is a longtime racist recycled as a skinhead. He describes himself as a "born-again Nazi" converted by reading Hitler's Mein Kampf. He has a history of mental problems and scrapes with the law. Nine years ago, Martell joined the National Socialist People's Party but quit "because they didn't have any women members, and women are vital for ensuring survival of the white race." Many Chicago skinheads, however, despise Martell's neo-Nazi group. "They're a bunch of loonies who give the rest of us skinheads a bad name," says Jerry Bishop, 18. "Your normal skinhead is into a certain kind of music and clothes, but we don't go around beating up on people because we don't like their religion or race."
Even so, in the Chicago area skinheads have been linked to the defacing of a new Holocaust memorial and drawing swastikas in public places. Law enforcement officials are "taking this threat very seriously," says Terry Levin of the Cook County state attorney's office. B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League sounded the same theme. In Shaved for Battle, a report on skinhead activities, the A.D.L. called for "careful monitoring" of the movement because of its "disturbing possibilities."
Some officials are concerned that neo-Nazi types could take over the movement. In California there is little question that skinheads have ties with established racist groups. Tom Metzger, a former Klan leader who now heads the White Aryan Resistance, tries to recruit among skinheads. His son John Metzger teaches skinheads how to organize. Says the younger Metzger: "It's not a fad. It's a movement and a reaction against what's going on." Maybe. But more than anything else, the skinheads are a frightening, pathetic reminder that the U.S. has not solved its racial problems -- and that it is time the subject once more take a prominent place on the national agenda.