Skinhead Against Skinhead

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In the eyes of a skinhead, Portland, Oregon, looks like the city of the future. Not that Loren Christensen would agree; the gang enforcement officer with the Portland police maintains that his town has "tolerance for different life-styles, as long as they're liberal life-styles. There's no tolerance for skinheads." Yet rival gangs of bald men with tattoos have now lent this chamomile-and-bean-spro ut metropolis a Mad Max edge.

Until November of 1988 Portland had no more racist fanatics than any other Northwestern town. But when the East Side White Pride gang killed an Ethiopian student named Mulugeta Seraw and the murder made national headlines, about 200 skinhead newcomers flocked to the city.

Today it takes a keen sense of iconography to know the players. Like their cousins elsewhere, Portland's racist skinheads sport flight jackets, suspenders and Doc Martens with shoelaces in various colors: white for racial purity, red for the blood they are willing to shed and yellow as a signal they have shed someone else's. But another gang of skinheads is slightly different in appearance: the swastikas have diagonal lines slashed through them, and black-and-white breast-pocket patches depict a crucified skinhead with the letters SHARP written over the top. These are the Skin Heads Against Racial Prejudice -- the remnant, less prominent in other cities, of what was once a nonracialist baldie majority. The antiracists, says Christensen, "think the racists give true skinheads a bad image." And so they fight them.

When SHARP members started showing up in Portland, other liberal militant groups such as the gay organization ACT UP reached out to them but soon retreated. SHARP was intent on fighting fire with fire; soon rumbles ensued, and last New Year's Day, during a confrontation on a snowy street, they shot a racist skin with an SKS -- a bayoneted, semiautomatic assault rifle similar to an AK-47. "They blew his head to smithereens," says Christensen.

Since then, he reports, antiracists have patrolled Portland's downtown area, "hanging around in coffee shops and occasionally jumping somebody they perceive to be a racist." Meanwhile, on the outskirts, the racists have been more active in the past seven weeks than they have been in years, attacking two blacks, two whites who associated with blacks, a gay and a Native American.