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Growing up with skinheads

The Christchurch terror attack brought white supremacism to national attention but it has been endemic in parts of New Zealand for decades. Newsroom writer Steve Deane recalls growing up in an area where skinheads were common – and watching as his schoolmates swelled their ranks. 

In hindsight, I’d probably offer a different response if I had the chance over. I’d try to curb the habit of a lifetime, of always saying what I think.

“Skinheads are all right, eh?”

Four words. Or three words and a grunt. That doesn’t take a lot of processing.

“They’re f**king dickheads if you ask me,” my 16-year-old self responded to the long-haired dude in black.

Not clever. Not when a pack of ball heads have just rolled in to a party intent on cutting a victim out of the herd for a spot of entertainment.

That’s the skinhead way. Tough in packs, pussies on their own.

My verbal response wasn’t the biggest mistake I made that night. Not paying attention to what my inquisitor was holding, or how he was holding it, was the major blunder.

I didn’t see the Jack Daniels bottle until well after it bounced off my skull.

“F**king thing didn’t break,” the dude remarked, annoyed.

“Hey, this xxxx’s got a problem with skinheads,” he then joyfully announced to the new arrivals.

Not good. Not when your back is to the wall, your bell is seriously ringing, and there’s a half dozen shaven-headed clowns between you and the front gate.

The bottle not smashing was the first break I caught. I can feel the ridge of scar tissue now as I rub my fingers over my right temple, the damage limited to a large lump that would never fully fade.

Could have been worse. Would have been, had it not been for my former schoolmate, Evan.

“He’s just a f**ken kid,” Evan pointed out as he stepped in to the fray. Brave, considering the situation. Downright heroic, considering Evan was Samoan.

Evan’s distraction might well have saved my life. That would, perhaps, be an over-dramatisation - had it not been for the fact that just two weeks later the psychopath with the Jack Daniels bottle would murder someone, stabbing them in the back, and then, when they turned around, the heart.

I seized my chance and ran. Fast. Then I hid. Then ran some more. Made it home in one piece.

Evan copped a stab wound to the hand for his trouble, I was told the next day.

This wasn’t 2019. Or 2009. It was 1991.

And it wasn’t Christchurch – a city where everyone except the former mayor is aware of a white supremacist underbelly. It was Petone.

White supremacism in New Zealand isn’t a recent phenomenon. It isn’t a by-product of the internet or social media. And it isn’t limited geographically. It’s an insidious belief system that preys on the weak-minded, the bored and the easily led.

I know that because I grew up with it, watching kids I went to school with transform from ‘regular’ suburban Kiwi kids into shaven-headed Nazi slogan-chanting, zieg-heiling twats.

I didn’t know all of the skinhead mob that rolled into that party that night, but I knew a couple of them. These were the 20-something ‘role models’ my former teenage friends looked up to.

Almost overnight, it seemed, this group morphed from chilled-out dopers whose idea of a good time was reciting Jim Morrison lyrics to loading softball bats into cars. They weren’t overly tough. In fact, being small and weak was perhaps the main trait they shared. So they hunted in packs.

Mainly, they preferred to menace. To chant “oi oi oi” out of car windows, like it meant something other than the fact they were try-hard losers; still kids, but not all that far off from graduating into the goons who would leave their mark on my skull and stab my friend.

I couldn’t pretend to understand them. We grew up in a multi-cultural community. We all had brown friends. There was no suggestion rampant immigration was a threat to our way of life. The Jews didn’t own the banks – and what 16-year-old Kiwi kid would care if they did? The Twin Towers still stood. Nightmares were inspired by Freddy Kruger, not Isis.

It’s not like New Zealand was a shining utopia of racial harmony, but I have no idea why these people suddenly found racism so seductive. I only know white supremacism was very prevalent in the Hutt Valley at the time, and it either found them or they found it.

I probably shouldn’t have said it out loud, but those skinheads were dickheads then – and I strongly suspect they are dickheads now.

The one thing they weren’t was loners. And that is what strikes me about Christchurch. One man has committed an atrocity, killing and wounding an unimaginable number of people in an incomprehensible act. But white supremacism isn’t something that naturally creates lone wolves. In my experience, it’s quite the opposite.

Some have expressed a sentiment that what happened in Christchurch has been fostered by ‘us’ – that we’re a racist nation and we all have to own it; that we’re all complicit because we haven’t done enough to beat back a rising tide of white nationalism.

The reality is the tide came in a long time ago, long before Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The white supremacists had no problem spreading their message and recruiting pre-internet, or even before mobile phones.

They’ve always been among us, but that doesn’t make them ‘us’. They’re a fringe group of losers, just like they’ve always been. Nothing about Christchurch changes that.

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