How L.A. Punks of the ’80s and ’90s Kept Neo-Nazis Out of Their Scene

John Doe and other insiders from the era reflect on what worked then—and what we can learn today

In the early 1980s, the first generation of punk—dominated by late-’70s “art punk” types—gave way to a heavier, louder new scene. Hardcore music, as the name implies, was more aggressive, and the concerts where it was played became more violent. Fights were commonplace. Gangs formed. Disagreements between crews resulted in murders. But according to Heath Mattioli, who recently co-authored the book Disco’s Out…Murder’s In! with David Spacone, race-related violence wasn’t tolerated in the L.A. hardcore punk scene.

“You had to group together in Los Angeles if you wanted to navigate the scene,” Mattioli says. “When you’re a kid growing up in L.A., you grow up around all different races, so racist ideologies never took root.”

Mattioli and Spacone’s book is a look at the violence that pervaded punk rock and hardcore in the Southland in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The story is told through the lens of Frank the Shank, an enforcer for one of the more notorious punk rock gangs—the La Mirada Punks—who was eventually arrested for murder.

The authors say the scene in L.A. was markedly different from the scene in Orange County, where neo-Nazis and white supremacist punk rock gangs could be seen gathered en masse in places like Fullerton, Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach, and where crowds at venues like the Icebox or the Cuckoo’s Nest could at times be heard yelling “white power” and doing the Nazi salute. Amid the disturbing rise of the modern “alt-right,” L.A. punks recall a concerted effort to keep Nazis out of their scene.

John Doe, bassist and a founding member of the band X, witnessed the rise of fascist attitudes in the hardcore scene first hand, and saw it as a bastardization of what attracted him to punk in the first place. The entire essence of being a punk was, as he puts it, “never letting someone tell you what to do.” But somehow factions of the hardcore scene managed to flip that notion on its head to the point where it became, Doe says, “If you don’t look and act like us, get lost.”

“It’s like, you’d have some kid who six months prior was some surfer from the O.C. saying punk rockers are fags, but now a half-year later, he cuts his hair and wants to join the scene,” Doe says. “But he’s still a meathead at heart, he’s still looking to take his anger out on someone. So we were like, ‘Thanks but no thanks.’ Those people didn’t get it. They didn’t have a fucking clue what it meant to be a punk.”

The way Mattioli sees it, a lot of kids adopted Nazi insignia simply for shock value. “It was just a bunch of mixed-up youth, and they were doing anything they could to shock people,” Mattioli says. “If that was wearing a swastika like Sid Vicious or doing the sieg heil, they did that. But even with that caveat, none of them would ever try something like that in Los Angeles. They would have gotten their asses handed to them. They would have gotten beat back to their cars, if they even made it that far.”

Dan O’Mahony, a Huntington Beach-born activist and singer for the mid-’80s harcore band No for an Answer, remembers things differently. “I think it’s a whitewash of the past to say that you that you saw more of the nationalistic shit in the O.C.,” O’Mahony says. “L.A. had its problems. The first place I remember encountering white power skinheads was at a hardcore show at the old Olympic Auditorium in downtown. I’ve been going to hardcore shows for 30 years and had my ass kicked once, and it was in L.A.”

However, he does agree that the situation was worse in Orange County, because “there was way more tolerance and far less pushback” for racist behavior. “Orange County, especially back then, was one of the most conservative and homogenous counties in the country,” O’Mahony says. “The Klan openly rallied in the ‘70s in the O.C. and Tom Metzger had an arm of the White Aryan Resistance [WAR] out here.”

Photograph by Edward Colver

O’Mahony was part of a movement to quash nationalistic and racist behavior wherever it cropped up. “There were guys in the scene like myself or Pat Dubar [singer of the bands Unity and Uniform Choice] who were focused on some degree of moral ascendancy,” O’Mahony says. “We preached racial tolerance. And the thing is, that type of racism always fails once somebody steps up and shows any resistance to it.”

David Spacone agrees with that notion: “I think it all comes back to the concept of taking ownership of your surroundings, something we can all draw on today. It meant something to be a punk, and we took pride in that in L.A. and we weren’t going to tolerate any sort of racism.”

Taking ownership of the scene is a recurring theme echoed by many who were active in L.A. hardcore. But the methods L.A. punks used to keep nationalism and racism at bay varied.

“Once, at a house party in Downey around 1982, there were a few KKK members who showed up there, fronting themselves as punks and handing out pamphlets preaching white unity and giving away bumper stickers that read ‘Take A Stand For The Klu Klux Klan,’” Frank the Shank says via email. “After everyone at the party stopped laughing at them they were told to leave. We did keep the bumper stickers though.”

According to “Big” Frank Harrison—then the head of security at the Olympic Auditorium, the venue where O’Mahoney recalled being assaulted—those in the scene recognized the best way to keep any neo-Nazis that might turn up at shows in Los Angeles from growing a following was to simply ignore them. After all, a weed can’t grow without sunlight.

Other times, musicians at a gig might speak out against it: Harrison cites the band Fugazi—as well as O’Mahony and Dubar as individuals—as examples of punk leaders that had no tolerance for hatred and would shut down a show instantly if they saw anyone expressing nationalistic ideals.

“If it was just a few crazy guys trying to ruin an entire show by yelling out crazy shit, I’d get on the mic and tell the crowd ‘Look, there’s six to eight guys trying to ruin the night. There are 500 of us here. Are we going to let them do that to us?’” Harrison says. “That happened one time with this band called Walk Proud. They were opening for Agnostic Front, and a bunch of guys in the crowd kept sieg heiling. When they didn’t stop, I got on the mic and asked the rest of the crowd if they wanted me to shut it down because of the handful of idiots. Let’s just say the rest of the crowd helped them to leave.”

What everyone seems to agree helped keep racism out of the L.A.hardcore scene was a willingness to confront it zealously, even if that meant punks had to, at times, use their fists to make a point.

“I remember one time Pat [Dubar] and I were on stage with Uniform Choice at Fender’s Ballroom in Long Beach and a bunch of skinheads started sieg heiling in the back,” O’Mahony recalls. “So we started chanting ‘edge” [short for straight edge] back at them and Courtney Dubar decided to do a stage dive. Well, the skinheads didn’t like that and they circled around him and started attacking him.

“I can remember Pat jumping off stage and hitting one of the skinheads in his mouth with the microphone. And the one thing that I noticed was that the skinheads were in total awe and confusion of one guy willing to go up against them. I mean there was 20 of them and four of us, and they completely backed down. I think that says a lot about that whole mindset.”

Frank the Shank

From the personal collection of Frank the Shank

Edward Colver, a prolific photographer of the punk and hardcore scenes, says that the willingness of punks of the era to speak up about injustice is something today’s society could learn from.

“There’s a lot we could learn from that period today. That probably won’t happen though,” Colver says. “You had a generation who grew up in the Cold War era, which caused a lot of nihilism. We thought the world was going to end at any moment, so we lived for today. And people weren’t going to ignore someone fucking up the scene they were in.”

There may have been a lot of angry kids in L.A.’s punk scene, but they knew how to channel their anger. Anti-authoritarianism was always at the root of the punk ethos.

“We might have just been kids back in the day, but we were kids who grew up in Los Angeles and realized something,” Spacone says. “The man behind the glass, the man pulling the strings? He doesn’t care about race. He cares about [socio-economic] class, and class knows no color. We need to realize that today: Don’t fight each other, fight the top. Fight those in power.”

RELATED: Girlschool Is Making Space for Women in Music and Beyond

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.