Freedom News

Antifascism, football and skinheads- Interview with ex-member of RASH NYC

This is an interview that originally appeared in Polish in issue #1 of antifascist magazine Alerta, and recently it was translated to English by 161 Crew. While the interview took place in 2017, and there were a lot of political developments since then, we thought to re-post it as an excellent source of antifascist history in the NYC area.

Can you introduce yourself?

Hello.  My name’s Tommy, I live in the „outer boroughs” of New York City.  Was born nearby, but grew up in the US Midwest, lived in Seattle, but also spent less than a year living near Sete, France, and in Dublin. I’m on the wrong side of forty now.

You were one of the members of RASH-NYC (Red& anarchist Skinheads). Were you amongst the founders of the group or did you join at a later stage?

I joined in what was the second wave, around 1994. The Group was founded by Dan Sabater, a native of Brooklyn, and one of the most influential people I’ve ever met.  He came out of the Tompkins Square riot movement and the punk and squatter scenes and was involved in the NYC skinhead scene from near its start.  He was also an anarchist activist, with connections among the anarchist movement in the Spanish State, including Catalonia and Euskadi.  He collected some tough men and women in the early 90s, and I got to know them when I arrived in NYC in 94. 

I was a skinhead from about 1990, travelling into the city to buy my first boots on 8th street back when there were mobs of skins hanging out everywhere around there. Then I was in Seattle and had run-ins with nazis, as this was the moment the Church of the Creator people were running wild. One of their main safe houses was just across the street from where I lived on Capitol Hill. I mostly hung out with scooter kids then, though there were some scenes. A group I was with in the U-District confronted a bonehead one time only to have him pull an AK from his trunk. I wasn’t smart enough to notice it didn’t even have a clip in it and dove behind a car quicker than I think I could move these days. It focuses your mind a bit.

This was also the period when the SHARP skins of Portland were getting into full-scale war with nazis down there. Was one car chase and shootout that made national news from there, and I was lucky enough to meet a fella called Pan from there, who later became well known in the scene across the US.

Shortly after I left Seattle, one of the white power kids from across the street flipped out and went on a ‘lone wolf’ thing to kill a civil rights leader in California, but was so incompetent he got arrested shoplifting on the way, spilling the whole plot. Was a sad kid, not even 19, estranged from all family, who was recruited in a Seattle suburban mall by older Nazis, and turned into a weapon. Also not very bright. A friend told me he had every ex-girlfriend’s name tattooed on his arm and then crossed out when they dumped him.

I ended up in NYC with „Class War” badges on my flight jacket and was lucky to meet Dan and a group of about a dozen mostly anarchist skinheads he’d recruited.

What was the idea behind the formation of RASH? As far as I know, it was the first group of this kind in the world?

I know Dan has written much more about this, but the NYC hardcore and punk scene in 1990 was something to behold.  There were big squats, and lots of the city was a place where actual working people could live, not like today.  The East Village was an uneasy mixture of Puerto Rican and other working-class New Yorkers along with a collection of punks, homeless, squatters, artists, radicals, weirdoes, addicts, drop-outs, and old-fashioned drunks. Mayor Koch was no friend to any of these folks and whistled while AIDS, crack, and poverty tore chunks out of his people.  Giuliani arrived shortly after I did, coming to power on a campaign that included a „protest” by uniformed cops that ended in a police riot.  He had a mandate to fuck up New York.

He also had a mandate to „clean up” the city as he saw it. Chasing working and poor folks out of the East Village, selling off the old neighbourhoods to property developers, clearing the squats, arresting people for drinking in public, and generally destroying the dirty old town. I came in at the very end of that world, but that was the world RASH came out of.

Tell us a bit about the political situation from that period. What was the situation with nazis on the streets of NYC?

It also came out of a hugely diverse, ska-driven skinhead scene and an older, much more NYC-based, Hardcore scene.  Those were the days that working-class kids in the outer boroughs actually were skinheads.  Add that to punk and anarchism, and I think that’s where RASH came from. Dan and a few other of these kids (then) were white working-class kids from working-class communities, who were into skinheads, but unlike a lot of the kids in white working-class New York, never fell for bigotry, and point-blank refused to either give up the scene or give up their consciences. It was a big scene, and like today, most of the kids went along with the flag-waving and Skrewdriver t-shirt bullshit, mostly because they didn’t have the backbone to go against the crowd.  So you get today, in NYC, a whole bunch of black, Asian, brown, or immigrant kids who hang out with Nazis, who secretly despise them, just cause everyone else does that and they think it looks tough.

The guys who founded RASH were different.  They made no secret of their politics.  People used to call Dan „Commie Dan”, while Dan was reading anarchist tracts about radical democracy and Krondstadt.  But he never sold socialists out, and RASH took a lot of abuse for ideologies none of us even believed in (at the time) like Marxist Leninism, out of pure solidarity and bull-headedness.

At the same time, they were no politicians.  There weren’t much reading political tracts, let alone working for political parties.  It was about working-class direct action in the communities that were being gentrified and assaulted by racist police and governments.

At the time I showed up there was this whole „Non-Political” push in the scene, weirdly led by this kid who had a group called „United Front” (completely without irony).  The first generation of RASH had helped make NYC unsafe for Nazis, and NYC is never fertile ground for that crap, but this whole „non-political” thing was about kids, many actually Black and Latino, who were happy to buy nazi Oi crap, prance around like idiots, and hang out with nazi bands and other visitors.  Out in the suburbs nazis put on shows, and bands from NYC-even fronted ones- would play with them.  It’s actually kind of like it is today, but today sounds even worse.

In the early 90s, at least you had the older generation.  Most of the generation before of NYC skinheads didn’t give two fucks about politics and were into hardcore.  Gangs, proper you-better-respect-them-or-they-will-murder-you skinhead gangs like DMS and Sunset set the tone.  Those were the days–before me–of hardcore shows where older guys would cut your boots off if they didn’t like you, and kick you in if they did.  The first generation of RASH were the children of that. 

The new generation was more into British Oi and Ska, and attracted both the standard US nazi of the suburbs (who were probably scared shitless on NYC hardcore).  So we started getting what you see today: nation and worldwide nazi subcultures and a whole community of sub-Cock Sparrer Oi bands in flights, t-shirts from British bands, 20 hole DMs, and number 1 cuts.

Again, a weird NYC thing was that there were a lot of immigrant and black, brown, asian kids who were into that scene.  And a bigger Ska skinhead scene that was impressed with them.

With RASH, there was a counterweight.  RASH folks would go to shows and earned respect. Dan, as well as people like Greg, had earned huge street cred by the time I arrived, and they maintained good individual relations with most of the leaders of bands and groups.  But RASH was always a target just for not backing down.

Thanks to RASH, Nazis couldn’t come to shows in NYC.  It was a no-go-zone. 

Some antifascist skins–not me–enforced this with very targeted extreme violence.  Kids from Westchester or Staten Island tried to come to the „non-politicals” events and were tracked down and beaten when least suspecting it.

Most of the larger conflicts were defending ourselves from outraged „non-politicals”, fencewalkers, who were always gunning for the high-profile RASH folk, but had little success. When RASH NYC finally died a decade ago (long after my time), these guys flooded into a multi-ethnic Oi scene in NYC who had no qualms about standing next to Nazis. 

What kind of activity RASH NYC was involved in? Did you face any police repression?  

I remember Dan used to tell dirty jokes in the Peace Pentagon, the old War Resisters League building where an allied anarcho-syndicalist group had offices.  The NYC left then as now was routinely bugged, spied upon, infiltrated, and harassed in minor ways.  Giuliani — and every mayor since– has made „quality of life” their formal policy, but gentrification, over-policing, and destruction of poor communities are their informal policies.  We just got what most working New Yorkers got.

Why did the group finally disband? Can you tell us about what you consider it’s achievements? Are the people that were part of it still involved in left-wing politics?

I went to the UK and Ireland a lot in the mid to late 90s, and stopped being a skinhead cause I realized it was laughably dead over there, got more involved in family, formal politics (with a few socialist configurations), and football (soccer) casual culture.  By 2001 I was long gone and drifted away from that scene.  Dan rebuilt NYC RASH at least twice after that, with new kids coming up.  When he left for another part of the states, RASH here folded.  I know he felt hard done by folks — myself included– at the time, but I was too far from that scene to know what happened. Though I hear the RASH communities elsewhere are strong, and I know folks from Miami and elsewhere are always working with redskins in the NYC area.  There was a big Latino Antifa punk and oi show put on here a few months ago, so the scene is still going.

I kept up with old comrades a little.  Folks are doing well, have families, decent working-class jobs, kids even.  And I know for a fact that several are very politically active in left-wing politics and community work.  With Herr Trump, I expect to run into them much more in the next few years.

Let’s move to the present times. Tell us about the antifascist scene in your area.

Antifascism, like all political work, is booming with Trump.  He’s unleashed a wave of Neo-Nazis across this country, and even in NYC.  Every nut job bigot feels like they can step up and unfurl their true colours, and people are streaming into Antifa groups.  Lefty political groups I am or have been part of have seen unbelievable numbers of folks radicalized from the left.  Going to marches, demos, and meetings, everybody is stuffed to the gills.  

I also can’t help but think the fencewalker Oi skins of NYC are going to get a surprise as their ‘quiet’ Nazi pals are about to jettison all their minority skinhead fellow concert-goers and bands now that they don’t have to hide their true colour (white). You can be a brown skinhead who loves Trump in NYC, but those proper neo-nazis will only tolerate you as long as they think they need you. A lot of illusions are going to get shattered.

In the states, the anarchist movement is still big, and Antifa has been their bailiwick for a long time.  Back in the 90s, there was tension between middle-class anarchists (derided as lifestyle anarchists) and RASH.  I think both those things are over for the foreseeable future.  Antifascism is out of the „hobby” phase to the „fight for survival” stage.  More people are seeing how important it is, and „mainstream” antifascists  (like the SPLC) are seeing huge influxes of support.  Even groups like „One Peoples Project”, that’s been around since the 90s and has never compromised or equivocated, are getting the mainstream media attention they’ve long deserved.

Just recently Trump got elected. How does it change things in your opinion? How did it affect the situation in your area? Are you worried about how it will all end?

In parts of the US, it’s going to be very, very bad, as the cops and the government are infiltrated by the extreme right. In places like New York, though, liberals are being radicalized, and talk about the „alt-right”, holocaust denial, and the struggle against the police murder of people of colour are now mainstream concerns.  I’m sure some old Antifa folk will have trouble with this, but many will welcome it. They don’t have a choice. Normal Americans might have been fine with racism and the endless bigotry suffered by people of colour, but I think they’re pretty shocked when they discover the undeniable fascist politics of Bannon and many of Trump’s most ardent followers.  And those scum are outing themselves all over the nation, thinking they’ve „won”.

You are a fan of the New York City football team. Can you tell us more about them and their support? Do you have a proper ultras group like some other US and Canadian teams?

I can talk about what others did or shit I saw in the 90s, but the one thing I contributed was football fandom.  I was never a leader in RASH, or a tough guy, or known in the skinhead scene.  But my friends and I, most of whom were in RASH or hung around the RASH folks, were pretty instrumental in the (re)birth of football fandom in NYC, and the US in general, even.  All modesty aside, of course.

I played football as a kid, and was lucky enough to live in France briefly, and travel in the UK.  Like a lot of 80s kids, I was fucking obsessed with British pop and punk music.  I went through all the subcultures, perfected all the haircuts, and pored over import records and magazines.  I also followed football.  Of course, you couldn’t see it much.  By the late 80s, there were English and some Scottish games shown on a week’s tape delay, edited down to a half-hour, on some obscure cable channels.  I would cut out the Premiership or old First Division tables from the newspapers on Monday and paste them into notebooks.  I liked Liverpool because of John Barnes, Kenny Dalglish, all those Liverpool bands, Militant Tendency, and because of the heartbreak of Hillsborough.  My Irish friends led me to Celtic, and I followed them when I could, buying converted PAL season recap videos yearly to see the top goals at least. People like me, and many, many immigrants or children of immigrants, are the core of football fandom in the US. Then it was very much a subculture.

So in 1994, on the heels of the World Cup, plans were afoot to create a professional league, to launch in 1996.  That was MLS.  Before that, one of the successions of small leagues that formed and folded every five years or so, the „A-League” brought a club to NYC, The Centaurs.  They played in a dilapidated stadium in a city park, and RASH and other folks had a group called „NYC Firm”, who was just about the club’s only supporters.  A couple of not-very-political friends and I founded it, I did a fanzine (probably the first football fanzine in the US) and generally had a good time.  As far as I know, it was the first proper supporters club in the USA.  We even went to national team matches, basically recycling Stockport County (where a couple of us had friends) football songs, some of which still survive in various US clubs.

The Centaurs went bankrupt almost immediately.  Most professional clubs in the US do, as most leagues outside the top lose a handful of clubs every year still.  There are few stadiums, grass pitches, or ready fanbase to support football, like in other parts of the world.  Only very rich clubs or wholly amateur clubs survive for any length of time.  Those that do, are usually just a trademarked name (like the Cosmos) that rich guys periodically buy and resurrect.

So one of our friends founded the very first MLS supporters club, the ESC, for the new MLS club in New Jersey/New York, the „MetroStars”.  We had bigger crowds, but just barely. It was good fun, and RASH was heavily involved.  Again, we had a core of folks from RASH and the NYCF who knew something about UK football culture and were pretty influential in spreading that around the league, from songs to clothes to organization. On the second match, some Atlantic City showed up and were badly beaten, four of our folks were arrested, but eventually, the local prosecutor decided to drop charges rather than defend well-known Nazis.  That was the end of the Nazis at Metro.

Every football club in the US and Canada gets an influx of neo-Nazis, coming out of the Oi scene, who think it will be like a Cock Sparrer song and own a West Ham shirt.  Rarely do they take hold, mostly because they get bored in a scene that’s full of immigrants and weirdos, and most clubs have a nominal Antifa group, usually just a couple of folks with Sankt Pauli tops and a flag.

At the time, I did an outreach zine and website for RASH, called „RASH Futbol”, that got some notice, made some friends in Bilbao and Colombia, and got a mention in When Saturday Comes.  We did political work as well as football, but a couple of things killed (or at least maimed) that.  My generation of RASH was into different stuff: football casual on one hand and having families and jobs on the other.  Then 9/11 and the wars started, and much of our attention focused on political work more than football.  Meanwhile, the MetroStars were haemorrhaging money, and stuck in a decaying 90,000-seat gridiron stadium in suburban New Jersey, drawing ten to twenty thousand fans on a good night.

In 2006, Red Bull, fresh from taking over SV Austria Salzburg, bought the MetroStars, renamed them Red Bull, changed their badge, colours, and dumped the decade of history we’d put into them.  The supporters’ group split, with me and some wanting to fight it, and others resigned to it, hopeful that new cash would mean a stadium in New Jersey and better players.  It did mean that, but many of us walked away, and have huge wells of hate for Red Bull and all it represents.

I still have friends who are now Red Bull supporters (RASH founder Dan among them and at least three original members) but I just can’t see that name without feeling sick.  More and more they are getting newer fans who never knew the MetroStars and have no problem proudly shouting soft drink adverts in place of an actual club.  As dopey as it was, we built a community around „Metro” and owned that community. Not anymore.

When 2010 came around, a conglomerate bought the Cosmos name and started a club, which some of us considered supporting.  Unfortunately, they set up shop in a college lacrosse stadium in suburban Long Island, which was just too far from the city for most people to get to.  Their Saudi ownership seemed pretty dodgy as well, and as I write this, they are on the verge of folding, probably bringing down the league their owners took over as a way to displace MLS and control the US football business.

In 2012, NYCFC was founded, by the big money City Football Group conglomerate along with the New York Yankees.  Despite ourselves, many of us old-timers have fallen in love again.  That doesn’t blind us to the problems.  It is the very definition of „Modern Football”: big money, no history, big-name players.  But we’ve carved a „supporters section” out on one end of Yankee Stadium, with a pitch laughably shoved around a baseball diamond.  Someone even made t-shirts that said, „Attend Modern Football.”  Because there is NO authentic football in the US, and the pressures of full-blown cutthroat capitalism we live under means that there will not be, apart from amateur park leagues. Unfortunately, the demand for ‘authentic’ football in the US means, watching televised games from England or Spain or Mexico, and pretending you are a supporter without ever actually going to matches.  Mostly by buying things and getting on the internet.

Like in Metro, the battle here is to build our own community here, one we control, outside the plans of the moneymen.  Crowds at NYCFC are huge by US standards: averaging 30,000 a match, and at least 3,000 in the rowdy supporter’s sections.

US soccer fans do a lot of borrowing,  especially among immigrants and their children, who import bits of football culture from elsewhere.  So every club has a „barra brava” like group, with long streamers, bass drum, and pogoing, a Mexican-style brass band, English football scarves and chants, Italian pyro and tifos, and a little bit of everything else. 

Policing doesn’t allow for most of this, and conflicts with cops and the clubs are constant, as is infiltration by middle-class white suburban types who manage to drain the blood out of everything.  Those weak watered-down whiney chants you see laughed at on youtube come from that.  They get the form, not the passion.

Every club has these supporters groups, usually centred around an ultra-type presentation.  Pyro is illegal, and as we have armed police in our stands, it is a serious proposition to fight that.  We’ve had kids tasered by the NYPD right in the crowd a couple of times, and arrests almost every match, including for having smoke popped outside the stadium.

As you can imagine, there’s very little fighting as well, mostly scuffles.  Apart from Yankees, most US stadiums are in suburban areas surrounded by parking lots and tightly policed.  And Yankees–like most US stadiums in all sports–is now a „Homeland Security terrorism security zone”, so armed police and airport-like screening.

I have seen some really cool stickers with antifascist and anti-Trump messages. Is there a strong political stance amongst the NYC  supporters or is it mainly apolitical?

We had a problem–like most new US clubs–in the early days with a small group of nazis appearing at our matches. Banning orders and such have taken care of most of the problem, but we have the added difficulty that these kids are almost entirely immigrants.  A few Latino skinheads and a few Polish nazis have an immigrant-based nazi scene in Greenpoint, a mostly Polish neighbourhood in Brooklyn. Most of our supporters don’t even get that these guys are nazis: they try to pass most of the time, and as half of them are Spanish speaking and brown-skinned, it confuses people.

So some of us started an organized Antifa group, that’s been growing over the last year, and is growing all the more as people flood into antifascist work because of the Trumpists. A couple of the supporters’ clubs (there is one large official club and about six or eight small unofficial ones) are grouped over at the far left of the stands and sing about „seizing the means of production” while drinking too much, wave YPG or pride or peace or Euskadi or Irish republican flags and just generally have a good time. Most, but not all, of the Antifa folks are drawn from them.

Most fans are apolitical, but it is New York City, so very mixed race (we’re a majority brown and black city) and politically liberal in a vague sense.  Almost everyone hates Trump: everyone knows someone who’s an immigrant or LGBT or Muslim who’s really scared by his movement, and it is almost ‘non-political’ among New Yorkers to hate him. As a lefty, I’m continually meeting folks at football that I’ve run into in political stuff before or meeting people who I eventually discover are semi-retired cadre from this or that group. It’s New York City.

There is, though, a heavy dose of flag-waving, that came out of 9/11 here, but I’ve also seen folks in the mainstream parts of the supporters’ section, who are pretty non-political and not involved in Antifa work, kneel during the national anthem in honour of the Black Lives Matter movement, which gives me hope.

Who are your main rivals when it comes to football? I  am guessing you are not the big fans of New York Red Bull?

Yeah, I can’t tell you how much I hate Red Bull, and how sad I am for those Metro fans who hang on to supporting them with the dream they’ll someday get rid of Red Bull.  Like I said, every year that passes, the more Red Bull fans are self-selected as the sort of people who are happy to cover themselves in soda adverts.  I do know that some old heads are organizing a new Antifa group there as well, so there’s no haven for nazis anyplace.

Who are the most interesting Ultras groups in North America in your opinion?

Other clubs that are impressive, to me, are Montreal and Portland.  Very „alternative” (white hipster, but politically very left) and creative.  They do huge animated tifo displays and sell out their small stadium continually.  They are politically very pure.  I have an old friend from Metro days who moved out there are is involved with their supporters.  Have you ever seen that „Portlandia” TV show? it is exactly like that.  Very cool and lefty, but with a somewhat creepy lack of non-white people. Seattle is much the same, but football support-wise, Portland have a much bigger core of lefty supporters.

Montreal is the most Italian-like ultras, and has a hardcore of leftist supporters that I really like, some I knew of from back in the RASH days. And it’s such a great town and scene, I can’t dislike them. Their main rival, Toronto, are impressive as well.  I knew some old AFA people who lived there and were supporters, but Toronto also has a huge ‘bro’ contingent (white middle-class sexist young men) that kinda turns me off.

I really dislike Orlando, but I have to admit that they have a good leftist contingent.  But Orlando is such a terrible place, I don’t know whether to hate them or feel sorry for them.  

Minnesota United, coming up from the lower league next year, has a big punk rock group called the „Dark Clouds” who I think are very much like Portland.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Atlanta, the future second LA club, and the future Miami clubs are like. There are big lefty and immigrant communities that might dominate those supporters sections. 

Most other clubs have some good people, but most are drowned in a sea of suburban middle-class white fans, with very segregated Latino vs nglo supporters groups.  Having working-class black and brown supporters at NYCFC in the numbers we do makes me proud of my city, as always.

Anything you would like to say to the antifascists reading this?

You can contact me on Twitter @nycfirm or email ’crap(at)nycfirm.net’ or you can contact the NYCFC Antifascists (which I am not in charge of, but run by friends) at nycfcantifa(at)gmail.com and @nycfcantifa Twitter and nycfcantifa facebook

15.) Thanks a lot. Good luck in future!

Thanks for the chance to send international greetings! 161, and keep the faith!


This is a re-post (with mild edits) of the original text published by 161 Crew.