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After the fight: a skinhead’s journey towards nonviolence

How one man moved from gang culture to permaculture.

Credit: Jeff Clark for the Bureau of Land Management, via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I was 18, had just enlisted in the Navy and was stationed in Virginia Beach, Virginia for two years of shore duty when I met him. He was a half-Samoan, half-Caucasian man in his late 20’s. His face tattoos and steel-toed boots added to his intimidating presence, one built on physical power. I’ll never forget him: He was the man who introduced me to the skinhead lifestyle.

We were an anti-racist crew loosely associated with the S.H.A.R.P. Skins ("skinheads against racial prejudice"). The first night that I was invited to a “house party,” that same man blindside tackled me, put me in a headlock and wrestled me out the door, where we beat each other until nothing made sense. It ended with him picking my head up off the sidewalk, kissing me on the forehead and saying, “Welcome to the crew brother.” From my perspective, the great lie of crew life is that everyone is your “brother.” So many people come to a crew looking for a family, but it’s just not there.

I wish I had known at that point what it was that was missing or broken inside of me that would have ever attracted me to start associating with that type of lifestyle. Looking back, I had a fear-based program running in my head, from the media and from the myriad of other influences in Western culture that lead us to believe we are separate and in competition with one another. Fear twisted reality so that violence appeared to be the path toward safety — a man walks around with a brick only if he is afraid of being attacked.

The skinhead rhetoric constantly driven into my mind ordered me to be “tougher” than the other guy. According to the script, the only way to protect “our” women was to beat anyone who looked at them wrong on the street. “Keeping our neighborhood safe” meant pummeling people we saw as threats: drug dealers, racist skinheads, able-bodied men who didn’t work or contribute to society but freely took from it, men who just looked tough. We thought we could fight our way to peace.

The blindfold of fear was so thick that I couldn’t see the fallacy of this pseudo-vigilante worldview. While I’m writing this, it is almost impossible for me to connect emotionally to the feelings that were alive inside me then. The fact that I can visit these memories now and not be burdened by them is truly a testament to finding life on the other side of emotional guilt.

My life started changing for the better when I was 20 and had gotten into some trouble with a handgun (I went after a man who had disrespected me). My getting in trouble surprised no one beyond the fact that I had slipped through the cracks for so long without getting caught. Being an active-duty military member, I was charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I wound up spending some time locked down in a psych facility because I had chased the cop who busted me around his car while holding my gun in my mouth and telling him to pull the trigger. After that, I was discharged from service.

Upon my release, I found my way back to my home city of York in Pennsylvannia. York has been a rather tumultuous city ever since the race riots of 1969, and the poison from that time still lingers in the air downtown. While the suburbs are modern and progressive, the inner city is known for violence and major drug problems, because York has become a major hub of the drug trade between New York City and Baltimore, Maryland.

I couldn’t move back with my family, who were completely disgusted with me. I moved to the only neighborhood I could afford, one high in crime and poverty. While it was not an ideal place for healing one’s soul, that is where my healing began. I reached my bottom-out point by living in an abandoned crack house with a few other people who had also made some consequential life choices. It’s true: you start to look up when you hit the bottom.

The people who know me today would have a hard time believing that this is really my story, since I no longer use anger as an excuse to further a negative cycle. Almost daily, anger about this incredibly broken system creeps into my thoughts, but I don’t find these feelings scary any more. When they arise, I view them as a reminder that there is a disconnection in my life that can be corrected. They are the reason I continue working toward a more peaceful future.

Trying to walk a peaceful path in the world can be a daunting venture, and I would be lying if I said it is an easy path to take. Every smile I share has the power to communicate truth, even in the midst of conflict. For me, it takes daily meditation and support from my family and friends to stay balanced and continue to live in truth and love.

I have replaced “gang culture” with permaculture in my life. I’m putting a lot of my energy into collaborating on building a gift-economy space where people will be able to unplug, detox from industrialism and learn about sustainable living and nonviolence. While this community-centered project is a tangible expression of peace work, I still strongly believe that the most powerful contribution I can make is the inner work I do, as peace grows from the inside out.

This article was first published in Nonviolence.

About the author

Travis Mellott is a permaculturist and radical simplicity enthusiast. Based in Conway, Arkansas, he is co-creating a gift-economy space for permaculture instruction/certification as well as conflict resolution and vulnerability training.

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