Episode Nine Transcript
Episode NINE – The Story of Jon Bair
This podcast contains lots of swearing and violence, occasional use of the N word, and other content that some people may find disturbing or offensive.
I worked since a very young age and I had a house that I rented when I was very young and I had roommates move in. That was the beginning of my house being the main house where a lot of the activity happened and the day to day of it was music, parties, drinking. For the most part, it was having fun.
This is Jon Bair, born and raised in Portland, Jon describes himself as a father, a carpenter and a community member; he lives in the same neighborhood where he grew up. In the late 80s and early 90s, Jon identified as an antiracist skinhead who ran with SHARP–Skin Heads Against Racial Prejudice–and then a Portland version of The Baldies. On New Year’s Eve 1992, a single incident changed the course of Jon’s life. I’m Mic Crenshaw,
And I’m Celina Flores, your hosts for this episode of It Did Happen Here, The Story of Jon Bair.
Early on, people always thought we were Nazis, because we had a similar look. Sometimes we’d get attacked by people who thought we were Nazis. Ultimately, at least in my neighborhood, we formed some alliances with some of the other groups in our area and the pressure became less, but early on, it was a lot of drama all the time.
As activists succeeded in clearing the streets and show spaces of overt neo-Nazi presence, the movement rhetoric needed to evolve beyond the simple and effective shared principle of ‘nazis out.’ But the disparate groups had no strategy for moving forward together, aside from a general–and fiercely held–agreement that racist homophobic and anti-immigrant boneheads should be evicted from the city. While the Coalition for Human Dignity focused on strategies like research, community defense, and maintaining a network of information and support, Portland SHARPs took it upon themselves to fight boneheads, wherever, whenever. The ongoing hostilities between racists and SHARPS consumed the two groups. The continual mutual harassment included frequent hit and run brawls–and sporadic, targeted, threats and street altercations.
It’s easy to forget how young these people were. They were kids, generally aged 18-22, many with abuse and trauma histories. They were basically raising each other. In the close-knit brotherhood of SHARP, young people looking for purpose, found their purpose in fighting nazis. Anti Racist Action was a broad-based political movement of punks and skins but by 1992, the skinheads were done with politics. Jason, the ARA organizer, describes this shift:
The energy changed and it became more SHARP, very much more street oriented. And then it became just another group of skinheads, PUB and then it was Baldies. And then it was Unity, and then it was a few other things, and then it was Intensified. And then Rose City came about. It became more of, "how do we get out of the political?" And part of that was because the Trotskys and other factions were trying to use us, to get us just to be their, their muscle or wield political power in their name. We didn't want anything to do with that. Many of us, you know, were socialists or communists, and that was fine, but we weren't going to be a political component. We were here to fight racism, homophobia, sexism. And that was the focus at that point and we did not want to lose focus to that. And so, everybody was like: we're just going to fight them in the street, and keep it there. So that was about the time, I want to say that when Eric Banks was shot, I think those guys were claiming Baldies at that point.
Erik Banks was a young neo-nazi skinhead and a member of Bound for Glory, a racist white power skinhead band from St. Paul, Minnesota; just after midnight on January 1st, 1993, Banks was shot and killed in a street altercation in SE Portland. Here’s Jon Bair:
On New Year's Eve, my friends and I were drinking, we were at a party. There was some Nazi groups we’d been fighting in the area regularly. People were talking to them on the phone and threats were being exchanged back and forth. And we're all drunk, that's part of the story, too. So, we decided we'd go out and meet them for a, quote unquote, fistfight. It was very snowy and icy out everywhere. We went to wherever we were going to meet them. And they drove up. And they pointed a gun at us out the window. And we got back in the car, and then they were following us. Nobody could drive fast, because everyone's tires were slipping. And this is the middle of the night. There's like, no traffic around. And so we had this weird following-each-other thing around the streets for a while and slipping around the corners. We finally pulled into this parking lot and one of the guys I was with said, all right, I'm just going to fight the guy, and we pulled into the parking lot. He got out and stood up. And they came with their car and they just ran him over. At the time, we thought he'd been run over and killed. What happened was, he got pinned under the hood of the car and just slid on ice. He wasn't even hurt very bad. The next thing I remember, there's a lot of yelling, there's a lot of screaming, people are screaming that they're shooting at us. People are screaming, “shoot the gun,” and I had a rifle with us in the car. I pointed it in their general direction and fired it a few times. At that point, my friend who I thought had been killed, jumped up and got back in the car with us, and we drove off.
Again, Michael Clark, an anti-racist skinhead we heard from in the last episode:
The Banks killing was pretty crazy. That was a really hard time. John and I were, we were good friends, and he lived with me for a while in high school when he was having a hard time with his parents. The police thought I was there. My cousin drove a car very similar to one that was there that night, and his door got kicked in New Year's Day. I got a call, “what the hell did you do last night?! The police just kicked in my door looking for you!” Blah blah blah. “I told them I didn't know where you were,” and spent the day calling around going, “what the hell happened last night?” I would have been there, but I was a little too high on LSD to leave the house, you know. [laughter] So I definitely wasn't in any shape to do anything. It just, everybody was loaded, and it just worked out the way that it did. It was a hard time.
Jon Bair describes the next morning, New Years Day 1993:
We all kind of split up, we did different things. I was arrested and questioned and released. And before I was released, the detectives said, "you know, it's a shame that that kid lost his life out there." And I was like, "oh my God." And it just hit me like a ton of bricks. But they released me and they told me that they knew who did it. They had the person locked up, the person was cooperating with them. I surmised which of my friends was locked up, and I definitely knew that he wasn't cooperating with them. And I basically had some time to think about what to do. I was 20 years old, I thought about running away, jumping on the trains and leaving town and maybe trying to alter my identity. And I tried to think about what my little brother would think, what my parents might think. And I thought, "if I do that, they'll definitely think that I'm guilty or that I did this thing on purpose," or something like that. And ultimately, I made the decision to face the music, to turn myself in. And so I did. I went and talked to the detective, and I made a complete confession. I told them everything that I did. For me, it was important to just tell them my part, they wanted to know what everybody else did, and I just kept it to me. And then they let me call my parents and I called my dad, and that was the toughest phone call of my life. I tried to tell him what was going on a little bit and he was kind of confused and then he was like, "Did you talk to the police?!" And I was like, "yeah, I've been talking to them all day." He's like, "oh, my God, do not talk to the police!" Good advice. It was a little bit late. I think I did what I needed to do to be the right thing for me. Obviously, that was a huge turning point in my life. I think I was in jail for about six months before I was offered and accepted the plea bargain that I took, you know, and I spent my 20’s in prison and on parole. So, at my pretrial, I wanted to defend why I would have ever bought a firearm or owned one. I had a rifle that I bought legally that I decided when drunk to take with me in the car when we went to go meet these guys to fight. So I was in court and I was describing how we lived in this house and it had all these problems, and everyone knew that was the SHARP house, and that house had been shot up at one time, Molotov cocktails thrown at it another time, and we had a lot of noise complaints and we had a strained relationship with our neighbors, and the police had been there a bunch of times. And the reason I bought the firearm was to defend my home. We were naïve. But we would ham it up for these guys. We'd let 'em take our pictures. Of course, all this stuff was just going into files that could later be used against us. I called the officers to the stand who I dealt with in the neighborhood and there are two of them, and each of them said they'd never seen me before in their life. They didn't know who I was. They had nothing on file of any incidents. That broke my heart because I realized that I was fighting a system that was corrupt. I wasn't a huge fan of police, but I still believed at age 20, that they had to follow the rules. When they got on the stand, and lied to my face in front of the judge and everybody on an oath before God and all that, I knew that they are going to screw me. Honestly, that's a big reason why I didn't go to trial. I pled guilty to first degree manslaughter. They gave me the maximum that they could give me at the time, according to the grid block, which was 60 months. Since Measure 11, I think that changed to like, 15 years with no good time. I just landed in a really unique place on the grid block. And I used to hang my hat on that, "well, they sentenced me to the maximum allowed by law and they wouldn't listen to any of my mitigating factors." But I recognize now, as an adult, had I been a person of color, or a person who didn't speak English, I don't think I would have been offered a plea bargain like that. I think it would have gone to trial, and I think it would have lost. So, there is that.
Racist violence still occurred in Portland after the Erik Banks killing, but by 1993 the groups of boneheads covered in hate insignia who had for years maintained a street presence of violence and intimidation were gone. Here’s Jason, and then Michael, to talk about how the death of Erik Banks impacted the local landscape:
A few people got hemmed up, from the cops, and it didn't shut it down. It made things different, and it changed the way the white supremists went about things. Most of them believe that our side had killed one of them without hesitation. In some ways that really worked in our favor, because it quieted things down. But it changed the way they operated. And so they started moving further out. They grew out their hair, they changed the way they dressed. They started recruiting on a different format. They went online, and they started being more secretive. This lead to the resurgence now.
There were a lot of people, through being acquaintances with me and the people they met with me, you know, got into hanging out, and being part of the crew and getting shaved-in and doing a lot of violence. So I was really sad to see John go to prison for, for that. I don't think it needed to happen. I think I probably helped build his mindset that made him think that that was something that might need to happen. I don't think it really changed anything for anybody, other than it definitely put us on the map in a different way, at a different level than I think we had been. We have a reputation now and we have for a long time, as being somewhere that's not going to put up with your shit. So if people don't know Portland's anti-racist history, the nazis definitely know it.
Jon Bair, meanwhile, embarked on his journey through the prison system:
I'm a small guy. I'm not a big, tough guy, and I'm short and I’m thin. When I got to the penitentiary, I suddenly realized that, like, I didn't really know that, "oh, I'm a small guy." That was pretty intimidating. And there was about a week, I think, where people didn't know who I was. And it was pretty fine. People were friendly and I was trying to kind of get the hang of things. And then I think the first newspaper article about my conviction came out. And people started learning who I was. There were some Nazi groups where I was, but they were not the majority. And they immediately started giving me a hard time, harassing me, threatening me a little. The white people that I was friends with, for the most part, basically said, “hey, you seem like a nice guy. I don't want to have the kind of problems that you have. So don't talk to me anymore. Sorry if that seems harsh, but that's the way it is.” And so I found myself very scared, very alone, not knowing what to do. I didn't know anything. People would confront me, I would swallow my pride and would walk away. It's just very, very scary. So what happened was, I wanted to try to keep myself safe as best I could. I felt very alone. I didn't want to get assigned a work position in the chow hall. I thought that seemed pretty dangerous, so I requested a work position in the college. At that time they offered college classes for inmates, or GED programs, stuff like that. I got a job as a teacher's assistant for English as a Second Language. I tried to busy myself in as many ways as I could, that I felt were, like, safe for me--college, reading. But ultimately, what saved me is the guys I was working with, the Hispanic community, doing English as a Second Language, they started to wonder why I was different, and why I always ate by myself and why I never went outside, and I was all pale and they were wondering if I was like a child molester or what the deal was. They learned about who I was, they basically said, “look, we're going to make you an honorary Mexican, you're going to be with us now. We're going to take you under our wing, “but you look terrible. Starting today, you have to go outside every day. You have to start lifting weights.” They had certain ways that they did their clothes and they brought me into their community. And honestly, it was wonderful. It was a type of community that I felt really comfortable in, and I could relate to at that time. It was a multiracial community. And we had fun, and they kept me safe. And I started getting healthy. And I started feeling better about myself. That was another real turning point for me. I would say that I had a not very good relationship with my parents at that age. And I had, I had, you know, my own feelings about the ways in which I thought they weren't great. I thought that everything that I was doing with my friends was really great. I can tell you that when I went to prison, my parents came and visited me every single month for all the years that I was in, and twice on every month that there was a holiday, and they drove, no matter how far it was. A lot of my friends, a lot of my brotherhood evaporated. Not completely, but, that was a huge wake up call for me, my family that I thought they were so crappy, they were really there for me to the best of their ability. And my friends who I thought were still in there for me, weren't present as much. And I can't put that all on everybody else because I dropped off, too. When I went to prison, I didn't know what to do with myself. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I didn't know what I should do. I really isolated for a long time. But today, I have friends. I'm not entrenched in the activism. But I have friends that go back 20 years. I have friends that go back 30 years. This is my city. I grew up here. I've got a lot of love and support here. I was able to keep my nose clean while I was in. And eventually I earned minimum custody and I went to like a work camp where people go out on work crews and pick up litter and stuff like that. That was wonderful. That was such a different vibe. In the big penitentiary, your housed with people who will never get out. And some of those people are crazy, and some of them don't care. And so when I got to the work crews, I just felt like I could breathe a big sigh of relief. Everybody at the minimum security facilities is looking forward to going home and being reunited with their families. And I started that part of my journey. And you know, I was in Baker city, Oregon, which is very far from Portland, and my parents still kept making that trip even when the roads were icy, no matter what. I did over four years, but not by very much, because I earned some good time. I got out in ‘97. And then after I got out, I had five years of post prison supervision. And then I got out. And I didn't realize how weird that would be. There's a lot of things I had to readapt to, like, things that you might not ever think about. In prison, there's no darkness, ever, there's always lights on. So sleeping in darkness was kind of like, whoa. You know, I got married really quickly. I had a bunch of kids. I think I was trying to like be, quote unquote, normal. It didn't really make me normal. Today, I've been sober for eight and a half years. That's been really good for me. I have an amazing wife who is also sober with me. We're parents to five kids that we have part time. Being an anti-racist skinhead isn't my whole story. You know, I'm active in the community and I work, I’m a carpenter, and mostly I'm a father. Firstly, that's how I identify now. I still always had this idea that I'd be murdered, I was convinced that I'd be murdered. I just, I carried that fear with me for a lot of years. The way I responded to that was I always thought, "I want to make sure that I always tell my kids that I love them. I want to make sure that I always hug them a lot." Even though it started from a morbid motivation, I ended up having really great relationships with all my kids. I’m the parent of a trans teenage girl. That's been a really eye opening and new experience for me. For those teenagers who are trans and are going down that road and facing all of the dangers and persecutions, like, I think they're, like, the bravest people. And these people come to our city to attack trans women, and to think of her getting attacked for no reason, this makes me so upset. And it happens, often. And it sucks, it sucks to worry about your kids safety. It sucks. It sucks to say, "I want you to carry this pepper spray at all times. And you need to know how to use it." You know, that sucks. That's not what I want to tell my teenager. This is not the kind of thing that I ever would have wanted to be involved in. It's just what happened. It's important to me to not regret the past or shut the door on it, and it definitely has shaped my life. I hope that sharing my experience can help others. But I also wish that that never happened. I wish I never got in the vehicle. If I could go back in time, I absolutely would do a lot of things differently. But you know, like, we move forward from where we're at. Racists and Nazis kill people. It's not uncommon. It's just not something I ever wanted to be a part of. I wanted to stand up to the bad guys, protect the vulnerable, feel good about myself, have fun, listen to music, have friends, like those are the things I wanted to do. And when I was a kid, when I turned myself in, I honestly didn't think that I would survive my prison sentence. I just felt that's what I had to do to, to be right with myself. But I did. And so here we are.
Thanks for listening to Episode Nine of It Did Happen Here. There are show notes with links, transcripts, and other relevant content at our website, ItDidHappenHerePodcast.com. You can also listen to the podcast on the KBOO website, KBOO.fm, and on Spotify, Stitcher, Apple podcasts, and more. This episode, all interviews were by Erin Yanke and your hosts were Celina Flores and Mic Crenshaw. This podcast is produced by Celina, Mic, and me, Erin Yanke. Our next episode, Number 10, Less Booted More Suited, will be out January 22nd. You'll hear about changes that were happening with the boneheads and the white nationalists, and also with the Coalition for Human Dignity, the SHARPs, and Anti-Racist Action. Music in this episode is by Anitek and LG17 from the Free Music Archive. Thanks to the bands for the music, thanks to the participants for sharing their stories and experiences, and thanks to the Marla Davis Fund, KBOO Community Radio, and to the rest of our production team: Icky A, Julie Perini, and Moe Bowstern. Thanks for listening.