Scott and Brandon’s introduction to the menace of right-wing fascism came at age 11 courtesy of a brief, organized campaign of middle school bullying. Near the end of sixth grade, the two had been targeted by the student body’s vaguely white trash burnout contingent and labeled as thrashers, a scourge to be cleansed from Faircrest Memorial Middle School’s halls at any cost. For some background, burnouts were those kids who dressed primarily denim or leather, listened to heavy metal music, carried butterfly knives and smoked Marlboro Reds. Their hair was kept short in the front and long in the back. Thrashers, on the other hand, rode skateboards pretty much all the time, listened primarily to hardcore punk and spoke in the affected lingo of California surfers from 80s Hollywood teen comedies. Their hair was short in the back but hung long in the front over their eyes. Although these seem like completely arbitrary distinctions—differences more in aesthetics than ideology—they constituted at the time a schism that nearly escalated into violence.
Also, it seems now that these two groups, burnouts and thrashers, may supply a reasonable archetype for the later political divide between adult conservatives and liberals, at least in blue collar working class rust-belt towns like Scott and Brandon’s. Certainly not every burnout spent his whole adult life in his hometown working manual labor and having his worldview shaped by populist talk radio and gun-nut militia meetings nor did all thrashers get liberal arts degrees, cycle through every pseudo-intellectual pretentious posturing imaginable and then emigrate to big cities way the hell somewhere else, but some of them must have. Brandon did.
Scott and Brandon were rarely without their skateboards in their preteen years. They rode them all around their neighborhoods, in cement driveways or basketball courts after positioning a railroad tie for rail-slides, in the loading docks of area supermarkets, on the slides and picnic tables of Canton, Ohio’s city park system. One weekend, they rode their boards through the empty hallways of Canton South High School—its doors unlocked for some varsity sports tournament or performing arts exhibition—before a group of unimpressed cleaners discovered them and shooed them out.
Scott and Brandon dressed in the fashion of 1980s skateboarders, wearing Vans and Vision Street Wear and ripped-up Bones Brigade t-shirts to school to advertise their counterculture affiliations. They imagined they were seen as cool outsiders by their classmates, and for a while at least, it seemed like they were. Brandon sometimes jokes that he peaked at the beginning of sixth grade based on the succession of short-term 7th and 8th grade girlfriends he had that year, and while Scott was less successful with girls, he too found himself popular at school that year in a way he’d never experience again.
And then one day near the end of the school year, something shifted. Scott and Brandon stood outside at recess that day in a huddle near the four square courts with their regular group of school friends when a few burnouts led by Mike…I don’t know, Anderson? approached them and said, “Next Friday is Thrasher Initiation Day. You faggots better be ready.”
From Mike’s tone, it was clear initiation didn’t refer in this case to some sort of ceremony in which they’d be honored for distinguishing themselves in the field of recreational skateboarding. Mike was an absolute dick. His friends were all dicks. Most of them had been held back multiple times and were bigger and meaner than anyone else in the grade. It was obvious they came from homes full of instability and mistreatment. Scott and Brandon both knew that whatever Mike had planned for the following Friday had to involve humiliating cruelty.
Thing was, Scott and Brandon weren’t exactly model 6th grade students themselves. Just the previous weekend, Brandon had stayed over at Scott’s house and the two had snuck out in the middle of the night to break into unlocked vehicles in the neighborhood. Quiet as they could be, the two crept inside each car scouring the interior for spare change, half-smoked cigarettes, a forgotten dime bag, anything that might provide them with some degenerate entertainment. Sneaking out was a regular event for the two as they slept over at each other’s houses nearly every weekend, and it was unspoken that their nights out were spent vandalizing houses, peering in bedroom windows and foraging for any illicit substance the two could scrounge up. They weren’t terrible kids, necessarily, but they were hardly wholesome. They certainly could have found some delinquent common ground with Mike and his friends if not for the burnout-thrasher impasse.
Something changed at school in the aftermath of Mike’s threat. For the next few days, Scott and Brandon felt a chill among their peers. Most avoided eye contact. Some pulled them aside and told them just to stay home that day and let things blow over. Some agreed that Mike and his friends were assholes but clearly wanted to stay out of it and keep their heads down for fear of becoming targets based on something else equally as innocuous as riding a skateboard. A few kids though—even some not affiliated in any way Mike or his fellow burnout cretins—seemed to enjoy this reversal of fortune against Scott and Brandon and would mutter things to them as they passed in the hallways between classes like, “Watch out, thrashers,” and, “Three more days.” As the week progressed, the promised reckoning began to be referred to no longer as Thrasher Initiation Day but instead more ominously as Thrasher Elimination Day.
Obviously, no one actually got initiated or eliminated on the designated day. Some of Scott and Brandon’s fellow thrasher friends confided in their older brothers or cousins what was happening, and these high-school-aged kids interceded, threatening to get involved on the thrashers’ behalf. And that was that. The fateful Friday came and went without incident, and after that people pretty much left Scott, Brandon and their friends alone. If anything, it was anticlimactic.
In sharing their story here, it’s possible to assign more significance to this event than it probably deserves. I mean, it was childhood bullying, a near-universal human experience, and it was so much less severe than what befell countless other kids at middle schools all over the world. It’s only now looking back that I think of the burnout-thrasher dichotomy in a political way, but I find I can’t help it. Maybe Scott and Brandon’s 1980s childhood provides an interesting way of thinking about the later partisan divide in the U.S. that persists today. They were kids at a moment where conservative, even-reactionary values became mainstream discourse. Unions had been neutered, socialism was the great looming menace and the white, cis, straight, Christian hegemony reigned proudly and patriotically. The Reagan years might have been golden for some people, but others look back on the era as a theocratic dystopia.
Scott and Brandon’s youthful embrace of progressivism came as a deliberate rejection of the mainstream and occurred via pop culture and mass media. They learned civil disobedience but also how not to be a small-minded bigot at the hands of the 1980s skate-punk bands like Minor Threat, 7 Seconds and the Dead Kennedys. They embraced nascent socialism and agnosticism as well as, I’m sure, awful self-righteousness from reading authors like Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell and Jack Kerouac. Those messages influenced the two friends completely then and instilled in them a heightened sense of social justice. It’s hard not to wonder if today’s youth growing up in a more diverse, globalized, interconnected world in which liberal values largely rule the day increasingly embrace facism, nationalism, racism, etc. as a rebellious outsider stance. Are today’s right-wing trolls lurking in online forums in the darkest depths of the internet the mirror image of 80s progressive skate-punks?
Brandon likes to joke that he gave up skateboarding once he was old enough to use a car for transportation. This is kind of revisionist, actually. The truth is that he had a huge growth spurt in 9th grade and became too lanky and uncoordinated to stay upright, much less land an ollie. For Scott, it was more or less the same. He outgrew the hobby, the fashion, the lifestyle. By graduation, he was more likely to carry a hunting rifle than a skateboard, more likely to wear cowboy boots than Chuck Taylors.
Eventually, the two friends changed in other ways too. Brandon went away to college, relocated after graduation to a liberal cosmopolitan urban enclave and worked in journalism. Scott enlisted in the army after school, trained as an EMT after he returned and drove an ambulance in the two friends’ hometown. When the two finally reconnected on social media, it had been 15 years since they’d seen each other. They each enjoyed the novelty of catching up and seeing how the other’s life had progressed into their early 30s. Ten years beyond that, they were still friends online but hadn’t directly communicated in longer than they could remember. In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election and the years of political division that followed, they wondered if there was any point staying connected at all. Instead, they seemed to have formed an unspoken detente not to comment on the other’s political posts.
Still, it’s easy to picture the two, Scott and Brandon, all those years ago a few weeks after their promised initiation failed to come to pass, fleeing in triumph just after midnight through Brandon’s neighborhood back to the house from the wreckage of a neighbor kid’s clubhouse now kicked to pieces and strewn all over the backyard and down the tree lined hill towards the highway below. A clubhouse on which a day earlier a small, hand-drawn sign had appeared: B.A.T. Boys Against Thrashers.
Scott and Brandon are celebrating now, but they know they’re in serious trouble once the deed is discovered, the only suspects in a case that will be solved within seconds. They know they’ll have to apologize and perform rituals of contrition and rebuild what they destroyed, that their allowances will be docked and that they’ll be grounded and banned from overnights for months. They also know that all the consequences will be worth it for this principled stand against the burgeoning forces of reactionary ideology.