Johnny Bangerter was the man with the plan to take over and occupy Zion Canyon as a whites-only homeland—at least, that was the tagline attached to Bangerter’s name whenever the media described him in the early ’90s.
With family and friends in tow, the Cedar City-born skinhead agitator—second cousin to former Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter—had moved back to Utah in 1991 after fleeing race riots in Las Vegas. When he announced his arrival in Utah, he claimed he would form a militia that would one day take over Zion National Park. It was an incendiary and effective way to get media attention—the rhetorical equivalent of a Molotov cocktail. His celebrity in Utah news lasted for most of the ’90s, and the bit about Zion Canyon was almost always mentioned.
But, though it was his claim to fame, he never so much as overstayed his camping permit in Zion National Park.
That wasn’t the only mostly fabricated news story repeated ad nauseam that built up his notoriety. In Las Vegas, as a leader of a group that called itself the Christian Identity Skinheads, Bangerter was asked by a reporter if his organization had names of Jewish individuals it wanted to kill. Seeing the opportunity for attention, he said his group had a hit list 500 names long. When the reporter asked to see the list—which didn’t actually exist yet—Bangerter stalled and got about 15 people from his crew to chop apart pages of the Las Vegas Israelite magazine.
“In the center of the newspaper were five or six pages of Jewish people, names, events, bar mitzvahs,” Bangerter says today. “We were cutting out all the pictures and pasting them in these binders because we needed 500 photographs, so we even used the same [photo] 10 times. We didn’t care. We just wanted it to look like a hit list.”
When the news crew arrived to do an on-camera interview about the list, Bangerter sat clad in military fatigues in front of three flags: Old Glory, Confederate and Nazi.
“[The reporter] asks about ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ I said, ‘That’s a mistranslation of the Bible. It’s against God’s law to murder; it is your duty to kill his enemies.’ I saw the cameraman: It looked like a giggle, and he smiled as soon as I said that.”
That snicker describes much of Bangerter’s presence in the media, including Geraldo, The Montel Williams Show and 48 Hours. Bangerter, playing the racist anti-government insurgent, was a reality-television star before reality television was a thing.
Today, Bangerter says he has reformed; life kind of forced it upon him. He has a gay son. He has a niece who is black and another who is Hispanic, and a Hispanic grandson. Bangerter admits now what he never admitted during his white-supremacy days: He himself is part Jewish on his father’s side and part Cherokee on his mother’s.
Bangerter says he never made a very good racist, anyway. What made him into a racist, he says, was that he hated the government, and it seemed the only people who hated the government as much as he did were racists on the far right. They also shared Bangerter’s fantasies for what should be done about governmental overreach.
“They wanted to kill federal judges, blow up the Capitol building, blow up the IRS building. … I wanted to be part of a real guerrilla war,” Bangerter says. “It was not just because I wanted to belong, not because I was a youth just looking for a cause. No, man, I fucking hated the government—I still do.”
Today, he wants to protest against the government, but without the racist aspects. But, more than a decade after living in the limelight, Bangerter’s neo-Nazi past follows him. On Facebook, people have begun warning each other privately that “Johnny Bangs”—his name on Facebook—is the famous racist John Bangerter.
The whispering makes him to want to go public about his reformation—but that also comes with risks.
“I know by coming out [as anti-racist and part Jewish], I’m probably going to have to change my address because I fear old people in the old skinhead scene who are still around,” he says. “It was one thing when I denounced Aryan Nations. It was another thing that it came out that I used drugs. It’s a whole other thing for me to be engaged with leftist organizations again.”
Birth of a Rebel
Bangerter recalls a mostly peaceful and happy childhood, with his family enjoying big Christmases and taking family vacations in a station wagon, just like in The Brady Bunch. But it didn’t last.
Bangerter’s older half-brother partied and played Elton John and ELO for his little brother in his basement bedroom. Bangerter, then not even 10, recalls drinking beer and smoking weed with him, incurring the wrath of Bangerter’s Mormon father, merely a stepfather to his brother. His brother moved out in 1977. But that conflict was miniscule compared to what else happened that year.
“About that time, my [36-year-old] mom started having an affair with my brother’s best friend,” Bangerter says. “He was 18 and still in high school. He was a basketball star,” Bangerter says. After word got out about the affair, Bangerter’s mother was rejected by the Relief Society, while the student lost his job at a radio station and was kicked off the basketball team. The pair married in Las Vegas soon afterward.
Initially, after their mother’s departure, Bangerter and his two older half-sisters, younger brother and younger sister lived with their father in Cedar City, suffering the taunts and torments of their classmates—and worse. The family dog disappeared mysteriously and was found hanged.
A two-week planned visit to Las Vegas for the youngest three kids turned into a permanent relocation. Soon after, Bangerter started his punk band Fuck, Shit, Piss, and his new stepdad joined it. The entire clan partied—a lot.
“Vegas was cool, I liked it,” Bangerter says. “Parents were on crack, moms are strippers, dads are cabbies or blackjack dealers. Nowhere in the U.S. is anywhere like this, where nightlife is normal, and across the street from schools, there are newspaper racks with naked women in them … basically pornography on the street.”
“To me, as a kid ... it looked to me like a lot of people with Afros, and they were just yelling at us, and about a quarter mile from the school, they would start chucking garbage at us,” he says.
All the same, Bangerter says it wasn’t the racial violence that made him quit school in seventh grade, nor did it inspire his later infamous racism. He claims, with a bit of macho bravado, it was punk that motivated him to quit school; it was punk that launched his claim to fame as a neo-Nazi.
“It was when I finally heard the Dead Kennedys and read the lyrics sheet—‘Government Flu,’ ‘I Am the Owl,’ these songs. I dropped out of school in the seventh grade, and I’m Dead Kennedys educated,” Bangerter says.
Dead Kennedys, one of the seminal groups of hardcore punk in the early 1980s, represented a bombastic anti-establishment philosophy delivered with wry, biting humor. The punk movement itself marked a cultural turn—especially among working-class youth culture—away from flowery, hippie, optimistic disobedience and toward direct insurrection and immediate taking of freedom and independence.
His life was punk and partying—and to Bangerter, the two are very different things. The partying—and doing drugs with older kids—may have drawn Bangerter in, but the politics became increasingly important to him. He wrote a terrorizing threat to the IRS at 12 years old when he first started paying income taxes.
“To me, punk rock was a civil-liberties cause, not a fad,” he says. “To wear a mohawk or to dress a certain way was a statement against this Leave It to Beaver suck-ass fucking society. It was a political statement. … There was an activist core in our youth scene called Positive Force. We became active in the anti-nuclear stuff, definitely on the left, feeding the homeless, that kind of stuff. Like what Food Not Bombs is today.”
In his late teens, Bangerter’s band played at an anti-nuclear encampment in southern Utah where Martin Sheen, other celebrities and hundreds of everyday people orchestrated their own arrests to protest nuclear power and testing. Bangerter’s family believes his older sister’s leukemia was caused by nuclear testing, but her claim for compensation and care was denied.
In 1986, at age 16, Bangerter wed his girlfriend of a few months. They’re still married, parents to four children.
But tensions in Fuck, Shit, Piss were growing—as they were in the greater punk scene—as Bangerter and his stepfather drifted toward the skinhead current while his two other bandmates followed the anti-racist current, whose patience with Nazi beliefs and iconography was wearing thin.
The divide in the punk scene predated Bangerter. In 1982, the Dead Kennedys recorded the prescient song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” a retort to openly racist bands.
At a 1987 Fuck, Shit, Piss show, Bangerter wore a swastika armband onstage, which amounted to taking sides in the neo-Nazi vs. anti-Nazi divide. The anti-Nazi members of the band and audience wouldn’t take it. A riot ensued.
“One side was yelling, ‘White power, white power!’ The cops showed up,” Bangerter says.
He knew what he was doing: He was blowing up and burning down his whole scene, the way a militant punker would, and the divorce would be symbolized on his face. Then widely known as Johnny Bangs for his haircut that made his bangs jut from his head like a unicorn horn, he cut off his namesake bangs in favor of a buzzcut. Bangerter had found a new muse.
A year prior to Fuck, Shit, Piss breaking up, Bangerter had met an older man who got him a construction job that paid $1 more per hour than he’d been making. The man invited Bangerter, 17, to a meeting of an anti-government tax-resistance group Committee of the States, founded by anti-Jewish activist Col. William Gale.
As Bangerter was wooed by the far-right anti-government scene, he began recruiting young people from the punk scene, pulling them into his meetings and organizing them under the name Vegas Skinheads. “They were a bunch of guys with shaved heads who, months earlier, had mohawks,” he says.
Asked what made him so angry—his family’s exposure to radiation, his terrible experience in Las Vegas public schools, his family torn apart and run out of town by moralistic Mormons?—he sort of shrugs. It’s all of those things, and none of them, he says—even Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” segments made him hate the government.
It’s far more clear what led him to racism. As Bangerter tells it, the racists like Aryan Nations were the only militant anti-government people he found. He’d grown contemptuous of left-leaning groups who, in order to stop nuclear power plants, lay down in the road to be arrested, rather than provoke revolution. He’d tired of the punks, he’d tired of liberals. Johnny Bangs’ future was in right-wing insurrection.
Christian Identity Skinheads
Still working in construction, Bangerter began his rise as a skinhead leader.
He estimates that in the late 1980s, there were maybe 300 skinhead-identified people in his community, many who saw him as a star in the movement. The Las Vegas Review-Journal already referred to him as a “notorious” skinhead leader.
During the gaming commission’s investigation, the militant Jewish Defense Organization came to protest the hotel in March 1989. About 20 of Bangerter’s skinheads showed up to support the casino, chanting, “Heil Hitler.” According to news reports, a fight broke out between protesters, and nine people from both sides were arrested.
The day after appearing on national news with his 500-name hit list, Bangerter’s home was raided by law enforcement. “They kicked in the doors, they had a search warrant, [FBI agents] were accompanied by Las Vegas Metro Intelligence,” Bangerter says.
One cop figured out they were a bunch of 15- to 20-year-old punks manipulating the media to get attention. He seemed to want to give them an out.
“A cop tells me, ‘You’ve got 500 counts of solicitation of murder, if this is a hit list,’ ” Bangerter says. “ ‘If this is just a hate list, you can go on hatin’ whoever you want. So is this a hit list or a hate list?’ I said, “ ‘Well—it’s a hate list.’ ”
Later, Bangerter appeared as a militant racist on The Montel Williams Show, and his sister and mother appeared on Geraldo for a show about women in the racist movement.
But a number of Bangerter’s actions were neither violent, racist nor anti-Semitic, like Operation Burning Bush. Upon the invasion of Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm, Bangerter and his crew subverted a federal program promoting letters of support to members of the military. For 25 cents, you could send a letter addressed to “any serviceman.” Bangerter and his band printed and mailed thousands of fliers portraying President George H.W. Bush being burned at a stake and asking the soldiers to revolt. Bangerter says that their P.O. box was seized, and they received threatening letters from the Department of Defense, but no legal charges ever resulted. Newspapers nationwide carried the story.
At this point, the Las Vegas home of Bangerter, his wife and kids, and his mother and stepdad was surrounded by chicken wire, and they’d built a defensive bunker in their front yard. They had been the targets of multiple drive-by shootings—Bangerter remembers that Las Vegas residents reported hundreds of residential drive-by shootings each year during this time.
In 1991, race riots broke out across the country. They also struck Las Vegas, which prompted Johnny Bangerter to relocate. Sensing it was a moment of revolution and chaos—something like end times brought on by race war—his family and followers headed for La Verkin, Utah, where they hoped to organize a militia and defend themselves.
Lion in Zion
Upon arriving in Utah in 1991, Bangerter’s Vegas-formed groups Las Vegas Skinheads and Christian Identity Skinheads became the Army of Israel. He continued his work in construction, as did some of his friends. Others worked in restaurants, but they all became mini-celebrities of reality-television caliber in small-town Utah. “We caused a big scene in Utah in ’91 and I played on my last name. I knew my last name in Utah held significance, so I used it,” Bangerter says.
The Army of Israel attended city-council meetings, published a newsletter with 150 subscribers, organized a small skinhead rally in Salt Lake City, and disrupted an October 1994 meeting in St. George that had been called to discuss issues of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“Everything and everyone seemed rehearsed, as if they were going through the minimal motions to guarantee news reports,” says Dave Nelson, a longtime Salt Lake City LGBT rights activist who was at the meeting. “If that was the muscle of Utah white supremacy, I was left unimpressed.”
Bangerter traveled to Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, where federal law-enforcement officials were seeking to enforce weapons charges against anti-government isolationist Randy Weaver. After a 10-day standoff at the remote property in northern Idaho, they ended up killing Weaver’s wife and child; a U.S. marshal was also killed.
Even though he took loads of ammunition to Idaho, Bangerter says he only peacefully picketed, supporting Weaver and taunting federal officials. Having known Weaver prior to the standoff, Bangerter says, he spoke with Weaver during the standoff and urged him to end the raid.
Bangerter also traveled to Waco, Texas, in 1993, to support the Branch Davidians religious group in their standoff with federal agents and the Texas National Guard, which resulted in the deaths of the Branch Davidians’ leader, David Koresh, and 76 other Branch Davidians after a 51-day siege.
The Branch Davidians helped make him more skeptical of racists, Bangerter says, as some of the Aryan Nation-aligned groups refused to stand in solidarity with the Davidians due to conflicting doomsday politics: Koresh stood in solidarity with the Zionists of Israel, the white supremacists’ archenemies.
The Ruby Ridge and the Branch Davidians standoffs would catalyze the nascent militia movement, making an increasing number of Americans question the government’s authority and violent tactics.
McVeigh and Nichols had several connections to the militia movement. It wasn’t just Bangerter’s world McVeigh was connected to, but also Bangerter himself—ever so loosely. Phone records from McVeigh’s trial allegedly show phone calls between John Bangerter’s father’s house and a known member of the Michigan Militia, which held a meeting attended by Terry Nichols shortly before the bombing, though Bangerter denies a personal connection to the bombing.
He believes Oklahoma City was an inside job, perpetrated by the government to delegitimize the anti-government movement that Ruby Ridge and Waco had ignited. The phone records, Bangerter says, were faked, and he believes he narrowly escaped being framed and implicated in the bombing.
But maybe that’s just John Bangerter, still “screaming” after all these years. Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, covered the Oklahoma City bombing and trial for USA Today and today tracks racist leaders.
He recalls Bangerter’s legacy in the racist movement not as an influential philosopher or ideologue, nor as a real soldier or general, but as a “screamer”–someone who makes threats but never cocks a gun in pursuit of the goal.
Potok says despite Bangerter’s penchant for violent talk but no violent action, there was something genuinely very frightening about him during his racist days. “There are plenty of guys out there with racist dispositions, but he was so amped up on speed he looked incredibly dangerous.”
In a 1997 segment of 48 Hours, the sheriff of Washington County registered concern that all of then-28-year-old Bangerter’s big talk and big anger might force Bangerter to act someday. The sheriff also complained about the media making southern Utah look like a home for kooks.
The episode featured Bangerter and his newly named Rocky Mountain Militia. Cameras followed Bangerter as he resisted going to court for some traffic violations. The sheriff met with Bangerter politely to coax him into court—and, after a lot of buildup that leaves the viewer expecting a violent standoff, Bangerter eventually voluntarily went to court.
After the taping ended, Bangerter would indeed fail to appear in court after having moved to a St. George apartment for 10 months—more of a hideout than a standoff, but defiant nevertheless. When police found him there, they arrested him. He did a little time in prison—which he served at “Purgatory,” the Washington County Jail—on two stints: a couple of months in 1998 for carrying a loaded weapon and evading police, and nine months in 2000 after being arrested for possession of methamphetamine. But his six years of frequent meth use distracted him significantly from self-righteous race pride.
“[Methamphetamine] was probably the best medicine I’d ever had, as far as moving me away from the white-supremacy bullshit,” Bangerter says.
During his second sentencing hearing, Bangerter renounced the Aryan Nations and white supremacy. Though his star power had faded significantly by then, the local media were still there to report on his fate. But for the first time, what he was saying wasn’t mostly for the cameras.
Since starting on his racist ride in the 1980s, Bangerter had had four kids. His oldest son came out of the closet as gay around 2000, just after Bangerter got out of prison the second time. Soon, his daughter would marry a part-Hispanic man. This all forced Bangerter and his family to reassess, and by then, everyone’s fervor for white power had waned—and the dream of a militia-lead insurrection with it.
After he got out of prison, he refocused his life. He re-established his punk band in 2001 with a couple of new members. He moved back to Las Vegas for some time, still working construction, then moved back to southern Utah in 2005, where he’s been ever since.
“I’ve been dormant,” Bangerter says. “I’ve changed my name to Johnny Bangs, my old punk-rock name. I’m under the radar. I dropped out of the race.”
Now older, bigger and barely more docile, this grizzly is awaking from hibernation to the sound of gun fire. Bangerter attended rallies with supporters of Danielle Willard, 21, shot dead by West Valley Police in November 2012; Corey Kanosh, 35, shot dead by a Millard County Sheriff’s deputy in October 2012; and Kelly Simons, 38, shot dead in Salt Lake City by a Joint Criminal Apprehension Team in January 2013; and others. He also spends countless hours on Facebook connecting victims of police violence to one another across the country. That’s where the whispers about his racist past pop up. “I’m pretty sure that’s Neo-Nazi John Bangerter from Southern Utah,” people warn when his name pops up on newspaper comment boards or Facebook.
But he has even bigger worries than what his new comrades think of his past. “I have a genuine concern for my family’s safety. The only people I worry about murdering me are old people from the radical right and the federal government,” Bangerter says. “Because I said racism is wrong, homophobia is wrong, because I joined a Gay-Straight Alliance with my son. I’ve done things that lead to certain execution in the radical right.”
Looking back, Bangerter is ambivalent about his involvement in the skinhead/militia movement. He says he’s not proud of it, but also says he has no regrets. You might say he’s still processing it. After all, a person doesn’t erase internalized racism simply by desiring to do so. “My [mother’s father] was half Cherokee Indian,” he says. “That’s how I got my high cheek bones and probably where I get my bad temper when I drink.” He jokes about his part-Jewish father being really good at pinching pennies to start a vending-machine business.
But however great or lean his progress is, Bangerter’s urge to fight the government—and oppression—has been reignited.
Jesse Fruhwirth is a former City Weekly staff writer and is now a full-time community organizer and movement journalist reporting issues of the prison-industrial complex and climate justice. Find him on Twitter @fruhwirth or go to http://ut4ps.tumblr.com.