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.”
But Bangerter’s time in Las Vegas public schools was also racially charged and exceedingly violent. He was bussed to the black side of town and recalls extreme racial animosity.
“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.
Nazi Punks “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.
Bangerter dropped out of school and got a job in construction. “I wanted to stay home, be able to go to punk rock gigs and stay out late, smoke pot and do drugs, and do what I wanted. You couldn’t do that with school,” Bangerter says.
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.