On a beautiful spring afternoon in 1996, one of my best friends and I walked into a room packed full of punks and skinheads in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Both of us had fallen in love hard with Punk Rock the year before. We lived and breathed for the next show. We had recently seen a flier at a record store for a Two-Tone Ska and Punk show happening at a community hall in Lancaster. My friend convinced his beleaguered and loving mother to make the drive from neighboring Southern York County to Lancaster so we could spend the day dancing with all the other punk rockers and moonstompers. The names of the bands who played have long since faded from my memory. I do, however remain certain my friend and I were the youngest kids at the show, all nervous with our charged hair and Doc Martens. I will confess to a certain youthful naiveté here, still new to the subculture and susceptible to some negative stereotypes about punks leftover from the 80’s. That is to say, I went everywhere, even punk shows expecting trouble, in a constant state of alert.
My friend and I quickly realized we had no reason to worry. The crowd of punks and skinheads inside the hall were exuberant and friendly. The older punks asked us where we were from. They taught us how to skank. All the punks danced hard, yet without aggression or maliciousness. When someone fell, there was always a set of hands reaching down to lift them back to their feet within seconds. My friend and I lost ourselves like that, stomping to the music until the show ended and it was time to return to our small town. Before we left, we hit up a table towards the back of hall filled with information from Anti-Racist Action (Antifa’s spiritual predecessor) to grab some zines and stickers. I spent three dollars on a “DESTROY FASCISM” patch. The patch was a simple embroidered design of a red star stomping on a swastika, a voice bubble emanating from the star with the words “Fight Back”. That patch adorned almost every punk jacket I wore for the remainder of the 90’s. I did not learn to sew until I was almost 18, relying instead on safety pins to affix patches to my jackets. This meant the patch was easily transferable from garment to garment.
I lost that patch somewhere down the years. Reading the news this morning, I wish I still had it. I hardly believe something as symbolic as wearing a patch on my clothing will stop a rising tide of fascism in its tracks, but I believe in wearing your heart on your sleeve. These days too, I find comfort in remembering where I come from in a world where I feel as uncertain of our species’ collective future as I ever have. This is why I still adhere to lace codes in my Doc Martens. Yellow straight laces to signify to the few people I pass by on the street who might be versed in obscure subcultural fashion codes from a bygone era that these boots are laced up to stomp out fascism.
If you came up punk in the 90’s, you probably hated fascism and Nazism with fervent vitriol, even if you had the only the most rudimentary understanding of said concepts. This too, was a sentiment leftover from the 80’s when groups like Anti-Racist Action organized with punks across the country, fighting and often bleeding to remove the filth of fascism from their scenes and cities. By the time my friends and I came up, the violence was finally dwindling. A.R.A. pushed to make punk and Oi shows inhospitable for fascist recruitment. Nazi skinheads attacked minorities and menaced punks at shows, but with a growing rarity. In Rural Pennsylvania, they served as an omnipresent threat, yet just as often unseen menace.
When we weren’t at shows, my friends and I smoked weed in the woods away from the prying eyes (and noses!) of parents, then rushed back to our bedrooms to put Crass records on the turntable and pore over the lyrics. Crass’ talk of neo-fascism in songs like The Gasman Cometh and Yes Sir, I Will record scared the shit out of me when I was fifteen and living in a small town, far removed from the grim realities of Cold War Britain. The threat just seemed so far away and impossible. Where I lived, Nazi skinheads showed up at maybe 1 in 10 shows and 9 times out of 10, the punks were ready to stomp them the fuck out the instant they threw their first stiff arm salute.
Sure, we worried that the government was fucked, and might kill us all in a nuclear war. We worried we would get cancer from all the pollutants in the air and water and chemicals in our food. We strained at the leashes held by those that ran a world we were coming to realize we wanted no part of. All the same, I was living in a small town, being raised by a conservative mother in the deceptive, neo-liberal calm of the Clinton years. My mother listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio and raved about the ever-looming threat of SOCIALISM. I listened to punk records and read zines with my friends. The signals were as mixed as they were many. I knew the grim realities of police violence and state control existed, but had not yet witnessed them first hand or felt their hands at my throat. There were two cops in our little town. They both went home at 9:00 PM.
Twenty-two years later, I am no longer young and idealistic. My generation came up in the complacent Pax-Americana of neo-liberalism and the Clinton years. We became adults in the war mongering to the victor go the spoils ruthless profiteering of the Bush years. We watched Obama offer more of the same, albeit with a prettier face as the world spun out further down. Now there are those who would argue that we are in the end stages of capitalism where a bloated system reliant on relentless resource extraction and consumption, dependent on human misery can no longer sustain itself. Those in power are terrified of relinquishing hold on what gives them wealth. We see power resort to ever more drastic measures to hold on, to keep us running in circles; spending, consuming, hurling humanity to its collective mass grave. If history shows us anything, it is that in these moments of crisis and social transformation where malignant ideologies like fascism take root .
Reading the news this morning, I see that the world my fifteen-year-old self both railed against, and simultaneously never believed would actually arrive has indeed arrived. The moral equivalent of the Nazi boneheads we strove to run out of our punk scenes and cities two decades ago have situated themselves as the conductors of this blood soaked horrorshow. The nihilistic apparatus of power seeks to serve only itself, by any means. It tears migrant families apart. It aims to strip legal rights from queer and transgender people. It aims to allow cops murder people of color with impunity, to warehouse them away in prisons. Antisemites are murdering senior citizens in their places of worship. White supremacists, enraged by any modicum of progress made in dismantling the system that upholds their power, emboldened by the current administration are shooting black grandparents in grocery stores. Movements like Black Lives Matter that you know, arose to make the very simple request that black lives be afforded the same dignity, safety and self-determination as their white counterparts are vilified and criminalized, treated as if they are polarizing and partisan. All of this to feed a network of profiteering, gluttonous parasites.
That great and terrible “just around the corner” that Discharge warned us about through a wail of distortion and D-Beats going on forty years ago now, is no longer just around the corner.
It is here.
Times are cold and hard, but this is an argument against despair. This is the time to act. This is the time to organize. Go to shows. Be with your people. Love your friends and watch their backs. Do not give into depression and isolation. Do not give into apathy and indifference. After the gigs get into the streets. Agitate. Go hard. The fascists are not only organizing, but they are murdering people. Their weapons of state control and industry are running riot and literally bleeding our world to death. This is not a grim and potential future we worried about when we were children. This is the painful present. The stakes have never been higher.
This is for the punks, because 40 years of the movement and the music have been preparing us for this very moment. This is for the aging punks. Remember that spirit of rebellion you carried as kids. I am begging you to keep that flame burning now in whatever capacity you can. Your world needs you to keep giving a fuck. Your world needs your anger just like it needs your kindness. Your children need you, because we owe them a world better that the one our parents left us. We owe them a planet with clean air and drinkable water. We owe them a free and just world. We must instill in them the compassion that this culture seeks to stamp out of them as soon as it can.
This is for the young punks, because while “No Future” may have been a hopeless rallying cry worthy of romanticism by punk rockers over four decades, but it’s a fucking copout now. Your world needs you, because the threat to our future has never been greater. Your fellow human beings living without the luxury of romanticized self-destruction need you. Not everyone has the option to give into despair and self-destruction. This is not the time to succumb to nihilism. This is the time to live up to your rebellious potential. This is the time to use your voice, to step into your power and stand fucking hard.
This is what Crass trained you for. This is what The Dead Kennedys prepared you for. This is what The Clash trained you for. Everything happening now, Oi Polloi have been writing more or less the same song about since the 1980’s (Don’t get me wrong! It’s a great song!). This is the war that the Vengeance LP hardened your resolve for throughout countless cold winter punk house bedrooms. There must be no retreat, no surrender, because the time is now nearing midnight, and we are in danger of never greeting the dawn.