Punk Rock and Protest
Growing up, I learned the word solidarity from a vocabulary flash card. It was not something I had ever felt until my shoe became untied in the mosh pit at a NOFX concert in the early 2000s. When I knelt to re-tie it, four strangers formed a wall around my crouching body to protect me from errant moshers and crowd surfers. There was an unspoken understanding that as members of a common subculture, you owed it to the sweaty, leather-clad rocker next to you to look after one another. An aging punk in a Pennywise T-shirt offered a hand and pulled me to my feet once I’d finished a double knot. This was the model for fellowship and cooperation that shaped my politics and that I’ve been heartened to see as a point of emphasis in the Black Lives Matter movement. My participation in punk rock and my activity in the movement have often felt like two sides of the same coin.
Flash forward to this past fall, when Dr. Cornel West helped launch the month-long protest known as Rise Up October at my campus by explaining, “we have to be in genuine solidarity with people catching hell, I don’t care who they are.”
That statement resonated with what my apprenticeship in the mosh pit taught me. Rise Up October was a massive protest against state violence, drawing attention to the plight of diverse communities targeted by excessive police force. West’s directive was invoking, in a dramatically different setting, the same spirit of mutual obligation that I learned on the sticky, beer-sopped floors of the Washington D.C. punk-rock scene.
And as the protests took off throughout New York, a more intimate and ground-level spirit of solidarity took hold. At the various marches and demonstrations on campus that would culminate in the Rise Up October rally in Manhattan on October 24, students took turns sharing their stories and commiserating about the challenges of navigating Columbia as a person of color, a queer person, or both. That fall, campus uprisings against institutional white supremacy at schools such as Clemson, Yale, and Princeton (among others) were dominating national news and our social media feeds. Standing against police brutality was the primary catalyst for Rise Up October, but our conversations reflected a more thoroughgoing opposition to systemic injustice. You could feel among us a palpable excitement that something historic might be brewing: the first stirrings of a transracial and cross-cultural movement acknowledging the continuities between struggles of class, gender, race, and orientation. More heartening still, the Rise Up October masses were ingeniously seeking to employ those links as an impetus to close ranks rather than to engage in tiresome Oppression Olympics.
As my own generation accepts the social justice baton from our forebears, I’ve wondered what the score to our leg of the struggle might sound like.
UCLA and Columbia Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw was a featured speaker on the same panel at Columbia as West. Crenshaw is best known for introducing and developing the intersectional theory—which holds that multiple oppressions can and should be called out and faced down in simultaneous concert. She stoked the crowd by listing the names of black trans women who died at the hands of police under questionable circumstances. She challenged us to utter their names in remembrance, to invoke slain black trans women as totems until they achieve the same currency and prominence as doleful household names like Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. I was already a veteran of countless similar gatherings, and yet many of the names Crenshaw read aloud were unfamiliar to me. It was a reminder that sexism and transphobia can lurk unchecked in the heart of anti-racist resistance: genuine solidarity demands the mutual recognition that we don’t all catch hell via the same vectors.
It seemed fitting, in this context, that punk rock should have served as my first major object lesson in how solidarity works. Punk obviously wasn’t the rebel music of my ancestors. When I think of my primary school lessons about African-American history, I remember the grainy footage of black people in their Sunday best occupying segregated lunch counters, with a soundtrack of primitively recorded spirituals playing in the background. Once in a while it was Pete Seeger’s ringing voice leading marchers in “We Shall Overcome” that accompanied scenes of a grim-faced Martin Luther King, Jr., arms locked with others. But as my own generation accepts the social justice baton from our forebears, I’ve wondered what the score to our leg of the struggle might sound like. Punk has traditionally served as an outlet for white male unrest, but its anti-establishment and community-driven ethos shares a crucial, if unlikely-seeming, creative synergy with this particular incarnation of black radicalism.
This affinity stands out in stronger relief when we trace the migration of the punk ethos beyond its founding cohort of bored and angry suburban white dudes. Where Beyonce’s recent forays into overtly political songcraft draw on the experiences of girls who run the world, punk rock is the vessel for girls who’ve deemed the world too abhorrent to inhabit in its current state. Enter G.L.O.S.S., the Olympia, Washington-based quintet whose name is an initialism for “Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit.” The band, which consists of five trans, queer, femme musicians, stormed punk’s boys’ club with 2015’s Demo. Their latest release, Trans Day of Revenge, is more notable for its embrace of refreshingly multivocal politics than the relatively paint-by-numbers hardcore compositions serving as the vehicle for these sentiments. Somehow, the nondescript instrumental backing actually works in the band’s favor. It’s as if an audacious new voice—that of frontwoman Sadie Switchblade—has sprung from the wings to annex the microphone by force and impose herself over punk’s regularly scheduled programming.
The album’s opener, “Give Violence A Chance,” may be the first punk song to marry a social critique that echoes W.E.B. DuBois with chord progressions indebted to Black Flag. Over thunderous drums and strident guitar downstrokes, Switchblade lays waste to the notion that a system can ever fail those it was never meant to protect. “The investigation is a fucking con/the truth is known beneath the gun,” she growls before concluding, “Black lives don’t matter in the eyes of the law.”
The wry inversion of Civil Rights-era pacifism continues on firestarters like “Fight” (“we’ve got to stand up and mask up/and drive out their kind!”) and the title track. Admittedly, there’s a danger in taking these agitprop provocations too literally. (And there’s an obvious divergence with the likes of Cornel West, who pointedly cited songs like the O’Jays’ “Love Train” and the Isley Brothers’ “Caravan of Love” during his appearances at the Rise Up October rallies.) The larger point here is that, regardless of the sincerity behind the group’s advocacy of violent resistance, G.L.O.S.S. delivers a forceful and cathartic articulation of a specific angst. And that howl of resistance has become especially urgent in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in American history, earlier this month at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The tragedy took the lives of 49 members of the LGBTQ community, most of whom were people of color.
The Black Lives Matter movement stands to gain more than marching songs you can slamdance to.
The rhetoric suffusing the lyrics on Trans Day of Revenge also directly reflects the success of the Black Lives Matter movement in elevating the discourse on racial justice and foregrounding the voices of queer black women within it. Founded by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors in 2012, Black Lives Matter breaks from the black radical tradition by highlighting the integral contributions of queer, trans, and disabled people. These populations are all affected by anti-blackness in ways that are specific to their various identities—and that lend depth and new dimensions to the black struggle for justice. Historically, the recipe for a successful black political movement demanded a charismatic cis male at the head of the pack. The pointed divergence from that blueprint may contribute to the movement’s capacity to unite a broader, more diverse coalition, and to create and sustain a movement that includes many people like the members of G.L.O.S.S.
The black community and the transgender community share a fraught relationship with police. Both communities have been disproportionately targeted by the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk campaign. According to a study conducted by Make the Road New York, 59 percent of respondents in Jackson Heights, Queens who identified as transgender reported being stopped and frisked. And almost half of those respondents reported that they’d also been physically harassed by police. In light of this week’s high-profile police shootings of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the fear and outrage that first inspired Black Lives Matter protests is fresh in the nation’s mind. By tying their own persecution to the quest for racial justice, G.L.O.S.S. demonstrates a distinctly BLM-era awareness of our social and political interdependence in a culture infatuated with individualism.
And this, in turn, bodes well for the shape of punk to come. Trans Day of Revenge has the potential to become a foundation for the next generation of protest music: intersectional, inclusive, uncompromising, and conversant with the street-level concerns of marginalized communities. Likewise, the Black Lives Matter movement stands to gain more than marching songs you can slamdance to. Bands like G.L.O.S.S point the way forward for a protest sensibility that can viscerally connect with audiences that sidewalk megaphones don’t always reach. The symbiosis between punk and Black Lives Matter is still nascent, but for those of us in the trenches catching hell, it’s a match made in heaven.