Wild in the Streets:
Worldwide Punk and Social Justice Efforts
**This article should be read at MAXIMUM VOLUME**
The year was 1990: the U.S. and U.K. launched “Operation Desert Storm” against Iraq after their invasion of Kuwait; the Berlin Wall came down; Nelson Mandela was released from prison; Mikhail Gorbachev wins the Nobel Peace Prize, and earthquake kills over 50,000 people in Iran; and I got kicked in the face for the first time at an anti-war music festival.
It was an amazing time to discover punk.
So, What IS Punk, Anyway?
What do you think your leaders mean
destroying the world of today
it means that they don’t really give a damn
all they care about is their greed
spending money on bombs and guns
more than on the human race
but who are the ones that will have to pay
disease and starvation they create
– Tomorrow Belongs to Us, The Casualties
Punk is, by nature, indefinable. It is often easier to explain it by what it is not. Punk is not a movement nor a fashion, not a hairstyle, a music genre or a philosophy- though it can incorporate any or all of these things. In his book “Taqwacores” (2004), Michael Muhammed Knight writes, “this word ‘punk’ does not mean anything tangible like ‘tree’ or ‘car.’ Rather punk is like a flag; an open symbol, it only means what people believe it means.” Ian McKaye, legendary punk musician and writer adds, “The laziest scholarship on punk treats it as a unified, cohesive community, more nuanced scholars writing on punk begin with the observation that it is impossible to define” (McKaye, Global Punk, 2016).
In keeping with my punk, which is dynamic and diverse, anti-establishment, raw, and unpretentious, I will save you from drawn-out pseudoscientific ramblings that attempt to pin down what this thing is and just take you for a ride.We’ll start with a brief examination of how punk and skinhead lifestyle(s) are represented in mainstream versus alternative medias, then go on a global tour of how punk transcends country and culture, gives rise to the voice of the marginalised, and grapples with issues of oppression/suppression and social change.
So, strap your boots up tight and let’s go!
Junkies and Nazis- Mainstream Media Portrayals
Undermine their pompous authority
reject their moral standards, make anarchy
and disorder your trademarks.
Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible,
but don’t ever let them take you ALIVE!
The most famous of all punk-focused movies is the 1986 film, Sid & Nancy, based on the true story of Sid Vicious (real name: John Ritchie) bass player for the prominent punk band The Sex Pistols and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. The film both glorified the duo’s turbulent romance, and damned them for their addictions to heroin, Nancy’s work as a prostitute, and their tragic deaths- hers by stabbing, for which Sid was arrested, and his by overdose less than a four months later.
The film was received with much acclaim for it’s cinematic intensity, brilliant actors, and unflinching look at the 1970’s punk scene. However, some critics have noted the troublesome “depoliticized mythologization of the title characters … [whose] politics are largely eclipsed by a depiction of the (ultimately disastrous) vicissitudes of romantic love” (Goss, 2000) and the problematic vilification of Nancy in particular, she faced double-standards regarding sexual activity and drug-abuse that her male contemporaries- who were glamourising their own roles these activities- did not (Woolston, 2012). Nancy Spungen was, in fact, far above average intellect and skilled in photography, band management, and an athletically gifted skier, among other talents (Spungen, 1983).
The film followed the standard media characterisation of punks as drug-addicted, no-talent losers that came about during the 1970’s and early 80’s, when the conservative governments of Britain and the United States launched a war on “punk-related disorders” over “moral panic” related to “unruly youth” (Goss, 2000).
The most notorious of punk icons, GG Allin, did little to assuage the public panic over degeneracy with his intentionally depraved public antics. With his (typically nude) performances including self-mutilation, coprophagy, and both physical and sexual attacks on audience members, Allin made headlines and created media sensationalism wherever he went.
In 1993, daytime talk show host, Jerry Springer, invited Allin and some of his entourage onto his show. Springer interrogated Allin for nearly an hour on bestiality, rape, and violence. Allin played to the audience, accomplishing his goal of shocking and appalling “the norms” (as he disparagingly referred to the average American), and ratings rose for the show. It was a coup for both host and guest, but it was another blow for worldwide punk as Allin became the poster child for villainy.
They ask why do we dress this way
Live for now–Don’t understand today
See the kids–But don’t hear what they say
Close your eyes and look the other way
Say the end justifies the means
Gonna lock us up and throw away the keys
–Crucified, Agnostic Front
Skinheads have always been a part of punk culture. From their beginnings working alongside Jamaican immigrants in the British factories and playing in reggae music, creating unique “ska” sound in the late 1960’s, they embraced the “aggressively multiracial youth culture” (Heathcott, 2003) which punk was also born into. There was an immediate backlash to this burgeoning subculture on the part of government and law enforcement officials who saw white working class youth adopting the music and fashion styles of Jamaican “Rude Boys” as a new form of deviancy (Heathcott, 2003). This exacerbated feelings of alienation in the youth who, in turn, further rejected the discriminating politics of the time (Wood, 1999) and found themselves aligned with punks, mods, metalheads, and other marginalised subculture groups of the time.
Regardless of these nonracist origins, to which a large number of “traditional skinheads” continue to uphold, by the 1980’s “mainstream media coverage of skinheads focuses almost exclusively on a singular, homogeneous, subculture associated with violence, racism, and xenophobia. When documentaries and reports of skinheads are aired the public is primarily introduced to members of neo-nazi groups, racist individuals associated with less organized skinhead gangs, and ‘hate rock’” (Sarabia & Shriver, 2010). Nowhere is this more pronounced than on the daytime talk-show circuit that erupted in popularity after hosts such as Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera, Phil Donohue, and Jerry Springer saw rating rise after incendiary guests appeared and began to intentionally recruit ever more loud and distasteful characters to their shows, and to bait them into arguments whenever possible.
Buoyed by this interest in the shock value, and fervour around tales of hatred and violence, filmmakers began to churn out fiction films based on the neo-nazi skinhead narrative. The unfortunate outcome of this was an increased enlistment of racists into the skinhead ranks, further alienating those non racist skinheads who also, by merit of similar haircut and fashion stylings, were perceived to be bigots.
Outcasts and AntiHeroes- Alternative Media Portrayals
This is the best home any of us have ever had, and besides,
if we didn’t have each other, we wouldn’t have anything
– Jack, Suburbia
As opposed to conventional outlets, which render punks and skinheads as cautionary tales, independent filmmakers offer more complex versions of their characters- and typically focus on small, tight-knit groups that rely on one another for support and love. One of the first, and certainly one of the most influential films of this genre was Suburbia.
Additionally, alternative media highlights the racial and ethnic components that have been a driving force of punk from its inception. In the 2013 documentary, A Band Called Death, filmmakers Mark Corvino and Jeff Howlett demonstrate through archival recordings and “lost” footage how the prototypical punk sound was created by a Detroit trio of brothers whose band was named “Death.”
As far as skinheads are concerned, independent filmmakers are not turning a blind eye to the presence of extremism and discrimination in the ranks. However, many are offering examples of those skins who push back against this- either “officially” as a S.H.A.R.P (Skinhead Against Racial Prejudice), or individually within their peer group(s).
Unfortunately, these non-hegemonic storylines do not sell box office tickets, nor do they get academics promoted to tenure. “There is a large gap between the reality of skinhead culture and its depiction in much of the media and academic literature” (Marmysz, 2013). As such, there is little in the way of formal research on caring, supportive, and multidimensional punk and skinhead counterculture characters.
You know the time is right to take control,
we gotta take offense against the status quo
No way, not gonna stand for it today, fight for your rights,
it’s time we had our say
– Fuck Authority, Pennywise
Despite the public push-back against punk, the culture has continued to expand. Antiestablishmentarianism is a global concept, and social resistance groups- particularly youth subsets- have embraced the political radicalism and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethos that punk purveyors have upheld since the mid 1970’s. In the next section, we will explore some ways in which punks and skinheads have been tackling issues both locally, and globally.
Indonesia – Embodying Resistance
People die in police custody
Where’s the justice in that?
Don’t see none
Fight the system, fight back.
– Fight Back, Discharge
“Indonesia is home to what is almost certainly the largest punk movement in Southeast Asia, and one of the largest in the world” (Wallach, 2008). Some scholars are lamenting the “idleness” of Indonesian youth, and attempt to attribute this to lose family values and/or the rise of “leisure culture” (Elfindri et al, 2015). The correlations are weak, though, and fail to touch on the hyper-politicisation of youth culture and subsequent disenchantment with status quo expectations and rejection of societal norms. Punk dissent in a culture that values conformity and subservience creates fear and confusion in outsiders to the community. (Pickles, 2007).
In 2011, sixty-five people were arrested in Banda Aceh at a punk show. They were detained, had their heads shaved and many were sent to police “reeducation” schools (Johnson and Werman, 2012).
In communities where state-sanctioned violence is the norm, punk offers “ a place of refuge from families who don’t understand the aspirations of their youth, and from a society preoccupied with other issues. These groups provide a sense of belonging and family-like support for members … the underground scene is open for all to join and participate in. Money and education are not barriers” (Pickles 2000). Instead of responding to police violence with further violence, street punks came together to form ukulele bands and busk in tourist areas, with lyrics that explain their plight.
Myanmar – Addressing Hunger
Hey! Can you hear me out?
You just load us down with sanctions
But you’ll never understand our broken dreams.
– The Change, Side Effect
Approximately 33% of the population in Myanmar suffers from malnutrition (Parmar, et al, 2015) and growing numbers of homeless in cities, as rent rates skyrocket with the influx of international business and affordable housing projects are torn down and residents are displaced to make way for tourist interests (Zaw and Solomon, 2015).
In Yangon, a punk band created the nation’s first Food Not Bombs chapter work to feed the city’s hungry and disseminate information about human rights and local social service agencies. After participating in the “Saffron Revolution,” a 2007 political protest, led by Buddhist monks, Kyaw Kyaw (band lead singer and spokesperson) said “I realized I had to do something, rather than just sing about changing the system” (Gregoire, 2015).
Taqwacores – Fighting Islamophobia
I stopped trying to define punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam. They aren’t so far removed as you’d think. Both began in tremendous bursts of truth and vitality….you cannot hold punk or Islam in your hands. So what could they mean besides what they mean to you?
– Michael Muhammad Knight, The Taqwacores
The word “Taqwa” in the Quran indicates a consciousness of the truth and/or a respect for Allah.
When Michael Muhammed Knight penned the novel, Taqwacores, about a college student that moves in to an off-campus Muslim punk anarchist house, he had no idea that he was giving voice to an entire movement. “It may seem circuitous to consult novels to learn about the political intentions of Muslim-Americans. Nevertheless, novels can provide far more than pleasure or diversion for readers. They can even change our lives. In fact, they ought to if we read them religiously” (Hampton, 2011). Many Muslim youth feel alienated from both Islam and from secular society (McDowell, 2014). They use punk as a means to negotiate and reconcile with these sometimes opposing forces in their lives (Murthy, 2010). The novel spawned both a film based on the book, and documentary film about several real-life Muslim punk bands travelling and performing together.
Like the character of Rabeya in the book, female Taqwacores seek to overturn the imagery of Muslim women as ignorant, submissive, and indoctrinated into oppressed by their religion (Navarro, 2010) by parodying the very signifiers of their faith- the hijab , niqab, or burqa- making them a symbol of visibility, rather than invisibility (Haines, 2015).
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Muslim S.H.A.R.Ps hosted a two-day concert to combat racial, religious and sexual violence gathering “roughly 200 skinheads from Japan, Thailand, and Malaysia” (Rasfan, 2015). This was not the first, but perhaps the largest gathering in Malaysia.
“‘Being a skinhead in Malaysia means embracing positive, anti-racist ideas of sociopolitical change to challenge our racist government,’ says Rozaimin Elias, 34, one of Penang’s leading anti-fascist skinheads and bassist in Kuala Lumpur-based band Street Boundaries” (Ferrarse, 2015).
Botswana- Metalhead March Against Poverty
Sitting on your savings
Scared of people knowing
Where are you gonna put the money
What if someone robs you
–The Miseries, Skinflint
Despite gains in tourism, which has raised the overall GDP of Botswana, very little of this income has filtered to local communities (Muchapondwa and Stage, 2013) and families continue to experience “landlessness, economic disparity… gender oppression and incurable diseases such as HIV and AIDS” (Ruele, 2011).
In May 2015, Botswanan metalheads staged a large-scale march/ride to raise money and attention to poverty in their country (Eremionkhale. 2015). The gathering drew international press and the core group called The Renegades by locals are “seen as protectors of the community with a strong awareness of social responsibility” (Nessy, 2013).
Cuba – HIV Prevention
Hope I don’t break down,
I won’t take anything, I don’t need anything,
Don’t want to exist, I can’t persist
– Infected, Bad Religion
In the 1980’s, under Fidel Castro’s regime, “Cuba imposed a mandatory quarantine of its first HIV-infected individuals at health resorts or sanatoria” (Anderson, 2009). A US delegation that visited a sanatorium in 1988 described it to the LA Times as “pleasant, but frightening” (Zonana, 1988). In fact, they were so pleasant- with their ample food supplies, safe housing and freedoms of access to non-sanctioned international media- that a group of punks decided to move in. It began with a young man named Papo who, seeking freedom from what he considered to be absolute denigration on the streets of Havana, intentionally injected himself with a syringe full of blood from an HIV-positive friend. At the sanatorium, he quickly set about building a sort of “punk wonderland,” where they could listen to US-based bands, and began playing their own music.
Up to sixty young men and women, mostly in the 17-18 year old range, self administered the virus to join “Los Frikis,” as the group came to know itself. They thought the government would find a cure. Instead, they began to die.
Maria Gattorno was the owner of a popular music venue in Havana called “Maria’s Patio.” She saw the punks leaving and never coming back, and decided to launch a campaign to inform her community about the myths and realities of HIV/AIDS (Overhaus, 2015). Rock vs AIDS was initiated in 1991, and “written and directed by the rockers themselves. [We] would give them the content and the rockers would translate it into their own lingo because it’s one thing to be told about something by your peers, and another to be told by your mom…it was an interesting project, and even to this day there are kids—now grown men—who will come up and tell me that I saved their life” (Gattorno, 2015).
Listen to a full-length audio documentary about Los Frikis through THIS LINK.
Russia- Feminist Protest
When she talks, I hear the revolution
In her hips, there’s revolutions
When she walks, the revolution’s coming
In her kiss, I taste the revolution!
– Rebel Girl, Bikini Kill
In February of 2012, a group of brightly dressed women in balaclavas entered Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and began to play a one-minute song they wrote called “Punk Prayer.” Not formally a band, “rather a political collective, fighting against the authoritarian Putin regime and for the rights of women and LGBTs, for social justice and for environmentalist issues” (Willems, 2014), the group intentionally provoked their own arrests to bring attention to the Russian Orthodox Church’s repressive stance and their exertion of control over the Vladimir Putin headed government (Storch, 2014).
The arrest of three women associated and their incarceration, for which they were deemed “political prisoners” by the press, succeeded in its attempt to draw international focus to the circumstances facing marginalised groups in Russia. While imprisoned, they attracted the solidarity of Western feminists and since their release have been touring the United States and Europe and using social media to draw attention to various causes (Weij et al, 2015). Their “legitimacy” as former political prisoners, combined with their Pied-Piper-esque media strategy have uniquely positioned them to advance sociopolitical actions globally. They continue to disseminate videos, publish essays and journalistic articles on social justice issues, and recently produced an anti-censorship play.
It was once believed that punk was a fad, a fashion or music style that would fade out as its adherents aged and “grew out of it.” Instead, the movement has continued to spread- its malleability to different social and political contexts, and DIY motivations, make it accessible to disenfranchised peoples everywhere. “Punk rock won’t change the world, it already has” (Dunn, 2015).
Punk is not static.
Punk is dynamic.
Punk is change.
And change is inevitable.
About the Author
Punk is not dead.
Punk will only die when corporations
can exploit and mass produce it.
-Jello Biafra, lead singer of The Dead Kennedys
Leanne Simon found punk in the Summer of 1989, just after her 12th birthday. The scene gave her a proxy family, DIY ethic, and increased political awareness. By age fifteen, she was living in a punk house with Food Not Bombs organisers, SHARP skinheads, riot grrls, mohawked army veterans, and Palestinian metalheads. From this motley gang of misfits, and lyrics from bands such as the Dead Kennedys, she learned about issues impacting people in Cambodia, the Middle East, Haiti, and Colombia (among others). This sparked in her a drive to explore the world and work to undermine the politics and processes that keep people in poverty and oppression.
She is currently in Australia on a Rotary Peace Fellowship, attending the University of Queensland in Masters of International Studies, Peace and Conflict Resolution, program. Her focus is on children and families in conflict, or post-conflict and disaster zones, using documentary arts to promote resiliency in communities through narrative therapy and advancement of local causes through the words of the people in affected areas.
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