‘No Fascist USA!’: how hardcore punk fuels the Antifa movement

The anti-fascist movement draws on punks political awareness and network for activism and right now may be its most crucial moment

No Trump! No KKK! No Fascist USA!

When Green Day chanted the repurposed lyrics from Texan punk trailblazers MDCs 1981 song Born to Die during the 2016 American Music Awards, it gave the burgeoning anti-Trump, anti-fascist movement the slogan it needed and it would soon appear on placards, T-shirts and be chanted by protesters in their thousands in months to come.

It was a tiny piece of punk history writ large on American cultural life but it only gave the merest hint of US hardcore punks influence on the current political landscape.

As political commentators struggle to nail down the exact nature of Antifas masked legions, theyve overlooked one thing: Antifa has been critically influenced by hardcore punk for nearly four decades.

From on the collectivist principles of anarchist punk bands such as Crass and Conflict, the political outrage of groups such as the Dead Kennedys, MDC and Discharge, Antifa draws on decades of protest, self-protection and informal networks under the auspices of a musical movement.

Mark Bray, author of The Antifa Handbook, says that in many cases, the North American modern Antifa movement grew up as a way to defend the punk scene from the neo-Nazi skinhead movement, and the founders of the original Anti-Racist Action network in North America were anti-racist skinheads. The fascist/anti-fascist struggle was essentially a fight for control of the punk scene [during the 1980s], and that was true across of much of north America and in parts of Europe in this era.

Theres a huge overlap between radical left politics and the punk scene, and theres a stereotype about dirty anarchists and punks, which is an oversimplification but grounded in a certain amount of truth.

Drawing influence from anti-fascist groups in 1930s Germany, the UK-based Anti-Fascist Action formed in the late 70s in reaction the growing popularity of rightwing political parties such as the National Front and the British Movement. They would shut down extreme-right meetings at every opportunity, whether it be a march or a gathering in a room above a pub. Inspired by this, anti-racist skinheads in Minneapolis formed Anti-Racist Action, which soon gained traction in punk scenes across the US. Meanwhile, in New York, a movement called Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice sprung up.

The term Antifa was adopted by German antifascists in the 80s, accompanied by the twin-flag logo, which then spread around Europe, and finally pitched up in the US after being adopted by an anarchist collective in Portland, Oregon.

Singer
Singer Thomas Barnett of Strike Anywhere during a 2009 concert in Berlin. Composite: Jakubaszek/Getty Images
For Thomas Barnett, singer with popular hardcore punk band
Strike Anywhere, his punk ethics and the direct-action philosophy of Antifa go hand in hand, and, with Trumps presidency emboldening the extreme right, the stakes couldnt be higher: This isnt just a raft of right-wing ideas this is actual hate and violence, and the destruction of entire sections of humanity. Of course, I dont believe in the false equivalence [between Antifa and the alt-right]. I think anti-fascists pre-emptive street violence against Nazis is righteous and important.

Many adopt direct-action tactics, whether it be the recent Antifa protests across the US, the black-block tactics employed during the WTO and G7 protests around the world, or even the decision made by Brace Belden to leave California to join the YPG, the far-left Kurdish guerrilla group battling Isis.

Punk itself wasnt a direct influence on my joining a guerrilla group, of course, but punk did help to cement my radical politics. Being in a community with a certain degree of consciousness and solidarity between people helped immensely in that regard, says Belden.

Bands, record labels, zine writers and venues around the world have co-operated to create a network that exists entirely outside of the mainstream, providing an off-grid template for Antifa activists to draw from. In America, there is Appalachian Terror Unit, a young band with heavy Antifa leanings from the Trump heartland of West Virginia. In Oakland, Antifa-related punk/oi! band Hard Left have taken part in benefit shows for protesters involved in the events at Charlottesville. In Texas, Antifa are organizing community relief efforts for victims of the Houston floods.

Theres definitely an overlap between the leaderless politics and the DIY ethos and the notion that if theres a problem in our punk scene, were not going to be able to count on the mainstream to necessarily give a shit, explains Bray.

Strike Anywhere singer Barnett says: Its also about community self-defence. The punk experience is like the flow of water. You can put up dams, you can run it underground it will still get through. It also carries on the folk tradition that was speaking truth to power before there was even electric power.

If there was ever a person unafraid to speak truth to power, it would be Jello Biafra, former singer of the Dead Kennedys and the man responsible for their 1981 call-to-arms Nazi Punks Fuck Off. So it might come as a surprise that he is withering in his criticism of Antifas actions in recent months.

Im not down with confronting [the extreme rights] provocations of violence with actual violence. I mean, self-defence is one thing, but going to a Trumpist rally with the express purpose of beating up fascists what does that accomplish? Whos the fascist now? It plays right into their hands, he says.

More than ever, we have to keep our heads right now. And I am all about freedom of speech, but I think protesting these people non-violently is the way to go, because it lets the targets of the fascist speakers know theyre not alone and lets the fascists who show up know that theres an awful lot of people who are not down with them, and a chorus of raised middle fingers is better than showing up with some kind of a weapon. Escalating the violence is not the way to go.

With his current band, the Guantanamo School of Medicine, he has updated his 1981 song and called it Nazi Trumps Fuck Off, but it comes with a caveat: Trump is the target, not his supporters.

I usually talk about the song on stage for a while before we play it, pointing out that almost everybody in the audience, especially if were playing in Texas or Southern California, know people in their family, close friends, at school or work, whatever, who think that Trump is really cool. And I point out that the last thing we should do is to dismiss these people as rednecks or stupid or Im not going being your friend anymore, fuck you thats not going to persuade anybody of anything and it helps Trump divide the country. My point is that you dont do that, you sit down and talk to somebody, not blog in an echo chamber. It might be stomach-churning, but you might plant a seed, and if someone wakes up three weeks, three months, three years later and thinks, Wow, that person that called me on my bigotry was right. All this racist, anti-immigrant fascism isnt getting us anywhere. I dont want any part of it anymore.

Author and punk historian Jon Savage, a champion of the Dead Kennedys during his stint as a music journalist in the 70s, isnt so sure: Its very idealistic and very laudable, but its like arguing with Brexiters over here (in the UK). Youre not going to get any change out of that. There is a proportion of people who can discuss things in a rational way, but here youre talking about core beliefs and wishes and feelings, and these are irrational, and they are even less rational when they are tested against reality.

For Savage, Antifas direct action tactics are as legitimate a tool as Biafras more measured approach: If you dont protest the way things are, then nothing is going to change. Youre reacting to fascism and entropy. You need a variety of approaches, and in politics I wouldnt discount any approach. Its probably useful to have sensible people because they can say, Well, look what happens when you dont listen to me and see what the nutters are going to do.

Klaus
Klaus Fluoride and Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys perform at The Peoples Temple in 1978 in San Francisco, California. Composite: Richard McCaffrey/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

For Barnett, even the current terminology is under debate. Calling it Antifa is like calling it this weird exotic cult, instead of calling it everyday life. Every aspect of media coverage of it is insidious, turning public opinion against us, making us a violent spectacle thats both something terrible and un-American, when this is the fucking Boston Tea Party, he says. If people want to talk about how the heritage of American culture and our patriotic destiny fits in [to anti-fascism] its basic math to me, and to many, many others.

Biafra and Strike Anywheres Thomas Barnett at least find some accord on the rebranding of the right, however. You know what they called the alt-right two years ago? Neo-fucking-Nazis! says Biafra. Now its alt-right, like alt-country or alternative pop music.

Barnett concurs: They dont get to be alt-right. They just get to be digital-age Nazis, or white supremacists or terrorists. And thats what [the media] are doing to anti-fascist action.

Regardless, Barnett says the antifascist movement isnt taking anything for granted. These rallies, whatever the next one is, whatever form it takes, are Trojan-horse events to invite and welcome white terrorist groups, and are just platforms for them to go into communities to hurt and intimidate people. And thats what anti-fascist action has always known, and thats what the punks have always known.

Or, in the bald terms of someone who put his teenage years in a punk band called Warkrime behind him to go and fight in an actual war, former YPG militia member Belden says: When I was younger my friends and I used to beat the shit out Nazis that would roll out to punk shows [in California]. And guess what? Theyd leave and never come back. Violence works.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/sep/09/no-fascist-usa-how-hardcore-punk-fuels-the-antifa-movement

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