On Punk and Authority

Punk spaces are inherently oriented toward radical leftist paradigms and anti-authoritarian politics. Folk punk, despite our relatively brief history, is steeped in a rich culture of anti-authority inherited from both our parent genres and is no exception. Here, you are just as likely to find yourself rubbing shoulders with devote anarchists and socialists of all kinds of pedigrees of leftist thought as you are in the greater punk scene – if not more so. Punk music of any variety cannot be separated from it’s stance against authoritarianism and oppression; doing so removes the very essence of what makes the music punk. This is in turn a fundamental part of our collective identity, and what makes these genres distinct. There is an ideology attached to the music that the people in the scene, the so called punks, adhere to in varying degrees. How we collectively came to these conclusions as a subculture, and why we continue to draw like-minded individuals as the decades march on, is often overlooked and taken for granted.

The punk scene writ large began with a series of realizations about society and the self. The earliest British punks were deeply inspired ideologically by the Situationist International; an international organization of revolutionaries from the 50’s and 60’s that were avant-garde artists, intellectuals, and political theorists who heavily critiqued modern capitalism, and were composed of primarily libertarian Marxists, ie. Anarcho-socialists. This praxis between the arts and radical leftism was there at the birth of the genre, and in part the reason why punk exists in the first place. Those early punks were inspired to create their own art and incorporated their anarchist ideology into their image, sound, and identity as artistic projects.

Punk scenes developed out of these anarchist social groups that experimented with art and presentation of self when they began producing their own unique sounds. Musically, we derived out of garage rock, which punks saw to be a more honest, authentic style of rock; opposed to the so-called “bombastic” genres of heavy metal, prog rock, and arena rock that dominated our realm of the musical landscape at the time. The question of which of these projects came first is irrelevant because they were all inspiring one another simultaneously. These scenes quickly spread. Armed with the combination of anarchist theory and our own unique styles of artistic expression, we began taking major cities by storm with every passing tour.

Enter our oldest adversary, the policeman. The policeman is the working arm of the state. The most easily recognizable tool the government utilizes to uphold its hierarchies and enforce its systems of governance. A symbol of authority and oppression. Not only has the policeman betrayed their fellow working class members by choosing the side of an authoritarian state in the eyes of an anarcho-punk; they took a disliking to us, to our subculture as a whole, especially. Throughout our history they have ticketed us, beaten us, thrown us in prison, disrupted our shows, stolen our possessions, and either allowed landlords to evict us, or had the power to cast us out into the streets themselves. The policeman is no friend of the punk ideologically, or pragmatically. While the relationship between punks and policemen have cooled in recent decades in North America, punks in places like Indonesia and Central and South American continue to face extreme hardships in the face of their respective authoritarian police departments, and deserve our solidarity. In this author’s opinion, it would be wise to remember the history of our relationship with the policeman.

The media in America took notice of our subculture as well, and historically has painted us in a negative light to larger society. One need look only as far as every concocted ‘bad influence’ group of kids in any children’s cartoon to notice there is always at least one character sporting a Mohawk. Punks are typically seen as mobs of thoughtless, angry anarchists, loosely tied together by loud, obnoxious music and just as likely to turn on each other as they are to jump a passerby. The media has largely intentionally misunderstood us, tamed us, and vilified our subculture in turn to society. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the 1998 film American History X, in which our Nazi problems were brought to every screen in America and the term “skinhead” became synonymous with “neo-Nazi” in society’s eyes. For your reference, we refer to these baldies as “Boneheads”. “Skins” and “Skinheads” are vehemently anti-fascist and have been since their subcultures foundation among the UK working class youths in the 1960’s (1).

Everybody loves to hate fascists. But punks harbor a particular, more personal abhorrence for them than your average working class person. We have personal grievances. For greater context, punk culture was still in the early days of establishing itself when we caught the attention of the far right. Punks had come to reject the long hair and loose-fitted clothing of the previous decade, as well as contemporary fashion. Instead, they took inspiration from bikers, greasers, mods, and skinheads, and crafted a fashion and style that we now call our own. However, as the hardcore punk scenes of the early 80’s continued to gain traction, neo-Nazis and white supremacists took notice. It’s not for this author to say what they saw, but what they did was adapt aspects of our aesthetic and attempted to percolate into our scenes in efforts to either radicalize punks to the far right, or stamp out their opposition, anti-authoritarianism in punk, with violence. In the UK a burgeoning National Front under Thatcher made intentional, documented efforts to do this (2). In the US, “…some [bone]heads thought the punk rockers were weak or whatever, so they went to the shows to show them who the real men were” as Henry Rollins of Black Flag describes it (3). They showed up to our spaces to do violence.

Fascism is our ideological antithesis; fascists subscribe to a paradigm that runs counterintuitively to ours at every fundamental level.  That is to say, we already hated Nazis. When they co-opted our look, they made it personal. To make matters worse, as neo-Nazis began infiltrating our scenes and jumping punks that refused to radicalize we found ourselves unable to identify one another from our enemies. Lacecode suddenly spread like wildfire as punks desperately attempted to identify who was an ally, and who would try to beat you up after the show.

When Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys wrote, “Nazi Punks, Fuck Off” it was not so much as taking an ideological stance against Nazis as it was telling them directly to “fuck off” out of the venue and out of our scene. They were not the only ones to make such a statement in their music or at their shows either. These were defining moments for our subculture. We are anti-fascist. And we came to this decision collectively. As a punk promoter out of Denver recalls, “…the entire crowd on the main floor just suddenly turned on them…it was an amazing thing – the crowd just collectively decided, ‘there’s 700 of us and there’s 40 of you, and we’ve had it’”(3). We made them unwelcome in our spaces with violent protest. We took our own, personal fight with fascism to the streets. It should be noted that it was this violence against these gangs of Nazi “punks” in addition to the outcry of the artists and punk projects at the time that drove the Nazis out of our scene. They have since created their own twisted, upside-down, paralleled version of a scene that mimics the greater punk scene.

Punk has a long, personal history with authority. Perhaps one of the best illustrations of our relationship with the complex web of authoritarianism is Henry Rollins’ retelling of a show in Florida; in which, “…they[neo-Nazis] mugged our soundman, kicked his head in and cut the lines to our PA. The cops came, shut the show down, and told us we were the problem and we had an hour to get over their country line. The [bone]heads were standing behind them, flipping us off (2).” Or maybe the story Joey Shithead recounts in his memoir of the anarcho-punks protecting their squat in Europe by covering their access to the power grid in a block of cement (4). Regardless, when it comes to authority, punk has made its opinions clear. Furthermore, this article has not even mentioned the rich history of anti-fascism and anti-authoritarianism in folk music. One, very brief example is the story of how the folk singer, Dave Van Ronk, was one of the first thirteen people arrested on June 28th, 1969 at the Stonewall Uprising (5). Our medley of these two cultures contains these anti-authoritarian roots. Folk punk is just as vehemently anti-authoritarian as folk, and just as anti-fascist as punk. We are carrying that torch into the twenty-first century, into our own unique subgenre of folk punk, and into the hands of the next generation of punks.

1. https://web.archive.org/web/20130521073648/http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,909318,00.html?promoid=googlep

2. https://www.vice.com/en/article/mbbg9p/a-brief-but-very-informative-history-of-how-fascists-infiltrated-punk-and-metal

3. https://www.gq.com/story/punks-and-nazis-oral-history

4. Keithley, J. (2004). I, shithead: A life in punk. Arsenal Pulp Press.

5. https://www.villagepreservation.org/2022/06/13/dave-van-ronk-ally-at-the-stonewall-uprising/

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