United They Stood: Remembering Rock Against Racism
Originally published in Verbicide issue #25
In the fall of 1979 I was an angst-ridden college freshman struggling to find a place in a university culture that felt truly alien to me. I was experiencing the usual growing pains — I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I sure as hell wasn’t sure school was for me. I didn’t look like anyone else. No one seemed to be interested in the same music or politics. I was an unabashed punk rocker and all around me it looked as if an L.L. Bean factory had exploded.
So, like any number of 18-year-old misfits who have found themselves in similar conditions, I made my way to the one place I figured I might find sanctuary: the college radio station. My visit was not in vain. The first person I met was the news director — an avowed Communist in a Stiff Records t-shirt who was chain-smoking Marlboro Reds and waving a copy of Damned Damned Damned in my face. Ten minutes into our conversation he invited me to catch a ride with a bunch of his pals up to a Rock Against Racism benefit in Detroit. At 3 a.m. the next morning, I was in the back of a rusted-out Ford Econoline barreling northward on I-71, a Flux of Pink Indians cassette lodged in the tape player, a new comrade next to me waxing poetic on subjects ranging from the First Amendment to the virtues of anarcho-syndicalism.
By mid-morning I was in a multipurpose room near Wayne State University. I’d been pressed into service unloading amps and guitars, setting up the PA, and even taking a stint in the makeshift kitchen. The craziness that then ensued is forever burned into my consciousness: reggae bands, free jazz ensembles, and, of course, one punk band right after another. Belly dancers, jugglers on stilts, performance artists — it seemed like we were swept up in an endless stream of creativity.
But the thing that had the biggest impact that day was the politics. Trade unionists, Socialists, Communists, anarchists — one speaker after another took to the stage to rage against racism, sexism, and economic exploitation. Flyers, newspapers, and political pamphlets seemed to be a sort of currency, and for that day, at least, groups that normally wouldn’t deign to acknowledge one another’s existence made common cause in the name of social justice. For me it marked an important moment in my own political coming-of-age. Many of the ideas I’d come to intuitively were validated. I’d found a home.
April 30, 2008 marked the 30th anniversary of the “Carnival Against the Nazis,” the march and music festival staged by the British grassroots political organization Rock Against Racism (RAR) and its counterpart, the Anti-Nazi League. Organized as a protest to the growing political power of the fascist National Front, nearly 85,000 people turned out to see performances by the Clash, Steel Pulse, X-Ray Spex, and the Tom Robinson Band. By the end of 1978, Rock Against Racism had organized 300 local concerts and five carnivals, including the “Militant Entertainment Tour” that featured 40 bands. While there is probably no way to accurately gauge the impact of RAR on the 1979 national elections, there is little doubt that the National Front — a party that appeared to be surging as late as 1977 — was a spent political force. But more importantly, according to British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, “Rock Against Racism radicalized a generation, it showed that music could do more than just entertain: it could make a difference.”
No doubt RAR had a powerful impact on the British music scene, especially punk rock. The Clash, Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello, Stiff Little Fingers, and two tone bands such as The Specials and The Beat have all acknowledged that influence. But none of the recent remembrances of the events of 1978 have bothered to speculate about the impact and influence of RAR on this side of the Atlantic. My bizarre experiences in the fall of 1979 aside, Rock Against Racism provided a template for political engagement from within the punk milieu.
It isn’t fashionable to comment on it today, but the early punk scene was rife with racism, sexism, and homophobia. More than a few observers have commented on the origins of punk as a reaction to the rise of disco and its perceived connections to the gay community. One of the great rock critic Lester Bangs’ most controversial essays was entitled “The White (Noise) Supremacists,” and surveyed the knee-jerk racism within the New York scene. When I first moved to DC in the early ‘80s, there was a flat-out civil war going on as scenesters endured one assault from racist skinheads after another. Hell, I got my ribs cracked at a Marginal Man gig in the DC Armory by some troglodyte who loathed the Thelonious Monk t-shirt I’d worn that day. And forget about attracting young women to your shows — the early punk and hardcore scenes were testosterone-fueled havens for angry young boys who just couldn’t help waving their pricks at one another. It was boring as hell and at times it was pretty scary.
In the US, Rock Against Racism was always a decidedly local affair — a true grassroots “movement.” There were dozens of benefits across the country but no national organization. Anyone who hated the violence and mindless hatred evinced by too many young kids floating around the margins of punk could organize a show; shows which almost always became sites for political networking and community building. From Anti-Racist Action in Minneapolis to the Ska Against Racism tours in the ‘90s, the punk scene became a laboratory for those who understood that every once in awhile you have to police your space. I’m old and beat down now, but honestly, one of the things that makes me proudest is that when I travel all over the country, I know that when I visit a local punk space I’m going to find welcome — good music, good friends, and an eclectic, socially-engaged brand of politics. Punk, at the street level, is the last true counter-culture — the last gasp of the Do-It-Yourself ethic that bears witness to the possibilities of a world outside the corporate marketplace.
I’m a sucker for nostalgia. Hell, I can romanticize just about anything about the past. So sometimes it is difficult to admit that something I love so much could have had such a dark side. By the same token — when I consider how things have in this instance changed for the better — when I recognize and acknowledge our capacities for growth, I’m left with a genuine hope for the future. In 1978, British fascists were on the verge of winning significant political power. A crazy-quilt collection of musicians and artists organized themselves and pushed back, ultimately turning the political tide and changing the face of British political history. If the impact of Rock Against Racism in the United States was far more modest, it still provided a much-needed example and model for political engagement that continues to resonate in alternative spaces across the country.