Peace Punks

White Punks On Hope

We are happy to report some good news for a change, to make you aware of a most positive phenomenon. It is called cooperation. This is almost a lost art (at least in the punk scene) but has been revived recently by a group of young, idealistic, intelligent punks, mostly in the East Bay. Drawn together by their common value system, their concerns in the areas of peace, anarchy, food politics, ecology, sexism and racism, they have worked closely to raise people’s consciousness through fliers, doing cooperative shows (in conjunction with the Institute for Pragmatic Malice), doing benefits, and playing their music.

–“East Bay Pages,” Maximum RocknRoll, #9, 1983

Kurt Brecht: There were always the peace punks. They would sit in front of the stage. We were just about killing each other. We were waiting to go to the gig so we could rage in front of the stage.

Antonio López: The peace punks were a rebellion against hardcore in some ways. They got into vegetarianism. I was 100 percent into punk but I was never 100 percent hardcore. So I definitely gravitated towards peace-punk.

Aaron Cometbus: The bands were really, really good, too. It wasn’t just the message — the music was really catchy and powerful. It wasn’t just that they had something to say, but the fact that they were way better than the bands who didn’t.

John Borruso: I don’t think “peace punk” was a term we used until later. But that subgroup came together quickly, a spontaneous coalescing of a few bands and like-minded individuals. Crucifix was the first, forming several years earlier, and they certainly served as an inspiration that it could be done. A first-hand example of the DIY approach. Bands involved, in addition to Crucifix, Trial, and Atrocity, were PLH, Treason, and A State of Mind. I was in Trial. My sister Sarah was in Atrocity. My brother Matt was in Crucifix.

Jennifer Sharpe: The Burrosos were a peace punk dynasty.

John Borruso: My best friend Desmond Shea and I started Trial in 1982. We were 13 or 14, both emerging from Catholic school with a very healthy distrust of authority, and a little exposure to the scene at the time was enough to inspire us to plunge in.

Jennifer Sharpe: I was 14 years old when I joined Atrocity in 1983. Sarah Borruso was only 13 and Katherine Harris, the other singer, was 15. Atrocity had already developed a small following. The first show I played was at San Francisco’s On Broadway, where we opened for the Dead Kennedys and the U.K. Subhumans.

Aaron Cometbus: I remember one show at the Physics Hall at UC Berkeley. The father of Kathy from Atrocity, I think, was a professor there, and let her set up a benefit show for Physicists for Peace.

Jennifer Sharpe: To fit in with the band, I became a vegetarian. Though I was secretly reluctant to give up eating meat, it was nothing compared to how excited I was to become Atrocity’s bass player.

John Borusso: There was a big push for all-ages shows. Most of us were teenagers and wanted the shows as accessible as possible. Trial and the others gravitated towards alternative venues that were flying under the radar. Rented halls, galleries, warehouse spaces. A group effort, rather than bands working for a promoter. Club Foot, for instance, in Dogpatch, was host to some of the key shows, at least one of which featured all the bands — Atrocity, A State of Mind, Crucifix, PLH, Trial, and Treason — on one bill.

Jo Treggiari: Some of the shows were very innovative, especially with audience participation at Club Foot — Christ on Parade killing an effigy of Ronald Reagan onstage; slideshows (Crucifix and Trial both used those, I believe). There was slightly more leeway with the music, too, which I suppose hearkened back to what punk started out like.

…passing out lyric/propaganda/artwork sheets by the bands, having the bands pay expenses and let the crowd in for free, giving away free orange juice, showing slides, even putting out a bunch of chairs for people…I’ve been to 2 of the Club Foot shows and they’ve been different (and atmospherically a lot better than most)…

–“Northern California Scene Report” by Murray Bowles, Maximum RocknRoll #12, March, 1984

Jennifer Sharpe: Trial was the most arty because John Borruso was such an incredible artist. Their flyers were like pieces of artwork. Jo Treggiari used to shoot photos of all the bands, and had a zine called Protest and Survive which she would pass out at shows. It had a lot of our lyrics. “Abandoned” was about children who were left to starve in Third World countries. “Animal Fate” was about killing animals. “I Pronounce You Dead” was about the oppressive institution of marriage. “Silent Victims” was another one about animal rights. Basically, we sang about anarchy, vegetarianism, war, and corporate hegemony.

Gary Floyd: They were so peace punk. They were more peaceful than any punk had ever been in the whole universe. They had to give up meat, they had to get a whole new wardrobe! I respected them. I mean, they weren’t hurting anybody.

John Borruso: From Trial’s beginning we were fascinated with the visual. We spent inordinate amounts of time at the copy shop cobbling together collaged flyers and leaflets. We enjoyed the propaganda component: giant banners on stage, wheat-pasted posters around town. Our friend Keith McCurdy introduced us to the world of 16mm film loops and slide projection, and soon we had a dark, apocalyptic visual component to match the music. We pitched these later shows to art galleries, giving them one-off titles like “Surrogate Television for the Brain-Dead,” and “Trial of the Subconscious.” For me the visual aspects carried over, even after Trial ended, into my ongoing projects in design, collage, and photography.

Jeffery Goldthorpe: The young upstarts wanted their audience to sit down, read their lyrics, ponder their meaning amidst their performance, and meditate on the slideshow images.

Kelly King: The whole political thing started cracking open. People started talking about what was going on. Before Reagan, I don’t think it was happening that much.

Oran Canfield: I had a real fear that we were all gonna die. In Berkeley and the Bay Area, Reagan was seriously the devil. I would see him on the news and nothing he ever said contradicted the idea that these fucking crazy egomaniacs were gonna end up destroying the world. It all fed into this severe paranoia. You would walk down Telegraph and see bumper stickers about the money the Pentagon spent in one day could feed the world for a year. As a kid, shit like that didn’t make sense to me. That the adults couldn’t figure it out and stop the Pentagon for one day so they could feed some people.

Wendy O-Matik: You knew the planet could be destroyed seven times over. No matter how much we tried to believe in peace or justice, there was so little of it around us. Whether it was domestic violence or cop brutality, or just the lack of justice for poor people. For me, the crisis was global and it was environmental. It was all the horrors that modern-day society brings.

John Borruso: There was an urge to turn away from commercialism, corporations, the government, societal strictures. We wanted to start over. Utopian tendencies in some ways, but there was some satisfaction in it and a feeling of a common cause. Of course we were all too young then to know how difficult these things are to attain. So we went ahead and tried.

Gordon Edgar: Being younger makes it easier to look at things as Us vs. Them.

David Solnit: One of the major influences was Crass, hearing their records, reading their stuff – a pacifist, animal rights sensibility. They had a style that appealed to people: black-clad, anarchist. People in the East Bay took it and developed their own style, dressing like gypsies.

Wendy O-Matik: There are some Crass lyrics that changed my life literally. It was like having a religious experience, like I’ve found an answer, a reason to live. Punk music was a catalyst, almost a drug or an aphrodisiac. I’d feel so down about how fucked up things were, but I’d go to a show and come out of thinking, “Oh my God, I can live another day.” If I can just have this music, I might be able to nourish my soul enough to fucking wake up and do it all over again.

Antonio López: The peace-punk movement had dreadlocks and they were into Crass and they had a uniform. People still dress this way, the lace-up boots, all in black, and covered in patches. It’s a definite look. Everyone was trying to grow dreadlocks. That was pretty hilarious because they used everything from egg whites to Jell-O to Ajax to mat their hair. I actually saw people use Ajax.

Gary Floyd: The blacker their clothes, the more peaceful they were.

John Borruso: Also, in a broader sense, the community formed around a rejection of the institutions and norms of the time.

David Solnit: I was bored and lonely, so I got involved with a community of punks in Marin. We’d go to hardcore shows. The Elite Club was happening and there’d be like seven bands, hundreds and hundreds of punks. That was pretty fun. I was a bit older than most of them.

Antonio López: I really think San Francisco was the center of that peace-punk thing in the U.S. I could be wrong. But it really seemed like that.

Jeff Goldthorpe: San Francisco’s most popular bands in 1983 – the Dead Kennedys, MDC, and the Dicks – although they were anarchists, believed in the positive punk ideal “scene unity” across ideological boundaries.

Gary Floyd: We did that single “Peace?” With a big question mark. They’d come up, “What does that mean, Gary?” What do you think it fucking means? We also did “No Fuckin’ War,” which became an anthem. We started saying we were the Grateful Dicks and our fans were Dickheads.

David Solnit: A lot of peace punks were hesitant to get involved in activist politics. But some of the peace punks I knew, mostly from the East Bay, were starting to have meetings to talk about doing something political. It was exciting. I xeroxed stuff about affinity groups, consensus, and non-violence, passed it, tried to get people to form natural affinity groups, people from different suburbs, people with bands.

Jeffery Goldthorpe: For positive punks, punk was something to believe in. For the most serious punks, anarchism became a faith to reshape daily life.

David Solnit: In ’82, I went to the first large Lawrence Livermore [National Laboratory] blockade, and got arrested. I was really impressed by the decision-making process. It really seemed like democracy. There was a lot of cool people. I was the only punk in the place. I had a black leather jacket and shredded jeans. I was pretty fired up by it.

At the March 1983 Vandenburg [Air Force Base] action, 40 students organized from almost every high school throughout Marin to halt what might have been a MX missile test. We had this incredible encampment on this guy’s land. A thousand people stayed. It was very radical direct action. I was familiar with anarchy from the punk scene but never took it seriously. I was surprised at seeing people with big circle-A’s on their shirts.

June of [‘83] was the second big Livermore action. I was part of a group from the punk scene who were participating in the anti-nuclear direct action movement. I got a big, long mohawk with black stubble – to faze the hippies. I found out later that some of the hippies were pretty concerned about the punks being confrontational.

I was also getting more involved with the scene in the city. The more you go to shows, the cooler you are. You get to know people. The Bay Area was home to one of the most creative and politicized punk cultural uprisings in the country, but punk politics had not yet taken a collective form outside of bands, underground shows and ‘zines.

In the spring of ’84, a group of activist punks had organized two street theater action “tours” of corporations. On April 15th and again on May 22, 100-200 people moved through the Financial District stopping at corporations involved in nuclear weapons and intervention in Central America. After gathering at Justin Herman Plaza the group would actually enter the lobby of the corporation, a “tour guide” would announce how the corporation was involved in the war industry, and the whole group would drop to the ground screaming and lay there, dramatizing the effects of militarism.

Bechtel executives had to step over our bodies to leave their building. Wells Fargo customers continued to stand in line amongst our corpses, as deposit forms were thrown into the air like confetti. At Bank of America world headquarters we completely disrupted the ground floor and occupied the balcony surrounding the bank for half an hour chanting “Hey, hey, B of A, how many people did ya kill today?” as their baffled security looked on with dismay.

Jeff Goldthorpe: The End of the World’s Fair was a different take on the apocalyptic expectations. Several hundred paraders marched, skipped, and rolled up Market Street and through the Mission District. A Ronald Reagan clone shouted “Get a job, America.” The Rube Goldberg-esque Amerikan Lobotomy Machine chugged ahead, guided along by the “Thought Police” monitors. Missile and TV-heads abounded and the peace punks were there, doing their screaming “die-ins.” Ladies Against Women were accompanied by Ned Shrapnel of the National Association of Grenade Owners, chanting “Mommies, mommies, don’t be commies! Stay at home and fold pajamies!”

I marched with the burned-out Leftists contingent, carrying a sign that read, “FUCK THIS SHIT– I’M GOING TO LAW SCHOOL.” The Fair itself drew a crowd of 3,000, clustering around three different stages where comedy, theater, dance and poetry were performed, as well as Brazilian jazz, reggae, folk, rock, African Highlife, and, of course, punk music played by MDC and Frightwig.

Greg Oropeza: I was working in a house in Cupertino, and I noticed two tickets on the entry-hall table. “Live at De Anza College: Ronald Reagan.” I asked the old, white male Republican if he was going to go see Mr. Reagan. He told me no, he would be out of town and did I like Ronald Reagan? I told him, “Yes, I think Ronald Reagan is the best president we’ve ever had!” He said it was good to see such a young man supporting our president, and gave me the tickets.

I called my friend Andy from the band PLH (Peace Love Happiness) who, ironically, lived on the Presidio Army base, and we made a banner. It must have been ten feet long and read “US OUT OF NICARAGUA.” As we walked past thousands, including hundreds of protesters, it became clear that only invited GOP supporters were allowed within earshot and eyesight. We must have raised a few eyebrows, with Andy’s spiked hair and my ripped sleeves and Doc Martens, but into the front we went, banner concealed under Andy’s leather jacket. We waited for our cue.

It didn’t take long. Ronnie said “Freedom fighters” and we raised our poles about 20 yards from the stage, unrolling the banner. It only took seconds before the crowd and Ronnie’s Secret Service pounced on us. I was kicked and punched, and then we were both dragged to the gate and thrown out onto the dirt. We came up high-fiving. As a limo picked him up at the stage and drove the hundred feet to his whirly bird, we flipped him our own whirly birds.

B.A. Lush: The political punk attitude rubbed me the wrong way a lot. That holier-than-thou attitude. I had to have fun, too.

Mike Tsongas: After awhile it seemed to me that people in the anarchist scene had a really rigid cultural structure. You had to believe exactly what they did. To me, that wasn’t what punk was about. I started to get disillusioned.

Oran Canfield: I shared a lot of the anger and a lot of the angst that the scene was trying to express, but I just couldn’t get into it. I was a very shy, freaked out kid. When I was about 13, I had a terrible — actually it was great — experience on mushrooms and rejected the hippie culture I had been involved with. I made a pact to reject herd culture in general, even in the punk scene. I was more attracted to the punk scene but I just didn’t agree with the peace and love shit. It didn’t work. It’s bullshit.

Jennifer Sharpe: Katherine and Sarah had an intense sense of consciousness about their vegetarianism. I was more of a social tourist. About six months after Atrocity broke up, I went to McDonald’s and got some chicken McNuggets.

Sara Cohen: Today, it seems that Truth itself has become a PC moniker. Like that tobacco-backed campaign It’s now fashionable for people to think they’re being rebellious, so it’s profitable for companies to package that language. People think they’re speaking out against the government, but they’re just repeating what they’re told.

Fat Mike: Drew Bernstein, the guitar player for Crucifix, now owns Lip Service.

Jimmy Crucifix: Lip Service is just like Hot Topic, a chain of fashionable punk rock clothes.

Fat Mike: He was voted “Biggest Asshole of the Year” in Flipside.

John Borusso: Looking back, I can see why this earnest idealism was rankling to some in the wider punk scene. I can also see why it still has a certain enduring appeal.

Mike K: There is really something to be said for where this stuff has led. Especially politically. There’s a direct link, structurally, between the way stuff got done in punk and how large protests are put together now, how those networks are built. Look at the WTO protests in Seattle. It’s really powerful. Punk went from having an impact on the music scene to having an impact on a much larger stage. You can see the power of that, the potential.

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