On Friday January 20, alt-right evangelist and all-round nice guy Richard Spencer copped a well-deserved fist to the face during a televised interview, instantly spawning a viral meme and provoking fierce social media debate over the justification of violent action.
For some, it’s been a reason to reiterate the importance of peaceful, non-violent protest; for others, a vindication of the kind of direct, aggressive confrontation favoured by antifa (international anti-fascist movements). And it’s proved a rallying cry to members of the alt-right, who regularly espouse the value of genocide, to protect themselves from further violence.
It has also spawned significant reminiscence from members of the punk and hardcore scenes in the 80s and 90s, with one particularly empassioned Twitter thread from user @puckett101 noting the direct conflict that played out at punk gigs between antifa, skinheads and apolitical punk fans caught in the middle.
Puckett states that there was “a good chunk of my life when I think everyone I knew had put hands on a Nazi”, and that “old punks are some of the only folks in America to have dealt with actual Nazis on a regular basis”. Core to the thread is the recounting of an incident at a Propaghandi gig where invading skinheads squared off against fired-up fans.
Talk to any punk of the time and they’re likely to reference the quasi-anthem for the punk antifa, Dead Kennedys’ ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’. Interestingly, taking a directly anti-Nazi stance was not frontman Jello Biafra’s intention in writing the song – in a 2012 interview for the LA Times, he explained the original target in the lyrics was “people who were really violent on the dance floor”, and equating them with Nazis was simple shorthand.
He wasn’t the first to do so, either – punk’s pioneers often had an unusual association with the icons of fascism. Siouxsie Sioux and Sid Vicious habitually donned swastikas as anti-establishment symbols to piss people off, not to evoke anti-Semitic sentiment. Biafra notes that punk has “always attracted different kinds of extremes”, and so the impulse that led ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ to become anthemic for antifa similarly led to bands like Skrewdriver adopting the same aesthetics sans irony.
Dead Kennedys (and their fans) quickly found themselves the recipients of growing ire, their confligatory track coinciding with the rise of National Front in England. (The contemporary, albeit more toothless, equivalent would be Nigel Farage’s UKIP). The NF used punk and hardcore music as recruiters for youths in revolt; these ‘skinheads’ would start rocking up to punk gigs, and skirmishes became the expected norm. Over time, the musical response from the left became harder, aggressive if not pro-violence; Fugazi, Black Flag, Refused and Aus-Rotten can be counted among the leaders of the charge.
This conflict still rages in the present day, as our political left-right binary becomes increasingly concrete and people harden their ideological stances. It is as much apparent in Richard Spencer’s rise to notoriety as it is in his assault; as much in the divisive words of President Donald Trump as in Dennis Lyxzén’s empassioned calls for unity during Refused’s Sydney gig last week. Music culture is, as always, the cultural thermometer, and the heat is rising.
Take one of last year’s greatest films, the brutal Green Room, which pits the late Anton Yelchin’s scrappy punk band The Ain’t Rights against a vicious skinhead gang led by Patrick Stewart. The inciting incident – you guessed it – comes when the band decide to cover ‘Nazi Punks’ as their opener. After they are unwittingly made witnesses to a violent crime, the conversation is over. For these punks, it’s do or die.
Green Room’s version of the pertinent classic ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’
Exaggerated as the comparison may be, we’d be foolish to ignore the local history of this dialectical struggle here in Australia, best captured in Geoffrey Wright’s classic film Romper Stomper and (again, ironically) the real ‘Rock Against Communism’ bands that appropriated the film’s soundtrack. In all likelihood, the same frustrations those “nazi-punks” seethed over run through the veins of One Nation’s most militant supporters.
It’s simplistic and easy to treat the conflict as a binary good/evil proposition, especially in terms of music culture phenomenon. Filmmaker Shane Meadows speaks to a diversity of views even among skinheads: “it’s clear the fascist element has always been fairly vocal in skinhead culture,” he says. “The sad bit is that the more enlightened, anti-fascist aspects have not better promoted themselves.”
But when public figures like Spencer can call for “peaceful ethnic cleansing”, and his colleague Colin Liddell can feel comfortable asking “is Black genocide right?”, is it not our moral imperative as their ideological opposition to feel that all they need is a punch in the face?
So, as progressives, punks and people, we have two choices ahead of us. Do we adopt the ideology of The Ain’t Rights, the punks of old like Puckett, and the black bloc – those who “don’t think dialogue is the solution”? Those who believe, like legendary civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, that “in order for non-violence to work, your opponent must have a conscience”?
Or do we embrace the accidental antifa prophet Biafra, who believes “the best way to fight hate speech is with more and better speech, and better education”?
Better still, what is the middle ground between aggressive action and non-violent protest, and how can the ideological rift between punks across the political spectrum be repaired?
Until we have an answer, we’ll at least have the memes.
Richard Spencer cops it to the tune of ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’