By James Berbert
“Fuck the war we’re waging against Syria. Fuck the war we’re waging against people in our own country. And fuck the war on drugs,” Laura Thrillhauser, the lead vocalist of Iron Cages said during the D.C.-based hardcore band’s April 7 set at Damaged City Fest, a four-day long festival organized in the historic epicenter of hardcore punk, Washington D.C. now in its fifth year.
The fest was conceived by local musician and show promoter Chris Moore (along with his bandmate from Coke Bust Nick Candela, who has since moved to Brazil). Moore has drummed in such politically-charged hardcore bands as Magrudergrind, Coke Bust, Sick Fix, and others, and now co-organizes Damaged City Fest with fellow musician and show promoter Robin Zeijlon.
“We try to get a good diversity of bands going,” Zeijlon said. “We also try to open people’s eyes to issues they might not think about, like trans rights, Islamophobia, things going on in just like regular politics in the world. It’s pretty easy to shut yourself out from the world when you’re punk, and just kinda hate everything and not know what’s going on.”
“I want to dedicate this set to people who feel invisible in their identity or their struggle.” Lucy, the lead vocalist of San Francisco based hardcore band Profile said. “To my trans friends who don’t feel feminine enough or visible enough. I know in my case I often feel like people don’t see me the way I see myself.”
Damaged City Fest also offered rejoinder to the ridiculous, though persistent claims by the alt-right that “conservatism is the new punk”—nudged back into the conversation after Johnny Rotten (punk consensus: a poseur since the ‘70s) recently spoke out in defense of Trump.
“I don’t think that makes any sense,” Zeijlon said of the alt-right’s attempt to absorb punk’s rebellion. “I don’t see it as a counterculture at all. I think the only thing it’s countering is a changing world. It’s trying to retain an old culture that’s outdated. It’s more like an expired food…it’s like comparing an expired food to a hot new unbelievable ingredient.”
On April 8, as the third day of Damaged City continued, with punks cathartically letting loose and dancing on the floor of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, channeling the the impassioned ethos of the music, two miles south a different kind of resistance was brewing—right in front of the White House.
Richard Spencer, notorious white ethnostate advocate and originator of the term “Alt-Right,” was confronted again by ANTIFA in the streets of D.C.—and glitter bombed in the face.
Following the glitter-bombing, Spencer’s security raced to his side, embraced him, shielded him, and ushered him down the street with a line of Metropolitan Police Officers further protecting them from assault.
“You need the cops to protect you Richard? Go and put that tail between your legs!” shouted a black masked protester, trumpeting his voice with a black plastic vuvuzela.
“I don’t have a tail between my legs,” a shaken Spencer snapped back as he marched away flanked defensively by supporters.
“Yes you do and you know it! In your heart you know it! You’re running away!” responded the protester.
That morning, Spencer took to social media to announce a protest outside the White House to condemn Donald Trump’s missile strikes on a military base in Syria. He urged the political right to learn from the mistakes of the Bush presidency and their blunder in Iraq. Spencer was using the rhetoric of a peace activist mixing it with his notoriety as a white nationalist. “This is a huge moment. We can’t risk World War III. Everyone against the war is welcome,” Spencer tweeted.
At the same time Spencer hosted his “protest,” activists were hosting an all-day workshop called “ANTIFA Unmasked – a day of learning” at the long standing community space Electric Maid in Takoma, NW D.C., which has long served both the DIY music and activist communities of D.C. The workshop aimed to explain the history and tactics of black bloc protesting and to brainstorm how to confront the Alt-Right in the age of Trump.
Spencer gave them the opportunity to act on all that brainstorming.
The activists congregated at McPherson Square, just a few minutes away from Lafayette Park where Spencer’s protest was staged. Upon hearing that hundreds of punks from all over the country were dancing and having fun just two miles up the road, and not standing with ANTIFA preparing for a showdown with Spencer and his supporters, some of the ANTIFA protesters were disappointed. The irony that would-be revolutionaries of punk rock were enjoying themselves at a music festival while activists were confronting racists in the streets a couple of miles away was not lost on them.
“I guess they gotta save up for a new pedal or something,” a man who only gave his first name as Jose, quipped.
“For years punk was this real aggressive and relevant social force for change in America. Now it seems more like a support group for outcasts,” an anonymous ANTIFA protester said.
Spencer explained to journalists what a foreign policy that would put America first would mean: “We would seek stability in the world as an end in itself. We would have good relations with someone like Assad. And we would say we are not going to express an opinion in your civil war. That’s a tragic thing, but we are not going to have an opinion on that.”
Spencer seems to downplay his white nationalism publicly these days. He stayed on topic, expressing resentment and distrust of Trump’s administration. This point was muddled by the red hats there in support who chanted, “Make America great again!”
Smash Racism D.C., an organization dedicated to confronting racists in the D.C. area, announced an emergency demonstration against Spencer. A statement released read: “Richard Spencer does not want war, except for one against blacks, Muslims, immigrants, in hopes of creating a fascist white ethnostate. Don’t fall for his lies. Stand up to Richard Spencer and his Nazi Agendas.”
When the sixty-some black-clad protesters entered the northern edge of Lafayette Park, Spencer’s supporters started tightening up defensively and Spencer yelled, “Here comes the pro-war Left!”
Well-known anti-fascist contrarian Daryle Lamont Jenkins, who was out with his video camera confronting Spencer as always, was a voice of clarification.
“Anti-Fascist and anti-war!,” Jenkins yelled.
As Spencer and his followers faced down the ANTIFA protesters, Spencer shot back: “Look it’s the pro-war Leftists! They demand more bombings for Ivanka and Jared Kushner!”
The ANTIFA protesters chanted a chorus of, “No Nazis! No KKK! No Fascist USA!” a popular protest chant taken from the lyrics of Dave Dictor, vocalist of the Houston based ‘80s hardcore band MDC.
“Hey ANTIFA! You are the shock troops of the establishment and nothing more!” Spencer said back.
The messages of both sides were completely lost on the spectators outside the White House, who largely saw it as an extension of election campaign angst.
“Well I agree with the ‘Make America great again’ part. I don’t like the ‘America was never great’ stuff so much,” a Virginia man commented as he passed by with his family.
When he learned Spencer supported white nationalism he was visibly disheartened and said, “Oh no. Well, that’s not okay.”
Juan Itzol, a US military veteran and immigrant from Guatemala watching the chaos go down said, “I think this is stupid. I think it’s dumb. Everybody has their own opinion obviously, but let’s make America great now. Where were they 20 years ago? I don’t think these people know what makes a good country. Because you know what, I was born in a different country. And I was brought up to appreciate life. So I appreciate this country. I appreciate what it has given me.”
Tension increased as Jack Dacks of D.C. Stampede, a grassroots organization that works in solidarity with other D.C.-based activists in pursuit of social justice, arrived on his bike to witness the commotion.
“My brain is just trying to process everything that’s happening,” Dacks said, as he took video of an ANTIFA protester getting pressed against a wall and patted down by the police.
Jenkins is the closest thing to a public media surrogate for anti-fascist causes and is well liked and respected for it. Jenkins began arguing with one of Spencer’s supporters who was proudly flaunting his Anglo-Saxon heritage.
“My family has probably been here longer than yours!” said Jenkins.
“No, mine has been here since the 1600s” answered the Saxon arrogantly.
“Mine has been here since the 1600s too. We were among the first—oh he’s leaving” Jenkins said and aimed his video camera at Spencer.
Moments later Spencer was showered with a blast of glittery pink sparkles. The police chased down the offenders. Several ANTIFA protesters were detained but no one was arrested and no charges were filed. Spencer and his supporters brushed the glitter from their hair and clothes and retreated.
Spencer ranted to reporters following behind.
ANTIFA protesters were the “caricatures of fascism,” he said. Then he defined fascism as those who say, “We’re going to shut it down! You don’t have a right to speak! We’re going to beat you up if we don’t like you,” he said. “That’s the modern caricature of fascism. And ANTIFA fit it.”
And so, the man who has been filmed saying, “Hail Trump! Hail our people!” to the passionate cheers of a crowd raising Nazi salutes accused ANTIFA of being fascists.
Here is how ANTIFA define themselves: “ANTIFA is badass, but not in a scary way (unless you’re a Nazi) and really, racists should be afraid to be racist,” Smash Racism D.C. wrote when they were promoting the ANTIFA Unmasked event.
After Spencer and his entourage thought they were in the clear, ANTIFA protesters intercepted their taxi, surrounded it, urging each other to not damage the vehicle. MPD officers detained two of them, but they were later released with no charges filed.
Spencer told the driver, “Drive. Just drive. Please! For God’s sake, just go!”
Back at Damaged City Fest, a banner hangs on the back wall of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church that read, “An individual can resist injustice, but only a community can create justice,” and in front of it The Marked Men played quick, emotive pop punk to a crowd belting lyrics into each others faces with love, sweating and dancing all over each other.
St. Stephen’s has been a cherished space to both activist and art communities of D.C. for decades, even playing a vital role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. We Are Family and Positive Force, activist collectives with close ties to the D.C. Punk scene, both operate out of this venue. Positive Force organized an MLK Day benefit show supporting Disrupt J20.
“We try to recirculate the money back into things that keep the D.C. scene going. For instance Positive Force,” Zeijilon said. “Technically with St. Stephens we only have to donate them $150 dollars, and we always try to get them at least few thousand. Just because like, they keep doing shows, and on top of that they have We Are Family and stuff.”
For many of the Damaged City attendees, it was recirculation in a spirtual sense. “We’re all letting ourselves feel good for once in what feels like forever,” said Mary, a native to the DC punk scene, referring to the sense of “resistance fatigue” many have been feeling since Trump’s election. Dead City was an a antidote.
Then Mary’s tone shifted. She lamented not being there to confront Spencer.
“I do wish I went down to that thing though,” she said, ”but resistance looks a thousand different ways. I’m glad I exist in a community fluent in so many of them,” as she started dancing along to The Marked Men.
“Keep on glitter-punching I guess, at the end of the day,” Zeijlon said.