Justin Sane's Military Free Zone

News & Politics

Justin Sane is lead singer and guitarist with the punk band Anti-Flag. He grew up in Pennsylvania and formed a band in 1988 with drummer Pat Thetic. They developed the sound that became Anti-Flag and later toured worldwide with Green Day, NOFX and Rage Against The Machine. Their albums include Terror State and Death of a Nation.

Justin Sane and Anti-Flag have always been dedicated to social change, from the movement to free Mumia Abu Jamal to encouraging youth voter participation in the 2004 U.S. presidential elections. In 2003 they formed the Underground Action Alliance and currently they have formed an organization called the Military Free Zone to challenge military recruitment in high schools.

The following interview was broadcast live on Radio Free Santa Cruz on March 21, 2005.

John Malkin: I want to welcome you to Free Radio Santa Cruz.

Justin Sane: Thanks so much for having me. It is a pleasure to be here.

You have devoted a lot of energy to social change in your music making. The latest project you are involved with is the military free zone. You have been working with members of Congress and others to resist a provision of the No Child Left Behind legislation. Tell me about that act and how it relates to military recruitment in high schools.

There is a provision that is buried in the No Child Left Behind Act. If you attend a public high school, your school system is required to turn over your private information to the U.S. military unless you opt out. 'Opt out' means that you need to turn in a form, signed by a guardian or a parent, stating that you do not want the military to have your private information. It is basically the exact opposite of the age-old school permission slip, where if you wanted to go on a school field trip or if you wanted the school to give out your private information, you had to turn in a form signed by your parent saying that it was OK. Instead, the school is going to give away your private information to the military, specifically for recruitment targeting, unless you hand in a form telling them not to do so.

Of course, 99 percent of the population really knows nothing about this provision in the No Child Left Behind Act. Most public schools haven't bothered to tell their students and they're simply giving their students' information out. When we heard about that, obviously, we were dumbfounded. It is just another example of the arrogance of this Bush administration. And the arrogance of the people who drafted this ridiculous piece of legislation that is supposedly going to be something that is good for children's education. This is the kind of stuff that the young people in this country are made disillusioned by, I believe. It is one of things that make me feel disillusioned. We felt like we needed to make kids aware of this, especially because they are our main audience. They are the people who we usually connect to with our music.

You have just launched a national "Opt Out" campaign and petition drive to end this involuntary military recruitment in High Schools. Tell me about how you originally began working on this issue with Congresspeople, like Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), Pete Stark (D-Calif.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.).

Well, first of all, we decided to launch a national campaign. The goal of the campaign was to let kids know that they could opt out and that they could protect their private information. Unfortunately, it was going to take a little bit of work on their part, but there is an option where they can protect their private information. Secondly, we wanted to start a petition drive so that we could collect tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of signatures, so that we can go back to Congress and we can say to them, "Look, you drafted this legislation. People are not happy with it and it needs to be changed."

We built a web site called militaryfreezone.org. At that web site, there is an opt out form that you can download and print out. There is a petition that you can sign. There is all kinds of information to help you inform others and you can send a letter to your congressperson.

Luckily, in the build up to the 2004 presidential election, we met Congressmember Jim McDermott in Seattle when we were on the Rock Against Bush Tour, a tour which was part of the drive to register as many young voters as we possibly could. Congressmember McDermott is certainly an ally in ideology. He worked with us on a number of things with the Rock Against Bush campaign. When we informed him about this provision buried in the No Child Left Behind Act, he said, "Come to Washington. Let's launch your campaign on Capitol Hill. We'll do a press conference. I am certainly willing to back you guys." He is a Navy veteran, so it sort of gives us a little bit of credibility and maybe we'll reach some of the right wingers or people that are a little more into militarism who wouldn't necessarily take us as seriously. So, he invited us to Capitol Hill and we went there and did a press conference with him on March 17. Also there were Reps. Woolsey and Stark, who were also willing to back us on this campaign.

Some of the songs that you sing with Anti-Flag express some distrust of political systems and politicians. I am curious how it is for you to work with politicians on this campaign? For example, regarding the recent press conferences that you did, how did mainstream media receive you, how did other Congress people receive you and how have Anti-Flag audiences received this collaboration?

Yeah, it does seem ridiculous in some ways, doesn't it? It is a little laughable! Because of course, Anti-Flag is a band that has been singing about questioning your government and not trusting your government and listing numerous reasons why you should probably do those things. I think that in that respect, when we do a press conference with a Congressperson, the media -- especially the corporate media -- respond with, "This is really surprising and unusual." They are always looking for an entertaining angle. There are ways that we can manipulate the corporate media to talk about the issues that we care about. In that respect, it is a story for them and it certainly draws attention to our cause.

Yes, we certainly have found at times that there are good people in government; people who do care about making things better. People who are trying to change things from the inside in their own way. I can't honestly say that I know that their way is the best way. I do know that there are some people that we have been lucky enough to meet who are allies, who do have the same ideals and who are truly trying to make the world a better place.

Working with Congressmember McDermott just makes sense because he is someone who is on the same page as us. There are not a lot of representatives, or people in government in general, who are willing to stick their neck out and align themselves with a group of punk rockers! It is not necessarily the politically savvy thing to do. In that respect, I think that there are some good-hearted intentions in what Congressmember McDermott and now Woolsey and Stark have been willing to do.

Tell me more about military recruiting and why you feel strongly about opposing it. In the Anti-Flag song "Die For The Government," and in essays you have written, you address the fact that it is mostly poor people and people of color that join the U.S. military. And currently military recruiters are not meeting their goals, partly because young people are noticing that soldiers are being attacked, wounded and killed in Iraq and joining up is not such a popular idea anymore. It seems likely that the military recruitment aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act came to help alleviate the military's current problem with low recruitment.

You bring up so many good points. I hardly know where to start. ... My parents were a great influence on me. [They] have always been very progressive. I can remember as a kid, my dad telling me never to join anyone's military. From a very young age, militarism and trying to solve the world's problems through militarism is something that has always resonated with me as being a bad idea.

Reuters released a news report on March 6 that said that the Army is six percent behind their year-to-date recruiting target. The Reserve is down 10 percent and the Guard is down 26 percent. Obviously the pictures, and the numbers, of Americans who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan either in body bags or without arms and legs, that message is starting to resonate with people. I know specifically that from listening to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! that in African-American communities, the recruitment numbers are way down. So, that message is getting through.

Why do I think that it is a problem that military recruiters are targeting these high school kids and actually have access to information that they can use to target these kids? It is simply that these military recruiters are desperate for recruits. There are quota goals that military recruiters are supposed to reach. They are not just recruiting out of the goodness of their heart. They are desperate because they have their military stretched so thin.

The provision in the No Child Left Behind Act allows military recruiters to pull kids out of classes to talk to them. It allows them to roam around the school at will. They can do things that any other "career recruiter" could only dream of. They have video games that they take into the schools and have kids play them to see what it would be like to be a soldier. They have a lot of seductive tactics. And they absolutely go after minorities and poor people and they specifically go after them with promises of providing college money. And that is such a myth! Twenty percent of the recruits who are promised college money actually ever get it. And the amount that they get is nowhere near the amount that they were promised. There are various reasons for that, but the main one is that to qualify for that money, you have to be in for a certain number of years and while you are in you are required to reach a bunch of specific goals and finally you have to be discharged honorably. So, a lot of them are promised these things and they never get them.

Obviously, we don't want more kids going off to fight and kill in Iraq, which we think is a war of imperialism. A war based on lies. We don't believe that militarism is the way to solve the world's problems. The best way to avoid warfare is if no one shows up. That is why we are pushing hard to let kids know what the military is really about and let them know about other options and how they can protect themselves from military recruiters.

It does seem like an obvious strategy for creating more peace -- have less people shooting at each other!

It also seems complicated, talking to people who somehow think that there is some benefit from the war. Like you were talking about people who go to war thinking that it will help them go to college or, especially after the attacks of September 11, 2001, people felt a desire to contribute somehow in a positive way and joined the military to do that.

Absolutely. But there are other ways to serve your community and to help people and your country. More important than helping a country, to me, is simply helping people in general. A lot of people don't realize that there are other ways to be doing something on a really large scale and to see the world; maybe the Peace Corps or other groups such as that. Here in the United States there are so many people who need help.

Do you have any thoughts about why we are in this kind of permanent warfare state? Do you have any ideas about the roots of this violent state that the world is in and, in particular, the role that the United States plays in all of this?

I think that the biggest reason is that it just comes down to money. The fact is that war is very profitable for many of the people who are in power. When you look at Dick Cheney and how close he is to Halliburton and how much money Halliburton has made off of this war (in Iraq), it is just criminal! It is incredible that there have not been investigations about this and that people have not gone to jail for the war profiteering that has gone on.

I certainly refer people to the John Perkins' book, Confessions of an Economic Hitman. He describes how he worked for the NSA (National Security Administration). In the United States, corporations are very concerned about securing natural resources for them to profit from. Perkins talks about how it was his job to make sure that certain countries played ball so that we could take advantage of their resources. And if they didn't play ball, then the U.S. brought in the muscle, which was usually the military or a CIA hit squad. That is the other side of it. It has its roots in the IMF, the World Bank and a lot of the organizations that were set up at the end of World War II. In some ways they were set up for very humanitarian reasons and good reasons, where they were trying to help rebuild destroyed communities. But unfortunately, as often happens, you have some corrupt people who come into positions of power in those organizations and they are able to exploit those organizations for their own personal gain.

I gather from your lyrics and music with Anti-Flag that maybe anarchist philosophy resonates with you. What is your level of interest in anarchist philosophy and that way of life?

I think that it is certainly possible. You see it in all kinds of communities all over the world. I think the greatest myth -- this Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly myth that capitalism keeps order and everyone profits who works -- on the one hand these guys drive me up the wall. On the other hand, it is kind of hilarious to listen to them rant and rave about how great capitalism is and how well it works. Then you realize that there are all of these homeless people and all of these problems. I guess that, according to them, all of these people are lazy.

You can look at communities just in my own state of Pennsylvania. We've got Amish communities where it is really all for one, with all profit being shared. Everyone reaps the rewards of their work and the community takes care of those who can't take care of themselves. But the priorities are much different. The main priority being that people are concerned about taking care of one another and doing what is best for each other. Unfortunately, a lot of the rest of society is rooted in this idea of capitalism and looking out for number one first and if it produces something good for everybody else, well that is nice, but it is not a priority. In that respect, the world and many people end up selling themselves short.

You are describing some differences between social structures. There are traditions in political philosophies of how to structure society, like capitalism and anarchism, and there are strategies of spiritual traditions that deal with the same questions. I wonder what your thoughts are about how those two realms go together, social change and spirituality?

Something interesting that I have heard from a lot of people who are involved in activism, especially social and political activism, is simply that if they didn't have spirituality in their lives that the struggles that they are involved in would just wear them out and burn them out. To the point where they would just give up. I hear that over and over again.

The idea of organized religion and God and those kinds of things, they are not very popular ideas in punk rock. I think it is because people have had so many bad experiences, whether it was being made to go to church by mom and dad. Or being made to go to church and maybe realizing that this wasn't for you and being told that you were a bad person because you didn't agree. Being forced to follow an ideology that didn't make sense to you.

Personally, I am a very spiritual person. But, I would never push my spirituality on anybody else. I think that people should make up their own mind about what they believe. Activism and spirituality can go hand in hand. Usually spirituality is about trying to be good to people, to find a place where you feel that you belong and where you are centered. Where you are happy with simply being alive and you are happy within your spiritual self.

That attitude certainly plays into activism in that you start to realize that it would be nice if we lived in a world where everyone had the opportunity to be able to find that place. For me, just with my own spiritual center, it is something that helps me to remember what is important. And what I truly care about and what I truly believe in. It helps me to remember what my goals are and then, at the end, it helps me to focus myself and come down from the intensity of it all. And be able to breathe again.

[In an essay] you wrote in 2003, before the most recent U.S. war on Iraq began, you wrote, "I am committed to the principle that violence is never justified as a means of ameliorating a grievance." I think often that nonviolence fits into the spiritual base of social change. Tell me more about the importance of nonviolence to you in creating social change. And just to throw in this idea; we all have these conceptions of revolution or spirituality or punk rock and there can be a perception that punk rock is destructive and violent and anger-induced.

I think that it is important to set an example for people of the highest ideal. When you commit violence yourself, then you're certainly not setting a very good example if you're saying, "We can overcome this without violence." In the most simplistic way, that is how I would explain it. I think that is why so many people are outraged about the torture of Iraqi and other prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison and Gauntanamo and other places all over the world where people have been sent by the United States government to be tortured. They feel that the United States is supposed to be a symbol of how people are supposed to treat other people. And torturing people doesn't show anyone that the United States is upholding the highest standards of humanitarian practices.

I have frustrations at times and I might be angry sometimes. What I loved about punk rock as a teenager and even to this very day is that I can focus that anger or frustration in a positive way and actually create something with it. Something positive. Maybe create an expression that others could relate to. So, I find that all emotions can be used as a motivating factor. Just because you are angry or feeling aggressive or something doesn't mean that you have to injure another human being. You can find positive ways to focus that energy. Maybe use it in a way that you accomplish something that helps other people. In that respect, I would agree that punk rock is angry and aggressive very often. But I don't necessarily think that is a bad thing.

Last year, a lot of musicians and artists became involved in the presidential election. Organizations like Punkvoter, musicans like Ani DiFranco and bands like Anti-Flag tried to keep George W. Bush out of office by encouraging young people to take part in the political process. My sense is that a lot of people are very disappointed that their efforts didn't have different results last November. I wonder what you think has been the level of success or political effect that you and Anti-Flag had on your audience during the presidential campaign and continue to have now?

In 2000, I voted for Ralph Nader. I was really hopeful that there might be a chance of establishing some kind of a third party. I really do believe that this government needs an overhaul. I don't think that it represents the people in any way. But I also don't believe that 99 percent of the people that I meet everyday are willing to march on Washington D.C. and kick the president out of the White House and start from scratch. I don't think that that's a bad idea, however until that time comes, until enough people are incensed enough and think that is the route we need to go, maybe there is another route that we can go. Maybe that is the political route. Right now it seems like a tool.

We never endorsed Kerry or told people to vote for Kerry. What we were saying to people was, "Please become engaged." Especially to young people, who we thought Bush was affecting in a major way with his warfare policies. I think that if you look at it statistically, the age group between 18- and 35-year-olds had the highest percentage of voters turn out in a very long time.

I think the voter drive did make a difference. In the end, what I have seen come out of it is that we are just starting to build something. I think that young people are becoming more aware. I don't feel that just because Bush took the White House that it was a failure. If anything, we are just getting started and we are on the verge of a great progressive explosion. The Bush regime might be helping us along because they are taking us down so many disastrous roadways, especially with the deficit now.

Do you tend to think that things need to get worse before they get better?

Sadly, I do. For a lot of reasons. A lot of my friends were saying to me, "Don't go out telling people to vote against Bush. If Bush wins, it is going to further the cause that we are fighting for!" I fully understand that. However, I live in a really working class neighborhood in Pittsburgh. It is not really poor, but it is certainly not wealthy. I see my neighbors struggling. I have seen the result of some of the social programs that have passed through. I see that people are suffering and I know that the government is dropping bombs on people's heads and in that respect it was very, very hard for me to be able to ignore the suffering that is the result of Bush. I felt like something needed to be said.

I do feel that, unfortunately, people do seem to need to be desperate before they are willing to take action. Maybe people need to hurt a little bit more. It is sad and tragic, especially with the kind of corporate-media control that is out there and the information that people see that is so slanted. There are not a lot of shows like yours on the radio. It is very hard for people to know what is really going on. It seems like, at this point, people have to be in such a state of pain before they are willing to make any great changes or even open to hearing a new idea or a new way.

Can you tell me about upcoming events that you will be involved with regarding the Military Free Zone and the Underground Action Alliance and any upcoming releases we might expect from Anti-Flag?

We just did the launch in Washington D.C. Over the weekend we participated in the anti-war demonstration in Pittsburgh, Pa. I think that ours turned out to be one of the bigger ones in the country. Pittsburgh is a pretty progressive town in a lot of ways, so I wasn't surprised by that. But in some ways I was a little disappointed that in some of the other cities the demonstrations weren't a little bigger! I was still very happy that the people turned out overall. That is the most important thing.

We have a couple of things lined up for militaryfreezone.org. We are encouraging kids to start downloading forms off of the web site. We hope they will distribute literature to their friends and let their friends know about the problems with the No Child Left Behind Act that make it possible for the military to receive, involuntarily, students personal information. That is mostly where we are centering our efforts.

Anti-Flag is working on a new record and that is taking up a lot of our time. We do head off to Europe for about three or four weeks in June and then we will come back and record our record and after that I don't know. We did just return from Japan and Australia and that was a great time. It was amazing to go to those places and see how different their culture is and realize that even with our cultures being so different that people in general really have the same hopes and fears and concerns and passions. After all, that is really what Anti-Flag is about. It is the idea that we are not flags and we are not nationalities. We are not weapons and we are not religions. We are simply human beings. So it is important for us to treat each other in that capacity.

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