You may not want to believe it, but George W. Bush has some strengths. As he told us four years ago, he is a uniter, not a divider. The truth of that statement was more than apparent last Friday, when over 700 punk rockers converged on the Sunshine Theater for the fist-pumping, crowd surfing and political networking that was the Rock Against Bush tour.
"It speaks to how much we dislike Bush," said Toby Jegg, co-founder of PunkVoter.org, "that punk rockers have organized."
After failing to take a political stance with their (sometimes sizeable) audiences before the last presidential election, many formerly apolitical bands did an about face as events unfolded over the next few years. Jegg explained, "They saw this nut (G.W.B.) on TV and said, Whoa, this is like letting a 4-year-old drive a car.' Somebody's gotta do something! We realized it was our obligation to speak out."
So Jegg and Fat Mike Burnett from NoFX formed PunkVoter.org to make political leverage out of the cultural weight musicians wield. PunkVoter soon counted more than 200 of the nation's best known punk bands as members, and they began a full-scale media assault against the Bush administration.
They produced two compilation CD/DVDs ("Rock Against Bush" Volumes I & II), featuring documentary clips, which have now sold over 500,000 copies. They launched an ad campaign comparing the two presidential candidates and endorsing John Kerry for president.
"We've spent over $200,000 in battleground states," says Scott Goodstein of Punk Voter. All of the ads have been placed in the alternative press (including the Alibi) to reach their target audience, Goodstein said.
PunkVoter.org registered over 10,000 new voters on their last tour, and this time they have an even broader goal in mind. "We want to educate, to make sure young voters are getting some factual information," Goodstein said. "We want to challenge (them) to take action and read more, look into alternative news sources, and as Jello Biafra would say, become the media.'"
So they invited guest lecturers to speak at their concerts. International labor leaders, peace activists and documentary filmmakers have all shared the stage with the musicians. Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA), who has told young crowds that the likelihood of a draft in a second Bush administration "is almost a certainty," and women's rights leader Gloria Steinem have also addressed the raucous crowds. Goodstein said inviting the guest lecturers is a great way to introduce the audience to politics, and for them to hear about issues "from a credible source."
When the Rock Against Bush tour bus rolled into Albuquerque, the five bands came accompanied by Richard Perez, director of the documentary "Unprecedented." Perez attended an afternoon screening of the film at UNM and was on hand, along with the drummer of Anti-Flag, to introduce his work and answer questions.
The movie was an unflinching deconstruction of how Bush was declared winner in 2000, and the kind of obstacles legal, legitimate voters had to face in the election. If anyone has any lingering suspicions that something was rotten in the state of Florida, "Unprecedented" will leave little doubt about what rotted and where. It is part of the "Rock Against Bush II" DVD.
Perez and three other panelists spoke with the audience for about an hour. They encouraged everyone to vote, and to join PunkVoter.org. Pat of Anti-Flag explained the groups main goal is to make a voter's league, 500,000 strong, that will be able to influence policy toward more progressive values like environmentalism, anti-militarism, women's rights and civil rights.
"George W. Bush and John Kerry will hopefully both be dead in 20 years," he said "We will not be." It is up to the younger generation, then, to fight for the world they are going to have to inhabit. "What we are doing here today is not about the election, and it's not about tomorrow. It's about 20 years in the future."
He pointed to the conservative movement as an example of successful long-term strategies for political power. "The conservatives started mobilizing in the '60s, and where are we now? We have a conservative majority in the House and Senate, conservatives in the White House. We need to start mobilizing today for a progressive majority."
By 7 p.m. Friday evening the line for the concert stretched around the block. Punks were handing out fliers to other shows, others asked for spare change and cigarettes, and others registered people to vote. A woman dressed in stars and stripes bellbottoms waved a sparkly blue megaphone in the air. "Anyone here not registered? If you don't vote, it's all your fault!"
Leonard Lucero and Phillip Griego plan to vote. They are local musicians who have also been inspired to become more politically involved and outspoken since Bush took office. They're voting for Kerry because they've "seen what Bush is capable of" and find it "scary to think of four more years if he didn't have to worry about re-election." Brahm, a black clad lad from Santa Fe, said he's voting against Bush, because you "gotta beat the fascists!"
The bands collectively put on an energetic show that engaged the crowd. Many of them spoke between songs about the war in Iraq and Bush's policies. Anti-Flag was the most vocal. They masterfully interspersed music and message, working the crowd into a frenzy. "Everyone here is the death of the George Bush Nation. It's up to us to take this fucking country back!"
Although the tone was aggressive, the content of both lyrics and speeches was unquestionably pacifist. Song after song dealt with refusing to participate in war, and they repeatedly told the audience to take part in this election and in the life of their communities. At the end of the evening, they thanked everyone for "treating yourselves with respect, treating each other with respect, and taking care of each other." After the encore, the exhausted crowd shuffled out to "This Land is Your Land" blasting over the sound system.
Yet the positive attitude couldn't mask the other side to the evening's emotions. Everyone I talked to expressed fear of Bush's policies, fear of the war, fear of a looming draft, of media consolidation, loss of civil liberties and environmental degradation. Roxy, lead singer of the Epoxies, hopes that people "really understand what we're on the brink of. It's scary as hell. A lot of people are talking about going to Canada." At the same time, she said the Rock Against Bush tour has brought together people "gung-ho to do what they can," looking for ways they can make a difference in society.
Jesús of the Young Voter Alliance summed up the day's message before the screening of Unprecedented. "You don't have to change the world by yourself," he said. "You just have to take that one stand. That one stand you take will create a ripple of hope that will go out and touch the world. So take that stand today."