On Sunday, May 31st, I sat on the lawn of the State College, Pennsylvania police station. With eyes shut, I listened as a young Black man spoke of his experiences. He spoke of how his school refused to reprimand a fellow student for racist language, and how belittled he felt when the most Black history he was taught was a half-semester offered as an elective.
My eyes opened as he spoke of Black history and art, of a culture often fetishized and consumed by white people who could not be bothered to learn more about it. He wanted all of us white attendees to understand that Black liberation was not just about the violence inflicted upon Black people, but the joy and pride he felt in being Black as well. All around me, I watched as others sat in silence, signs down, listening intently to his every word. He spoke with conviction, his voice cracking under the strain as he described going to prison for the first time before the age of 16.
His voice became weary. He spoke of how he was harassed by police in his own neighborhood. How he was taught from a young age to point anyone asking directly to his house. How, even in a predominantly liberal area such as State College, he was afraid of being killed by the police. How he was afraid of being another statistic void of his humanity afterwards.
As he spoke, a single sign rose in the front row. It did not mention George Floyd, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, or Osaze Osagie, the Black man fatally shot by State College police on March 20th of last year. The sign, scrawled in black and red sharpie, displayed four letters: ACAB. Even as the lone sign standing, it still managed to skirt around the issue. The person holding it was not there to protest police brutality against Black people, but to use it as fodder for their talking points. They were not pro-Black lives, simply anti-cop.
Punk, hardcore, and indie have long been heralded as the “socially conscious” genres. Participation in any of these communities continues to suggest left-leaning political affiliation. Banners shoddily made with “ACAB!” spray-painted on white-sheets and burning or otherwise defaced American flags present at DIY shows confirm that notion, at least from an outside perspective. Yet as I stared at that sign, held by a local white punk I knew all too well, I could not help but wonder if it was only for show.
After that young man’s speech, the punk’s “ACAB” felt reductionist. It did not address the Black pride or Black joy he had mentioned, nor did it speak to the need for representation of Black culture or Black history. Instead, its narrative was centered on a white punk’s disdain for police. The identities of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Osaze Osagie were stripped. It did not matter who they were in life, as their deaths were what verified the systemic violence portrayed by songs and album covers the punk happily consumed. As a white punk, it is systemic violence they are likely to never face.
Within punk, hardcore, and indie, this problem is not an isolated incident. This recent news cycle has my Twitter feed flooded with retweets of Jesus Piece playing “Oppressor” from This is Hardcore. I have seen more Instagram stories than I can count with “ACAB” or “1312” posted over Year of the Knife’s “Blue Lies”. Near everyone is rushing to promote “Black-fronted” bands as if bands with Black members playing other instruments do not exist. It’s like watching an entire scene clamor to say “I’m not racist, I have a Black friend!” all at once. The energy used to display one is pro-Black liberation is rarely exerted for actions to prove one is pro-Black liberation. This is the issue.
As recently as 2014, Kayla Phillips, formerly of Bleed the Pigs, spoke of the issues she faced as a Black woman in a powerviolence band. She often found herself tokenized with Bleed the Pigs being reduced to “sexy black woman” fronted on show flyers. White peers would complain she was “too aggressive”, a notion she scoffed at as she performed in a genre based around aggression; this all occurred while they wrote songs based around the imagery of lynchings as it was “cool”. In many ways, it is much the same as “ACAB” on that sign. The entirety of the Black experience has been reduced to the violence inflicted on Black people or the social capital birthed from tokenizing them. And even that has been trimmed to a neat slogan easily displayed on pins.
However, while the conversation has largely been about punk and hardcore to this point, indie finds itself just as guilty. Take, for example, the recent “George Floyd” song released by current indie darling Beach Bunny. While all proceeds went to Floyd’s family, the very concept of a white artist writing a song about a Black man’s death and the continued struggle for Black liberation seems inherently tone deaf. The fact that the lyrics to said song have very little to do with who George Floyd was as a person and read more like a dollar store Bob Dylan adds insult to injury. Vague swipes are made at a dystopian-portrayal of the government, yet never touch on the systemic violence faced uniquely by Black people. Beach Bunny singer Lili Trifilio has since owned her mistake, apologized, and removed the song. However, this still begs the question: why write the song in the first place? Why not use Beach Bunny’s ever-growing platform to promote Black artists already discussing these issues?
To act like the exploitation of Black liberation by artists in the “socially conscious genres” is a new phenomenon is willfully ignorant. In 1981, Black Flag released their landmark album Damaged, including the song “Police Story”. In the song, the narrator describes his various run-ins with the law, stating that he “may serve time” or be beaten for flipping-off cops. Given where Black Flag originated, the kind of systemic violence portrayed in “Police Story” is unlikely. Per the 1980 census, their hometown of Hermosa Beach, Los Angeles touted a cost of living nearly double that of neighboring Compton and Gardena. Hermosa Beach was also 80% white at the time, suggesting police crackdown against the band had more to do with the famed violence of their shows and excessive tagging to promote them.
To admit to this would be to abandon the folk-hero status Black Flag had cultivated. The answer, then, was to co-opt the systemic violence used by law enforcement that was on display in nearby, predominantly non-white Compton and Gardena. With this, they were able to reclaim their narrative. Black Flag was no longer targeted by police for inciting small riots at their shows, but because there was a system in place that fundamentally opposed their right to live. Black Flag had managed to conflate their frustration with dull, white suburbia to the violence Black people faced at the hands of systemic racism. Not a single song on Damaged covered race.
Their peers in the all-Black, hardcore pioneers Bad Brains, however, had to do very little conflating. By the time their debut album, Banned in D.C. released in 1979, it had been less than 25 years since the lynching of Emmet Till. Less than 10 since the FBI had tried to imprison prominent activist Angela Davis and assassinate Chicago Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. As a result, race was a recurring theme on Banned in D.C. Black power, Rastafarianism, and systemic racism faced at the hands of the police were all covered in multiple songs. “F.V.K. (Fearless Vampire Killers)” even went so far as to address the economic oppression of Black people by the “bourgeoisie”. Bad Brains, unlike Black Flag, had no oppression to co-opt. It was simply their lived experience.
The narrative of Black liberation is often hi-jacked by white musicians and reduced to its component parts. What is useful to building their narratives and aesthetics is taken while the rest is discarded. For punk and hardcore, this is artists like Black Flag co-opting the violence Black people experience to build their own legend. For indie, this is exploiting the tumultuous emotions of the Black experience and softening them into a more “digestible” aesthetic. In all three, Black liberation, Black history, Black culture, and Black joy are all paid little attention. It is the pain of the Black experience these “socially conscious” white artists want, as it is the pain that re-affirms their “ACAB” spray-painted onto signs and banners everywhere.
Also worth noting is that punk, hardcore, and indie are three of the most white-dominated, least socio-economically diverse genres. I myself am a white person from a middle class background. This is not to say we cannot hate the police as an institution, or have issues with police violence in our communities. Rather, it is to acknowledge that the issues white and Black people face with the police are vastly different. Our involvement in traditionally “protest” oriented genres does not give us extra rank to speak over or for Black people, nor does it allow us to conflate the issues we as white artists face with the vicious systemic racism Black people face. It certainly does not allow us to co-opt the Black experience in order to create more vivid imagery for our songs. Being anti-cop, after all, does not make someone pro-Black.
As such, we must take the time to reflect and be as critical of ourselves as any other white person. Why is it, for example, that very few white punks know it is Angela Davis’s silhouette displayed on Orchid’s acclaimed Gatefold album? That even fewer have actually read Davis’s work? As white fans of punk, hardcore, and indie, we must be willing to step beyond the aesthetic value and social capital afforded to us by Black liberation movements. We must be willing to have self-critical, uncomfortable conversations on how our “socially conscious” protest music has routinely exploited Black lives and Black liberation. In doing so, we must recognize that we, just like any other well-intentioned group of white people, has done our part in upholding systemic racism and white supremacy.
Resources to Learn:
Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in my City by Mary Pattillo
The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair With Nature by J. Drew Lanham
Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements by George Breitman (editor)
The Meaning of Freedom by Angela Y. Davis
Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis
13th dir. by Ava DuVernay (available on Netflix)
The Pruitt Igoe Myth dir. by Chad Freidrichs (available on Kanopy through your local library)
Segregated by Design dir. Mark Lopez
Places to Donate:
Thank you to Lucia Person and Elaine Wang for providing additional editing.