Punk subculture was born in the 1970’s from oppressed youth who wanted no part in conforming to the colonial mass culture surrounding them. The movement was “against it”, a rejection of societal norms based on behavior, attitude, music and fashion sense; a resistance to consumerism and a mass media that appease patriarchal heteronormative standards and reinforce white upper-class privilege. Contemporary punks today could argue that past punk culture in western societies has morphed into the mainstream, co-opted and codified by the dominant discourse and now part of a “poser” subculture appropriated by corporate power.
The birth of Punk Culture in Southern California dates back to 1976-1979, with the formation of key bands: The Flesh Eaters, The Germs, The Weirdos, Angry Samoans, Circle Jerks, Agent Orange, Black Flag, The Plugz, and Middle Class. In 1980-1983, the emergence of hardcore bands such as Fear, China White, The Minutemen, Social Distortion, D.I, T.S.O.L., Suicidal Tendencies, The Bags, and San-Francisco-based Dead Kennedys added more voices to the mix, and, in the case of The Bags, more diversity, with two female lead singers. The hardcore punk scene in Los Angeles and Orange County inspired an emergence of conflicting gangs, predominately white and sometimes racist, who would occasionally face off with black gangs in Watts, adding to the scene discourse. Punk shows, renowned for their mosh pits, always had to contend with interventionism from police, who did not understand the culture of moshing and saw only frenzied displays of mob violence and youth aggression needing to be stopped.
Although interpreted by 1980s music journalists as a reaction against Flower Power, California hardcore could be seen instead as an angry middle finger to eight years of Ronald Reagan’s disastrous stewardship as governor, which provided plenty of political fodder for the punk gristmill. After the incompetent B-movie actor ascended to the Presidency in 1980, “Reaganomics” allowed West Coast punk to export its message of discontent to the rest of the nation’s youth, becoming a coping mechanism to counter failed policies that would ultimately tank the American economy in 1982. Ineffective and intrusive initiatives like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) targeted gangs, drugs and violence by further embedding police forces into public educational systems. Like rap, hardcore punk gave a voice to the massive poverty and urban inequity crippling the country throughout the decade. As these voices of cultural discontent grew louder, Tipper Gore and the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) became the moral enforcers of the 1st Amendment, convinced that penis posters, pentagrams, and obscenities by black people were the primary corruptive influence in American society, not gun-running to Nicaraguan fascists or training murderers and rapists at the School of the Americas. Among the hardcore bands singled out, Dead Kennedys would never recover from their PMRC showdown, with their label Alternative Tentacles folding from the financial pressures. To the PMRC’s logic, instead of the music being a rumination on a morally bankrupt ruling class leading the nation to the verge of financial ruin and/or nuclear war, it was instead the main cause of corruption. Ironically, nothing brought the various subculture factions together like the PMRC’s music labeling efforts. Even John Denver, in his damning testimony, understood how these messages reflected an angry youth coping with an American social fabric unravelling around them.
The punk scene in Los Angeles is still flourishing today, and the concept of punk in L.A. is staying true to its historical origins. Los Punks: We Are All We Have, a documentary directed by Angela Boatwright, portrays the current flourishing backyard Latino punk scene in South Central, Watts, East L.A. and Boyle Heights. The documentary provides intimate perspectives, following five punk youth who are involved in the backyard punk scene. Each person chronicles their biopsychosocial stressors of coping with poverty, mental illness, absent parents, and depressed communities, while trying to create a home for similar youth reacting to their own lived oppressions.
Boatwright highlights punks such as Nacho Corrupted, the lead singer for Corrupted Youth. Corrupted is responsible for organizing and promoting thousands of backyard shows from the greater L.A. area, using the accessibility of social media to get the word out and creating flyers on his computer that still adhere to the aesthetics of drawn punk show flyers from the 1980s, made popular by artists such as Raymond Pettibon.
Also profiled is Billy Famine, the singer from Withdrawal Symptoms, who credits the backyard punk scene in helping him steer clear from the street gangs that have ensnared many of his relatives. He talks about watching kids get shot in front of his house and states, “That could’ve been me.” There is a sense of inclusiveness within each narrative of Los Punks, where no one cares if people are gay, straight, cholo, gothic or punk. People’s social lives are interwoven because of the commonality of minority existence, the solidarity often inherent in coping with poverty and institutionalized oppression of class and race that continues to victimize lower income neighborhoods in L.A. and other cities in the United States.
There are, of course, the irate neighbors trying to shut down shows because of property destruction and supposed criminal elements. The ubiquitous L.A.P.D. helicopter spotlights attempt to disperse crowds by exposing them; but instead of shutting them down, they add an ambience similar to spotlights at an indoor concert venue, which only acts to intensify the feeling of empowered resistance as the party rages on. Alex, the singer from Psyk Ward who credits his life to punk rock, describes his countless attempts to complete suicide, explaining that he wrote songs to cope with being institutionalized for suicidal and homicidal ideation.
Boatwright interviews April Desmadre, a 15-year-old female backyard show promoter from Watts. She has an absent mother and does not disclose any information about her father. She describes watching a woman in Watts get killed by a vehicle and seeing her eyes pop out of her head, nonchalantly laughing. As a promoter, April collects the money from each show she sets up, and this helps her live and pay rent. She credits punk shows for helping her cope with her mental health and life stressors, reporting, “I just wait to take it out in the pit.” April is a resourceful teen and a positive, strong woman, adept in organizing and supporting herself through a resilience fueled by the love of punk rock culture.
Gary, the singer from Rhythmic Asylum, acknowledges that the backyard punks are people from low income backgrounds. He speaks about the lack of social systems access in South Central and Watts, using standpoint theory to explain the prominence of crime, gangs, drugs and prostitution, where escaping through punk culture is a coping mechanism for oppressed people living in the hood. For his moral worldview, Gary credits his parents, who were refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador, fleeing civil war and military dictatorship. They understand the interconnectivity between his simultaneous pursuit of law school and punk rock while living in a 1 bedroom apartment with his family. Gary calls himself a “creator of the culture,” drawing flyers, promoting and empowering his community.
As much as it might remind of the past, Los Punks: We Are All We Have portrays a new breed of punk Latino artists, one still steeped in working-class realities but this time focusing on youth of color and women. The film calls attention to the continued lack of upward mobility in South Central, Watts, East L.A. and Boyle Heights, where punks and people who reside in the neighborhoods choose to respond critically and actively to the world around them, fostering resistance while celebrating how to cope with entrenched and continuing social inequity.
By Karen Lee (Weekend Family Music Hour) & Jim Bunnelle (Center for Cassette Studies).