The black-and-white picture below was taken on January 21, 1991, in Washington DC’s Lafayette Square, on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. That’s me in the white hat at the edge of the stage. The band playing on the stage with their backs to the White House is Fugazi. The concert was staged by a collective known as Positive Force DC, as part of a protest against rumors of the US initiating a war in Iraq. I was 15 years old.
I found this photo this year, exactly 26 years after the day it was taken, on the day America inaugurated our current President. The current political climate reminds me a lot of the early 90s, and I have become aware that I benefited greatly from my teenage years as a fan of the Washington DC hardcore punk scene, sometimes referred to as harDCore. As Groove asked me to talk about this years, I’ll try to find ways to make sense of it, though my memories go back many years.
When we’re young, we glean so much of our worldview from the idols we see. I didn’t idolize athletes or movie stars, my heroes were always musicians. I was 14 years old when I went to my first ever Fugazi concert, in Maryland, outside Washington. It wasn’t just a concert, it was a benefit for a cause. The tickets were $5, the band took nothing, it all went to a drug and alcohol clinic. I would go to see that band over 20 times during the following 4 years, and every concert raised money for a charity. Concerts by many of the local DC bands would be political protests or fundraisers for shelters for homeless people or domestic violence victims; some were fundraisers for AIDS clinics, or for refugees.
Going to punk shows and leaping around on other sweaty teenage punks wasn’t just a musical awakening for me, it was a political awakening. In between the bands there were speeches, and we learned about the policies of the (first) Bush administration in Latin America, we learned about the challenges facing people with HIV/AIDS, or the dwindling number of places to go for the cities booming homeless population.
The shows were nearly always in church basements, Saint Stephens, All Souls, Sacred Heart – these were names spoken like they were our favorite clubs, they were our hubs, but they were open halls beneath socially-minded churches. Some of the churches were active since the slavery-abolition movements of the 19th century. There weren’t bars to meet at, the back of every show housed card tables holding pamphlets on important political issues, and t-shirts or 7-inch vinyl records from the bands on stage. Bands would sell their merchandise to stay on tour, and a portion of the money from the entrance fees would go to the charity.