Why you should care
Because sometimes anarchy isn’t as cool as it’s cracked up to be.
In 1979, when I was 19 years old, I moved out of my family’s suburban home and into a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. My dad was a Marine, and I had gone to Catholic school. I was waiting for my life to begin.
I started listening to punk as an escape, as a way out of a stifling, patriarchal household and a bleak educational landscape. Music had always been a big part of my life, and it gave me a voice where I had none. There’s an urgency, anger and physicality in punk rock that drew me to it. It fed the rebellion inside me; it inspired and sustained that feeling that objected to conformity and cried out for change. I also liked the toughness of its aesthetic — punk clothing sent a clear message: “Don’t fuck with me.” That was a message I felt I often needed to convey as a young woman in the late ’70s.
One July weekend, in 1982, I learned the Dead Kennedys would be playing a trifecta of shows in Staten Island, Philadelphia and Trenton, New Jersey. I planned to be at all three. After Friday’s show in Staten Island ended in a riot, I returned to Philadelphia early Saturday morning and slept until my little brother, Danny, arrived. He was staying with me overnight, and I wanted to show him a fun time. The Dead Kennedys were playing the Starlite Ballroom, in Philly’s Kensington neighborhood, that evening, even though singer Jello Biafra had been warned not to play the venue because of its stormy past.
I had gained a certain amount of street sense from living on my own in the city, and I remember saying to myself, “I don’t like the looks of this.”
We all knew it wasn’t the best place for a show. There had been a brawl with locals at a Black Flag–SOA show the year before. I probably shouldn’t have returned, but I wanted Danny to see the Dead Kennedys, so we headed over to the Starlite.
Before the show, Danny and I sat on a curb in front of the club. It was a scorching-hot summer day, and punks stood around in groups talking. Then I saw a car drive up very slowly. I had gained a certain amount of street sense from living on my own in the city, and I remember saying to myself, “I don’t like the looks of this.” I thought its occupants were about to do a drive-by shooting. Danny was in the middle of a sentence when I grabbed his hand and said, “Run!” I pulled him down the street, running as fast as I could.
I heard a loud explosion, then people screaming. The occupants of the car had hurled a bomb, made with a stick of dynamite, ball bearings and BB’s, into the crowd. People ran into the street shrieking, with ball bearings and BB’s embedded in their legs and arms — one girl’s heel and ankle were severely injured. Blood was splattered over the sidewalk.
Danny and I ran back to the “safety” of the club. My heart was racing, but I still wanted to see the band. I wasn’t worried about myself, but I feared that my little brother could get hurt. The crowd churned; the smell of sweat and testosterone filled the air. My friend Victor, who was one of the toughest guys I knew, pulled me aside and said, “Stick with me. If anybody looks at me for more than two seconds, I’m banging them out.”
The promoter set up barricades for “protection” from the locals massing outside and trying to break down the door. There were skirmishes throughout the opening band’s set. When the Dead Kennedys took the stage, Jello looked around the room at the windows that resembled portholes and asked the crowd, “Ever get the feeling you’re on a sinking ship?” I certainly did.
A few songs into the Dead Kennedys’ set, a kid sprayed a fire extinguisher at the stage, and I feared the foam was a cover for something more sinister. I knew Danny and I had to get out of there. Someone I didn’t know had a car, and I finagled a ride back to Center City for my brother and me. I vowed never, ever to return to the Kensington neighborhood. To this day, I have not.
Today, I can understand why the Kensington kids hated punks so much. Kensington locals were fiercely territorial, and I’m sure they felt we were invaders who needed to be driven out. They were White and poor, and they didn’t have much except the neighborhood they lived in and the loyalty and respect of their friends. When they felt that threatened, they reacted. They wanted no one — especially punks — to colonize their turf and change it from what they knew. It wasn’t an excuse for throwing bombs at us, but territorialism and provincialism seldom are.
When my friends and I talk about punk shows of the past, we often highlight the fights, the riots, the police harassment and the bombs. A conversation with my friend put it in perspective: “Those hardships people talk about,” he said, “it’s like people who say they had to walk to school in the snow. The real issue isn’t the walk — it’s that school is important. And that’s the way I look at the punk scene. When people talk about all this stuff that was going on, what they’re really trying to communicate is that we put up with that madness. That was how important it was to us.”
These days, I work as a high school English language arts teacher at a low-income urban school. Over the course of my 24-plus years as an educator, I’ve won several awards, and I’ve often been asked in interviews: “What training and education provided you with the skills necessary to be an effective teacher?”
When I moved beyond the rote answers and thought about it, I realized that, despite years of schooling, multiple degrees and countless hours of professional development, punk rock contributed much more to my ability to connect with and help my students than any teacher training program.
Punk helped me understand and reach disenfranchised and marginalized teens — mainly because I was one and so were my friends. It enabled me to recognize the importance of self-expression through language, and so I encourage my students to tap into the power of words to communicate rage and bliss and, of course, to change the world.
As a teacher, I often create assignments that require my students to take a stand despite contradictory data, complex politics and intense societal pressure. I want to ensure my students have the skills necessary to understand cultures and perspectives, to empathize with others and to speak for themselves so that they can truly be independent.