It was during the long lull in Saturday night’s Anti-Racist Action benefit, while we sat at the patio table waiting for The Bloody Irish Boys set, that a couple of Nazis slunk out from whatever degenerate suburban hovel they typically cower in, and came to the backdoor at Bernie’s. I didn’t get a good look at them. On a decent night at Bernie’s, one sees his fair
share of shady looking dudes, so I didn’t look twice at a couple of shaved heads coming to the back door. Maybe I thought They were on our side, but I should have known better. Nazi skins are usually easy to distinguish from regular skinheads because real skins have some idea how to dress themselves, whereas Nazi boneheads usually go around looking like total dweebs. I think these two were dressed in, like Tapout shirts and shorts, looking like the type of guys you’d see in your hometown, bumping ICP in the Giant Eagle parking lot at midnight. They approached the dude watching the backdoor and asked what was going on. The door guy told them it was a benefit for Anti-Racist Action, and gave a brief description of ARA’s confrontational, anti-fascist tactics. A dark cloud of shame and resentment hung in the air as the one bonehead grumbled to the other, “See, I told you so,” and the two skulked back to their cousin’s basement and their books on Norse mythology.
I know I should be writing about the bands and the show, but I spent four hours yesterday reading the ARA website, so all I’ve been able to think about all day is stomping fascists. I grew up in Saint Louisville, Ohio; the Nazis and I have a long history filled with deep personal acrimony. Back in the nineties, the town was filled with racist graffiti and shirtless kids with homemade KKK tattoos, but since there were no minorities in a good five-mile radius, most of their hate activities were directed against the town’s three skate punks.
Decades old personal scores aside, it really does warm the heart to see Columbus reviving ARA in these days of right-wing resurgence. As the legend tells, Anti-Racist Action started back in ’87 when a crew of anti-racist skinheads in Milwaukee known as the Baldies started taking action to keep a racist gang called the White Knights from taking over their scene. After a year or so of fighting Nazis in the streets, the group was expanded beyond the narrow confines of the skinhead subculture and took the name Anti-Racist Action. ARA branches sprang up in cities across the US and Canada, gaining a reputation throughout the nineties for showing up in mass numbers and wrecking Klan rallies. It’s always been a controversial tactic. Liberals tend to take the line that confronting the Neo-Nazis and the Klan gives them the attention they seek and therefore plays into their hand. The liberal strategy is to ignore the crybaby Nazis until they stop throwing their shindigs and eventually give up. The ARA strategy is to use whatever means are necessary to prevent the fascists from being able to organize.
A few dedicated anti-racists have been trying to revive ARA in Columbus over the past few months. ARA has a long history in this city, but has been inactive for several years. Last Saturday, as far as I know, was the newly reformed Columbus ARA’s first public event. In keeping with the group’s punk rock origins, it was a benefit show at Bernie’s. I’m hoping some of the money raised goes to making cool anti-swastika patches. The ARA booth at Comfest was my main source for political fashion accessories during the first W Bush administration.
Shandi and I arrived at the show late. We missed Thee Now Sound and a group called Intervene that I was told “sounded like Nirvana.” The comparison was offered to me as a compliment, but you can interpret it however you will. When we got there, the back patio was spattered with black-clad folks with crazy haircuts and superfluous zippers on their gear. From a little distance it looked like Bernie’s in the old days, but when we got downstairs and paid our five bucks, we found the bar nearly empty. A gutter punk with his t-shirt hanging loosely from the angular contours of his bones approached me to talk about the patch on the back of my jean-vest. A few sentences in he was spouting something that started with, “I hate capitalism, man. I hate this whole system, it’s fucked!” He sounded like a stoner character delivering a tirade in a Richard Linklater movie. It was brilliant.
We waited an hour for the Bloody Irish Boys to start. Their set was unfortunately plagued by equipment problems throughout. There seemed to be some trouble balancing the electric guitar with the acoustic and the fiddle. Once they finally got things going, the first few songs were buried under feedback and the whole band seemed like they should have been twice as loud as they were. They also made it spectacularly clear between each song that they couldn’t hear themselves in their monitors.
The Bloody Irish Boys have been playing in Columbus for years now. They seem to be a rotating cast of musicians centered around Shane, a skinny kid with an imposing mohawk and a pair of baggy Dockers who plays fiddle and sings. I don’t know whether or not all the Boys were Irish, but then again I have no reason to suspect that they weren’t. The music seemed Irish enough to tempt you to two-step up a few Riverdance moves. I never learned how to jig, so I kept to skanking. No need to mess with a classic.
I talked to Shane at the end of the night, but couldn’t make out much of what he said. He was in the middle of getting the old ear toss from the bar staff. I saw it as a mark of integrity. Here’s a guy who doesn’t just sing about drinking till he passes out on the floor and gets thrown out of bars; he lives it.
Up next on stage was Miles, aka Marvin the Robot, who I can say for sure is a hell of a guy with a gap-toothed grin and a disarming, high-pitched laugh. I left the bar for a few minutes and completely missed his set. I’ve known Miles for something like four years and have somehow managed to never see him play.
I made it back to the bar just in time for the first song from Columbus punk rock regulars Downtrodn, whose set turned out to be the apex of the night’s rock and roll energy. The amps were turned up and the fans were on their feet, crowding Bernie’s half-foot-high stage and pumping their fists. The members of Downtrodn are probably the only people I’ve known who haven’t changed their looks a bit in the past ten years. I can’t inagine them without Daeron sitting at the drums with his mohawk and Aaron wearing a sleeveless t-shirt with his hair combed into a Dracula point in the middle of his forehead. Their sound, however, has gotten steadily better. At one point between songs, Crow from Mors Ontologica told me, “These guys get better every time they play.” He was right. And they’ve been playing for over a decade. There weren’t really enough people in the bar for a mosh pit, but Downtrodn managed to to get one going anyway.
Mors Ontologica played next. Mors is one of those groups of such thoroughly competent musicians that I feel unqualified to review them. Their sound is a sampling
of the best influences from rock’s history. It’s sort of a classic Stones vibe with a wiry, dreadlocked hippie dominating the center of the stage from behind his keyboard. The first time we went to see them, my little sister described them (via text message) to a friend as, “what punk rock would have sounded like if it was around in the sixties.” The description always stuck with me.
During the Mors set, someone began circulating ARA literature to the crowd. I haven’t yet had the chance to peruse the two newsletters I was handed, but I did read the flyer from Columbus ARA calling for a boycott of Columbus hipster hate-core band The Unholy Two. From what I can make out, the Two are a trio of dubiously talented scenesters who fill their songs with racist and anti-Semitic lyrics to get attention. They have declared it to be their mission to “Put the Nazi back in rock,” whatever that means. Whether they’re fascists, right wing half-wits, or just faking it to be shocking is a matter of no small debate. What is clear is that the band and their supporters are creating an atmosphere in which it’s fashionable to spout racist ignorance, even if it is just an “ironic” pose for the club kids. Before you dismiss the threat from these jackasses, keep in mind that this town is a positive greenhouse for ironic posuerism. After all, saying things like “epic,” and, “bring the thunder” started out being ironic. The way the lemmings around here copycat each other, every beardo at Carabar could be sieg heiling by next Christmas if the right people decide this shit is cool. And some of them already have.
The last band of the night was Children of Reagan, who, for some godforsaken reason, I had never seen before. For some reason, I always thought they would be a tough guy hardcore band that sounded like a generic Blood for Blood. I was wrong. Children of Reagan were incredible. The played ska-tinged Oi punk that sounded something like Operation Ivy working out in a prison yard. It was exactly the kind of music that you would want playing in your earbuds while you got some fascist nose blood on the sole of your boot. The tragedy was that by that time of night there was hardly anybody left in the bar to hear it.
The benefit suffered from unfortunate scheduling. I was personally invited to five different events on that night, and I’m remarkably unpopular. For those who may be on the fence about supporting ARA, however, I offer the following:
The first political action I was ever involved in was a counter-protest against a Nazi rally that the November 9th Society put on in Newark for Hitler’s birthday in 2001. ARA showed up in full force, and the Nazi rally ended up shut down before the fash even got in a decent seig hiel. What’s more, the community rallied together and threw an anti-Nazi block party outside the apartment that the November 9th Society organizers were staying in. I met neighbors I would never have talked to otherwise. Black folks and white folks from the neighborhood got together, shut down the rally, and made the Nazis look like a bunch of whiny pussies.
Contrast that to a few years ago, when the National Socialist Movement threw a rally in downtown Columbus. This time there was no ARA, and the majority of the Columbus activist community decided not to gratify the Nazis with the attention they wanted. The counter protest was disorganized, confused, and ineffective. We stood in the police cage looking like a bunch of limp dicks while the National Socialists looked like a legitimate organization by comparison.
These days right-wing extremism is on the rise. People are looking for answers and the liberal establishment has been selling out the working class at every opportunity. Showing up to fight the fascists is worth it.