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No Punk Left Behind

Rebecca Skulnick Cohen

How dissent is sustained in the face of consumerism and co-optation in Bloomington, Indiana, a quintessential midwestern college town.

Editor's Note: PopMatters was not aware of the historical status of this piece at the time of submission; simple copyedits prior to publishing would have set this essay in such a context. As it is, please read this as an historical essay. PopMatters has not changed statistical information provided by the author.

Dorey Fox, a student at Indiana University, and I meet at the locally owned coffee shop, replete with shade-grown organic beans from farms in South America and Africa. The walls are lined with notices of coming protests, The New York Times lay on a table beside beat up orange chairs across from the huge dictionary I’ve never seen used. It sits open atop a television converted into a fishtank that newer customers seem to enjoy. The chairs are filled with subversive academics and post-punk hipsters, like me and Fox.

We are contemplating subcultural movements in Bloomington, Indiana, a small Midwest college town that is home to Indiana University, which has approximately 50,000 students. The town that supports and is supported by the university has a comparable population of around 45,000 citizens. (The rift between the college students and “townies” was well depicted in the film Breaking Away, which pits a college athlete against a less affluent, more determined townie -- an oversimplified story of college vs. city.) We are contemplating subcultural movements in Bloomington when the manager of the coffee shop, an ex-punk townie that tends bar for college hipsters, overhears our conversation and says, “There is no such thing as punk anymore.”

Photo by Libby Bulloff

His comment led to this essay. Is he right? With punk culture co-opted by mass consumer culture, the local punk community has seemed at a loss; it did not want to participate in that consumer culture, yet it was linked by the signifiers of style to contemporary MTV, not ambitious idealists. And it has become hard to distinguish the MTV punks from the other kind.

It's easy to find consumption-minded and style-driven teenagers who call themselves punk, but less easy to find 20- to 30-year-olds who mean to sustain the ideals of the original punk communities, a group of peaceful protesters speaking out in favor of socialized medicine, community gardens, and do-it-yourself clothes and furniture.

In the punk community now, there seem to be two conflicting groups: the punks who work with the system to promote change, and those who work against the system. But on closer inspection, these two groups seem to coexist in an unresolved tension.

Bloomington is not only known for its top-tier research university but also its indie music label, Secretly Canadian. Chris Swanson, its co-founder, told the Herald Times, a local paper, that he enjoys running the label in Bloomington because “the quality of life is high, cost of living relatively low, there's no commute and it's the sort of community within which you can create your own reality.” He adds, “The toughest part about living in Bloomington is that the population is relatively transient. You've got to steel yourself to the fact that folks come and go.”

The Impossible Shapes and other Bloominton-based indie bands on the Secretly Canadian label play at the trendy bar, Second Story, where I saw the White Stripes play when they were still with Sympathy for the Record Industry. The Bloomington punk scene is perhaps best epitomized by its members' attraction to disjointed connections between music, fashion, and activism. For example, in a couple of weeks, the Impossible Shapes will play as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for a “prom” in honor of Boxcar Books, a volunteer-run nonprofit bookstore and meeting space.

While the surrounding areas of Southern Indiana are known for their religiosity and political conservatism, Bloomington is precisely the opposite. Unlike the surrounding environs, Bloomington offered cheap housing where politically active youngsters could live in a communal setting. One space in Bloomington that never wavered in its reverence for punk culture and liberal politics is a school created in the 1960s called the Harmony School.. Devoted to global and community activism, this school supported a generation of Bloomington punks.

In the late '80s, just before the punk movement in Bloomington took hold, the first generation of Harmony kids graduated from high school and became a part of the local community as activists and citizens. Also, a housing unit called the Allen Building supported local writers, artists, and musicians. But when college students started to become apolitical, the hippie housing units of the '70s became college-student havens, and some of the punks of the '80s were forced to move their living quarters as the downtown area was developed into higher-income residences for those attached to the university. The low-income units in the center of town became two-bedroom houses where multiple people lived in order to defray costs.

For punk culture to survive, it seemed that new sociopolitical spaces would have to emerge. But few expected one of them to be the mall. Rooted in popular culture and supported by such stores as Hot Topic, MTV-esque punk culture in Bloomington blossomed in shopping centers, where it is no longer relegated to the margins. This has created a rift, with politicized punks spurning the popular punks who concentrate on their personal lifestyle decisions, e.g., becoming a vegan, to define their punk identities rather than investing in political movements.

But at the same time as punk went mainstream, Bloomington punks were in the midst of shifting their political focus from global activism to local community building. Rather than focus on the national political climate and global issues such as they did during the '80s Persian Gulf War, the post-'80s punk community focused on their immediate economic and health concerns. While they were mobilizing for national and global causes, the '80s punks were pushed out of affordable housing, seemed at a loss for health care, and realized that they needed to refocus locally in order to not “turn corporate”.

In 1996 or so, the punks in Bloomington shifted to an issue with international implications but demanding local action: the politics surrounding bike riding. For years, the Bike Project in Bloomington was conducted from the basement of the Harmony School, where local citizens could bring any bike to have it repaired. By encouraging bike riding, the Bloomington punks were supporting a community ideal: that one should say "hello" to the people who walk down the street, maintain an open relationship with the community, and not contribute to pollution. In Bloomington's punk community, you're an activist if you ride your bike. The Bike Project lets all sorts of people partake of a classic punk ideology: D.I.Y. On any given Saturday, one might ride their bike to the farmer’s market, pick up a bag of kettle corn, and find oneself amongst a crowd of bike-fixing community members interested in “taking back the streets”.

This is constructive enough, but before the Bike Project was Critical Mass, a global campaign started in spring 1994 by Wayne Nashville. Critical Mass has been described as “a new kind of political space, not about protesting but about celebrating our vision of preferable alternatives, most obviously in this case bicycling over the car culture. Importantly, we wanted to build on the strong roots of humor, disdain for authority, decentralization, and self-direction that characterize our local political cultural history”

Though punk culture was obsolete in the popular media in 1994, it thrived in Bloomington. When the punk apartments still existed in the center of the city, an informal community center there offered info-brochures on how to be politically active. In the hallways of the Allen Building, information booths would be set up outside of apartments. Here, the punks of Bloomington learned about the national Critical Mass project and organized. By making and posting fliers around town, as many as 175 people came and rode their bikes in the streets, disrupting traffic while distributing educational brochures to drivers.

The next fall, the event was disruptive enough to attract police attention. But by the spring of 2003, only ten people participated in Critical Mass. No police protested the event. No educational brochures were handed out. The people associated with the protest believed that if they had it every year, those who want to participate would just show up.

Now, bike riders are associated with the Bike Project rather than Critical Mass. The Bike Project has concrete local environmental goals, but local post-'80 punks believe that its vague association with punk ideology makes it seem to accomplish little more than supporting the credibility of the local punk population who shop at Hot Topic. While the Bike Project works with the “system” in order to advocate for social change, Critical Mass worked against the system, disturbing traffic in order to promote their cause. This suggests a trend away from confrontation for punks, which coincides with the mainstreaming of the accoutrements of the lifestyle.

With the loss of Critical Mass, the punk fashion scene had supplanted the '80s political punk scene that defined itself based on drive and dedication. The Bike Project is simply sexier than Critical Mass. According to local scenesters, when Critical Mass was more active, punks were more politically active and aware, even if they chose to participate only because it seemed “cool”. Now, in the Bike Project, the image politics are peripheral to the project's purpose, but the only educational project directly associated with the Bike Project is a workshop for children on bike safety.

But with regards to food, something different is happening in Bloomington. Some punks are not merely helping local folks fix their bikes; they are also engaged in a Robin Hood style activity in which they steal food from chain businesses in Indianapolis and give this food to the food bank, community kitchen, and local businesses. Started in Spring 2004, the Urban Hearts Collective (identified in the internet Anarchist Yellow Pages here) feeds the punk community, using food as a protest against corporate supermarkets and chain restaurants. They also find food in the dumpsters behind businesses that throw away rather than give away unsold goods.

While the Urban Hearts Collective may seem to have a self-serving mission, it actually contributes to a national movement, Food Not Bombs, which dedicates itself to feeding hungry people by subversive means. Its international website explains how the movement . . .

. . . is organizing for an end to the occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. We also support actions against the globalization of the economy, restrictions to the movements of people and the destruction of the earth. . . The San Francisco Chapter has been arrested over 1,000 times in an effort to silence its protest against the Mayor's anti- homeless policies. Amnesty International states it may adopt those Food Not Bombs volunteers that are imprisoned as 'Prisoners of Conscience' and will work for their unconditional release.

Ten years ago, before the Urban Hearts Collective began, punks instead established independence from their parents and collected food stamps. The cost of living in Bloomington is very low and many are able to get by on salaries of less than $16,000 a year. Such a salary enables one to also apply for food stamps. In the '90s, punksters would apply for food stamps even when they didn’t need them and feed the local community with their stamp allocations.

Others worked at the local food co-op, allowing poor punks to eat organic food cheaply. In order to make the most of their food, they cooked for one another before concerts or shows. The poorer punks did not need to dumpster dive because they knew who had extra food stamps and where they could eat a hot meal. Even though a younger punk scene is heavily engaged in the Urban Hearts Collective, they do not participate in Critical Mass. George W. Bush's policies have seemingly raised the stakes from refuting car culture; instead, the punks now steal from political corporations and gather together to create their own safe spaces outside governmental programs such as food stamps.

Another aspect of the punk scene that's changed is the places where punks are able to collect information on the movement they seek to belong to. In the late '90s, a small bookstore called Secret Sailor operated as a clubhouse for anarchist punks and a type of community center. As the punk movement grew in popular culture, Secret Sailor closed shop, and within a month the Boxcar Books opened in the same space. Rather than maintain a commitment to anarchist politics, Boxcar Books works for Pages for Prisoners, an organization that gives books to people in prison. A progressive cooperative, the store makes its money by selling books and the people who work there are volunteers. So Boxcar Books seeks to work within the framework of democratic dissent rather than try to create a completely alternative system to capitalism. But significantly, the same person who started the Urban Hearts Collective also was one of the founders of Boxcar Books and works a 40-hour-a-week job.

A Critical Mass event in New York City

One reading of the shift in punk attitudes is that new punks are not averse to working within the system in order to promote their cause. But faith in a world that youth can define and influence has receded with the policies of the Bush administration, and contemporary punk culture seems laden with anxiety. It seems to have little patience for global change and instead seeks to affect the immediate community, whether through such organizations as the Bike Project or through subversive organizations as the Urban Hearts Collective. Neither aims to truly affect national and global politics with the same fortitude as Critical Mass or Food Not Bombs.

While an authentic-seeming punk may be growing harder to find in Bloomington, it still exists within the promotion of a different sort of community values. It will be interesting to notice the shift in punk culture when Bush leaves office. Even so, with the initiative of the Urban Hearts Collective and the spirit of the ten people who still ride in support of Critical Mass, a confrontational movement for social change still lays dormant, waiting to reinvigorate itself.

A post-1980 punk said it best when he quoted someone who, ironically, was speaking on MTV: “The conservatives have us against a wall, they’ve stolen rock 'n' roll from us, so you have to be punk rock in order to get rock 'n' roll back.” As punk and the rock 'n' roll associated with punk culture went mainstream, the movement lost momentum; in order to reclaim the political fortitude within the culture, hipster punks need to find a way to publicly rally against, rather than steal from, the corporate world, get on their bikes, and become more punk rock.

Thanks to Dorey Fox and Wayne Nashville for contributing wise commentary to this article.

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