August 17th, 2002


Rock Against Reagan - 1984

There are certain mid -80s styles that people don’t remember. For example, almost all punk rockers wrote on the white space of their Chuck Taylor’s. I can still remember that R had, among other lyrics and slogans, "I hate children" (from the Adolescents) on one shoe and "Mommy’s little monster" (from Social Distortion on the other). I write that and think, "Awwwww, how cute", but, without trying to claim some kind of title to oppression, the Reagan ‘80s were a time when even in the Bay Area just having short hair earned you bottles thrown from car windows and shouts of "Faggot!". R’s dyed-black, fucked up, unevenly chopped, hair and her anti-social shoe slogans didn’t exactly help her blend.

Starting high school the year Reagan was elected president definitely plunged us into a cultural war that we couldn’t fully understand. I remember vividly going to the friend’s apartment with R and our friend’s mother breaking into German to ask her how dare she bring such a girl into her home, with "schwartz hair" and obviously loose morals.* We could feel ourselves being pushed from the "Moral Majority" Christians, school administrators, and the wanna-be yuppies (a new term at the time) but, like the dot-com boom of recent years there was no clear end in sight, no way we could see how bad it would get.

Unlike the relatively recent WTO protests in Seattle**, the politics of ‘Rock Against Reagan" were more counter-cultural and less well developed. But I can say, without inflating the memory, that it was a turning point in my life. Being younger makes it easier to look at things as US vs. THEM, but at a time of a cultural mandate for neo-conservatism, being leftist/anarchist, punk and in the streets seemed to be the obvious choice. R and I were arrested together at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in SF where, after a huge outdoor concert by Dead Kennedys, MDC, The Dicks and many others. We took the streets to protest arrests earlier in the day at a "War Chest Tour", the ‘80s version of anti-corporate demonstrations where a bunch of punks would rush into some multi-national’s office and start screaming about their capitalist evils and their financial ties to both the Republicans and Democrats.

At the time, our protest became the biggest mass arrest in the Bay Area since the late ‘60s. As we rallied outside the Hall of Justice, the police moved in without warning from all sides. My weasely brother, six years older than I, made it through the police line at the last minute but I got stopped by a cop pushing me back with a riot baton in my chest. My best friend at the time and R were right behind me. I spent all night in jail before being sent to juvenile hall the next morning, being 16 at the time. R spent the night outside in a makeshift holding facility before she got shipped to juvey. My best friend lucked out with a typo on his arrest form listing him as 18 so he was released later that evening.

Going through R’s letters, I found her account of her arrest which we ran in the student paper*** I’m struck by how much better her writing was than mine. I wrote the straight-forward, newsy account and she basically did an arrest diary which she wrote while on the horrible family vacation mentioned in my last entry. Below are excerpts:

"Ahhhh, the swinefest of the Democratic convention of 1984. Let’s see, I was arrested about an hour after Gordon was. I just kept scooting back and scooting back in the dwindling crowd that was seated on Bryant Street in front of the Hall of Justice. People were getting nervous all around me. I watched the piles of various paraphernalia, switchblades, and fire crackers get larger and larger around the edge of the crowd. Last cigarettes were being passed around by everyone who had them. The cops stood lined up in front of us, glaring down, not speaking and occasionally stooping to pick up a switchblade and pocket it."

What I find interesting about this paragraph is that it shows that the forms of symbolic arrest hadn’t been codified yet. By the late ‘80s, people knew how to be arrested like sheep and not to bring weapons to demonstrations.

"After sitting and freezing for hours (R’s group was being held outside at Potrero Hill Middle School) we became bored and invented songs with lyrics like "We all live in a Fascist USA, a Fascist USA, A Fascist USA" (sung to the tune of "Yellow Submarine"). . .I talked to a girl from LA with a purple mohawk and she said she had just come up to SF that morning. She said that a lot of punks were coming up to SF because the cops were really sweeping the streets in LA for the Olympics.**** They had all heard how cool the SF cops were. I think she had changed her mind."

The rest of R’s account includes numerous and humorous anecdotes about the cops not being able to tell the boys from the girls, spotting punk "stars" in the police vans and being processed in the school cafeteria that was identical to our public school cafeteria. R’s account ends with:

"It was 3:30 (AM) when they put me in a 5 by 10 ft. cell with nothing in it but a rock hard cot and a window covered in wire with glass about three inches thick. The doors were heavy, they really clanked when you shut them. I lay down on the cot and wondered what it would be like to be claustrophobic. Suddenly, I heard the clanking of the door being unlocked and a woman led me down the hall, saying they had my father on the phone. . ."

(later, when being released) "The man told me I was being charged with unlawful assembly, failure to disperse and intent to riot. He said he hoped I had learned my lesson. Foul beast. I liked my father’s version better. He said to me on the way back, ‘I hope you learned your lesson. Don’t get caught.’"

After this was printed in the school newspaper, the howls of outrage at these words of fatherly advice were arguably the loudest.

*I’ll ask my two high school friends who read this journal to share the irony of this for a moment.

**Some of the same people were main organizers for both events actually.

***When I look back, I can see how great our student paper was. The faculty advisors saw one of their roles as defending and supporting students being critical of the school administration. They also took a lot of heat for not only the articles mentioned above, but others including one by R reviewing "pregnancy counselors", including Christian, fake, women’s-counseling services that were anti-abortion. Armed with the pregnant urine of a neighbor, R wrote a great description of the local "Birthright" clinic people telling her she’d burn in hell if she got an abortion.

****Evidently she didn’t know the SF cops had done the same thing before the Democratic Convention got underway. Even the Chronicle detailed the police dropping homeless people off at bus stations and the Nevada border