If age confers a special knowledge, I haven’t found it. If growing older mellows young revolutionaries and leaves their radicalism behind in a mire of pragmatism, then I am not growing any older. Although forty is hardly a venerable summit from which to survey the world from, it is the highest peak I have climbed and one that I never planned to reach. I ask readers indulgence for the personal nature as I take a little stock looking back at some formative years; forty seems as good a time as any to do so and you never know if you’ll see your next birthday. This will be a little disjointed and not meant to be anything more than a partial look at some past moments.
I came of age politically as part of the anti-racist punk scene in Cincinnati in the mid-80s. As I have written before, Cincinnati was and is an intensely segregated city. Racial codes and politics were learned young, often painfully and sometimes violently. The formations of our identities were first and foremost determined by racial identity; it was impossible to ‘not see color’ as the blind liberal wish was asserted even then. I haven’t been able to shake those racial lessons of my youth. They have informed everything else in my political life. I remember when the city’s schools desegregated in the early 80s. Not only did it change the complexion of my school, it changed the class character. The intersection of race and class: it’s the American praxis.
A single benign example (and I could give a thousand others less benign): around twelve years old a group of us youngsters, maybe a half-dozen, were hanging out near the neighborhood square (a white neighborhood) drinking Jolt cola, skateboarding and smoking cigarettes. In Cincinnati, neighborhoods are clearly defined (by race, class and inertia - if you were born there, you stay there) and you stayed in your own or ventured out only into what was acknowledged neutral space (often areas around bus stops that everyone had to use). A black kid just about our age walked past us a little anxious when one of our group, a little shit with perpetual Kool-Aid stains around his mouth, said something like “you’re in the wrong place”. The black kid was scared to begin with being in the wrong neighborhood and all, but the terror, and it was real terror, that came over his face makes me shiver to this day. The consequences for breaking the racial code in Cincinnati could be swift and violent and remorseless.
One of the many things I stew about, one of the million things I wish I could change is that. If I could go back to that moment I would lay that little shit out. That would come. If not that particular kid, then others. Always better at starting fights than winning them, I took more back. I still have the scars to prove it.
On every block in every town in this country, from the largest to the smallest, even in a reactionary backwater like Cincinnati, is at least one potential revolutionary. It’s being exposed to the possibility through others that matters. Around fourteen or fifteen an older kid in the neighborhood turned me on to hardcore with a Squirrel Bait tape. Hardcore may be the most limited style in all of music, but it opened up doors for me as it did for so many others in those Reagan years where the Cold War was at its height (I think that this is often overlooked when thinking about the 80s now; the neo-liberal Thatcher/Reagan assault was in the context of a Cold War increasingly hot as in Central America).
The left was dead, or at least invisible to me, and though I was already intensely interested in politics they were limited by what I was exposed to. Punk led me to things happening in Britain, like the Anti-Nazi League, which was, in some ways, where I first came became aware of the existence of a revolutionary politics that spoke to me. The punk scene I came up in was genuinely counter-cultural. As a way to emphasize this: no punk band that I followed or that were started by friends was ever started with the intention of ‘making it’ commercially or even of selling records.
On the contrary, it was fidelity to your community and their embrace that were the mark of success. The ethos of a band like Fugazi is only emblematic of that culture, it was widespread and real. As limited in its way as it was, the hardcore scene (and the punk scene more generally) attracted all kinds of people to it; art school kids, runaways, the rebellious and the angry, more than a few psychopaths, but mainly just alienated working class young people.
I was at least three of those things.
It was overwhelmingly, but not entirely, white which meant necessarily that it also involved racial politics. By the mid-80s scenes around the country, but especially in the Midwest, were at war around those racial politics as neo-Nazis, white supremacists and racists made conscious efforts to intervene in all that anger and alienation. In places the organized left did too, most notably for me the ISO. But, by and large, the left was absent and the right energized even as the movements of the 60s and 70s still made it feel threatened.
At 15, in 1987, I went to my first anti-fascist demonstration. It was in Corryville, a black and student neighborhood near the University of Cincinnati. A group of neo-Nazi skinheads was rallying (I can’t for the life of me remember what they called themselves) and included some kids from my high school. Other kids from my high school came to the counter demo. We would see each other again at school on Monday where whatever happened would be sure to play out in the halls. Going into that demo I was a confused, but committed pacifist. That would change. I dropped acid on the way to the demo and by the time I got there was tripping pretty hard. In retrospect, fifteen may be little too young for rioting on acid. Fights started breaking out and the cops lost a handle on it. The fighting, shouting and shoving moved up Vine Street and the sign in my hand became a stick. We beat them out of that neighborhood that day. Over the next ten years I would go to many hundreds more anti-fascist demonstrations throughout the Midwest and many more street fights too.
A proper history needs to be compiled of what would become Anti-Racist Action (ARA). It had a couple of roots, but the one that sprung on my soil was the Syndicate. Mainly anti-racist skinheads, the Syndicate brought together a bunch of crews from Minneapolis to Cincinnati to New York City to counter racists in the scene. This wasn’t black bloc stuff, this was street fighting. Your clubs, venues and street corners, your school and your neighborhood- all these were contested territory between increasingly organized racists and anti-racists. A fight could not be avoided.
I had to make myself fight. I always disliked it and was horrified by those around me I saw get pleasure from it. But I did fight. I had to go to the emergency room a few times, like a lot of us did. I got arrested a few times, like a lot of us did. I hurt people too, like a lot of us did. I was way more scared than I ever let on, but I was in it and I was not going to back down.
Some crews were based around bands, others around schools and geography; some were based on something like ideology. Mine was. I had called myself a socialist since about sixteen, for whatever it was worth. I grew up in a family with strong union traditions, my grandfather’s family being seven generations of coal miners. I spent formative summers climbing around the hollers of southeast Ohio coal country and grew up with stories from the depression and of immigration. My parents were public service workers; as baby boomers the first of their families to go to college. Class was apparent to me always.
The scene I was in was rebellious, but not particularly left-wing. As we began to organize against the racists and the right some of us started making connections, looking further and got serious. As the sun was setting on the Soviet Union and the age of ‘No Alternative’ was commencing we were looking to the working class and to socialism.
In the spring of 1990 the Klan marched on Oxford, Ohio (where Miami University is). It was a helluva day. This was before the cops had learned to deal with us by creating static situations. Back then anything could happen. The Klan marched that day, after that they would only stage rallies. We were able to maneuver around there march as hundreds more, students, people from the neighborhood, joined in. As the march passed over railroad tracks the stones started flying from every direction. You could actually pick your target and we dropped the Grand Dragon types first. We fucked them up. Some of us got hit by rocks as well; a case of friendly fire. Jacked up by our success, we were able to besiege the city jail and retrieve our comrades from arrest. A glorious day.
In the organizing that proceeded we met a bunch of folks that would become ARA; the folks from Columbus around Jim McNamara being the most important. I and others in my crew got attracted to the Revolutionary Workers League out of Detroit. That summer I would join my first Marxist (sort of) organization. I would leave the next year after the increasingly cultish RWL unveiled their ‘Avenge Iraq’ slogan in the aftermath of the Gulf War. The RWL was already when I joined a sectarian, cultish caricature of revolutionary organization where Freud played a bigger role in its politics than Marx. I’m glad it didn’t ruin me politiclly. I could tell some stories.
It wasn’t the best way to be introduced into a life in the left perhaps, but we all come from somewhere and travel paths we don’t have any maps for.
About a dozen of us, all under 22 or 23, made up the branch of a small Trotskyist organization that formed in the aftermath of leaving the RWL. We were passionate and committed and we burned out in a few years. We had a party the entire time too. I remember one night of the rolling party where we had to be at a Planned Parenthood clinic defense at 6am the next morning. The idea of six in the morning seemed so shocking to us that we decided to just party straight through the night and show up to the gates however we were. We did just that and didn’t miss a beat picking it up the very next evening. Ahhh, youth.
That group of people are those I still identify most closely with. There were complicated relationships, of course (a dozen young people making revolution in close proximity is bound to have layers of ‘complication’), but we swam against a tide of reaction and we were all made better people for it. Some of us drifted from organized politics, some of us have remained doggedly engaged, and others are no longer with us. Comrades: there is no more powerful relationship. Comradeship when you are young and full of yearning for a future not yet arrived; well, it is as special a thing as I can think of.
I have changed a lot, including my politics, over the years and the person I am now would probably not like the person I was then very much. But I would be prepared to say that my main beliefs remain unchanged since I first developed them from the things around me. My revolutionism, my sense of alienation, the detest I feel for capitalism and its ‘culture’, my belief in the centrality of class and the pivot of race, all these things have only been strengthened by a life lived in the world of Marxism and of political action.
What does any of this have with turning 40 today? Nothing in particular, I suppose. Sitting here drinking coffee on this rainy Ypsilanti (a place I didn’t even know of twenty years ago) morning I turn forty; it is a moment where I have to wonder how the hell I got here. Like any other day where we are reminded of our own past, just a moment to look back and try to trace a route made by a million variables.
’The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations…a unity of the diverse.’ Marx, Grundrisse.
The Rustbelt has been on semi-hiatus these last few months as a new job competes with continuing school in taking my time and leaving me knackered at the end of the day. I apologize. I am growing increasingly resentful that I can’t read what I want and that my writing is confined to things I am uninterested in, but compelled to do. It is preventing me from taking full breaths and looking at the world around me. As I get used to my schedule I hope to be back at it semi-regularly.