"If you have a racist friend, now is the time for that friendship to end."
So sang The Specials, a band that was blending punk and Jamaican ska at a time when the racist National Front was sweeping England.
As Specials bandleader Jerry Dammers — a prime mover in Britain's Rock Against Racism organization — would later tell the Guardian newspaper: "It was obvious that a mod and skinhead revival was coming, and I was trying to find a way to make sure it didn't go the way of the National Front. I idealistically thought, 'We have to get through to these people.'"
But music can only accomplish so much. After five years of putting on events with artists like The Clash, Steel Pulse and Elvis Costello, Britain's Rock Against Racism organization held its final concert, headlined by The Specials, in July of 1981.
Racism, as we know all too well, endured.
Today, groups like the National Front once again are gaining traction throughout England and the rest of Europe, stirring up anti-Muslim sentiments in the wake of terrorist acts in France and Belgium.
Meanwhile, the United States is having problems of its own. In a February radio webcast, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke endorsed billionaire Donald Trump for president. A one-term Louisiana legislator and twice-failed presidential candidate, Duke told his listeners that voting for any candidate other than Trump would be "treason to your heritage."
During a subsequent CNN interview, Trump refused to disavow the notorious white supremacist's endorsement, denying that he knew who Duke was. (Amid heavy backlash, Trump later changed his story, a familiar strategy for him in this campaign.)
It gets worse: The same weekend the webcast aired, in California a group of Orange County Ku Klux Klan members showed up for a march in Anaheim, where they found themselves outnumbered by anti-Klan protesters. Violence broke out on both sides, and three counter-protesters were hospitalized, one in critical condition.
Two of them suffered knife wounds; a third was speared with the pole of an American flag.
The KKK brawl drew minimal media attention, but the conflict continues.
On April 23, nearly two dozen cities will host simultaneous "Coast-to-Coast Rock Against Racism Day" shows to raise money for the counter-protesters' legal and medical bills.
- Cameron Moix
- Local band 99 Bottles will take part in a coast-to-coast anti-Klan benefit on April 23.
Here in Colorado Springs, the Rock Against Racism benefit will take place at the Triple Nickel, where headliners 99 Bottles will also be celebrating the release of their self-titled debut CD. The group, which promotes itself as Colorado Springs' first and only traditional Oi! band, writes songs about "working, violence, drinking and other hood-rat shit."
That same day, a white-power rally and racist-rock show will take place in Stone Mountain, Georgia, the popular Klan destination where David Duke once conducted annual cross-burning ceremonies.
"It was a complete coincidence," says Philadelphia-based Rock Against Racism organizer Rory Cain, who plays guitar in a punk band called The Posers. "I was originally shooting for April 30, because it would have given me more time to get this together. And that was also the day that Hitler died, so I thought that would be a neat little 'fuck you.'"
Instead, the anti-Klan event was moved up a week due to scheduling conflicts.
For some, the alliance of skinhead bands like 99 Bottles with an anti-racist cause may come as a surprise. Over the course of four decades, countless media depictions have perpetuated the image of skinheads as a white supremacist subculture, a stereotype reinforced by bands like Skrewdriver and Definite Hate, as well as films like American History X and Skinheads USA.
- Cain: 'Activism is about being positive and helping.'
The members of 99 Bottles have tried their best to distance themselves from those stereotypes. They define themselves as a non-racist, non-political band that has included mixed-race members.
"You'll probably find more racists at a NASCAR event than you're gonna find at a skinhead show," says 99 Bottles co-founder Sebastian Nutter.
But frontman Mario Della Betta sees little evidence that people will change their perceptions of skinhead culture.
"I get judged like that every day walking down the street, and you just learn to ignore it," says the singer. "People will believe what they want to believe."
Reviving the long-dormant Rock Against Racism brand is a timely move on Cain's part, and not just because of the Klan clash: Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz has already demanded that law enforcement "patrol and secure" Muslim neighborhoods. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has stirred up controversy by defending, and at times encouraging, violent behavior at his rallies. He's also predicting full-scale riots if he's not nominated.
Over on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio did a comedic skit this weekend about "C.P. Time" — the racist euphemism for "Colored People's Time" — at a black tie event in Manhattan.
But Cain has little interest in organization-building. "To call this an organization would be a grand overstatement," he says. "I've played benefits and things like that, but I've never been affiliated with any particular group."
Except, that is, for the punk-rock community that's answering his call. Cain sees two reasons for that. "One is just the fact that it's the network of people that I know to reach out to," he says. "It's also a culture — with a very long history of anti-racism — that's had its own issues with neo-Nazis and Klan members."
- Peacekeeper: Local skinhead Sebastian Nutter steps into the fray.
At the age of 25, Cain says he's committed to non-violent activism, although that wasn't always the case.
"I've been going to punk-rock shows since I was 13," he says. "So when I was a teenager, I would be the guy at the Nazi rally throwing bottles at them and all that stupid shit. But I think activism is about being positive and helping. It's not about negativity and violence."
Cain also believes the media has stoked misconceptions about punk-rock, and more specifically, the skinhead subculture.
"It's very easy to be like, 'Hey, look at this group of hatemongers. They look different. They look like soccer hooligans.' It's an easy headline," Cain says. "But when you have this subculture of people who, in the case of traditional skinheads, are generally just working-class people who liked roots-reggae music from Jamaica, it's like, why would they write a news article about that?"
The musician has no illusions the Rock Against Racism events will receive much high-profile media coverage. He's also aware that other fundraising efforts may cover the counter-protesters' expenses before the benefits even take place, in which case he's encouraging the bands to donate proceeds to other worthy causes.
"The money is really important to help people," he says. "But I think that, beyond that, there's an overall message that I, and other people who are helping across the nation, want to send. A lot of it's about solidarity, and standing up to the other side, the Nazis and all those people.
"It's like, 'Look, we got this together in a month, and look how many of us there are. You guys are a dying breed, so get the fuck out.'"