When Anarchist Punks Become Nazis
Racist punks are supposed to look a certain way. They wear boots and braces. They shave their heads. They live in other cities. In other scenes. In other decades. Except sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re in your band.
In the aftermath of the capitol insurrection, concerned citizens have started identifying their own loved ones as members of the mob, and the punk community has not been left unscathed. This past Tuesday, the Burlington band Rough Francis Fire announced that bassist Dan Devine had been kicked out for participating in the DC violence. Contemplating how someone could play Death covers by night and march with the Proud Boys by day, I wondered about the people hiding in plain sight within my own community. People who bopped through supposedly hard-left spaces in the Bay Area scene while secretly sympathizing with the forces we railed against. This past week, I listened to the stories of several musicians in the Oakland and LA punk communities who had had similar experiences: realizing that close friends, bandmates, and former housemates had become far-right radicals.
Tim* plays in a hardcore band known for their anti-fascist politics. “It’s right there in our songs,” he says. “There’s no way you can listen to us and not know that’s what we’re about.”
That’s what makes the story of their ex-guitarist so disturbing. He was apolitical, Tim remembers, and socially awkward, with a contrarian streak that got obnoxious when they toured. He was a prolific songwriter, but his lyrics were often intense and disturbing, and he started rubbing people the wrong way. Eventually, after a bad fight with the drummer, he was kicked out. Then things got weird.
“He started spamming people with weird Facebook messages’” Tim remembers. “We thought it was a joke.”
In the wake of the 2016 election, the content he was sharing became more right-wing. Tim tried to stay connected to him, debating political points in private messages and engaging with him when he commented on other people’s posts, but nothing seemed to work.
“He just got more and more extreme. I don’t remember exactly what the last straw was, but I’m pretty sure it was him posting something that was just blatantly racist.” Tim says. The experience was haunting and he has tried to process it by writing multiple songs about the phenomenon.
He believes life changes like getting married and moving away from Oakland contributed to the personality shift. After struggling with mental health issues and going through an eviction, Tim believes that he became a conservative Christian as a way of trying to settle down.
“His brothers-in-law are all super hard right, super Christian, and I think he felt like they accepted him more than the punk scene had.”
Other people I talked to pointed to the lure of the transgressive, a hallmark feature of punk rock that can easily turn into an excuse to own the libs.
“In every punk scene I’ve ever been in there are one or two people who would say horrible, offensive things, and everyone else would be like yea, he’s crazy.” Says J, a writer with deep roots in the LA and SF communities.
“There’s this weird intersection between punk rock and libertarianism that’s like ‘I can do whatever I want.’”
The line between irony and sincerity has become a weapon in the hands of the far-right, offering plausible deniability and forcing opponents to second guess their own perceptions.
Alex spent months wondering how seriously his friend took the conspiracy theories he had started posting.
“He hadn’t been a political person at all, he was just a general hater” he remembers.
The last time he saw him face to face was at a brunch turned drinking session. While their girlfriends talked in the backyard, Alex’s friend asked him what he thought about conspiracy theories. Then, over pitchers of margaritas, he started talking about QAnon, the bizarre conspiracy theory believed by many of the Jan 6th insurrectionists.
“He just started spouting off” Alex remembers “It was very jarring… it felt like he knew he had a captive audience like he got me drunk and then tried to convert me.” After that, Alex kept his distance. But he still wanted to give his friend the benefit of the doubt.
“I thought he was still himself but just way too into conspiracy theories.” He explains. But the content he was sharing became more extreme as time went on. As with Tim, Alex felt a line had been crossed when the posts became openly racist and homophobic. One of the last straws was a picture his friend posted on Instagram, showing him wearing a red MAGA hat and making a White Power hand sign.
“I know he’s got a bad sense of humor but it ain’t that bad.” Alex says. He isn’t sure what pushed his friend over the edge, but he points to a backlash against cancel culture as being a possible culprit.
“I feel like a lot of it is misogynist people who have been called out…they have this anger towards the left and it’s so bad that they don’t care who they hang out with as long as it’s people who agree with them.”
J echoed this point when I asked for his take.
“I think a lot of older punk rockers have reacted to the whole woke phenomenon, the scene becoming less tolerant of certain kinds of behavior, and they’re like ‘you ruined my party, you ruined my good time!”
The Bay Area punk scene loves to mythologize itself, with documentaries like Turn It Around reinforcing the righteous leftists vs. evil skinheads narrative many of us grew up with. But the truth is that the anarcho-punks of yesteryear can become the embittered white men of today, and sometimes all it takes is a rejection and a YouTube algorithm to turn them towards the dark side.
*Some names have been changed to preserve anonymity