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Katy Otto: Make Punk a Threat Again.

April 17, 2017

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Katy Otto has performed in numerous bands, including Trophy Wife and Callowhill. She also runs Exotic Fever Records. She crafted this essay for our DISSENT issue.

There has never been a better time for us to come together and think about this as artists, musicians, writers, activists, punks, organizers.

We need each other to build resistance, to amplify messages, to organize against the violent, hateful, bleak vision a Trump presidency offers us. We’ve needed it all along to fight injustice and oppression wherever we see it.

I had a mom who infused a belief in social change work and activism in me over the years. She had been involved in anti-war organizing and the Civil Rights movement, and was a public school teacher and educator professionally. There is so much she taught me just by example about fighting for what is right and sticking up for others growing up.

In high school, I began to get a global perspective by getting involved with Amnesty International and beginning to understand the breadth of human rights violations happening all around the world. Toward the end of high school, feeling overwhelmed, despondent, but also desperate for a place to try to make change, I stumbled upon a local band in my DC metro area home that went by the name Fugazi.

It is not an understatement to say this changed my life.

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Fugazi was powerful for a number of reasons, as all of us who had the opportunity to see them live and hear them can attest to. But one of the core reasons they were powerful beyond belief from my vantage point was because of their relationship to the broader community. I mean this in a host of ways.

First, every single show this band played in Washington, DC was either a rally to raise political awareness or a benefit for a local organizing project or nonprofit group. They regularly performed with and championed go-go music – a potent and unstoppable genre completely indigenous to Washington, DC, similarly informed by underground networks and DIY ethics. Frontman/guitarist Ian MacKaye ran a label and put out friends’ bands, focusing strictly on DC. They also regularly had fantastic local groups open up for them.

In college, my first band, Bald Rapunzel, was lucky to be one of those groups.

But it was more than a strong movement of undeniable art centered on these four (white, straight, cisgender) men. Their local shows were produced in conjunction with an incredible grassroots activist organization called Positive Force.

I stumbled on my first Positive Force meeting while still in high school, when I wanted to do a large-scale benefit for my Amnesty chapter. The meeting was like nothing I had ever been a part of – a ragtag group of people, diverse in age, gender and race, coming together to discuss an array of resistance projects, ideas and efforts. I also was not made to feel like an interloper as a brand new person to the group and as a teenager. I was invited in, encouraged and supported.

This space was a vital training ground for activism that would inform the entire course of my life. Quite simply, they made revolution irresistible (I am borrowing that phrase from the brilliant writer and activist Toni Cade Bambara). We had book discussions, delved into theory, and grew to challenge ourselves and one another. There were people of all political stripes, from liberal Democrats to green anarchists in the group, and we talked across differences.

I had a regular weekly meeting space to engage in political education.

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This is where we need to focus efforts in the era of an incoming Trump regime. We need to come together like never before, in real time and space. The Christian Right has a great advantage in the regular meeting space/community that is formed by church. The left needs something similar – and music and art can provide this. We gather for our exhibitions, punk shows, book events. We form community. We create space to talk and to connect. Now is the time to make this explicit and intentional.

One of the groups that has most inspired me in terms of their ongoing community connection, grassroots activism and political education in the past few years has been the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina. This leaderful movement was fueled in large part by the energy and passion of Dr. William Barber, a Protestant minister, NAACP national board member and political activist. Beginning in April 2013, he led regular “Moral Mondays” civil rights protests – on Mondays – in the state capital of Raleigh. He has regularly talked about the urgency of building community and coalition in order to advance social change.

Punk and independent music are similarly situated to inspire hearts and minds, to draw people in to movements for resistance. Bands can organize benefits and rallies, use their music and their microphones to speak truth to power and talk about things that matter to us.

It’s no coincidence that the Trump transition team struggled to find artists to play his inauguration. Our communities reject his rhetoric, vitriol and hate. We can be unapologetic in naming this and in trying to strategize about how best to put our bodies on the line, particularly for those most vulnerable and likely to be most harmed in the course of his presidency.

We can use the Internet to connect but we have to get out of our houses regularly and talk to one another. We need regular meetups, like Moral Mondays or Positive Force meetings, where someone can stop by for the first time, learn, plug in and become politicized. We need to take some lessons from the past – our organizing has to be empowering, collaborative, and enjoyable. This is urgent work. All of our efforts are needed.

am also now the mother of a toddler, and I deeply believe that we have to strategize about ways to engage parents in these fights. That includes in punk/arts communities. Can meetups or events offer childcare? Can we think about different roles someone might be able to play in a direct action if they can’t risk arrest because they are the sole guardian of a kid? We need to be creative. We all have parts to play, and we can support each other with a range of tactics.

I feel grateful that in its nearly nine years, my band Trophy Wife (a partnership with my best friend Diane) has been a ongoing dialogue and offered me space for political education. There is so much I need to study, explore and learn in order to be the strongest proponent for social justice I can be. We need to encourage this in each other and try to build all of our capacity.

None of us is perfect – we have a lot of learning to do, especially from one another.

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Now is not a time to be shy. Our shows, bands, DJ nights, venues and group houses are powerful. We wouldn’t be targeted by hateful alt-right trolls on 4chan and Reddit if they weren’t.

We can, in fact, make punk a threat again.

Let’s dedicate ourselves to being about more than the loudest, most brutal band or the next big thing on Pitchfork. Let’s ignite a movement that is centered on ending oppression, fighting back, and changing the increasingly terrifying world we see in front of us.

Let’s dissent – through joyous, communal song.

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