It’s another day and another reason to protest, whether it’s with your future vote, or by taking to the streets. Maybe it’s over this trouble in Syria, troubling especially when considered against our administration’s immigration policy against the very same country that it purports to want to help. Maybe it’s dubious nuclear option that the Republicans used to force their way with a Supreme Court Nomination. Maybe it’s some dumb Pepsi commercial, where a model ends racism with a soft drink or something. I really hope it’s not that last one, but whatever it takes to get people motivated, I guess. We caught up with three lawyer friends, Dan Canon and Joe Dunman of the Parade of Horribles (and also for, you know, helping make gay marriage nationally legal), and Marc Murphy, who you might recognize from his exemplary and biting work at the CJ, etc., or from this, to ask what gets their skis shined up to fight the good fight. Read on.
My go-to protest song is The Clampdown, from The Clash. First, I would have bought anything under the London Calling album cover art. Second, the opening line slaps your face, demands you wake up, look around and do something! Now! My taste in so-called protest music (which is mostly awful) goes to anger and a fight. People are dying and the time for talk is over, and the Clash ask in the opening line “What are we going to do now?” and then “let fury have the hour, anger can be power” while you’re kicking over walls, and causing governments to fall. I believe in non-violent resistance but Martin Luther King, Jr. needed his Malcolm X, too. “In these days of Evil Presidentes” was written last Tuesday, right? Joe Strummer is talking to you, right at you, looking through you and warning you to not “drift until you brutalize”. And, to show he’s serious, he finishes with a blood oath – which you are invited to take – to “give away no secrets”. Finally, ultimately it’s a song so none of this would matter if the music was bad. The music is very, very good. I guess I first heard this song almost 40 years ago and I still listen to it before a hearing against the government. Maybe that’s juvenile. But it’s a good gut check, for me. Am I, or am I not, Working For The Clampdown?
I love just about all protest music and it’s impossible for me to pick just one favorite song. So I bucked the establishment and picked two. Take THAT, The Man.
First is Ohio by Crosby Stills Nash and Young. When I think “quintessential protest song,” this is it. I’m not a huge Neil Young fan, but this is him at his career best, in my view. You know exactly what it’s about. You know who it was written for – hell, it even says “Nixon’s comin’.” And you know why it was written. Young takes a tragedy and makes it into a direct call for action. The call is effective because the music is so damn raw and good you can’t help but brainwash yourself with it.
Second is Refuse/Resist by Sepultura. It’s the opposite of Ohio in every imaginable way. But it’s still unmistakably a protest song. It’s unbridled, unfocused anger. You don’t know who or why you’re supposed to refuse/resist, so you have to seek out a target for it. But it’s effective in the way that so much metal is – it makes kids care about stuff, with the hope that the sentiment lives on into adulthood.
You like your coffee black,
your neighborhood white,
your lights are out at nine o’ clock at night.
Are you afraid of everything, or just the truth?
It launches furiously, with just three words from the singer before the band starts shredding like all great hardcore bands used to do when I was still a boy. And the target of the song’s ire is known by the second line – the complacent, ignorant, casually racist, “normal” folks we share our country with. Our neighbors, our friends, our family, even ourselves. And not just them, but the larger system they bolster.
You’ve got pre-packaged food,
Family Feud, faith in the church,
and a good clean attitude.
Are you afraid of everything, or just the truth?
Spoiler alert: they’re afraid of everything. Our society, increasingly it seems, breeds people who lack any and all curiosity and thus their ignorance breeds fear of the unknown, which is damn near everything to them.
The only problem that you’ve got,
is the night that Wheel of Fortune’s not.
And the only thing you haven’t bought,
are the people that are buying you.
This song was written at the tail end of the Bill Clinton era, that magical time when neoliberalism was floating along on various credit and marketing bubbles and nobody (other than the poor, black, brown, female, foreign, etc.) had a care in the world. A false progress built on well-dressed greed and affordable birth control.
You are the Moral Majority, devoid of moral priority.
You are Barbie Doll sorority.
You are the Boys’ Club government.
And yet the song is not dated, nearly 20 years later. As we enter the Trump Era, with the cracks in capitalism now becoming canyons, and with the American Empire barreling toward breakup, the “moral majority” is once again ascendant, fueled by reactionary ignorance and distraction. They claim piety, but are more nihilistic and depraved than any cohesive political group in the U.S. since the Confederacy. What else could explain why Evangelicals obediently cast their votes for an atheist whose moral compass doesn’t even have a needle?
How we lust familiarity, speedy compact portability.
Every step that you take forward,
is a generation back for us.
With Trump, we may actually have taken a step two or three generations back. The problem is that we all only get one life. One chance. A five- or ten-year downturn is time none of us will ever get back. In the grand scheme of history, this wouldn’t even warrant a footnote. But most of us only get 70-80 years at the most. One short bump in the road can literally ruin the entire rest of our lives. For example, the 2008 recession (courtesy of Clinton and Bush and their ilk) set many people back permanently, left to pick for scraps in the right-to-work free trade landfill until they die.
We are the ugly.
We are the gay, Impoverished, effeminate, and overweight.
Take your consumer culture back from us.
It’s a fucking economic attack on us all.
And though the left is currently arguing among itself (when is it ever not doing that) about whether race or class matters more (spoiler alert: they’re intertwined and dependent upon each other), the truth remains that, in America, money matters most. Our understanding of oppression must be a materialistic understanding. Slavery wasn’t just racist, it was capitalist. Like many of our slaveholding Founders, our new Grifter in Chief and his bipartisan allies are in it for the money first. They don’t care if their policies are “good” or “bad” for the millions of individuals they supposedly answer to. They care only for cash.
And the Football Season is the only reason you stay alive in your Prime Time beehive.
And yet, most of us remain complacent. Distracted. Enabling abuse by doing nothing while cartoonish, greed-driven liars lead us all into oblivion.
The very best protest songs are timeless, not limited to the particular offense or tragedy that inspired them. But that’s also bad, because it means the underlying injustice which those songs indict was never truly defeated. “Coffee Black” is a great, sad example.