Pussy Riot and a Protest Legacy

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Last week, as three members of the punk group Pussy Riot sat in a cage in a Moscow courtroom, the gates of the Russian embassy in Washington received an ear-splitting strain of disapproval. Four guitar-screeching, drum-thrashing bandsMobius Strip, Sad Bones, Brenda, and the appropriately named War on Womenplayed a public, outdoor set in solidarity with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, the Pussy Riot members who today were sentenced to two years in prison on trumped-up hooliganism charges.

Demonstrations are a fairly common phenomenon along D.C.’s Embassy Row. The series of rallies for Pussy Riot, though, have been somewhat different from the norm. For one thing, many protests outside foreign embassies are dominated by natives of the same foreign country. For another, most of them involve the standard litany of chants, speakers, and signs. And of course, very few of those protests involve punk rock. But if engaging in guerrilla musical dissent represented an appropriate tribute to the women of Pussy Riot, it also harkened back to an older, long-forgotten form that's native to the nation’s capital: The punk percussion protest.

In choosing to bully a feminist rock band, in fact, Vladimir Putin created almost the perfect vehicle to rouse the spirit of the old D.C. punk scene, one of Washington’s truly homegrown musical products.

It’s not hard to see why devotees of the capital’s activist music scene see kinship with Pussy Riot. The band cites as one of its main influences the riot grrrl movement that grew out of the D.C. hardcore scene of the 1980s. That scene, in turn, was always wedded to the local activist community; there’s very little daylight between Dischord Records, the label that produced Washington bands like Fugazi and Minor Threat, and Positive Force, a punk-rock-fueled social advocacy and service group. And back in the ’80s, that scene had a foreign-policy agenda.

In 1985, Amy Pickering, a member of the all-female hardcore band Fire Party, sent her fellow rockers anonymous letters encouraging a “Revolution Summer.” The idea called for protesting all manners of injustice, but top of the list was South Africa’s apartheid regime.

The South African embassy was already the subject of constant protests. But the marches organized by TransAfrica were positioned a few hundred yards down Massachusetts Avenue from the embassy gates. If South African diplomats ever noticed the protests, it was probably from reading about them in the newspaper. The punks aimed to bludgeon the apartheid embassy’s eardrums instead. The decade’s punk percussion protests brought dozens, then hundreds, of drum-bashing kids to the front door of South Africa’s mission. They banged on snare drums and plastic barrels; some band members brought out their entire drum kits.

“They would know people were viscerally opposed to apartheid,” Mark Andersen, a co-founder of Positive Force, remembers. Punk percussion changed the tenor of D.C. activists’ approach toward South Africa’s institutionalized racism. Instead of people marching in a circle and hoisting signs a few blocks away, the anti-apartheid movement here became as loud as Pickering hoped.

“We were creating a style of protest that spoke to us and, through that, spoke to our generation,” Andersen says.

It’s too early to call last week’s concert for Pussy Riot a rebirth of that mode of expression. After all, the show was linked to a more traditional protest rally outside the Russian embassy, full of speeches and call-and-response chants. Andersen was one of the speakers. “Certainly, it immediately evoked the scene I remember participating in outside the South African embassy,” he says. Still, “I wish I’d had a drum because I’m more comfortable with loud drumming than chanting.”

Pickering, who today works at an art museum in New Paltz, N.Y., also sees strands of the punk percussion era in the concert for Pussy Riot. “When I see that protest music, I’m part of that,” she says. “Policy wonks protesting on the street aren’t going to get the same response. It’s an amazing fucking thing to watch.”

Tolokonnikova, Alekhina, and Samutsevich are headed for a jail celland Putin's regime isn't getting any gentler when it comes to human rights. Fortunately, Andersen adds, “punks are good at making noise.”

Benjamin R. Freed is a writer in Washington D.C.

Photo by Bert Queiroz. It appeared in Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital by Mark Andersen & Mark Jenkins (Akashic Books, 2009, akashicbooks.com).

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