ROC's GREATEST HITS - NOTES ON GRASS-ROOTS ANTI-CENSORSHIP RESISTANCE: 1989-1994
by Randy Lee Payton
America has long seen outbreaks of Censorship Fever. However, assaults upon musicians' works had mostly been confined to the curious, occasional spectacle of racist, Bible-banging rednecks burning Elvis', Beatles' and other such records over the years. Such know-nothing "yahooism" seemed worthy only of most citizens' contempt or bemusement, if that.
The early 90's, however, were different. The "Yahoo" elements were now being given social and media credibility and legitimacy, via their association with high placed government officials (or, in the case of the PMRC, via those officials' wives). In 1989, it became clear to my long-time activist friend John Woods and I that although all the would-be censors we had previously only LAUGHED AT--the Tipper Gores, Don Wildmons, etc.--may in fact STILL BE ludicrous PARODIES OF THEMSELVES, they were in fact no longer A JOKE. That's when we founded Rock Out Censorship with the full intention to give back to America's would-be censors as good as--no, BETTER than!--they give!
John and I were already veterans of political and community organizing each spanning a couple good decades as I well as being simply hard-core, die-hard rock fans who had had it with seeing puffed-up know-nothing windbags like Ernest Hollings riding roughshod over the music we loved. Strategically, we believed (believe) that the "religious right" was only as big and bad as people made them out to be and we were out to call their bluff. We decided to venture into the breach, to answer Freedom's Call, see how much dust we could stir up, how much fun we could have...
THE FIGHT BACK
"I do not accept the authority of any state... to forbid me, or anyone, the use of drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, sex with a consenting partner or, if one is a woman, the right to an abortion. I take these rights to be absolute, and should the few persist in their efforts to dominate the private lives of the many. I RECOMMEND FORCE AS A MEANS OF CHANGING THEIR MINDS."--Gore Vidal from his The Decline and Fall of the American Empire. Odonian Press-Berkeley, CA 1992.
R.O.C. was a marked departure from the polite social discourse which marked so much civil libertarianism of the day. We felt more like a street gang looking for a rumble, or as SCREW referred to R.O.C. in a review of an early ROC newsletter. "a paramilitary unit." We simply didn't (and don't) believe in extending the spirit of "pluralism" to slavering packs of would-be theocrats committed to see us all--that's you and me, dear reader--under the thumb of a Christian Police State. One Nation Under (their) God--and no questions asked! So, fueled by a direct lineage to classic 60's militancy together with today's best rock, rap and art --to say nothing of the inspiring freedom fighting spirit of such American patriots past as Tom Paine--Rock Out Censorship was born!
A MOVEMENT IS BORN!
If I'm not mistaken, I believe Rock Out Censorship and THE ROC were the first to ever use/publish the phrase "national grass-roots anti-censorship movement." We first put the concept forward as a point for discussion at one of the first "Anti-Censorship Conferences" ever, in Philadelphia, called by author Dave Marsh and ROCK & ROLL CONFIDENTIAL back in July 1990. We proposed to the attendees from around the East Coast that we all start thinking of ourselves in context of a larger, mass, grass-roots anti-censorship movement. Small groups were popping up throughout the U.S. in response to the much-publicized (and other lesser-known, i.e., local) censorship attempts taking place throughout the country at the time. Woodsy and I proposed that a strengthened Anti-Censorship Network could link local groups and their struggles together with larger, more established national resource groups, for better maximum impact. This was how, in fact, the anti-war Left became a strong national force in the late 60's. It is also, ironically enough, the strategy appropriated by, our foes in the so-called "religious," pro-censorship Right, today.)
R.O.C. pushed the strategy, of a strong Network as an alternative to the tendency on the part of civil libertarian forces to simply, REACT to censorship attempts, rather than ACT in the name of the First Amendment and, even more so, in the name of our basic, human right to free expression. We saw "re-acting" as working out of a position of weakness whereas "acting" is working out of a position of strength. We felt (feel) that a real blood and guts Anti-Censorship Movement should work to bring together everyone affected by, and opposed to censorship onslaughts into a genuine UNITED FRONT. The rock and rap musicians and fans, civil libertarians, librarians, booksellers, film makers, avant-garde, gay and women artists, producers and buyers of X-rated films and books, writers and performers --i.e., all those bearing the brunt of the "Religious" Right's openly-declared "Kulchurkamph " (culture war).
It might be instructive at this point to recall the tenor of the times: Museum director Dennis Berrie had been arrested at the behest of senior-citizen-robbing, S & L criminal Charles Keating-inspired (& financed?) -'decency league' Philistines in Cincinnati for displaying works by world-known artist-photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. With local authorities and publicity-hound D.A.s buoyed by Tipper Gore's PMRC strong-arming the record industry into gutless acceptance of her dilettante, politicians' wives' group's demands for "warning" stickers (with the threat of several grand jury investigations at the time "coincidentally" hanging over the heads of the record industry), musicians and fans were experiencing a wave of repression heretofore unseen (even during the "dark days" of the 50's) members of rap group 2 Live Crew were busted for a performance before a paying, adult audience --an ominous throwback to the days when puritanical D.A-'s persecuted Lenny Bruce literally to death! Meanwhile a jury was asked to decide whether the music of rock group Judas Priest indeed contained "hidden messages" (i.e., indwelling "demonic spirits?") which somehow "caused" a suicide--shades of the 17th century witch hunts! School book bannings and even outright book and record burnings were taking place in America's heartlands. Meanwhile, avant-garde, women and gay artists were ATTACKED BY NAME on the Senate floor by redneck husks like Jesse Helms, as part of the right-wing assault upon the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Many young people, artists, musicians, fans, and other citizens felt a new Dark Ages were descending upon America. While some despaired, many others happily vowed to utilize their skills and whatever First Amendment rights we had left to ORGANIZE and FIGHT BACK.
THE GULF WAR & THE WAR (ON DISSENT; MEDIA BLACKOUT) AT HOME
Over the next year, R.O.C. kept alive and kicking. We took copies of our first national tabloid edition (#4) of THE ROC to distribute at the huge anti-Gulf War demonstration in D.C. Complicity by the corporate media in the bombing of civilian populations in Iraq and it's blackout on news of wide-spread, mass anti-war dissent here at home remains the #1 censored news story of this decade. The demonstration we participated in was by some accounts THE all-time largest demonstration ever seen in D.C., but news of the march was almost totally BLACKED-OUT by America's "kept" corporate press, presenting the Pentagon line as gospel and video-game-like bombing missions on TV for the gullible. The cover story of ROC #5 urged rock and rap fans to resist the war, urging distribution of anti-war literature at concerts and clubs, encouraging bands to speak out, etc. The idiotic yellow ribbon campaign aside. We actually found much, MUCH anti-war-sentiment within the population "out there" at the time. The large numbers of students and other youths experiencing this heavy-handed media blackout of domestic dissent firsthand were subsequently inspired to create an insurgent wave of new upstart alternative and counter-cultural papers across the U.S. to offset the increasing Total Hegonomy over the Public Mind by the New World Order corporate media. (In fact, hope for the future of freedom rests squarely with an ever-burgeoning, decentralizing, Pirate Media throughout the U.S. and the world, does it not'?)
THE BANDS, THE INTERVIEWS
From Pearl Jam to Rage Against the Machine, bands were more than supportive of THE ROC's efforts. Many of them told us they truly appreciated the politico-social bent of R.O.C. interviews, a pleasant break, we were told, from the usual fan mag fare. Long-time musician and fan Mike Heck was responsible for many of the interviews early on for THE ROC. With the likes of David Bowie, Ice-T, The Ramones, Jello Biafra, Ministry, Henry Rollins and many others whose public support often made volunteer work on THE ROC seem well worth it! "R.O.C.'s Greatest Hits Pt. 2" will feature the best of ROC interviews next issue.
CENSORS VS. R.O.C.
By Summer '91. ROC found itself attracting the ire of some of America's most well-known, would-be censorship groups. Steve Peters (of the record-burning Peters Brothers record-burning hallelujah roadshow, whom a PMRC founder once credited with having initially gotten "the wrecking ball swinging in the right direction") became positively RATTLED when the R.O.C. posse showed up for one of his presentations in Ohio. (We had fire-extinguishers at the ready, but our mere attendance was apparently enough to discourage any thoughts of a record burning that night.) Florida nut-case lawyer Jack Thompson (who had engineered 2 Live crew's bust) was positively SHAKEN by some very pointed questions being asked by the audience during his appearance at Kent State University after R.O.C. handed-out dossiers with info how the Florida Bar Association had TWICE questioned Jack's mental stability (among other interesting factoids). The president of an affiliate of Don Wildmon's American Family Association (AFA) blasted R.O.C. on TV in Ohio (to naturally our high amusement). The vice-president of what Dave Marsh has called "perhaps the largest and most dangerous censorship group today," Focus on the Family wrote to threaten R.O.C. with "further action" unless we issued "a correction and retraction" on a news release we had sent out concerning FoF. The release had mentioned, in passing, that FoF president James Dobson had publicly "supported the flow of drugs into the inner cities." (Basically, endorsing hard drugs to stem the tide of urban rebellion until the time Dobson & Co. has won inner city residents "over to the Lord," i.e. the FoF and their brain-dead fundamentalist ilk). Since R.O.C. in fact had POSSESION OF THE TAPE of said program, our response was to shoot FoF a letter informing them (1) we were running the transcript of Dobson's remarks in the next ROC (which we did; see issue #7) and (2) all further such threats of legal action should be directed through our general counsel James D. McNamara Esq., and (3) that, FoF could go to hell. Note: we haven't heard from FoF since that time (Summer '91). (Focus on the Family has since, incidentally, moved from L.A. to the less racially contested mountains of Colorado.)
"You got to fight the bastards always, boys." -Ma Parker
The legendary radical labor organizer Saul Alinsky once wrote that it's important to make the "right" enemies to show the people you're trying to organize the common foes you share. There are never "issues," Alinski pointed out, issues are MADE by picking a fight with the peoples' adversaries, the proverbial Oppressor. "Biting the tail of the tiger and holding on tight." as Abbie Hoffman once described it. FoF threatening ROC, AFA denouncing us on TV, etc., was all GRIST for the R.O.C. mill! It was fun knowing we were getting to these characters and sending them up a wall. Artists rarely get such strong response to their work. Very satisfying! We recall a shrewd Chinese guerilla war strategist who once said "It's good when the enemy attacks you for it shows you have drawn a clear line of demarcation between yourself and the enemy." Or better yet, in the words of J.R. 'Bob' Dobbs, high edopt of the sledgehammer satire Subgenius Church: "FUCK 'EM IF THEY CAN'T TAKE A JOKE!"