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Tony Adolescent on Violence in Punk from 1980 to Today: Members of Two Punk Generations Discuss Trauma, Recovery, and Equity in the Scen

Punk veteran Tony Cadena formed the enormously influential Adolescents with Steve Soto in 1980 in Fullerton, Calif. While separated in age by a generation, we share experiences of repeated assault by members of our punk community, as well as many positive and creative experiences within punk, to which we both clung as a lifeline when we were marginalized youth. We collaborated in order to combat the misogyny, homophobia, and violence that persists in punk rock, to express our gratitude for the creative and emotional outlet it has provided us, to exhort others that it is not punk to beat and to rape, and to suggest solutions.

Tony and I are both parents. We both suffer from treated mental illnesses. (In his case, bipolar, in my case, major depression and PTSD.) I wouldn’t blame our conditions solely on the violence we have experienced; genetics play a major role. We both refuse to be defined as ill or as victims of violence. We both continue to participate and to find value in punk rock despite everything. We both have made an absolute choice to raise our children non-violently. I have had two extremely violent partners but they are out of the picture now and, like Tony’s children, my four-year-old daughter lives in a peaceful home.

I have experienced domestic violence, rape at the hands of so-called “progressives,” “punks,” and “male feminists.”

Today my daughter and I went to an appointment at SafePlace, an Austin women’s shelter, for crisis intervention. I had chosen another abuser, who head butted me twenty times while I held my baby.

Tony and I started talking because we are disgusted that today men are still raping and beating women in the punk scene. I met Tony on Twitter because I refused to tolerate Ben Weasel’s battering of women in my city Austin, Texas. It happens everywhere, but this subculture can be—or maybe was, or aspires to be—a refuge for abused and disaffected individuals. Granted, there are many different punk scenes. Each of ours tends toward the national U.S. punk “mainstream.”

When I think about my history with punk rock, I think a large part of its appeal is that it contextualized violence in a subversive way. People slam into each other in the pit, but if I fell, every time, someone lifted me right back up. The exhilarating catharsis was there without the terror and helplessness. Some people who practice BDSM experience a similar kind of empowerment. Punk music also is a healthy outlet for unspeakable rage.

Like Tony, I truly believe that in general, U.S. culture does not tolerate and condone rape and abuse to the extent it once did. The awareness is there, even if the follow-up is weak. But we grow weary and impatient when we look at forty years of our supposed radical hotbed and we see rape and abuse tolerated and, unbelievably, even celebrated by some major punk figures of each of our generations.  It is completely unacceptable to us for Ben Weasel to beat women and then, unbelievably, to brag about it. (“@benweasel: Those Austin women I hit? Both of em were old. Point: me”)

The solution I support was proposed by Lauren Chief Elk, Yeoshin Lourdes, and Bardot Smith. On Twitter it is called #giveyourmoneytowomen. Economic empowerment is the single most important factor that protects victims and enables them to survive. Direct monetary compensation is far more important than police intervention or the nonprofit industrial complex. Texas has Crime Victims Compensation, unheard of in an Appalachian hellhole where I came from. It has been vital in keeping me and my daughter safe. But what @chiefelk is talking about is straight to the point. Survivors need money more than anything, period. It’s common sense.

Tony and I had the following discussion in response to the shameless racism, homophobia, and misogyny that some of his peers continue to perpetuate. What most troubles me, as an ex-punk in my thirties, is that I see these hateful and destructive attitudes influence prominent punk musicians of subsequent generations. Tony makes it very clear that, as one-time targets of punk bullies, and as current “warrior parents” of daughters and of sons with disabilities, not only do the Adolescents not condone, but they do not tolerate, abuse of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and other oppressed populations. They are committed to a nonviolent, equitable future for their children.

Erin: Tell me about your earliest involvement in punk in California. Was it mostly white- and male-dominated? Do you remember any girls, women, people of color, or LGBTQ people involved?

Tony: I was a young teen when I got into punk rock, and how I thought at fourteen was significantly different from where I was at nineteen. My self-centric understanding of the world was in relation to me, specifically.

That said, some of my peer group were gay, some were female, and some of my friends were Latino, Asian, Arabic, black, and white. There were also people who were mentally ill, there were artists, transvestites, and people who would be labeled autistic by today’s vernacular. There were two women who were midgets, though since at the time they were only a few inches shorter than I was, went pretty much unnoticed by me except when one of them was driving. That said, the Fullerton scene was unique, and it was closer to Hollywood than it was to the rest of Orange County.

Erin: Do you remember people being sexually harassed, drugged, and raped in the scene? The reason I ask is because I’m wondering if these behaviors have had trends in punk over time.

Tony: I have no direct knowledge of its occurrence. That came later, the intentional drugging of a person, though there were certainly incidents where this could and did occur.

However, over the years I’ve had discussions with women who were raped when unconscious, generally from alcohol or a combination with downers. I also have talked to women—again, later in life—who were raped after clearly indicating no. Yes, they were damaged, and only some were able or willing to attempt resolution. One refers to it as a scar. Always there, not always visible.

The culture of the ‘70s was much different than it is now, and that, I believe, is for the better. In the ‘70s there weren’t safeguards like there are now. It just wasn’t discussed. I know of girls being commented on, groped, and assaulted as early as middle school, but it just wasn’t dealt with as effectively as it is now. I also recall chickenhawks and letches who cruised the high schools for teens.

It was a different time. I think it’s important to consider this when looking at this in an historical context. Judging the past too harshly is not always productive; however, certain behaviors are—and always have been—universally off-limits and taboo.

Erin: What happened? Was it tolerated and condoned?

Tony: I don’t think it was tolerated, but it wasn’t condoned either. It was hushed, avoided, not discussed. On some levels, the environment of drug use, alcohol, and being single blurred many lines. This was in pre-AIDS California. It wouldn’t be until the ‘80s that a social shift began in this regard.

Seduction by older people outside of, but tangential to the scene was also something I recall. I remember when I was fifteen being plied with alcohol and Valium by a man, an older relative of a friend. I was really clueless, and the result could have been very ugly. It was actually a female friend who realized what was going on and pulled me out of the situation. I can’t imagine that this was an isolated thing.

I myself was raised in a single parent home, and my mother was very conscious of women’s perceived roles in the larger society. One thing she made very clear to me was that under no circumstances were those boundaries allowed to be crossed. No meant no. This came from my parent—not from school, not from public service announcements, and not from punk rock peers. That is not to imply the women in the scene were not supporting the idea of bodily autonomy—there were definitely women who did—but it wasn’t something I learned about from outside my home. My mother is an astute thinker, and was a driving force in educating her sons in acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

Erin: Did the jock punks beat you guys up? Did you see them beat up women? They brag about beating up girls and women in the film The Decline of Western Civilization.

Tony: I can’t say I saw that happen to women, though in high school there were girls who were my friends and they were viciously berated for their body types and called “fag hags.” I do recall my peer group taking lots of beatings at school. The reason was because they considered us all gay. They felt that they were validated and justified in their hatred. They were equally belligerent toward the girls, but not physically abusive toward them. In school I reached out for help, and was rebuked for it. In their opinion we asked for it by not conforming to normal behavior, whatever the hell that meant. That attitude of theirs only reinforced the bullying.

I’d say it was heartbreaking to get the same treatment, initially, from the Huntington Beach punks (they were referred to as Aichbees or HBs). I would say I was beaten up at least twenty times before I was eighteen for being perceived as gay. Of course this is unacceptable, but common. As I see men, and boys becoming men, on the autism spectrum facing this hostility, it is painfully clear that not much has changed in the hostility toward people perceived as gay. I know—there just wasn’t a name for it in 1978.

And that faction of bullies became a predominant faction in the scene. The tide shifted in 1980, and gay men who performed music were understandably in the closet or not necessarily vocal about it.

To my mother, striking a woman was unacceptable. I had witnessed countless beatings she took prior to her liberation, and for me personally, I thought this was typical. When I was fifteen, at 4’7” and eighty-five pounds, I got into a fight with a much stronger and heavier girl at a show who was beating me up. My mother found out and slapped me across the face. Hard. For her there was no gray area. And when the incident happened, there were many guys at the club that night who felt the same way as my mother. Some, no doubt, needed an excuse to get into a fight with a fist magnet, but there were others who were genuinely upset and angry with me.

Looking back, I now understand. Self control has to be instilled early on. Had I continued to react that way, the outcome would have been disastrous. I’m no longer a small man-child. Had the cycle not been broken, I can’t imagine the kind of monster I would have become. I believe in redemption—not in terms of some religious way, though that, too, is possible for believers—but in intense self-reflection in which a person can transform. To err isn’t human; it is a call to action.

Erin: Some of their attitudes haven’t changed very much in the subsequent decades.

Tony: Did I witness this sort of abusive behavior later in my life? Yes. But I learned to intervene. Often the result was getting beat up.

Erin: Do you think attitudes about women, people of color, and LGBTQ persons have evolved in punk over time, or is it more of the same? When I see famous “punks” on Twitter condoning racism, sexism, and violence it makes me very angry and disillusioned. Then I see famous women apologizing for the men’s behavior and bullying the women who object.

Tony: I would like to believe it has changed in America, and there are definitely progressive microcosms in the fanzine print mags—Razorcake, MRR—but on the larger scale, I’m just not sure, and I’m definitely not convinced. I see hostility in the larger society. I read the bullying that occurs in forums on the internet. At shows, I haven’t observed anything this blatant and hateful, but it’s important to keep in mind that my observations are with people at bars who are closer to my age. Age does imply some semblance of wisdom with growth. It’s not a universal truth, but the generalization sometimes holds water. When I attend other shows I’m generally recognized, and I believe that people behave differently because of that. So, in that regard, there is an expectation of positive behavior that I hold myself to.

Erin: What is your opinion about zero tolerance policies toward harassment at shows? Even though I’ve been assaulted at shows, I personally oppose them. I think they are too open-ended.

Tony: The minute zero tolerance is introduced into a situation then all discussion ends. That’s fine in totalitarian mindsets, I guess, but when free will is removed, is there any growth? How can a person change? There needs to be a corrective response, and the ability to choose to change. Choice is the bottom line. However, if the person refuses to change, the person needs to go.

Erin: How would you say your attitudes and behaviors differ from those of some of your peers? I think this is a vital distinction to make, because it would be easy to conclude that many ‘80s punks are a lot of entitled, violent, racist, sexist, white heterosexual men who took an anti-establishment pose, and I know that’s not always the case.

Tony: I’d like to think we have the same goals, though I’m constantly reminded by Facebook that we’re not cut from the same cloth. I’m becoming, sadly, less tolerant of opposing views. Some people I feel are just rotten and beyond redemption. I’ve learned over time to simply delete them from my life. It’s what survivors do, I suppose. It is impossible to have a healthy mind if one is in constant flux, anger, and battle. The removal of those influences in one’s everyday life brings some elements of balance back.

Erin: As a punk veteran, what are your social justice goals going forward?

Tony: Equity. I believe that when one of us loses it, then we all do. In the late ‘80s the idea of allowing a person with perceived cognitive disabilities to attend a typical public school was unheard of, and when they were allowed—can you imagine?—to attend the school they were segregated into a special place which, in my mind, resembled a squirrel cage.

Through the latter part of the ‘80s and well into the ‘90s, I worked long and hard both locally and at the state level as part of teacher union leadership groups to change that. I still adamantly defend the rights of children—whether they be children of color, children in poverty, or children with disabilities—to be afforded the same rights that seem to be granted to others by the implied virtue of their elitist social caste. And believe me, it hit close to home when my own child was petitioned and bullied out of our local school by a bunch of helicopter moms, queen bees, and passive-aggressive daddies.

Erin: Tell me about a moment so bad you wanted to disavow punk forever. I’m asking this because I am in a real period of soul searching. This punk thing was a lifeline for me as a kid. Let’s say I’m agnostic about it at this point.

Tony: I saw a guy beating up a man in San Diego years ago. I tried to intervene because it was a brutal, horrible situation. He was kicking the man in the head and I stepped in front of him and said, “Please. Stop. You are going to kill him.” His response was, “So?”

Fortunately, the Canzonieri brothers (Electric Frankenstein) were there and stepped in front of him, too. They went into a protective stance (both hold black belts in kung-fu) and I called 9-1-1.

I realized, again, that there are some people who have absolutely no regard for human life—that something inside of them has turned off—and that they have lost touch with their own humanity. I’m not a religious person—in fact, I’m an atheist—so the value I personally put into humanity is as close to sacred as one can get. To treat another person with such vicious disregard runs contrary to the ability of that individual to do better than that. I have nothing but disdain for that kind of human. I consider them, ultimately, failures.

A year ago my daughter’s godfather was beaten up at one of my shows by two guys I’m acquainted with, and who refuse to admit their involvement and to make amends for their actions. That came very close for me to just walk away from this thing altogether. I really do have better things to do with my life. To think, this is a man that I’ve chosen to intervene as a co-parent and to guide my child through her life—to think he was seen as a fist magnet by someone who is supposedly from the same punk rock foundation as me is unrealistic. I may be a dreamer, but they are my dreams. I have difficulty reconciling them.

Erin: What is your proudest or best moment in the scene?

Tony: Recording the La Vendetta album and standing up for Kelly Thomas at demonstrations and city council meetings. Advocating for my children at school board meetings and standing up to the second largest southern California school district on their behalf. It was a long process, and started when the community of Sierra Madre drew up and circulated a petition to remove my youngest child from his neighborhood school based on his autism. We responded like warrior parents.

Erin: Would you want your children to be involved in punk rock? I want my daughter to love and appreciate music, but I have serious reservations about her ever going to hardcore shows, for instance, when I think about the times I’ve been punched in the face. On a deeper level, I hope she never experiences the rage and disaffection that drew me to punk rock.

Tony: I monitor my children’s activity. They go to shows with me and when they do, they are with me. Their experience would be different without my influence, of course. But my job is parenting, and I take it seriously. I think they’d rather be on their computers than at a show, to be honest. My daughter has come to shows and has played her theremin on a couple of songs. She also co-wrote lyrics on the Presumed Insolent album and came up with the title. She is quite a musician. The older of my boys who is sixteen has gone on tour with us and will go on tour with us to Europe next year. His job is simply to meet people and to develop as a human being. I can only hope, like all parents, that I’m doing the parenting thing the right way.

Erin Schultz is an Austin, TX writer, single mother, and recovering punk rocker.
She can be reached at [email protected]

Tony Cadena is an educator, father, disability rights activist, and musician.
Twitter: @theadolescents

Photos by Greg Jacobs, www.ribshots43.com and Martin Wong