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Letters for the Week of June 8, 2016

Readers sound off on boycotts, cops, and classical.


"Boycotters Accuse 924 Gilman Street of Ethical Backslide," Music, June 1

Operation Ivy lead singer chimes in on 924 Gilman boycott

My name is Jesse Michaels. I was an original Gilman member and sang for the band Operation Ivy. I am not a current volunteer and am not writing on behalf of Gilman, but am a long time ally and concerned observer. This is a response to the Gilman boycott article in last week's East Bay Express. For anybody who didn't read it, here is a synopsis: Gilman Street is a long standing Berkeley punk venue based on egalitarian ideals. It has rules on the wall that say "no sexism, racism, homophobia" and so on. Some people are boycotting it, claiming it has strayed from its stated values.

The boycotters, who chose to remain anonymous, have valid gripes, but are also saying things that just are not true. The boycott manifesto opens by saying "924 Gilman is over as we know it," then implies that Gilman was once ethical but has gone downhill. Actually, the same debates have been going on since 1986. Rigid political purity would not "save" Gilman; it would drastically change it and probably ruin it. The manifesto states that the recent booking of controversial bands Fang and Slapshot is "the last straw," and a "giant middle finger to everything Gilman has stood for in the last 30 years." In fact, both bands played Gilman in the early years of the club, when the people who wrote the rules were still there. The rules are important, but they were never meant to be absolute, dogmatic commandments.

The boycotters are politically absolute "safe space" people and, like some of their college campus counterparts, they have some great ideas combined with an unfortunate zeal for black-and-white thinking. As one of many examples, their manifesto says that "from the beginning" punk has been split between people who are "reactionary" and people who are "anti-oppression." This is a gross simplification by any analysis. Punk has always been a collection of definitions and approaches, often in conflict, and mostly not overtly political. The "us and them" mentality is a convenient saw that allows a small minority to act without conscience when attacking a club that serves thousands of people.

The real rank-and-file of Gilman Street aren't the old guard volunteers that the boycotters are demonizing, but less visible, mostly working-class and poor kids. A lot of them are from distressed, violence-plagued towns like Pittsburgh and Antioch and many are trauma survivors. Long after I was a Gilman regular, I would meet these youths week after week when I worked at Homeless Youth Alliance and did one-on-one work with recovering drug addicts. These were at-risk individuals, many of them queer, trans and POC, and Gilman was one of the only places they felt welcome.

I want to avoid the kind of personal "calling out" that has been going on around this debate, but suffice to say a lot of the main voices supporting the boycott are white, affluent college graduates who are not Bay Area natives. They are arrogating political oversight of kids that have already been pushed around their whole lives and don't feel represented by them.

Maximum Rocknroll, a magazine notorious for scene policing, has issued a statement of support for the boycott that is so humorless and grandiose it verges on self-parody.

The boycotters claim to have exhausted the democratic process at Gilman and say that the venue has become insensitive to marginalized populations such as queer and trans people, and people of color. The membership meeting recently confronted this characterization directly.

As Corbett Redford, a Bay Area punk documentarian, put it: "A small contingent of boycott advocates finally showed up. Most appeared to be white, none of them were volunteers. What happened next is eight or nine volunteers from Gilman spoke up. Every single one of those kids was either queer, gender fluid or a person of color. They told the boycott people that they didn't need their protection, that they could represent themselves and that the boycott was threatening something they cared about deeply. One of them said that Gilman had saved her life. They also said they have their own issues with the place but that doesn't mean it should be attacked or shut down."

Many people have spoken up about the boycott of 924 Gilman Street and, unfortunately, online threats have been made by unaffiliated trolls. To this affect, the collective's representatives have issued the following statement:

"The Gilman volunteers and the board members are not behind any hate speech, threats, or acts of violence towards the boycotters or anyone else and condemn them. Discussion between people with opposing views is the bedrock of our collective, hence the meetings."

My own history with Gilman is long and a bit mixed, but as a concerned observer I can offer a proposal for what to do about the boycott: nothing.

The boycotters have a right to their feelings. They have valid concerns. These should be considered, especially if it comes from somebody who is really hurting rather than from an invisible keyboard warrior. The boycotters have also issued an ultimatum and demands. These should be ignored. There is an organized-chaos democratic process in place. It is flawed, but it works, and lists of demands are not part of the program. Gilman will be OK.

And if the boycotters ever come back, welcome them back, ask them to speak up at meetings and offer them volunteer positions. Gilman is good at including people from the margins. It has been doing it for thirty years.