New York Punks Are Running for Office

"Bring the punk ethics of the scene into the state and I think we’re gonna end up with a much stronger ethical situation."
June 23, 2020, 2:43pm
Mel Gagarin plays
Photo courtesy Mel Gagarin

The worlds of politics and punk seem outwardly to not be in the same galaxy, but to Mel Gagarin they’re the same planet by different names.

Two decades ago, when Gagarin was a teenager, he was bouncing around the different stages at a Warped Tour show on Randall's Island when he heard Anti-Flag off in the distance pounding out an anthem that would summarize his feelings on abuses of power: “Fuck police, fuck police, fuck police brutality.”

It’s a message that still resonates with him, even in the final stretch of his Democratic primary challenge of Grace Meng in New York’s 6th Congressional District. Though he’s been on the streets with protesters in central Queens after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, he’s also followed the scenes of the more vitriolic clashes with police in Manhattan and the Bronx.

“If there was only a way we could do a political ad and afford to use the rights to that song," said Gagarin. "That hits the nail on the head 1000% percent."

Raised in Kew Gardens—right next to Forest Hills, where the Ramones kickstarted punk in the mid-'70s—he heeded the clarion call at a young age. He began playing guitar and singing in punk bands in high school, and started his current band, Scarboro, in 2012 after taking a break to focus on his children and advocate for criminal justice reforms in the non-profit sector. The band has shared the stage with popular punk acts like Murphy’s Law, Agnostic Front, Kill Your Idols and Fire Burn, and was plotting a tour in Europe when Gagarin decided to jump into the election. In his own music, he tackles uncomfortable conversations about mental health like dealing with the death of his grandparents, and says punk has been instrumental to shaping his world view.

“From its inception, punk was always thumbing its nose at authority… it’s always calling its bluff,” said Gagarin, a Democratic Socialist running on a progressive platform that underlines Meng’s history of supporting pro-police bills like the Thin Blue Line Act.

“Anti-Flag wore its politics on its sleeves. That really opened up my eyes to thinking about political economy in a way that I hadn’t before. They addressed everything from American militarism to American imperialism and the police state. These are all issues and problems that were seeded for me through their music very early on before these things even became part of the mainstream conversation,” said Gagarin.

Gagarin isn’t the only punk scene veteran who is running in the Democratic primary election.

Emily Gallagher, who is running for New York State Assembly in the 50th District, which covers parts of Brooklyn like Williamsburg and Greenpoint, organized punk shows and wrote about them for the school magazine at Ithaca College. Her own politics were shaped by leftist bands like The Nation of Ulysses, and she says that bands like Minor Threat and, more generally, the Dischord Records catalogue instilled a mindset in her: “If you’re gonna talk about something, you should do something.”

“If you’re gonna talk about something, you should do something.”

After witnessing how immediate impact could be made on the state level with the No IDC movement in 2018, which replaced a number of Democratic state senators who had been effectively caucusing with Republicans, Gallagher decided to challenge Joseph Lentol, who has held office since 1973.

“Especially with the movement we’re seeing right now around dismantling white supremacy and dismantling the police, I think that we’re seeing that we really need to have allies in office,” said Gallagher. “As environmentalists, as housing activists, I think a lot of people who grew up in punk go into civics because of conversations in some punk circles about how much the establishment sucks. I think it’s really about pushing for more transparency, more elections, more term limits, more restrictions on what money can be taken. Bring the punk ethics of the scene into the state and I think we’re gonna end up with a much stronger ethical situation when it comes to government.”

Gallagher says there are plenty of people in the public sector who are punk, adding that she has punk friends in the office of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and in the Department of Transportation.

If a candidate was concerned about whether a punk background or tattoos can be an obstacle to getting elected to office in New York, they’d only have to look to the 43rd District.

City Council member Justin Brannan may play a significant legislative role in the city, but he’s better known in the hardcore scene for playing guitar for Most Precious Blood. He won his seat in 2017, and now represents a section of Brooklyn which includes Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst.

“The same way I used to stand outside CBGB’s handing out fliers for one of our shows, I would stand outside my local supermarket handing out cards with my face on it saying why they should vote for me,” said Brannan. “Coming from the punk and DIY scene definitely gives you a sense of fearlessness, that you don’t have this feeling that I’m not educated enough. I think there are some people that think getting into politics is for some sort of privileged class and I think for a long time it might have been seen that way.

“Luckily, things are heading in a different direction where voters want to elect real people.”

Brannan can trace the impetus of his social awareness to his start on the punk scene as a teenager, fighting skinheads who tried to push racist views on other attendees. He says he was initially drawn to punk because of the reality-based subject manner (“It wasn’t heavy metal that was about dungeons and dragons”) and channeled that energy through his animal welfare activism. He says punk is a uniquely qualified outlet to address societal ills.

“Punk is straight and to the point. It’s all killer and no filler. The songs are short, fast, loud. You get your point across and you move on to the next thing you want to get across,” said Brannan. “I wanted to hear people screaming about stuff that I was going through and I found it in punk rock.”

Whether the punk scene can become a mobilized constituency is another question. The community most notably came together in 2004 for the “Rock Against Bush” project, which saw bands like NOFX and Pennywise come together to produce an anti-war compilation album, plus a tour in swing states which doubled as a get out the vote campaign.

A distrust of established power—and even the most anti-establishment primary challengers inevitably become established power—is innate to punk. Punk politicians make the case that the best way to appeal to their interests are to put people from the scene in office.

“I think it’s also going to take some level of trusting electoral politics in the first place that has for so long let down the communities that the punk scene is made up of. Punk is largely made up of working class kids from around the country that have a good reason to distrust authority and politicians,” said Gagarin.

“If we want to see any of these changes that we sing about, it’s gonna take us going out from the mosh pit and going into the voting booth.”