Everyone was covering their eyes as we headed into 2020, a year that feels like the worst confluence of global disasters, neoliberal fraud, and far-right advances, it seemed almost like ironic hyperbole when the Trump administration decided to assassinate Qassem Soleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The U.S. has operated as a war economy for decades, and ever since George W. Bush’s return to old-school empire with the invasion of Iraq, the possibility of war with Iran stalked our fever dreams. With the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change rapidly progressing, the potential of global conflict is in the air. So much for 2020 ambitions.
Which makes it feel serendipitous that the punk band Anti-Flag, which has made its opposition to the U.S. war machine its operating principle for its almost thirty years of existence, is releasing a new album for the election year.
“There’s the side where you feel like you’re a part of a movement that is consistently ahead of the curve whenever it comes to ideas of fighting institutional racism that supports war based economies,” says Chris Barker (a.k.a. Chris #2), who sings and plays bass in Anti-Flag. “It is also a painful thing that we are still fighting a very similar battle to the one that was the inception of the band. The band name Anti-Flag is an anti-war statement […] so it does make you feel sometimes helpless.”
Anti-Flag started its career around the time of the first invasion of Iraq, Operation Desert Storm, branding itself with an antiwar persona for the rest of its career and staking a claim as an outpost of protest rock in the popular punk scene. Over time, they have defined themselves by political anthems: simple to learn, sing along to, and use as slogans. The persistence of their relevance today is the story of the undying appeal of foreign interventions and U.S. militarism around the globe.
More than anything, Anti-Flag is a Pittsburgh band. Born out of the anger of a former steel town whose jobs were shipped off and unions crushed, the freezing weather and falling wages had a real influence on moving its members towards the punk scene. “[Offshoring of jobs] politicized pretty much the entire community of Pittsburgh,” says Chris, who watched his uncle lose his job and struggle for years, just as many others did across the city. This is what binds the band together—a connection to the people on the other side of U.S. tanks whom the band feels they have a lot more in common with than American bankers and presidents.
The question for 2020 is what that decades-long activist stance means when the U.S. empire has been further usurped by white supremacist instability as the Trump administration bulldozes through immigrant rights, social safety nets, and the global community. That’s why Anti-Flag’s new album, 2020 Vision, starts with a rant by Donald Trump, setting the stage before it leads into their popular new single “Hate Conquers All,” which is about the way that far-right politics have tapped into populist rage and redirected it towards marginalized communities. More than anything, the album is about the future, something that has become so unpredictable that it embodies colliding hopes and fears.
“The album [is] specifically about the future. About how we should be more egalitarian moving forward. For once, it really feels like the pen is in our hand to decide what our approach will be,” says Chris, a pensive but hopeful tone in his voice.
The band has always leaned socialist in their orientation, but have also tended espouse “lesser of two evils” electoralism at times. This has culminated in their support for the Bernie Sanders campaign, where many of those to the left of the DNC have found a way back into national electoral politics.
“I would hope that even if it is someone who is as progressive as a Bernie Sanders that gets elected, we would continue to be in the streets […] I think we need to be holding even progressive candidates accountable,” he says, remarking that Barack Obama was also supposed to be an antiwar President—right before he started drone-striking the Middle East. But, in the end, they feel like voting matters, whether in Florida in 2000 or in swing states today. That just makes it the lowest common denominator, something that can be done alongside the long game of mass organizing.
The history of progress is a bit of a mirage, since social change moves in peaks and troughs, explosions of activity that appear seemingly in an instant, yet were prefaced by years of backstory. Today is one of those explosions: Hong Kong, Lebanon, Chile, Syria, right and left populism taking the stage in both positive and horrifying revolutionary movements. This is the context that 2020 Visions is set in. The band attempts to grapple with the discontent and hopes to play a role in shifting towards liberation and away from the depths of rage that lead people to turn against each other. “The change that we talk about…it doesn’t come from presidents or votes or prime ministers, it always comes from the bottom up […] None of them are going to save us. We have to do it ourselves,” says Barker.
Anti-Flag’s pragmatism is centered on the need to do something, even if it means just taking a small step in the right direction. They are known for showcasing organizations with them onstage, from Sea Shepherd to Amnesty International to regional organizations fighting the far-right. They regularly hold fundraisers for different international causes. But as a protest band, they are better accustomed to providing energy than analysis. We know what the problems are—the role of art in these trying times is to push the audience out of disillusionment and apathy.
Chris’s own radicalization came in stages. Constant harassment by the police when he was growing up informed that development. He witnessed their abuse of poor people and communities of color and began looking for music that commented on that, which took him on a journey through political hip-hop and punk rock. He tragically lost his sister to a violent crime and had to endure the trial of her killer. Justice was not served in that case, and the realities of the criminal justice system were revealed in all their ugliness.
“I saw the criminal justice system built on putting black people in jail,” said Barker, whose experience pushed him to support the Black Lives Matter movement against police violence and mass incarceration. “To see the look on the mother of Michael Brown […] the same look on her face was the same look that my mom had […] We were always commenting on police violence, and there were abuses of that power on every level. I think that that moment made me think about criminal justice reform in America.”
The band is fundamentally about alternatives. Can we find something to replace militarism, imperialism, the incarceration state, capitalism itself? Chris’s approach to politics involves a certain degree of pacifism and resistance to the use of force. The future he and the rest of the band pine after is one marked by peace, mutual aid, solidarity, and clear vision of the better kind of world that is possible.
A Vision for 2020
It’s hard to stay positive amidst the chaos.
The political season for 2020 (which really began back in 2017) is a machine powered by vitriol, and the anger from the top is taking its toll on the people below. The Trump administration has set its sights on marginalized communities and the left, and despite ineffectual and half-hearted attempts at impeachment by the Democrats, there is a dramatic fight to be had. It will play out over the course of all our lives. While the band is hopeful, looking to the dramatic rise in social movements internationally as a sign of the times, events like the establishment hurdles deployed against the Sanders campaign and the rapidly worsening coronavirus pandemic can lead feelings of despair to creep in.
“I’m certainly pessimistic when it comes to whether or not mass amounts of change are achievable within my lifetime,” says Chris. But this moment of antipathy offers the chance to think about political change as a long game. “You can’t watch five minutes of the news without feeling like we’ve lost. And that is where the real work comes into play. And that’s why we need to forge real relationships with each other […] That kind of led to being more in tune with what happened in the moment.”
Part of this struggle will mean reclaiming tactics that have been captured by the right, such as speaking to class anger and using independent media as a source for truth in the face of corporate obfuscation. This will require connecting with media outlets, supporting organizations doing the on-the-ground work, and jumpstarting a vibrant antiwar movement that has some actual teeth.
Anti-Flag are a performance machine, churning out around 200 concerts a year, and 2020 was no exception. They had planned an extensive tour before the pandemic took hold globally, but most of these dates became unfeasible with the new restrictions. When the highly consequential election finally comes around in November, providing the public health situation has cleared, they will head back home to Pittsburgh to watch the results with everyone and figure out where to go next to continue pushing back. While the electoral fight is important, it represents only a small fraction of the struggles ahead. The more trying the times become, the more we will need music to provide a soundtrack to our protests, stoke revolutionary passion and energy, and bring leftists together.
Says Chris, in a sentiment echoed by the rest of the band:
“The change that we talk about…it doesn’t come from presidents or votes or prime ministers, it always comes from the bottom up […] None of them are going to save us, we have to do it ourselves.”
Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017). His work has appeared in places such as The Independent, Jacobin, The Baffler, Truthout, Political Research Associates, In These Times, and Commune.