Mark Andersen never wanted to be at the helm of the punk collective Positive Force. But guess what?
Mark Andersen, historian of the D.C. punk scene, can’t keep his thoughts off the past this month. Scouts from Paul Allen’s $100 million Experience Music Project in Seattle have been pestering Andersen’s musician friends for artifacts—guitars, picks, fliers, drumsticks, photos—from the heyday of D.C. punk. Photographer Glen E. Friedman’s “Fuck You All” exhibition of portraits, including some of Andersen’s heroes in the bands Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and Fugazi, is on display in Georgetown’s Govinda Gallery until June 24. And Fugazi is helping to represent D.C. at the Smithsonian’s American Folklife Festival on the National Mall June 27. This week also marks the 15th anniversary of the first public meeting of Positive Force, the local punk youth-empowerment collective he helped found.
“Let’s be perfectly frank…I ain’t no youth activist no more,” says Andersen, now 40. He’s the last of the original members still active in Positive Force, and as countless teenagers and 20-somethings have cycled through the organization and the walls of its communal house in Arlington, he’s come to be known as “Granddaddy.” He accepts the term graciously—just don’t say “leader.” Positive Force does not think of itself as having a leader.
Although he’s never balked at leadership, Andersen is the type of person who wishes that this article didn’t have to be about him. Though he hesitantly holds the helm of the supposedly helmless organization, Andersen is doing everything he can to step away from that role. After 13 years, he has moved out of the Positive Force house, trading up for a 15th Street apartment closer to his office at Emmaus Services for the Aging, at the western edge of the Shaw neighborhood, where he staked out his career in community service.
Punk rock inspired Andersen to activism at a young age, and, like many of the adolescents he’s since mentored, he came into his own at the confluence of politics and music. “Punk rock—sorry to be so dramatic, but it’s true—punk rock saved my life, and it gave me a life,” says Andersen. “I would never minimize the revolution that went on within my life in the summer of ’85. I didn’t come to Washington to become part of the D.C. punk scene—I came here to grow up and become an adult. But this whole other thing happened.”
By Andersen’s reckoning, Washington in 1985 was a perfect setting for the making of a politicized punk scene. “The Reagan administration was a great catalyst for political action within American punk communities,” he says. “You can’t even really conceive of the American punk scene as it exists today without the formative inspiration of Ronald Reagan. There were just so many causes to stand up around!”
But from his perspective, the Washington punk scene was relatively apolitical by 1985. The leftist sentiments of bands like the Dead Kennedys, MDC, and Crass weren’t integral to D.C. punk, and the agitation spawned by the punk record label Dischord a few years earlier was on the wane.
Andersen arrived from Montana in 1984 to attend Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies and to groom for a career in foreign service. But D.C. delivered a shock to his small-town system: The extent of race and class segregation startled him. Homeless people were everywhere; one homeless war veteran froze to death in front of the White House during Andersen’s first winter here. The punk scene seemed to be in shambles, too: Andersen’s first exposure to it came when he went to call his parents to assure them that he hadn’t been mugged or murdered and found “Nazi Punk” graffiti on the pay phone. Skinhead violence marred the first shows he attended, and punks were in the news that year for assaulting gay people in Dupont Circle. Andersen felt totally disillusioned; he was not alone.
“I think that summer was a time where people decided to re-energize themselves,” says Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye. One of his earlier bands, Minor Threat, had dissolved by 1985, but several bands it had inspired were rising. Among them was Rites of Spring, which epitomized the energy Andersen hoped punks would recapture. MacKaye and his friends were eager to quell the violence that had overtaken their scene and to renew the creative spirit that had once driven them. “It was a pointed decision at the time to give it that name: ‘Revolution Summer,’” says MacKaye. “We sort of set our sights on that summer.”
A separate group of people, including Andersen, had their own plans for that summer. Andersen had never been a musician, but he believed strongly in the promise of punk rock. He and Kevin Mattson, his now-estranged Positive Force co-founder, envisioned a political organization that would focus some of punk’s energy on creative protest and political action. “We were all straining for the next step, and Rites of Spring signaled not only what the next step might be about, but that it was possible,” says Andersen.
Many people in the D.C. punk community looked at the early Positive Force with suspicion, since other groups, like the Revolutionary Communist Party, had previously attempted to co-opt and exploit the energy of punk rock. “The history of radical politics in the D.C. punk scene had been a little tortured, and, to be quite honest, Positive Force did have a contingent from the RCP at that time,” says Andersen. “I thought, big deal—we also had anarchists, Situationists, young positive punks who just wanted to do something….We had neo-hippie activists, and then you had me—just a total oddball. I’m this graduate student from Montana who’s going to school with folks from the Honduran military and the CIA and many of the embassies. I’m sure they all thought I was some sort of spy.”
The history of D.C. punk is one of Andersen’s favorite topics of discussion, and in 1995, after the spectacle of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” transformed the punk community, he drafted The Dance of Days, a book-length history of the local scene. The first chapter is now available online, and the finished version of the book, co-authored by Washington City Paper critic Mark Jenkins, is due out later this year from Soft Skull Press. Folks who know Andersen well, however, will believe that the book is out only when they see it in their hands: Andersen has a tendency to think ahead of himself.
But Andersen’s visions do tend to pan out eventually. Positive Force has organized more than 200 benefit concerts and has raised more than $200,000 for such organizations as the Washington Free Clinic, the Community for Creative Non-Violence, Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS), and Justice for Janitors. It has helped to seed and foster dozens of projects, including Simple Machines Records, Food Not Bombs, riot grrrl, D.C. Books to Prisoners, and the DC Show Collective. Most recently, Positive Force has been helping to launch the Arthur S. Flemming Center, a community center in Shaw, with Emmaus, the Catholic Workers Party, the Hip-Hop Federation, and a half-dozen activist groups and service providers.
Andersen has been barreling ahead with plans for the community center, which will occupy three houses near 9th and P Streets NW, and the buildings’ renovations are finally starting to take shape. MacKaye is on board to help run the center’s performance space, but he hesitates to discuss the project. “I don’t like to talk about the future,” he says. “I like to get the shit done, and then we can talk about it. Mark is the plotter—I have no idea how this thing will play out.”
A 12-year partnership with Fugazi (in the Washington area, the band plays only free concerts or benefits) accounts for more than half of the money Positive Force has raised; all of it has been given away. The tactic has earned Fugazi the slur “monk rock” and raised suspicion that Positive Force is a communist front.
Although Positive Force has earned the respect of the bands and service organizations it works with, the group has also garnered loads of criticism throughout its history. It’s been perceived as a puritanical cult and dismissed as a bastion of isolationist lifestyle politics and political correctness. Andersen admits that the group has made mistakes at times, has been too self-righteous and dogmatic, and has not strayed far enough from its own “punk-rock ghetto.” Yet he believes that the group’s current projects are on the right track.
There’s been dissension within the group as well, and the turnover rate is high (which is not surprising, given its appeal to a young, transient population). According to Andersen, co-founder Mattson, who is now a professor at Rutgers’ Center for the Study of Democracy, left the group after its first year because he feared it had become cliquish; he said that he found its countercultural agenda for social change too limited. Andersen is concerned that Mattson’s critique might come true—that punk music and youth culture might be co-opted and that Positive Force might become nothing more than an adjunct to the rock industry capital machine. Andersen doesn’t think that’s the case, but he’s certainly wary of the threat.
The organization’s biggest hurdle has been overcoming apathy. When Positive Force members take the stage between bands at their benefit concerts to enlighten the masses with political patter, they are as likely to receive “Less talk, more rock!” heckles as to find themselves preaching to the choir. Political activism has fluctuated in the punk scene, and there’s still general resistance to the merging of music and politics. “I don’t know how to answer that,” says Andersen. “I don’t know how you can separate politics and art.”
Katy Otto has worked with Positive Force for five years and is one of its most visible members. She was 6 years old in 1985 and came to punk-rock activism straight out of the Nirvana-fueled “alternative nation” rock industry that Andersen has come to abhor. Yet if seniority held any sway with Positive Force, Otto would be No. 2.
“Right now, we have a very young contingent—besides Mark, I’ve been with Positive Force the longest,” she says. Though her band, Bald Rapunzel, is one of the more politically outspoken acts on the current scene, her veteran status with Positive Force at age 21 is a strange concept for her to grasp. Many of the bands she’s booked in the past have agreed to participate in the Positive Force anniversary celebration.
“In this upcoming year, I think it’s a new and broader Positive Force, with many individual projects run by many individual leaders,” Otto says. “Mark has never wanted to be seen as the leader….But at the same time, he has a 15-year history. He’s really been a mentor to a lot of people in this community, and when we’re trying to set up Positive Force events, people recognize the credibility that Mark’s name has.”
Andersen takes pride in Positive Force’s history, but he laments how little progress society has made over the past 15 years in the areas he’s devoted his life to. “I have no illusions about how immense the forces are that we’re wrestling with,” says Andersen. “But I also have no doubt whatsoever about the power of committed young people, because I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen lives transformed—most of all mine.” He says he keeps thinking back to something a friend told him not long ago: The trick to his kind of work isn’t to be young and idealistic—it’s to be old and idealistic. CP
Upcoming Positive Force events include the Fugazi show at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival June 27 and a HIPS benefit with Girls Against Boys and Scaramouche at Black Cat July 7. For more information, contact Positive Force at (703) 276-9768.