Positive Force: More Than a Witness: A Review

By Gabriel Kuhn
Alpine Anarchist
November 2014

Ahead of the big 2012 anarchist gathering in St. Imier, Switzerland, I gave an interview to the Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard. When asked what I considered the most convincing example of anarchism in practice, I pointed to the punk hardcore underground in an effort to avoid the overstressed example of the Spanish Revolution.

It was a daring proposition given that the problems in the punk hardcore scene range from machismo and cliquishness all the way to superficial posturing and outright political ignorance. However, considering the values of DIY, global networks of mutual aid, and the alluring blend of solidarity and anti-authoritarianism it seemed worth giving it a shot.

One of the best things about watching Robin Bell’s 69-minute documentary about Positive Force DC was that I felt reassured in my decision; and that despite the fact that Positive Force DC is not an anarchist project as such, something which the film – and in particular the Punk, Votes, Riots outtake in the DVD extras – makes very clear.

Positive Force DC was founded in 1984 by Mark Andersen and Kevin Mattson who were inspired by the Positive Force collective that had formed in Reno, Nevada, around the band 7 Seconds.

In More Than a Witness, 7 Seconds frontman Kevin Seconds recalls the sentiment that had led to the group’s foundation: “Yes, a lot about the world sucks, but let’s try and change things. We’re sitting around complaining, but we don’t seem to be doing anything to make a change.”

Out of the several Positive Force collectives that emerged during the following years, the one in DC was the only one to survive the 1980s. Among the most compelling descriptions of the project’s appeal in More Than a Witness is a statement by Johnny Temple of Soulside and Girls Against Boys fame: “One of the problems with punk was always the insularity of it and the gazing inward, and to this day that’s part of the punk rock legacy. In DC, [there was a] looking out at the world and not the celebrating of the self but the celebrating of the potential for making the world a better place.”

Formally and aesthetically, More Than a Witness follows punk rock documentary standards: it’s essentially a mix of concert footage, photographs, flyers, and talking heads. This works for me, and it works especially well in this case, because the elements are well-balanced and the film tells an actual story rather than being a random hodgepodge of visual clips and sound bites: we are led from Positive Force DC’s beginnings and the Revolution Summer of 1985 to the infamous (and successful) 1988 “Meese Is a Pig” campaign to the group’s role in spawning the Riot Grrrl movement in the early 1990s to conflicts about organizing and direct action in the mid-2000s, and to the eventual – and ongoing – collaboration with We Are Family, a “unique experiment in senior services, advocacy, and community-building”, as the half-hour documentary Green Hair, Grey Hair, included in the DVD extras, puts it.

Among the flyers featured in the film, my favorites are one announcing a DC gig of the magnificent Tribe 8 and another advertising a New Year’s Eve show by Zegota. Regarding the concert footage, Fugazi playing on Lafayette Square with open view at the White House is as captivating as 7 Seconds performing “Young Until I Die” at a suburban community center. (The extras contain extended live footage, including The Evens, Beefeater, and, hooray, more 7 Seconds!) With respect to the talking heads, the film relies perhaps a little too much on the big names. I’m not sure, for example, whether Penny Rimbaud or Dave Grohl are really needed in this particular picture (albeit for different reasons). At the same time, Jenny Toomey, Kathleen Hanna, Ian MacKaye, or Mark Andersen provide indispensable information and are, as always, a pleasure to watch. Once again, the DVD extras prove very valuable, since they contain a charming low-budget Positive Force documentary from 1991 (Wake Up! A Profile of Positive Force by David Weinstein) that mainly builds on the testimonies of young activists.

The extras also help answer one of the questions that remain open in More Than a Witness, namely why a fair number of anarchists left the organization in 2005. By juxtaposing different perspectives and interpretations, the twenty-minute outtake Punks, Votes, Riots cleverly traces a conflict that was triggered by the PunkVoter campaign of 2004 and came to a head after a demonstration in conjunction with a Positive Force-organized “Counter-Inaugural Ball” in January 2005.

Unsurprisingly, the extras do not answer all of the questions left unanswered by the film: Why was Positive Force DC the only Positive Force collective to survive? Why does it seem that even in a city like DC the folks attracted by such a collective are predominantly white? Can too much focus on responsibility and social change weigh down the fun of living the punk life? No film can answer all of the questions it raises, so this is no criticism. But it is here where interesting follow-up discussions could start.

A particularly interesting question concerns the very heart of the Positive Force project, namely the relation between punk and activism. How far can this relation take us? Towards the film’s end, Ian MacKaye calls activism an “exercise”, and Mark Andersen sees Positive Force as a “vehicle” for “the energy, the idea, the attitude, the spirit”. Now, does this mean that the form political projects take are secondary to the spirit they convey? But can’t conveying a certain spirit has its limits when we don’t have the right projects/vehicles? And is exercise in itself enough, or are we exercising for something else? Is revolution an idea that is expressed in all acts of resistance or a material transformation of society’s power structures? I myself have no answers to any of these questions, so I’m grateful to More Than a Witness – and Positive Force DC! – for raising them: any kick in the butt prompting us to think further is necessary if we want to collectively advance as activists, punk rock or not.

I’m going to end this with a predictable summary, but I do so with a clear conscience: no one interested in the connections between punk and activism can ignore Positive Force DC, and no one with such an interest can ignore More Than a Witness either. It is an inspiring documentary that should leave anyone wondering what they themselves can contribute to the struggle for social justice. Watch it, if you get the chance – and if you have the extra cash, you might as well pick up the DVD, not just for the excellent extras but also because you’ll be supporting We Are Family as this is where some of the proceeds will go.

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