Social Unrest in the 80’s New York Hardcore Scene
1986: The Regis Philibin Morning Show turned its cameras on the hardcore punk phenomena. The spotlight fell on the quixotic old-timers, Regis and Kathy Lee, paired with four of the New York cult, bedecked in the usual punks and skins wardrobe. The interview featured Warzone’s affable singer, Raybeez. Kathy Lee created a historical conundrum when she blurted out, “I doubt they’re Republicans,” One of the guests, Natalie retorted, “I am. Jimmy [Gestapo of Murphy’s Law] is a registered Republican.” We should thank Lee for skepticism inciting another example of punk’s working class conservatism.
Talking punk politics is trite and never wanders far from a unified complaint. Nevertheless, we will try to analyze this discontent comparing lyrics from 1983 and ‘86 to a historical event, the enactment of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, also known as the Simpson-Mazolli Act, and its failure to control immigration. It’s done just to look a bit deeper into a frustrated vein that was hollered at immigrants from the naturalized. This article understands that the bands never wanted to be roped into any ideology. However, there are commonalities that reflect nationwide and trans-national events and the want to keep borders firm and jobs for Americans only.
The two examples for this thesis are Antidote’s “Foreign Job Lot” and Agnostic Front’s “Public Assistance.” Though Antidote may be slightly less popular to those outside the city, the crew was integral in shaping New York’s sound into the knuckle-dragging acronym that Agnostic Front would personify a few years later. It was becoming slower, with breakdowns heavier and reflecting the vast milieu of the boroughs, unlike northerners SS Decontrol, who had become a Slade cover band by this point.
But unlike the fraternal Boston Crew, Antidote and Agnostic Front targeted the “aliens” and “Marias.” Those people reaped the benefits of the welfare state. Their lyrics implied intolerance to immigrants, if not minorities in general, and the inability to provide a solution beyond hate-speak voiced a greater need for change that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 provided.
What’s more worrisome was that both bands were composed of people who had recently immigrated. Roger Miret was born Rogelio De Jesus in Havana, Cuba. Antidote’s quality was summed up as, “That’s what made us so good, two PR’s and two Micks!” Was this a critique of one’s one status as immigrant and the symbiosis of two cultures, homeland and American? At the very least, it breeds confusion, and hardcore often resists all intellectualism, even clarity, in favor of a pastoral unity of the disparate. Still, confusion becomes a troublesome quality, which is why it may be best to begin with the Simpson-Mazzoli Act as a product of the time.
It was during the Republican antiquity, the Reagan Administration, specifically on November 6, 1986, that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was enacted by Congress to regulate the burdensome newcomers. Good intentions and all, this was to harsh the wretched refuse of New York City. If we can trust Agnostic Front’s sentiments, these fellows were wreckers of American individualism, as will be seen.
Still, it was a significant stride, for prior to its enactment the hiring of immigrants functioned too under the familiar moniker of capitalism’s laissez-faire. “Under federal law, employers were free to hire immigrants even though they were subject to deportation.” The Simpson-Mazolli Act set restraints on businesses for the first in time in the history of American immigration.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, the Simpson-Mazolli Act sought to “strike a balance between strong enforcement and the rights of the employers and workers,” while granting amnesty to three million immigrants who had lived in America since 1982. This was its crux. The enactment extended illegality in the forms of,
“1) the knowing hiring of persons not authorized to work in the United States; 2) the continued employment of persons not authorized to work (though persons previously employed were not subject to these restrictions); and 3) the hiring of an individual without verifying or correctly documenting the person’s identity and eligibility to work legally in the United States”.
Employers were to report the status of their employees, which provoked the worry that those persons would hire citizens due to the worry that they’d report mistakenly. A form of identification was implemented, entitled Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements – SAVE.
Financially, $33.7 million was spent on the certainty that employers correctly documented their workers. This was in addition to a $123 million expansion in the budget for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The false document industry met this increase to thwart it.
In terms of persons, border enforcement was beefed up to catch those undesired, specifically at the US-Mexico border. Again, with this investment a counter was made and immigrants nevertheless crossed the border by hook or by crook. The illegal population numbered around three million and was said to still be growing. Even so, applicants did legally pass into the land of the free. 1.64 million applicants were allowed to become citizens while 3.1 million remaining unauthorized. Note that those two numbers were made up significantly of fragmented families; some were allowed and others were left behind.
And yet, many people stayed illegally thanks to Congress. The Simpson-Mazzoli Act barely regulated an employers’ right to hire. In terms of the labor market, NYHC might have been most prone to work, many employers were still able to hire illegal immigrants because there were laws then enacted so they couldn’t scrutinize an employee’s application too much for risk of legal action. The working class is split for unskilled labor between those citizens and illegal immigrants. It was another sign of Congressional weakness, as Brad Plumer explained,
The bill’s sponsors ended up watering down the sanctions on employers to attract support from the business community… Under the final law, all employers had to do to avoid sanctions was to make sure their workers had paperwork that “reasonably appears on its face to be genuine.”… In fact, employers were actually penalized if they scrutinize a worker’s nationality too aggressively.
Congress had to bow to business. The Act of 1986, now riddled with imperfections, was profoundly felt in terms of those jobs that did not require much skill and therefore paid less. The crux and catalyst for lyrical frustrations can be explained by,
Because unauthorized workers tend to be less skilled, legalized workers in the future may face greater challenges in the labor market… unless they are able to obtain more education and training.
Though this statement pertains to the future do not forget that prior to the Simpson-Mazzoli Act the free market would influence those less skilled jobs to lower their wages for people who would work for less and for longer so as to earn a foothold in a new country.
To protest against naturalization is synonymous with acts like “paki-bashing”, images of intolerance and ultra-nationalism. During Donahue’s spotlight on NYHC, the audience insisted on having disparate views. Never mind the commonalities. “Foreign Job Lot” was a common enough sentiment amongst Sheer Terror’s senseless hate and Side By Side’s brotherhood.
Antidote’s Thou Shall Not Kill (1983) was released three years prior to the Simpson-Mazzoli Act. Though it is similar to Agnostic Front’s Public Assistance, it did not express a goal. It was plain frustration at half-assed entrepreneurship, which fails to subsist and clings to welfare. “Foreign Job Lot” expressed frustration with the lax and unregulated job market concluding with the alienation of the working class.
Aliens from another world
They come to U.S. for jobs
They open up their businesses
We’re outside looking in…
There follows a familiar image,
The ones who pay, they stand in line
Awaiting every check
The measly wages they receive don’t even cover half of it!
The immigrant was successful enough so that he or she opened up their businesses but the wages they derived didn’t pay the bills. Here is the shared image of the welfare line, a familiar target for our DIY enthusiasts for small government. Thus the American environment becomes the immigrant’s and the American perceives itself alienated. The sense of alienation marks Antidote. Rather than concluding with a prescription, the band consigns itself to the loss of identity. This loss connotes that employment is important to citizenship and to being at home in one’s nation.
“Public Assistance” shares a similar theme of welfare lines, yet adding controversy. The same year as Congress enacts Immigration Reform and Control Act Agnostic Front’s “Public Assistance” is released on Cause For Alarm (1986). The album’s original cover depicts a Nazi chain whipping a naked body as corpses bleed from meat hooks in the background.
The song that incredulously quoted on Donahue reads:
You spend your life on welfare lines
Or looking for handouts
Why don’t you go find a job
You birth more kids to up your checks
So you can buy more drugs
Cash in food stamps and get drunk
What are insensitive remarks on culture and class turn to a name that implies an ethnicity,
Medicaid pays full portion
When little Maria gets knocked up
She gets a free abortion
Though immigration is not explicitly cited in the lyrics, the themes in the song are similar enough to provoke comparison. On “Public Assistance” three years has brought the “alien” into a state of problematic naturalization, where the citizen, Miret, worked hard to lose out in taxes to a minority that procreated, got high, and repeated the cycle. The sick process is nationally funded and out of control. This use of a name that implies a race is both ironic and a troublesome change from the days of “United and Strong” two years earlier. The former prescribes a position to control the situation. “I say make them clean the sewer”. Agnostic Front states their credentials to secure oneself naturalization. What goaded Donahue to ask if this was racism is more cutting than Antidote. “Public Assistance” shows the situation had progressed and Miret believed change was needed. Furthermore, it reflects that something was being done with the enactment of the Simpson-Mazzoli Act. The Act’s failure produced retaliatory conclusions to put immigrants in the dregs.
What does this lengthy comparison mean? We’ve all heard that art is a mouthpiece for politics, or even a larger drama. Here is another example. Yet, after writing this, the wise words of Agnostic Front’s Stigma return to me, “We’re just speaking of social unrest – conflicts of interest, which in turmoil brings controversy – and it speaks for itself.” There is a charming humility to this logic that resists Crass-like politics, but analyzes the conflict in their environment. Antidote and Agnostic Front viewed immigration and minorities as an impediment to American individualism. They recorded these songs and defined a city’s genre. It was a blemish for NYHC and for music of the working class. It appears radical right. These bands are immortalized for their music. Over the years, their adoration has grown too clean, and newcomers to the genre forget the trouble willful ignorance creates. Maybe you knew this, but I wanted to double check.