Punk Doc 'White Riot' Showcases Anti-Racism Activists in a Time Before Social Media Directed by Rubika Shah
Published Jul 17, 2020A lot has been said about Blackout Tuesday — an initiative that stemmed from Atlantic Records' marketing team's similar #TheShowMustBePaused campaign, and whose intentions were to provide the music industry, from streaming platforms to record labels to popular musicians, with an intentional moment to consider the industry's complicity in anti-Black racism. The initiative was heavily criticized by activists for its participants' failure to provide a meaningful message or even clarity on their actions which, for most, consisted of posting a black square to their Instagram feed. Blackout Tuesday became a viral statement amongst most of the music industry around the world, and by watching prominent musicians participate, it ended up spreading throughout the feeds of allies as a whole, until June 2 had become a bit of a disaster on social media. A Twitter user summarized very well what many critics of the initiative had to say about the black squares — during a time like this, if your post is saying nothing to take a stand against Black racism, then why even post at all?
The lack of accessibility to social media, or even cell phones, is mentioned several times in White Riot, director Rubika Shah's documentary detailing a moment in the history of punk when communities came together to actively work towards dismantling prevalent racist groups in the UK during the mid-late 1970s. The film interviews several of the organizers behind Rock Against Racism (RAR), a network of activists, promoters and musicians who took a stand against the National Front — a far-right political group with deeply fascist views — using their collective love of punk and its use of underground media.
Watching a group of punks be so dedicated to using their positions as white allies to counter the numerous rallies and demonstrations of the National Front is moving in a time of black square activism. It's also very cool to watch them set up an entire office complete with a printing press to provide media outlets of their own. RAR's zine series, Temporary Hoarding, was filled with interviews conducted by members of the group with other musicians and featured posters, printouts and addresses to unify like-minded punks from across the UK.
Their media sought to support their mission and inform people of their concert series, where they merged white-fronted bands — whose following may have consisted of more far-right youth, such as Sham 69 — with Black or other racial minority bands in the punk and reggae traditions, such as Steel Pulse and X Ray Spex, onto bills. One of the founders of RAR, Red Saunders, discusses how the group was pushing to fight racism on a cultural level, by bringing together punk icons to publicly voice their support of anti-racist efforts.
White Riot's title is taken from the Clash's song of the same name, and members of Rock Against Racism contextualize the lyrics, as well as the political origins of the punk movement, situating them both into the climate of the era. Footage from the 1970s of the Clash, as well as X-Ray Spex and the Tom Robinson Band, is edited together with more recent footage of the organizers behind RAR, plus members from the community of the time including Pauline Black of the Selecter and Steel Pulse's Mykaell Riley. Woven throughout are animations that echo the DIY aesthetic of Temporary Hoarding and the tradition of punk fanzines, all set to a relevant and exciting soundtrack.
With so much activism taking place through social media, it's understandable for organizers, such as the members behind RAR, to remind people of what they were able to accomplish without the use of online tools. But watching a documentary that points to the roots of activist media such as zines and posters reminded me of how much original content I've seen in the past two months from activists and artists. From Instagram accounts dedicated to text slides made by graphic designers and a Google Drive folder full of unsigned poster designs advocating for societal reform and the dismantling of racist institutions, Rock Against Racism's efforts highlighted for me how posters, zines and phone lines were truthfully all the original social media. What I've continued to see created and disseminated in support of Black Lives Matter, directly from communities, has completely wiped out the day when famous musicians thoughtlessly reposted a 1080x1080 square.
Despite reflecting on how powerful social media platforms have become for musicians, and how little it seems they're able or willing to do, there is so much hope in White Riot. Director Ruby Shah doesn't dwell on the generational differences more than she has to, her film pointing more towards what is possible on a grassroots level for passionate people, with the hope that the film will inspire them to continue the momentum. The important takeaway from White Riot is that remaining silent as a response to racism makes you complicit. You don't need to be a punk to use the resources around you to build communities who actively work towards rejecting racial inequality, although as the film points out, it certainly wouldn't hurt. (Films We Like)