a race riot did happen


I didn't get called in to work today which means that instead of spending my day substitute teaching in a classroom full of buckwild 3rd graders, I get to sit in bed, read zines and drink tea. Right now, I don't have any new zines that I haven't already read so I decided to go back in time. I'll periodically re-read zines like Evolution of a Race Riot (I & II), How to Stage a Coup, Slander, Quantify, and Mala just to remind myself what punk kids of color were talking about ten years ago. Ten years ago! Even longer ago, in some cases. I can't believe it's been that long.

Anyway, there very well may have been zines by people of color (POCs) before Race Riot, etc. came out, in fact I'm positive that there were. But the zines I just mentioned above were the first ones I found. I like to re-read them because I see the zine I write as part of that short lineage. I'm curious about how the experiences of race & racism in the punk scene has changed since then and how it's stayed the same. I'm always wondering what new perspective I can add to that discussion as a black queer woman in the late 2000s.

The ladies who wrote those earlier zines (mostly women, some guys, a couple of genderqueer folks) were mostly Asian, Latino and mixed race (mostly half-white and half-Asian or Latino.) I think there are only two or three contributions by black punks in both issues of Race Riot, which has always been disappointing for me, but which also kind of makes sense because many of those writings came out of the West Coast where there are tons of Asian and Latino folks and very few black folks.

Race Riot was an anthology put together by Mimi Nguyen and How To Stage a Coup was another anthology put together by Helen Luu. Both came out in the late 90s. These two women, and the legions of punks of color that submitted to their anthologies, had been part of predominantly white punk scenes, including riot girl. They were totally pissed about their experience, and understandably so. These anthologies are straight-up rant fests calling white punks out on their ignorance and hypocrisy.

I think what made racism in predominantly white punk or activist scenes more disappointing and hurtful than the racism one might encounter anywhere else is the fact that these people who are making your life miserable claim to be anti-oppressive, feminist, anti-racist. Naively, some of us expected more from our white peers and got let down harder.

Subsequently, many of these POC punks left the scene. They were bitter and fed up with their experiences. Now this is where my mind starts manufacturing millions of questions. 1. Where exactly did these "ex-punks" end up that was an anti-racist utopia? Where do you go if you're a person of color where you don't have to experience racism? 2. How did these people suddenly turn un-punk? I mean, they're all making a totally diy zine together. That's punk, right? Some of those people continued making zines and participating in punk after that, although maybe to a lesser degree. If you found a home in punk because yr a super weird queer kid, if punk is something useful to you, if it's the way you make art and the way you were politicized, how do you just leave? Where do you go?

What all of these early POC punk zines did for me was put me in touch with other brown punk kids. I remember meeting this queer Asian girl, Celeste at a BBQ/B-day party because I saw a copy of Race Riot sticking out of her bag. Later, we started a Queer People of Color (QPOC) group together made up of about six brown queer kids. It was awesome! We made delicious vegetarian food to share with each other, we shared our family histories and we made real friend-connections with each other. It wasn't an "activist" group per se. It was just us carving out our own space and it really did help.

Other people, like my friend and ex-bandmate Adee, were inspired by the existence of other brown punks in faraway places, and started her own zine called Finger on the Trigger. She wrote from her perspective as a poor, black diy punk, hailing from the dirty south, who loved reading, traveling, sewing and cooking. Her zines were so cute! Through making them, she got in touch with black punks all over the country. The next generation of brown punks took the emphasis off of criticizing whitey and put it on loving ourselves. We started bands with each other, wrote each other letters, wrote more zines about our experiences. Plus, white people really benefited from those earlier POC punk zines, too--at least those white people who were truly interested in educating themselves about racism. They realized they were being stupid and pissing us off and they toned it down some.

It's kind of funny to me that our brown punk rock foremothers left the game while the next generation of brown punks stuck around and really benefited from the work that they did. Actually, it bums me out. When me, Adee and our friend Cassia started our band, New Bloods, we received support from former-riot girls that never stopped caring about women and queers being represented in punk rock. Tobi Vail still works at Kill Rock Stars, plays in bands and actively supports new girl bands. Layla Gibbon, the coordinator of this here zine yr reading, is still active in punk and does her part to support zines and bands that are feminist, and that involve women. But where is Helen Luu now? What's Bianca Ortiz (author of Mala zine) up to these days? What about Iraya from that old queer-pop band Sta-Prest, who also was involved with riot girl and made POC punk zines? I actually sent Mimi Nguyen a copy of one of my zines and she got back to me saying that she really liked it. I know that she wrote a column for Punk Planet for a while after her "exit" from punk rock. I believe she's either a PhD candidate or a college professor now.

Anyway, the only thing I can assume is that it really was that bad for the POC punks who came before me. As far as my experience goes, I can definitely say that the pros of being a black punk outweighed the cons. But ten or fifteen years ago, that wasn't the case, and it may not be the case for many punks of color today depending on a number of factors, including what part of the country they're in. The people who paved the way for us did so and then moved on because they couldn't stand it anymore. So, as much I appreciate all the support that people like Tobi and Layla to give newer, younger generations of feminist punks, it would've blown my mind to see Mimi, Bianca or Iraya at one of our shows. It would've meant so much. It's immensely disappointing that punk rock, a movement that claims to be so forward thinking and progressive has been (and to some extent, continues to be) alienating to people who do not represent a punk rock norm (which, by the way, isn't supposed to exist!).

I wonder what the expectations were of those punks of color who left punk rock. What did they envision for punk kids of color in years to come? Even though the fact that they left the scene is pretty much a sure sign of their pessimistic cynicism, I'd still like to believe that their intention was to leave the scene better than they found it. What was the point of putting out zines like Race Riot & How to Stage a Coup, if not to try to spawn some kind of change in the punk scene? Well here we are! The change (I hope) they wished to see in the world! People of color punks, empowered by the words and deeds of those who came before us, building community with each other, and ready to fuck shit up.

With all of the new books and DVDs coming out documenting riot girl, it's completely unacceptable that those riot girls' brown punk sisters are left out of that history. As much as people try to document punk history, punk rock can still be so ahistorical. People leave the scene and move on, records and zines go out of print, white punks continue to ignore the contributions of punks of color... and it's like all of it never happened. Well, a race riot did happen and I'm living proof. I know I wouldn't be here if other punk rock feminists and POCs hadn't carved out by force a nice comfy space for me to exist.

I guess all of this is just a long-winded way of saying, "Thank you."


  1. hi, this is helen luu. it was 10 years ago that i put out that zine and it's really flattering and surprising to me that there are POC punk kids still talking about it today. i'm really glad it had such an impact on the generation that came after us.. and glad to hear of people like you holding down the fort! i'm also glad to hear that even though that zine came out ages ago, someone out there is still copying it and distributing it. that kind of blows my mind (in a good way)!

    so, what happened to me over the past 10 years? here's some of it.. sort of in order, sort of not:
    got really involved with social justice activism and organizing (actually, i was involved with this during my punk years too), got disenchanted with the whiteness of the 'anti-globalization' movement at the time (and wrote a bunch about that), wrote a column for heartattack (is that zine still around??), moved to the UK for a year after i finished university and lost touch with punk cuz i was living out of a suitcase and didn't have access to most of my music or other stuff, lost interest in punk (though i retain the DIY ethic, always), gained an increasing interest in other kinds of music and scenes, didn't feel like such a minority in some of those scenes, got involved with organizing after 9-11 around racism and immigration, facilitated anti-oppression workshops, started DJing, started a music blog with some friends (morehotsauce.wordpress.com), worked for the past decade in various organizations (for youth, women & trans people, and immigrants & refugees) as a community worker, play taiko drums in an all asian women collective..

    how to stage a coup was the last zine i ever did. a few years ago, i donated most of my zine collection to a local high school for a zine library they wanted to start up, but i saved a few of them (evolution of a race riot being one, plus a few other WOC zines).. still have them on my shelf!

    i did indeed lose a lot of interest in punk because of the isolation i felt within that scene. when i moved back to toronto, i felt so happy to find a community of amazing women of colour who believed in a better world and fought for that. it helped me with a decolonization process in my mind and heart, and i let punk go.. but i haven't forgotten how it's contributed to shaping who i am today.

    anyway, thanks for this post. i was really touched by it!

  2. p.s. out of curiosity, where did you get a hold of a copy of "how to stage a coup" and when?

  3. hey helen,
    thanks for your comments!! i honestly don't remember where or how i acquired your zine because it's been such a long time. if i had to guess, i'd say pander zine distro because i remember ordering lots of earlier poc feminist zines from her back in the day. stay in touch! xo osa


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