When Punks Punched Police
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because mental health needs are not really optional.
By Eugene S. Robinson
“The difference between cops and pigs,” intoned John Macias, singer of a hardcore punk band called Circle One. “Is that cops do a job. But pigs think they’re gods.” In conversation, it ended with a laugh; in concert, he and the band would then rip into a song called “Highway Patrolman” that featured at least half a dozen ways “pigs” might meet their end.
Agitprop? Sure. But it was the early ’80s and, at least in Los Angeles under the brutal, my-way-or-the-ambulance-way Police Chief Daryl Gates, things were rough. Less so up in San Francisco, where I first met John. He was about 6’2″ and 200 pounds. Muscled and maybe half Black, half Mexican (I was never sure). Dressed in plaid pants, he and about 15 other cats from Los Angeles piled into a big punk show at the California Hall in San Francisco.
Like Apocalypse Now writer John Milius said about the Robert Duvall-played Col. Kilgore character — loosely based on the real life Col. David Hackworth — “there was a weird light around him.” And so it was with John, and when the music started, blasted out by the band they had followed up north, Fear, you could see what it was.
John did what I never imagined anyone doing even in my craziest of dreams. John knocked the cop out. And not a cop rolling on the solo tip. A cop with a gaggle of other cops who were suddenly electrified…
It was the same sort of otherworldly thing that saw Kilgore/Hackworth survive Vietnam and that saw John plow through an “enemy audience,” which is what was happening when LA bands sometimes played San Fran, fists raised high. In victory, glory or as some have claimed, “muscle-headed bully bullshit.” It was fearlessness. Or stupidity. Depending on how you felt about him.
But standing next to him later that night, accidentally or by affinity, I bent down to pick up something silver that someone had dropped. I couldn’t get it off the floor. I pulled harder. It moved. The combat boots that John wore had their toes covered in silver duct tape. Oops. He looked at me like I was nuts but given our similar size and shape, a bond was struck.
Struck enough that he asked if my band Whipping Boy would come down and play LA. Not Hollywood. But East LA. Where it was rare for Hollywood bands to play. Because even if you were punk tough you weren’t tougher than East LA in most cases.
Guitarist Mike Vallejo was from East LA, but 75 percent of Whipping Boy was not from California, and we were too stupid to really know any better, and a show was a show. But we did know that the only thing any of us were really concerned about was LA cops.
Mostly because while the problems in bad neighborhoods were gang related, the business of gangs was business. Punk rockers were just some weird outlier thing and not factored into the business equation in any serious way. The gangs knew this. The cops didn’t.
Or at least they didn’t seem to one night in Hollywood. At this point I had gotten used to what I called The Plaid Party. John and most of the fans of Circle One wore plaid pants. With thin black or red suspenders, combat boots, t-shirts and a few extras. Pulling up to a gathering of kids, we could see the cops doing what came dangerously close to what John sang about: being less cops and more pigs. Pushing teenagers around. Knocking heads. A little too hard. A little too often.
John had spied a friend about to be handcuffed and walked over to him and the arresting officer. I had pretty freshly arrived from New York and in that city cops were a complete non-factor or at least less of one than they would become under the Bloomberg stop-and-frisk era, or earlier with the Giuliani administration. You left them alone, they left you alone.
“Is there a problem officer?” John cocked his shaved head into the jawing between the cop and the now almost cuffed kid.
“Why don’t you ….” And before the cop could conclude that sentence John did what I never imagined anyone doing even in my craziest of dreams.
John knocked the cop out.
And not a cop rolling on the solo tip. A cop with a gaggle of other cops who were suddenly electrified and focused on the officer down situation at hand, and now heading for John who did what it made total sense to do at that point: run.
With at least six cops in hot pursuit. Angry cops.
John ended up on the top of one of those head high walls that run along LA alleys, sprinting. Off into the LA night. We disappeared into the club which, even if the show got canceled, was a better place to be when the aforementioned angry cops returned.
The cops, so enmeshed in trying to find John, didn’t close down the show. Even still it was a surprise to see John come strolling in, smiling. With hair, no less. That was part of the Plaid Party party apparel: fake hairpieces. These? Styled to look like Mohawks.
This is the kind of shit that no one believes you if you tell it but you tell it anyway.
Anyway we never got to play that show in East LA. We got to the Vex, the name of the club, later and loitered around the parking lot. The club closed because a kid had gotten stabbed on the dance floor the night before. John rode up on a rust-colored Honda Goldwing, no helmet, to deliver the news. And then he disappeared.
Over the inevitable adult years, word filtered back to me. John was living in an abandoned wig factory with a bunch of “followers.” He had gotten into religion. Had turned his PUNX organization, initially formed to militate for kids’ rights, into some sort of religious thing.
And then, the thing you never want: “John’s dead.”
A friend had called me from LA. John had been preaching the gospel out in Santa Monica. He was loud, insistent and bigger than back in his punk rock days. Someone called security to try and get him to leave the lunchtime crowds alone. John threw him off of the pier to the ground below.
More cops showed up. John got shot in the head.
From this remove — John was shot on May 30, 1991 — it can be seen and said now that he was struggling with mental illness. The signs had been there for some time. And while he had always been nice to me, stories after his death emerged about people he hadn’t been so nice to. More signs.
But he was now a dead 29 year old and that was 29 years ago, and now I’m a grandfather and think about him regularly and more importantly about something he once said to me: “I’d like to live a happy peaceful life and shit, but that’s impossible. The world is broken.”