Love him or hate him” is an overused phrase that’s often pinned on public figures who don’t always deserve it. It’s meant to convey the idea that a person rouses up intense opinions in others, but it doesn’t work for everybody. For instance, you couldn’t use it to characterize Bonanza/Highway to Heaven star Michael Landon. Sure, maybe there’s a handful of heads who love him, but there can’t be more than one or two people on Earth who’ve ever said, “Yo, fuck Michael Landon!” Most people’s opinion of him is probably somewhere in the middle—or they have no idea who Michael Landon is.
That’s why we should save “love him or hate him” for cats like Jello Biafra. Obviously, there are going to be those who think he’s just all right, but his career as a punk singer, spoken-word artist and outspoken political activist have invoked plenty of impassioned sentiments in folks all around the world. As frontman of the Dead Kennedys, he led one of the most thrillingly unique bands in punk’s history, as well as one of the bluntest. The straightforward criticism of the government detailed in their songs soon made them an enemy of many, including Tipper Gore’s censorship-lobbying Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). The release of 1985’s Frankenchrist culminated in Biafra being charged with “distribution of harmful matter to minors” because of a poster insert that featured artwork of genitalia. The ensuing trial eventually resulted in a hung jury, but broke up the band and nearly bankrupted Biafra.
Since then, he’s continued to run his Alternative Tentacles label, gone on spoken-word tours, ran for the Green Party’s presidential nomination in 2000 and played in more than a dozen side projects. His current band is the Guantanamo School of Medicine, who will be previewing songs from their upcoming album, White People & The Damage Done , this Friday at the Troc. PW talked to Jello about Pussy Riot, the Occupy movement and the Pennsylvania voter ID law that was upheld only hours before our conversation. He also shared his thoughts on the Green Party, Paul Ryan and Batman.
This is a bit of “breaking news” here in Philly, but the Pennsylvania voter-ID law was upheld by a Commonwealth Court this morning (Aug. 15). I don’t know if you’ve been following that at all.
The Florida law has gotten most of the national attention. I didn’t realize the same sick stuff was going on in Pennsylvania until a couple days ago. The best we can hope for, then, is for people to organize on getting the people who are gonna be left out to the polls and getting them what they need. They’re not gonna do it on their own; we gotta do it for them. And then they can show up and vote, or at least show up in mass waving valid IDs that the voting booth people don’t accept, at least for a day or two. Maybe even the corporate news cycle will document a stolen election.
But of course, true to form, the “Barackstar” administration completely dropped the ball on this and conceded the argument to the other side from the get-go. How? What they could have done when they got in is launched a full-scale investigation into the real vote fraud, the big time vote fraud, that made George W. Bush president, not once but twice, in elections he didn’t win. There’s allegations that his brother did the same thing to keep Janet Reno out of the governor’s office so he stayed in instead. Even if the statute of limitations is expired, we need a fucking truth commission about this stuff or there’s just gonna be more and more organized vote fraud and vote suppression from the other side. Instead of Jim Crow, now we have Jim Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Cheri Honkala, who’s the Green Party vice presidential nominee, is from Philly. Do you know her at all?
I think we met at some point way back during the 2000 Republican convention and the protest actions around it. If I didn’t meet her, I certainly knew who she was. Wasn’t she a big time homeless advocate even then?
Yeah, she was. She ran for sheriff last year, and she just got arrested a couple weeks ago with Jill Stein, who’s the Green Party presidential nominee, for protesting at Philly’s Fannie Mae offices.
People can laugh all they want to and ridicule lesser known people running for high office, like president and vice president, but wouldn’t you rather have Jill and Cheri in charge of this country and the world than the corporate regimes we get stuck with now?
I wanted to ask about the Green Party, in general. They’re on the ballot in 30 states, which is pretty significant.
I went to a town hall meeting of sorts where Jill Stein was there, Roseanne Barr was there—a third presidential candidate wasn’t there, but sent a statement that people forgot to read—and then Barry Hermanson, a congressional candidate from [California], was there but didn’t get to talk. But one of the major issues discussed is whether the Green Party should even be running people for national office and Jill [Stein] answered that very effectively, saying that the reason to have a national candidate is to call attention to the local candidates, where the Greens have a far better chance of winning. And I keep telling people that even though we get Corporate Puppet A vs. Corporate Cartoon B for national offices, that’s not the reason to vote. The reason to vote is local elections. It matters who’s on the city council; it matters who’s on the school board. Do you really want a bunch of people from the “Santoru-Taliban” deciding what people study in the schools? It’s important who the sheriff is; it’s important who the state legislature is. Those, and the referendums and ballot initiatives, are what hardly anybody pays attention to. And that means when people like us do pay attention and show up and vote smart, we have a far better chance of getting good people elected and good laws passed and bad laws shitcanned.
I watched an interview where you said something interesting, which was that people vote top-down, when they should vote bottom-up to get things done.
Well, I think that’s part of the organized effort to keep certain kinds of people from voting. It’s not just voter suppression laws, like what’s happened in Pennsylvania, but it’s the long arm of the corporate media going on and on and on about Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, then settling on “Mittens” and “Barackstar,” and on we go with the horserace. Instead of analyzing the issues, the punditoids analyze the campaign commercials, and it’s all down to a choice between one person or another person, and they don’t talk about local issues. They don’t even talk about local election issues on local news broadcasts anymore! And I think that’s all by design. You can’t quite censor media in the same way that people in the Soviet Union or North Korea have done, but you can sure as hell censor it in a different way by creative omission of certain parts of a story that matter, and people will be just as obedient and docile and stupid.
That’s why I tell people to show up and vote smart. Pay attention to local issues, and don’t hate the media—become the media. By that, I don’t mean keep updating your Facebook page or blogging to an echo chamber who already agrees with you; go one-on-one and eye-to-eye with people—at home, work, school and in your family—who may think voter ID laws or immigrant bashing is a good idea. And sometimes it can be very stomach-churning to try and reason with these people, but sometimes you plant the seeds, where they wake up a few weeks or months later and think, “You know? That’s true after all.” The reason there’s such an onslaught of right-wing punditocracy and talk radio with this “all assholes, all the time”-type thing is because the corporate powers that be are so scared of what could happen if all the people who’ve been fucked over in this money grab and economic collapse finally wake up and see who’s really responsible and go after them. They tried the same thing in the [Great] Depression; that’s what the “John Dillinger” song on the album is about. They plastered John Dillinger everywhere as "Public Enemy No. 1," when he was a smaller time Midwestern bank robber. But the real "Public Enemy No. 1" was the Wall Street barons who wrecked the economy and stole the money in the first place. Sound familiar?
I’m sure you’ve been following the Pussy Riot case in Russia, and I know you went through a similar situation with Frankenchrist.
It wasn’t that similar. I didn’t wind up in prison like Pussy Riot, or Fela [Kuti] did in Nigeria, or Mumia Abu Jamal is to this day. That didn’t happen to me, and I’m very grateful for that. And it’s all the more reason to fight to make sure it doesn’t happen to other people. I’m glad there’s attention for Pussy Riot over here. People have to remember Pussy Riot was more than a band; they were kind of a group of performance-art pranksters, and two of the women in jail claim they were never even in Pussy Riot. Why were they targeted? This is straight back to the horrible memories of Stalin, handed down from generation to generation in Russian families. You put that kind of fear in people, nobody else is gonna try and pull any pranks at all, not even speak their mind in public or vote the “wrong” way. Putin is the same kind of KGB fascist he always was.
Does it give you hope, though, that there are bands using music to speak out?
I would have more hope if the Pussy Riot defendants weren’t in jail and weren’t being charged with a crime. If the “Santoru-Taliban” ever really took power, we would have the same thing going on here. Keep in mind, the thrust of the charges against Pussy Riot was insulting the church. That’s the kind of thing you normally expect people—especially women—to be thrown in prison for in Saudi Arabia or Iran, not even Russia, let alone the United States. And those kind of people—the forces of corporate fascism—they use religious intolerance, they use racism, and their tactic, as long as I’ve been alive, is to draw a line in the dirt and then cross it. And then draw another one and then cross it. When people challenge them, they attack.