Boycotters Accuse 924 Gilman St. Project of Ethical Backslide 

Critics say the storied Berkeley punk club is more interested in intimidating boycotters than remedying a discriminatory culture.

A recent boycott campaign illuminated a deep ideological divide among 924 Gilman's volunteers.

Bert Johnson/File

A recent boycott campaign illuminated a deep ideological divide among 924 Gilman's volunteers.

In March 2014, New Jersey pop-punk outfit Joy Ride performed "Backstabber" at storied Berkeley punk venue 924 Gilman St. Project and encouraged the audience to join in on the refrain: You're such a bitch. Jamie Holland, the evening's sound-person, whispered to vocalist CJ Mueller not to play another song like that. "We didn't know this was family night," retorted Mueller in a moment caught on video. At that, Holland switched on the house lights and got on the P.A. to reiterate some of the rules: No racism and no sexism or otherwise oppressive behavior.

It was a classic confrontation for Gilman. But Holland's stand against gratuitous use of "bitch" irked much of the membership, according to the former sound-person, and prompted prominent volunteers to deface internal club documents with the word for weeks afterward. As Holland said in a recent interview, "It was like a silent, fourth-grade, mean-girls harassment campaign."

The volunteer-run club has been at the center of myriad punk controversies since 1986, and it's widely credited with forerunning the accessibility-oriented political discourse that characterizes the subculture today. The simple aforementioned code of conduct, which appears in militaristic lettering at the entrance, is known around the world.

But Holland's interaction with Joy Ride and the ire of fellow volunteers is one of the incidents alluded to in a call to boycott Gilman that appeared on Facebook and Tumblr on May 18. (Though the Facebook page has since been deleted, the Tumblr remains.) The anonymously written list documents discriminatory or insensitive events that date back to 2010 and condemns the club for "coasting on its ethical reputation while not really doing the work."

Participants in the boycott and sympathetic current and former volunteers have been dismayed by the response from prominent members of Gilman, who in their view seem more concerned with outing and intimidating boycotters than remedying the club's ethical backslide. Defenders of the club suggest critics show up to membership meetings and vote.

The incident that immediately precipitated the boycott was a vote to cancel an upcoming July 22 performance by Fang, the East Bay punk group led by convicted killer Sam "Sammytown" McBride, whose misanthropic lyrics make light of rape, among other transgressions. (McBride spent six years in prison after strangling his girlfriend to death in 1989 and reformed Fang upon release.)

Local musician and former Gilman volunteer Kimia Haghighi, 25, said that the outcome of the meeting, which was attended by McBride and supporters, seemed almost predetermined. Another member of Fang, Gilman sound-person Obadiah Bowling, was allowed to vote on the motion to cancel, which failed 12 to 13 in favor. "A lot of my friends who grew up at Gilman left with their heads down," recalled Haghighi. "People felt really discouraged, with a sense of, 'This place is dead to me.'"

Several local punk bands — including Negative Standards, Composite, Quaaludes, and Silent Era — have publicly expressed support or respect for the boycott. Long-running local punk fanzine Maximum Rocknroll, whose founder Tim Yohannan helped establish Gilman, will editorialize on the controversy in its next issue. In an email, coordinator Grace Ambrose wrote that "Many of 924 Gilman's recent actions run counter to the spirit that propels MRR and as such we are participating in the boycott."

(Full disclosure: This writer is a former MRR contributor.)

Gilman's democratic process and the punk scene's general insularity mean that conflict is most often resolved within the club. However, the anonymous boycott authors and many volunteers interviewed by the Express feel they've exhausted paths to meaningful reform from within the membership structure.

Such is the experience of Holland. The former volunteer, 40, quit not long after the Joy Ride incident along with other core members, but returned last November — only to be proposed for banishment.

Holland, who is transgender, recalled that prior to the Joy Ride gig there was much resistance to instating gender-neutral restrooms, which has yet to happen. And Holland's successful push to add "No Transphobia" to Gilman's rulebook was similarly arduous. As Holland said, a vocal contingent of older, straight male volunteers refused to take transgender inclusivity seriously, consistently using incorrect gender pronouns in reference to trans volunteers and "basically treating them like inconvenient aliens from another planet."

In an interview, Gilman sound-person and Fang member Obadiah Bowling, 42, said, "I do not personally believe there is any culture within Gilman that is anti-trans."

Though Holland returned in November specifically to continue working on issues of inclusivity, it was to little avail. There were more young, non-binary members, but Holland said that the substance of the conversation regarding transgender rights had actually deteriorated further. Unsure what to think of the boycott at first, denigrating comments on the Facebook post and response from prominent volunteers such as Kamala Lyn Parks motivated Holland to join.

At the same time, Holland and another volunteer, Rory Britt, were proposed for banishment at a May 21 membership meeting as suspected authors of the post. Britt declined to be interviewed but wrote in an email that, though she did not author the post, she's taken a step back from Gilman. "I was hopeful things were progressing but this whole situation has shown that people there have no interest in accountability and fixing core issues," she wrote, adding that the backlash for boycott sympathizers has been "incredibly abusive."

Parks, who declined to be interviewed for this article, helped establish Gilman in 1986 and returned after a decades-long absence to raise funds toward buying the building and insulating the club from gentrification, as the Express reported last year (see "924 Gilman St.'s 'Alumni Donor Retention Program,'" 5/13/2015).

Parks' public statement regarding the boycott argues that "electronic forums are completely inappropriate for discussions about abuse, diversity, and sensitivity, particularly when the sources are anonymous." It also reads, "I urge you to research the first bands who jumped on the Boycott Gilman bandwagon and figure out with whom they associate and identify."

Holland and others criticized Parks' statement for tacitly encouraging retribution against boycott sympathizers; several past and present volunteers close to the controversies declined interviews, citing online threats.

"I don't know the reason [the authors] are anonymous," said Super Unison guitarist and boycott supporter Kevin DeFranco, 31. "But if it's for safety reasons, that makes sense: I know two people who didn't write it and they're receiving death threats."

In our interview, Bowling distanced himself from two bands criticized by boycotters, aside from Fang, that he's performed in at Gilman: Oppressed Logic, whose lyrics include such lines as Found a little slut/Shoved it up her butt; and Guantanamo Dogpile, whose live schtick involves women dressed in burqas while band members impersonate Islamic extremists.

"As a Middle Eastern, formerly Muslim person — that's really offensive," Haghighi said of Guantanamo Dogpile. "That band plays at Gilman? 'No racism,' my ass. ... 9/11 brown hate is so tired, too. It's not even shocking. That kind of racism is just, like, normal."

Bowling, who was deployed to the Middle East with the Air Force, expressed regret about his association with Guantanamo Dogpile and Oppressed Logic, both of which are led by Gilman's former head booker Mike Avilez. "His politics are fucked up," Bowling said. "But he's a friend."

Avilez didn't return requests for an interview, but Oppressed Logic shared the boycott post on Facebook with a message: "Eat a bowl of fuck bitches."

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