Turn the Beat Around: Youth, Art and Activism at 924 Gilman
October 12, 2007
A note from the writers of All-Ages Movement Project
In 2007, 14 youth music, arts and activism organizations participated in peer exchanges. The purpose: to spotlight and share tips and tricks of DIY and grassroots youth music organizations.
Though there are hundreds to choose from, we decided on ten organizations that illustrate the spectrum of the burgeoning network of organizations putting cultural creation and access in the hands of young people. These organizations range from 30-year-old veterans of the field to newcomers putting a powerful new spin on the marriage of youth, art and activism. Most importantly, they are making it and coming up with crafty ways of doing it.
All stories are researched and written by members of organizations similarly using independent music--punk, hip-hop, rock, noise, electronic, and more--as a vehicle for change on the personal, music scene and broader community levels.
Be sure to catch these stories on WireTap in the next three months and many more in an upcoming book on the All-Ages Movement to be published in 2008. For more info, visit AllAgesMovementProject.org
SPOTLIGHT ON 924 GILMAN'S PARTICIPATORY STRUCTURE
You Are Responsible for Your Participation
When you first walk into the little warehouse in front of a canning shop on Gilman Street you might, like me, stand in the middle of the room sort of awkwardly and wait for someone to ask if they can help you.
And you will stand there for a while.
The second time I did this, the back door was propped open and the sun backlit people walking in and moving around me as if I were an inanimate object rather than a curious and semi-lost looking person standing in the middle of the concrete space.
As I wondered whom I should talk to about getting on the agenda for the 924 Gilman membership meeting, some guys in clad shirts screaming band names in scratchy fonts moved nasty couches around and disturbed the mice hanging out underneath. I flinched at the sight of the urban wildlife inside and was rewarded with a couple knowing smirks. Strike one.
People meandered in. A whiteboard was slid out and propped up against some chairs with all-caps agenda items like "BOOKING" and "SECURITY." We were 12 people: mostly male, mostly wearing all-black clothing. One person was putting trucks on a new skate deck.
Ben, the facilitator, pushed his thick black glasses up the bridge of his nose and pulled a pen out of the front pocket of his plaid button up shirt. "OK, let's get started. First of all, does anyone have anything they would like to add to the agenda?" There were a few retorts back, and then he says, " OK, well how about you go first then?" I looked up from my notes to find 11 mostly disinterested sets of eyes focused on me, seemingly sizing me up. I passed around a few copies of my case-study proposal. I knew that every major decision at Gilman is passed through membership.
After a few questions about my proposal, Mike asked if anyone "wanted to vote" on whether or not they approved of Gilman's participatory structure being written about. Even though every decision has to go through membership, not everything is voted on, and in this case, no one piped up. This struck me as such a no-brainer way to keep every decision from seeming process-heavy as they normally do in collective settings.
The conversation then moved on to a lengthy discussion about creating a new "head of security" position and formulating the best strategy for working with the city in dealing with noise complaints.
The logistics of Gilman's participatory structure
The 924 Gilman Street Project is a volunteer-run all-ages music space founded in 1986 by Tim Yohannon and some folks from Maximum Rock n Roll zine in direct response to the typical Bay Area punk venues that had bag searches and pay-to-play structures, and attracted neo-Nazi skinheads.
The systems that define the way Gilman is run today are the same ones that were set up in 1986. There's nothing that fancy or complicated to them. They aren't meticulous or slow moving. In fact, I was struck by how efficiently things seemed to run. The fact that Gilman has stayed open for more than 20 years, hosting two to three shows every weekend, is a testament to how simple structural things can be dealt with by clear processes and the participation of many people.
"The primary goal of Gilman Street is communication between the artists, volunteers and patrons. Membership includes all aspects of that," Chris told me.
According to the bylaws, a member is someone who either bought a $2 membership card as a patron at a show or came to a members meeting (held the first and third Saturday of every month at 5 p.m., always and forever).
To keep things moving, the organization has some leadership positions that are similar to staff positions you might see at another club like head of booking, head of security, head of sound, stage manager, only the Gilman employee-benefits plan includes "scabies-ridden couches" and for retirement: "a one-way BART ticket to the Paradise Lounge," a San Francisco 21-plus music and dance club. Gilman also elects a head coordinator who is empowered to solve decisions that can't wait until member meetings.
There are a number of other positions that don't require as much training and are filled one hour before every show starts. Shows are split up into two shifts so about 10 volunteers are needed every night who are trained on the spot.
Booking at 924 Gilman is handled by a few people who have the time and the energy to do it. Generally bookers work in different subgenres and negotiate who gets what dates. The head of booking nominates new bookers who must be approved by members' vote.
The only explicit rules that govern booking decisions are these: no racism, no sexism, no homophobia, and no major label bands--demonstrating Gilman's policy-level commitment to making space for artists that can't get shows in other venues. Bands who have not played at Gilman before must send in a lyric sheet before they will be considered for a show.
Not unlike any other venue, artists that get booked at Gilman are expected to participate in events as performers, promoters and crowd managers, but at Gilman more so than other venues--there aren't paid professionals to fall back on. The most unique part of band participation at Gilman is the process for payout. The bookers will make recommendations about who should get paid and what amount based on draw and distance traveled. Bands then have a chance to negotiate with one another to finalize the amounts.
Over 100 people, mostly teenagers, were gathered at Gilman the night I volunteered at the door. As I moved bracelets and weaved through tattoos to find the blank space on wrists to stamp "maximum rock n roll" on skin upon entry, my eyes scanned the faces of girls, boys (including a pair of brothers, maybe 8 and 10 years old, sporting matching Mohawks) of all stripes donning their perfectly punk costumes.
"I read something last year about the club at 8th and Gilman being a place where teens could go and "dance," but the people we've seen lined up outside it looked a little scary," someone wrote in a blog entry on the Berkeley Parents Network website.
Other parents piped up in support of Gilman and even included this description, "This organization has effectively created a positive place for youth, featuring music, art exhibits, speakers, and other unique events for the benefit of the younger community."
The borders of self-governance
While the systems make it all seem pretty straightforward and easy, there have been repeated accounts of how Gilman has struggled with incredible conflicts from drunks and racist skinheads to intense internal schisms.
After a member meeting years ago, where a young attendee stood up and explained that he was raped (offsite) by another person in the Gilman community, the members were thrown into an intense examination of where the borders of their self-governance lie.
Out of that situation, the Gilman membership collectively developed and adopted a conflict-resolution process with some useful guidelines such as appointing a dispute resolution group to decide if it's an appropriate situation for Gilman's membership to handle, having strict rules about confidentiality, getting help from outsiders when they feel they lack the skills or expertise to handle the issue.
What does "open to anyone" really mean?
With its long-standing history, the hundreds of different personalities that have defined Gilman, and the questionable depth of practice of the anti-oppression values pasted on every policy and sign, there are as many critics of Gilman as there are people who hold it as a sacred cow.
"Has there ever been talk of opening up the club to different genres?" I asked Chris after he fell into my preplanned discussion about Gilman's values by calling it a bit of a "boys club."
"There has been, and we have." He pauses for a while. " Have you been to the bathroom? It's fucking disgusting .... When we have a show that's indie rock or hip hop, they (show attendees and artists) think it's pretty gross. We've made attempts to clean the place up and it will last so long, and then we'll have a couple punk shows and everything gets peed on, written on, and so we're kind of stuck due to some core hygiene issues."
Another perspective is summed up perfectly in the 924 Gilman documentary, when a long-time volunteer says emphatically, "If anyone has a problem with Gilman, they can get involved and change it." And it's true. You can't point a finger at any "them" in Gilman. It is not a static collective.
I asked Chris if, in trying to address issues of equality, Gilman had any procedures (formal or otherwise) about how to account for who's participating in and leading the organization. "Putting a piece of plywood up at the front door saying those things ("no racism, no sexism, no homophobia, etc.") isn't going to change anything," he said frankly. "Actually getting people to make a stand to change those things is more difficult." After a few more minutes of discussion, he repeats the mantra, "It's your responsibility to be involved, and that's the way it's always been."
However, the justification that everyone is responsible for their own involvement and absence of certain kinds of participation is not necessarily the responsibility of the organization incorrectly assumes that the organizational culture feels the same to everyone, is equally accessible and comfortable, and that all voices and opinions are treated the same way.
Besides the boundaries that we intentionally make to keep a space "safe" and youth-friendly, are we aware of the other boundaries that restrict participation and leadership? Like, how compelled are women and people of color to be leaders in an organization where you see only men or white people performing and facilitating meetings?
And then there are all the internalized things we carry around that make it harder for us to listen to and relate to people who don't look or dress alike or prioritize going to the anarchist book fair every year. In an article written about the death of another punk collective in San Francisco called the Epicenter, one former member warns "participatory" cultural orgs against subcultural supremacy. I think this refers to how radical aesthetics in underground music cultures forget their connection to the liberation values they were built around, while the self-righteousness stays in tact.
What about politics?
Side conversations with other volunteers and the overall sentiment of the documentary and Brian Edge's 924 Gilman book plainly state why Gilman isn't tackling social change or political issues in a more direct manner--because it's just a show venue. A lot of people are there for the music, and maybe to learn about production and booking, to support emerging artists but mostly to feel like they are part of something.
An interview with longtime volunteer Jesse Luscious, however, was centered on the club's relationship to local politics. "No one understands how much power there is in staying awake during zoning meetings," he stated when explaining to me how his involvement in Gilman had everything to do with why he ran for Berkeley City Council in 2004.
The split in ideology isn't just varying from person to person, but sometimes varies within a person, meaning that someone will gently scoff at the notion that there is any underlying social or political agenda in one breath and argue that the organization is a stand against commercialism, imperialism and social constructs that are culturally oppressive, in another.
Consistently, however, no one is dispassionate. A little burnt out maybe. Feigning ambivalence even, but when pressed there is always something inexorably securing a deep loyalty to the space. The connection is more intuitive than rational it seems and born out of its "participatory-ness"--the simplicity of the potential for manufactured concepts such as "youth leadership" or "civic engagement" to grow organically out of a community-run space where there is enormous potential for things to go awry. This is reflected in the repetitive arc of the narratives in the Gilman book that go from distaste and resentment to appreciation and hope, consistently sounding a little bit like recounts of relationships with a person put on a pedestal, who turned out to be imperfect. I feel it myself, writing this.
924 GILMAN VITALS:
Music Genre of Focus:
Punk and Hardcore (or, in their words "Pop Punk and Post Hardcore")
Shows every Friday, Saturday, and occasionally on Sunday, Weekly Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous Meetings, Members Meetings twice a month, and other community events.
All shows $5-7 + $2 membership that must be renewed annually. Gilman pays the security folks and then splits the rest of the money 50/50 with the bands.
Where the money comes from:
Gilman keeps 100% of the membership revenue and the rest of its income comes from the door receipts.
: Tim Yohannon and some folks from Maximum Rock N Roll zine wanted to create a space that was a direct reaction to the typical punk venues that had bag searches, pay-to-play structures, and attracted Neo-Nazi skinheads.
Claims to Fame
: Membership Structure, links to Maximum Rock N Roll, making an anti-oppression stronghold in the punk community, as well as incubating artists and contributing to the rise of Green Day, Jawbreaker, Op Ivy, Rancid, Miranda July, and other East Bay superstars.
The Local Scene:
Gilman is located in West Berkeley and is the only all-ages venue serving the area. Kids come from Berkeley and the surrounding suburbs to see and volunteer at shows. Despite being overtly drug and alcohol free, Gilman is under scrutiny in its neighborhood by residents, local cops, and city officials. The working members of the club are constantly surveying and cleaning the area within a block radius of the club, whether it's Gilman's patrons causing problems or not.
Shannon Stewart runs the All-Ages Movement Project and is the editor of an upcoming anthology that will include these and more essays documenting the DIY youth music community. In 2001, she co-founded the Seattle-based Vera Project--an all-ages music venue run by a mostly adult staff, with youth leadership through membership and board positions. Vera Project hosts everything from breakdance classes to screen printing workshops, along with visual art and music shows. Though it is the only consistent all-ages hip-hop venue, it has its roots in indie and punk rock.