Anti-Flag on Protest as Fashion

Anti-Flag didn't start decrying injustice because Donald Trump's an asshole, says singer/bassist Chris Barker, whose left-wing pop-punk band will play Summit Music Hall's Punks Against Trump event Saturday, January 20, commemorating the anniversary of Inauguration protests.

The group, which has been around for more than two decades, has been protesting American imperialism, police violence, racism and other odious issues all along.

"Anti-Flag as a whole has had an overarching theme, simply because of the band name," Barker says. "I think that's one place where we have been able to avoid the pitfalls other bands that have been around for a long time run into, which is their agenda can change, because they have a kind of open-ended and left-to-interpretation type of theme when it comes to the band name or mantra or whatever. For us, it's been anti-militarism from minute one."

Sometimes that's been in style in broader U.S. culture, and the band has drawn huge crowds; other times, Anti-Flag has found its popularity with liberals dwindling.

"I think what I've come to learn and accept is that politics is fashion, and because we are a part of that subculture of commenting on that culture of politics, we come in and out of fashion, too," Barker says.

In 2017, Anti-Flag dropped its tenth album, American Fall, a followup to 2015's American Spring. While other bands, trying to strike out against the right in the United States, have written explicit anti-Trump songs and waxed about their love of Hillary Clinton, Anti-Flag's recent lyrics tend to take broader swipes at U.S. political culture, capitalism and militarism, and avoid any explicit mentions of the Trump administration — in part because the record was produced when the bandmembers thought Clinton would be elected president.

These days, Anti-Flag's activist brand is once again in style among the left. In the Obama years, when that Democratic administration was deporting record numbers of immigrants and drone-bombing other countries, not so much.

While many on the left have rosy memories of the Democratic president, Barker maintains his critiques.

"It's really hard. There are people romanticizing George W. Bush, as if he didn't kill millions of people. All we can do is not allow their history to be rewritten. And, yes, Obama was less evil than Donald Trump — maybe, on the surface — but that doesn't mean we need to settle for less evil."

Still, Barker never imagined his band needed to rail against nuclear proliferation, as the Trump's my-button-is-bigger-than-your-button swagger has inspired Anti-Flag to do. "Nuclear proliferation wasn't an issue that Anti-Flag ever thought we were going to have to talk about. That's a hard one. I thought Credence did it," Barker laughs.

One upside to the current administration, as Barker tells it, is that bigots have stepped out into the open. "We're finally getting this uncloaking or unveiling of who these folks are, and now we can truly take aim at them."

And with the rise of the ultra-right, there has also been a growing ultra-left, he says. After white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, Barker took comfort when "they were just shut down with a ferocity and with such a magnitude of counter-actions to their bigotry. That made me feel okay."

The singer says his politics are based in a simple ethical value: empathy for others.

"We have to really work hard to teach and spread that empathy," Barker says. "I think that's where the band comes in, and I think that's where our acceptance of that fashionable movement comes in, and just trying to make sure that people take away the right things from people like Donald Trump coming to power and everyone recognizing that person's an asshole. How do we team up to make sure this doesn't happen in the future?"

Punks Against Trump, 3 p.m. January 20, Summit Music Hall, 1902 Blake Street, $20 in advance/$22 day of the show, 303-487-0111.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris