Patrick Stickles addresses the Athens confederate flag incident
By Dayna Evans » "[A Titus Andronicus concert] is not a place for us to celebrate the history of hate."
Patrick Stickles addresses the Athens confederate flag incident
Feature photo from Titus Andronicus' Instagram feed
Last Tuesday night in Athens, GA, there was some trouble at a Titus Andronicus show. The New Jersey punk band, known for their deep connection to US history and inclusionary punk morals, were about to begin their song "A More Perfect Union" when lead singer, Patrick Stickles, saw several mini confederate flags being distributed in the audience. After seeing them waved about enthusiastically, and after finishing the song, Stickles and other members of the group and touring companions the So So Glos lit the flags on fire, attempted to ingest them, and rubbed them on Stickles' "sweaty asshole." Stickles then took to Twitter after the show recounting details of the story and his plan to never to return to Athens again. We had a chance to catch up with Stickles on Friday, where he told us about the incident, his interaction with the perpetrator, his reasons for lashing out with vengenace, and his plans to do the same in the future.
Do you want to tell me what happened in Georgia?
You mean the great, positive time we had playing in Athens? Yeah, we didn't have a positive time there.
Why don't you start by giving me a run-down of exactly what happened at the show?
Just briefly, I wasn't having the greatest time already. The staff at [Georgia Theatre Rooftop] weren't giving me the things I needed to do my job effectively and give the kids their money's worth. And with that particular venue, it wasn't too hard considering the concert was only $5. It might have been ten at the door. Most of the other stuff at the show I didn't care for. Mostly the staff's attitude to giving me the necessary resources to rock. The place is nice but they're not set up to have a rowdy punk show right now. They're used to putting on country music shows, and unless they change their infrastructure, they're not ready for a punk show. Anyway, that kind of shit happens all the time, though. Usually the people who work at these concerts are very nice. We have pretty high standards because we all work at Shea Stadium and we treat everybody like kings and queens.
So, really, I was already in a bad mood. And it turns into a worse mood when people act like they did—it really gets my Irish up, it gets my blood boiling. I'm very irritable in this particular phase in my life. I'm just as fast to love and forgive as I am to quarrel. Depending on what kind of stimuli I receive from the people around me, whether it's love or hate. Whatever they give me, I reflect back on them times ten. None of this is remarkable. This is what I deal with every day of my life. What was remarkable is that unbeknownst to me, someone had come to the concert with the scheme in mind to distribute these miniature confederate flags. You already knew that. But I'll say it—it happened. Even more so than that, if someone wants to wear a confederate T-shirt or something, maybe it's not my place to tell them they're not allowed to do that at the concert. (Even though when you get right down to it, that would really be the same thing.) I've never really liked that part of punk fashion. But I really love all people and think we're all one human family. They make me mad all day long, but they are my brothers and sisters. That being said, I don't believe any of them should ever have to suffer through any kind of bondage. I believe in autonomy and agency for everyone, and on a fundamental level, I believe that everyone can agree with that nowadays.
Meanwhile, the confederate flag represents a time period where that fact wasn't accepted as a universal truth. It's not really universal yet. We were just listening to Fugazi and he said, "We are all bigots so full of hatred. We release our poisons." And that's quite true. We all have our biases and our prejudices and we have to work through that stuff, but we shouldn't look back on times when that was not only a norm but the law, with any sort of fondness. Even if it was a time when a Southern person could have a little more civic pride. I appreciate civic pride. I'm very proud of being from New Jersey, and I'm very proud to live in Brooklyn, but I don't think that entitles someone to come into our zone where we make the fucking rules. Sorry, kids, we're in charge. We decide the ideological baseline as far as how much respect you deserve at a show. I try not to get into kids' faces too much with the preachy stuff. I end up doing it anyway. I don't like to do it. I want the kids to know this shit already because it's fucking obvious. When I was their age, I made a lot of choices that had the same consequences, and got into a lot of peoples' faces who never asked for it. But I forgive myself and when the kids do it now, I understand why they do it. Even though it is a little dangerous and disrespectful. I remember how much fun it was to do when I was a kid. And of course now there's a "brozone" that breaks out at every show and consumes the entire front of the stage, and by the end of the show it's a bunch of fucking bros beating on each other in some kind of weird, homoerotic ritual. I love homoerotic rituals as much as the next man, but I don't want to live in the "brozone" anymore. My qualm is that this stuff happens every night and I get mad about it. People come into our zone and they disrespect our ethnicity but potentially the people around them. They make them uncomfortable. That makes me an angry boy.
What do you think the motivation was for the people who brought those flags with them to the show?
Well, Dayna, I now actually have the ability to know what the motivation was because the person who did it sent me an anonymous email explaining their motives.
However, I am not ready yet because I am too angry to take what they have to say at face value. It is very, very possible that I will never forgive this person. I try to live a life as much like Christ as possible, even though he was just a regular guy like me. I don't have to forgive everybody when they disrespect me. I have Irish in me. I forgive everything but a grudge. I hold grudges for years at a time. I accept that forgiveness is a virtue, but some people are just too fucked up and it's not worth your time. You should forgive them in your heart as much as you should let go of the anger after a while. I don't need to give that person any agency because they didn't give me that respect in front of everybody. I don't need to give that person the respect in my Gmail, which is supposed to be a positive place.
Do you want to share anything this person said in their email?
I'm telling you that I didn't read the email. I didn’t need to give that person that level of agency because they didn’t think that I deserved it. The email was probably about 2000 words long anyway. I don't have time to be mad about reading some prick crying about how he acted like a stupid asshole. I don't care about the future of my friendship with this person for the same reason that this stupid asshole didn't care. They're not contributing anything to the culture around the band, in fact they're making it worse. So screw them. I'm not one of these guys who does that. When people disrespect me at a show in some way, I'll snap on them. I don't owe these kids anything, man. I mean, I owe them my entire life, obviously. But I respect them enough to be honest about that. It's a difficult thing in my life. I need these concerts to be a place to be vulnerable. This is not a place for us to celebrate the history of hate. I want people to come to the concert and forget about all the horrible things in the world for an hour or two. They didn't need that fucking shit. There were black people at this concert, okay. They don't need to see that. Descendents of slaves were at this concert, okay. It's a little bit my responsibility to protect those people. I have to do everything I can to protect the temporary autonomous zone that is the concert space so that everyone can have their version of a good time. Looking at that symbol [the confederate flag] and being reminded of what it represents is not my idea of a good time. I think a lot of other people at the show agreed with me. The people that don't agree with me, they can go home, I say.
I don't have dreams of playing at Madison Square Garden some day, so I can alienate anybody that I don't like on a personal level. Titus Andronicus's music is for my friends, even the friends I haven't met yet. I think there could be millions of them out there, but I'm not going to suck somebody’s dick to be their friend when I don't respect them and the choices they make. And if they don't respect my choices in turn, then they're free to go and they can support a different band. And I will not beg them to come back.
What happened after the flags were distributed? Did they make it onto the stage?
Well, we were getting ready to play our song "A More Perfect Union," which is the first song on our album and it suggests in no uncertain terms that the North was right in the Civil War. Just look at the cover of the record, man—it has soldiers, or should I say, sailors. It's not Robert E. Lee or any of those guys. It celebrates the genius of the Northern military strategy and I'm sure that in addition to that they were perfectly nice guys. I'm not the kind of person to say that everyone from the South is a bigoted dumbass, either, anymore than I am one, which is very much so.
We're getting ready to play this song, which basically implies that slavery was wrong, and it implies and suggests that there is a better world waiting out there for anyone that is brave enough to go out and pursue it, which includes a black person. That option wasn't open to black people in the nineteenth century, and to a varying degree, that option isn't open to them now. It's a hopeful and optimistic song implying that that dream can be achieved. The dream of Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison and all these people, all these great Americans, from the North and the South, and Alaska, and Hawaii. It's what every American wants to experience, except for those Americans that are too insecure in their own self-worth to say "I can be important for pure positivity." Instead, they are implying positivity about themselves by reflecting inner negativity onto others. Basically trying to put out someone else's candle to make mine burn brighter. I hate myself so I'm going to spew hate at others. I need to get out the toxic bile inside myself. I don't have a constructive outlet for it like playing in a punk band, so instead I'm a racist.
As we started playing the song, I looked up and just about twenty of these little flags were waving in the air. I can only assume—I mean, I didn't see it happen—some perpetrator had distributed them to other people in the audience when he knew the song that was his target was going to be played. I saw this happen and I saw his plan go into action and like I said, my blood began to boil. I was ready to choke him out. I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't been tied down to the guitar. Quite a metaphor for my life really. You could say that the guitar is a weight that keeps me from flying too close to the sun and melting my wings, really. Fortunately for me, I didn't have plans on playing the guitar in the next song, so I had to suffer through ten humiliating and degrading minutes of these kids waving this symbol of hate right in my face.
Do I blame all of them? Do I call them all racists with a plan to humiliate me in this way? Of course not. I do believe that they were acting thoughtless, and I'm to blame for that partially, because I encourage kids to put away the logical parts of their brain when we're playing. Not to the point of hurting those around them—they have to stay responsible and respectful. But I don't want them to be standing there thinking about the right thing to do—I want them to trust their instincts and do what feels right for them. I've spent a lot of time thinking about this because we've traveled through the South very extensively. I've been proselytized to with a lot of Christian propaganda that I find tasteless and offensive and crass, and not Crass like the greatest punk band ever, but crass like a disgusting display of self-righteousness. I was at a pawn shop today and I saw guns for sale and I observed that some guitar cases look like gun cases. I'm not sure what that means right now but it means something.
I think the South is a cool place in a lot of ways. The natural majesty of it is beyond belief. Last night I sat out and looked at the stars. I watched the sun come up over the Blue Ridge Mountains and it was incredible—I wept watching the sunrise over North Carolina this morning. But you know, there is shit going on down here that I don't like. Anyway, what was I saying?
You were saying you saw the flags being waved in the crowd.
Right, so I didn't have the guitar anymore after ten minutes, after enduring the humiliation and degradation, and we were going to play a different song. So I decided to make a speech. I made a speech about why slavery was wrong and why the South deserved the war, and why the atrocities that were committed against the so-called innocent people by General Sherman were totally justified because that's what it would take to end slavery. This was in Georgia, so I was really scared. People take that stuff pretty seriously down there, and I've gotten in trouble before for talking in the South about slavery and saying it was their fault, which it one hundred percent was. It's good ole boys who come to me after the show and explain that maybe the North shouldn't have gotten involved in something that wasn't their business.
Somebody out there in the crowd was fucked up in the head enough to distribute these horrible, offensive flags. I would have preferred if the whole thing could have been avoided, but someone out there didn't make that an option. The North, you know, there is blood on our hands, too. Our history, we always brag about our clean history, but ours was just as bloody and horrible as the South's was. There were the New York City draft riots of 1862, during which time a bunch of fired-up Irish people, which is the land of my ancestors, got crazy about draft laws and decided to take it out on the black people, and they were lynching and dismembering black people in the streets of New York City and burning down orphanages and everything. The North's hands are disgustingly bloody and dirty as well.
I was pretty scared [making this speech], but I had to do what a punk does: I had to listen to my heart and I had to do what was really important. I've always tried to speak from my mind and share my feelings. Sharing my feelings and speaking my mind without worrying about the consequences has given me everything good in my life, so why stop now? I think I made a couple good points. It was clear pretty soon that most of the people were on my side.
Some people afterwards came up to me and were asking me about this incident because they had seen the flag on the stage, they thought it was our plan to distribute these flags. We would never fucking do that. That would be insanity. However, people largely don't think about this stuff. These fucking hipsters, they don't think about anything. They think about where their next beer is coming from, they don't think about the implications of their actions. They have to start thinking about the signifier and the signified. They don't think about this shit because no one ever taught them how to think about it the way that a band like Crass taught me to think about it or Frederick Douglass, for that matter. I feel blessed that people put me on to this shit—it made me a better person. I still have a long way to go, of course, but I think about this shit. Not to pat myself on the back too much, but I think about it. They're a lot younger than me. I'm not furious about it, but it's very indicative of the apathy that affects the younger generation.
You had been pretty vocal about not playing in Athens again after this happened. Do you think that's a possibility?
Well, I'll tell you, after an incident in Little Rock where a guy said some racist shit to me, we didn't return there for three years. I don't need to be a part of that vibe. Athens isn't one of our hot spots, it's not one of our big markets. A lot of people fucking bail when we come out there. It's no skin off my nose either way. I don't need the people of Athens any more than I need another hole in my head. I've got five already, thank you very much.
That being said, though, Athens is not unique in its general apathy amongst the young people in their community. It's certainly not unique that there are one or two people who are ambitious about doing stupid things. It's not unique that there are people there who are fucking up all day. New York City has 8 million fuckups. But you know, it was a toxic experience and it tainted my memory of Athens permanently. Nothing as good that happened in Athens was as bad as that, do you understand? Why should I go back? To get hurt again? I don't need to do that to myself. I don't deserve that. They're so fucking apathetic and so full of hate, it's just so stupid. Most of the kids there were wonderful; most of the staff was lovely. A couple of people disrespect you, though, and it makes a big difference. It's really one of the saddest things about humanity. And it's definitely true of the relationship between me, the artist,and you, the journalist. Because when you specifically say something mean about my band, it hurts so much worse than when someone says something good.
That being said, we'll probably be back within three years. But the next time we hit Georgia, Athens is probably gonna get skipped, sorry. It's tainted to me.
What about the kids who might not know any better? Don't you think you being there as a band could educate them?
If that ends up being the result of this, that would be lovely. In my art, I take every bad feeling that I've ever had and I spin it into gold and love. Just like Fugazi takes all the horrible things and disgusting things and makes them look beautiful, cathartic, and trusting. That's what punk is to me. It's a fucked up world but we can take the things that are bad about it and we can make them into something good for ourselves. We have the power to do it, just like I did with the help of Crass, Fugazi, and Rancid. We could beat that. I can't deny that that would be my fondest dream: to show somebody that you can take the bad stuff in your life and turn it into something to make you happier and stronger. That's the best gift that I've ever received.