We were proud to sponsor West of Memphis at the Salem Film Fest this March, a documentary following the infamous trial of Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin, known as the West Memphis 3. These kids (men, now) were accused and convicted of murdering three young boys in the summer of 1993 despite and overwhelming lack of evidence.
I knew I immediately wanted to support West of Memphis at the Fest because I have followed the case of the WM3 since I was 12 years old. In 1996 I was home alone and the first Paradise Lost film came on HBO and pretty much ruined my as a child, and raised awkward questions that my grandmother so graciously answered, though she was concerned why I was asking about semen, Satan worship, and death.
One of the many ludicrous arguments prosecutor’s made was that Echols was a Satan worshiper, thanks to the Satanic Panic of the 80’s and 90’s. They said he was a member of a cult, that his listening to metal music, his long black hair, his black clothes, and his general attitude towards authority and pop culture meant an irredeemable deviancy outside the confines of acceptable society. The character assassination of a teenager turned to a murder conviction; the terrifying reality that those operating outside the lines of ‘normal’ could be targeted anywhere, for any reason.
This could have been me.
Remembering myself in my teens, listening to Metallica, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Marilyn Manson, The Misfits, metal, punk & a lot angry girl rock, I was listening to just about everything my parents hated and were afraid of. I was a tomboy, I had very few friends, and eyebrows that could swallow a child’s face. I was awkward, and the few friends that I had were awkward too.
I had family & their friends opening antagonize and berate me and my friends for the way we dressed. I was forbidden from hanging out with my best friend because of the way other people reacted when they saw us in public. I was punished for liking the things that I liked and looking the way that I looked, and when I retreated inward because of the constant barrage of petty and ignorant insults, I would be punished for not being social enough at home.
My family accused me of using drugs, some of them even routinely called a ‘bitch’, ‘little witch’ and even a ‘cunt’ , all because I wasn’t going to sit around and let some adults trash talk me.
And while at the time I felt completely alienated, angry and confused, at no point was I anything special. I wasn’t the first teenager with a fucking attitude, neither were Echols or Misskelley, or Baldwin, or any of my friends. There were always kids like this, and there always will be, but for some reason society continues to act as if it is some sort of aberration. Something to fear, something to ridicule. Something to punish. The reality is that it’s all perfectly normal, to the point of being mundane. Weird/outcast/angry/ kids have always and will always exist.
I found solace in punk rock. My mom didn’t think it was so weird because she loved rock and it wasn’t too far a departure, but she didn’t necessarily like it. In school there are always cliques: the rockers, the sports kids, the weird kids, whatever. Luckily at my second high school (I had to flee the first due to constant bullying and having shit stolen from the goddamn locker every day), everyone was pretty cool about everything. We had weird kids, but they were friends with the sports kids, and sometimes the sports kids were the weird kids. So when I got into punk, it was more to help me cope with the life I was experiencing outside of school, rather than in it.
What I found in punk was a point of view that spoke so honestly about the injustices in society that I experienced and that the ‘grown ups’ weren’t dealing with, vocalized it in a way that I couldn’t quite say myself. That and partying. Lots of songs about smashing things, and partying.
Henry Rollins, noted punk rock/spoken word/actor/activist/ hero, was a very vocal supporter of the WM3 cand was kind enough to recently answer some questions I had about his involvement with their case and give me his thoughts on what the fuck is wrong with people. Generally speaking.
Rollins originally heard about the WM3 the same way I did, albeit at a more appropriate age, noting “I saw one of the HBO documentaries in 2000 or so. I was very moved by what I saw. I saw myself in them. I figured that if people didn’t stand up, these guys were going to spend the rest of their lives in prison. I was unable to let that stand.”
Rollins put out an album, Rise Above, featuring Black Flag songs performed by a number of rock/punk/hip hop legends, with the aim to support the WM3.
“I figured those songs were good bait to get a bunch of cool people to come aboard. I figured there were a lot of musicians who had heard about the case and liked Black Flag. I was looking to make a lot of money and make something that would sound really good and this is what I came up with.”
As for whether or not the fans who showed up at the live shows were there to hear their favorite Black Flag songs performed again that they hadn’t seen in a decade (or more) or if they were there specifically to support the 3’s case, it didn’t seem to matter. “I wanted their money and I wanted to do a good show. Why they showed up is up to them. As long as I sold tickets and provided a good show, I was good to go”.
Rollins has been an outspoken supporter of ‘not being a total asshole’ to your peers, though this comes after his tenure with Flag and his namesake band where he may not have quite followed the credo. Though his transformation from ‘raging maniac’ to ‘raging maniac in support of human dignity and equal rights’ is why so many of us have loved him for 2 decades. He represents the anger and frustration and impulsiveness I and so many others like me felt growing up, just lashing out at everything in order to attack before being attacked, and you know, growing up and learning to deal with it more constructively, though with just as many curse words.
They keep things colorful.
Rollins was certainly not the only musician in support of these guys, and artists have as a whole been more liberal minded, understanding and even encouraging of expressing outrage at societal wrongs, cultural inequity, and inequality. Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks, Johnny Depp, Patti Smith, and Eddie Vedder are all very outspoken supporters of the 3, some actively participating in the case.
I asked Rollins what he thought about artist and musicians being the most vocal supporters, and not, say, politicians that had the power to actually do something about the willful wrongful imprisonment of these men, he said very clearly “because they are often just cowardly empty suits who seek re-election. They just don’t want to get involved and have it “backfire” on them. Sad”.
So again, why don’t we just get it as a society? Or do we, and the most vocal out there are the ones who get airtime bitching about ‘teh gays’ and how ‘bitches be bitching about rape’ and ‘insert current cultural pariah here’? “Because we have not changed the causes that make some want to discriminate…those who want to hate will move on to other groups. Education will fix that”, Rollins said.
I like to think that the racist/sexist/ist-ist assholes are just going to die off eventually and we can live in a liberal get-off-my-lawn utopia. I also know that won’t happen. So what do we do then, about the ritualistic persecution of the ‘other’ in society?
Maybe as adults we can just let kids figure themselves out instead of thinking the path that wasn’t our own ‘right’ path is still a pretty Ok path. Maybe as adults we can make sure we raise our kids to be accepting of all sorts of things, expose them to all sorts of movies/sports/arts/music. Maybe we can not taunt children for wearing plastic pants, or listening to electrorock, or being goth, or being super preppy, or what the fuck ever.
Just don’t be that asshole. Because it’s those people, and that thinking, that put three boys in prison for 18 years for crimes they didn’t commit.
And that could have been me. And it could have been you.
Conversely, without that sort of handiwork, Rollins might not be the guy he turned out to be, and I certainly wouldn’t be the awesome woman I turned out to be, and my best friend certainly wouldn’t be the awesome/successful/thoughtful woman she turned out to be.
Just know that one day your kids may grow up to one day air their dirty laundry on a website ridiculing your worldview in a flurry of personal accusations and anecdotes aimed at demonstrating how the demonizing of children and their self expression is the work of marginal thinkers and the grossly insecure.
Or they may kill you in your sleep. Or turn into social deviants. Your gamble, I guess.