Narratively

Super Subcultures

The Last Time New York Was Hardcore

In the ’90s, one high-octane underground music scene desperately held on to its rebellious roots of power chords, slam dancing and stage diving. What happened to hardcore?

More than three thousand people surround me in the packed Roxy nightclub on West 18th Street in Manhattan. It’s hot. We’ve been dancing for hours. But the wind-milling arms, roundhouse kicks, and javelin-like body tosses on this night in ’97 bear little resemblance to the more subdued moves once executed in Roxy’s early days as a roller disco. Still, we’re grateful the surface below our feet was custom designed to support hard falls.

Instead of short-shorts and go-go boots, the few females in attendance are wearing cargo shorts and Doc Martens. Many of the more buff men have relinquished their shirts, revealing glazed, inked skin and nipple piercings matching the ones in their septums.

The houselights darken. Piercing feedback drowns out the roar of the crowd. After four quick clicks of drumsticks, it’s chaos.

The lights blare again. The headlining band’s singer, Lou Koller of Sick of It All, is at the foot of the stage, a pile-on of fans mounting at his feet.

He screams his first lines of lyrics: “Thinking back on what we had!”

The audience handles the next part: “Wooooah-Oh!”

Distorted guitar parts are blasted out over a catchy groove. Crowd members defend themselves from possessed slam dancers. Koller offers the mic to a crowd surfer. Someone in the pit falls down, and three people quickly scoop him up.

“Hardcore was very real,” says Kevin Gill, a former co-manager of the underground hardcore record label Striving for Togetherness. “It was punching you in the face, where punk was shoving you and saying, What’s up, bro? Hardcore’s about ‘fuck the world,’ but it’s also about the opposite: respecting people.”

After a few minutes of near complete sensory overload, the band strikes the tune’s last note, the crowd cheers, and everyone readies themselves for the next song.

Intense, original and cultivating an infectious sense of community, hardcore music began its reign of underground terror nearly forty years ago. Though its fabric extends far beyond traditional sonic labels, when it emerged in the late ’70s hardcore was simply defined as a more rambunctious, faster-paced form of punk rock. Merging with thrash metal in the ’80s, it experienced both jumps and dips in popularity. But throughout the ’90s a slew of fresh faces officiating a polygamous marriage between punk, metal and hip-hop reignited the scene, making hardcore the biggest it’s ever been in and around New York City.

“The mid-90s was the best,” says Tim Williams, front man of the Long Island band Vision of Disorder. “There was no makeup. No facades. No laser-light shows. The music came from an honest place. And I know these people personally. They weren’t talking shit.”

* * *

In a 2015 New Yorker article about hardcore in New York, Kelefa Sanneh wrote that it “was born as a double-negative genre: a rebellion against a rebellion. The early punks were convinced that rock and roll had gone wrong … But when punk, too, came to seem lame, the hardcore kids arrived, eager to show up their elders. The idea was to out-punk the punks.”

Clusters of hardcore bands, primarily out of Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., emerged before a New York City scene germinated on the Lower East Side, circa 1981. Set on seedy Avenue A at the corner of Seventh Street, A7 was the first Manhattan club to regularly host hardcore shows. Local bands like Agnostic Front, Cause for Alarm, Murphy’s Law, Antidote, Kraut and others were welcomed into its tiny, kitchen tile-floored back room, inciting slam dancing and sing-alongs from their fans, which early on numbered no more than a few dozen – predominantly white males in their late teens and early twenties, with a low center of gravity, swinging their arms and banging into each other while carrying crowd surfers and absorbing stage divers. They looked like embattled rugby players in various states of worn-out uniform, with no ball or decipherable goal. A source in Tony Rettman’s oral history book covering ’80s New York hardcore (NYHC, as it’s known) half-joked that those early participants “all had mental problems and they all lived in the street.”

Fans of Agnostic Front slam dance and watch the band perform at A7 in Manhattan's Lower East Side on November 12, 1983. (Photo by Jessica Bard, courtesy Drew Stone)
Fans of Agnostic Front slam dance and watch the band perform at A7 in Manhattan’s Lower East Side on November 12, 1983. (Photo by Jessica Bard, courtesy Drew Stone)

The melee’s soundtrack featured songs faster than anything produced in rock before it, with anti-establishment lyrics preaching social consciousness and standing up for oneself. Sometimes the bands didn’t play their songs correctly. Guitar and vocal cords failed frequently. But none of that mattered. The aggression discharge within the tight space was so captivating that nobody stopped moving, or having a good time.

Out-of-towners and eventual storied hardcore groups such as Black Flag and Bad Brains were also fan favorites at A7. Before adopting a hip-hop sound, The Beastie Boys cut their teeth at the club too. As the ’80s progressed, CBGB on Bowery, The Ritz on East 11th Street, and a few other Manhattan clubs began booking hardcore shows.

At about that time, Kevin Gill, raised in Whitestone, Queens, “just dove headlong into it.”

“Hardcore is raw reality,” says the former record label manager, now 44. Intensely upbeat, and tall with a closely shaved head, he adds, “It’s regular people with regular problems.”

Like many NYHC fans – myself included – Gill first latched on to heavy metal. “From Anthrax and Metallica,” he says, “it’s a very short journey to Sick of It All, Killing Time, Merauder” and other ’80s hardcore bands he obsessed over after some high school friends provided him copies of their recordings.

Craig Setari, then of Agnostic Front, performs with the band in New Jersey, ca. 1988. (Photo courtesy Craig Setari)
Craig Setari, then of Agnostic Front, performs with the band in New Jersey, ca. 1988. (Photo courtesy Craig Setari)

But as the scene continued to swell, toward the end of the decade Downtown club managers became less willing to contend with increasing violence and injuries befalling audience members because of slam dancing, stage diving, and other unruly behavior, which could spur lawsuits. Lenny Bednarz, a member of noteworthy hardcore bands Without a Cause and Fahrenheit 451, remembers observing two concertgoers entering a mosh pit swinging a sock full of batteries during one show. He says there was also a brief “trend where people sprayed mace in the clubs.” Arthur Smilios, a member of Gorilla Biscuits back in the late ’80s, says he observed a “gang mentality” coagulating at the time, which caused such a frequency of large-scale fights at CBGB that the historic club suspended its weekly Sunday matinee hardcore shows. Smilios says that was New York hardcore’s “low point,” when many regulars disappeared from the scene. “It wasn’t fun anymore,” he adds. Smilios himself left Gorilla Biscuits, in part to pursue a college degree, but also because of the hardcore scene’s mangy turn.

Because small clubs were shuttering their doors to hardcore or had closed altogether – like A7 in 1984 – Gill says there was “no point of entry for bands to grow.” But by the mid-90s he and many other fans would get the chance to experience a new brand of hardcore, appealing to an even broader demographic.

* * *

As some dedicated NYHC bands trudged on and found places to play, they began to intertwine old-school punk-based hardcore with thrash metal and hip-hop, crafting fresh sounds that rang throughout the underground, most frequently at the Bond Street Café, located on the Lower East Side, just a few blocks from the former site of A7. “That was the place,” says Gill, who remembers it as “a crack in the wall.” “It was hardly a venue,” he continues, “but it was amazing. How many music venues in Manhattan at the time would let a bunch of maniacs stand in front, smoking and drinking before a show and then for three hours just let you lose your shit?”

“The energy at those Bond Street shows was electric,” says Mark Scondotto, former singer for Shutdown. At five-foot-two in his early teens, he’d accompany his older brothers to the club, who’d protect him from 150 other wily slam dancers and stage-diving ruffians. “You walked out of there feeling like you were on a roller coaster. The [mosh] pits were sick.”

 

Much of hardcore’s appeal was manifested not in the music, but in the atmosphere at a show, typically set in a tiny club with the band inches from fans’ faces.

“The idea of a singer handing the microphone out to people in the audience, people jumping on stage … It’s astounding,” says Frank Pavich, director of “N.Y.H.C.” – a film that documented hardcore’s mid-90s era. “It’s like taking that super-duper rock star and reducing it until they’re one of us and we’re one of them.”

“I have no musical ability whatsoever, but if someone’s going to hand me the microphone, it makes me feel like I do. It makes me feel like I’m a part of it,” says Virginia Kress, 44, one of a handful of females who were regulars at NYHC gigs back in her twenties. “It’s like an awakening.”

Kevin Gill channeling the wrestler Raven - pictured on his shirt - while at an NYHC show at the Lower East Side's Acme Underground venue in the late '90s. (Photo courtesy Kevin Gill)
Kevin Gill channeling the wrestler Raven – pictured on his shirt – while at an NYHC show at the Lower East Side’s Acme Underground venue in the late ’90s. (Photo courtesy Kevin Gill)

I too was tractor-beamed into the scene, an angst-ridden teen from Astoria, like so many others feeling as though I was suddenly immersed in a community, or even a movement, for the very first time. And all of this was available to us for the cover price of about eight dollars.

Gill says hardcore shows have “ruined regular stuff” for him. Now a San Francisco resident, he bemoans the prospect of paying $75 to see a more commercially successful metal band like Slayer perform at a venue like the 2,300-seat Warfield. “I almost wish I never went to hardcore shows,” he says.

By the end of 1992, several more clubs began providing space to hardcore promoters, including Brownies, also on the Lower East Side, and The Wetlands Preserve, directly across town in TriBeCa. CBGB ran Sunday NYHC matinee shows again, and though the Bond Street Café met an untimely demise in 1994, Coney Island High – located on St. Marks Place, with double the capacity of Bond Street – more than picked up the slack shortly thereafter.

Downtown Manhattan was hardcore’s epicenter in the ’90s, but the music’s allure spread throughout the outer boroughs, as well as Long Island, New Jersey, Upstate New York, Connecticut and beyond, birthing mini-scenes where more clubs could prosper. Castle Heights on Northern Boulevard in Corona, Queens – where I worked as a soundman for three years – was one such place. “We had our own scene,” says Kevin “Castle,” as he’s known throughout the community. Now 48, he is an older brother of Shutdown’s Mark Scondotto, and was a show booker at Castle Heights for ten years. “By ’94, ’95 we were doing three or four hardcore shows a week. We couldn’t do enough shows, there were so many bands.”

Record labels began to come around too. The Brooklyn hardcore band Biohazard released Urban Discipline in 1992 through Roadrunner Records, an independent label that went on to house a number of NYHC bands. Biohazard’s album would sell more than a million copies worldwide, and their video for “Punishment” – featuring many of the scene’s most recognizable faces rocking out behind the band as they performed the song – became the most-played video ever on MTV’s late-night program “Headbangers’ Ball.”

 

“Suddenly people look at that video and go, ‘Wow, what’s going on in New York?’” says Drew Stone, who produced the clip. “All the kids in New York that saw that video thought, ‘I gotta make a band.’”

In ’92 Kevin Gill became the American distributor of a tiny, German-based record label called Striving for Togetherness Records, or SFT for short. A couple years prior, he’d befriended the members of Without a Cause, a largely unknown, hard-hitting band from Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “They were playing the worst shows,” Gill says. “I remember they played like a Chinese restaurant or some shit.” He shopped the Without a Cause demo around for distribution, but “Two or three labels were like, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’” Then, trying his best German accent on for size, Gill recalls the owner of SFT writing back to him: “Yah, this stuff is sah-lid. Maybe we can do a seven-inch.”

The members of No Redeeming Social Value pose for a photo, ca. 1992. Top row, l-r: Singer Mike Dixon, guitarist Kent Miller, and drummer Vinnie Value. Bottom row, l-r: Singer Dean Miller and bassist Mike "The Kid" Palmer. (Photo courtesy No Redeeming Social Value)
The members of No Redeeming Social Value pose for a photo, ca. 1992. Top row, l-r: Singer Mike Dixon, guitarist Kent Miller, and drummer Vinnie Value. Bottom row, l-r: Singer Dean Miller and bassist Mike “The Kid” Palmer. (Photo courtesy No Redeeming Social Value)

As the hardcore scene regenerated, Gill became the go-to guy for up-and-coming bands looking for a deal. There was Vision of Disorder (VOD) from Long Island, featuring Tim Williams, whose vocals oscillated between a lazy drawl and a primal scream. Fahrenheit 451 formed out of the ashes of the disbanded Without a Cause, mixing hip-hop and hardcore with an amiable rock bend. New York hardcore’s premier party band of the ’90s was No Redeeming Social Value, out of Queens, whose seven-inch record Hardcore Your Lousy Ass Off sported a copy of singer Dean Miller’s bare rear end with “HARDCORE” scrawled across its cheeks, written in black marker by his younger brother and guitarist, Kent.

“Playing good music is one thing, but making people laugh is a whole other thing,” says Kent Miller, now 39. With sing-alongs about the largest bottle of malt liquor imaginable – “New 64” – and watching the cutest girls in school date jerks – “Your Boyfriend’s a Guido” – he and his brother admit that No Redeeming Social Value, who still perform every so often, are not terribly talented musicians. But the band’s only real goal, they say, has always been to ensure “the audience has a good time.”

“We threw whatever we could get our hands on at the audience,” remembers Dean Miller, 45, spouting a list of projectiles that included confetti, money, bologna and lawn chairs. “One time we told the audience we’ve got seven-inches to give away, or fish,” recalls Kent. “‘What do you want?’ ‘FISH!’ So we gave it to them.” Dean says by the end of the night there were fish parts scattered throughout the club, some of which rotted overnight underneath arcade games and in other nooks.

He heard that “The Godfather of Hardcore” himself, Vinnie Stigma of Agnostic Front, performed at the same venue the next night and wondered aloud why he smelled such a foul odor. Dean recalls: “Someone told him, ‘No Redeeming Social Value played here last night, and threw fish at the crowd.’ He said, ‘Oh, well that figures.’”

The band also gained such a widespread reputation for performing naked that, when they traveled to Germany for a gig, the show’s organizer offered them a financial bonus if they did so again. “We would’ve done it for free,” says Dean, “but if you’re going to give us extra money to do it, we definitely will.”

Left: Lenny Bednarz holds up a vintage No Redeeming Social Value sticker from the '90s. Center: Singer Dean Miller poses with a vinyl recording of No Redeeming Social Value. Right: Dean looking through NYHC artifacts from Virginia Kress' collection. All photos were taken July 31, 2016 in front of the former site of the Bond Street Café on Manhattan's Lower East Side where Bednarz and Miller once performed and Kress attended shows.
Left: Lenny Bednarz holds up a vintage No Redeeming Social Value sticker from the ’90s. Center: Singer Dean Miller poses with a vinyl recording by No Redeeming Social Value. Right: Dean looking through NYHC artifacts from Virginia Kress’ collection. The photos were taken last month in front of the former site of the Bond Street Café on Manhattan’s Lower East Side where Bednarz and Miller once performed and Kress attended shows.

Hardcore also splintered into an impossible number of sub-genres, including “deathcore” (a combination of death metal and hardcore), “noisecore” (hardcore with screaming vocals and sizzling accompaniment so distorted that the melodies are virtually indecipherable), and the “post-hardcore” movement, which offered more mature and slightly less-aggressive songwriting. The Brooklyn band Candiria miraculously mixed several types of heavy metal, along with hip-hop, jazz, psychedelic rock and other styles, sometimes with Latin American or African backbeats. Dog Eat Dog earned international fame with straight rap lyrics over traditional rock accompaniment and a saxophone thrown in for good measure. Crown of Thornz, according to front man Danny Diablo, who in the ’90s went by the stage name Lord Ezec, was “like Black Sabbath meets Rush meets the Cro-Mags.” Meanwhile, old-schoolers Sick of It All released back-to-back records with a sign-of-the-times groove and, according to bassist Craig Setari, a “darker” edge. They even performed on a bill with legendary New York City M.C. KRS-One.

CIV, an NYHC super group comprised of three former members of Gorilla Biscuits – Anthony Civarelli, Sam Siegler, and Arthur Smilios – and Quicksand guitarist Charlie Garriga, formed almost accidentally in 1995. “CIV was an anomaly,” Smilios says, explaining that hardcore vet Walter Schreifels, then on tour with Quicksand, wrote a bouncy, fun-and-games song called “Can’t Wait One Minute More” and another titled “Et Tu Bruté,” hopeful that Civarelli would gather some troops to record and release the two tracks on seven-inch vinyl. Civarelli, who had settled into life on Long Island as a tattoo shop owner, took some convincing, but with assurances from Schreifels that the whole project wouldn’t last beyond the first recording, he eventually agreed.

After the single was pressed, an associate of the group, Marcos Siega – a young director looking to shoot a clip he could use as part of a résumé – sold the CIV members on the video concept for “Can’t Wait One Minute More.” In it, Civarelli lip-syncs to the song while posing as a talk-show host, à la Jerry Springer.

 

The video wound up in the hands of Quicksand’s manager who loved it and, as Smilios remembers, “all of a sudden a bidding war started between record labels over a band that didn’t exist.”

CIV recorded the album Set Your Goals for Atlantic Records’ Lava imprint, and the “Can’t Wait One Minute More” video was an MTV hit. “By the time CIV was doing shows, we had the record [and] were signed to a major label,” Smilios says. “It was weird.”

* * *

I went to my first NYHC show in 1996 after getting hooked on hardcore a year and a half prior. One of my favorite bands, Madball, was the headliner. I recall approaching the venue – the Wetlands Preserve on Hudson Street – with my pals, amazed to see the band’s singer, Freddy Cricien, standing on the sidewalk, a few feet away from me, talking to fans and his friends. That night was also my first glimpse into a true NYHC mosh pit, a far cry from what I’d seen on MTV when they covered grunge shows featuring bands like Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam. At those concerts fans seemed to mostly jump up and down, tamely. On the other hand, the hardcore “dancers,” as they’re called, appeared rather menacing at first, with an updated style of moshing comprised of shadowboxing and karate kicks thrown to the beat. But I soon realized nobody was getting hurt; all I saw were smiling faces and all I heard after each song was thunderous applause, for the bands and even for some of the more on-point mosh pit dancers. It wasn’t long before I became one of them, surprised at my own willingness to risk bodily harm.

“Hardcore’s not the best music, but it has an energy that isn’t like anything else,” says Danny Diablo, formerly of Crown of Thornz, another band I enjoyed back then. With so many tattoos they’re beginning to threaten his eyelids, Diablo is now a hip-hop artist and says hardcore’s roots stem from resilient city dwellers who “take everything head on.” He adds, “They don’t call it ‘softcore.’”

Left: Danny Diablo, aka Lord Ezec (center, holding microphone) performs with Crown of Thornz at Coney Island High, ca. mid-90s. (Photo courtesy Drew Stone) Right: Fahrenheit 451 with guitarist Lenny Bednarz (fourth from right) performs at Coney Island High in 1998. (Photo by Michele Lago, courtesy Lenny Bednarz)
Left: Danny Diablo, aka Lord Ezec (center, holding microphone) performs with Crown of Thornz at Coney Island High in the mid-90s. (Photo by Dan Peltz, courtesy Drew Stone) Right: Fahrenheit 451 with guitarist Lenny Bednarz (fourth from right) performs at Coney Island High in 1998. (Photo by Michele Lago, courtesy Lenny Bednarz)

Few can claim to have embodied this ethos as well as Frank Pavich did during the production of his “N.Y.H.C.” documentary. A native of Douglaston, Queens, known for its golf course and sprawling multi-million-dollar homes, Pavich, now 43, met “a strange, tall, lanky, hilarious guy” named Kevin Gill – who provided Pavich with NYHC mix tapes – during his senior year of high school in 1991. As Pavich puts it, Gill “opened up my eyes to a whole other world.”

Four years later, Pavich, a well-spoken, bespectacled son of Croatian parents, decided to shoot a documentary about the hardcore community that, according to him, “completely ripped off ‘The Decline of Western Civilization,’” a film about the Los Angeles punk scene of the early ’80s, directed by Penelope Spheeris.

Admitting now that he had no idea what he was doing, Pavich enlisted a forty-something-year-old cameraman, completely oblivious to the concept of hardcore, to capture the footage. What the cameraman lacked in New York underground music acumen he made up for with his equipment ownership, including a $100,000 Betacam, used primarily to film news stories. Pavich paid him with “credit, copy, and comps” – a credit in the film, a copy of it, and complimentary meals – and helped shield the camera from possessed crowd members and performers throwing themselves in every direction.

Screenshots from Frank Pavich's "N.Y.H.C." documentary, filmed in Summer 1995. Clockwise from top-left: Cesar Ramirez of District 9; Kevin Gill of Striving for Togetherness Records; Danny Diablo, aka Lord Ezec of Crown of Thornz; and Freddy Cricien of Madball. (Images published with permission from Frank Pavich)
Screenshots from Frank Pavich’s “N.Y.H.C.” documentary, filmed in Summer 1995. Clockwise from top-left: Cesar Ramirez of District 9; Kevin Gill of Striving for Togetherness Records; Danny Diablo, aka Lord Ezec, of Crown of Thornz; and Freddy Cricien of Madball. (Images published with permission from Frank Pavich)

Pavich shot close to 44 hours of interviews and performances over the course of two weeks in the summer of ’95. “I’d never edited anything before, so it took forever,” he says. “It was old-school editing, from tape-to-tape.” It didn’t help that the aged editing machines broke down on a weekly basis either.

The complete ninety-minute film wouldn’t see a release until 1999. “The movie’s not for everybody,” he says, “but it’s there and I still love it. I still love those bands and everyone that was involved with it.”

Pavich learned “what to do and what not to do” in filmmaking, and his second feature-length documentary, “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” released in 2013, was short-listed for an Oscar.

One of the standout subjects in Pavich’s “N.Y.H.C.” is Virginia Kress, prominently quoted in the film’s trailer as saying, “I don’t want to be, like, forty, and have missed out on anything.” Then 23 years old with blonde hair and three facial piercings, she shyly stumbles over her words at times in her interview. After displaying a tattoo etched into the inside of her bottom lip that says ‘SUFFER,’ she coyly smiles and says, “It’s a VOD song. It’s my favorite.”

 

Today she is a friendly, stay-at-home mom who gave birth to her son six months prior to her fortieth birthday. “I don’t think I missed much,” she says confidently. “I feel like I lived through my twenties and thirties.”

Kress says she attended an average of three hardcore shows a week in the ’90s, attracted to the music itself, but also “the family atmosphere” at shows. “I knew pretty much everyone in the bands just from going all the time,” she says, adding that she decided to skip out of college so she could afford a car and travel to out-of-state shows.

“Looking back I probably made the wrong decision,” Kress says, before laughing. “Actually, no, I don’t regret it. I gotta be honest.”

Virginia Kress shows off her old tattoo in Manhattan's Lower East Side with her son in tow, July 31, 2016. (Photo: Carlos Detres)
Virginia Kress shows off her old tattoo recently on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with her son in tow.

When driving even as far as New Orleans or Detroit for gigs, Kress would bump – or slam – into friendly faces among the fray. She was always at home at a hardcore show.

“Once you found your little hardcore circle, they were your brothers,” says Cesar Ramirez, former guitarist of District 9, a band that emerged out of the socioeconomically challenged South Bronx. “You had each other’s back and you did everything together.”

Ramirez, 39, befriended the bass player for District 9 at a neighborhood music store. After a failed tryout, he obsessively studied his instrument, winning a spot in the lineup one year later, at the age of fifteen. Soon, District 9 became a standout act in the scene, in spite of their propensity to skip gigs and get high in the Bronx instead of lugging their instruments onto the subway to Downtown Manhattan and elsewhere. “We were trying to put soul into the shit,” Ramirez says about District 9’s musical style – a combination of metal and hardcore punk, with an occasional jazz break and rhyming lyrics that were virtually interchangeable with popular gangsta rap songs of the era.

Ramirez reminisces about one night when District 9 traveled ninety minutes north of the Bronx to perform in New Paltz, New York. He says everyone in his clique, including himself, was smoking marijuana and drinking beer throughout the evening. (His band’s singer, Myke Rivera, recalls them tripping on mushrooms as well.) But Ramirez was the only one who had to report to school the next day. “It was crazy shit, but it was fun,” he says.

Guitarist Cesar Ramirez, formerly of District 9, hanging out in front of the former site of Coney Island High on St. Marks Place, July 31, 2016. (Photo: Carlos Detres)
Guitarist Cesar Ramirez, formerly of District 9, hanging out in front of the former site of Coney Island High on St. Marks Place in July.

Like other eras in rock history, partying in the hardcore scene claimed its share of victims, including Ramirez’s chatty, stocky bandmate, Rivera, who, through laughter in “N.Y.H.C.,” told stories of his troubled South Bronx childhood. He says in one tale that his mother “beat him into a fever” with a broomstick topped with a wire hanger.

Last May I called Rivera for an interview. He agreed to it, telling me about his alcoholic father – “the kind who drank fifty-sent beers at seven in the morning” – and his mother – a “straight Puerto Rican Chihuahua savage” – whose last days Rivera missed because he was on a cocaine bender. Rivera had at first wished to postpone our chat because he wasn’t feeling well, blaming a chest cold. It turned out he had suffered a mild heart attack and spent a few days in the hospital. “My body’s telling me, ‘You fuckin’ up, dog,’” he said when he felt well enough to talk.

In July he told me he was on his way to Pasadena for a 30-day stint in drug rehab. Just this past weekend, he informed me that he’s moved back in with his wife and children – clean, sober and enrolled in the Twelve-Step Program.

* * *

It’s April 1997 at the Roxy and my friends and I are gathered near the back of the club as Sick of It All performs their encore. The vibe all night long has been one of revelry, passion and pride. It’s everything New York hardcore is supposed to be, but on the grandest scale we in the scene have ever witnessed. The band was interviewed that day by Kurt Loder for a spot on MTV News, and more than three thousand fans are in the house – “the high-water mark in Sick of It All’s career in New York,” as bassist Craig Setari told me this past spring.

But steps in front of me, an argument unfolds as a petite young woman in a white tank top screams at a muscle-bound dude, “You hit me, asshole!”

Looking left and right, palms up, at his two equally large, sweaty and shirtless male companions, he says, “What’d you call me?”

“An asshole!”

The man rares back his right fist and punches the girl in the middle of her face, dropping her with a thud.

As my friends and I flee the scene, it’s difficult to tell who’s fighting in the crowd and who’s trying to break the scuffle up.

As I tell Setari the story during our recent interview, a pained expression comes over his face.

“Why would anyone want to do that?” he says.

Though I wasn’t aware of it that night, the incident was a sign of things to come in hardcore.

* * *

“In any social movement there are ebbs and flows,” says Manhattan-based film producer Drew Stone, “and hardcore was no different.”

As the world celebrated the new millennium, “nu-metal” dominated the American rock charts. Many in the hardcore scene viewed it as a more vanilla version – or, as Frank Pavich put it, a “bastardized” brand – of the raw music they preferred. But while few listeners knew it, acts that soared during this time, like Korn, Limp Bizkit, Staind, Papa Roach and Linkin Park, were inspired by the same pioneering artists that lead to the underground hardcore sound of the ’90s.

“Bad Brains kicked down a lot of doors; Biohazard kicked down a lot of doors,” says Stone, who’s working on a new documentary film about hardcore. “But it’s the bands that walk through those doors that get the accolades.”

Left: Antidote performs at the final NYHC show at the Grand Victory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on July 31, 2016. Right: Antidote poses for a picture outside the Grand Victory before the show. (Photos: Carlos Detres)
Left: Antidote performs at the final NYHC show at the Grand Victory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on July 31, 2016. Right: Antidote members (l-r) drummer REA, guitarist Nunzio, singer Drew Stone, and bassist Tristan Michael pose for a picture outside the Grand Victory before the show.

Meanwhile, the factors that generated momentum for the scene’s rebirth in the early ’90s proceeded in the exact opposite direction toward the end of the decade.

Coney Island High closed in 1999, after being in business for a little over four years, due to the owners’ inability to afford rent. A 677-square-foot renovated condo unit in the same building today runs $1.093 million.

A real estate developer purchased the building that housed The Wetlands Preserve, and, after the club’s last show in 2001, a high-end condo went up there. That building has since boasted tenants like Jon Stewart, actor Jeremy Piven, and Mike Piazza, former star catcher of the New York Mets. For years a designer bedding store was located on the ground floor where Wetlands Preserve stage divers and slam dancers once ruled.

The Bond Street Café is now BONDST restaurant, a chic sushi spot with $16 craft cocktails, and, in the building’s exclusive residential section above, the average rent for an apartment exceeds $11,000 a month.

Left: Cesar Ramirez and Lenny Bednarz hang out in front of the former site of the Bond Street Café. Right: Kent Miller (l) and older brother Dean (r) pose with a vinyl recording of their band also in front of the Bond Street Café. All of the subjects once performed at the venue, which has since been replaced by luxury condos and a high-end sushi restaurant. (Photos: Carlos Detres)
Left: Cesar Ramirez and Lenny Bednarz hang out in front of the former site of the Bond Street Café. Right: Kent Miller (l) and older brother Dean (r) pose with a vinyl recording of their band at the same location. They all performed at the venue in the ’90s, which has since been replaced by luxury condos and a high-end sushi restaurant.

A John Varvatos boutique sits where CBGB thrived for three decades. The owners of the high-end retailer have kept the club’s recognizable air ducts – with the patchwork of band stickers smacked onto them throughout the years – in place. There are framed collages of uncountable, partially shredded gig flyers on the walls too. Shoppers can ring up a Guns N’ Roses graphic tee at the original CBGB bar, now outfitted with cash registers, for $80.

Tramps, Roxy, Knitting Factory, Brownies, Roseland Ballroom and several other clubs that booked New York hardcore shows have also disappeared.

Provoked by the closing of Roseland Ballroom in 2014, the newspaper amNew York proclaimed that the city’s “once-storied live music scene” had altogether perished. “Condos have replaced clubs,” the column went on, “and European bankers rather than struggling artists are more likely to be seen on dance floors.” The Lower East Side, once home to the glut of venues that welcomed hardcore bands, has been among the most rapidly gentrifying sections of the city since 2000.

All photos taken July 31, 2016 at the John Varvatos boutique on the Bowery in Manhattan. The retail outlet is on the former site of CBGB. Left: Kent Miller of No Redeeming Social Value examines vintage NYHC and punk rock flyers advertising performances on display at the store. Center: The interior of the John Varvatos boutique on the Bowery. Right: Lenny Bednarz, Cesar Ramirez, and Kent Miller (l-r) reminisce about performing at CBGB inside the store. (Photos: Carlos Detres)
Recent photos taken at the John Varvatos boutique on the Bowery in Manhattan. The retail outlet is located on the former site of CBGB. Left: Kent Miller of No Redeeming Social Value examines vintage NYHC and punk rock flyers advertising performances on display at the store. Center: The interior of the John Varvatos boutique on the Bowery. Right: Lenny Bednarz, Cesar Ramirez, and Kent Miller (l-r) reminisce about performing at CBGB inside the store.

“Once New York hardcore lost its home, you didn’t see the same people every weekend,” says Dean Miller of No Redeeming Social Value. “Then, you’re not in communication with people, and what was once on solid ground becomes very shaky.”

Kevin Gill, for example, left the familiar tidings of Whitestone, Queens, for San Francisco fourteen years ago, and with that move ended his stint purveying over American operations for SFT Records. Since then he’s worked a couple of jobs in the video game industry, has been involved in independent wrestling leagues, primarily as a commentator, and hosts a podcast dedicated to those interests, as well as hardcore, of course.

Gill still sells some dusted-off hardcore merchandise left over from his SFT days. Last year he reissued VOD’s Still EP on its twentieth anniversary. “I’m not making a living, but making the rent,” he says.

Another force at work against hardcore was that, once others saw there was money to be made in the genre, an influx of imitators entered the fold. Many such acts wrote a simpler, yet more aggressive style of hardcore, which became exhaustingly common in the latter part of the ’90s. Kevin Castle, the former Castle Heights show booker, says, “There was a tough-guy-posturing thing going on to that type of music. I’m sure the majority of people at shows weren’t looking to hurt people, but there was definitely a contingency that were.”

Lenny Bednarz, formerly of Fahrenheit 451 agrees, noting that as the decade progressed, he saw “more cheap shots” in the form of slam dancers “going out of their way to hit others,” once again making hardcore fans think twice about attending shows.

Lenny Bednarz, former guitarist for Fahrenheit 451, pointing to his band's name on a vintage poster on display at the John Varvatos store. Located on the Bowery in Manhattan, the boutique is at the former site of CBGB where Bednarz once performed.
Lenny Bednarz, former guitarist for Fahrenheit 451, pointing to his band’s name on a vintage poster on display at the John Varvatos store. Located on the Bowery in Manhattan, the boutique is at the former site of CBGB where Bednarz once performed.

Similarly to New York hardcore’s formative years in the ’80s, many of those involved in the hyperactive ’90s scene were in their teens and early twenties. By the time the calendar flipped to 2000, band members and fans alike were experiencing sobering wake-up calls.

“Getting injured back then was a badge of honor,” Castle says of the ’90s, “but if you’re a mechanic or you work with your hands, and you’re 26, 27 years old, you can’t be out of work for two months because you got hurt at a show.”

Castle provides yet another perspective on the New York scene’s loss of luster. “I think when it really started to fall off was post-9/11,” he says. “There was just a depressed feeling throughout the city. People were scared to go out.” He adds that many shows were run as fundraisers for victims’ families, which were good causes, but served as reminders of the state of the city. In the months after the terror attack, Castle spoke with managers of clubs around the city that were suffering just as much as Castle Heights – which closed in November 2002 because the building’s owner refused to allow a club to operate out of the space any longer.

Though he considers himself one of the scene’s prime supporters and spokesmen, Sick of It All’s Craig Setari is candid when it comes to the long-term financial viability of the genre, and its community: “No matter what we talk about – violence, this wave and that – [hardcore] is not pretty; it’s not meant to be this commercially successful thing … But all in all it’s a great communication medium; I think the last great American subculture.”

Rather than mourn the loss of most of the bands and all of the clubs he filmed in ’95, Frank Pavich – now a resident of Geneva, Switzerland, currently working on a third feature-length documentary – opts to celebrate the genre’s resiliency and the connection it generates between people. “It’s really like the one thing that to this day has not been corrupted by mass media,” he says. “It hasn’t been co-opted [and] when you see someone walking down the street wearing a New York hardcore t-shirt, it’s like holy shit.”

Members of the hardcore scene pose for a picture in XXXX. Top row, l-r: Craig Setari, bassist for Sick of It All; Freddy Cricien, singer for Madball; Drew Stone, filmmaker and singer for Antidote; XXX Bottom row, l-r: Evan Seinfeld, bassist and singer for Biohazard, and Hoya, bassist for Madball
Members of the hardcore scene pose for a picture in 1997. Top row, l-r: Craig Setari, bassist for Sick of It All; Freddy Cricien, singer for Madball; Drew Stone, filmmaker and singer for Antidote; Stickman of Fury of V. Bottom row, l-r: Evan Seinfeld, bassist and singer for Biohazard, and Hoya Roc, bassist for Madball. (Photo courtesy Drew Stone)

There were many such shirts, pulled down over bald heads and salt-and-pepper goatees, covering midsection excesses non-existent twenty years ago, at this spring’s Black N’ Blue Bowl. Formerly known as the “Super Bowl of Hardcore,” the event is an annual, all-day show at Webster Hall – the former site of The Ritz in the East Village. No longer the slender kid with a chain wallet and baggy skater jeans, I floated nostalgically through the dimly lit venue, bumping into performers I’d run sound for at Castle Heights more than fifteen years ago, and shaking hands with some of my biggest musical heroes.

Freddy Cricien, 40, front man of Madball, who first climbed a stage at the age of seven when his half-brother, Roger Miret of Agnostic Front, allowed him to sing for his fans, is an organizer of the Black N’ Blue Bowl. Kent Miller of No Redeeming Social Value, who attended “The Bowl” this year, says the gathering is “what’s keeping the scene alive.”

After a slow start, Webster Hall was rocking by the time acts like Leeway and Madball, both founded way back in the ’80s, hit the stage. A massive mosh pit opened up in the front of the house, though in between sets I couldn’t help but notice there were a couple of men doubled over, out of breath. (Admittedly, if I’d been among them, I would’ve been in the same condition.)

Cricien, who has two kids, four years and four months, says that when he was younger and touring with Madball, he never cared for the business side of music. But “being a hardcore kid alone doesn’t pay the bills,” he now knows, so after 33 years in the scene, Cricien has become a self-styled NYHC “representative” and “curator.”

“People are big on the nostalgia factor,” he says of hardcore these days, lamenting over the promoters never interested in the genre before who now look to capitalize on it. “I don’t want to sound bitter,” he continues, “I back anyone who backs me, but it’s become trendy.”

Virginia Kress holds up a vintage seven-inch vinyl NYHC recording from her collection in front of the former site of the Bond Street Café on Manhattan's Lower East Side, July 31, 2016. (Photo: Carlos Detres)
Virginia Kress holds up a vintage seven-inch vinyl NYHC recording from her collection in front of the former site of the Bond Street Café on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Virginia Kress still attends shows once in a while, recently witnessing No Redeeming Social Value and Madball share a bill. She says a few friends remarked that night, “It feels like ’95 again.”

“Those were the last wild days of New York,” says Cricien, when he and his comrades “got away with a lot of shit.” But there are signs that point to yet another possible rebirth.

Three years ago Ben Ratliff wrote in the New York Times, “I haven’t seen so much energy around the hardcore scene in New York in a long while.” Chris Wynne, publisher of In Effect magazine – a top hardcore fanzine he used to hand-deliver to record stores before re-launching it on the web – says, “New York has tons of bands.” He points to A Breed Apart, Manipulate, Ache, Regulate, Out. Live. Death., and Enziguri as some of the more notable new acts that have released demos, but not yet earned record deals. Still, they are attracting a younger set of fans to the community, plenty of who came out to this year’s Black N’ Blue Bowl.

Wynne notes that Brooklyn is now home to more venues open to hardcore shows than Manhattan. Of the potential for a long-delayed fourth wave of New York hardcore, he says, “Time will tell … The lifers are always going to be there.”

For Dean Miller of No Redeeming Social Value, time and place doesn’t matter at all when it comes to the reverence he has for the community he’s been a part of for nearly thirty years. “If everything went away tomorrow, all the bands, all the venues, hardcore was banned from the world, the guys in my band would still be getting together in my basement to play tunes,” he says. “We never joined a dart league, a bowling league. That’s what hardcore is for us.”

Memoir

My Teenage Rebellion Was Fundamentalist Christianity

While other girls my age were sneaking off with boys and getting drunk, I was becoming a zealot—and trying to convert my parents.

On a summer Thursday evening, shortly after my 16th birthday, my face was pressed into the maroon carpet again. Mildew filled my nostrils and I coughed. My youth pastor’s wife, Jessa, was playing piano, and my youth group friends and I had spread out and each found our own nook on the floor to meet God.

“The only thing holding us back from being in the Secret Place is our own sin,” Jessa shouted, her neck held high. I was mesmerized by the way God moved through her.

The Secret Place of the Lord was the place we could dwell if we lived holy lives. In the Secret Place, God would whisper divine revelations to us and show us miracles. I dug my face harder into the floor — lying prostrate was how we humbled ourselves before the Lord. I sang, improvising a new melody to the Lord. I felt something release as I sang, something like the warmth of God. I kept singing and the tears started flowing, as they always did when I prayed long enough. They dripped off my face and darkened the carpet underneath.

I’d joined the fundamentalist Pentecostal church when I was 13. I was a homeschooled girl with only a smattering of friends. My best friend, Siena, lived just down the road from me, on the pine-speckled canyon seven dusty miles from town. I adored her, but Siena was a public-school jock by then and had way cooler friends than me. I was lonely, and this Pentecostal church had the only youth group in town.

I wanted a group to belong to. Didn’t we all?

At least that’s how it began. Not long after joining, I was all in. I prayed in my room for hours every day. I spoke in tongues and believed I was slaying demons as I prayed in my spiritual language. I threw out all of my secular music. I went on mission trips to spread the Gospel. I cut out my non-Christian friends. I signed a contract promising that I would protect my virginity for my wedding night. I dreamed of becoming a pastor’s wife or a missionary.

My parents were nominal Christians, but not churchgoers. After I joined the Pentecostal church, Jessa and her husband, Jacob, the youth pastor, suggested that, while lovely people, my parents weren’t the Godly authority I needed. I deserved parents who would guide me into the Things of the Lord. They told me that sin could be passed down for generations and that people born into a spiritual legacy — generations of people who were believers — had a leg up on people like me from heathen families.

This came at just the right moment, developmentally speaking: I was leaving behind the childhood fantasy that my parents were perfect and coming to the realization that they were actually just winging this whole parenting thing, and that they sucked at it sometimes. This is a very normal realization for a child, but at the time, it felt irrevocable and huge.

Jessa offered to be my spiritual mentor, and I excitedly agreed. I may not have had a spiritual legacy from my birth parents, but I could be adopted into my pastor’s. I spent many hours in their living room, talking about my hopes and dreams. Jessa stroked her frizzy hair and told me all about the incredible destiny God had for me if I surrendered everything to Him. I clung to every word she said. Although she was not more than a few years older than me, Jessa held herself with the natural authority of a third-generation pastor’s wife, as if her every word mattered. I wanted to be just like her.

“I see something special in you, Carly,” she would tell me over the bowls of chicken Alfredo she’d make us during our afternoons together.

When I was with my family, I forced myself to put on “the full armor of Christ” — a Bible passage we talked about in church about spending time with unbelievers. Normal family gatherings became tense because I couldn’t let my guard down, and because I began to see my parents as my mission field — it was my job to lead them to God.

“You are brainwashed,” my mother said to me once.

“Mom, you don’t know anything about this stuff.” I felt the tears coming. “Do you know how long I’ve had to pray against your generational sin just to stay alive? You are demonic.”

The angry flicker in Mom’s eyes faded to cold, empty pupils. “Oh, now isn’t that special. Well, why don’t you go live with your new family then?”

We celebrated my dad’s birthday at the river the summer I was 16. We ate a meal of corn on the cob, cherries and grilled chicken, on a wooden picnic table a few yards from the water. We didn’t pray before eating like the people from church did, and I made a note to speak up to them about this later. I pushed the food on my plate around, sulking. I was thinking of ways I could convert them to my faith. Next to us, the river rushed constantly, filling the spaces between words.

As the sun set, we played cards by lantern light. My pastors didn’t allow anyone to play cards because they said it could open doors to the Spirit of Gambling. I wanted to mention this, but I thought that it would only stir up trouble. My heart hurt thinking about what my Jacob and Jessa were up to that night. I imagined them praying together, or worshipping around a bonfire, or dissecting passages of the Bible around the dinner table. I longed to be with them.

When my childhood home burned down in a forest fire the summer I was 17, my faith leaders hinted that it could have been because of my family’s generational sin. I tried to comfort myself with reassurances that God was both all-powerful and all good and that human suffering was all part of His Plan. But for the first time since I joined the church, those answers came up short.

Just 10 days after the fire, I left my hometown to go to a nearby Christian university. I spent that first semester in a fog, trying to make sense of my life. I remember lying on the top bunk in my new dorm room a few weeks into my college career, wondering if my faith made sense anymore, while my roommate used our dorm phone to talk to one of the boys who wanted to date her.

“That’s pretty gross, but your roommate can’t possibly be weirder than mine,” she said in a hushed voice. I held still and listened. “All she ever does is cry.” I stared and the ceiling, mortified and trying not to move as I sobbed.

The next day, my Grandma brought me a box of classic Disney movies on VHS, my favorites from my childhood — Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, The Little Mermaid, and a dozen more.

“I know this is a hard time for you. You don’t have to pretend it’s not,” she said, handing over the box. “I hope these movies remind you of happier times.”

I watched Snow White on the 10-inch TV screen that somebody had donated to me, under a fort of blankets and pillows on the floor. When Snow White was over, I watched Aladdin, and then The Jungle Book. I allowed myself to be whisked away to a time before. A time before the altar calls, before the revivals, before the fire, before the fog. I hid for days in the fantasy of enchanted forests and fairy dust and singing fish, while my peers went to prayer meetings. I stopped trying to read the Bible. None of it made sense anymore.

I called Jessa, hoping for a lifeline. I confided in her that God felt so far away. She asked me if I had been praying and reading the Bible enough. I told her that I often tried, but that it all felt so forced.

“Why don’t you pray out loud with me right now?” she said.

“Maybe later. I have to go right now.” I hung up and turned on Beauty and the Beast.

A few months later, my church leaders summoned me to a humid, tiny upstairs room at church.

“Carly, we need to intervene because you are backsliding,” Jessa said. She wore a scowl on her face, and my stomach filled with dread.

“What’s going on? I don’t get it,” I said, stunned.

“It doesn’t matter what you don’t get,” Jacob responded, standing up and getting his face close to mine. The whites of his eyes swelled, and dark blotches of sweat stained his shirt. “What matters is you have major sin in your life — and until you confess, you are never coming out.” As he screamed, I stared at a yellowed poster on the wall that said “Jesus Heals.”

I gave a pleading look to Jessa, my confidant and friend, but her eyes were cold.

They told me I had the Spirit of Rebellion. They told me my heart was evil. I tried to push back, but they yelled and told me that God would abandon me if I continued to live in sin. I wish I could say I stood up for myself that night, that I ran out of the room and never came back, but the truth is I stayed. I stayed for what felt like hours, crying and letting them pray for my sins.

I finally drove home in a blur, my body spent. I knew in that moment I had lost my faith. It had been slipping from me in small ways since the fire, when I no longer felt like one of God’s chosen ones, but I always thought I’d reclaim my relationship with God from the ashes. Now, I not only felt like I couldn’t trust God but also the people in my life I had given everything to. I didn’t know how I’d recover.

I left the church after that night in the upstairs room, but what I didn’t know is that physically leaving was not enough. I moved on with my life without much talk about those fiery Jesus years, as if pretending they never happened made it so. It was years before I began to talk about my experiences in the church and process them for what they were: abuse.

The more distance I had from the church, the more I could see how brainwashed I had been by fundamentalism. During my teenage years, I lived exactly how Jessa told me to — down to how I dressed and what music I listened to and what friends I was allowed to spend time with and how I spoke and how I approached the world. I believed that by following Jessa and Jacob, I was following God. They had the final word on salvation, eternal life and objective truth. They leveraged my normal human fear of death, and my desire for connection, as power over me. As long as I followed my leaders’ every word, I was beloved and favored, but as soon as I began to step outside of their instructions for my life, even in the subtlest ways, the same people who loved me and treated me like I was special began to verbally attack me, threaten me, and desperately cling to their waning control over me. While it hurt at the time, I now look back at their cruelty with gratitude because it was the catalyst for me to claim my freedom.

I ran into an old friend from youth group while visiting my parents for Christmas, and she asked me if I attended church. No, I said, quietly, shifting my weight from one leg to the other as we stood in the produce section of my childhood grocery store. I saw sadness in her eyes.

Don’t be sad for me, I wanted to say, but I didn’t. I remembered what it was like to be in that world.

For years, I believed that people who walked away from their faith would suffer eternally for it. I used to judge the backsliders, and now I was one. The words of my pastors that night so many years ago had been seared into my mind: You have the Spirit of Rebellion.

Today, I’m friends with many other backsliders. Most of them come from those spiritual legacy families that I used to long for. Often, they are the first to break away from generations of religiously devout people. They talk about how strained their family relationships are now that they’ve left their faith. Some of them have been disowned by their parents, while some are constantly pressured by their family members to come back to the fold, complete with warnings of impending judgment. Compared to their journeys, I had it easy. I didn’t have to risk losing family relationships for leaving the church. My rebellion was church. And now I’m more grateful than ever that that was the case.

Super Subcultures

The Plot Against the Principality of Sealand

How the world’s quirkiest micro-nation got pulled into one of history’s most epic intercontinental frauds.

Michael Bates was caught off guard by a newspaper item he read in late July 1997. He and his parents, a retired couple residing in the seaside county of Essex in southeastern England, were being connected to the murder of Italian fashion icon Gianni Versace.

Prince Michael Bates of the Principality of Sealand

Michael, then 44, is a stocky man with close-cropped hair and a tough demeanor. He runs a business harvesting cockles, an edible mollusk found in the North Sea near where he grew up. He squinted at the paper and continued to read.

It turned out that a passport issued by the Principality of Sealand, a micronation his family founded on an old naval platform, and over which Michael happens to reign as prince, was found on the houseboat where Versace’s murderer had committed suicide.

The newspaper laid out the puzzling circumstances of the case. On July 15, 1997, Versace was leaving his opulent Miami Beach mansion when he was gunned down on his front steps by 27-year-old Andrew Cunanan. Allegedly distraught that a rich benefactor had cut him off, Cunanan embarked on a kill rampage across four states, murdering four people before coming back to Miami and shooting Versace for seemingly no reason. When police finally tracked him down eight days later, Cunanan led them on a chase, broke into a houseboat, and shot himself.

Investigators learned that the owner of the houseboat was a German citizen named Torsten Reineck, described by some acquaintances as well-spoken and polite but by others as “obnoxious, unpleasant, disgusting.” He also owned a Las Vegas health spa where orgies allegedly took place. Reineck was a socialite who loved showing off his Sealand passport and was said to have diplomatic plates from Sealand on his car. Consequently, authorities began looking into the micronation to see what role it may have played in Versace’s murder.

The Principality of Sealand, standing on two massive pillars in the roiling waters of the North Sea, was declared a sovereign nation by Michael’s father, Roy Bates, in 1967. Located in international waters and technically outside of the control of Britain, or any other nation, the country straddles a line between eccentric experiment and legal entity of uncertain definition. Authorities investigating Versace’s murder soon realized that the rulers of Sealand were not joking about their claims of sovereignty and had on many occasions taken up arms to defend their micronation.

Roy Bates, along with his wife, Joan, and children, Penelope and Michael, raise the Principality of Sealand’s flag, 1967.

Formerly called Roughs Tower, Sealand was one of a series of naval forts built seven miles off the coast of southeastern England during the Second World War to shoot down Nazi warplanes. The British government left the forts to the elements following the end of the war, and in the mid-1960s a group of enterprising DJs moved in and set up illegal radio stations. The BBC had a monopoly on the airwaves at the time and pirate radio was the only way to get pop music to the masses.

Roy Bates, who fought with the Royal Fusiliers in World War II, and later said he “rather enjoyed the war,” was a wheeler-dealer businessman who at various points owned a chain of butcher shops, imported rubber, and sold seaweed to New York florists. One day while taking the train to work, Roy had a moment in which he realized he was done with the 9-to-5 routine; instead, he wanted to enter the pirate radio fray.

Roy decided to set up his station, Radio Essex, on Knock John, one of the naval forts. The forts were a hot commodity, and violent struggles for control of them sometimes broke out between competing stations. A decorated soldier who had once had a grenade explode in his face, Roy stepped up to the occasion and resolutely defended his fort.

“Roy was a throwback,” wrote former radio pirate David Sinclair in Making Waves: The Story of Radio Essex on the Knock John Fort. “He should have been born in the time of the first Queen Elizabeth and sailed with Drake. If ever there was a true buccaneer, it was Roy.”

He eventually let Michael drop out of school to help “turf off” rivals (in skirmishes that included gunfire and Molotov cocktails) and the family manhandled its his way into possession of Roughs Tower, another fort farther out at sea. Roughs Tower was at least three miles outside of Britain’s maritime boundaries, and Roy used its extraterritorial location to his advantage. His long-term intention was to turn the fort into some kind of lucrative enterprise, such as an international casino or independent television station. He declared Roughs Tower the Principality of Sealand on September 2, 1967, and installed himself as prince and his wife Joan as princess. In 1968, Michael and Roy Bates appeared in British court after firing across the bow of a Royal Navy vessel that got too close to the fort. The judge ruled that Britain’s firearms laws couldn’t be applied to structures in international waters, which the Bates family took to be confirmation of Sealand’s sovereignty.

The family elected to stay at the fort after the British government green-lit commercial radio and brought pirate radio to an end, and the Principality of Sealand quickly became the foremost micronation in the world, influencing people on every continent who now claim their bedroom, neighborhood or disputed territory as a country of their own. Although they no longer live there, the Bates family has continued its hold on the fort until the present day, successfully upending Crown plots to blow up the platform, warding off more attempts at invasion, and winning bureaucratic victories, such as the time the British government ruled that Roy didn’t have to pay into the national health care system while he lived at the fort.

As they built up the reputation of the concrete-and-metal statelet, the family issued coins, stamps and other trappings of statehood, including passports. The Sealanders had issued around 300 of them over the years, but only to trusted compatriots, and certainly not, Michael Bates was sure, to anyone who would commit cold-blooded murder. His head was spinning when he finished the article.

Authorities would soon determine that the Bates family had nothing to do with Versace’s murder, but as it turned out, this was just the beginning of a series of problems involving bootleg Sealandic documents. The family didn’t realize just how successful they’d been at asserting Sealand’s statehood, and now the tiny nation was being used to facilitate a series of wild scams all over the world.

On April 4, 2000, a trim, handsome 46-year-old man named Francisco Trujillo Ruiz made a few adjustments to the odds and ends in his office at 210 Paseo de la Castellana, a street in a fashionable part of Madrid, before sitting down to speak with a newspaper reporter. Trujillo Ruiz, a flamenco club owner and former police officer who’d been kicked off the force for burglarizing a home, was going to talk to the journalist about his duties as a high-level government official.

The reporter had just turned on her recorder and had her pen poised above her notepad when a klatch of green-uniformed members of Spain’s Guardia Civil came through the office’s door. Trujillo Ruiz jumped up in surprise, and the officers promptly made their way around desks and chairs to where he was standing, boxing him in. He was under arrest, they announced, for allegedly selling more than 2 million gallons of diluted gasoline.

Trujillo Ruiz was momentarily nonplussed, but as the police closed in, he pulled out a diplomatic passport and claimed immunity. The police had no right to be there, he said, as they were actually on territory belonging to another country — his office was the Sealandic consulate in Spain.

An official Principality of Sealand passport

The passport was superficially quite legit, with a rubber coating and foil-stamped seals, and it gave the officers some pause when considering how to handle the arrest. But it was soon confirmed that Sealand was a not a member of Europe’s Schengen Area, which covers passport and visa issues across 26 European countries, and arresting Trujillo Ruiz would not violate any international laws. Far from being a diplomat, Trujillo Ruiz was one of the prime movers and shakers in a gang of scam artists operating throughout the world. He was arrested and taken into custody for fraud, falsification of documents, and “usurpation of functions.”

One of the gang’s primary sources of income was the online sale of Sealandic passports, nationality cards, and degrees from universities supposedly based on the Principality of Sealand. Customers could shell out between $9,000 and $55,000, depending on what document was needed, and they were free to use them for whatever purposes they wanted.

Not long after Trujillo’s arrest, officers crashed two more Sealandic “embassies” in Madrid, one of them located in an office that managed bingo halls. At least 20 fake diplomatic passports, hundreds more blank passports, and 2,000 official documents were seized in the raids, as were two vehicles with Sealand diplomatic license plates that had been escorted through Madrid by Spanish police on more than one occasion.

Sealand’s true prince, Michael Bates, was tipped off to these strange goings-on around the same time, when a friend asked him about the documents for sale through the Sealand website. While the Versace incident in 1997 had alarmed them, the Bates family had been oblivious to the extent of the problem with Sealand passports. “Excuse me?” Michael said to his friend.

“On your website. The diplomas and passports.”

Michael scratched his chin. Sealand did have a website, but it was in its infancy. And it certainly wasn’t selling official paperwork.

He turned on his computer, clicked on the browser icon, and listened to the dial-up connection’s rasp. He typed in Sealand’s then-URL: www.fruitsofthesea.demon.co.uk/Sealand. The site was how he had left it. He then searched around and turned up a Sealand site with a much more manageable domain name: www.principality-sealand.net. Lo and behold, it was a website purporting to be the official mouthpiece of Sealand, and one could indeed buy a number of Sealandic documents.

Spanish investigators unraveled the web and found that the scams associated with the fake Sealand paperwork involved more than 80 people from all over world. The scams were impressively wide-ranging: one “itinerant ambassador” used bootleg Sealandic documents in an attempt to acquire 1,600 cars and secure a €20 million loan to buy two private planes. Sealandic credentials were sold to Moroccan hash smugglers, and the gang reportedly sold more than 4,000 passports in Hong Kong for $1,000 apiece. “We were completely shocked with the information and papers he showed us. We knew nothing at all about it or the people involved. It was all news to us,” Michael recalled.

Even more incredibly, the gang’s leadership had begun negotiating with members of the Russian mafia to buy tanks, helicopters, bombs, missiles and ammunition, through a shell company set up with bootleg Sealandic documents. They intended to sell the arms to Sudan, which was under embargo by many governments of the world for being a terrorist state.

“They’re stealing our name, and they’re stealing from other people. How disgusting can you get?” Princess Joan told the Los Angeles Times.

Trujillo Ruiz reportedly first learned about Sealand while working in Germany for a man named Friedbert Ley, who had launched his own Sealand fan website in 1998 and asked Trujillo Ruiz to set up a Spanish branch office of the Sealandic government. When confronted by investigators about the fake passports, Trujillo Ruiz conceded that they were made in Germany but said he had been appointed acting head of state by the royal family of Sealand and been given authorization to issue Sealandic passports.

“Roy Bates is a vegetable, his son Michael chose me, and I accepted the position,” Trujillo Ruiz told reporters. (Roy Bates was of course fine.)

Meanwhile, Trujillo Ruiz’s father, who shares the same name, told a reporter that it was bad fortune that he had passed his name on to such a numskull. The investigation into his son’s criminal activities resulted in his father’s bank account being frozen, and his overall good-for-nothingness also contributed to his parents’ divorce.

“I knew this Sealand affair was not going to turn out well,” the elder Trujillo Ruiz said. “I’m convinced they used him, because he doesn’t have the ability to pull off something like that. He’s not very intelligent.”

The Germans had once visited the younger Trujillo Ruiz in Spain, and they appeared to be a bad influence on him, the father said. That was a significant understatement, considering that the individuals connected to the passport scams were also connected to Sealand’s shadowy, kidnapping-prone government-in-exile.

In the early 1970s, Roy Bates had prepared to turn the fort into a much larger ministate with a group of Belgians and Germans who had offered to go into business with him. The Germans were led by Alexander Gottfried Achenbach, said to be a former diamond dealer who was planning on a quiet retirement raising rabbits in Belgium until the Sealand opportunity sucked him back in. It was the “last great adventure of the 20th century,” said Achenbach, who would eventually become, among many other titles, Sealand’s minister of foreign affairs.

The Germans were remarkable busybodies, drawing up a constitution and legal decrees and bombarding embassies all over the world with requests for diplomatic recognition. The baffled recipients sent cables to the British government asking what was going on, and the Crown’s exasperation is evident in their replies that it was probably best just to ignore the Sealanders.

Nevertheless, the petitioning continued in earnest and their zeal was infectious. Roy Bates had long intended to make the fort into a profitable business, and the plans he and the Germans cooked up were grandiose. They envisioned creating more maritime forts that would connect to Sealand and host money exchanges, post offices, duty-free shops, a casino, drugstores, heliports, hotels, apartments, an oil refinery, a lounge and “perhaps a coffee shop.”

In August 1978, Roy and Joan Bates drove to Salzburg, Austria, to meet Achenbach and company to finalize some of their plans. Back in Sealand, however, Michael was working on the fort alone when a helicopter landed. Out came some of their German associates, who claimed Roy had given them possession of the fort. Michael was extremely uneasy about the situation — and completely outnumbered.

Roy and Joan were similarly uneasy when a friend back in England alerted them that he had seen a helicopter hovering near Sealand. Their sinking feeling was justified. By this point, Michael had been beaten up and locked in a room during a takeover orchestrated by Achenbach and overseen by a 34-year-old lawyer named Gernot Pütz.

“Tie him up,” Pütz said when he arrived at the fort. Michael tried to wrench himself free, his hair falling in his eyes as he was dragged into the room and shut behind a steel door.

Sealanders keeping guard after the invasion of 1978. Gernot Pütz, seen behind the armed man, was held on treason charges for his role in the invasion.

The only possible way out was a porthole window, but it was far too small for an adult to fit through. Michael was left in the room for three days, keeping himself warm by wrapping himself in a Sealandic flag.

“They did let me out at one point, but I ended up fighting them on deck,” Michael said in a podcast on the BBC. “They tied my hands together, my elbows together, my knees together, and my hands down to my knees, and they picked me up and said, ‘Let’s throw this bastard over the side.’ But they threw me back in the room and left me tied up.”

Eventually, the captors threw Michael onto a boat, which deposited him in the Netherlands, with no money and no passport. A sympathetic skipper helped him get back to England, where he linked back up with his parents. The reception wasn’t necessarily warm.

“How can you throw away our life’s work?” his mother asked him in tears.

“What have you done since you’ve gotten back to resolve the situation?” Roy thundered.

But Michael explained his ordeal. “To this day I can’t sit with my back to a door or a room full of people,” he writes in his memoir, Principality of Sealand: Holding the Fort. The family quickly decided that the only possible response was to recapture the fort. They gathered some rough-and-tumble friends and a few guns, and enlisted the talents of a pilot friend who had flown helicopters in a James Bond film. The plan was to fly to the fort, rappel down ropes, and retake the Principality by force.

“I like a bit of adventure,” Roy said in an interview with NPR. “It’s the old British tradition.”

Attacking at dawn, they descended from the sky, fired a single shot from a sawed-off shotgun, and tossed the captors into the brig.

“We coup de état’d the coup d’état,” Michael proudly told reporters who sailed out to the fort.

“You don’t serve seven years in the Army without learning something,” Roy added.

A tribunal was established to try the invaders. The other conspirators were freed, but because Pütz was a Sealandic national, his actions were considered traitorous and he was held prisoner, fined 75,000 deutsche marks, and made to wash toilets and make coffee.

He’s lucky he got off so easy, Joan said: “In Britain, people can still be shot for treason.”

Britain shrugged its shoulders when asked to intervene, saying the fort was not on its property. The diplomatic crisis ultimately became so serious that, as Michael describes it, a “sallow-complexioned and cadaverous man” from the embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany named Dr. Neimoller came to negotiate the prisoners’ release. Pütz was freed six weeks after he was captured, and the Sealanders counted the direct engagement with a foreign government as another formal action that affirmed Sealand’s sovereignty.

The Germans retreated back home after the failed coup and established the Sealandic government-in-exile, a dark mirror version of the Principality that persists to the present day.

The government-in-exile disavowed any role in the late 1990s Spanish passport scam. In a press release denying involvement, Minister for Special Affairs Hans-Jürgen Sauerbrey also alleged that, instead of investigating the real criminals, German authorities had searched the diplomatic and trade missions of the exile government because they were looking for Nazi documents, information about flying saucers, caches of silver and gold, and a “multitude of cultural goods of immeasurable value … as well as highly sensitive documents from the Stasi files” that the exile government possessed.

Despite Sauerbrey’s disquisition, investigators noted that the circumstantial evidence linking the Germans to the scam was pretty strong. Torsten Reineck, who owned the houseboat where Versace’s murderer turned up dead, was linked to the same Germans who worked with Trujillo Ruiz, and these Germans all lead back to Alexander Achenbach, former prime minister of the government-in-exile and the man who attempted the coup of Sealand in 1978.

In the mid-1990s, Achenbach set up a company called the Sealand Trade Development Authority Limited (STDAL) through the infamous Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, said to be one of the world’s top creators of shell companies. According to information revealed in the Panama Papers leak of 2016, STDAL was set up in the Bahamas using a Sealandic passport and envelopes bearing Sealandic stamps.

Similarly, Achenbach and an Austrian couple named Josef and Eva Baier opened a bank account at Banka Koper in Slovenia in 1996. They caught the attention of Slovenian authorities when €6 million suddenly appeared in the account in March 1997. Officials expected that the money was from laundering, organized crime and/or a pyramid scheme.

Not long afterward, the Baiers came to Banka Koper and withdrew €200,000 from the account, again using Sealandic documents. When the couple attempted to withdraw €4 million more, the bank gave them a smaller amount and sent them on their way. They were arrested when they tried to cross into Italy.

Slovenia had long since put a hold on Achenbach’s account, touching off an eight-year legal battle between Achenbach and the Slovenian state, who struggled to prove that the money had come from an illegal source. Ultimately, the Koper District Court ruled that Banka Koper had to release the €6 million to Achenbach because they couldn’t prove it was related to any criminal racket. The money had in fact come from a gambling enterprise in Poland, but it was an aboveboard operation. A higher court later affirmed the ruling in Achenbach’s favor.

Achenbach had the money transferred to an account in the name of his lawyer; he couldn’t use his own bank account, as it too had been opened with fake documents. Achenbach sued Slovenia in 2010 for preventing access to his money, asking for €1.3 million in compensation for the difficulty the government had caused him over the past eight years.

The saga “presented us with a strange philosophical question,” one Slovenian investigator told a reporter. “It was about territoriality and recognition. Did we recognize these passports or not? Who is to say what is or isn’t a country? For a time in 1991, after Slovenia was briefly caught up in the Bosnian war, many countries refused to recognize our nation.”

Achenbach was 79 when he filed the lawsuit in 2010, and he succumbed to old age in the middle of the litigation at age 80. The strange legal and financial quagmire was a fitting final chapter in the life of someone who had spent his whole life involved in dubious ways to get money.

The Principality of Sealand greatly reduced the number of passports it issued following the scams of the 1990s and stopped the practice altogether after 9/11. Today, however, the Principality does offer a legitimate way to become a citizen of Sealand. The Bates family sells royal titles, an official business whose proceeds go only to funding the honest initiatives of the true Sealandic government. (Costs vary: $44.99 to become a Baroness; $734.99 to become a Duchess.)

Prince Roy and Princess Joan passed into the next realm in 2012 and 2016, respectively, but the country is going strong more than five decades after it was founded. “We’ve been a country longer than Dubai’s been in existence,” Michael pointed out in the BBC podcast. Michael takes only intermittent trips out to the fort these days, but Sealand is always occupied by at least one armed caretaker, lest any of the events of its bellicose history repeat themselves.

The Principality of Sealand, 2018

The government-in-exile is still going strong as well, led by Prime Minister Johannes W.F. Seiger since a constitutional amendment transferred power from Achenbach in 1988. The group has become even more bizarre and sketchy under Seiger’s reign; its philosophies are driven by UFO-infused Aryan mysticism and the quest to harness a Force-like energy called Vril.

Seiger has been investigated for numerous shady financial and land dealings over the years, and he has been suing to get back the nuclear and chemical weapons entrusted to his safekeeping that the “illegitimate” German government took from him. Seiger asked this writer if I could put him in touch with Donald Trump to help him with his quest, canceling further contact when I was unable to do so.

All in all, despite the genuine headaches that came with criminals trafficking on the Principality’s name, the saga makes for a chapter in Sealand’s history no less eventful than those of any of its macronational neighbors.

As Prince Roy put it many times over the years, “I might die young or I might die old, but I will never die of boredom.”

This article has been adapted from a chapter in the author’s forthcoming book about the history of Sealand, which will be published by Diversion Books in early 2020.

Hidden History

The Pirate Radio Broadcaster Who Occupied Alcatraz and Terrified the FBI

Fifty years ago, John Trudell overcame tragedy to become the national voice for Native Americans—and a model for a new generation of activists.

He sat at the same table each evening, sometimes with lighting and sometimes without, a cigarette often in hand, a guest always by his side. In the background, the sound of waves rolling against the rocks and the stuttering of a backup generator were constants. Then, with a crackly yet true radio connection, streaming through the wires from an unthinkable place — Alcatraz Island — he began speaking in a calm, determined voice. The nation was listening.

In the Pacifica Radio Archives, located in a modest brick building in North Hollywood, you can hear what hundreds of thousands of Americans heard on those evenings. File through the cassettes and you will find more than a dozen tapes labeled with a single word: Alcatraz. Each is followed by a date, anywhere from December 1969 to August 1970.

But these were not simply programs about Alcatraz, that island in the notoriously frigid San Francisco Bay that was home to a federal prison until it closed in 1963. Rather, they were broadcast from the former prison building itself, from a small cell without heat and only a lone generator for power rumbling in the background.

The show was called Radio Free Alcatraz, and it was hosted by John Trudell, a Santee Sioux Native American activist and broadcaster.

By the winter of 1969, Trudell could be found in that austere cell, speaking over the rush of waves in a composed Midwestern accent. And by 1973, he had become one of the FBI’s most feared activists, with a file that would eventually run longer than 1,000 pages.

Why would the FBI compose its longest dossier about a broadcaster speaking from a rocky island a mile offshore? What was Trudell saying that frightened them so much?

Trudell was advocating for Native American self-determination, explaining its moral and political importance to all Americans. On air, he often revealed the innumerable ways the government was violating Native American rights: obstructing fishing access in Washington State, setting unfair prices on tribal lands, removing Native American children from local schools. But he didn’t just reveal the cruel contradictions at the heart of American society. He imagined a future in which equality — between different American cultures, and between all people and the earth itself — would become a reality

And for the first time, non–Native American communities were listening. More than 100,000 people tuned in to Pacifica stations in California, Texas and New York to hear his weekly broadcast.

At just 23 years old, with long brown hair and hanging earrings, Trudell had one thing the FBI could not stop: his voice.

In this excerpt from Radio Free Alcatraz, John Trudell documents the government’s brazen violations of Native American rights and explains what changes are necessary before honest negotiations can begin.

Trudell’s story begins in the autumn of 1969, when a group of Native American activists, known as the Indians of All Tribes (IOAT), began contesting centuries of injustice by seeking to reclaim unoccupied lands. The organization pointed to the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which provided that all surplus federal land be returned to native tribes. IOAT set its eyes on Alcatraz, a symbolic beacon just past the Golden Gate Bridge. It had been unoccupied since President Kennedy closed the federal prison in 1963.

A group of Sioux Indians protesting at Alcatraz, 1964. Photo by Betmann via Getty Images

By inhabiting the 12 acres of Alcatraz, IOAT hoped to set a precedent for the reclamation of hundreds of thousands of unclaimed acres across the United States. But there was an obstacle: a hawkish government. Each time IOAT tried to reach Alcatraz — even making attempts to swim — the Coast Guard blocked their passage.

That all changed on the night of November 20. Under the cover of darkness and a dense blanket of fog, 79 activists from more than 20 tribes sailed from Sausalito across the frigid bay and settled on the island. Over Coast Guard radio, the sole caretaker of Alcatraz could be heard shouting, “Mayday, Mayday. The Indians have landed!” Despite his calls, the government’s response was delayed; the activists, many with their families and children, were safe. A gathering was held that night at 2 a.m., the old prison barracks were set up as homes, and food was lifted in fishing nets. Governing teams were also established.

Onshore allies knew the landing had succeeded when they saw a bright yellow Morse code message blinking through the mist: “Go Indians!” Back on Alcatraz, the children of the activists shrieked with excitement and clambered around the precipices of their new home.

John Trudell was not on those initial voyages. At the time, he had just returned from deployment in Vietnam, enrolled in San Bernardino Valley College, and moved in with his girlfriend, Fenicia Lou Ordonez. When he learned of the landing on Alcatraz, he suggested they join in.

“I get cold feet,” Fenicia protested, according to a scene in director Heather Rae’s 2005 documentary Trudell.

“Well, you’ll have to find socks,” said Trudell.

Expecting to join for only a few weeks, they packed sleeping bags, headed six hours north, and hitched a ride across the emerald bay on one of the IOAT-operated vessels, many of which were typically used for fishing and shipping.

What was once a treacherous journey with fierce Coast Guard resistance was now readily accessible, but not because the government had become any more benevolent. Rather, the activists’ tactic of establishing a critical mass on the island, and showing the nation why it was deservedly theirs, had succeeded. Fearing a public backlash, federal authorities called off the Coast Guard from intervening in these voyages.

Soon after docking on the island, Trudell attended the daily island meeting of IOAT leaders and tribal heads. He pointed out that if they truly wanted to make a case for the Native American right to reclaim unused land, they urgently needed to reshape the narrative. On his drive to the Bay Area, Trudell had seen national papers like The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle running stories portraying the occupation as a Native American theft — rather than a reclamation of what was stolen from them.

Trudell had spent the previous university semester studying radio and television production, and he felt that it was time, as he said in a 1969 interview, “to put into practice a little of what I had picked up at school.” He returned to San Bernardino for provisions, then returned to live on the island. He asked himself: “How would the tribes communicate best, and make their message known?”

His answer would take the occupiers’ message across the country and change the way Americans thought about the injustices perpetrated against native peoples.

After Buffy Sainte-Marie sings “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” Trudell explains the difficulties of living on Alcatraz, then introduces his guest, Jonny BearCub. (December 26, 1969)

If you lived in Northern California and tuned into KPFA-FM at 7:15 p.m. on December 22, 1969, or if you lived in New York City and tuned to WBAI-FM at 10:15 p.m., you would not get standard national news or updates about the moon landing.

Rather, you’d hear twangy guitar chords ushering in the voice of Buffy Sainte-Marie, who crooned a nostalgic ballad for Native American ways: “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone.”

The song was followed by an announcement.

“Good evening, and welcome to Radio Free Alcatraz. This is John Trudell, welcoming you on behalf of the Indians of All Tribes, from Indian Land Alcatraz Island.”

For the next 30 minutes, Trudell led conversations with Native American activists, spiritualists and students — many of whom were living on the island, visiting as volunteers, or ferrying supplies. It was called Radio Free Alcatraz, and Trudell typically began episodes by describing challenges on the island. There were many: Alcatraz had shaky electricity, a dearth of clean water, and it was frequently hit by strong offshore storms.

“It’s been a hassle lately with our electricity,” Trudell said one night at the beginning of a Radio Free Alcatraz show. “We had a power failure on Friday. … We didn’t have any power at all. And Saturday, we were stranded on the island because of bad weather.”

Despite these immediate challenges, Trudell — often clad in a wide-collared button-down underneath an emblazoned leather jacket — spoke both with the equanimity of a captain reporting to headquarters and the kindness of a good friend.

In an interview with KPFA host Al Silbowitz in December 1969, Trudell sketched a portrait of life on the island and outlined the purpose of the occupation. While many watching from the shore had been amazed by the movement’s courage and ability to survive on the rocky island, Trudell wanted the non–Native American audience to know: This struggle was not unique to this moment. It was experienced daily by native tribes everywhere.

But what was unique, and urgent for all people to recognize, was that the activists’ intention with Alcatraz was to reshape the narrative and the oppressive course of history. As Trudell says in the interview, “Alcatraz is more than just a rock to us. It’s a stepping-stone to a better future. We have a chance to unite the American Indian people as they never had the opportunity to do.”

In a conversation with Al Silbowitz, Trudell explains how the difficult conditions on Alcatraz all too closely resemble life on so many Native American reservations. He also asserts, “Alcatraz is nothing but a rock to many people. But it’s our rock.” (December 1969)

More often than not, however, Trudell’s primary role was not that of orator but rather of generous mediator, determined to animate Native American voices and convey a sense of hope born from their struggle. The heart of the program was his intimate voice — masterful at revealing the aspirational humanity that defined the movement, while outlining the enduring goal of activists to construct a university and Native American cultural center.

Trudell was not just a broadcaster: He was one of the unsung American forefathers of what we now call socially impactful publicity, or strategic communications. He already knew that for activists to succeed, it was not enough to campaign. They had to shape national consciousness.

On the night of December 28, his guest was Jonny BearCub, a member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes. Trudell opened with a question: “How are things on your reservation? Would you explain — what tribe are you with, and where is it at?”

Jonny raised concerns about the unjust allocation of federal funds to her reservation and revealed the low wages factory workers were receiving at a firearm production plant there.

“It happened in Palm Springs too,” said Trudell, drawing a connection, as he so often did, between a local complaint and a national one. “At one point, the Natives there were each worth $329,000 dollars a person. Then the BIA, or Bureau of Indian Affairs, stepped in and determined many of them incompetent to handle their affairs, so they put this money in trust with white people, who got fantastically wealthy.”

As an activist, Trudell’s role was often that of raconteur. He didn’t just tell about injustice. He relayed stories that showed it, and he had faith that Americans everywhere, having heard these stories, would do the right thing.

On January 5, 1970, just six weeks into the occupation, the 13-year-old daughter of Richard Oakes, one of the movement’s founders, fell to her death from a third-story window. Oakes, in immense grief, left the island. The child’s death, and his departure, were a blow to a community that was becoming increasingly disorderly and plagued by internal strife, as rumors mounted that the U.S. Marshals might raid the island at any time. But Trudell did not falter.

His was a voice of constancy, offering a lighthouse for a movement troubled at sea. “This is John Trudell from Radio Free Alcatraz, wishing you all a pleasant evening.”

Tragedy was not new to Trudell. It was a foundational part of his family history.

In the early 1900s, Trudell’s grandmother had been kidnapped by Pancho Villa’s men from her tribe in Chihuahua, Mexico, and brought to the U.S. She eventually settled down in Kansas with Trudell’s grandfather, a man with a price on his head for his involvement in the Mexican Revolution. A few years later, the couple had a daughter, who, after moving to Nebraska, fell in love with a Santee Sioux native, Clifford Trudell. The couple married and had John, born in a hospital close to the reservation in Omaha, on February 15, 1946.

John grew up on and around the Santee reservation in North Dakota. Life felt wholesome; the reservation offered respite from the civil commotion and disarray that characterized U.S. cities, while providing sources of ritual and community. But those rather innocent early years ended abruptly at the age of 6, when Trudell’s mother died in childbirth.

“We visited her, my father and I, in this hospital,” Trudell said in an interview recorded in the early 2000s. “I remember she gave me grapes — green grapes. She hugged me; she kissed me. And then it was time to go. I didn’t see her anymore.”

He paused, and spoke again, his still-powerful voice as soft and singsongy as a child’s.

“Green,” he said. “Time to go.”

In the early 1950s, John enrolled in school off the reservation, where he confronted a Western culture indifferent to his spiritual understandings and offering few answers to his enduring questions. He often asked, literally, “Where had my mother gone?” He learned about the Christian God and heaven from classmates and teachers. But these concepts never resonated with him. How could he trust a religion that was upheld by a culture that was threatening the lives of his tribe and Native American people everywhere?

“You have potential,” Trudell heard one day in the principal’s office. “But you have to work harder if you want to be something.” Trudell didn’t care for the patronizing tone, and he knew he already was something. He longed to escape a school that seemed to stifle, not teach.

He soon found a way, enlisting in the Navy during the early days of the Vietnam War. He spent his deployment far from the jungle battlefields, bobbing in the waters off of Saigon, watching the stunning kaleidoscopic sunsets and meditating on the fate of his people.

Newspaper clipping used as evidence in John Trudell’s FBI file, 1975. (Photo courtesy the FBI)

In 1971, the occupation was more than a year old, and the federal government began plotting to end it. In late May, they shut off electricity and cut off all radio service on the island, ending Trudell’s broadcasts. The population on the island plummeted as water became increasingly difficult to access. Meanwhile, factions and power struggles began emerging within the occupiers; some wanted to hire an attorney to represent their claims. Others, including Trudell, believed self-representation was the only honest way forward.

When government agents raided Alcatraz on June 11, there were only 15 people remaining on the island. It is unknown whether Trudell was among them, but one thing was clear: Though the occupation was officially finished, Trudell was just getting started. His next fight would be with the FBI.

“He’s extremely eloquent, and therefore extremely dangerous,” reads a line in Trudell’s FBI dossier. They had no idea that the even greater danger lay in a deeper kind of power: his power to reveal inequality and injustice while appealing to natural liberty.

After the occupation, Trudell became the chairman and national spokesperson of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and fell in love with a prominent Native American activist, Tina Manning. They married in 1972 and often traveled and gave speeches together. Meanwhile, Trudell galvanized AIM through protests, most notably the 1973 campaign to reclaim Wounded Knee village from tribal chairman Richard Wilson, who was notorious for suppressing political opponents and failing to act in the best interests of the reservation.

Trudell’s oratory prowess transformed the grassroots movement into a national effort. But this time, he used it not to communicate to outsiders, but rather to organize disparate tribes.

It worked. Thousands of activists gathered at Wounded Knee, the site of a massacre of Native Americans by U.S. Calvary in 1890, which now had symbolic power. The FBI and federal marshals soon moved in. Clashes were deadly.

John Trudell burning the U.S. flag during a protest. The image was used as part of a flyer handed out at actions and fundraisers for the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, in the early 1980’s. (Photo courtesy Antoinette Nora Claypoole and Robert Robideau, from their recent book “Ghost Rider Roads: Inside the American Indian Movement.” All rights reserved.)

But Trudell was a pacifist at heart — one of his common rhetorical refrains in the 1970s was, “The natural world has a right to existence, and we are only a small part of it” — but growing injustices against native tribes in the 1970s pushed him to the brink. In 1975, he was arrested for assault after entering a reservation trading post to obtain food for senior residents. And on February 11, 1979, as part of a protest against the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he burned the U.S. flag outside the J. Edgar Hoover Building.

His intentions had been peaceful — “I burned the American flag as an act of protest against the injustice being extended against all of the people,” he said — but his message was lost on the national media, which leaned on racist tropes about disgruntled Native Americans in reporting the story.

The next night, Tina Manning Trudell was asleep at home with their three children on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada. She awoke to the smell of smoke and a pounding on the door. Fire filled the house. It was too late to run. Tina, who was pregnant with a boy they intended to name Josiah Hawk, perished, as did all three of their young children — Ricardo Starr, Sunshine Karma and Eli Changing Sun.

From the time that his mother died in 1951 to his first days on Alcatraz, Trudell had turned to language — orations, poetry, rhetoric — as an existential stabilizer, a spiritual compass. But this time was different. He had no words, and he was left only with angry suspicions — suspicions that the FBI had caused the fire, suspicions that they were now on the hunt for him.

“I died then,” Trudell said in the eponymous documentary about his life. “I had to die in order to get through it. And if I can get through it, then maybe I would learn how to live again.”

He disappeared from the national scene and drove, crisscrossing America, alone in despair.

The voice of a chanting woman rings out. Another joins, deeper, complementing the first. A third now, creating a chorus whose song creates an image of the Great Plains of the American West, the mountains of South Dakota at first orange light. Their voices carry pain but build toward hope. Trudell’s unmistakable tenor enters:

I was listening to the voices of life

Chanting in unison

Carry on the struggle

The generations surge together

In resistance

To meet the reality of power

If you walked into a record store in 1983, you’d have seen an LP with JOHN TRUDELL sketched in blood red across the top, and beneath it, a black bald eagle, a dream catcher wrapped around its neck. Produced by Jackson Browne and entitled Tribal Voice, it was the product of years of grieving, mourning, and, eventually, finding the words for his pain, for his hope.

Mother Earth embraces her children

In natural beauty to last beyond

Oppressors’ brutality

As the butterfly floats into life

We are the spirit of natural life

Which is forever

Over the voices of a traditional chant, Trudell recites “Grandmother Moon.”

Long before slam-poetry songwriting became popular, Trudell wrote an album that mixed his love for poetic rhythm with his devotion to justice. He wrote much of it while on the road in the early 1980s, a cigarette between his fingers, a cup of coffee by his side, and a journal on his lap, during a period when he made very few public appearances.

Album cover for Tribal Voices, 1983. (Photo courtesy: John Trudell Archives, Inc.)

The lyrics on Tribal Voice reflect that nomadic lifestyle — dynamic, alive, quaking with power — and they at once inspire us to move our bodies, while also attuning us to the earth, to our connection with the earth.

In lines like “natural beauty to last beyond oppressors’ brutality,” Trudell speaks to his enduring hope: that language, well told and viscerally felt, can carry the seeds of justice, and transmit them to activists, citizens, migrants, parents and children everywhere. Few heard the album at the time of its release, but those who did — including Bob Dylan — praised it for its brilliance, and for its urgency about raising American political consciousness.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, and into the early 2000s, Trudell continued to release albums, publish books of poetry, and deliver speeches throughout the United States. But the years of tragedy in the 1970s, including the death of his wife and children, remained deeply with him, and he would never return to the central activist role he once held — perhaps one of the reasons that, of all of the activists of the late 20th century, he is one of the least known to us today.

With a black bandana around his forehead and circular, gold-rimmed glasses framing his stoic face, he spoke at a 2001 event in San Francisco, held in honor of the U’wa tribe and their resistance to oil drilling on ancestral land in Colombia. Trudell delivered one of his final major public speeches, aptly entitled “What It Means to Be a Human Being.”

“Our whole objective as human beings,” he said, “is to stay alive … really alive. Not surviving and existing, I’m talking about alive. Connected to life and all living.”

If there was anything that was eternally human, Trudell believed it was our infinite web of connections. Despite the wars, violence and oppression he witnessed in America, it was his narrative. He stuck to it. On December 8, 2015, Trudell posted a final message on his Facebook page. “My ride showed up. Celebrate Love. Celebrate Life.”

Death, for Trudell, was not the end. It was nothing more and nothing less than a ride a journey back to his origins — the collective human origins he forever encouraged us to remember — of Mother Earth. His voice, one hopes, will continue to drift in swells across the San Francisco Bay, spreading throughout the nation, where it deserves, as urgently today as ever, our embrace.

Secret Lives

Jannie Duncan: “Beautiful Human” or Fugitive Killer?

She was imprisoned for murdering her husband, then escaped and assumed a new identity. Her adoring friends and employers had no idea.

More than 12 years after Jannie Duncan walked off the grounds of a mental hospital and into a new identity, Debbie Carliner opened a newspaper and got the shock of her life. She was lying in bed in her home in Washington, D.C., on a Sunday morning, thumbing through The Washington Post. It was January 5, 1975. Carliner flipped to the Metro section, where the top story was headlined “Fugitive’s Friends Call Her ‘Beautiful Human.’”

Carliner’s eyes widened as she scanned the photos accompanying the article.

“That’s Joan!” she screamed.

Her husband looked over, confused. Carliner showed him the layout, which included five snapshots of a middle-aged black woman looking radiant in various settings. There she was smiling, surrounded by friends in one image, resplendent in a wedding gown in the next.

The woman was Joan Davis, 54, a kindly and beloved former family employee. In the 1960s, when Debbie Carliner was a teenager and her mother decided to go back to work, her parents had hired Joan to make the beds and help with the cleaning. Joan was an excellent worker, and she was warm and unfailingly trustworthy — so much so that when they left on family trips, the Carliners asked her to watch after their home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Debbie’s mother had often said that Joan was highly intelligent — “too smart to be a maid” was how she put it. All of which made reading the story that much more bewildering.

In a Washington Post article, Jannie Duncan’s friends and co-workers came to her defense following her surprising arrest. (Photo courtesy Washington Post Archives)

The article reported that Joan’s real name was Jannie Duncan. And that was hardly the only revelation: In 1956, Jannie had been arrested for the murder of her husband, Orell Duncan, whose savagely beaten naked body had been buried in a shallow grave near Richmond, Virginia, the story said. She stood trial, was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. After a few years, she was transferred to St. Elizabeths Hospital, a mental institution in Washington.

That’s when the story went from shocking to surreal. In November 1962, Jannie had walked off the hospital grounds and vanished for more than 12 years. After she was finally arrested again, on January 2, 1975, the story that emerged was as straightforward as it was unbelievable: She seemed to have simply melted into the streets of Washington, mere miles from the hospital, taken on a new name, and plunged into a new life.

Over more than a decade, Jannie had populated her new existence with a bustling community of adoring friends and employers who were oblivious to the considerable baggage of her old life. Even more strikingly, when her secret was revealed, every one of these acquaintances stood by her. The Post story was filled with the kinds of adulatory tributes usually reserved for retirement parties. Friends and former employers described her as a “high-class woman” and someone “of the highest character, the most honest person.” In an article in the Washington Evening Star, former employer Lewis Stilson held nothing back: “She’s astute, intelligent, vivacious, sincere, honest, and unquestioningly loyal to her employers.”

Like everyone else, Debbie Carliner was incredulous. Neither she nor her parents could imagine that the woman they knew as Joan could murder anyone. If she had, the Carliners figured there must have been a plausible explanation. “We did not believe the story about Joan,” Debbie told me this summer. “We certainly believed he deserved it, assuming it happened.”

I stumbled across the story of Joan/Jannie earlier this year while researching politics in the 1970s. I was so fascinated that I spontaneously abandoned what I was doing to look for other articles about her. The more I found, the stranger and more interesting the story became. For example, she told authorities that she couldn’t remember anything of her life from before she was Joan Davis — but she believed she had been kidnapped from the mental hospital.

The more I found out about her in the weeks that followed, the more I became consumed by a question: What was the truth about Jannie Duncan?

Her twin narratives diverged so sharply that there seemed to be only two possibilities: She’d been railroaded on a murder charge and slipped free of a punishment she didn’t deserve. Or she had killed her husband, escaped, and fooled everyone, cleverly concealing her status as a fugitive who had engineered a great escape.

She was a model citizen who had been wronged, or she was a con artist. I decided to find out which.

* * *

The woman the Carliners knew as Joan Davis was born Jane Waller on February 9, 1920, in Gravel Hill, Virginia, a tiny unincorporated community outside of Richmond. Public records indicate that she was the fourth of seven children. She dropped out of high school after the 11th grade, and, after turning 19, married Thomas Bowman, her hometown sweetheart.

The marriage was likely an act of heedless teenage passion. She left her husband after a few months, lighting out for Washington. There she worked as a clerk and maid during the day and plunged into the city’s boisterous nightclub scene by night, according to the Post. The divorce became official a few years later when Jane, whose friends called her Jannie, married a comedian named Telfair Washington in 1944. He died of a heart attack in 1946.

“He was the love of my life,” Jannie told Post reporter Maggie Locke decades later. “I think that’s when my problems started; after he died I was trying to find a man with his same beautiful qualities.”

Jannie took over Washington’s 17-room tourist home (essentially a boarding house) at 1622 7th Street NW. In 1950, she married again, this time to a gambler named James Terry. She divorced him about two years later, but the turbulence in her personal life didn’t seem to inhibit her business acumen. Within a few years, she employed a handful of people and owned a full-length mink coat and a 1955 powder-blue two-tone Cadillac Fleetwood.

In 1954, she met Orell Duncan, 37, a member of a gambling syndicate run by kingpin Henry “Piggy” Leake. In 1952, Orell Duncan had been arrested and convicted of operating a lottery and possession of number slips. Jannie married him in March 1955, but within a few months, they were living at different addresses.

There are conflicting accounts of what happened while she was working at the boarding house on 7th Street during the early-morning hours of March 11, 1956. What’s clear from court records and newspaper reports is that Orell turned up around 12:30 a.m. and a confrontation took place, and she pulled a gun on him. Orell disarmed her and again began struggling with her. Two of Jannie’s friends, Edward James and Calvin Simms, joined the fray on her behalf. Orell was later found dead from multiple contusions to the head.

Within a span of three days, police in Virginia and Washington arrested Jannie Duncan, James and Simms, and introduced a motive: Jannie’s estranged husband was snitching on her to the IRS. That detail became a staple in newspaper reports about the killing.

She was charged with first-degree murder, which carried a mandatory death penalty. At the trial that autumn, the government’s star witness, 25-year-old Carl Winchester, a friend of one of Jannie’s employees, testified that Jannie had pointed a gun at Orell and pulled the trigger several times, but it never fired.

The crux of the trial centered around the post-fight drive in Jannie’s Cadillac. The prosecution claimed that the three defendants finished him off in the car, while Jannie and the others testified that they were talking calmly when the men began arguing and struggling with Orell, and he fell out of the car and died from his injuries.

After a full day of deliberation, the jury found Jannie and James guilty of second-degree murder. Simms was convicted of manslaughter.

Her incarceration at Occoquan women’s prison initially passed without incident. One then-inmate later told the Post that Jannie was quiet and tidy and kept to herself, studying law books. After three and a half years, on November 14, 1960, Jannie was moved to St. Elizabeths. Almost exactly two years later, she walked off the grounds and vanished.

* * *

Reconstructing a life from decades past takes time and effort. To dig deeper than the newspaper stories went, I filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the police, St. Elizabeths and the FBI. I asked a relative who specializes in genealogical research to dig into Jannie’s family history. I wrote letters and called the people connected to the story who were still alive. (There weren’t many.)

Over time, I assembled the jigsaw puzzle that was her life. Once out of St. Elizabeths, Jannie began quietly reinventing herself. She replied to a classified ad in the newspaper for a job as a domestic helper in Potomac, Maryland, then procured a driver’s license and Social Security card under the name Joan Davis. She spent about two years working for that family, according to newspaper accounts.

After she proved herself a solid and reliable worker, she parlayed strong references into subsequent jobs with the Carliners and others. David Carliner, Debbie’s father, was a prominent Washington attorney whose work, according to his New York Times obituary, “helped define modern immigration law.” (He died in 2007.) He described Jannie in the Washington Evening Star as “a lovely, warm, responsible person.”

Jannie never left the Washington area, except for the year she spent in Detroit with her new husband, Wilbert Lassiter, a Michigan native whom she married in 1972. Eight of her friends flew from Washington to attend the wedding. The Lassiters returned to the nation’s capital a year later.

In September 1963, about 10 months after Jannie’s escape, the FBI, frustrated in its attempts to find her, had issued a wanted poster: “Duncan is an escapee from a mental institution. participated in a vicious assault which resulted in victim’s death. Considered dangerous.” The document shows all 10 of her fingerprints and her mugshot. In the photo, her face is tilted just to the right, her mouth slightly downturned; her hair is closely cropped and forms a little wave on the right side of her head. She is listed as 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds.

The FBI wanted poster and fingerprints that ultimately led to Duncan’s arrest. (Photo courtesy the FBI)

Jannie made no attempt to leave the area; rather, she doubled down on Washington, steadily building a community there. Irene Carroll described her friend in the Post as fun-loving and generous. “She was a lover of children,” Carroll said. “She would get us all together and take us on picnics to Lake Fairfax. She’d say, ‘Don’t bring nothing. I’ll take care of the food.’”

But cracks eventually began to show in the foundation of her immaculately rebuilt life. She and Wilbert Lassiter separated around May 1974. By December 1974, he had taken up with another woman named Jannie — Jannie Dodd, according to the Post. That month, Dodd complained to the police that Joan Lassiter had made threatening phone calls and left menacing messages at her house. One such note, Dodd said, read: “Have a merry Christmas. This will be your last.” Dodd filed harassment charges.

Public records show that the Lassiters were officially divorced nearly a year later, after Wilbert learned that his estranged wife had been “convicted of an infamous offense prior to marriage without knowledge of defendant.”

That infamous offense came to light in a remarkable way. Police in Arlington, Virginia, arrested Joan Lassiter on the harassment charge on December 31, 1974. She was fingerprinted, processed, and sent home. As her paperwork was being filed — the sets of prints placed among about 310,000 others — a clerk noticed something surprising: The fingerprints of Joan Lassiter, housewife, perfectly matched the prints on the FBI wanted poster for Jannie W. Duncan, escaped murderer.

On January 2, FBI agent Stanley Niemala drove to Magnolia Gardens, the apartment complex in Arlington where Jannie Duncan lived. She was a convicted murderer on the lam, so he brought along two other agents as backup. They watched the building for a while, and when a light popped on in her second-floor two-bedroom unit, they moved upstairs.

When Agent Niemala told Jannie that she was under arrest, she “kind of froze,” he says. He saw astonishment in her expression; after 12 years of freedom, she clearly hadn’t expected to hear the name Jannie Duncan again. “When you’re out that long and somebody suddenly steps up and puts cuffs on you, it’s not easy,” he says.

She stood stiffly, eyes wide and blank, as Niemala handcuffed her. The now-retired agent describes her as “almost catatonic.”

The other two agents each took a shoulder, gently lifting her, for the walk to the car. She was still so immobilized that when they reached the FBI office in Alexandria, Niemala brought the fingerprinting equipment to the car rather than haul her up to the third floor where she would normally have been processed.

Then Jannie Duncan was returned to St. Elizabeths Hospital. After about three weeks of evaluation, officials there declared that she had no mental issues and shipped her back to prison.

* * *

Con men and women have been around for at least as long as humans have traded currency, and everyone who has received emails from a Nigerian prince promising a share of his just-out-of-reach fortune knows they’re still thriving. As I learned more about Jannie, I began to view her exploits more cynically. Several elements of her story fed into this.

For starters, Jannie’s explanation of leaving the hospital sounded fantastical. She told Margot Hornblower of the Post that she had no memory of anything prior to her life as Joan Davis. She said her mind was “like a blank.”

But during that same interview with the Post, she did recall that rather than having escaped from St. Elizabeths, she was actually kidnapped by Orell’s relatives, who were intent on killing her. “I remember being choked into unconsciousness by a heavyset, light-skinned man,” she told Hornblower. “I remember waking up and this lady told me to call her ‘Mama.’ She said I had been very sick and I didn’t know who or where I was …. She said, ‘I’ll find out who you are and everything will be all right.” (Hornblower, whose name is now Margot Roosevelt, said recently that she didn’t remember any further details about the interview.)

The threats leveled by Jannie in 1974 suggested that “Joan Davis” was invented to help perpetuate her escape. Those menacing notes offered evidence of her old, true self leaking out.

Most significant was another Post article that focused on Jannie’s connection with Ernestine Delaney, an Occoquan inmate whom she met in 1958. Delaney (who is deceased) relayed that she was contemplating trying to escape, but Jannie talked her out if it, saying she would only end up with a longer sentence. One passage near the end stands out. “She mostly listened to others and never talked about herself — except her plans to get transferred to St. E’s,” Delaney is quoted as saying. Jannie “wanted the transfer to St. Elizabeths Hospital because she thought it would be easier to receive a parole from the mental institution.”

Jannie Duncan sits on her dormitory bed at St. Elizabeths on January 15, 1975. (Photo by Linda Wheeler/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

When I contacted St. Elizabeths, a spokeswoman told me she was permitted only to confirm the dates that Jannie entered and left the facility. The law prohibited her from discussing Jannie’s diagnosis or care.

But the Post passage suggested the possibility that Jannie had planned the whole thing: She had engineered the transfer not because it would be easier to be paroled, but because it would be easier to escape.

* * *

I felt I had a firm handle on Jannie’s exploits by the time I scored my most significant research breakthrough. After calling the federal courthouse in Washington to ask about her murder trial, I learned that the case file is stored in the National Archives. I drove to Washington to see what I might learn.

In the research room, I flipped open the first box, which contained the first few hundred pages of a 3,000-page trial transcript on thin onion-skin-type paper. Though I would eventually read everything, I jumped straight to Jannie’s testimony.

What I read stunned me. It began with a description of her life over the previous year — the entire duration of her marriage to Orell. She said that her husband drank almost daily, and that when he did so, “he would act like a crazy person. He couldn’t remember the things that had happened when he was drinking.”

She testified that a month into their marriage, he came home from a night of partying and “started beating me and picking me up and throwing me back down on the bed and knocking me about,” she said. “He finally knocked me on a table that was sitting beside the bed and it cut me up here with my eye.” She fled to the bathroom and called her mother-in-law, who took her to the hospital.

Soon after that, she was at Russell’s Barber Shop selling tickets to a church event, when Orell “came in and jumped on me and struck me about the head, picked me up and pushed me out of the shop and pushed me into his car …. I had a knot on my head and bruises on my leg.”

Jannie soon moved out but didn’t divorce Orell, and in May 1955 they were in a bar and he wanted to leave just after she’d put a quarter in a jukebox. When she said she wanted to hear the music, he began “striking her about the head.” She fled, but he jumped in their car just after her, pushing her into the passenger seat. After driving a short distance, he reached over, opened her door and pushed her out, then exited and began hitting her while she was on the ground.

The violence escalated. In one instance, he believed that she’d put sugar in his gas tank. When she denied it, “he pulled his gun out and put his gun right up here and he pulled the hammer back on his gun and said, ‘Well, yes, you did put sugar in my car.’”

She escaped that situation, but another time he threatened to stab her to death. She made several hospital visits. At Freedmen’s Hospital, the staff closed a laceration on her left arm with eight stitches; at Farragut, she was treated for a one-inch laceration over the right eye, abrasions on her legs, and multiple contusions to the head.

Then she took his gun one night when he had passed out from drinking, and on February 18, he came into the boarding house at 2:30 a.m. and demanded it back. She said she’d turned it in to the police; he punched and kicked her. This time the district attorney put through an arrest warrant. “I have an open cut on my left knee and bruises all over my body and I am still in pain,” she was quoted as saying in the warrant. “Also my husband has phoned since and said he was going to beat me to death before Monday morning.”

When Orell learned about the warrant, he threatened to have her killed if she didn’t have it withdrawn. She refused, but still, Orell was never once arrested for any of the attacks. (The warrant and hospital reports were introduced at the trial, and other witnesses testified to seeing Orell abuse Jannie.)

All of this culminated with his arrival at the boarding house just after midnight on March 11, 1956. Jannie had finished fixing up Room 7. “Duncan met me in the small little hallway, and he grabbed me by the throat and he started choking me,” she testified. “So he said, ‘I could kill you right now. No one knows I’m in the building.’”

Just then the doorbell rang, and he pushed her back toward the hotel’s entrance. Afterward, he sat her down at the dining room table and said, “I can come up here any time I get ready. You’re still married to me.” He wanted his gun back. When she said she didn’t have it, he “hit me upside the head …. Then he kicked me, and I fell out of the chair. And when I got up, I pulled this gun on him. He said, ‘Oh, so you do have it.’”

She had gone to the bedroom and retrieved the handgun she’d taken from him a month earlier. She held it on him as he walked into the kitchen, then she gave the gun to an employee while she called Edward James. A few minutes later, James and Simms arrived.

Carl Winchester was the key witness against Jannie. In his testimony, he said Orell reached for the gun and struck Jannie — “he lunged at her and almost knocked her down” — when she pulled the trigger. But the employee had removed the bullets when she called James.

James and Simms began scuffling with Orell, but eventually they stopped. Several bystanders broke up the altercation, and the four of them cooled down, settling into a temporary détente. Orell asked Jannie to give him a ride home, and she agreed on the condition that the two other men came along. They headed outside and climbed into Jannie’s car, witnesses said.

A postmortem toxicology report in the file showed that Orell was heavily intoxicated. Given what a sloppy drunk he was, the defendants’ testimony about how he fell out of the car suddenly sounded more plausible: Simms testified that they were arguing and scuffling in the back seat, and at one point Orell said, “Well, I ain’t going to stay in here.”

“And just before I noticed it,” Simms testified, “the door was open and he was out.”

* * *

This was the 1950s, and the nation’s high tolerance for violence in the home at that time has been well documented. While some states began to criminalize domestic violence as early as the 1800s, those laws were rarely enforced, and cases of physical and sexual assault were largely viewed as marital issues best worked out within the domicile. One study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry as late as 1964 posited that a husband beating his wife was a positive development, because it served as “violent, temporary therapy” that “served to release him momentarily from his anxiety about his ineffectiveness as a man.”

Jannie Duncan’s testimony about Orell’s abuse was vivid, detailed and substantiated by witnesses. Yet none of it seemed to register with anyone: not the judge nor the jury nor the reporters covering the drama. There was no mention of it in newspaper coverage. At one point, the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frederick Smithson, said of Jannie: “I believe this woman to be that type of individual that … they call accident prone.” He defined that as someone who “make[s] claims against her paramour or husband for the purpose of harassment and to get various pieces of property from him.”

Smithson also questioned whether Orell was capable of beating Jannie in the ways she described, noting that he only weighed marginally more. He wanted the jury to ignore Orell’s obvious physiological advantages—and that in some cases he was wielding weapons.

I was also struck by another aspect of the transcript: It raised serious questions about Jannie’s purported motive for killing Orell. She clearly had issues with the IRS; court records showed that she owed $26,369 in back taxes. But she testified that she’d been on the agency’s radar for years, and her lawyer, James Laughlin, argued vehemently for permission to introduce evidence that “would show an investigation was underway long prior to her marriage or contact with Orell Duncan.” Laughlin, in fact, had represented her during the IRS proceedings.

Independent proof suggests that this was almost certainly true. On April 4, 1956, a few weeks after Orell’s death, the IRS ran a classified ad in the Evening Star announcing an auction for Jannie’s mink coat to recoup unpaid taxes. The IRS typically auctions off property only after expending significant effort, often over the course of several years, to extract back taxes.

But Judge Joseph McGarraghy refused to allow testimony or evidence about Jannie’s IRS history, and the jury apparently accepted the contention — introduced by the police within days of Orell’s death, repeated frequently in newspapers, and advanced by the prosecution — that Jannie was furious at Orell for snitching.

In light of all of this information, it was jarring to see her story so casually dismissed. It was as if the alleged abuse didn’t matter — like it couldn’t possibly have been a factor, even in a crime of passion like Orell’s killing.

But even a casual reading of recent American history reveals that none of it is particularly surprising. The idea that a black woman’s version of events would be ignored in a trial in the 1950s, and that the word of the police and a white prosecutor would prevail: Of everything about this strange story, that was the shortest leap of all.

* * *

Viewed through the lens of the trial transcript and the information the jury never heard, everything about Jannie’s story looks different. Orell died from a result of Jannie’s acts of self-defense during a series of drunken brawls. He could easily have killed her, and probably would have eventually.

Seemingly minor details suddenly take on new significance, like the physical description on Jannie’s wanted poster: “scar in right eyebrow, small scar under left eye … scars on left arm, left shoulder, left side of chest and on right shoulder.” All of them correspond to injuries she described.

The transfer from prison to St. Elizabeths? It could have been her scheming, but one document among the court papers shows that she was moved to St. Elizabeths after being diagnosed with “severe depression, catatonic withdrawal with auditory hallucinations.” Which would be understandable, given what she’d been through.

As for the memory loss, that could potentially be explained by dissociative amnesia. That’s a condition in which a person blocks out certain information, often associated with a stressful or traumatic event, leaving them unable to remember important personal information. A 2007 study published in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law noted that the disorder “is associated with crimes that are committed in a state of extreme emotional arousal and in which the victim is known intimately by the offender. Frequently, the crime is unplanned and no motive is discernible.”

The alleged threat to kill Jannie Dodd in 1974? That charge was dismissed, and it appeared Dodd had exaggerated or even fabricated their interaction. U.S. Attorney Earl J. Silbert, in responding to Jannie’s parole application, noted that because of the way the charge was abruptly dropped, the incident “could not have been particularly substantial.”

Then there was her public support. Given all of the above, it suddenly seemed far more plausible that she’d simply been a genuinely good person caught up in a horrible situation who had navigated her way out as best she was able. In February 1975, a group of 30-plus people formed the Jannie Duncan Freedom Committee, raising money and circulating a petition seeking her release; they collected 5,000 signatures. Friends recruited the support of D.C. Councilwoman Willie Hardy and Walter Fauntroy, a prominent politician, pastor and civil rights advocate. More than 20 friends and employers offered to provide character statements in court on Jannie’s behalf.

Silbert was the U.S. attorney in Washington then, so he wasn’t necessarily in the business of letting people out of prison early. His response to her parole request is a pitch-perfect coda to Jannie’s uncommon odyssey. It’s obvious, reading between the lines, that he struggled to reconcile the particulars of her story, which he characterized as “a somewhat singular case.” Her interactions in her jobs over her 12 years as Joan Davis “reveal someone in whom these employers have complete trust and confidence and even more — as a person. In addition, this office has had contact with other members of the community who also demonstrate an equally high regard for Ms. Duncan. These comments cannot be lightly ignored. To the contrary, they are most persuasive.”

Jannie was released in April 1977. The Post showed up to cover her departure from prison, taking her picture for a front-page story headlined “The Saga of Jannie.” The subhead is notable for its Martin Luther King Jr. echo: “‘Lady in the Dark’ Is Free at Last.” She said she hoped to one day seek a presidential pardon and write a book about her ordeal. The friend who fetched her from prison suggested a title: “The Case that Rocked the Nation’s Capital.”

A Washington Post article showing Duncan leaving the detention center with her lawyer. (Photo courtesy Washington Post Archives)

But after this brief bit of fanfare, she was never heard from publicly again. It was as if she dissolved into her post-prison life with all the anonymity and quasi-invisibility of her years as Joan Davis.

Her family is content to let her story fade out of memory. Jannie’s sole remaining close relative, a daughter now in her 60s, at first denied that Jannie was her mother. Shown evidence to the contrary, the woman replied that she preferred not to participate in this article. I subsequently sent her a draft of this story. “All I can say is WOW! She had more alias’ [sic] than ‘Mission Impossible,’” the daughter emailed back to me. “All this just explains a lot. I must commend you on the great details you uncovered. However this still does not change my mind. I’d rather remain silent and not open up old wounds.”

But one friend filled in Jannie’s final chapter. Lorraine Sterling, a friend from the Joan Davis years, kept in touch with her by phone after Sterling moved to North Carolina in the early 2000s. Sterling says Jannie lived quietly in Maryland after her release from prison, working and spending time with friends. She evinced no interest in garnering further attention. “She was a very loving and giving person,” Sterling says. “She had friends, but she kind of stayed to herself at times too.”

When Jannie became frail, her daughter moved her into a nursing home. She died in May 2009, at age 89, in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Her relatives held a quiet ceremony at Scott’s Funeral Home in Richmond on a warm May afternoon, then wended their way to the Washington Memorial Park and Mausoleums in Sandston, Virginia, near her birthplace, for the burial. The circle of her life was complete.

I understand her daughter’s impulse to pat down the earth over this complex tale. But as I exhumed Jannie Duncan’s full narrative, two things stood out. The first was that initial assumptions about people are often wrong. Mine were in this case — and in a time when we’re seemingly growing more alienated from each other, I was reminded to look deeper for the complexities inside all of us, our shared humanity.

And second: Jannie’s story is more relevant in 2018 than ever. She was a black woman who lacked power or standing while facing a justice system dominated by white men aligned against her. She was easy to brush aside; her telling was easy to dismiss and distort.

There are some lingering questions that may never be fully answered, but this much is now clear: Jannie was a survivor. And we know, after these last couple of years, that there are countless survivors today facing the same systemic hostility, the same biases, the same obstacles arrayed against them.

Finally, then: This is the story of Jannie Duncan, survivor. For her sake, and the sake of others whose lives were damaged by what happened one night in March 1956, it’s tragic that no one listened then, more than six decades ago. For the rest of us, it’s not too late.

Secret Lives

Secret Life of a Leftist Doomsday Prepper

When it comes to preparing for the end of civilization, gun-loving red-staters aren't the only ones taking matters into their own hands.

Everyone in California is waiting for “The Big One,” an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 or greater that will destroy infrastructure and cause mass panic. Yet when I moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast, I discovered that since most of the people I knew were making do with small apartments and ever-increasing rent, having supplies on hand for a natural disaster required a space premium that many couldn’t afford. I began to put together an earthquake kit that would not only serve my household (which over the years fluctuated from one to three other people) but also my neighborhood, if needed. Even with all that work, I didn’t consider myself a prepper, just someone who heeded the Red Cross’s warnings.

When the average person thinks about doomsday preppers, they probably think of paranoid right-leaning wing nuts clinging to a small arsenal of guns and stockpiling toilet paper from Walmart in case their conspiracy theories come true. It’s a fair assumption — many television depictions reflect that mind-set, though the fears vary from group to group. Some are afraid of government collapse, others fear a solar flare, still others are preparing for a race war they think is inevitable. When those are the dominant examples, it’s easy to dismiss the practice as absurd and hysterical.

I am a leftist, anarchist prepper, and while we differ politically, I have to admit, the extreme preppers you see on TV are not completely out of their minds.

Me and my walking stick in the Bay Area.

I used to focus only on preparing for earthquakes and other natural disasters. That changed in 2011 when I went to my first protest, an Occupy Oakland action, with a medic bag. I didn’t know yet that I’d be out there for hours, so I didn’t have supplies I consider basic now — food, caffeine, extra smokes, insoles for my combat boots. I didn’t know how aggressive the police would be, and the handkerchief around my neck was more for a punk look than medical necessity. I hadn’t received formal training to be a street medic; I just happened to know first aid and CPR and wanted to help. I carried a 15-pound bag on my back, full of medical supplies, mainly gauze and tape but also things like tourniquets that I hoped I wouldn’t have to use. I was scared — I’d had rubber bullets shot at me the night before — but I was determined to drop off water to the protesters and make sure that people had sterile supplies.

That night, I tasted tear gas for the first time. You smell it before you taste it, and you taste its strange, bitter sting before it fills your lungs or blinds you. I was alone, and terrified, among a crowd that was shouting and crying and panicked in the streets.

“Disperse!” came the command from the helicopter hovering above us. Every exit point seemed blocked by clouds of tear gas or the loud kapow! of flash-bangs. Every explosion startled me; I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin. Rubber bullets were being shot at us from every direction by cops dressed in SWAT gear, as if this was a war, not a protest. Someone next to me fell to the ground grabbing his face. I saw he was bleeding and scared, and I dropped next to him, telling him he was going to be OK, that I was a medic. It was my first time treating a wound in the street during a fray. Looking down at my hands and seeing a stranger’s blood on my gloves chilled me, but there wasn’t time to feel anything. My legs moved on autopilot, going from person to person to check on them. “Do you need a medic?” I found myself shouting over the noise every time I heard a scream.

I went home, shaken and shaking, all of the adrenaline flooding me at once. I slept uneasily, tossing and turning in my bed. I wanted my partner to sleep next to me, but also couldn’t bear to be touched. I had nightmares that lasted for weeks: dizzying, confusing dreams where I was struggling to breathe or see but could hear pain all around me, and I would wake up panting and sweating.

Despite the trauma, I kept going to protests. I felt grimly determined, and as I kept going, I became more desensitized to the chaos. My medic bag evolved into something more suited for treating the effects of police brutality than simply a place to keep extra snacks and water on hand. I learned from other medics how police often target medics and organizers for arrest in order to destabilize and demoralize the entire group, and I grimly prepared for an inevitable attack or arrest.

I also began to realize that I needed to prep for something that’s increasingly as likely as earthquakes: large-scale civil unrest, which I witnessed a taste of in the streets that night. I began to think of how people act when they’re scared, including and especially law enforcement. I started to think about home security, transportation options if fuel was limited, how to access information without the internet. I studied natural disasters and their repercussions around the world as a way to understand how to keep myself and my community safer.

* * *

While I was beginning to explore the art of prepping, I met my partner, a fellow anarchist who specializes in constructing urban shelters and creating makeshift weapons out of random finds from the local dumpster. Ape is many things I am not — slender where I am curvy, tan where I am pale, easygoing where I am exacting. One of the bonds of our relationship is our enjoyment of teaching and learning from each other. Ape teaches me how to handle and care for knives and guns, while I teach him how to recognize medicinal herbs in an urban setting, how to preserve food, and how to stitch up a wound. Rather than depending on each other to do certain tasks, we’ve worked on becoming capable of filling in for each other in a pinch, leading us to learn new skills that we’ve found useful while camping, when the car breaks down, or during any number of other mundane situations. Our shared nerdy interest in preparing for disaster, combined with our complementary skills, has made casual but constant prepping a core part of our relationship. While other couples may prefer a nice candlelit dinner out, I love poring over the most recent articles in Survival Magazine or seeing what new products knife company Cold Steel has this month.

Ape and I had sex at an “End of the World” orgy on the night of Trump’s election. The crowd was mostly sex workers and queer folks. None of us wanted to face this election alone, so we got together at a friend’s loft apartment to handle the news as best we could — with food, alcohol and sex. What was normally a group of boisterous party animals started off with us tentatively nibbling at cheese and crackers, whispering to each other in corners, and halfheartedly making out, one eye always on the votes coming in. The room was increasingly quiet and depressed as the votes were counted and we realized that our worst nightmare, a United States governed by the pinnacle of toxic masculinity, was coming true.

When it became clear that Trump was going to be our next president, silence descended over the mostly naked crowd. Everyone seemed frozen in place. I felt a sinking in my gut and I knew what we needed to do; my boyfriend and I looked at each other and began to dress without a word.

“I’ll grab my medic bag,” I said quietly to him as I pulled my socks on, and he nodded. We knew we were going out into the streets of Oakland that night.

We arrived at the protest in Oakland’s downtown Oscar Grant Plaza while people were still shouting through megaphones at a crowd pulsating with fury and fear. When we took to the streets, I reached for Ape’s hand, both for reassurance and so we wouldn’t lose each other. We interlaced our fingers when we heard the first flash-bang — I flinched but kept walking. It wasn’t long before the police were throwing tear gas canisters into the crowd. While others turned to run and escape, we squeezed each other’s hands and walked into the fray to find people who needed our help. I didn’t know if we were going to be arrested, or injured, or even killed, but I knew I had to be there as long as I was needed.

We were out there for three days straight. Our lungs took weeks to recover from the gas and pepper spray we inhaled, but we took turns making mullein leaf tea to help the process along.

After that, I began to take my prepping a lot more seriously, even going so far as to make connections with similarly minded leftist survivalists to create a local list of resources, both online and off, covering things like who has what skills and who has extra water or food stored away.

* * *

I was on a forum online a couple of months ago looking for suggestions about bugout bags (prepacked bags you grab when escaping a dire situation) for urban environments, particularly if you’re more inclined to “bug in,” or shelter in place. Every sensible idea was accompanied by conspiracy theories about who or what was going to kill us all — a race war, a solar flare, a nuclear blast. Many of the commenters talked frankly, and sometimes cheerfully, about the need to kill other people in order to protect their families. Many of them wore Make America Great Again hats in their profile avatars, or actively supported the police in their forum signatures. They spoke with disgust about those they deemed “un-American,” particularly protesters who participated in Black Lives Matter or Occupy-type actions. Heather Heyer’s death — the woman who was mowed down by a white supremacist’s car during the Charlottesville, Virginia, protest — was seen as hilarious, not traumatizing.

Left, my bug in bag containing the essential medical supplies. Right, my slingshot used for protection.

I leaned back in my chair, my eyes scanning the vitriol on the forum, feeling anxious. The sun slowly set while I sat motionless behind the glowing screen, transfixed and horrified, my tea going from piping hot to ice cold. I forgot it was there. I could feel the tension in my gut clench tighter as I read the words of people threatening to spray bleach in the eyes of protesters at the next action. I was trying to figure out how real the threat was.

It was very clear that if I wanted to learn from the people on this forum, I couldn’t say anything about who I was or what I believed. Realizing that I might be chatting with the same people who were wielding guns at the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville was a startling moment, especially when I felt so safe at home in the Bay Area. Here, in my second-story apartment surrounded by an urban herb garden, my two cats weaving around my feet, I was more concerned about the police than my neighbors. But on this forum, I was brushing shoulders with the alt-right. As they regularly and violently vocalized, they were prepping, in part, to protect themselves from people like me.

Some of the items I keep in my bug in bag in case of any emergency.

This had troubling implications for what might happen locally if “The Big One” did hit. Would the people most prepared for life without the internet, hospital care and city infrastructure be the right-wingers who wanted to Make California Red Again? Would my black, transgender and disabled friends have to beg Trump supporters for supplies? That seemed more dangerous to me than the potential disaster itself.

While MAGA-hat wearers believe strongly that leftists and liberals are weak and ineffective in a survival scenario, I discovered that many of us already engage in activities that could be useful in an apocalypse. Knowing how to sew and mend clothes, reuse trash in creative ways, and fix machinery were all things I found among my artsy friends, for example. My witchy friends knew a lot about herbs and urban foraging. And a surprising amount of my Burning Man community not only knew a lot about filtering and recycling water or using alternative energy but also seemed to own and use guns, contrary to the belief I heard on conservative Twitter that a lack of weapons would be the left’s downfall.

Just last week I was sitting at a worn picnic table in the back of my favorite dive bar, drinking a PBR tall can and debating favorite guns with a group of friends. The air was warm even as the sun started to go down, and Edison lights illuminated our faces while we chatted. The conversation was spirited but friendly, all of us bonded by a love of camping, metalworking, and yes, weapons training. I was about halfway through my beer, eagerly discussing my desire to develop my upper-body strength to have a steadier hand with various pistols. The sun set while my friends, mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, continued to argue about which guns would be best in a zombie apocalypse, a thought experiment we used to discuss end-of-the-world scenarios that involve medical crises, hostile attacks, and the total collapse of city infrastructure all happening at once. For some, this might just be a silly conversation, but for us it offered a chance to work through multiple disaster scenarios at the same time and talk through real plans and theories.

Me putting a bandage on a friend at the my favorite dive bar.

By talking about prepping with more and more friends, I began to discover that many of them were also interested in developing skills that would be useful in a serious crisis situation. Several of them were already doing the same thing my partner and I had done — creating bunkers full of supplies and developing networks that could effectively take care of each other if the shit hit the fan. My community includes urban farmers, people who butcher their own meat, people who can and pickle the fruit and veg they get in their community agriculture boxes.

While the prepper movement may seem very right wing on the internet, offline I’ve found a vibrant survivalist society that is adaptable and stronger than they get credit for. Being a leftist prepper is less rare than I expected. We just don’t talk about it as much on the internet. Which, if you’re concerned that people are going to raid your compound for supplies, is probably sensible when you think about it! I also realized that the prepping I uncovered in my communities was less about individual survival and more about creating an alternative infrastructure, since the ones in place are already failing our marginalized friends and family, even without a disaster looming. Mutual aid is the core of our organizing, instead of pure self-preservation. Knowing this, I’m confident that we will not only survive, but heal, rebuild and thrive.

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