While there is a history of political discourse in punk rock music dating back to the mid ’70s, much of it has been exercised through protest songs, political statements in publications and benefit concerts rather than involvement with actual political groups. Veteran punk rocker Jesse Townley, singer for Bay Area band The Frisk, is putting his beliefs into action by running as the Green Party candidate in the November 2 election for Berkeley City Council District 5. This isn’t some snot-nosed prank or PR stunt but a serious campaign by an active member of Berkeley’s nonprofit community.
Born in New Jersey in 1970, Townley was raised in nearby Philadelphia, where he attended a Quaker high school. He moved to Berkeley when he was 19 and quickly became involved with the vibrant punk scene that spawned such acts as Operation Ivy and Green Day. Townley, who performs under the alias Jesse Luscious, has been in such bands as Blatz, The Gr’ups and most notably The Criminals, which he fronted throughout the ’90s. But he has always devoted his time to other projects such as the City of Berkeley’s Disaster Council, the American Civil Liberties Union, Berkeley Citizens Action and the Sign and Display Workers Union Local 510.
In 1991, Townley became secretary at 924 Gilman Street, the legendary cooperatively run venue where hundreds of Bay Area punk bands got their start. He still holds the post 13 years later, handling such duties as facilitating meetings and helping oversee the budget of the alcohol-free, all-ages performance space. Working at Gilman provided him with experience doing nonprofit work, handling business matters, adhering to community standards and dealing with business leaders and various departments in the local government.
“Initially there were different parts of the city that had different impressions and opinions on Gilman,” Townley says. “The ones that were completely off base were the ones that really planted the seed for me getting much more involved with local politics because there was clearly a gap of understanding. Working at Gilman certainly had its share of responsibility — but being an all-ages, volunteer-run collective, we basically taught ourselves to deal with responsibility.
“Some nights we counted thousands of dollars and we had to figure out who gets what money and make sure everything is fair and as egalitarian as possible,” Townley adds. “Somebody has to show up and unlock the door, somebody has to stay after the show and clean up the neighborhood. That’s the crazy training we do and I don’t think some parts of the city understood the value we were adding to the community on top of all the art, creativity and expression we were fostering.”
Townley has been a licensed Emergency Medical Technician and is a specialist in disability services. He worked for several years at Easy Does It, an agency contracted by the City of Berkeley to provide emergency services to disabled residents living independently. He was executive director of the agency from 2000 to 2002 and served on the board of directors through 2003.
Townley’s disparate experiences figure heavily into his grassroots campaign. His key issues include development that serves the entire community rather than simply the privileged and powerful and continuing Berkeley’s ecological leadership by using government resources for such pro-Green issues as energy efficiency, expansion of Biodiesel vehicles, solarization and energy efficient public transit. Townley is big on public safety with particular interest in disaster preparedness, neighborhood training in Community Emergency Response Team training and continuation of the city’s successful community policing and bicycle police programs.
“I think it’s important for people outside of the musical community I come from to recognize that the social activism and very strong grassroots feeling of this music is completely analogous to what happened in ’67, ’68 and ’69,” Townley says. “Different music, different hairstyles for sure but there is something rotten in our country and it is paramount we band together to fix it. You still have people in both parties who are beholden to money and they need to be called accountable.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
We've partnered with the publisher, Haymarket Books, and 100% of your donation will go towards supporting In These Times.