The Reliable Force: Following Tumult, Positive Force Finds Stability in Its New Home
Not surprisingly, Mark Andersen’s office contains one wall covered in band fliers. They bear familiar names—Fugazi, Velocity Girl, Sonic Youth—and familiar imagery—raised fists and mohawks and lightning bolts striking the Capitol dome.
But there is one unexpected thing about them: Carefully gridded at the insistence of Andersen’s wife, they’re probably the least chaotic assemblage of punk-show fliers you’ll ever see.
Which somehow feels right. In this smallish room in the historically progressive St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Columbia Heights, Andersen operates a senior-outreach nonprofit, We Are Family. But the sign by the door also reads “Positive Force,” the community-minded, radical-leaning, hardcore-rooted activist group that Andersen helped form in 1985.
Both groups have operated out of the space since January 2009—it’s the most stability Positive Force has had in years. And recent months have been some of the group’s most active and visible in a long time: It’s been putting on regular benefit shows in St. Stephen’s, some with big-name bands like Titus Andronicus and Anti-Flag. In late June, the group celebrated its 25th year with what Andersen described as “one of the busiest weekends in Positive Force history”: two benefit shows; a screening of D.C. punk-rock footage; and a discussion of the anthology Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge and Radical Politics, at which several more groups played. Members of Positive Force regularly deliver groceries to seniors for We Are Family and volunteer at other nonprofits. This weekend, they’ll be participating in a fair-housing demonstration.
So Positive Force, whose core group these days numbers between 10 and 15 but includes more volunteers, is doing what it’s almost always done: holding shows, generating volunteers, turning punks into activists. Andersen credits newer members, such as Matt Siblo (a Washington City Paper contributor) and Cathy Meals, with reinvigorating the group.
In 2010, Positive Force is more or less where it had hoped to be in 2003—when, following a seven-year effort, the Arthur S. Flemming Center opened. That senior citizens’ community center, run by Emmaus Services for the Aging, then Andersen’s employer, housed a host of activist groups, including Positive Force.
But by October 2004, Andersen had been fired by Emmaus. Two years later, Positive Force vacated the building. For the group, says Andersen, “it was terribly traumatic.”
Andersen began working at Emmaus in in 1989, eventually becoming its deputy. With Emmaus’ then-executive director, the Rev. Charles A. Parker, he envisioned a space that would bring Positive Force’s punks closer to the Shaw seniors to whom they’d been delivering groceries for some time. He’d hoped to hold concerts there at night—alcohol-free benefits in the Positive Force tradition. The 13,000-square-foot space came together with financial assistance from some of the punk luminaries in Andersen’s orbit—Ian MacKaye and the band Good Charlotte, among others.
The building opened in April 2003. Nine months later, Parker left. His replacement was the Rev. Rusty Smith. At Smith’s first meeting with Positive Force, he said he believed the group had received a sweetheart deal, Andersen recalls. The group had a five-year lease under which it didn’t have to pay rent. “He saw Positive Force as a parasite,” says Andersen, who saw things differently: Positive Force had directed volunteers to Emmaus, raised more than $10,000 for the group through benefit shows, and brought in some of the Flemming Center’s benefactors, amounting to funding hovering in the six figures. “The org you are talking about got a discount to be in the building but did not offer any real support to the mission of Emmaus,” writes Smith in an e-mail. He’s about to begin as executive director of St. Martin’s Hospitality Center in Albuquerque, N.M. “Nice group but not a match for the mission and focus of Emmaus.”
Andersen says Smith wasn’t interested in the Flemming Center having any kind of punks-meet-seniors mission—he saw the venue as a senior center, plain and simple. Andersen became an increasingly vocal opponent, and Smith fired him. Although the lease barred Emmaus from charging Positive Force for rent, Smith asked the group to pay for insurance and utilities. In the fall of 2006, the group walked.
“The biggest issue was that no one within Emmaus was really on the same page,” says Ryan Fletcher, who was active in Positive Force from 1998 until 2005. Positive Force’s utilities obligations were at best implicit in its agreement with Emmaus, he and Andersen say. But if Positive Force had been more organized, Fletcher says, it probably could have managed to stay in the building, as did another group he was involved with, the Brian MacKenzie Infoshop, a radical book and record store. “In a way, Rusty out-organized us,” he says.
Tensions within Positive Force came to something of a head in January 2005, when a march (which was not Positive Force–sponsored) following a Counter-Inaugural Ball featuring Anti-Flag (which was) turned violent, resulting in 72 arrests. Leading up to that incident—Andersen describes it as a “debacle”—and after, a number of longtime Positive Force members left the group or became less active.
Fletcher was one of them, although he still occasionally organizes shows for the group. He’s also still friends with Andersen, although he has issues with the way Positive Force is run—ostensibly through consensus. “Positive Force’s structure is very informal. Its decision-making process...lacks structure,” he says, adding that although Andersen “should be applauded, the reason the group has lasted over the years is the dozens of people within the group working under that banner...It never professed to be a hierarchical association, and Mark is often associated as a leader, at least by default. The more that goes on, the more it prevents people from taking ownership and moving it on.”
Fletcher, whose views skew anarchist, says the group argued over protest methods leading up to the Counter-Inaugural.
Andersen doesn’t disagree with Fletcher—not entirely, at least. “Like any group, it’s imperfect,” he says. “Let’s hope it’s a special strength that I’ve been involved in the group, so there’s some continuity and some institutional memory. But it’s also a liability, because inevitably I’ll be the first among equals. I believed and I still believe there are more positives than there are negatives to my continued participation.”
In 2005, the group began infrequent shows at St. Stephens. And it hosted the All Our Power activist conference in 2006.
For now, Andersen is focused mostly on 2010, a bit on 1985, and not at all, he says, on 2003 to 2006. He has a healthy professional relationship with Emmaus, and at St. Stephen’s he’s building something akin to what he imagined at Flemming—a hub for diverse nonprofits, and a way to interest young punks with a changing neighborhood’s older, lower-income residents, and vice versa. The group has also begun opening up St. Stephen’s to other show promoters.
“I want the space in St. Stephen’s to be a channel for folks from within the punk community to this broader engagement,” Andersen says. “It’s not a little subcultural box, a little exclusive club where we hang out and feel superior. It’s a way to challenge ourselves and challenge the world."
Photo by Darrow Montgomery.