Arts Desk

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.

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  • Peter Burris

    As someone who has known and admired Mark for the quarter century Positive Force has existed, I have high hopes for the next stage of its efforts to bring compassion and energetic, progressive reform to the Nation's Capital. As saccharine as my wording might sound, it reflects my faith that Anderson can inspire during a sympathetic Democratic administration as he did during the Reagan and Bush years.

  • Cindy Reynolds

    Tell me, is this article about Positive Force or is it about Mark Andersen?

    Mark Andersen is not the patron saint of punk rock or DC activism! And I think judging by the above comment -- it would serve Peter well to think about PF as a collective, not just Mark's platform for "inspiring during a sympathetic Democratic administration as he did during the Reagan and Bush years."

    Seriously, I hope we can start hearing from the Cathy Meals and Matt Siblo's of the group. Mark does good work, yes. But it's time to let the other members of 'the Force' step of out of the shadows. It's obvious in this article that this tension between authoritarian practice and collective collaboration has long been an issue in this organization, as it is in many other leftist groups.

    Further, I for one would love to see more after-show marches in this city and everywhere!

    What do you say, shall we light up the torches for the next Positive Force show?

  • Northwesterner

    It was eye-opening to me how much Positive Force is viewed with suspicion from within the upper echelons of the DC punk scene. From the outside one would think that Mark Andersen's friendship with Ian Mackaye would open all doors, but indeed a group that asks and asks and asks for things from bands while giving little back can burn them out. That I think is the problem with entertainment-based non-profits- they rely on artists, often OTHER artists to complete their mission.

  • Stephen Johnson

    Interesting point but I think it's pretty off base. To say that Positive Force doesn't give anything back to the bands that play it's shows is really short sighted. And to say groups such as Positive Force "asks and asks and asks for things from bands" is utter bullshit.

    If it's such a pain to be "asked" to participate in the music scene and culture that gave birth to you, then good riddance. Positive Fore doesn't want those bands to play it's shows anyway.

    First off, Positive Force does indeed give a tremendous amount to the bands who play it's shows. They provide shows for these bands you speak of to play! That is a huge resource and "gift" right there. These shows are organized for free, with completely voluntary labor.

    For bands who play PF and related shows their identity is based on being a part of a alternative, DIY, socially conscious music scene. If they only want to be playing club shows for profit, then they should do that. But if Positive Force is attempting to collaborate with them, it's because that band has professed to give a shit about the work Positive Force does. It does the grunt work of organizing and promoting shows for free, and at best the reward for volunteers is building up a more vibrant and socially aware music scene, while the bands benefit from exposure, credibility and serving worthwhile causes. That cred has gone on to help establish a handful of bands like Anti-Flag and Against Me! to use two contemporary examples as major label and mainstream success stories. Other bands have built whole careers and legacies off of being "political punk" bands.

    Further. I think what PF and like minded groups do, is not just promote "their" mission, rather they collaborate with like-minded partners to promote a larger mission, including that of the bands that play their shows.

    And I think it's just downright snobbery on the part of the "upper echelon" of the scene to think about it the way you have posed it.

    And speaking of burn out, what about working your ass off for 25 years or more to try to build up an alternate, underground, DIY culture only to have whiny wanna be rockstars complain about how they have been asked one too many times to forfeit their guarantee for the sake of a "charity". Boo fucking hoo.

  • Mark Andersen

    Dear everyone in CP-cyberland,

    Just happened to notice these comments as I was sending this article to a friend at St. Stephen's... I appreciate them all, including the critical ones. I am not perfect, for sure, lots of mistakes made, and (hopefully) lessons learned. Glad to dialogue with any and all; feel free to write me at or just call 202-487-8698. Meanwhile, just few comments...

    I absolutely agree with the point made by Ryan in the article (and somewhat echoed by Cindy above) that PF is not equivalent to Mark Andersen, that a major reason why we have made it past the 25 year mark, all-volunteer is due to literally hundreds of folks who made PF their own. I wish more of their voices were in this article, and hopefully in any future articles they will be.

    I am not sure where Cindy gets her information about our internal practices and politics, however, and would encourage her to come check us out for herself. Now, if she is looking for a group that follows some narrow party line (anarchist or otherwise), i suspect she will be disappointed. PF has been loosely structured for a reason, to give space for lots of different tendencies and approaches to be able to co-exist, working together on issues of common concerns. While we can certainly do better, overall I think this has been a strength. Still, appreciate the challenge.

    However, how going on "charge of light brigade" after-show marches (with or without torches) that just get a lot of people arrested and/or hurt somehow advances PF or the punk community -- much less revolution-- escapes me entirely. I think we may just disagree on this. I think we, as a movement, need to be smart, to think strategically, not just act out our rage and righteousness. Otherwise, we will fail, maybe even make matters worse by playing in the hands of the powers-that-be.

    As for the mention of "upper echelons of the DC punk scene" by "Northwesterner"... my what a sad comment on what punk has become if indeed such an obviously self-contradictory situation has come to be! I am no "punk aristocrat", still just a geeky misfit, 50 years old instead of 15, but still burning with passion for a better world, one where everyone really matters, not just the hiop, slick, moneyed, and/or cool.

    Still making mistakes? No doubt. But still putting my heart out there on the line, hopefully my body as well? I'm surely still trying... anyone can judge worth of the results as you see fit, of course.

    Again, thanks to all for caring enough to write, please feel free to be in touch directly!

    all the best, Mark A.

    PS Thanks for your very sweet words, Peter... just for the record, Peter has been there, going to PF events, supporting the punk community since 1985... much respect to you as well, my brother!

  • Mark Andersen

    PS Thanks also to Stephen for his right-on response; I surely hope PF has given more than it has taken from the community... what a sad statement if we have not done so! For me, from the beginning to now, the point is to do this together, to advance shared goals. I hope most bands that PF has worked with feel that they have been respected as partners and co-conspirators. That is surely how I view them, as most PF folks have done, I believe.

    Again, anyone who feels differently is free to be in touch... glad to try to address their concerns, it at all possible.