Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Crusties, Punks and Subversives: Street scene anarchist style

John Crossan - University of Glasgow

A few years ago I took part in a march and demo that was held in support of both a student occupation of a university building and a university lecturers strike that was taking place at the same time. I held one pole of an anarchist banner that read ‘No Gods, No Masters, Free Education for All’. During a rally at the march’s end press photographers began to take photographs of the banner and, in particular, the guy holding the other pole. He was a punk. Full on punk with doc boots, acid-wash denims, biker jacket with a mix of badges from the musical (e.g. anarcho-punk) to the political (e.g. smash capitalism). He also had a Mohawk hair-do. Pleased to be off-camera, I was not in any way begrudging of the attention given to my 1970s throwback comrade – who I noticed had a very middle-class accent!

The episode briefly discussed above is one of many in my activist life where dress has played a significant and not unproblematic part in the drama of street-level politics. I’ve been thinking about the relationship between clothing and politics for a while although this is the first time I’ve attempted to formulate those thoughts into written form. My politics verges to the libertarian left. Although I don’t define myself as an anarchist – more of a libertarian municipalist (see Bookchin 1993) this socialist tradition of political practice that aims to build a society based on mutual aid and mass democratic participation seems a sensible and worthy cause. My route into anarchist politics came via an impromptu visit to a squatted Dutch social centre almost 20 years ago when I was in Amsterdam on holiday. I spent a couple of hours with people who lived in and/or used the space, eating food, talking politics and being fascinated by the strange order of things. I was intrigued, excited and maybe a little uneasy with the irregularity of the décor and the bizarre mix of vestimentary styles on display. 

Brian Martin (2007) suggests there are three forms of anarchist dress – the “hippy” (arguably a more appropriate description would be the crusty) the “punk” and the “subversive”. The latter refers to the black bloc (see below). All of these looks are intimately connected to the urban environment – the punk and subversive manifestly so and the crusty in a less obvious but important sense. In various ways they all subvert urban space.

Halfacree (1996) using the term “new tribe” (but describing the crusty) comments that this particularly rural pariah originated from what the police termed an “unholy alliance” (Blakely 1992: 1043) between ravers and new age travellers. This introduced the latter to rave music, whilst introducing the ravers to the environmental politics of the new agers (Halfacree 1996). Halfacree described this group as the “new right folk devils” who were “out of place in the country” (Halfarcree 1996: 42). The radical land and environmental activism of the crusty, which was given legislative (dis)approval in the 1996 UK Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, also challenges the excesses and enclosures of city life. As troubling for the city is the rustic earthy colours and dishevelled contours of the crusty’s garb, which unsettle the clean Apollonian straight lines and unbroken Dionysian curves of urban form.

Woman in crusty-style clothing mocking a police officer at an anti-Criminal Justice Act demo 1994  ©Giles Moberly/PYMCA

The punk is the most individualised of the three anarchic looks offered here. In the punk we see, paradoxically, the purest expression of western society’s attempt at fashioning the body politic. Dick Hebdige’s (1983) sociological work on youth culture remains the most elegant and thought provoking study of the punk phenomenon as an embodied politics of refusal:
punk practice has reaffirmed the centrality of the body [..] as an object to be constructed, reconstructed, deconstructed. The body as canvas and stage. The body as metaphor, as site of contradiction, as a mutilated place […]. Dressed in Armageddon chic, clothes for Britain to go down the drain in, the punks played with and played back the rhetoric of crisis, made the word flesh (Hebdige 1983: 85).
Like the crusties not all punks are anarchists. Some punks move within a far right neo Nazi scene. That being said, arguably the most well known contemporary expression of punk life is the Hardcore scene, which for the most part espouses left wing and egalitarian political views around, for example, anti-militarism and anti-authoritarianism.

Punks at the seaside in Blackpool © Christopher Furlong 

The subversive dresses in black. More akin to a military uniform than the other styles mentioned, this particular arrangement of cloth, metal, plastic and rubber first began its assault on the city during the anti-capitalist demonstrations of the 1990s. Collectively known as the Black Bloc, John P Sullivan (2001: 123) suggests the term “refers more to a tactic employed by loosely organized, fluid, and dynamic groups […] than to a defined, regular group”. Sullivan is, in part, correct. At certain times this is a momentary, deliberately fragmented, and always moving assemblage of bodies. Their tactic is to exploit the inability of police forces “to shift from their planned method of addressing illegal demonstrations through crowd dispersal” (ibid) so as to perform their aim of destroying “the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights” (N30 Black Bloc Communiqué 1999) by smashing, subverting and defacing that particular form of property – “A dumpster becomes an obstruction to a phalanx of rioting cops […] A building façade becomes a message board to record and brainstorm ideas for a better world” (ibid).

                                                    Black Bloc somewhere 

The Black Bloc set themselves up in direct opposition to what MacLeod (2011) calls the “new urban political economy” and its commodification and policing of urban life. With black hoodies, vinegar soaked black bandanas and gasmasks protecting the lungs, bicycle and motorbike helmets protecting the head, shin guards and other forms of protective clothing adding bulk to the bodies underneath the black garments, the black bloc provide a visually stunning and formidable response to the brute force of the riot cops defending the sanitized apolitical dreamscapes of an urban entrepreneurial vision (Belina and Helms 2002). 

At other times, after the spectacle of large demonstrations, the visual cues and symbols of the black bloc merge with those of the crusty and the punk producing an anarchist scene. Most individuals that move within this scene don’t dress in any one particular style. Rather they mix and match the garments of each. Some anarchist sensibilities just don’t bother with textile representations of their politics, others are deliberately antagonistic towards the scene and its visual cues. Sceneism refers to what some anarchists believe to be the de-radicalization of the movement. From this perspective the scene “runs the risk of being bought out and turned into an alienating spectacle accessible to only a minority of the population” (Nachie 2003: 5).

From the outside looking in, a scene always looks more homogenous and impenetrable than it actually is. Most anarchist-influenced groups I have spent time with realize that closing the doors to the newcomer results in a debilitating introversion that is ultimately counter-productive. The strength of the anarchist scene in any city that has a significant number of anarchist-influenced activists is that these actors in costume perform the role of radical placemakers. Echoing Mattson’s work on gay-placemaking in San Francisco, the punks, the crusties and the subversives embody “non-conformist ‘rights to the city’” (Mattson 2015: 3156). My experience of the anarchist scene has been, on the whole, positive. Like many before me and many since the visual cues and prompts of the scene opened up a new language of politics that has enriched my life and from time-to-time I still like to put on my doc boots and black hoody for a night out in the town!    


Belina B and Helms G (2002) Zero Tolerance for the Industrial Past and other Threats: Policing and other forms of urban entrepreneurialism and Britain and Germany, Urban Studies, 40(9): 1845-1867

Blakey D. (1992) Our common cause. Police Review lOO (5168): 1042-3.

Bookchin M (1993) Urbanization without Cities: Rise and fall of citizenship, Black Rose Books  

Halfacree K.H. (1996) Out of Place in the Country: Travellers and the Rural Idyll, Antipode, vol.28, no. 1, pp42-72

Hebdige D. (1983) Posing . . . Threats, Striking. . . Poses: Youth, Surveillance, and Display, Substance vol.11, no.4 pp68-88

Macleod G (2011) Urban Politics Reconsidered: Growth machine to post-democratic city? Urban Studies 48(12): 2629-2660

Martin B (2007) The Well Dressed Anarchist, available at

Mattson G (2015) Style and the value of gay nightlife: Homonormative placemaking in San Francisco, Urban Studies, 52(16) 3144-3159

N30 Black Bloc Communiqué (1999) available at

Nachie (2003) Anarcho-Sceneism: What it is and how to fight it, available at

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