It always stunk in the summer at Roboto. “Like an onion farm,” my buddy Pat would say. There wasn’t any air conditioning, just a box fan that they’d usually stick behind the drummer. You had to keep the door closed to keep the noise from disturbing the neighbors too much, so even when the air got moving there wasn’t anywhere for it to go. Cram in 50 to 100 punks (each with their own personal and deeply felt commitments toward showering, etc) and after the first act the air would get heavy with the kind of stink that gets stuck in the bottom of your lungs. It fogged up my glasses and the plate glass in the front door.
I loved it there. The Roboto Project changed my life, and not just because I saw a lot of bands and made a lot of friends there. It radically remade my idea of how a community could function, and expanded my expectations for what a bunch of kids could do together. Years later, someone called Roboto “a community of people who gave a shit,” which seems just about right (and punk as fuck). I learned about co-op ownership and collective action at Roboto, and met people who were integrating the politics and ideas that I had only really read about in classes into their everyday lives (Roboto was my model for praxis). It was important for me, in those dark American days immediately following George W’s 2000 installation, through the aftermath of 9/11 and leading up through the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, to have a place that didn’t feel like it was totally corrupt. Where I could scream my lungs out and bang my fist in the air at the injustice and outrage of it all. Where the bands started and ended every set by reminding everyone in the pit, “let’s take care of one another.”
How do you sustain a community in dark times? When economics and toxic culture conspire to crush just about everything you hold dear? It’s a question I’m reminded of a lot these days, almost twenty years since my first show.
One of those sweltering, stinking summer nights at Roboto sticks out in my mind. We were there for some show or another–I want to say that it was Grabass Charlestons and Army of Ponch, though I’m not sure. What I do remember was this guy, we’ll call him Zeke, acting like a jerk. He had a reputation for acting that way–it’d been one of the factors in his previous, well-loved local band calling it quits the year before. In between sets, when the front door would swing open and you could get a few precious breaths of fresh air, Zeke went outside to slam a few drinks. By the time the third band started their set, he was hammered, acting erratically, and generally putting people on edge.
I don’t know exactly what precipitated it, but eventually somebody confronted him. I remember turning my head to the right and seeing a badass woman (one in a scene full of badass women) get in his face. He yelled something back at her, and she squared up, unafraid.
Have you ever been in a situation in which the energy of a room suddenly and dramatically changes, and your animal brain takes over to just react, rather than make decisions? That’s what happened in Roboto when Zeke put his hands on her. It happened fast. Some individuals were there first–I remember a guy named Mike Rock leading the charge, with the original woman right there next to him–but what I remember most of all was how it seemed like everyone, all of us together, swept Zeke up like a wave. Without coordinating or deciding we all started pushing, out of the pit, through the crowd, and right through the plate glass window in the front door and out onto the street. We were white blood cells attacking an infection. Not in here. Not ever.
The band finished the set. The cool air rushed in through the broken window for the rest of the show. Some people stuck around to sweep up the glass afterward. A member replaced the door the next day.
We make the community we want by making people feel welcome. We make the community we want by making some actions unacceptable. We make the community we want by behaving in such a way to make the two previous sentences true.
When I see Richard Spencer get punched in the street, I think of Roboto. When I see protesters show up for refugees rights, I think of Roboto. We make the country we want.