Punks on Politics: Getting to know Mel Gagarin

Some of the most prolific reactions and statements to the current and historical political histories has been made by punks. Punks have been making protest songs and jabs at the political state in hopes for change. With that in mind it is no coincidence that there has been an ongoing rise of passionate and bright alternative folks who are running against the current regime. Mel Gagarin, singer and guitarist of New York City punk band Scarboro announced in July, Mel for Progress, his run for congress in the Sixth Congressional District in Queens, New York. Editor Samantha Barrett sat with Mel Gagarin to chat about his run for office.

I read somewhere that the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and your work with Tiffany Caban’s campaign in NYC has inspired you to run for office. What about them and their trajectory inspired you to run?
I used to work in politics and campaigns so I saw people get shuffled to and fro. People have their own consultants and everybody has their own volunteers but it is really about that particular candidate and that particular election. With what has been happening in Queens, there has been a growing progressive movement that people are really invested in the movement itself versus just the individual candidates as an example, there were volunteers that were with the Caban race that had also worked on the AOC race that worked also on the Julia Salazar race in Brooklyn. They worked on those campaigns and went back to their day jobs such as bartenders, people in the service industry, and wherever else they may be before they roll into the next campaign.
It was really about the cause and not just these individual candidates. Seeing the moment in history that were in, there is a chance to fight back through this movement. These candidates have been brave and courageous in a way that I have never seen in politicians do before. To see Tiffany Caban work on causes decriminalizing sex work and decriminalizing poverty, to focus on the attention on marginalized communities, and other people that have been typically been ignored by the establishment. Especially coming out of the scene that we have, we’re always the underdogs and those things sort of resonate with me and that is why it is such an inspiration to see others who have the courage to actually stand up when it is not necessarily popular to do so in some cases.

You previously ran for city council in 2009, about 10 years ago. What about what is happening now that inspired you to make this run now?
Yeah, in 2009 there were progressive groups throughout the city but there was not any progressive movement. Back in the day you got in line and then you worked your way up. You try to play by the rules but it doesn't always pan out. Here you are as a progressive and we look to tap into a greater movement. Not only just this moment in history, there are people that are hungry for change! People think just like you, that feel just like you, that is just as angry as you are at the system isn't working for them. You don't even feel like that as an individual, you’re just another one in the line of this progressive wave that is trying to move our country left in the way of a tyranny of distance.

It is more of a group effort than it is just you?

You have been very outspoken about what has been happening with this administration. What are your goals by running for this office seat?
We’re working on a policy platform that is pretty progressive. Donald Trump isn't an anomaly. He is a natural result of a broken political and economic system that allows him to rise. This is a part of the complicity of the Democratic establishment that continues to play politics as usual, in the hopes that the next election were gonna turn things around. We essentially have been having a debate on the right’s terms for the last 30 years or so. There was a lack of will on the Democratic side to fight for what they knew was right. That was the perfect example, it gave the ability that the right wing (the red flag that showed us that Trump was going to come) could do whatever they want and nobody was going to hold them accountable. I saw that with my own Congressperson, time and time again. Knowing the egregiousness that was happening with ICE, with the camps, to not vote for impeachment, even with the Senate saying we're not going to pass that, which is not the point. The point is that we have an obligation to uphold the checks and balances that is instilled in our constitution. To backtrack a little bit, we have this rampant economic inequality that was pervading the system and not being addressed. We watched the banks get bailed out and the rest of the working America that sort of is forgotten. We are entering the 11th year of economic growth but we have more people on food stamps today than in 2008. Something is not working there. Somebody like Trump can stand and point at people and say this is who is to blame for these issues.

And he has.
Exactly, that is sort of the divide and conquer strategy. We have this tyrant and nobody is there fighting for the average person. There is nobody there fighting for the working class American, there is nobody sort of defending the middle class anymore. When our policies talks about making housing affordable, that almost sounds like a bumper sticker slogan because campaigning sort of forces you to do that. This is a unique housing plan because it is about social housing, it is about addressing homelessness, it is about desegregating poverty by getting rid of means testing and public housing. It is about criminal justice reform bill because it removes barriers for formerly incarcerated folks to get there. It is a GND Bill because it requires the carbon neutral standards and everything set in the green new deal. It has an economic justice platform built into it, we want to make sure local labor that is working on these new units who are working on this are getting paid their wages and that there are a high level of safety standards in the construction and that is just one policy.
For so long we always hear about that one law or one bill that is supposed to solve all of these problems but they don't because the reality is that we sort of have not had those intersectional approach to policy making in congress. Congress isn't designed for that. It is designed to reach to problems that are already existing. Their silver bullet approach is to be fix one thing here and while not addressing root causes. You cannot just fund more shelters, you have to address the root causes of homelessness. This does provide guaranteed provision for homelessness with wraparound services, financial literacy, substance abuse, mental health, all of these things needs to be addressed in tangent.
We obviously supporting Medicare For All, I am also supporting a new bill that will fill the gaps between social security, Medicare For All and Medicaid so that we are taking care of our elders. I come from two cultures where we highly value our elders and we have a responsibility to take care of them. Our system is not designed to do that here in the states. Even here in New York, if you can get some type of coverage like home care services, it is not subsidized and in other states they might not be funded at all. That's sort of the luck that we have in congress, those sorts of bills are not going to make the folks here at home. It does affect the country as a whole that I think we have a responsibility to that.
A part of that bill will include the Stonewall generation that is aging out and the LGBTI community that faces unique discrimination in nursing home and sometimes they have to go back into the closet. They all come from a generation where it wasn't acceptable to be out. Imaging having to go back into the closet now just because you have to enter into a retirement home. Not to mention folks from the trans community with unique medical needs, the facilities are not capable of /or have not had to deal with before, just making sure that is taken care of. To make sure we have proper training and we are not just throwing money at private institutions with no oversight. The government will be able to do the hiring and obviously creating new jobs where we are not understaffing and overstaffing and underpaying the health care providers, so that those are subsidized.
If you enter your golden years, whether you did fantastic throughout your life or you fell on hard times, or that one thing to happen before retirement that ate up your savings. The elderly should be taken care of because we have an obligation to take care of those who made it possible for us to be here in the first place.
And you know criminal justice reform is a big thing for me, I spent 10 years in a nonprofit space working on social justice causes. All of those experiences I am carrying with me to Congress. It is not just my professional resume that prepares me for the job it is the lived experiences that helps inform those policies even being in my punk band Scarboro. Being able to go into places like Muncie, Indiana and seeing working class communities that are sort of trapped by economies that were simply forgotten and to be in parts of this country that I would have never been exposed to otherwise. We read about Trump supporting some of these towns but to really understand how they ended up there in the first place and see the solutions there are meant to heal the riffs.

You are the singer/guitarist of a hardcore punk band, Scarboro, in NYC. You touched upon how your punk band has prepared you to take on this run. There has been a few punk/hardcore dudes in office in NYC. Do you think that we are craving punk DIY ethos to combat the inequalities of this administration?
Absolutely, I think that it is kind of funny. We hear about the Proud Boys and other white supremacists as if this is a new thing. But there are people like us in the punk scene who has been guarding against this movement for the longest time. I don’t think there has been any era of the punk and hardcore scene that we haven’t been kind of vigilant in creating safe spaces for the punk community. They have been there for a long time and we have seen that.
Gayla Brookes from Fat Heaven, and I started Punks of Color before she sort of became the primary caretaker of that organization or that fest. We wanted to create a safe space for bands that were female fronted and/or people of color. The first show that we did, the funds for that went to Make The Road NY, which has become critical in combating the racist policies of this administration when it comes to immigration and what better way to take that sort of ethos and bring it into the political space. That is sort of the interaction of where the punk world and the organizing world that I have been involved in sort of have similarities, finding like-minded folks that are sort of at the margins of society banding together and working together to effect the change in your own little communities. We’re making that change spread from one thing to the next.

Tell me more about Punks Of Color?
Punks Of Color came to us 2 years ago at this point. Gayla and I are both people of color, we would joke about how Fest was essentially, and if you looked at the roster every year was predominantly white male fronted bands from the suburbs. We were like, somebody should start something like Punks Of Color. We knew that Afro Punk already existed and at that point it already had become a bigger thing. We knew that there was a community of punk of color and that just inspired that Fest. The first show started out of her basement after that it was just awesome to see how excited Gayla was to really make that a thing. She sort of grew it into something bigger than I could have ever imagined. She really made that into a super successful local thing and it was really awesome. You got to see bands that play together that you would have never thought to see on the same bill and it wasn't like every other punk show that you have ever been to the city because they tend to be pretty monochromatic.

You are running in a very diverse area in Queens. One of the platforms you are running with is for immigration justice and to abolish ICE. Recently there has been a lot of crack downs that have been happening across New York City. What are your plans in actually achieving this?
Sure, what is going to take is a complete transformation on the immigration system. What a lot of people don't realize is that ICE is a byproduct of DHS’s (Department of Homeland Security) creation in 2001 in response to 9/11. DHS’s primary organizational mission was to fill in these intelligence gathering gaps, to make sure another 9/11 doesn’t happen. It was not to weaponize our immigration system. This is something that this administration has been able to supercharge because they have the authority to do so. At the end of the day there is an oversight responsibility that we have and we understand now that this agency has gone rogue. The only way that we are going to address this is to start over in many ways and have a more humane immigration system that centers on human dignity instead of treating folks who are seeking refuge in this country as criminals. To this date, we have had 7 children die while on ICE’s watch and nobody has been held accountable and that to me is completely unacceptable. That is happening with our taxpayer dollars and so congress’s role here is not to be fearful of the political optics, but understanding its role in government and to dismantle this agency, pull the funding and reform the system them from the ground up so we can actually fast track asylum claims and so that we can break contracts that already exist and make new ones. We got to get the private prison industry out of the immigration game. Those camps are being run by the GEO group and Core Civic, two of the largest prison groups in the United States. They are there to make a buck, which is a profit load in our immigration system that has no rights to be there.
We already have the DEA, if we are worried about drug trafficking, we already have an agency that is responsible for that. We already have law enforcement agencies in the state and local level that can address trafficking concerns. We do not need ICE to be an additional militarized police force, when the reality is that the vast majority of the folks coming to the border are escaping persecution from home and looking for opportunity here in the US.
The way that the system is designed now, it is not working for anybody. It is carrying out cruelty under the guise of law. The administration in particular is very intersectional the way that they are able to do that. We just saw it the other night with the folks from the Bahamas with their passports and trying to come to the states after the hurricane. They were told, you can't come here. Not to get super intersectional but we can say Dorain (Hurricane) to some severity is an offshoot of the climate crisis. And here we have our first ever case of G and D refugees being turned away by the United States of America and I think the average person does not recognize that to see that all of these awful things that we say is going to happen in the future are happening right now and no one is fighting to actually stop it. The Democratic establishment itself has not done enough to stop it. I remember in 2008, seeing political commercials of Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich sitting on a couch at the pool of the national mall saying they are going to address the climate crisis and here we are 11 years later and nothing happened. Democrats continue to pay lip service addressing climate change and not actually do anything or holding corporations accountable to actually doing anything to address the crisis as a priority. That is what I am running to end.
Our policies are not just bumper stickers, there are actual plans to fight for to organize, to rally and do something about these crises. Whether it is immigration, whether it is Criminal Justice, whether it is climate change. Having to do the tough work of governing, campaigning in some ways is easy, you get to promise the world but governing is the hard part. That’s where they tend to fail, right? To hear the, “Oh, were not in the majority”, that is not an acceptable excuse as we have already seen. When the Republicans are in the minority that does not stop them from fighting for their principals. How many times did they vote against the Affordable Care Act? Countless times, they eventually they got into power and they started dismantling it. Here we are back again having this debate on whether or not we are going to get Medicare For All. I am laying out the fight, right? This is where the fight has to be. Sure our plans are super ambitious. The housing plan alone touches on 5 different areas, how many committees are going to be involved but look that is what needs to get done. That is when being in a DIY band comes in handy and you have to figure out how to plan things, like how to plan a tour that is going through the Midwest, you know that it is going to take a lot of work, you know it is going to take phone calls, it is going to take organizing small venues in some small town in the middle of the country and that mentality transfers over to this space, it is the same thing. We know that we have to organize these different communities and we know that we are going to have that kind of stakeholders and we know that it is an organizing project. When we say fight, we know that this is not just a catch phrase which has not been succeeding in politics, with time that phrase has become totally meaningless. This is a challenge and we understand where the roadblocks are going to be and this is what we are going to bring to the table. The ability to try to organize all of the different moving parts to actually bring viable solutions to actual problems.

When looking at your website, I did appreciate that you stuck to 4 key issues and the one thing that you did not touch upon at all was education. Out of my own curiosity, what is your stance on the education system here?
We stuck to 4 key issues because we rolled out the website early. We have a whole slew of other policies we are rolling out as the campaign is building out. As far as education is concerned from Pre-K to 12 and beyond, we support free public education. The fact that even in New York we started increasing tuition of SUNY (State University of NY) and on CUNY (City University of NY) programs, we want to make sure we have free universal access to education including the trades. I think the trades get sort of looked down on, they are one of the most valuable resources we have and one of the only places that jobs are happening. We want to talk about a Green New Deal, well who is going to build out the wonderful infrastructure? On canceling student debt, I know I am somewhat biased because I am still paying off my BA and I am going to have to pay off loans I took out to pay for my master’s degree. It has become beyond unlivable to deal with the burden of student debt. Where you end up paying so much more than you need to just to get your education. The idea that I am ever going to own a home doesn’t exist for me. I have sort of given up on that and will be a lifelong renter because I am still paying off these loans. The cancellation of student debt that we hear being talked about at the presidential level is great but the presidential candidates will promise the world, it will be us in congress that will be there to get stuff done. Cancelation of student debt is a top priority for me.

I guess the other issue is that the people in congress may not have an idea of the struggle of these millennials right, everything you said right now are a part of our millennial crisis right? You see so many articles attacking millennials how we are killing the mayo business or we will never own homes. These are the crippling things we have to deal with.
Our policy makers haven’t thought about intergenerational equity. There has always been this idea of the immediate. This policy doesn’t just have ramifications for just the next couple of years, this policy will have ramifications for those who came before us (some of them), and it is going to affect our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren. That is what we want to change. We’re thinking about policies in the vertical and the horizontal.
When I was talking about that elder care plan that is not just for the seniors. My mom is now a few years into her retirement and my kids are getting older. My eldest is just finishing his last year of Junior High and is going to High School, after that then college. We are getting to a point where my wife and I are saying “How are we handle care for our aging parents and also make sure our kids are getting the education they want if we still have to pay into it.” This is how all of these different policies are intersectional and systems based, like what I was saying earlier. If we make college affordable for everybody and we eliminate student debt then that frees us up to make sure we will be able to take care of all of those things. At the same time if we are able to get the Elder Care Bill passed then that is one less burden. A NY Times piece that came out the other day reports women are leaving 28.9 billion dollars of wages on the table every year just because they have to take care of their aging parents. This also becomes a women's issue that don’t get covered in that way. All of these different pockets that needs to get taken care of to ensure that we are taking care of the next generation too. Our generation is particularly screwed. For me, as an older millennial, I got to see the economic boom of the 90’s when things don't feel as detrimental. I talk to my younger brother who is 14 years younger than I, and all he has known is “The Great Collapse” as what I know call it. All these neo-liberal policies that imploded on themselves and we saw the explosion of wealth at the top and the rest of us gets left behind.

We are close to the end of the year, what are some new records that you have been listening to this year?
Sick of It All's Wake The Sleeping Dragon is #1 on heavy rotation, it is on the campaign hype playlist. Definitely the new Bad Religion record. It’s not that new, but the Street Dogs record. The Interrupters is still there even though it is not that new. The new Fat Heaven, obviously because Jack from Scarboro is in Fat Heaven and I love those guys. It is a total killer record and the new Divided Heaven record. Jeff is my boy, he has gone more in the singer/songwriter route and it isn’t hardcore punk but he is just a fantastic song writer. I have a soft spot in my heart for Divided Heaven.

Any final words? Vote for you?
Not only vote for me but from anyone who comes across this and knows the trouble were in, this isn’t a traditional square political campaign. This is for all of the our friends in the scene and are fighting for causes even though you are not in political bands. Reach out to us and get involved, We really want to take that DIY ethos and bring it to the work that we are doing at some point. We are going to have a DIY screen printing t shirt making night, DIY button making night, we are taking that mentality and we are bringing it here. I think that is how we are going to make the change. The punk community is a community where we build each other up just by relying on each other when no one else would believe. It is no different now, when we are actually trying to fight. This is not just an Anti-Flag song rallying against the president, this is the actual ability to put these songs in action. We don't just have to be mad anymore, now we have to take action and there is an opportunity to do it and help elect one of you. We need more punks in Congress!