Street Fighting Man: An interview with Caroline Coon

Street Fighting Man: An interview with Caroline Coon Caroline Coon is a feminist, political activist, former manager of The Clash, the inspiration for Bob Dylan’s She Belongs To Me and Robert Wyatt’s O Caroline and one of the key figures in sixties’ Britain.
At the age of twenty-two Coon founded Release, an agency set up to provide legal advice for people found in possession of drugs and has campaigned for human rights all of her life. Now, the former Clash manager turned artist presents photographs from 1968 onwards displaying youth protest entwined with music. Street Fighting Man runs in London from the 28th of April and Electronic Beats had the privilege of catching up with Coon prior to the opening of this socio-political exhibition.

Electronic Beats: Street Fighting Man “demonstrates the power of rock and roll as a focus for rebellion, and the status of rock singers as mouthpieces for radicalism” – the photos date from 1968, a time when politics and rock’n’roll were closely entwined – do you think that music still plays a role in politics today, or have we lost that a little?
Caroline Coon: No, I don’t think we have lost the rock ‘n’ roll and politics connection. Before rock ‘n’ roll there was acoustic popular music and folk song which was generally ‘music of the people’. When the people rather than the rulers express themselves in music it is often to protest against the status quo and oppression – which is to say that really, there was never a time when politics, music and rock ‘n’ roll were not closely entwined. Because there is so much music about today, music that is specifically political can get lost in the mix, but there have been great 21st century political protests songs like Black Eyed Peas’ Where is The Love? and Green Day’s American Idiot. Sometimes we in the West tend to forget that in many countries simply playing music that is not ‘religious’ means that you could be killed – the Wahabi Taliban ban music – or to play any kind of rock ‘n’ roll could land you in prison. Today we should remember that there are thousands of brave young people in countries like China, Iran and Afghanistan who are facing harsh punishment for daring to compose and sing rock ‘n’ roll protest songs.

EB: Is the exhibition a reflection of the past, or also a call to arms for political activism
An impact of this exhibition’s collection of protest and riot photographs is what it tells us about how the past informs the present. We can be told in words and writing that revolutions happened and can happen but, I think, only when we see evidence in images and photographs of how change occurs that we feel confident that protest happens and matters. Governments like to say that street protest does not influence change. But, although a government usually will not immediately do what protesters demand, if people’s demands are good and just then eventually the changes demanded will be made law. For instance, although the huge demonstrations in the UK against the Iraq war in 2002/3 did not stop the war, in 2007 because of the way Tony Blair lied the country into war, Gordon Brown gave up the royal prerogative traditionally exercised by the prime minister to declare war without parliamentary approval. In March this year Green Party MP Caroline Lucas proposed the ‘Parliamentary Approval of War Act’ (09/03/2011) calling on the government to introduce legislation to make it mandatory that any decision to commit our troops to war should be approved by parliament. This would not have happened but for massive street level political activism. Photographs of street protests that change law will always inspire political activism.

EB: Many exhibitions focus on the music and the fashion of the sixties, without drawing reference to the activism of the late 1960s (The National Portrait Gallery’s 2009 exhibition Beatles to Bowie for instance). As someone passionate about socio-politics, do you feel it is important to educate people on the political past?
Yes it is! One colourful narrative of 1960s counter-culture concentrates on music and fashion and can appear trivial. But, in fact, the music and fashion of the 1960s was very political – the fashion was often unisex and the music was often about rebellion. Appreciate that colourful narrative but, it is also important to learn about what has been called ‘The Unsung Sixties’ where, behind the glamour, people worked very hard for long hours for minimal pay to remedy the ills of the times like poverty, debt, housing, sexism, racism and homophobia. People should not forget that it takes a long hard grind of dedicated work to change society for the better.

EB: You founded Release while still studying at art college, which has proven to be a huge success. Could such a scheme be set up from scratch in today’s society?
In 1967 I knew that it was possible to set up an organization to give advice about legal rights, especially to young people who had been busted for drugs, with a 24-hour emergency telephone service, because one of my social innovation heroes was Chad Varah. In 1953, he founded The Samaritans as the world’s first crisis hotline offering non-religious support to those contemplating suicide. As a teenager I’d rung The Samaritans. In today’s society, inspired by examples from the past, it is possible to set up schemes that address issues of the day – people do it all the time! For example, the groups setting up to advise students how to cope with iniquitous tuition fees! Or groups setting up to encourage women to break through the Men Only barrier in music production… All it needs to set up culture changing schemes is confidence and a huge dollop of passion!

EB: Of all the political songs from the past, why did you choose ‘Street Fighting Man’ as the epigraph for the exhibition? Was that simply the obvious choice?
The exhibition’s curator, Christabel Armsden, chose ‘Street Fighting Man’ as the epigraph for the exhibition. Even though she is very much too young to have actually marched to the song, she thought it really worked to express what she wanted the exhibition show. In 1968 I actually did march in anti-Vietnam war demonstrations singing that song!

EB: Youth protests are still happening today, but do you think we need to do more to bring about social change? Is it more difficult to achieve results today than in the perceived liberal sixties
In the ‘liberal sixties’!!! No, no, no!!! Although all the progressive social changes we are beginning to take for granted today started to happen, the 1960s were NOT liberal. Certainly the 1960s saw class barriers breaking down into a meritocratic society, which was liberating for many white working class men, but there was a long struggle ahead of us into the 1970s and 1980s to achieve anything like the relatively liberal society we have today. But be warned. Do not take the liberal permissions we enjoy today for granted. We have to struggle against authoritarianism, which seems to be the default human condition, everyday. For instance, it will not be liberal to make more legal restrictions on alcohol, the inability to chose whether to smoke tobacco in selected places in pubs is not liberal, any reduction in the legal right to abortion will not be liberal, cuts in our civilized welfare state are not liberal, sadomasochistic ‘fantasy’ images of women to promote popular songs are not liberal, privileged rights for religious groups to legally discriminate are not liberal, et cetera. If we appreciate our wonderful and relatively liberal, enlightened society we must continue to fight, with street protests when necessary, to maintain it.

EB: What’s next in the pipeline for you?
Just as this exhibition was about to open, young people in North Africa took to the streets. The Arab Spring is momentous – and, so long as I’m alive and healthy, I’ll continue to be an artist who often takes on political subjects. Right now, I’m going to have a cup of tea and then I’ll continue the history painting I’m working on at the moment called ‘The Fight for Democracy, Tahrir Square 2011’ (in oil on a 122cm x 153cm canvas). It will take me at least five months to finish this painting.

The exhibition Street Fighting Man: 50 Years of Youth Protest runs from 28 April until 4 June at Flash Projects, 5 Savile Row, London, W1S 3PD.