“You Don’t Have a Choice. It’s the Moral Thing to Do.”

Brett Payne
Bryan Quinby

Brett Payne and Bryan Quinby, hosts of Street Fight Radio, talk about their twisting paths to the Left through punk and libertarianism in suburban Ohio, hating your job and barely making it, and how to prevent angry young white men from going over to the alt right.

A still from Brett and Bryan's appearance on Means TV, an anticapitalist video channel. You can watch their appearance here.

Interview by
Meagan Day

Street Fight Radio is a podcast hosted out of Columbus, Ohio by Brett Payne and Bryan Quinby. The show touches on a wide range of subjects, from the hosts’ personal lives to listeners’ bad boss stories to general discussion of left-wing politics.

Brett and Bryan, who are thirty-five and forty years old respectively, both grew up in working-class households just outside of Columbus, and both traveled a twisty path — through Alex Jones, NOFX, Ron Paul, and psychedelic mushrooms — to arrive at the world views they have today.

Jacobin’s Meagan Day talked to them about their own political awakenings, anarchism and the value of taking state power, and whose responsibility it is to stop disaffected young white guys from drifting right.


MD

Your podcast is an anomaly among podcasts that deal broadly with politics. You guys aren’t dry, to say the least. You don’t pose as experts. You’re irreverent and funny, and you also frequently get very personal. So I wanted to start with the personal aspect. Can you tell me where and how you grew up?

BQ

I’m from Groveport, Ohio, which is like ten minutes away from Columbus. Me and Brett are basically from the same kind of area near Columbus, suburban but kind of working class. It’s like low-end middle-class housing. For me it was like, half hillbillies and half people that think they live in a city. There was some tension there.

BP

I was born in Columbus and I lived in the city until seventh grade, when I moved to Reynoldsburg, which is just a standard suburb. The houses were like a hundred thousand dollars. It’s an easy way to do white flight and get the hell out of the city if you have enough money.

It really gave me a disdain for the suburbs. I was listening to hip hop when I was in the city, but as soon as I moved to the suburbs, all punk music made sense to me. I totally understood who they were mad about, and why they were so bratty and mean, and who they wanted to make have a bad time.

Reynoldsburg is like some people that have nothing, and some people that have McMansions that think that they’ve accomplished something in the world because maybe their kid gets a brand new Honda Civic for their sixteenth birthday or something. But most people out there are still struggling.

BQ

My parents were just cheap. They just lived in a cheap neighborhood because they wanted money to buy, like, campers. They could’ve lived somewhere nicer, but they wanted money to buy all this extra stuff. They spent it on themselves, and then they spent all their time telling me and my brothers and sisters that we were better than the people in our neighborhood. You can’t live a life thinking you’re better than all of the people around you.

BP

Especially when you’ve got a house with steps that don’t even got a railing on it. Come on. How are you better than everybody else?

BQ

The house was miserable-looking, I know.

MD

Did you guys grow up around left-wing politics at all?

BQ

I grew up around apolitical people. I think my dad didn’t vote for Jimmy Carter the first time, but then did the second time. He doesn’t believe in telling people how you voted.

All my friends were apolitical. I didn’t vote in 2000. But then in 2004 I did that thing selfish dudes do, where they’re like, all right, I have a daughter now, and I have to do something about something.

BP

Everybody in my family was out and proud Republicans. My aunt was a Democrat, and she made like six figures a year doing high-level translation and shit, and flew all around the world and spoke five different languages. And she was like the goofy doofy idiot of the family that everybody thought was a joke.

BQ

Tell her how you got kicked out of your house.

BP

At the time, I didn’t call myself a Republican because I knew they were fucking dorks, but I was a conservative punk in a way. Like I’ll just do my own thing and I don’t give a fuck about anybody else and I shouldn’t be responsible for other people’s lives.

But eventually I tried weed and a ton of psychedelics and it blasted all of that out of my fucking brain. It just melted away, all of the anger and the frustration and the hatred that was wrapped up in those politics.

I just remember telling my family at one point that I couldn’t deal with their level of anger and hatred about everything. Like, “I respect your politics, but you’re also miserable all the time, so you’re not really selling me on them.” Then after September 11, I said something along the lines of “America got what it deserved,” and I got kicked out of my parents’ house. And I didn’t talk to them for like two or three years after that.

MD

Are you saying that drugs are the cure for disaffected libertarianism?

BP

I don’t want to recommend it because I’ve talked to so many people that have had weird and bad experiences. But for me it was like what Ozzy Osbourne sang about in the song “Sweet Leaf.” It introduced me to a way of thinking that wasn’t automatically set up for being on guard and fearful.

Conservative people are so hard to reach because they’re fucking afraid all the time and really mad about everything and judgmental. I think a lot of where my humor came from was just trying to lighten the mood a little bit in my household.

BQ

I worked a cable job from 2002 to 2009, and I would listen to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck all day on the radio. I didn’t think it was political. I knew they were talking about politicians, but I thought they were just like kind of funny politics shows. I didn’t realize what the politics were.

So when I saw the Iraq War happening, those were the only opinions I ever heard. I mean Air America hadn’t even started yet. So I was pro that war. I was yelling, “We got to do something about this!” I was just saying what Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck said, but at the same time I didn’t think of myself as political. I thought of myself as an independent guy. I think that’s like most of these people.

BP

Psychedelics and weed did lead me for a minute to Alex Jones. This was way back when you would watch, like, Alex Jones DVDs. I was drawn to him because after John Kerry, I kind of figured out that the Democratic Party was fucked. But I wasn’t a Republican, I just thought they were all losers. Alex Jones was saying both of these people are bad. Both these people are working against you. Both of these people are going to profit off of you getting in trouble and sending you to jail. And that really struck me.

And then he said that somebody that did a mass shooting was brainwashed by the government, so I was like, all right, fine, I’m out. It was very short-lived. But it was what I needed to hear at the time, someone not telling me that the Republicans are right, the Democrats are right. Somebody saying that both of them are obviously wrong.

BQ

I was a Ron Paul guy for like six months. It’s really selfish in a way, but he was the only person that ever said, “Hey, you know, if people want to do drugs then let them do the drugs.” And I was like, “Well, I’ll vote for this guy, then, because that’s all I really want in this world, is to be allowed to do drugs.”

The libertarian conservative thing was a really short amount of time for me. But I did go through the whole range of conservatism before I got here, where I’m at.

MD

How did you all get intercepted by left politics?

BQ

For me it was meeting Brett. Brett and I had a podcast with some other guys, and he was just super honest about his finances, and it made me want to be honest about mine. So we started talking about payday advances, we started talking about not having a retirement plan. He’s had his car repoed. I came real close and had to bum like $900 off somebody. And he had the same feelings about it as me.

With a lot of social circles and groups of friends, they don’t tell each other what is going on in their bank account. You go out and do something that’s free, you go play kickball with your friends or some shit, and then afterwards they’re like, “Hey, let’s go out for drinks.” And you’re thinking, I only have $60 in my bank account, but I don’t want everybody to know I only have $60 in my bank account. “Yeah, I’ll go.” And then you have to figure it out tomorrow.

Brett and I just started talking about, why is it like this? Why am I miserable? I remember one day just being like, “I think everybody should have health care and all this stuff.” And I remember saying, “I know this is crazy, but I think maybe I’m an anarchist.” And Brett was like, “Yeah I’m an anarchist too.” And I was like, “Oh shit. Okay, well then I guess that works.”

MD

Brett, did punk music turn you on to anarchism?

BP

Yeah, absolutely. NOFX has a song called “Murder the Government,” and I remember listening to that and like turning it down, I was afraid my parents were going to hear it. And then there was Propagandhi’s album How to Clean Everything, that was one I used to listen to when I worked at the warehouse. At the warehouse I worked with someone from Jordan, originally from Palestine, and they hipped me to a lot of the lies and the BS that was going on with that situation.

And from there I read Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, and that just kind of sat in my mind. That was actually before Alex Jones, I just tucked it away. But you know, Alex Jones used to talk about the MOVE bombing a lot. That was like his evidence that the government will kill you if you try to do your own thing. So I learned about MOVE, about the Weather Underground.

I knew there was a rich heritage of people fighting back, but I didn’t know what the cohesion was at first. I just figured it was people that had given up on society, like, “Whatever, man, I don’t give a fuck.” It was later on that I started to learn about the legacies of socialism, anarchism, and communism, and to learn about the threads that tie it all together.

I cycled through a lot more stuff before I finally got here. Eventually I think I just burned out of everything else. And then as I did more mushrooms I started to feel a better connection with the world. It’s like at the end of Evangelion when Rei is overlooking the townspeople and she just says she feels like she’s one of them. She doesn’t feel like she is a single person.

What Bryan and I did a lot of when we were spitballing is we came to understand that people are generally good. A lot of conversations revolve around fear about how people will kill you or stab you in the back. Me and Bryan spent a lot of early times just for like three hours standing on a patio screaming at somebody who’s like, “If they get rid of the fucking government, man, my neighbor’s killing everybody on the block.” We’d be like, “Why is your neighbor like that? Who is your fucking neighbor, man?”

I understood and Bryan helped confirm why people do things. You know, they’re desperate. That’s why people rob or harm. Without any of the concerns of like making enough money to live for the day, there’s no reason to pursue that kind of stuff, beyond the statistical likelihood of deformation of cell structures in the brain.

BQ

I went to college during the whole first four years of Street Fight. I think I just had to prove to myself that I could do the college thing, and I studied criminology. It’s an inherently conservative field, but I had already been radicalized. So I was able to read through this stuff with a different perspective, and we talked about it all the time.

MD

That makes me think that, you know, the Left has sort of abandoned “crime” as a concept to the reactionaries. But we actually do have some pretty good answers to people’s real concerns about violent crime. We at least have a theory about how to make people’s lives better so they aren’t motivated to be so violent.

BQ

We’ve admitted to shoplifting and stealing and ripping off banks. So it’s not that far of a leap to be like, “Oh, I probably wouldn’t do all this stuff if I didn’t actually need the stuff.” That’s mainly what I got out of a lot of that criminology.

That, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff about what happens when you label someone a deviant. That literally happened to me. I had a teacher in ninth grade that drew bars over my picture in my yearbook and told me I was gonna end up in prison. All I thought was, “Oh, that’s badass. This guy thinks I’m cool enough to go to prison.” I saw Boyz N the Hood and I wanted to be in a gang. Everybody had told me I was bad anyway, so I was like, “I might as well just be bad.”

There’s so much the Left could do in criminology, but so many people just go study it so that they can become a prosecutor or a cop.

MD

I interviewed someone recently who’s a socialist and is running to become a district attorney with the hope of wielding the office totally differently. I know you all are anarchists, but what do you think about the Left trying to take state power?

BP

I’m a person that gets frustrated by paperwork and bureaucracy, so figuring out how to go through all that stuff would not be for me. But like, if we were able to get the reins of power and to actually reduce heroin overdoses, instead of arguing with the right wing about whether or not we should kill the heroin dealers, I think we should do that.

I think that we have to work with what we’ve got. To dismantle it, I don’t even think we have enough people to get started with that. In my life leading up to now, I’ve never seen this much of a resurgence of interest in this type of stuff. It was never talked about in my twenties. I know there were people that were out there, and I appreciate the old heads, but now we’ve just hit a fever pitch with social media and the internet and the exchange of ideas. And we have to work with that.

For some more radical politicians to get in there, it’s going to cost money, it’s going to take some electoralism. And I don’t think it’s a waste of time. We have to actually go after the power if it’s going to be there, because otherwise they’re just going to use it to beat us to death.

BQ

The reason I like anarchism and the reason I identify as an anarchist is because it’s the ideology that most believes in a diversity of tactics. I think what the DSA is doing is great. I think what the IWW is doing is great. And when we go on tour we meet all these groups that are doing harm reduction stuff, and I think what they’re doing is great.

In the early days of Street Fight, I was like, “Fuck this, let’s stop wasting our time with electing people and shit like that.” But now, I feel like if somebody wants to put their time and energy into getting someone like Bernie Sanders elected, who might make life easier for vulnerable people, then let’s fucking do it.

I am about making concrete changes to make people’s lives better. So when somebody says we can do Medicare for All, I’m like, “Yeah let’s try to have that.” Even when I hear about UBI, I’m like, “That would work as long as we don’t cut the whole social safety net under it. People would be totally fucking into that.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is cool to me. She’s working within the state and saying things that people have never said before, things that inspire people. So I am an anarchist, I want to work kind of outside the system, and like Brett says I don’t want to do paperwork, I don’t want to raise like huge amounts of money and have to justify where it goes. But I’m always totally willing to lend a helping hand with anything that’s trying to make concrete improvements in people’s lives.

MD

Going back to your biographies a bit, it seems like both of you reached a point where you were very frustrated with the system, and your frustration needed an outlet, but it could have gone either way.

Lots of working-class people reach that point, and for women and people of color I think it’s more likely if they’re having a political awakening that they’ll end up on the Left somehow, because they’re more boxed out of right-wing discourse. But for white guys, it’s kind of a crossroads. The Right would be happy to have them.

How important do you think it is to intervene at that point in, like, dissatisfied young white men’s lives, given that many of them are facing a sort of ultimatum?

BP

I think that’s our responsibility to try to intervene and keep them from going right wing. It’s not up to women, people of color, LGBTQ people. People like me and Bryan, and other podcasts, like the Chapo guys or Struggle Session, it’s our job to say to these guys, “You don’t have a choice. You have to come over here, because this is the right way to be and the moral thing to do.”

I know there’s a ton of more work to be done after that to get people politically engaged. But we spend so much time on the podcast trying to let people know that they’re not alone, and that the solutions are collective action along with the people that are in their direct community or the people that they work with. We have to get some white dudes on our side. I know we’re going to lose a ton of them, but if we can just even peel off a few, we’re in a better place than where we started.

BQ

We don’t go out of our way to say that at all, because I think it kills the brainwashing if you say it out loud. But yeah, I feel like that’s completely our responsibility.

BP

I know that hating white guys is really popular online, but we have to do the work here to kind of recreate how we can be who we are, how to have fun, how to be masculine in a way that isn’t toxic, and how to respect other people at the same time.

And we can still make jokes about stuff. Saying mean stuff or saying homophobic and sexist stuff is easy. We want to make jokes, but we also want to do good propaganda.

BQ

I also think class is the largest tent. If you want to bring people in, talk about class. I want to make the biggest and most welcoming thing possible, and I think a way to do that is to talk about why the system is tilted against the working class and the underclass, which so many different kinds of people can relate to. Me and Brett, our interest is in getting people to talk about what day-to-day life is like, and then looking for solutions. And that leads you to point the finger up at the hierarchy.

We all need money for health care. Well, I know who has money. Jeff Bezos has all our fucking money. Let’s take that off him and redistribute it among people. That’s the way we like to make jokes. Our comedy is specifically going after people in power, whether it’s the boss at your work or it’s the president or it’s billionaires hoarding resources. And I think that the reason you don’t see much of this comedy is because they own all the companies, they own the entertainment and the media, they own everything.

There’s this weird thing where comedians are supposed to be truth-tellers, but there are some truths you’re not allowed to say. So they end up talking about jacking off and how much they hate their mother-in-law. You wanna tell some truths? I wanna talk about where all our money’s going and who’s being killed because of it.

I think things are changing, though. Even professionals are seeing that people respond to this kind of comedy that we do, and this is more ethical than maybe other stuff in the past. And that’s great, because that’s the whole goal, to try to get people fighting the people in power.