a head-and-shoulders photo of a bearded man in a red cap and dark-framed glasses, looking up and away
R. Brent Decker Credit: Shawn Decker

R. Brent Decker plays bass in Racetraitor and works as chief program officer for Cure Violence Global, a Chicago-based nonprofit that takes a public health approach to reducing violence.

As a college student in the mid-90s, Decker cofounded Chicago hardcore band Racetraitor with childhood friends from the north suburbs. The group quickly attracted a passionate following (and significant backlash) for their confrontational political stances. They used their music to indict institutional racism, classism, and white privilege before those subjects had been established in the popular consciousness—and they did it in a scene dominated by young white men. 

Decker left the band shortly after their 1998 debut full-length, Burn the Idol of the White Messiah, and the group split up the following year. Several members of Racetraitor found ways to continue their activism outside the music scene, forging connections and making the world a better place. Vocalist Mani Mostofi is now a lawyer and human rights advocate, and guitarist Dan Binaei (who also plays in local thrash outfit Ready for Death) works as a psychologist with a holistic approach rooted in social justice. Decker has traveled the world to help Cure Violence partner organizations reduce violence on a community level in Baltimore, the West Bank, Honduras, and beyond.

Racetraitor reconvened in 2016, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and frustrated by the shape of American politics, especially the election of a white nationalist to the presidency. Now a five-piece, with longtime drummer Andy Hurley (also of Fall Out Boy) and new guitarist Andrea Black, the band will release the album Creation and the Timeless Order of Things (Good Fight) on November 17. The loosely biographical record, which features guest vocals by friends in like-minded groups (Refused, Terminal Nation, Neckbeard Deathcamp), uses the members’ histories and geographies as lenses to consider issues critical to the global struggle for liberation: colonialism, Indigenous rights, workers’ rights, and more.

As told to Jamie Ludwig

My dad was a Vietnam vet. When he came back, he was like, “Oh wait, I’ve been lied to my entire life about everything.” The church, his parents, the army, all these things lied to him. He set a different course for himself and our family. He got really involved in the anti-war movement and then the solidarity movement in the 80s in Central America, when the U.S. was backing all sorts of dictators and genocidal policies. 

We spent a lot of time in Guatemala during the civil war, in an area that was highly contested between guerrillas and the U.S.-backed dictatorships. [My dad] linked up with some liberation theology nuns who were doing all sorts of programming there. To a 13-year-old like myself, that really politicized me. 

[We’d be in Guatemala] a couple of months at a time every year. It was always very interesting, after summer break, going from a genocidal civil war to [the Chicago suburbs]. In my senior or junior year, I wrote the only paper I ever wrote about U.S. interventionism in Nicaragua. My English teacher came in and sang the national anthem to me and then handed my paper back. Like, what are you even doing?

Brujeria, Piñata Protest, No/Más, Racetraitor
Sat 11/25, 7:30 PM, Reggies Rock Club, 2105 S. State, $30, $27.50 in advance, 17+

It all set the tone for when I heard, like, Public Enemy for the first time. I was like, “Fuck yeah. They’re 100 percent right.” There was no “Well, what about. . . . ” 

When you’re exposed to the nature of the system and how it manifests in all sorts of different ways against all sorts of “others,” either in the U.S. or abroad, you understand the world a little differently. So when I encountered hardcore and punk, my understanding of it was, “This is the political protest music of our era.” 

I went to grade school with Mani, and we met Dan in junior high. Dan and I knew each other through skateboarding and music and stuff. There was this kid named Salim whose dad was very wealthy—he came from the Syrian monarchy—and had this nice house in Wilmette, and we used to have punk shows at his house, this place A Club Called Everlast. Resurrection played there, Lifetime played there, Anger House played there all the time.

Then in college, when we wanted to start a new band, we really felt like you’ve got to be in the community that you’re part of. We were part of the punk and hardcore community, and a lot of what was going on was bullshit—really stupid white-man nonsense. We thought about how we could start a band to shake up ourselves first and foremost—we all have a lot of work to do on ourselves about all kinds of things—but also [shake up] our friends and our scene. 

Creation and the Timeless Order of Things is the second full-length by the reunited Racetraitor.

We were very deliberate about making the band a bit more confrontational and challenging. Of course, other bands had done that before. But when you’re younger, you’re like, “Fuck it, let’s just be crazy.” Even to this day, we probably spend more time thinking about what we’re going to talk about [onstage] than the actual set list. 

Dan’s dad is Persian from Iran, and his mom is from Hazard, Kentucky. He said he was watching Donahue once (that dates us!) and there were Nazis on there saying, “You’re a race traitor if you date someone of a different race.” He thought about how his family from Kentucky thought about his mom in the sense that she married someone that wasn’t a white, southern Christian. So that’s where the name Racetraitor came from. 

Mani, also being a child of immigrants from Iran, faced a ton of racism at our school, and I think that politicized him as well. And I had my experiences in Guatemala. So that was the context of putting together a band called Racetraitor. We really wanted to talk about issues like white supremacy, issues around the system in terms of police brutality, issues around class privileges. 

It wasn’t always well received. Folks were either super with it or super against it. There wasn’t a lot of middle ground. Some of the feedback was, “It’s a bunch of rich kids preaching to the choir,” which, you know, describes [a lot of] hardcore and punk bands. But I think it also hit a nerve. 

A lot of times, we like to think of ourselves—especially in the punk community—as being very progressive and anti-establishment. But when we start talking about “What’s my role in it all?” and “How do I benefit from a white supremacist system?,” it becomes a little different. Sometimes that’s hard to confront in a way that doesn’t just piss people off. 

Some stuff that we’d talk about, people would be like, “Fuck the Nazis and burn the Nazi flag.” And we’d be like, “The American flag has a very similar history in terms of the amount of violence that’s behind it.” Sometimes in making that leap, we didn’t articulate it enough, and some folks got really pissed off about it.

Since we’ve been playing shows again, we’ve had lots of conversations with people who really were adamantly against us and talked shit about us and threatened us [back in the day]. They might not have agreed with how we said it, but now they’re like, “You know what, I agree with what you were saying.” And that’s cool. Of course, we were like 20. And obviously, there’s issues of class and gender and sexual identity that also figured into how we were perceiving stuff. 

I think the reason that Dan, myself, Mani, and others who have been involved in Racetraitor stayed committed to the ideas or the politics around it is that we’re that first and a band second. The band was a way of articulating and expressing that in a more artistic way, but the whole time, anyone involved with Racetraitor was involved in different activist organizations. It always went hand in hand. 

a view from side stage of a hardcore band playing onstage, with the vocalist captured at the peak of an impressive leap
Latter-day Racetraitor onstage, with R. Brent Decker barely in frame at right Credit: Jeff Lasich

When I left the band, I started thinking, “What are some practical skills that can be helpful to the world in my limited time in it?” That’s when I thought about public health. I spent some time doing various public health projects in Latin America and learning about stuff, and then I did a master’s of public health and a master’s of clinical social work at Tulane University. Dan spent many years doing full-time activist work and working for nonprofits at the same time. Mani, same thing. We tried to land in fields that could be helpful and try to change things in a real way. 

I thought a lot about this issue of violence and what can be done about it. The idea of violence as a public health issue goes back to the 1970s. It’s taking it out of this issue of law enforcement and thinking about it in terms of health issues around exposure, issues around systemic inequities or oppression, and how that affects one’s health outcomes. 

The response [to community violence] has always been, like, the Crime Bill and more prisons. So what type of alternative infrastructure could potentially be built up to address the issues around violence that don’t include mass incarceration and all these things? 

CeaseFire, which is now Cure Violence, started in Chicago at the University of Illinois School of Public Health. I started there in 2003. They had just started implementation in 2001, but it had been around a little before that. What was really great about it is that the university figured out some of the fundraising, but it was implemented through community-based partners on the west and the south sides of Chicago. 

A big part of my role for the first couple years was working with the community-based partners and figuring out, “How do we report on some of this information in a way that’s going to be helpful?” If you’re working with folks who are likely to be involved in violence, a lot of times that’s associated with quote, unquote “illegal activities.” So the challenge was, “How do we document this in a way that doesn’t put people at further risk to have to engage with any of those systems?” The same way that, if you’re working with undocumented migrant workers on tuberculosis, you don’t want anything that would give up their immigration status ever. Because then there’s no trust. 

The other real challenge is, as a country and as a world, we’ve misunderstood this issue of violence as “bad people that need to be punished.” So the amount of funding that at the time was available for more public health–based violence prevention was very small. There were some groups in Chicago and some groups out in California that were doing something, but there weren’t a lot. Recently, the White House announced a gun-violence-prevention office for the first time ever. So there’s been a lot of traction, but back then the idea of violence as a public health issue was not part of any kind of city or county policy.

Although the contexts might be different, a lot of how violence spreads—and I’m not talking about state-sanctioned violence or bombs, but community- or smaller-group violence—is by exposure. What you typically see are areas that can go a long time without any violence, like the case of Rwanda. But once a couple of events take place, it can spread very quickly. It really transmits from one person to another, through their brain, through being exposed to different traumas or experiencing or committing violence. That kind of rewires how you engage with the world. 

That’s constant in most contexts, and our model is set up in three parts: the first is interrupting transmission, the second is preventing future spread, and the third is changing group and community norms. 

a black-and-white photo of a hardcore band playing on the floor amid a crowd of fans
Racetraitor in the late 90s Credit: Justin Corbett

For interrupting the transmission, we—the community-based partners from those areas—have workers from groups that are involved in violence. Their job isn’t to create peace among the different groups but to work with their own group to identify and detect when things are brewing and there might be conflict, to see if we can step in and calm the situation down. They use various techniques, but it’s very natural, because it’s not someone from the outside. 

Sometimes they’re able to work with interrupters from different groups so we can mediate conflicts, having to do with “how someone looked at me” to international drug-trade stuff. If you have the right folks at the table, that are trusted, that are credible, they can use their relationships to get in front of things or—if something happens—prevent retaliation. That’s a universal, whether it’s in Baltimore or in southern Iraq, where I’ve spent time doing this work. 

The second part, about supporting folks that are at highest risk to be involved in violence, is also a universal. There’s this idea that dudes are just down to be violent. But there’s a lot going on, there’s a lot of peer expectations, a lot of contextual stuff, and for a lot of folks, there aren’t a lot of options. If you work with someone over time and support them in ways that they find helpful, you can really change the trajectory of individuals, in terms of not having to use violence as much and maybe getting involved in more positive stuff. 

The third component has to do with the public health ideas: public education campaigns, doing activities, doing different types of training and things that really shift some of the norms around the acceptability of using violence. Because a lot of times, especially young people don’t see a lot of other options. As humans, we mostly do what our friends expect us to do or we think our friends are doing. 

This has been known in public health for a long time, dating back to the 80s and 90s. With the AIDS epidemic, the number one thing that determined whether or not someone would use a condom wasn’t fear of death—it was if they thought their friends were doing it. So this idea of shifting peer expectations has been the same everywhere that we’ve worked with partners, whether it’s Baltimore, Chicago, Honduras, South Africa, or Iraq. The “how” is different, but those are the three things that we use in public health in addressing violence.

We never just show up somewhere. Because our approach and others have been evaluated extensively, there’s a case to be made that even if you don’t agree with it, it can be helpful. So we’ll be invited by someone from a mayor’s office or in criminal justice who’s real cool and trying to do things differently, or someone from UNICEF, or a community partner who wants to put political pressure on a city to pay for programs like this as opposed to more police and tanks. 

There’s a whole process of adapting our approach to the local contexts. And of course, we’re never the expert of the local context, so it’s a matter of finding folks who are doing something similar as part of a community- or faith-based organization that we link up with to figure out how to adapt our approach locally. It’s kind of cocreated every place we work, especially outside of the U.S. 

How does the community perceive folks who end up being workers for this type of program? A lot of community members understand that these are their children, their uncles. When we have this under a criminal justice lens, we get this idea of people as one thing: “You’re a criminal.” But life is way more complex than that. And I think the communities call for these type of programs for that reason. It’s often seen as a very positive thing that folks who were once involved with that stuff are trying to do something differently. I think people recognize that those folks are best positioned to do it, because they understand it, and they can serve as kind of a new role model for folks to look at. 

You can think about health behavior change—the messenger is as important as the message. You might have all the information in the world, the statistics, the everything, but if you can’t speak to me in a way that I think I can trust, I’m never going to listen to you. The other thing I would say, especially in the U.S., this type of work has been able to provide employment to a lot of folks that perhaps because of quote, unquote “criminal backgrounds” are excluded from a lot of other jobs. In the interview process for these positions, when they’re asked about their background, it’s not to be judgmental. It’s to see, “Do you have the credibility to work in this area? Do you know the groups and the cliques?” lt’s almost flipped on its head, in terms of “these can be positive things that can be turned into strengths that can be built upon to better prevent violence in the future.” 

[In 2018,] we made kind of a tough decision, when we were leaving the university, not to do direct work in Chicago anymore. It just wasn’t politically viable anymore. But a lot of our partners who we’ve worked with for many years continue to do a lot of great work. Chicago CRED does a lot of really cool economic development stuff, the One City Basketball Tournament that some of our friends run. . . . There’s groups like READI Chicago. There’s a lot of Metropolitan Family Services that do a public health approach. 

I think the city and the state have probably now invested more money than ever in these types of approaches. And although it doesn’t seem that way, in many of the areas where this approach is being applied, you do not see the same levels of violence. It has been able to demonstrate over time that this approach can be helpful. 

YouTube video
Racetraitor vocalist Mani Mostofi directed the video for “Eid,” a single from the band’s new album.

Racetraitor was a vehicle that we had, and it felt kind of stupid not to use it, with the understanding that we are definitely the old folks in the room, and that’s OK. We thought [when we first reunited] we’d do maybe one or two shows and some fundraisers and be done with it. But what happened, to the surprise of all of us, is that the scene—the metal, the hardcore and punk scene—was way more political than it was when we were around. It was way more representative of Chicago. And there was a big antifascist metal scene too. So we landed in a place where folks were very supportive of us. We’re not leading the culture now, but we definitely want to support it. 

We’re able to use some of our notoriety, or the fact that Andy’s in Fall Out Boy, to be able to push some of the messages further. But it’s always with the understanding that we want to support the bands that are really active now. Like, when we played Black Flags Over Brooklyn, which Kim Kelly put together in 2019, that was a highlight for me personally. It was cool to see so many bands from all over the place with different types of histories, and a lot of younger folks. 

We don’t have a big plan. It’s very part-time. We are graciously invited to do a lot of things, and we try to do things that we think can make sense and be helpful. 

I think another thing that we can contribute to the conversation is, “How do you turn being 18, 19, 20 and being turned on to a lot of these ideas into a lifetime of trying to do something a little bit different?” That’s challenging, and none of us are perfect at all, but you can dedicate your life to trying to make a difference. You don’t have to just get old, get a job, and watch the game. It doesn’t have to be like that.


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