Remembering John Macias, Punk Peacemaker Killed By Police

02/08/2017 01:46 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2017
Circle One at the Cuckoo’s Nest, Costa Mesa, August 1981
Alison Braun
Circle One at the Cuckoo’s Nest, Costa Mesa, August 1981

There's a difference between cops and pigs

Cops do their jobs

Pigs think they're God

These were the first words out of John Macias' mouth when he sang "Highway Patrolman" as frontman of hardcore punk outfit Circle One in the 80s and early 90s. Macias was a towering - some would say menacing - fixture of the Southern California punk scene back then.

He would have turned 55 recently, but he only made it to 29.

Push you all around

Throw you on the ground

I was a teenager in 1983 when I produced Circle One's first LP Patterns of Force. I remember watching Macias and his mostly Hispanic bandmates and friends drive away after spending some time at my house. The police officer who lived across the street in my predominantly white neighborhood called me over.

"Those are the same guys I arrest every day," he said, motioning to the departing van. "You need to choose your friends more carefully."

The officer and I never spoke again.

Live to harass

Knock you on your ass

Circle One formed in 1980. Macias' charismatic presence and memorable songs about topics such as police and racism promptly propelled the band to prominence. In a genre so often associated with nihilism, anger, and rebellion, Macias wrote many songs with a more positive, uplifting message, in part inspired by his Christian faith.

Henry Rollins of Black Flag affectionately remembers Macias as "punk rock judge of the scene," noting how Macias would break up fights and admonish punks not to fight each other, calling instead for unity and peace.

Legends have sprung up around Macias, many coming from his penchant for being a big-hearted protector of the weak - even against police officers. Rollins recalled one night when the two of them were eating together at Oki Dog, a popular post-gig eatery in Hollywood. They were approached by a police officer and told to "leave, faggots." Rollins made to leave, but Macias stood up and stared the officer down until he backed off. Another story recounts how Macias wrested the baton from an officer who was drubbing a teenage punk, and then beat the officer.

What makes them bitter

They're all built the same

In a recent phone interview, Circle One drummer Jody Hill shared that Macias took many young punks under his wing. This group eventually became known as "The Family," which Hill described as a "gang" that was fiercely loyal to Macias. Even though they sometimes caused trouble when Macias wasn't around, Hill recalled that Macias was able to mobilize them into a force for good.

"People spend a lot of time online talking about John and violence, but the thing that they don't talk about, which dominated John's life, was his mental illness," said Hill, who worked as a drug and alcohol counselor for over a decade. He believes that Macias was clinically depressed and schizophrenic. Macias got help for his illnesses in the late 80's, but the only medication he could afford was Prozac, which proved less than effective.

"John loved and cared for a lot of people, and really protected a lot of people," Hill said. But Macias could not protect himself when his mental illness put him in a compromised position at the wrong end of a police officer's gun.

Cuz they're out to get us

So let's give them a fight

On May 30, 1991, Macias was shot dead by a Santa Monica police officer. He was 29. According to officers, Macias was "yelling something about God" as he assaulted two citizens. When police arrived, instead of defusing the situation, one officer shot him.

The police reported that Macias "had a jacket wrapped around his hand", apparently implying that Macias may have been armed. However, as has been common in many high-profile police shootings of minorities, Macias was unarmed. Paradoxically, the police reported that Macias advanced on the officers after being shot. As a result, the police seemingly felt justified in continuing to shoot at him. Macias died with four shots to the chest and neck.

Circle One's last show with John, only days before his death.

When they try to stop us

It will be time to unite

Unite!

To recent generations of punk rockers, Macias is a legendary figure of the past, known for his intimidating visage, his anti-police songs, and his violent end. But to those who knew him, his memory can never be captured by a song or by an article on the internet. Instead, his heart and passion for helping others is remembered.

Macias would have turned 55 recently. Happy Birthday, John. You are missed. The police have shot a lot of others since you. Nowadays at least a few get arrested, but most still go free. You could have protected a lot of others.

I'm sorry no one was there to protect you.

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