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Amesbury cop uses punk music to send a message

Amesbury police Officer Jason Kooken at the Stage Two Cinema Pub.
Amesbury police Officer Jason Kooken at the Stage Two Cinema Pub.Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

AMESBURY — Jason Kooken doesn’t skateboard quite as much as he used to. Not because it’s an unusual pastime for a police officer: He’s just afraid he might injure a wrist, and then wouldn’t be able to do his job.

Or surf, for that matter.

When he’s wearing the crisp uniform of the Amesbury Police Department, you would never know the 45-year-old is a devout punk rock fan who leads an alternative lifestyle. But after work on a recent Monday evening, he drives up in a Volkswagen camper van while wearing flip-flops, a pair of shorts showing off the tattoos on his calves, and a T-shirt featuring the melodic hard-core band Dag Nasty, one of his old favorites.

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A few of his colleagues over the years have raised an eyebrow over his off-duty interests, he admits. But to him, his work and his playtime are equal parts of his commitment to making the world a better place.

“I never thought about it until I became an officer,” he said.

Now a 15-year veteran of the police force who previously spent a decade in the Coast Guard, Kooken has recently taken up a new hobby as a promoter of documentary films. In March, he screened “Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, D.C. (1980-90),” an acclaimed, feature-length look at the flourishing, politically charged music scene that Kooken, a native of northern Virginia, grew up in and around.

Two screenings at the Stage Two Cinema Pub in Amesbury — in a snowstorm — sold out. Encouraged, he booked a few more films, including one about a long-running Boston hard-core band, Slapshot.

The punk scenes in Boston and D.C. were compatible, he said.

“Any time a Boston band came, we all went,” he said. “Bullet LaVolta, the Lemonheads, Jerry’s Kids, Moving Targets.”

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The D.C. punk scene would become renowned around the country for its activism, with young men — they were mostly men — speaking out and writing songs against apartheid, corporate greed, substance abuse, and many other issues.

“To me, the music was important,” Kooken said. But the issues were the real reason he was attracted to punk’s sense of community: “It was the awareness that no matter where we are, we can make a difference.”

Jason Kooken, an Amesbury police officer, runs a documentary film series at the town’s Stage Two Cinema Pub.
Jason Kooken, an Amesbury police officer, runs a documentary film series at the town’s Stage Two Cinema Pub.Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe

Kooken said he identified with the “straight-edge” lifestyle — no drinking, no drugs — epitomized by D.C. bands Minor Threat and Fugazi, among others.

At the time, that was one sure way as a young person to set yourself apart, he said.

“If you’re a teenager in the mid-’80s and you’re not drinking and doing drugs — man, that really messed with people’s heads,” he said.

Kooken, who shares custody of a dog with his ex-wife, has one son who is now in his 20s. They don’t see much of each other these days.

Walking into a convenience store to buy an iced coffee, he stops to speak with young men he recognizes from around town. One of the guys has long hair, a scraggly goatee, and earlobe spacers. Kooken tells them about the next films he has planned for his series, which will start again in September.

Among the titles: “1991: The Year Punk Broke,” “Positive Force D.C.: More Than a Witness,” about the activism that sprang up in the D.C. punk scene’s “Revolution Summer” of 1985, and “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan,” a documentary about a legendary D.C. graffiti artist.

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At each screening, Kooken collects donations for the local food pantry Our Neighbors’ Table, Stage Two owner Donna Turbity said.

“He’s such a nice guy,” said Turbity, who first met the officer as a paying customer at the movie theater. “I almost think he’s trying to help me out, too.”

The cinema pub, a family business for 26 years, hit hard times after a business partner went bankrupt while the owners were trying to upgrade their projection equipment. For the time being, Turbity is relying on booking private parties to pay off a bank loan; Kooken’s films are the only screenings she has on the schedule.

“He has more energy,” she said. “I don’t know where he gets it.”

Kooken also expects to show films this fall about surfing, skateboarding, and other activities associated with punk and “do it yourself” culture. In July, he screened a film about the banjo. As he has grown older, his musical tastes have expanded to include bluegrass; he’s been attending festivals and bringing along his mandolin, which he’s learning to play.

“I’m afraid to play leads,” he said with a smile.

Kooken said he volunteered his time when the Newburyport skate park behind the Nock Middle School was built in 2001. At the time, he was just starting on the police force.

“I shoveled dirt and tied rebar,” he said.

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He still gets out to see punk shows whenever he can, and he’s seen that his friends in the scene will support his film screenings.

“I would have gone to see Screeching Weasel and the Queers last night,” he said, referring to a couple of touring bands that were playing in Boston, “if I didn’t have to work this morning.”


James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.