the long arm of justice

This doesn’t really have anything to do with downtown theater at all, I think. But I needed some place to write about it. 1n 1993 Mia Zapata, lead singer for the Seattle punk band The Gits, was raped and murdered. On Thursday morning, March 25th, 2004, her murderer was finally convicted. Eleven years is a long time to wait.

In 1993 I was just a punk kid doing alternative theater and spoken word in Seattle. Since 1990 thousands upon thousands of kids had descended on the city and turned it into a youth culture Mecca. Theater, poetry, music, visual art and pop culture all converged to make an incredibly vibrant, open, supportive scene. One of the hubs of that scene was The Comet Tavern. Everybody would go to the Comet either before or after their gigs and on any given night you could see at least a handful of Seattle’s Art Stars hanging out in this nasty, rundown tavern. Mia Zapata was one of those stars.

In the same way that people talk about San Francisco in the 60’s, or the East Village in the 70’s or 80’s, Seattle in the early 90’s was an amazing place, one that’s hard to describe. I often tell people that everyone’s life has halcyon days, usually in their early twenties, where life seems like endless possibility. And because you’re young and flexible and adventurous you push yourself to the edge of what is possible. Whether it’s staying up for weeks on crystal meth or piercing all of your body parts or crazy polymorphous sexual adventures or creating ambitious, possibly doomed, utopian art projects, you are protected by the illusion of invincibility. And wherever you are living at that time in your life is gilded with a halo of magic and memory.

Seattle was that place for me. It’s hard to explain because it wasn’t just Seattle. When grunge broke in 1991 it actually seemed, for the first time, that all the dorks and losers and misfits were finally going to take over. And when Clinton was elected in 1992, ending 12 years of Reagan/Bush, everyone was ecstatic. For the first time since anyone my age could remember it seemed like the world was fixable and that things were getting better.

There was a brief time, then, where it was like everyone had taken ecstasy and the world would just keep rolling into some indescribable paradise. Bands were getting signed left and right, The Seattle theater scene was incredibly vital – the first Fringe Festival in America was in Seattle in January 1991 and had really started to hit its stride. The poetry slams were taking off, there were film festivals and art galleries and coffeehouses and raves … an incredible efflorescence of unbridled creativity.

And then Mia was killed and everyone in Seattle collectively lost their innocence at the same time. Okay, maybe that’s drastic. I’m sure there were people for whom it was just another awful event. But for a sizable swath of the youth population it was a startling wake-up call. People had o.d.-ed from time to time, people freaked out or got in car wrecks or crashed their bikes, but murder? rape? It was inconceivable. Up to that point people walked alone for miles and miles across the city in the dead of night, stumbling from one party to the next, hauling guitars or what have you. And suddenly that sense of security was gone.

There was also the suspicion that it was someone in the community who was responsible. What if it was one of us? Was there really someone in this little hipster haven who could be capable of this sort of act?

Mia’s death shook up a lot of people. And it devastated some. Her bandmates were crushed. Not only because she was the star of the band, but because she was one of those people that shines brightly, she inspired people. They had worked together, intimately, for years, and in the space of a few hours that intimacy and trust was destroyed by an act of violence perpetrated by some unknown stranger.

If any good can be said to have come from her death it’s that it woke a lot of people up to the very real dangers of the world. Friends of Mia’s started an organization called Home Alive which raised awareness about violence against women and offered self-defense classes. And for awhile the popular culture seemed to wake up too.

Inevitably, popular culture moves on, individuals move on. Of the people I know from that time only a handful are still in Seattle. They’ve moved on as artists and people, they’ve gone on to do new and different things and in many cases they’ve taken that spirit of openness and creativity wherever they’ve gone, fostering it in others.

And every once in awhile we would get a letter or an email, “We think we have a breakthrough in Mia’s case”, “We think we found some DNA evidence” “They think they’ve got a suspect.” And finally, eleven years later, the case is closed.

When I think of all the things I’ve been through in the past 11 years I am stunned into inaction. All the more so when I think that Mia will always be 27, always be on the verge of rock stardom, always on the verge of shining more brightly. But what great things could she have done if she had been allowed to live?

Eleven years later and because of my job I’m often surrounded by people who are at that age now: The Halcyon Days. It excites me, because of the possibility I see, the daring and the adventurousness. It excites me to know that the culture reinvents itself, that innocence is the engine of novelty, that everything can be reinvented and reintepreted. I think we’re at another cultural crossroads and I can’t wait to see what happens. I wish Mia were here to see it, too.

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