Two heinous murders in 13 years inspired some of the most important organizations in Seattle, Washington. In 1993, musician Mia Zapata was raped and choked to death on her way home from a bar. In 2009, Teresa Butz and her partner were sleeping when a man broke into their house and attempted to kill them both. Teresa did not survive.
Out of these tragedies came two separate women’s self-defense organizations whose reach and inspiration have surpassed the Seattle city limits. The first, founded after Mia’s death, was Home Alive, which has struggled with financial troubles and closed in 2010. The second and more recent is Fight the Fear, a division of Brandi Carlile‘s charity-driven Looking Out Foundation.
Home Alive was started by six women who knew Mia Zapata and wanted to help their community feel strong and safe while the murder was still unsolved. It would stay unsolved until 2003, when DNA findings helped find and prosecute the stranger who killed a beloved part of the Seattle music scene. Their mission statement:
A new documentary called Rock, Rage & Self-Defense is an oral history of the organization, detailing its beginnings, thriving and ultimate demise. The film, made by University of Washington students Leah Michaels and Rozz Therrien (who were shocked to not know of Home Alive’s existence until learning about it in class), is made up of interviews with the founders and a handful of teachers and students who helped to give an honest look at the hardships that accompany working as a consensus-based collective. One such struggle mentioned is the question of allowing transgender women to participate in classes and if it could be triggering for other cisgender women in the class. In other words, some of the same issues the community still faces in 2014. (Home Alive decided, ultimately, inclusivity was most important and allowed trans women to take their classes.) Early on, bands like The Butchies and The Indigo Girls lent songs to albums whose sales benefitted Home Alive.
Melinda Johnson is the executive director of Fight the Fear, which was relaunched this winter and is gearing up to to go national with Brandi Carlile’s new tour this summer. Fight the Fear’s mission is much like Home Alive’s but perhaps a little more simple:
“Brandi had been funding Home Alive and they had gone through a lot of difficulties financially over the years and at that point when she really wanted to fund something,” Melinda said. “I connected with them to see if there was something there, so rather than starting something new, and they were in the throes of disbanding. So I decided we would just go forward with something new.”
What both organizations have in common is their want to provide women with free training in protecting and defending themselves. Much like Mia Zapata’s murder was the catalyst for Home Alive, Fight the Fear was a direct response to the South Park crime that reminded Seattle citizens that it wasn’t necessarily any safer to be a woman in 2009.
Teresa Butz’s surviving partner, Jen Hopper, is a part of Fight the Fear. Though at first she didn’t want her name to be made public after watching her partner be raped and stabbed to death, she later decided to come out in a Pulitzer-winning, heartbreaking Seattle Stranger piece called “The Bravest Woman in Seattle.” This week Jen will be performing as part of The Angel Band Project at Seattle’s Neptune Theater. Also playing is Teresa’s brother, Broadway star Norbert Leo Butz. Jen plays a guitar given to her by Brandi Carlile, which is signed by James Taylor.
“The South Park attack was the germ for all of this,” Melinda said. “After that attack that summer, Brandi felt really strongly that she wanted to have the Looking Out Foundation fund self defense for women. And so she reached out to me to figure out what would be a good way to do that. So we had a lot of meetings… and we just talked about what would be a good way to take self defense to the community. And so the first two year stint we did at Fight the Fear, we really focused on reaching out to women at risk populations who didn’t have availability to classes. We went out to social service agencies and did classes there, homeless shelters, for deaf women, basically women who were in situations that were difficult already, that we already using social service agencies and connecting with those social service agencies to go in and serve their clientele. So that’s what we did for the first two years, for the most part.”
Brandi Carlile taking about FTF around 8:00 min mark
In May, Fight the Fear will be offering a Teach the Teachers seminar in Seattle which aims to show women that work as teachers or mentors how they can help their students learn about self-defense. There will also be an open workshop for any girls and women over the age of 12 on May 17. But soon the organization will be on the road and extending their services to women all over the U.S.
“Every city the band goes to, we’ll hook up with a local self-defense instructor or community and co-host a free self-defense workshop that will coincide with the band playing,” Melinda said. “We’ll promote it at the concert and get people excited about the self-defense event.”
From a FTF self-defense workshop at Issaquah High School in March
The hard part is getting women to attend these kinds of events. Melinda said that while many women know that they should and do want to know how to protect themselves, they don’t necessarily make the time to do so.
“The skills to teach self defense are here and they’ve been here for a long time,” Melinda said. “Most people know that they should take a self defense class but it’s kind of unglamorous and they never quite get to it. We’re trying to figure out ways to make that connection, get people to go to that class, a two-hour class out of their life, open up their eyes to finding out how strong they are and how they can apply that strength to keeping themselves safe.”
When it comes to defending oneself, Melinda said queer women face the same threats and can use the same self-protection methods as any other person would.
“We pretty much face the same threats,” she said. “There are some homophobic threats out there but they’re a very different thing than what most women face every day just walking through the world. The self-defense we teach is a feminist self-empowerment model of self-defense and it speaks to women holding their own space, creating their own boundaries, feeling safe and secure in those boundaries, and secure enough to enforce those boundaries, with their words, with their posture and their voice, and that’s kind of like the groundwork for self-defense. It’s not very glamorous, it’s not like a knee strike to the groin, but it’s effective like 99 percent times out of 100. All you have to do is feel that it’s your space, you cannot come here, you put that energy out and people don’t come there. That’s a big part of what we teach. You’re worth defending, you can defend yourself, it’s not rude to defend yourself, it’s strong to defend yourself and you can do it all through your life. And sometimes what happens if there’s an actual physical attack and you have to have some fight skills.”
Home Alive also offered courses on gun use, but Fight the Fear does not discuss weapon usage.
“Weapons are very tricky,” Melinda said. “Anytime you bring a weapon into an interaction, that means that anyone inside that interaction can use that weapon. So if you bring a gun or a knife into an interaction, you have to be completely committed to using it and killing somebody. Otherwise what you’re doing them is giving them a gun or a knife to use on you. So people have to really examine that before they do something like choose a deadly weapon to use as self-protection. And people do, and I totally respect that, it’s a big commitment. You have to learn how to use it, you have to know how to use it, you have to be committed to using it. And you have to figure out how to have it available to you when you might need it.”
Melinda does encourage the use of mace or pepper spray, but these tools need to be easily accessible.
“You have to have it available and you have to be committed to using it. If you just carry it in your bag, it’s meaningless, it’s not going to help you,” Melinda said. “But if you think, ‘OK this is a safety precaution, I’m going to keep it on my keychain when I’m walking if it doesn’t feel safe.’ I think it can be a very viable tool in self-defense.”
Before Fight the Fear hits the road, Melinda is committed to helping connect women with affordable and knowledgable self-defense instructors and classes in their cities.
“There are most places in the United States at this point have some kind of school teaching martial arts. Almost martial art schools are going to have some connection to somebody that teaches self-defense,” she said “It’s not necessary, the martial arts self defense link, but it’s kind of strong so I would help people connect with somebody who can give what they need.”
If you are interested in finding out where you can go in your city, email Melinda at [email protected] In the meantime, visit Fight the Fear’s website to learn more about the organization and updates on the tour and other trainings. TeachHomeAlive.org is still around as a great source of learning, teaching and links to other resources.