Fighting Back: A Conversation With The Makers Of ‘Rock, Rage, And Self-Defense’

By Tori Kerr

A new documentary looks at the growth of an influential Seattle self-defense organization.
A new documentary looks at the growth of an influential Seattle self-defense organization.

When Gits singer Mia Zapata was raped and murdered while walking home from Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in 1993, the close-knit local punk scene responded with shock, grief, anger—and a deep and lingering fear. But that same year, nine women converted their fear into action by forming Home Alive, a grassroots self-defense organization. The collective—which was “deactivated” four years ago but lives on through its website and a network of volunteers—seeks not only to provide women with self-defense skills free of charge, but to also create an environment in which sexual assault is less likely to happen in the first place.

Twenty years after Home Alive was established (and four years after Zapata’s killer was sentenced to 37 years in prison), Leah Michaels and Rozz Therrien decided to track the organization’s growth in a film. The project sprouted out of an oral-history assignment for a class at the University of Washington, and went on to become the full-length documentary “Rock, Rage, and Self-Defense: An Oral History of Seattle’s Home Alive,” showing Sunday at Black Cat. The film features the musicians, artists and supporters who made Home Alive thrive and those who have taken up the torch today. Bandwidth spoke to Therrien and Michaels about the film.

Note: All responses reflect the views of Leah Michaels and Rozz Therrien and not those of Home Alive.

Bandwidth: How did you two come together to work on this project?

Rozz Therrien and Leah Michaels: The project came out of an old project for a history class. We were friends since Day One of freshman year, and the class was all about building scenes and communities and looking specifically at music communities. So it started with oral-history projects and we were each assigned different [Home Alive] founders by chance. We did the interviews and they were so wonderful and fantastic and we were truly inspired. But we wanted to know more. … so we decided to make a documentary. We went into the project naïve about how long it would take and the cost, which ended up being a beautiful thing.

B: What steps did you take to get the film on the road and have screenings all over the country?

RT and LM: We finished the film in September of 2013. The film premiered in October in Austin at a music conference for women called Meowcon. We applied to that and got in, and through our screening there, people suggested some really good ideas. We put a post on our blog that said, “Anyone interested in hosting a screening? Let us know.” And Laina Dawes wrote this awesome article about us for Bitch Magazine that also asked people to email us if they were interested in having a screening. That’s how most of our tour got set up.

B How seriously do you think violence against women is taken in rock music? Do you consider it a problem at live shows?

RT and LM: We think the violence against women at live shows reflects the artist who is performing. The artists either stand for the violence or they don’t. Standing on stage, they have the full view of what is going on in the audience. There is a sense of social responsibility that the band and the audience possess. That being said, violence is still an issue at many shows.

B: I’m sure you’re familiar with Bikini Kill’s “Girls to the front” practice [which encourages women to stand in front of the stage or band at shows]. Some modern punk bands still exercise this. Is this an effective tool against violence?

RT and LM: The “girls to the front” practice is meant to create a safe space for women at shows, and the practice can prevent violence. With that being said, it does not change the conversation as a whole, or challenge the space, the venue, as a whole. If this helps people feel more empowered and safe at shows, then it is effective.

There’s always a victim-blaming discussion like, “Why was she wearing that?” and not “Why do people rape? Why do people assault?”

B: Do you think violent lyrics are a part of the problem of violence against women? How much is it just freedom of speech?

RT and LM: Violence against women in song lyrics or in the media now has some kind of normalcy. People think it’s normal for women to be catcalled or for women to be called bitches and hoes. …I think there has to be a larger, more complicated discussion about artistic expression and violence against women.

It’s hard to talk about artistic expression when you’re degrading people in general and most of the time it happens to be women. There has to be a larger conversation about why, when we degrade people, we call them bitches; or in rap battles people throwing out “rape,” which is not OK. It’s like, why do we go there? It’s an issue because it’s so normal and so engrained. You listen to song lyrics that say “I’m gonna slip your panties to the side” but you don’t really hear women saying that in popular media. It’s something that needs to be talked about in the larger conversation. Sometimes you hear a lyric that’s really disturbing. What’s the line between allowing free speech and then talking about how the media really is impacting violence?

B: Regarding the White House’s recent PSA on sexual assault, do you think this type of rhetoric that involves “It’s happening to our sisters and daughters” is helpful?

RT and LM: Since we’ve been on the road, we haven’t seen the PSA, so we can’t really comment on that. But part of our goal with this film was to talk about sexual violence and violence that are happening in communities, which is why we were so inspired by Home Alive—making acts of violence community responsibilities and taking control. These aren’t isolated incidents; they’re all interconnected. So alliedship is super important. There’s always a victim-blaming discussion like, “Why was she wearing that?” and not “Why do people rape? Why do people assault?” Those questions aren’t being asking in the larger context regarding violence with the frequency they should be. We all live together in communities so we need to be able to support each other and bring each other up in communities.

We definitely support alliedship because it’s about violence prevention and education in general… We aren’t the only ones who need to be educated on violence prevention. It’s men as well. It’s also not just about heterosexual relationships—it’s violence for anybody. That means that violence-prevention education needs to be shared and these discussions need to be had with everyone.

B: What do you think Home Alive would look like if it began in 2014 instead of 1993?

RT and LM: We thought about that question quite a bit when we were conducting our interviews for the film. Now, having completed the film, we think it would look similar to its current incarnation—that is, not having a physical space, but having the curriculum and other resources online for free. The organization would have used social media to organize in their community, but also to inspire others outside of Seattle. When it formed in 1993, Home Alive inspired other community organizations, but with the Internet it could have reached a larger public more quickly.

B: Have there been any unexpected outcomes of the film’s release?

RT and LM: Thankfully, we’ve had overwhelmingly positive feedback. We started this project because we thought the story of Home Alive and their message of “you are worth defending” should be shared to continue conversations around violence prevention and sexual violence. We’ve come to realize that these resources are needed now more than ever. Violence and sexual-violence prevention are still hotly debated topics.