A City on a Hill: Empathy for Portland

This month we remember the Cafe Racer shooting, five years (and so many other needless tragedies) later.

It was a typical late-spring morning, in a just slightly less gentrified Seattle. Ian Stawicki, a regular at Racer who'd been thrown out of the club a few times for being drunk and belligerent, walked in carrying two .45-caliber pistols. He shot five people.

One of the victims was Racer's music booker Andrew Keriakedes, aka "Schmootzi the Clod.” A veteran of the local alt-circus scene, he’d led a house band called God's Favorite Beefcake that performed weekly at Racer.

Also killed were Beefcake band member Joe "Vito" Albanese, musician Donald Largen, and aspiring actress Kimberly Layfield. Only Leonard Meuse, the cafe’s on-duty cook, survived.

The shooter took a bus downtown. Thirty minutes later, Stawicki fatally shot commercial-lighting engineer Gloria Leonidas during a getaway carjacking in a First Hill parking lot.

Later that day, police tracked the shooter to a residential street in West Seattle, where he shot himself in the head as they closed in.

The slayings sent waves of shock and grief through all the creative subcultures that gathered at Racer. (It’s hosted everything from cartoon drawing classes to high school jazz bands.)

Racer owner Kurt Geissel kept the place closed for more than a month, before re-opening it that July.

More recently, a major repaving project on Roosevelt Way, combined with a major Metro bus reroute in the north end, ate into Racer’s business. (Also, the hyperinflation of real estate has forced many of its regular customers to move further away.)

Geissel has put Racer up for sale (just the business; he doesn’t own the building), and has had a crowdfunding campaign to keep it open. But he says the place is “not going anywhere,” at least for now.

* * *

At the time of the Racer tragedy, some of us held on to hopes, however slight and however unwarranted, that such strikes of violent madness could, somehow, someday, be made to pass from American society.

Instead, the current national political climate only encourages more senseless slaughter, by murderers deluded into the belief their brutality is "powerful,” or somehow "patriotic."

We re-learned this lesson in Portland.

Since Memorial Day weekend, we’ve had to mourn and honor two men who violently died protecting America’s highest values — on American soil, in what The Atlantic called “America’s whitest city.”

On a MAX light rail train in Portland’s Hollywood district, a “known white supremacist” berated two teenage girls (one black, one Muslim and wearing a hijab). Witnesses reported he said “Get off the bus, and get out of the country because you don't pay taxes here."

Three passengers intervened. Two died for it when the suspect pulled a knife.

As columnist Nicholas Kristof later described them, “One was a 23-year-old recent Reed College graduate who had a mane of long hair and was working as a consultant. Another was a 53-year-old Army veteran with the trimmest of haircuts and a record of service in Iraq and Afghanistan. The third was a 21-year-old poet and Portland State University student on his way to a job at a pizzeria. What united the three was decency.”

The man who’d threatened the girls stabbed the three men in their throats. Taliesin Namkai-Meche and Ricky Best — the Reed graduate and Army veteran — died. Micah Fletcher survived, and told KOIN 6 News on June 4 that he was healing quickly and “expected to make a full recovery.”

The last words of one of the heroes was “Tell everyone on this train I love them.”

One of the women the men had been defending said later, “They didn't even know me and they lost their lives because of me and my friend and the way we look."

 As the New York Times headline described the incident, “Three men stood up to anti-Muslim taunts. Two paid with their lives.”

At his arraignment, the alleged assailant claimed to have no mental illnesses. He also went into incoherent tirades about "free speech” (as if killing people were somehow mere “speech”). He also called his deed an act of “patriotism” and proclaimed “death to the enemies of America.”

Meanwhile, a Multnomah County Republican leader suggested volunteer "militia" dudes should be on hand at public rallies — to protect the bigoted alt-Right provocateurs, not to protect the citizenry against the provocateurs.

Yes, the "conservative bubble" of unreality has descended this low.

Once again: This is not normal.

And it cannot ever become normal.