Remembering the Infamous Kitsap Ferry Riot of 1987
When a former music venue went up in flames in Bremerton earlier this week, a site associated with one of the most notorious incidents in regional music history may have been lost forever.
But thanks to a Seattle man named Chris Looney who’s been working on a “labor of love” art project for the past several years, memories of the incident are being preserved in an animated short film.
On Monday afternoon, fire consumed a dilapidated and long-abandoned old music club on Arsenal Way in Bremerton called Natacha’s. Coincidentally, Tuesday was the 31st anniversary of an all-ages punk concert at Natacha’s featuring British punk band GBH as the headlining act, and local band The Accused opening up the show.
By all accounts, the show on the night of October 2, 1987 at Natacha’s was pretty good. David Portnow, a member of Seattle band The Dehumanizers and owner of the label PIG Records, was in the audience.
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“GBH was extremely polished, and The Accused … they were more one of those sloppy bands with great performance skills,” Portnow said. “Blaine Cook [lead singer for The Accused] would jump as high in the air as he is tall, and [guitarist] Tommy Niemeyer would be all over the place. And they had a bass player back then named Chewy who was downright crazy, and a drummer named Dana that was very entertaining.”
Portnow says there wasn’t any trouble during the show that long-ago Friday night, or any other time that he can remember traveling from Seattle to Bremerton via ferry for a show.
“Natacha’s was an interesting place,” Portnow said. “We had lots of shows there, all-ages. To my recollection, we never had any problems.”
“The police would stop by and check in … there would be very friendly encounters with the police … unlike the encounters with the police in King County,” he said. “The fire department also would come down to Natacha’s [and] go in and inspect and let us keep rolling. In King County it was different. They wouldn’t come in and inspect. They would just come in and shut down the power.”
Infamous Kitsap Ferry Riot
It was what happened after the show, as fans and musicians made their way back to Seattle, that made the show in Bremerton newsworthy.
“It’s one of those things that there’s not a lot of folks left in the ferry system that remember this particular incident, but certainly there’s a certain lore about it and it gets handed down over time,” said Washington State Ferries spokesman Ian Sterling. “And, in fact, when I first started here, the captain who was aboard when this happened, told me the story.”
The incident Sterling referred to has more recently come to be called “Infamous Kitsap Ferry Riot.”
That’s also the title of the animated short film that Seattle artist Chris Looney is producing. A short preview of the film was the centerpiece of an anniversary party that took place at an old auto parts store in Wallingford over the weekend.
Looney grew up in Bothell. At age 47, he’s a little too young to have made it to the show in Bremerton or to be aboard last run of the Kitsap ferry back to Seattle in 1987. Instead, he’s talked to a lot of people who were there 31 years ago, and he’s become a sort of unofficial historian of the incident.
“The show went to 11 p.m. or midnight, and the last ferry back to Seattle was at 1:05 a.m., I believe, and it’s just loaded with punks. And ferry personnel, I don’t think they were too happy about it,” Looney said. “I talked to a lot of people, and most people say the ferry workers were just a little bit rude and just kind of expecting trouble, I think, when they saw all these kids [who] were all excited from the show.”
It’s unclear exactly what happened next, but newspaper reports at the time, and many of the people Chris Looney has talked to, say that some kind of verbal altercation broke out between a few of the 150 or so punks on board, and a 38-year old ferry passenger. For some reason, this passenger started removing her clothes, performing, in effect, an impromptu striptease.
“Next thing you know, you’ve got a woman who’s daring everyone that she’s going to strip, basically, and everybody’s like, ‘Okay, go for it – whatever.’ They’re kind of laughing,” Looney said.
“And this [one particular] kid doesn’t want to be outshined [by the striptease], or he wants to show how ‘punk rock’ he is, and so he goes over and starts urinating in front of everyone and just kind of laughing,” he said.
By some accounts, the kid peed into a potted plant, others say it was onto one of the ferry’s bench seats. Either way, pretty soon everyone was laughing, Looney says.
“Then, a ferry worker comes around the corner and sees this going on and freaks out about it, [and] grabs the kid [who was peeing],” Looney said. “And all of a sudden, everybody is [saying], ‘Hey, hey, hey, we don’t need to be too crazy about this,’ you know.’”
Looney says that in addition to the ferry workers, there were two off-duty Bremerton police officers also on board the Kitsap for security. The altercation apparently escalated as the ferry workers and police officers tried to gain control by locking the peeing punk, and a second punk who spit at the officers, in the purser’s office. The officers and ferry personnel locked themselves in the purser’s office, too.
“All the kids came over [to the door to the purser’s office] and said, ‘Let our friends go,’” Looney said. “All the kids went crazy and were beating on the door.”
Then, Looney says, one of the punks started tearing down and crushing acoustic ceiling tiles, and many others started doing the same. Somewhere in the middle of all this, a punk who was down on his knees with his face up against the door vent, trying to plead with the officers or maybe talk with his friend, got sprayed with pepper spray through the vent from inside the purser’s office, Looney says.
“After that, everybody went totally crazy,” Looney said. “Somebody smashed out the emergency glass and took the ax and proceeded to start chopping up the metal door. That’s when things just were completely out of control.”
“I think there were only a few people that were actually doing real damage, but most people were like, ‘I need to get out of here, get downstairs [to the car deck],” he said. “And then a lot people who were downstairs didn’t even know that this was going on until, as they’re pulling up to Seattle, there’s 20 police cars or something on the dock all waiting.”
“That’s pretty much how it ended,” Looney said. “The whole thing only took about 45 minutes. It was just basically from after they left on the ferry, and then it was over before they reached Seattle.”
When the Kitsap docked in Elliott Bay, Seattle Police were on hand to help sort out which passengers got to leave and who got taken into custody.
“And it took everybody a long time to get off the ferry because they searched the cars one-by-one,” Looney said. “Apparently, they didn’t do big searches, [because] I heard that there was actually some people hiding in the cars in the trunks and stuff, and I don’t think they were found.”
In the news
Producer Casey McNerthney at KIRO TV tracked down a news report from October 3, 1987. KIRO TV reporter Roger Gadley interviewed singer Blaine Cook and guitarist Tom Niemeyer of The Accused, who were both aboard the Kitsap for the run from Bremerton to Seattle.
ROGER GADLEY: “Police deny that they provoked the crowd. Band members say when the rough stuff started, they went to their cars.”
BLAINE COOK: “I didn’t wanna have no part of it.”
GADNEY: So you got out of the way?
TOM NIEMEYER: “There was a few outlandish kids, I’m sure, who wanted to say that they were more punk than the other kids, so they grabbed fire axes and things like that. Unfortunately, that puts a bad name on the punk scene and makes it harder for us to play gigs.”
All told, the Kitsap suffered about $30,000 in damage, and the ceiling tile destruction released asbestos into the cabin that required extensive clean up. Chris Looney says that five people were arrested and spent the weekend in the Kitsap County Jail. A few of them ultimately performed community service.
All ages shows
Looney also says that it’s worth stepping back a few years before October 1987 in order to understand why all-ages punk shows were being held in Bremerton in the first place.
In July 1985, the Seattle City Council passed a pretty tough teen dance club ordinance, mainly in response to rampant underage drug use and prostitution at a notorious club called The Monastery, which was in an old church at Stewart and Denny. New rules went into effect, including restricting admission to previously all-ages clubs to those ages 16 and up, and imposing a 2 a.m. club curfew for anyone between the ages of 16 and 21.
While The Monastery was forced out of business in 1985 by other legal actions taken by the city and by King County, the teen dance ordinance likely contributed to the closing of other venues, such as the International District location of a live music club called Gorilla Gardens.
“[The ordinance] was meant to protect the youth, but what it really did was, since the kids kept putting on shows, the police would show up under orders of the teen dance ordinance and instead of protecting the kids, it often turned into altercations,” Looney said, pointing to a clash between police and attendees of a Circle Jerks concert at the Fremont location of Gorilla Gardens in November 1985, a few months after the ordinance was passed.
Looney says the ordinance chased away legitimate all-ages shows to venues beyond the city limits.
“Once there was no more all ages shows in Seattle, people were going out to Bremerton to Natacha’s, they were going up to Everett, just all over Puget Sound all these little all ages shows would pop up because they couldn’t happen in Seattle,” Looney said.
“It wasn’t very well thought out, and I think it punished the wrong people in a way they didn’t anticipate,” Looney said, though it did help well-run all-ages venues outside Seattle, such as the Old Fire House Teen Center in Redmond, really thrive in the 1990s.
Chris Looney says that his animated short will be completed in early 2019. He hopes to enter it in several film festivals.
Why does Looney think it’s worth making a film that, essentially, glorifies a striptease, a fight, and $30,000 worth of vandalism aboard a ferryboat more than three decades ago?
“These stories from 1985 to about 1992, this Seattle Northwest hardcore scene, it’s pretty underrepresented,” Looney said. “It actually was a very, very strong scene, and I think the strength of that scene carried through and maybe helped all these kids get into the big grunge scene that happened in the early ’90s.”
“That all stemmed from the same time period,” Looney said.
Looney says that the Seattle ordinance was ultimately changed in 2002 after a serious grassroots and music industry campaign, and it has since become easier to hold all-ages shows in Seattle.
Looking around, in those intervening years since the grunge phenomenon, the city has actually embraced local music as another legitimate sector of the economy, like aerospace or biotech. City-owned Seattle Center is now home to KEXP and its multiple performance spaces, as well as to the all-ages Vera Project, and a division of the mayor’s office is dedicated to helping the music industry succeed.
Meanwhile, musical tastes have moved on past grunge, and punk shows aren’t as frequent around Puget Sound as they were in 1987. But, according to musician and record company guy David Portnow, punk may be making a comeback thanks to the current political climate, and demand for more live shows may follow.
And, Portnow says, another thing that changed around Puget Sound is that a certain public transportation agency let bygones be bygones.
“I found out two nights ago that the kid who [peed] in the plant went on to work for the Washington State Ferries,” Portnow said. “He worked on the Whidbey Island run.”