Community Roots

Pat Tassoni: Community Roots, Liberation Cafe

“In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Three months later, Nelson Mandela was freed from South Africa, signaling the fall of apartheid. Everything is changing around the world–standing up against tyranny or bringing down totalitarianism–but then Bush starts a war later that year. So in the 90s, getting together opposing Bush in the war and creating sort of an activist community. There was a lot going on in Olympia. I think there was just a lot going on in general everywhere.”

Artist-activist and one of the founding members of the Liberation Cafe in the ‘90s

Pat Tassoni


Pat Tassoni: [Music begins playing in the background] In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Three months later, Nelson Mandela was freed from South Africa, signaling the fall of apartheid. Everything is changing around the world – standing up against tyranny or bringing down totalitarianism – but then Bush starts a war later that year. So in the 90s, getting together opposing Bush and the war and creating sort of an activist community. There was a lot going on in Olympia. I think there was just a lot going on in general everywhere.

Kelsey Smith: Welcome to Community Roots, a community oral history project about how people come together to make change and create new possibilities for themselves and their neighbors. I’m Kelsey Smith, and we’ll be learning about the Liberation Cafe in Olympia, Washington. 

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I first became aware of the Liberation Cafe through my friend Pat Tassoni while working on a project related to Olympia’s indie music scene. Pat made good use of his time during the COVID-19 pandemic and scanned all of the flyers, newsletters, and ephemera related to the Liberation Cafe. He emailed me a link to a gigantic file, which simmered on a back burner while I continued my music work. Still, I found I couldn’t stop thinking about Pat’s document. When my music project partner Elaine Vradenburgh presented me with an opportunity to interview activists for the Community Roots oral history cohort, I returned to the concept of the Liberation Cafe. I am honored to have interviewed several of the people who made this ambitious and loose collective a reality.  

Today, we’ll be talking to Pat Tassoni, an artist-activist and one of the founding members of the Liberation Cafe. Here’s Pat. 

Pat: I'm a third-generation or third/fourth generation descendant of European immigrants to the land of the Peoria people – that's in Illinois–and first generation immigrant to the Coastal Salish. I'm a third-generation antifa and a high-functioning cultural jamming autistic punk. I went through the schools locally, closer to the Nisqually reservation, and grew up here. I saw the world changing and was engaged in it.

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The first President I had a choice to vote for was George Bush or Dukakis, and of course, I lived through the Reagan era. After high school, I started hanging out in downtown Olympia, because before that downtown Olympia – there was nothing going on. Everything was closed. The stores were boarded up and it was pretty dead. But it was still the best downtown in all the county because it's the only downtown in the county. 

Then we got to see in the late ‘80s developing – they formed the Downtown Business Association. The City Council had just shifted from a City Commission to City Council, and they were aggressively neoliberal, like Reagan, so they started passing laws against the youth. They had their success in the ‘80s passing no all-age shows, no teen dance ordinance, no skateboarding downtown, no car cruising, no loud car stereos. And the cops would just use it to harass young people downtown who, quite frankly, made up the culture here and were the primary consumers.

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The overlap between musicians and punkers and youth and activism was very strong. Like at the "no sitting on the sidewalk" ordinances, a number of the people that came to testify to the City against it were in bands, and were musicians. The youth had become empowered and emboldened by that. It was like, “we need a space to coalesce people, to give people the ability to express themselves in any way that they want, as well as to meet people and to hang out.” 

Kelsey: The Liberation Cafe was an activist space that was established in the mid-nineties as a place for people to work, collaborate, host events, and engage with community. The cafe occupied the top floor of Bulldog News in downtown Olympia.

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Pat: The Liberation Cafe space was long and narrow upstairs. The ceiling was seven feet tall. I could touch it. There were four skylights. We built a stage at one end so the performers would be under the skylight, so if they wanted to swing their guitar around or something they would have the room to do that. There was no heat up there. It was relatively dark, and I think it had a nasty red carpet. For $200 a month, we got an empty, unlit, [laughs] fairly abandoned dusty place that we called home.

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A lot of groups had a desk because we found a telemarketing place that was going out of business, and they had all the telephone stations. So we got a flatbed truck, which I thought was so hilarious. It was kind of like the opening to the Beverly Hillbillies. We had all these desks stacked up, and we were all sitting out on the back of the truck. And going on a one vehicle parade. It was just probably 10 blocks, but going like 10 miles an hour. It was pretty fun.

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Kelsey: There were literally hundreds of events and workshops in that space in the few years it operated – everything from a mask-making workshop for the Procession of the Species to Cop Watch trainings, a regular spoken word night, and the Sex Workers Art Show.

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Pat: Tara Perkins was instrumental. She helped do a lot of the music shows and coordinate some of the events of activists and big speakers coming through. And then she spun off and did – I think the first Sex Worker Art Show was there. Courtney [Bennett] helped start the Zine Library. Peter Bohmer always had a lot of energy and connections through Evergreen and throughout the nation and the world. 

David Fawver, “Long Haired David,” he made it his mission to do AIDS education and prevention work. The Olympia AIDS Prevention Project and Youth AIDS Prevention Projects – which later turned into EGYHOP [Emma Goldman Youth & Homeless Outreach Project] – that was started because along with the crackdown on youth in general and homeless people, they made the needle exchange illegal. You could be arrested for having drug paraphernalia on you, such as syringes. And so there was an underground AIDS exchange until it became legal, so the younger people like Nomy [Lamm] and Tara [Perkins] were doing more the youth-centered stuff and some of us were doing more the confronting the police and power system. 

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And there was some music, poetry readings, some riot grrrl events. We did three annual Social Justice and Equality in Olympia conferences to try to identify current and future issues that were going on and then helped start the Mayday events. We had regular classes, Spanish language, Books to Prisoners, IWW [Industrial Workers of the World], and candidate forums. We tried to make it fun and have dollar movie nights or just get together socializing events kind of things. And some people were just steadfast, like, "I'll help you work on this,” like  Frank Hoffman, Dan Leahy, Tom Nogler. Everyone kind of had their own project, and we would just try to support each other as much as possible.

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Kelsey: The Liberation Cafe lost momentum and ended in 1999 when their hosting business Bulldog News closed down.

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Liberation Cafe fell apart as an organization because of the transition of the business. And then there was like, “where do we go now?” Because we had some momentum, but we still don't have financial resources. And things were going for people, like Tara Perkins was spinning off the Sex Worker Art Show. The more music-oriented artistic kids were peeling off to do Ladyfest. Some of us were more interested in the WTO. So lots of people came and went. Some people would come just to do their thing once a year. 

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It's kind of overwhelming to think about all the people that contributed – their kernel of knowledge to this big bowl of popcorn that we had. I can't pick my favorite piece out of it. I always go for the big ones.

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Meg Rosenberg: Community Roots is produced by Window Seat Media. This story was a collaboration between Pat Tassoni and Kelsey Smith. Kelsey is one of our Community Roots cohort members. She brought this story idea to us, interviewed Pat, and helped to edit this story. Elaine Vradenburgh did the audio editing for this story and Steven Suski produced the music for this series. Funding for this series was provided by the Thurston County Heritage Grant program, the Marie Lamfrom Foundation, ArtsFund, the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound, and from community support from people like you. To learn more about Window Seat Media, hear more stories, or make a donation to support this series, visit

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