What I Witnessed in Seattle’s CHAZ / CHOP Zone

Emily Pothast on 2020-06-15

A former Seattleite comes home to see what activists have done with the place.

Barricades are set up to prevent cars from entering the area (pedestrians may enter freely)

UPDATE 6/20: A protester was shot and killed this morning in the CHOP. For realtime updates, I recommend following Omari Salisbury on Twitter.

It was almost midnight when we arrived in the Zone. Exhausted from the day’s journey—it’s a 12-hour drive from our apartment in Berkeley to our old Seattle neighborhood—my partner and I took a late night walk around Cal Anderson, the public park adjacent to the East Precinct from which Seattle Police retreated on June 8. A thrum of distant music reverberated through the air.

We approached the park from the north, navigating through a sea of tents. For us, this was a familiar sight, echoing the encampments that filled the park during the Occupy protests of 2011. As we made our way down to Pine Street, however, we quickly realized that this was utterly unlike anything we had witnessed in the decade and a half that this area was our home. Just beyond the tents are a series of community gardens that have sprung up over the past week, engineered by urban sustainability expert Marcus Henderson. During the day, these gardens were filled with volunteers. Along the southern edge of the park, the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER” had been painted on Pine Street in giant, colorful letters, broadcasting their message to the heavens.

Tents were set up along both sides of the street, filled with tables loaded with free goods—bottled water, assorted pantry items, masks and sanitizer, and even dog treats. This is the “No Cop Co-op,” stocked with a growing cache of donations received by the community.

We were served two bowls of well-seasoned lentil soup by a young white couple. They told us that they live in an apartment nearby, but had begun coming to the park every day when the protests began. They were there on the front lines when the Seattle Police were bombarding the neighborhood with tear gas and flash bangs. On the night of June 8, the police left the precinct, and the zone has been “free” ever since. The terror subsided, but the trauma of the 9-day standoff between police and protesters still lingers in the memory of those who felt their neighborhood become a war zone, and whose bodies bear the scars to prove it.

There is now a sign that says “Capitol Hill Community Center” on the East Precinct building.

We headed down to the intersection of 12th and Pine, where the East Precinct stands boarded up, surrounded by a chain-link fence. Over the past week, I had seen countless photos and livestreams of the site on social media, and yet nothing prepared me for what it was like to actually be in this place. The walls were covered with murals and graffiti: some meticulously intentional, some slapdash. Hanging all over the fence were protest signs and photocopied posters; artifacts that hint at the shocking catharsis of the previous week’s activity. “Come march with us!” yelled a young Black man with a bullhorn. He gathered a small group and marched them down to the intersection of 12th and Pike, where they laid down on the street.

We turned the corner and saw the memorial to victims of police violence along 12th Avenue. There is a list of names that is being added to in realtime — the paint on Rayshard Brooks’s name was still fresh when I saw it. Dozens of candles, portraits, and fresh cut flowers lined the sidewalk, giving the whole block the reverent aura of a makeshift sanctuary.

Directly across the street is a portrait of Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother shot and killed by Seattle Police in front of her young children, painted on the boards that line the windows of the East Precinct building. It was dark, and her portrait was illuminated by a single streetlamp, giving her the glow of a sacred icon.

I’m at a loss for words to describe the emotional impact of seeing Lyles’s face gazing out from the exterior of the abandoned police department, so I won’t attempt it, except to say that if art exists for any purpose at all, surely it must be this one.

Portrait of Charleena Lyles on the East Precinct, Capitol Hill, Seattle

After Lyles’s death in 2017, I participated in a series of marches organized by some of the activists who are still working in Seattle. “She called for help and you shot her,” the crowd chanted at police. This was a reference to the circumstances of her death: Lyles had called 911 and the police that responded to the call wound up fatally shooting her. (On the audio recording of the killing, one officer can be heard asking the other for a taser, but neither had one. In 2019, a judge dropped negligence charges against both officers.)

The death of Charleena Lyles represents a moral failing on multiple levels. It illustrates, heartbreakingly, the deadly consequences of biased policing and failure to implement de-escalation tactics, combined with a chronic underinvestment in social services. Lyles called 911 because she was in crisis; instead of helping her, police killed her. This is why proponents of defunding police departments want to redirect resources into social services: so that the people who respond to crisis calls are actually equipped to go into those crises. Despite the rampant, often outlandish narratives about the #DefundThePolice movement being pushed by corporate and right-wing media, its proponents do not want consequence-free chaos. We want effective responses to the symptoms of white supremacist capitalist decay, combined with systemic changes that help rebuild the rotten foundation that leads to those failings in the first place. We want justice.

In spite of the festival vibe that has been growing as the CHOP zone has attracted more visitors, this core desire for justice remained at the heart of the activities I experienced over the past weekend. During the day, the park was full of people— some engaged in revelry, but many more working, listening, witnessing.

Rick Williams carves a wooden walking stick

A group of members of the Muckleshoot tribe shared personal stories of violence, and then played drums and sang, offering a prayer for the dead in their Whulshootseed language. Meanwhile, in a booth set up on the soccer field, Nootka woodcarver Rick Williams practiced his traditional craft for rapt onlookers. Williams’s brother, John T. Williams, was shot and killed by Seattle Police in 2012. “If John were here, he would be honored,” Williams told the Seattle Times. “All my heart and soul show this will work. The government is listening, that we have had enough. I’m proud of this.”

On the soft astroturf of the soccer field, King County councilmember Girmay Zahilay warned an attentive crowd against losing sight of the purpose of the protests in the festival atmosphere:

“Remember, keep your eyes on the prize. A good mentor once told me something that has stuck with me forever: Until we address America’s two original sins no one is safe. Those two original sins are the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans here in this country. Everything else we fight for will be on a broken foundation if we don’t address those two things first.”

After Zahilay’s speech, my attention was grabbed by a captivating solo performance by Nicolle Swims of the band The Black Ends. Equipped with only an electric guitar and a microphone, Swims’s heartfelt performance exuded a ragged-edged urgency that many longtime residents of Seattle might associate with the 80s and early 90s—the distilled essence of which eventually became the internationally marketed commodity that was grunge. But rock and blues were Black art forms before they were appropriated by white musicians, and as the childhood home of Jimi Hendrix, Seattle holds an important piece of this history, too. (There’s a statue of Hendrix on Broadway a few blocks from here.)

Nicolle Swims of The Black Ends gives a solo performance at CHOP. (Live video here.)

It’s not uncommon to see outdoor performances in this area. The CHOP zone is the location of the Capitol Hill Block Party, a massive annual festival for which these streets are closed off. (Block Party was cancelled this year due to COVID-19; 2019 ticket prices ranged from $70 to $300). But the vibe at CHOP was decidedly DIY and BIPOC-focused, reminding me of the underground, community-centric, Black-run Hoodstock festival that takes place in a backyard in the Central District.

The chasm between these art scenes—the DIY and scrappy versus the glossy and corporate-sponsored—parallels the transformation of both Capitol Hill and the neighboring Central District that I witnessed during the years I lived in these two neighborhoods (2006–2019). Capitol Hill is the center of Seattle’s LGBTQ social life; it used to be gritty and queer, now it’s upscale and (comparatively) tame. The Central District, meanwhile, is Seattle’s traditionally Black neighborhood—established during the long stretch of the 20th century in which Black Seattleites were unable to own homes in other neighborhoods due to racist redlining.

Over the past decade, both neighborhoods have become increasingly gentrified, with the warm, idiosyncratic, and lived-in gradually giving way to the shiny, overpriced, and uninspired. The decolonizing, expressionistic gesture that has exploded onto the streets of the CHOP—concretizing in impromptu murals and scattered shards of protest ephemera—is an impulse that has been here the whole time, but has been increasingly repressed and displaced through the forces of gentrification. All over the CHOP site, a vital aesthetic energy pushes through the gray sameness the like flowers exploding through cracks in concrete. Right now Capitol Hill feels more alive, intentional, and conscious than I’ve ever seen it.

A planted memorial to John T. Williams

In the post I wrote last week, I tried to contextualize current events in the wider arc of Seattle history. The stories of Daybreak Star and El Centro de la Raza — “occupations that worked” — were recently highlighted by the Seattle P-I. This great twitter thread from local poet Dujie Tahat provides even more context into Seattle’s rich history of activist occupations that have been inherited by CHOP:

This is what makes the hysterical national media coverage of this event so disheartening. Obviously far-right media can’t be counted on to take the side of the people in this struggle, but the dishonesty with which they have been portraying the CHOP zone—for instance, when Fox was caught photoshopping the same armed protester in multiple photos and credulously repeating the lie that there are armed guards, and that neighborhood businesses are being threatened with extortion—has been incredibly damaging, and endangering to everyone involved. It also takes the focus off the message, making protesters out to be a bizarre clickbait media spectacle. Like police brutality, this coverage is dehumanizing, albeit in a different way. It’s erasure of a movement in motion; a non-hierarchical assembly of individuals who are spending more time trying to meet their community’s immediate needs than on crafting a media-friendly brand.

To be sure: there are people at the CHOP who don’t care about the aims of the organizers—some out of apathy, others out of malice. On Saturday, a white man broke a window at the East Precinct and was promptly surrounded by protesters, who escorted him out of the area. On Monday, a man in a Trump shirt showed up to try to get a rise out of protesters, and some armed members of right-wing street gangs also showed up and instigated violence. The media’s unquestioning amplification of misinformation is largely to blame for these intrusions—these are people who found out what was happening through erroneous news reports and showed up for a fight. (On Saturday, a group of armed men showed up at the protest, but left after they realized that the impression they had gotten from the media was “bullshit.”)

In this sea of misinformation, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the “prize,” as Girmay Zahilay put it. Those goals, articulated by organizers from the very beginning, are

All the consciousness raising that’s happening at CHOP might feel nice, but until these basic demands are met, vulnerable communities are still in danger.

In my previous post, I looked at the racial wealth gap in Seattle and its racist origins. The annual budget for the SPD is over $400 million. What would it look like if just half of that budget could be diverted into common space that meets the needs of communities of color: community gardens, food co-ops, clinics, mental health care, child care, and public schools? At their best, the experiments that are unfolding in the CHOP area explore new ways of relating to each other socially; new ways of structuring a society so that it meets the needs of its most vulnerable. The signal-to-noise ratio is highly variable, but the signal is definitely there.

There’s a sign on the Cal Anderson Park playfield right now that says “Remember who we’re fighting for.”

Underneath it is another sign: “This is just the beginning.”

Sometimes change happens quickly. More often, it happens as the cumulative result of sustained actions over time that transform the very way we see ourselves and each other.

I see both kinds of change happening right now, both in Seattle and in the broader culture, and it’s something I feel honored to witness. It makes me feel more hopeful for the future than I have felt in a long time.

For more about the context of the current protests in Seattle, see my previous post.