On a Sunday afternoon within the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), Angel is stationed at the No-Cop Co-Op. The co-op is filled to the brim with food, Gatorade, water, blankets, toilet paper, tampons and face masks so that protesters and people in the zone have the materials they need. The scent of hot dogs grilling mingles with pancakes on a griddle. “It’s beautiful,” Angel said. “I just hope people can sustain this.”
The co-op has a sign inviting people to send pizzas to CHOP if they can’t be there in person. Angel takes several Domino’s boxes to distribute to people in the area looking for lunch. She said that two weeks ago, she couldn’t have imagined something like CHOP. “It’s weird — me and lots of other people of color say they were starting to hate people before. I’m smiling at everyone now.”
Since its conception, CHOP has been portrayed as an autonomous zone, seceding from the state, as portrayed by sensationalist media coverage around the United States from outlets like The Hill and Fox News. It is a constantly evolving space and a challenging story to cover. But on the ground, and through candid footage on social media, the CHOP appears to be a grassroots, organic ecosystem of community springing from the seeds of protests.
There’s Conversation Cafe, one of many book clubs and discussion groups, and spaces for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) to connect and hold space for one another.
There are idea boards where people can write their visions for justice on sticky notes and post them on walls and several memorials for George Floyd and the multitude hurt by racism and police violence. There is even a bell-ringing station, where people write down their ideas and ring the bells attached to others’ ideas they agree with.
Art has cropped up everywhere, and the stretch of Pine Street between 11th and 12th avenues was adorned with a colorful, patterned Black Lives Matter statement within the first week of CHOP cropping up.
Citizen journalist and Converge Media founder Omari Salisbury has been reporting about the protests every day for weeks, live-streaming meetings and documenting the rapidly changing movement since it began in early June. “You could get five people with five opinions, and they are all right,” he said, noting how the CHOP has an amalgamation of people, priorities and groups who have grounded themselves in the space.
The barricaded stretch of Pine looks like a social justice block party that has had free admission since SPD’s abandonment of the East Precinct building at 12th Avenue. The cops’ retreat from there was preceded by more than a week of protests against police brutality. Thousands filled Pine and 11th and 12th every evening in this mixed residential-commercial area. Protesters were met daily by uses of force from the police, including tear gas and rubber bullets. Over the span of the protests, the SPD Office of Police Accountability received over 17,000 individual reports of police misconduct — many of them for the same incidents.
As protests continued for over a week, the Seattle Community Police Commission and other community leaders met with Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best, urging them to call for police officers to stop using non-lethal weaponry, including teargas and flash-bang grenades, and not to suit up in riot gear. Even after Best banned the use of tear gas, police sprayed protesters with another type of gas that same evening.
It came as a surprise to civilians when SPD pulled out of the East Precinct building, boarding up windows and removing personal and pricey items. By the evening of June 8, the line of officers facing an endless sea of protest had disappeared. Protesters proclaimed the area “Free Capitol Hill” and shifted the spatial layout to facilitate community-led interactions.
CHOP — initially called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone/CHAZ — grew out of an urgent need to mobilize around police officers’ excessive use of force against Black people, a symptom of institutional racism and biased policing. Alongside the rest of the nation, protesters demanded to defund and even abolish the police.
A simple look at the city of Seattle’s 2020 budget shows that the margin between funding for public safety and funding for human services is vast. The 2020 adopted budget for the Seattle Police Department stands at $409,111,751, as compared to $235,999,578 adopted for the Human Services Department. While SPD funds go toward police personnel and operating costs specifically around the goal of public safety, Human Services has to handle a long list of services including harm reduction, housing and rent services, community building and youth services for a fraction of SPD’s operating expenses. This inequity is at the center of the CHOP’s main demand: Defund the police and redistribute that money to community and social services.
Under a damp night sky on June 8, after the police by and large left the East Precinct, Black people spoke out, referencing a list of 30 specific demands. Posted on Medium.com, the demands are in four categories: changes to the justice system, economic demands, demands for defunding the police and investing in Health and Human services and demands around the educational system. Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County and King County Equity Now also have a long list of demands that overlap. The demands call to dismantle structures that have divested from and detracted from Black communities: Defund and abolish the police department, ban armed force, end the school-prison pipeline and provide reparations for those who have suffered at the hands of police brutality, among many more specifically worded demands.
Additional demands to the city are to “degentrify” Seattle through rent control and giving back spaces to Black community in the Central District and create an alternative to 911 calls that would be staffed by mental health specialists to respond to crises. Finally, the document concludes that “the history of Black and Native Americans be given a significantly greater focus in the Washington State education curriculum,” and anti-bias training should become a mainstay in all industries and professions.
While President Trump’s tweets and national media have characterized the area as some kind of a lawless state, it is nothing close to that. Salisbury said that on any given day, there is nothing out of the ordinary. But, recent shootings marred the sense of stability.
Currently CHOP has no centralized leadership — which is seen as a way either to sustain the movement or hamper it, depending on who you ask.
“I’ve seen people show up without a leader telling them to show up,” said former mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver on a video posted on Twitter, noting that people have come bearing supplies, food and medical equipment of their own accord.
“I think one of the things that killed the civil rights movement was that we kept having figureheads as opposed to diffused leadership,” Oliver continued, “so when those figureheads were assassinated by the U.S., it was easy to kill our movement and we settled for civil rights over human rights.”
Salisbury, the citizen journalist, observes, however, that the lack of centralized leadership could be problematic “because the police, city — they do not know who to negotiate with.”
While streets have been cordoned off with cement and plywood barricades leaving room for homegrown interactions, many people in support of the anti-racist movement and other organizations involved are concerned that the party-like atmosphere is distracting from the pressing demands. Mainly, to defund the police and bring equity to Black communities who have been systematically underserved and under resourced due to institutional racism in every area of public life.
In an effort to re-center Black voices at CHOP and remind people what this movement is about, organizers spearheaded a Juneteenth Blackout at CHOP with space for healing and celebrating Black community. “What we need from our non-black allies are donations of money and supplies and the willingness to support by quietly protecting sacred space for black healing,” the Facebook event page stated. The day’s events included yoga, meditation, grief ceremonies and sound healing.
On the early morning of Saturday, June 20, around 2 a.m., after a night of celebrating Juneteenth, Salisbury’s livestream broke the news of a shooting that took the life of one person and left another in critical condition. By late Saturday afternoon, the SPD blotter had posted police body-cam footage of a group of officers responding to the situation. By the time police had arrived, the victims had already been taken to Harborview Medical Center in private vehicles, according to Salisbury’s reporting. One victim, a 19-year-old Black man, died. No suspects have been identified as of this writing.
Later Saturday, Cal Anderson Park was full of discussion circles organizing around better safety methods for the protest area. One man stood at the center of the playfield with a bull horn calling out “anybody that has any topics for conversation that wants to figure out how we can continue to move forward positively needs to be in this discussion right here.” Volunteers followed, gathering in a wide circle at the center of the field.
On Sunday, a Twitter account called Voices of CHOP posted a widely circulated document that detailed a recommitment to the message of the movement — that Black Lives Matter and BIPOC voices are the ones that should be leading. “First, we would like to acknowledge that no organization, protest, or revolution is perfect,” it read. “We must be willing to collectively learn and react quickly to mistakes within our movement. We do not want to see what was started with the intention of lifting the BLM message destroyed before us all.”
The document suggests specific community-led actions and options to increase security and communication at CHOP. These include creating “safe use” areas for drug and alcohol use that have become commonplace in the late night hours, and creating open hours for CHOP (8 a.m.-8 p.m.) and creating a more streamlined and robust system for communicating across volunteers and service providers in the area.
There are no names attached to the document but those involved are referred to as BIPOC and white-ally community members. The account later tweeted an intention not to lead but to follow the guidance of BIPOC leadership. In addition to Voices of CHOP, “Capitol Hill Organized Protests (official account)” emerged and warns against fraudulent accounts created by opponents. There are several more social media accounts affiliated with CHOP and groups involved.
All of this comes after almost two weeks of speculation and mixed messaging around CHOP’s goals and what the truly grassroots organizing aims to accomplish. Later Sunday, June 21, around 10:40 p.m., another shooting took place, leaving a 17-year-old wounded. As the day before, he was transported to Harborview by a private vehicle, treated and then released.
CHOP is an evolving paradox and many things at once: a place to congregate around shared racial-justice goals, approached in a few different ways, while simultaneously seeming like a tourist attraction filled with people gazing, holding up their phones to capture the rarity.
Instances of community members problem solving against dissention or distraction have also been ever-present, online and on the ground. Just one example of this is a video posted on social media where a group of community members successfully deter and deescalate someone ready to smash the windows of the abandoned precinct building.
Some people have characterized the occupation of the place as a way to imagine and exemplify the community action that could be bolstered if police were defunded and those dollars were invested in human services and community networks.
At a press conference Monday, June 22, Durkan said, “It’s time for people to go home” and to open Capitol Hill for business, residents, employees, while also allowing space for peaceful protest. She noted the city is working with Black-led community organizations such as Not This Time and Community Passageways to approach gun violence and night-time activities in the area. Best announced plans to come back to the East Precinct in a way that works with the community.
Andre Taylor, who founded Not This Time and whose brother Che Taylor was killed by police, said he has been on the ground speaking with CHOP organizers. He mentioned that as a place, CHOP does bring up some dangers. However, “CHOP is not a place — it’s an idea,” he said. “Don’t minimize the idea of CHOP.”
After the press conference, multiple social media accounts involved with CHOP responded to the mayor’s comments; some say their groups were not consulted by the mayor’s office at all.
Undeniably, CHOP holds space for the imagined changes and futures BIPOC have been dreaming of and striving to see. But what will come of the protest zone, its changing methods and challenges is yet uncertain. CHOP contains multitudes and is unfolding — certainly a story to be told by the many voices we haven’t heard.
This reporting was up-to-date at press time, June 23 midday.
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at email@example.com. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more in the June 24-30, 2020 issue.