It was 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 24 when the park rangers arrived, telling members of Black Star Farmers (BSF) that they were about to demolish the Black Lives Memorial Garden (BLMG) in Cal Anderson Park. BSF members, who collectively tend to the site, frantically messaged comrades on Signal.
At about 7:15 a.m., Seattle police officers arrived to back up the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation employees. The city then brought a heavy-duty backhoe, rolling it in meters away from the garden. But, just as they were poised to begin excavations, community members began arriving, locking arms and sitting in around the garden. BLMG was saved — for now.
This was the third standoff between activists and the city in less than a month. On Oct. 4, BSF received notice that the Parks Department was planning a “turf renovation” and would be uprooting the garden. Community organizers have made it clear that they refuse to give in and are willing to engage in civil disobedience if necessary, such as individuals locking into several ladders throughout the space to create physical barriers.
The garden is home to a variety of vegetables, native plants and sacred medicinal herbs. Its produce is redistributed to the community, and the garden space frequently hosts community events. The site is filled with signs bearing inspirational quotes from radical thinkers like Franz Fanon and Silvia Federici, as well as messages of solidarity with other causes, such as the liberation of Palestine.
BLMG was first planted in summer 2020 amid the Black Lives Matter uprising and the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest and is in the center of a semicircular grass meadow just north of the soccer fields in Cal Anderson Park. It is one of the only remaining visible markers of the three-week-long occupation, along with the Black Lives Matter mural on East Pine Street.
Alongside the fledgling garden arose the collective BSF, which manages BLMG and aims to advance Black liberation through food sovereignty and land reclamation. Marcus Henderson, a garden steward with BSF, said that BLMG was focused on piloting this new relationship to the land.
“It’s about activating the community around the land and creating agency for people to decide where their food comes from and have more relationships,” Henderson said. “I think that’s sovereignty, right? It’s not just about growing pounds of food. It’s about the culture; it’s about the relationships; it’s about the knowledge, the skills being disseminated out to community and actually being held by community, so that community can make their own decisions around how they’re going [to] access food and access land.”
During those turbulent summer weeks in 2020, BSF attracted significant goodwill and media attention. This also led to city officials exploring whether BLMG could be part of a wider effort to “activate” Cal Anderson Park. However, once public support was no longer focused on addressing racial injustices, the Parks Department quickly changed its tune. The garden has never been officially sanctioned by the city.
“There was some community engagement done around the garden and what it could look like going forward,” Henderson said. “But that conversation ended pretty quickly, and then Parks quickly moved into trying to push us out of this space or into different elements of the park without really coming to understand our work.”
According to Rachel Schulkin, a spokesperson for the Parks Department, BLMG is not in an appropriate location, since the semicircular field it is located in is intended to host large gatherings and events. She added that conversations with community members yielded a desire to move the garden to another area in the park, an offer that BSF has refused. The department refused to offer further comment other than the short emailed statement.
BSF garden steward M.D. said the Parks Department has so far refused to compromise with community members who support the garden.
“[They’re] not respecting community organizing [by] crafting ways to try and force the community’s hand instead of meeting us at the table to have a real conversation and a real negotiation,” M.D. said.
Contrary to the city’s perceptions, Henderson said that BLMG serves a wide variety of groups outside of BSF. The site hosts regular mutual aid food distributions and educational events. A Nova High School class even came to visit recently to learn more about food sovereignty.
The garden has also helped improve public safety at the park, Henderson said. Supporters of BLMG reportedly administered naloxone to someone who was overdosing on Oct. 22.
“There was a crowd of people just sitting watching, just like, ‘I don’t know what to do besides call the cops.’ And people here who are in this space had Narcan, knew exactly what to do, showed up and were able to save someone’s life,” he said.
M.D. said that BLMG has also become a hub for activists who are trying to stop Seattle’s continual displacement of homeless people, commonly referred to as sweeps.
“People in this space are strategizing on how we care and love for each other,” they said. “And how do we stop sweeping homelessness into the cracks? These are real people’s lives.”
Henderson said that the symbolic weight of BLMG in its current location at Cal Anderson Park has a much greater impact outside of just providing food for the community. However, the fate of BLMG still remains uncertain, with the turf renovation remaining on the agenda.
“There’s a lot of immaterial things that have really grown out of this space,” he said. “And I think that’s why we’re so attached to this space and staying here, because it has been a catalyst for continuing to bring people into mutual aid and see that we do have a voice, that community power can make change.
“I think that’s really what this garden represents for a lot of us.”
Read more of the Nov. 8-14, 2023 issue.