GOLDFISH CRACKERS, SURGICAL MASKS, doughnuts from Mighty-O, eye wash, Gatorade, different sizes of disposable gloves, boxes of Cupcake Royale, tampons, traffic cones, granola bars, helmets, bottled water, Sharpies — a protest starts with injustice, but it needs fuel, and under the threat of both chaos and COVID-19, it needs protection, too. The tables outside Seattle bar/restaurant/gallery Vermillion look like the stuff of a surreal dollar store, but everything’s free: “TAKE WHAT YOU NEED,” a sign says, and masked-up volunteers are there to help. Phone charging is available. People line up to go inside to use the bathroom, one at a time; another sign notes that nearby Annex Theatre will let protesters use theirs, too.
This time last year, Vermillion’s sidewalk held a relaxed outdoor happy hour scene, weather permitting. Now, just a stone’s throw away, protesters rally against police violence and institutional racism following the killing of George Floyd. The East Precinct is just around the block, and down on the corner, the intersection is filled with protesters holding umbrellas up in the sunshine on the front line, facing a phalanx of impassive Seattle police in riot gear. The traffic lights change color over the crowd, and a bouquet of balloons hangs in the air as a call-and-response chant rises up: “Hands up!” “Don’t shoot!”
It’s Day 7 of the protest, and outside Vermillion, owner Diana Adams stands on the sidewalk looking dazed. She had closed down because of the coronavirus; then on Monday, her former bartender, Seattle artist Caroline Hitt, asked if it would be all right to put out some bottled water for protesters. “I said, ‘Um, yeah, sure’ … and then it ballooned into a central headquarters for all these donations.” Adams has been there for 13-hour days, organizing around 45 volunteers and more goodwill in the form of more donations than they could easily handle. “Cases and cases and cases of water,” she says, plus gallons and gallons and gallons of milk. The latter, Adams says, was dropped off by the well-meaning as a tear-gas eye wash, but it is not a good use. “We ended up having to throw a lot of it out,” she says.
Adams and 10 volunteers were there on Tuesday when protesters at the end of the block got tear-gassed. “I don’t even know what time it was, because we were all in a lot of panic,” she says. “We were prepared — but you’re never prepared, to be honest. It’s a really intense situation.” They ran inside, leaving everything out for protesters to use. The wind, from the north, blew the tear gas right down the street. “People were running so fast, they couldn’t even utilize a lot of our medical stuff,” Adams says. (Seattle Police chief Carmen Best has since issued a temporary ban on the use of tear gas.)
Vermillion’s 12th birthday falls in mid-June, and Adams has always run it as a space of support for local artists, musicians and thinkers — hosting gallery shows, bands, DJs, salons and meetings. She says suddenly functioning as an aid station and supply hub for this protest “feels really instinctive… And as usual, it’s not me, it’s everybody who comes out.” And many of those coming out to donate and volunteer are from Capitol Hill’s arts and LGBTQ community, Adams says, standing together for “an end to the racism, and an end to the sanctioned violence.”
But the best way to do that now, according to Adams, isn’t to bring more doughnuts or bottled water to Vermillion. They’re overloaded, at least for now, and moving the surfeit of supplies around to where they might be used is occupying lots of volunteers’ time. It’s money the movement needs — she pleads for direct donations to Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County, and also for support of local artists during COVID-19 via Seattle Independent Artist Sustainability Effort.
What will ultimately become of Vermillion, post-pandemic? “All I do is just keep the rent paid, keep the bills paid and just hold space for people,” Adams says, weary but calm. “I don’t really care whether or when we reopen.”
LESS THAN A BLOCK AWAY, more volunteers organize yet more supplies on the outdoor patio of Rancho Bravo Tacos, a neighborhood favorite since it took over a former Kentucky Fried Chicken in 2009. A veritable pyramid of bottled water is stacked on and around one of the picnic tables, and at the next one, individual first aid kits are being assembled in plastic baggies. Anyone standing here for any length of time during the calm before the protest storm will be kindly asked, “Do you need something?”
Protests aren’t big on hierarchy, but the person nominally in charge here at the moment is Mx. Pucks A’Plenty, a local burlesque producer and performer (also known as, according to their Facebook, “the Director of Junk in da Trunk, the Michelle Obama of Burlesque” and more). What’s their role here? “I’m just Black and I show up!” they respond.
“It’s a beautiful day to protest!” A’Plenty enthuses as people apply sunscreen in the background. Here, too, drop-offs of donations have been steady, they say. With work and a kid, they’ve mostly been helping organize from home — to be here is “a privilege,” they say. To be involved is just a given. “I’ve been Black my whole life!” they say. “It’s our fight.”
For his part, Rancho Bravo owner Freddy Rivas attributes his role in lending his land simply to the Golden Rule, which he says “sums it up very well regardless of your religious orientation… ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.’
“There is so much I could say about what’s happening now and what’s been happening,” he says, but chooses to leave it at that.
NEW ON CAPITOL HILL this year, La Dive had barely gotten started before the coronavirus pandemic turned it to takeout only, but the place took on the role of protest snack-and-aid station without hesitation. The mountain of supplies in the shoebox-shaped bar and restaurant has the mismatched backdrop of La Dive’s trippy, hip interior mural by local artist Jennifer Ament.
Standing in front of it all, wine director Anaïs Custer says she has been astonished by the gratitude people have shown, when to her, it’s merely the right thing to do. “When I tell protesters they can use the bathroom, it’s like I told them they just won the lottery,” she says. Especially as newcomers, she observes, “It’s our job to support the community. It should be assumed that businesses do that — it shouldn’t be seen as this grand gesture.” Her friend Maggie DiGiovanni, who is the bar manager at nearby Barrio, has helped her organize and hand things out, and lots more people in the restaurant industry have dropped off donations and moved supplies about. “Restaurants have been amazing,” she says. More generosity came from one of the organizers of Trans Pride, donating the first aid materials intended for their celebration that was canceled due to COVID-19.
The first couple of nights in its new capacity, La Dive’s most popular product was saline solution, Custer says. “After people were initially gassed… there was definitely that fear that it would continue to happen.” Since then, a big batch of sack lunches that someone dropped off, carefully labeled “Vegan,” “Meat & Cheese” and such, flew out the door. “When people see those, I think it brings something out in them that reminds them of a school lunch when they were a kid… like ‘You made it just for me!’ It brings people a level of glee.” Mass-market candy’s not something you’d ever expect to see at La Dive, but it’s great for low blood sugar and people have been loving it, Custer says. “I personally had to stay away from the Hi-Chews — I really like them.”
As at Vermillion, a cascade of donations happened here, and fast. “People want — they want to give,” Custer says. “They just need to be told how.” She, too, says the best donation now is one of money to Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County, not more bottled water.
Custer holds out hope that during what she calls “this time of national crisis… there’s an opportunity, where actually people are forced to deal with these social injustices.
“I want a revolution,” she says. “One that doesn’t have to repeat itself… I want a revolution that sticks.”
Then a friend comes in with a car waiting outside, and it’s back to bagging up supplies.