On a sunny Monday morning, after a weekend that saw two nighttime shootings, the streets and fields of CHOP (Capitol Hill Organized Protest) were mostly deserted.
Just a few days ago, the 24/7 protest, which occupies several blocks around Cal Anderson Park and a recently abandoned police precinct, had been bustling with life: activists; rubberneckers; reporters; volunteer security guards, some openly carrying guns; masked medics.
But after two bursts of gunfire on successive nights — two men wounded, one man killed — almost everyone seemed to have disappeared.
Sitting in a small circle of sun-drenched couches at the Decolonization Conversation Café, on the southeast corner of Cal Anderson Park, a handful of demonstrators debated CHOP’s future — later that afternoon, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan would announce the city’s intent to shut down nighttime activity in a “phased” way.
“It was thriving,” said Keely, who didn’t want to share her last name, but helps run the Café — where, for the past two weeks, strangers have gathered in small circles for raw, nuanced conversations about race, some lasting late into the night.
“CHOP is a beautiful thing,” said Chris Thompson, who has been there every day, since before the police deserted the East Precinct on June 8.
“When it works, the community watches out for each other, and for people in the lower income brackets; there are free supplies, water, food,” Keely said. “And I don’t feel like a Black woman in this space. It’s not the first thing people notice about me. I’m ‘the woman who’s always in the Café,’ not ‘the Black girl on the couch.’ That’s what Black people want — to be seen for who they are.”
Keely acknowledges that CHOP, pre-shootings, was working through some internal issues — particularly who was there, and why.
“But,” no matter what happens next, “this has been a life-changing experience. For all of us,” she said.
While there’s no way to know what CHOP’s legacy will be, those who brought it to life are full of speculation.
“Why are you here?”
On June 17, nine days after police abandoned the East Precinct, but three days before last weekend’s shootings, 26-year-old activist Jaiden Grayson stood on a tall barricade and noted the relative lack of reporters in the crowd.
“As you’ve noticed, the cameras have dwindled,” she said through a megaphone to an attentive audience of several hundred at CHOP, which had recently quit its previous name of CHAZ (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone).
“Why do you think that is?” she asked. “Because we’re not over here spinning rhetoric that they can use as a soundbite.”
That moment, she said — after the first flush of spectacle and visitors, after the initial wave of TV crews had crested and receded — began a new phase of development.
“What are we here for?” Grayson continued, reiterating the protest’s three central demands: defunding the Seattle Police Department; reallocating that money to community (particularly Black community) institutions; the release of all jailed protesters, dropping all criminal charges.
“We are not here for a block party,” she said. “We are here because the death of George Floyd awoke something in us that has been awake in Black people since the jump.”
The crowd roared in approval.
“So when you come into this space, understand that you are now walking in holy land,” she said. “This is spiritual.”
The crowd roared again.
Grayson’s speech was a galvanizing moment, a play to unite the sprawling, organic protest community (which some had critiqued, from within and without, for having lost its way) with a question: What are we here for? And, echoing a more pointed question that had permeated CHOP in recent days: Why are you here?
By CHOP’s first weekend after the police left, that question was bubbling across the roughly six-block occupation zone. You could read it in graffiti and handwritten signs; hear it from the mouths of activists; listen to people discuss it at the Decolonization Conversation Café.
CHOP is fundamentally a protest about Black lives that had drawn a mixed (though largely white) crowd with a jumbled menu of agendas.
There were rubberneckers, there for the novelty and Instagram-friendly photos — and some argue the media coverage, which even got President Trump’s attention, was an extension of that rubbernecking.
“It’s a nice, salacious story, even if it is unsubstantial,” said Inye Wokoma, co-founder of Wa Na Wari, a Black art and cultural center in the Central District. “Rallies that draw 5,000, 7,000, 10,000 people happen regularly in other parts of the city. But they unfold in a more or less traditional way — CHOP is apart and distinct, so I understand why the media want to focus on it.”
Other CHOP visitors came preaching their own political gospels: anti-capitalism, tenants’ rights, taxing Amazon. One young Black man (who did not want to be identified) at the Café insisted people stop treating CHOP like a blank canvas: “Don’t come in here and use dead Black bodies as your political springboard.”
He envisioned the U.S. as a tangle of yarn with many urgent issues. “Black lives, police brutality, is the string that’s sticking out now — and if we pull on it, maybe all these other strands will start unraveling, too.”
Yet another subset of CHOP attendees seemed predominantly interested in drinking and drugs.
“They don’t care about Black lives!” said 59-year-old Harry “Rick” Hearns, a Black private investigator who had never attended a protest before CHOP, but now spends long days and nights working security. “We’ve only got one crack at this, one shot. This is serious work we’re doing. When you come into this sanctuary, as I call it, be real.”
Activist Naudia “Nas” Miller wanted visitors to CHOP — especially white visitors — to come hungry to learn. Miller, a Black mother of two sons, is also studying to become a teacher. Like Hearns, this was her first big protest.
“White allies have good intentions, but this space is oozing white saviorism,” she said. “This needs to be focused on education, almost completely. With 24/7 opportunities so people can focus on the movement — and awareness of just how deep this racism is.”
Grayson, a painter, blues singer and former yoga teacher, believes coming to CHOP is more imperative for white folks than Black folks.
“Black people are exhausted,” she said. “CHOP is a majority-white body and it can be scary for Black people to be in that space. And I don’t think Black people need to show up. This is a white issue. This is a white problem.”
“They also need to see what happens when they step out to protect a Black body,” she said, “and how it’s different than them stepping out because they’re upset a pandemic is going on. Something ignited in them getting tear-gassed.”
Grayson’s speech at the barricade was a gambit for unity and focus: no more drinking and drugs, no more infighting, a renewed sense of purpose between all protesters.
“Now we are unified with the white allies that have made themselves known in this space and continue to show up,” she said to the crowd. “The character of Seattle has shown itself to me — and I have fallen back in love with my city.”
CHOP’s many moods
On one night last week, around midnight, roughly a dozen people sat in a Café circle with another layer of people standing behind them. The crowd was diverse: Black, white, Middle Eastern, Latino, Asian, male, female, trans, young enough to be in high school, old enough to have watched the 1960s through adult eyes.
The conversation was wide-ranging: Do we need policing? What would alternative policing look like? Is Christianity part of the solution (e.g. the Black Baptist church during the civil rights movement) or part of the problem (e.g. today’s racist Christian Identity movement)? Why are so many white people showing up for these protests? Are they bored by coronavirus lockdowns — or did the lockdowns force them to confront the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor?
Is there hope?
“Yes,” a physician from Syria said. “There must be some hope.”
“No,” a young Black American man countered. “Honestly, I’m hopeless.”
Bridgette Washington, co-owner of With Style Catering, is one of those Black community members who’d heard mixed things about CHOP. Last Wednesday, before the shootings, she came to see for herself.
“People said it was crazy, said it was dirty, that white people have hijacked the movement with this,” Washington said. “It’s not bad at all! If you go to the Renton farmers market, it looks like this.”
Her opinion remains unchanged after the shootings. “The crime that happened — that happens anywhere,” she said. “It’s not special to Capitol Hill. I’d still go back. I’d take my granddaughter!”
But, she said, CHOP could benefit from established Black organizational leadership: “There has to be a line of communication to the Black community at large about what’s going on.”
CHOP has many moods. Sometimes it might look like a farmers market. At other times, it has the power of a groundswell.
Three days before Washington visited, dozens of Native drummers and families gathered for a well-attended afternoon of song, ceremony and history, including the families of those — like John T. Williams (Nuu-chah-nulth) — killed by police officers.
But even before the shootings, it could feel uneasy. Armed white counterprotesters, including members of the far-right Proud Boys, made a point to walk through CHOP, provoking screaming matches, putting the security team on high alert.
The shootings over the weekend — in Seattle, in Minneapolis, in Chicago — have cast their shadow.
“It’s what I think about every hour at CHOP, because we live in America,” said Sarah Tornai, another CHOP regular who joined her first protest after Floyd’s murder. “No one wants any more deaths.”
Tornai has busked as a street musician and worked in beloved Seattle kitchens, including Stateside and Café Presse — but said this experience will alter the trajectory of her life.
“What is happening here is powerful,” she said. “If people don’t see that, they’ve missed something. This is absolutely not the only place people should be paying attention, but I am trying my best to dismantle a system that isn’t working for Black people.”
Whatever CHOP is or becomes, Tornai said, it’s always changing — less a thing than a process — but must stay rooted in its three demands.
“This is about Black lives, the empowerment of the Black community spiritually, economically, health-wise,” she said and paused.
“America as a whole is finding itself.”
Over the past two weeks, visitors have admired CHOP’s lovingly designed guerilla garden, the speakers and teach-ins, the ad hoc memorials and graffiti galleries.
One reliable hub is the Decolonization Conversation Café, where all kinds of people collect for subtle conversations about race — the most incendiary topic in the country. That could be CHOP’s legacy.
The Monday morning after the weekend’s shootings, even as only a few faces wandered streets that formerly held flocks, people began to drift toward the Café.
Two Black men, plus Keely, a documentary filmmaker from India, and a white man talked about what might become of CHOP.
“The benefit of this is planting seeds of truth, knowledge and experience of something positive,” said Jaysun Tate, adding that some things about CHOP reminded him of being in Bahrain during the Arab Spring. “When people go back to their daily lives, and are in conversation, they might say to themselves: ‘I learned something about CHOP. I’m going to speak truth now because I learned XYZ, saw XYZ. This whole thing is a catalyst for change.”
The movement, Keely said, won’t stop with the occupation on Capitol Hill. “I’m still Black,” she said. “And my life still matters.”
A few hours later, Tornai reiterated what she’d said last week: CHOP is change, but something indelible has happened, both in the occupation and in the city at large. A community has formed around Black lives, ending police violence and dismantling systemic racism.
“I feel a sense of community in Seattle I did not feel a month ago,” she said. “No matter what happens with CHOP, there’s a texture there that won’t be lost.”