Protesters at Capitol Hill
Photo by Inna Zakharchenko/Shutterstock.com
“My family has been brutalized by police for every generation,” said Christopher Hunt, standing last week in what was then the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, or CHOP, an occupation-style protest in Seattle that was dispersed by authorities on Wednesday. When asked to explain the police brutality, Hunt’s voice rose.
The 53-year-old Seattle native pointed to a scar above his right eye. “When I was 21, the police hit me upside the head with a baton. Three stitches,” he said, gesturing toward the East Precinct, a block away, where he said he was beaten. “My son was beat up in 2010 by police,” he went on. “My mom was beat up by Seattle police during the civil rights movement because her husband was a Black man. That sounds generational to me.”
Hunt was among the few protesters still occupying the CHOP during the last weekend of June. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan ordered authorities to vacate the East Precinct police department on June 8, weeks before I stood with Hunt near the boarded-up building. On Wednesday, the day finally came: The occupation was dismantled and 13 people were injured as police retook the East Precinct.
The last days of the protest told the story of an attempt to build a long-term occupation against police brutality – an outcropping of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that erupted with the Minneapolis police’s killing of George Floyd. While the CHOP had lived, the East Precinct was renamed the “Seattle People Department” and decorated with signs, memorials, and graffiti dedicated to the movement. But, by its last weekend, the protest had dwindled considerably.
“When we started, there were thousands out here,” said a man with blond-tipped dreadlocks and a “Friends” shirt, standing on a concrete block in front of the precinct speaking into a megaphone. He swept his arm across a smattering of people: “Now, I can count everyone.”
“When we started, there were thousands out here. Now, I can count everyone.”
“We need Black leadership. We need white bodies,” he said. “For white people, it’s easy to get a gun. Get it and tell them if they keep killing Black people, it will be war.” A few murmured hesitantly in approval.
Early that morning, on June 26, the city sent in crews to remove concrete barriers it had installed to reduce the risk of vehicular attacks. The workers retreated after protesters lied down in front of a bulldozer. A call went out for protesters to defend the CHOP. Later in the afternoon, dozens of people milled around the station and in the adjoining Cal Anderson Park.
Durkan had been threatening to end the CHOP for nearly a week. Since June 20, there have been five shootings outside the CHOP that left two people dead and four injured. The violence chased most people away. The protest shrunk to hardcore activists, reporters, security, medics, and cooks for the protest — along with teams of “heavily armed … high-threat private protection” for businesses and residents.
Local gangs were behind the shootings, some people inside the protest said, including the last incident on June 29 in which a 16-year-old was killed. Activists claim that police allowed the violence to seep in by being absent from streets surrounding the CHOP. Nonetheless, Durkan had her opening. On July 1, she issued an order declaring an unlawful assembly, dispatching hundreds of riot police and assault vehicles to clear the CHOP, arresting dozens of protesters. Police Chief Carmen Best chimed in describing the CHOP as “lawless and brutal.”
The CHOP went out with a bang and a whimper. But given anger over police violence, the movement to defund Seattle police is unlikely to dissipate. And the CHOP has spread, inspiring Occupy City Hall in New York that is demanding $1 billion in cuts to the New York Police Department.
Police allegedly maced a 7-year-old boy, and videos of him screaming in pain went viral. Durkan claimed the strips of black tape covering police badge numbers were “mourning bands” for fallen officers. The last time a Seattle officer died in the line of duty was 2009. The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the city for “indiscriminately used excessive force” against “overwhelmingly peaceful” protests. Two days after Durkan and the police chief announced a 30-day ban on tear gas, police again used tear gas on protesters. On June 7, a man drove into a crowd of protesters, shot a demonstrator, exited the car waving a handgun and surrendered to East Precinct police without incident, claiming that his brother was a cop there.
Durkan’s standing was further tarnished by repeated police assaults on protesters and tear-gassing residents inside their homes in Capitol Hill, which has a history of queer and trans activism. Democratic Party activists called on her to resign or be impeached over the police violence and previous killings of Black Seattleites, leading thousands to sign petitions in favor of her removal and garnering support from three of nine city council members.
Kshama Sawant, the socialist council member who represents Capitol Hill, said Durkan “overreached” after disruptive protests began May 29. Instead of allowing protesters to march past the precinct, Sawant said, “police threw hundreds of flash bangs, attacked the medics tents, tear-gassed the entire neighborhood. The violence backfired and built support for the movement. Hundreds of activists, led by Black and brown youth, decided to challenge the intimidation of police at the East Precinct.”
It was similar, Sawant noted, to historical moments when the governments’ reflex to escalate violence against protests created more support rather than crushing them, such as May 1968 in France, the Arab Spring in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, or Occupy Wall Street in New York later that year.
The fiery Seattle protests were Mark Anthony’s baptism into protest activism. He had been on the streets for barely a week when on June 8, the 32-year-old former brand ambassador and tour guide for Boeing headed to Capitol Hill. “I drove the entire way with some very choice words for the police,” he said. “I was disappointed when I got here, and they were gone.”
Anthony, who became a leader in the CHOP, said, “One of our white allies grabbed the first tent” — founding the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone that night.
The early vibe was like a festival. “It was a cross between Burning Man and Coachella,” one visitor said. Just as historic protests after Floyd’s death served as a release valve for deep rage against racist policing and relief from months of pandemic lockdown, the CHAZ was a flowering of hope that drew thousands in a season of death. (Organizers later changed the name to CHOP, saying that they were not seeking autonomy and to keep the focus on Black Lives Matter.)
Artists painted an enormous Black Lives Matter street mural that popped with life. DJs hosted late-night dance parties. Documentaries such as “Paris is Burning” and “13th” were screened outdoors. Native American drumming circles cohabited with meditation sessions. Plots of black earth sprouted leafy greens and placards honoring Black historical figures. A “No Cop Co-op” handed out toothpaste, toilet paper, and other supplies while the Riot Kitchen and Feed the Movement dished out free “vegetable kimchi tofu ‘pastrami’ reuben wraps and gochujang beef fried rice.” Families picnicked, social influencers livestreamed, and general assemblies and teach-ins were held regularly.
The miniature society that sprang up was a legacy of a raft of occupation protests over the past years, Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Sandy, and Occupy ICE, in particular. These movements espoused principles of self-organization and mutual aid, where activists learned how to rapidly set up housing, health care, kitchens, education, child care, free stores, and tech support.
“CHOP had a very positive energy and people were taking care of each other. It was like Occupy on steroids,” said Michael, a member of the now-disbanded security team known as Sentinels, who asked that his last name not be used.
Yet the Occupy movements foundered on a broken society and the individuals it produced. One veteran organizer involved in New York’s Occupy movements, who asked not to be named, said, “Occupy is outside the authority of existing institutions. It’s a magnet for people who are needy and even pushy, abusive, and exploitive.”
Similar problems dogged the CHOP. Slate, another Sentinel who did not give a last name, said one self-appointed security person “pulled handguns on and maced people.”
“It’s not a protest. It’s a damn homeless encampment.”
“Tourists” drew considerable ire. “We had people flying in from all over because they thought it was a lawless place, a festival, anything goes,” said Anthony, the CHOP activist. “We made the DJs stop at midnight. We are separating the people here to protest from the people who came to party.”
A party was one draw; others came simply in search of a place. Homeless Seattleites, whose population has grown in recent years, poured into the CHOP. “Of course they are going to come to CHOP,” said Michael. “They got food, a free store, a safe place to sleep and hang out, and there is hope.” On top of that, he said, “Free thinkers do drugs, so there’s going to be people doing drugs. There’s going to be a market, so people will fight over it.” He speculated the drug trade attracted local gangs.
By the end of June, with families and tourists having disappeared because of the violence, the park looked like the end stage of many Occupy camps, with scores of people living in tents. “It’s not a protest,” said Hunt, the CHOP activist. “It’s a damn homeless encampment.”
While CHOP bears similarities to Occupy Wall Street, there are differences: The Seattle movement was less focused on maintaining the occupation itself or providing broad-based social services as essential political work.
Those are the functions of the state, said Anthony, adding, “I’m tired of babysitting. We are not against social workers, counselors, the fire department. We are against racist, crooked cops.” He said they escorted out sexual assaulters and spent hours finding support for those having mental health crises. Volunteers had to talk down a man threatening to jump from a rooftop.
The CHOP also encountered problems Occupy Wall Street never imagined, namely President Donald Trump. One day after the protest began, he rage-tweeted, “Domestic Terrorists have taken over Seattle,” threatening to take the city back by force from “ugly anarchists.” The incitement trickled down to Fox News fabricating images of violence in Seattle and racist right-wing media calling a Black activist a “warlord.” Others may have taken Trump’s words as a call for violence, as has happened before. The far-right group Proud Boys were caught on video assaulting a man near the CHOP. One assailant was a notorious brawler, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, who was later arrested for violating his probation.
Despite differences with Occupy, the CHOP faltered for similar reasons. Movements that start online may capture the imagination with slogans like “We Are the 99%” or “Follow Black Leadership,” but they are too flimsy to bridge deep historical divisions. The all-are-welcome, open organizing form, meanwhile, is too shallow to allow for politics and too prone to manipulation. One observer described the general assemblies as more meandering speak-outs than disciplined strategy sessions.
“CHOP is like if Twitter were an actual place. It’s full of different ideologies, perspectives, and pains, and everyone thinks they are right and no one wants to be a follower,” said Slate. “I would hear the term ‘Black leadership’ 15 times a day, and no one knew who they were. There wasn’t a group with shared ideas and leadership.”
Hunt, for his part, is angry. “Greed drowned out the protests,” he said. “Everyone is fighting to be a leader because they want to be in the meeting with the mayor and say, ‘Defund the police and fund my organization.’ We didn’t come out here because nonprofits aren’t being funded. We came out here because cops are killing Black people.”
“Greed drowned out the protests.Everyone is fighting to be a leader because they want to be in the meeting with the mayor and say, ‘Defund the police and fund my organization.’”
Those divisions play out in the CHOP. Both Anthony and Hunt complained that other activists told them that only Black women should speak, not Black men. On Juneteenth, when activists set aside a section of the park for Black healing, guarded by white people whose job was to keep other white people out, Anthony said, “I started tearing down the signs saying ‘this is a Black-only space.’” He said he felt it was important that many voices be heard. Another participant said the incident was an example of “the perils of extreme identity politics.” Yet others said CHOP often served as a “performative space for white guilt.”
Durkan and the police, meanwhile, blame the CHOP for gang violence that is a product of Seattle’s dystopia. Home to technology behemoths, Amazon and Microsoft, the region has a GDP of $392 billion, nearly the size of Nigeria with its 196 million people. Racial income inequality is extreme. For every dollar white households in Seattle make, Black households make 40 cents, a spread 25 cents greater than the national average. Public schools are unequal and segregated. Soaring rents, homelessness, mental health crises, and incarceration fall heaviest on Black and Indigenous communities.
For the CHOP, it was a Sisyphean task to negotiate complex political issues among activists who barely knew each under the glare of national media, pressured by the city and cops, and plagued by violent actors on the fringes.
Yet the activists were able to find some agreement. They united around three demands: Cut Seattle’s $409 million police budget by 50 percent, shift funding to historically Black communities, and amnesty for all those arrested in the protests. The CHOP may not have survived, but its agenda and example did.