It’s the height of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and I am locked down in Colorado when the protests against police brutality and white supremacy begin, again, in USAmerica. The world falls apart. The Seattle CHOP zone rises.
To protest is to risk contracting the virus, or at least so we are told. People protest anyway. The police try to shut it down. The National Guard is deployed in some states. Federal agents are sent into some cities.
In Seattle, it’s an all out war. Somehow, the protestors eject the police from the Capitol Hill district and the East Precinct. Protesters take a small chunk of the area, including the police station, 3 blocks of Pine street, and Cal Anderson Park. It’s called the Seattle CHOP zone.
It is declared first as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) and then rebranded as the Capitol Hill Ongoing/Organized Protest (CHOP).
The Seattle CHOP zone thrives until there are two shootings, one within the territory, and one adjacent. CHOP gains a reputation among the local organized crime syndicates as a place you can go to work out your beef without retribution.
I cannot miss the chance to witness an urban autonomous space within the United States, so I get on a plane to Seattle, and arrive at the Seattle CHOP zone on the 23rd day. I am there just in time. It is the last full day.
I stay with old friends in Bellevue. My high school best friend and his brother own a building that is within a block from CHOP, and there is a vacant apartment. They arrange for me to have that space. I meet the brother there to retrieve the keys.
He’s baffled as to why I would want to see CHOP.
To him it’s been a nightmare. He has a few buildings inside the Seattle CHOP zone. His property values have plummeted. He has multiple vacant apartments. The outside of the building is vandalized. The tenants are mostly in shock. He hired armed mercenaries to guard the building.
When I arrive, one of these is in the hall talking to one of the tenants about how their lungs still hurt from contracting Covid-19. Then the tenant is telling him a story of how she was held at gunpoint during the protests. I introduce myself.
“Yeah, there are a lot of spooks here now” is what is said by the tenant instead of “Nice to meet you.”
“Are you saying that you think I am a spy?” I ask, incredulous.
“Why else would you be here?” she says. I turn to the mercenary.
“Do you also think that I am with the US government?” He nods.
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell them” the tenant says, and gestures towards CHOP.
“Yeah. Not too worried about you outing me there.” I mumble, and enter the apartment. The mercenary is supposed to be sitting outside the building all night with an AK guarding us from the Seattle CHOP zone, but that’s the last time I see him.
The commercial establishments in the area are all closed due to the pandemic, the protests, or CHOP – with one exception. Down the block on the way to the former police station, I pass the local liquor store. CHOP security, armed, stands detail outside of the store. Liquor is deemed essential. There is also no need for cannabis sales within CHOP, because this is the state of Washington, and one can walk a few blocks in any direction and legally and safely buy weed at the store.
Cannabis is also deemed essential in the legal US states during the pandemic.
I smell it constantly at CHOP. Overlapping clouds of cannabis smoke and vapor scent the air.
CHOP turns out to be lovely. It is, more than anything, a community healing space. There’s a myriad of different kinds of people there. Those there for social justice predominate, but there are also tourists and journalists and gardeners and homeless and partiers and gangs. I walk around and around the small area of the Seattle CHOP zone.
There’s a giant garden with signs planted among the produce that honor black and indigenous people with quotes about plants and ecology. There is a small greenhouse full of every medicinal herb one could need, (I am happy to see St. John’s Wort and milk thistle) except cannabis.
While perusing the garden I hear that nighttime security detail starts at 10:00pm at 12th and Pine. That’s also where I live, and where the mercenary isn’t.
I chuckle at this strange world where everyone in an urban autonomous zone is wearing masks to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
I turn to see another greenhouse, makeshift, plastic covered, full of edible plants in pots. An elderly black gentleman comes by and asks
“Are you on shift here, right now?” with a smile.
“No, I’m not, I think she is.” pointing to the lesbian with the lanyard and clipboard.
“I’m looking for corn.” he says. “I guess I’ll just see if there is any.”
He disappears into the greenhouse for a minute or two and then comes back with a small corn plant in his hands, smiling.
I walk away from the garden and see a man pleinair painting a view of the more residential area of CHOP, half filled with tents. The area is bright and I realize I have been locked down inside for long enough that my skin will burn.
“I need a hat” I say to myself, certain that hats will be available in the Seattle CHOP zone.
Fifteen minutes later and after using the words “melanin challenged” to describe myself to a tall, black hat seller, I wear a used Miami Heat hat, with the stickers still on it. I note the dominance of black culture, that’s a feature I’ve observed before – leaving the pricetag on, leaving things as is when you buy them.
Everywhere the names and photos of black people murdered by law enforcement are displayed. This, more than anything, disrupts a vibe that I would otherwise call “festival”. It is not festive. It is not a celebration. It’s a wake.
I walk by the conversation/political salon. There is an older black gentleman preaching inclusivity with the tagline “Stop the Stupid”. He’s imploring people to love one another before divisions amongst the CHOP residents cause it to no longer exist. People clap, but I can see that no one thinks this place will last. And it doesn’t.
Nowhere I’ve been have I seen African Americans as freely expressing themselves in public as within CHOP. It’s beautiful and makes me sad, because I know that it has to be temporary, and it is.
The rumor that the police are coming to break up CHOP begins circulating.
I hear it from multiple sources in multiple iterations. There is already some feeling that is similar to Burning Man, especially the earlier days – and the spreading of rumors like a game of telephone by word of mouth is one feature that strongly triggers memories of the playa.
I watch people packing up, taking down tents and awnings and E-Z Ups, and I watch people discouraging people from packing up. It is the beginning of the end, in a week it will no longer exist. The city never meets the demands.
There is a loud, large black transwoman that manages to get on every microphone. She chain smokes and paces and looks angry. I witness her accusing her friend who smacked her on her ample ass, intended as a joke, of disrespecting black bodies. I see her have a stage where she has had none before. She implores people to stay.
The organizers tell people that the movement will not stop with the dismantling of CHOP. They don’t sound certain. People straggle away.
But tonight, an hour before the third shooting that puts a cap in and on the Seattle CHOP zone – there is merriment, music, celebration, costumes. Everyone is doing their own thing, being themselves. It is a space of supreme tolerance, healing, and has a deeper understanding of trauma than any treatment center.