by Sarah Stuteville
A few days ago, while walking home from the “CHOP” (also known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest) I stopped to talk to a neighbor, who in turn introduced me to her Boomer-age mom, who was visiting Seattle from a rural area of Washington State.
“You all gardening?” I asked, sucking air through the thick fabric of my face mask. “Actually … we just got back from the … CHOP. My mom wanted to see it,” my neighbor answered with the halting uncertainty many Seattleites use to describe this anarchic organism of a protest that has drawn fire — literally and figuratively — from everywhere.
I turned to the white, gray-haired woman in her plum-colored fleece and Costco sneakers — looking all the world like the star of the next “Karen” video on Twitter. I braced myself for what I assumed would be her pinched disdain for the grime, the chaos — the unfocused, raw wildness of these four blocks that just a few months ago symbolized ground zero for a gentrifying “new Seattle.” A neighborhood where million-dollar condos and cavernous breweries battled it out with the “old Seattle” of non-profit art spaces, low-lit gay bars, and church-basement AA meetings.
I was glad the lower half of my face was covered when I asked her politely, “What did you think of it?”
“I think it’s a holy place” she answered plainly, looking me in the eyes and crossing her hands lightly across her breast. And I knew immediately what she meant.
I live about twelve blocks from the CHOP and have visited it almost every day since it erupted into existence on June 8, when the Seattle Police Department abandoned their East Precinct after days of tear gassing Black Lives Matter protesters in the area.
We are living a historical moment that feels like a Russian doll in reverse — a multiplying crisis that balloons bigger every day. In a country at war with itself, in a state that has become an epicenter of the pandemic, in a city where one in five people do not know how they will pay this month’s rent, in a neighborhood on fire, and in a chosen family where one of my best friends has suffered a massive stroke, the CHOP — in its squalid hope and layered anger — is my happy place.
It has been better medicine than all the meditation groups I’ve dropped out of, the online yoga classes I’ve never attended, the sourdough bread I’ve never baked and the empty bottles and full ashtrays I’ve taken directly to the “outside garbage” every night before bed.
I’ve been to the CHOP in the day, and at night. I’ve been there with my toddlers and as I waited for the results of an MRI that would tell me how many areas of my friend’s brain were devastated by a surprise blood clot. I’ve been there on mornings when sleepy protesters sat on graffitied barriers eating free donuts and on other mornings when they laid in front of bulldozers that were trying to destroy their tents.
I’ve talked to a Black Panther who told me of the headquarters he and famous Seattle activist Aaron Dixon hung out at in the 1970s. It was a spot just a few blocks from where I now live — alongside other white gentrifiers with “Black Lives Matter” signs in our windows. I’ve watched a teen have a bad trip while a mutual-aid medic team gently talked her down and kept her hydrated. I’ve spontaneously linked arms with the people beside me to help peacefully block entry to police officers trying to reenter the precinct. And I’ve choked on confused tears as I watched a Black BLM protestor restore a snatched American flag to a trolling white Trump supporter whose own hands shook as he received it with a wary “Thank you?”
I’ve witnessed men guarding the border of the CHOP with AK-47s, sat in front of memorials to police violence and engaged in political arguments. There were barrel fires, homeless encampments, community meetings, free snacks, and “conversation cafes” where earnest activists discussed colonialism next to a hotdog stand.
It’s a place where megaphone poetry competes with hawkers selling BLM shirts to wide-eyed “tourists.” It’s a place where activist, artist, and writer Reagan Jackson and Mary Williams hosted a healing “Black Out” where non-Black people created a protective barrier around Black people who engaged in grief ceremonies, yoga, and the making of flower crowns — while white supremacists, tech bros, and entitled dog walkers yelled at them for being “segregationists.” It’s also a place where two young Black men have died from gun violence.
The CHOP has been a problematic, violent expression of all that is wrong with our world and a beautiful, sacred manifestation of our interconnectedness. It has been a relentless visual guide of how overfunded, brutal, racist police forces are in fact connected to homelessness — which is connected to the mental health crisis — which is related to the plague of gun violence in our country. The CHOP has also been a place where angry white people often steal the headlines from massive, daily, peaceful protests in defense of Black lives.
As I write this, the city of Seattle is in process of destroying the CHOP and taking back the precinct. “Enough is enough,” they say. And I knew the CHOP could not — and likely should not — last forever. Though dammit if I didn’t want them to last until the mayor met — or even directly addressed — our demands to defund the SPD by 50%, invest those funds into Black communities, and free all protesters without charges.
I made my final pilgrimage there this (Wednesday) morning and walked the taped off perimeter of what was the CHOP for almost a full month. I couldn’t see much beyond the police lines, but imagined the inhabitants slowly scattering, the portrait of Angela Davis taken down from the front entrance of the precinct, and the memorial to those who have died in the “George Floyd Uprising” being unceremoniously shoveled into a dumpster by a municipal worker.
I hurt for a loss I couldn’t quite name and as I walked away — middle finger lifted to a smirking (maskless) cop with a billy club I vowed to pull the revolutionary chaos of the CHOP into my heart and live harder and fight tougher because it existed.
Because we saw, if briefly, that the fabric of the status quo is thinner than you might imagine. That life without authoritative hierarchy is a wild mess, but not an automatic war zone. That no one is ever really in charge of anything — there are just those who pretend to be in charge until it’s politically inconvenient.
And maybe we learned that discomfort paves the path to liberation, that solidarity is not a pastime but a way of life, and that disruption of a brutal system — drawing out its cruelty and exposing its frailty — is what protest should do. Because rebellion does not ask permission — it fucks shit up AND builds something better.
On a previous visit to the CHOP I saw some humble graffiti done in chalk on the doorway of a boarded-up liquor store. It read: “The revolution will be messy or it will be centrist Bullshit.”
And that is the holy truth. Amen.
Sarah Stuteville is a writer, memoirist, educator, and non-profit media consultant currently pursuing a Masters in Mental Health Counseling at Seattle University. She taught journalism and media production at the University of Washington. Feminism, journalism, motherhood, relationships, and mental health are subjects of Sarah’s writings. Sarah has reported from over a dozen countries in the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia, and the former Soviet Union. She wrote a social justice issue column for the Seattle Times. Her memoir writing has been published in Mutha where her piece “No One Is Watching” was one of the most read on the site all year. Her piece “Windstorm” won “Honorable Mention” in the Hunger Mountain Nonfiction Writing Contest; “A Girl’s History of Consent” was a finalist in the New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Awards. She also helped to co-found The Seattle Globalist, a non-profit journalism organization that trains diverse media makers.
Featured image, and all images, by Sarah Stuteville.