Reflecting on CHOP: Resistance Between Memory and Imagination

Reflecting on CHOP, one Seattleite says we should sift our memories and “speak of it in terms of a sacrament and not a eulogy.”

by Matthew Bennett

At the beginning, you could walk right up to the intersection at 11th Avenue & Pine Street.

I had to check again, but it was early June when the police stopped a march for George Floyd and others at that intersection by the East Precinct. The protest occupying part of Capitol Hill swelled and shrank with the setting of the sun and the waves of tear gas. When the police abandoned the East Precinct on June 8, organically (so they claim), the protest grew to occupy both the park and about six city blocks. The first infrastructure arrived as relief tents for food and water and medics. The first protest art came with the rattling of spray cans. After what many feared was attempted vehicular homicide (an entirely reasonable fear), the protesters dug in further and erected barriers for safety. My first recollection of the name Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone is seeing it scrawled in marker on a road barrier.

Around June 16, the protest-occupied area contracted willingly, and to allow emergency traffic, SDOT installed barriers with plywood casings for still more protest art. Despite emergency access, Seattle firefighters would not extract Dejuan Young from outside the barricades because SPD refused support, resulting in CHOP medics delivering his bullet-riddled body to Harborview in the back of a pickup. Born out of a popular resistance to police brutality, the mayor and SPD used violence committed upon protesters as reason to sweep the area, retake the East Precinct, and ban entry to Cal Anderson.

As we sift our memories of that place of mass movement, let’s speak of CHOP in terms of a sacrament and not a eulogy.

Photo: Matt Bennett

It was never one thing, and reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. This is because it changed the whole time it happened: growing, shrinking, splintering, refining, and resisting. It’s recent dispersal feels like just another transformation. What occurred at CHOP is only a question of perspective for those on the outside. And while it might be difficult to define from the inside, like any mass movement, there was a unifying vision readable in the protesters’ shared memory and imagination.

Memorialized on the walls and placards of the CHOP were the many citizens killed by police elsewhere, including Breonna Taylor, a woman shot dead in her own home when police barged into the wrong dwelling to serve a no-knock warrant. If you’re a Seattleite, you might remember the name Charleena Lyles or the more distant killing of John T. Williams by Seattle police officers. Certainly, his brother Rick Williams does, as he proudly attended CHOP and even installed a tent and carving station on the Bobby Morris Playfield to remind us.

Memory is tricky during an epidemic when the days bleed together. For example, it is difficult for KOMO and the SPD to remember who started the rumor about protesters extorting businesses around CHOP. Tough to say, as well, who falsely reported the imminent threat of an Antifa invasion on the Olympic Peninsula — reports that would inspire excitable citizens to threaten a family on vacation, assuming they were Antifa operatives and not scared campers. National news is unsurprisingly worse. Fox News, for example, conveniently forgets that Seattle is not located in Minnesota.

The Seattle Police Department does not lack for imagination, as they’ve published images of the protesters’ “explosive device” that they pretend the viewer won’t recognize as a memorial candle they tripped over in their hurry to force protesters out of the intersection. My memory is clouded, because I can’t recall if this was before or after they shot a young protestor in the chest with a flash bang, causing her heart to stop. At the very least, we know that KIRO 7 remembers the WTO protests way back in 1999, as they used footage from it to represent a protest in 2020.

I remember, too. Those WTO protests were my own political awakening. For those who lived the WTO, the SPD’s treatment of this new generation of protesters has been depressingly predictable. Property over people is the directive, and, as Knute Berger recently commented, the historical Seattle divide between capitalists and utopians is once again in sharp relief. The assault on peaceful protesters, both then and now, involved officers pacifying the pacified, one of ex-Chief Norm Stampers greatest regrets. Whole blocks were rendered unlivable by clouds of noxious gas in 1999. While union members and activists marched in the streets, the SPD escorted WTO constituents from the Double Tree to the Paramount to decide the conditions of our collective labor. Perhaps it’s my age, but the flash bangs this year seemed worse, although I can’t say I’d trade the ringing ears for burning lungs.

“I can’t breathe” is a common protest chant now, inspired by the shameful tragedy of those final words of too many in police custody. This includes Manuel Ellis, who gasped “can’t breathe” before officers in the Tacoma Police Department killed him. And while justified anger and political resentment memorialized Ellis’s name on the walls of CHOP, there were many among the protesters who looked to the future — the autonomous zone of the imagination.

To the question, “What shall be done?” the answer in CHOP was, “Organize.”

CHOP matured quickly from its almost accidental birth.

At the intersection of Pine Street and 12th Avenue, on the doorstep of the shuttered East Precinct, rose up a town square for organizers and truth speakers. A PA system on the playfields of Cal Anderson broadcast testimonies of unjust treatment and also music by Black musicians. Down Pine Street you’d find an interracial dialogue lounge, booths for initiative signatures and political party organizing, mutual aid tents for food, water, and medical assistance, as well as two free libraries of Black and Indigenous writers and anti-racist literature. I donated books there myself, and when I gave one organizer my card to coordinate donations, she flipped it over and said, “Oh, wow, I’m just a kid.”

But to imagine the solutions might just take a kid.

It was the flowering of imagination in CHOP that disarmed those who came expecting chaos. Soon after the occupation, protesters organized to paint BLACK LIVES MATTER on Pine Street from 10th Avenue to 11th, with each letter enlivened by a different local Black artist. Walking down the alley behind the old East Precinct, you wonder what sane world would outlaw graffiti in places otherwise occupied by rats and dumpsters. Musical interventions included DJs, freestyle hip-hop, its sister, spoken word, and I swear I heard a bluegrass band there one sunny day. On a grassy hill near the reflecting pool, a small band improvised on guitar and trumpet, singing, “I was born in an occupied zone, Now I know I’m not alone.”

Photo: Matt Bennett

A community memorial garden took shape under the green thumb of Marcus Henderson. You might remember Seattle City Parks cutting the grass into wide whorls for proper social distancing. Marcus and his compatriots planted four of these whorls with a variety of flowers and vegetables. One sign taught the sustainable tradition of the three sisters: maize, beans, and squash. Another reminded that Eric Garner worked as a horticulturalist with New York City Parks and Rec. Whether intentional or not, Marcus’s description of his garden protest spoke to CHOP as a whole: “[They] asked how they could help. And it just kept evolving from there.”

The art was many things, but above all it was a refusal of politics as solemn, civil, and business-like. The character of CHOP was intentionally carnivalesque in the sense of a reversal of social order: free food, free drinks, free medical attention. Creativity not consumerism. Murals and portraits and poems appeared, and little fences rose around the gardens on the grassy lawn of Cal Anderson. It was there I discovered the troupe of carpenters busy building a massive wooden structure. One of the carpenters wore a jacket that read “Don’t Talk to Cops, Talk to Plants.”

At first, they were circumspect. What’s the design?

It’s a symbol. To be revealed.

But two days later, after they hammered it together and charred the surface black, the thing was as big as a community theater stage. I knew what the structure was by the time thirty or more of us hefted it from the grass and slowly walked it behind the pumphouse. A lead carpenter guided us into place, the massive weight shared between all of us, shoulder high, as we crossed the field and path and railing.

It was the railing on the steps of the pumphouse that blocked us from finishing the installation that night. Everyone’s hands were blackened by the charred wooden structure. One protestor said wistfully that the heavy lifting felt good, like working again. The lead carpenter consulted with a BLM organizer and they agreed that the safety of all was vital; the raising up could wait. When I returned to the playfields a day later, I discovered the fifteen-foot-high power fist — a salute among leftist militants such as the Black Panthers — had been raised in support of BLM.

Memories of resistance echo through time. As the Situationists described the Commune of 1871, “one can see the insurgents’ feeling that they had become the masters of their own history, not so much on the level of ‘governmental politics’ as on the level of their everyday lives.” The subversion of everyday politics created new political life, resistance art happened, and the variety of expression was immense and healing.

That was back on Juneteenth, when I stopped by the fields to learn about the Blackout that local organizers established to again refine and reconfirm the protest. This event involved a full day of activities for Seattle’s Black community, with art circles, grief rituals, yoga, and meditation. Amid the grief and anger at police brutality — and the strain of reminding others of the reason for resistance — the Blackout sought to kindle joy and healing. In the hard struggle for equity and freedom, the organizers stressed the emancipatory character of art and joy.

Photo: Matt Bennett

In her recent article for the South Seattle Emerald, one of the organizers, Reagan Jackson, quotes Dr. Maxine Mimms, who describes the “cellular memory” of those living with police oppression. This is memory as lived experience — something deep as bones. When you have memorized the names written on the walls of CHOP because you brought them there with you, then the political happening is continuous with earlier resistance.

Reagan states, “We are the beginning of the next wave of emancipation.”

In a segregated city like Seattle, the fight for equity takes many shapes, including “liberated territories” like the Daybreak Star Cultural Center, El Centro de la Raza, and the Northwest African American Museum, all created through direct occupation. We might have seen a liberation of the East Precinct, but for the people of Seattle, that will remain a question of imagination for now.

Now that the SPD has returned, the art and memorials go under the SDOT paintbrush.

The occupation has shifted. SPD took back the East Precinct, dumped the mutual aid tents with a front loader, and arrested any protesters still occupying the park. SDOT placed concrete barriers at the curb with ten-foot-high fences, all welded with steel plates. Entering the police-occupied zone now requires visiting five separate posts until someone calls up the chain of command for a press escort. At Pine Street and 13th Avenue, I was met by Officer Michaud, a press escort, for a walk-through. We passed the welder cutting off the sidewalk in front of the precinct, the armored SWAT vehicle, and the BLACK LIVES MATTER coned off on Pine Street. Officer Michaud declared SDOT would preserve this with a sealant.

The enormous power fist was there, for the moment. Officer Michaud expressed his admiration of the creativity, even identifying with it when he noted that student debts pushed him into the military to pay off his art school loans. The disciplinary nature of debt shouldn’t be lost on us here, especially when it leads so neatly to militarization.

Photo: Matt Bennett

I breathed easier when I saw the memorial garden still thriving, bigger than ever. My escort was optimistic about the garden remaining, and later I learned that Mayor Durkan claims she’ll preserve it as a concession.

What about the rest? The memories and memorials? I was told that SDOT preserved the plywood casings with graffiti and stencil artwork, but where it will go and when it will be displayed are foggy.

What is certain is that the protests continue regardless of the place called CHOP. As the saying goes, CHOP isn’t a place, it’s a people.

Many of these people gathered on July 3rd in Magnuson Park, mere days after the sweep, for more organizing and art. Would you be surprised to know that one of the free libraries survived? There was free food and drink and masks and, before the march through the Windermere neighborhood to the Mayor’s house, music and dance. The PA system led the march through the hills, bumping remixes of Public Enemy as the protesters chanted, “One team. One voice. One message.” The Seattle Bike Brigade provided street closures before, next to, and behind the pedestrians, as medic and coordination cars inched alongside.

Given how many houseless people arrived at CHOP for free medical attention, Seattle’s housing crisis burned in stark contrast with the multi-million-dollar homes there, many of which sat empty as the owners rode out the epidemic elsewhere. The mayor slept in her multi-million-dollar home clutching the purse strings of the police budget. Her proposed 5% budget decrease is really only about three times as much as they spent on overtime to stop a protest march.

With a living memory and imagination, the CHOP and BLM protests can’t be snuffed out with one police sweep of a public park. This is what the Windermere march wanted to remind Durkan and her neighbors. This — and their unanswered demands. Later, as the night cooled, the march returned to Magnuson for debriefing and a celebration with free food and music. IMG_4263

I returned home from another exhausting night of resistance with a tough realization. If it takes this much effort and imagination for even the barest of concessions from our politicians, then any failures of this movement are only further indictments of our broken political system. I remembered my feelings after the WTO protest: a sense of both flying and falling, not to mention the ringing ears and burning lungs. I’ve abandoned that feeling of falling now, and with the CHOP swept from the memories of some, I don’t fear it will mean something like failure for me when I’m older. It was politics as carnival and care. It was a situation, a happening, a moment, but only one in a memorable line of struggle toward a just world.

Let’s remember this.

Matthew Bennett is a writer, editor, and co-founder of Cascadia Editors Collective.

Featured image by Susan Fried