Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood is the heart of queer Seattle, where last year’s Trans Pride Seattle March drew thousands. It’s a place battling gentrification, where residents and small business owners feel caught in a stranglehold. It’s a parking nightmare, where meters operate 14 hours a day, six days a week. It’s a foodie wonderland, where you can devour a late-night Polish sausage or dine on $17 Thai water beetles. It’s a nightlife Mecca, where spirits flow and music throbs. Just about anything you want to find in Seattle, you can find on Capitol Hill – and lately, that includes what some call the city’s only “cop-free zone.”
For the moment, much of the world seems to be looking at Capitol Hill, or at least the part of it called CHOP, or CHAZ. Peering into its ever-shifting boundaries, some see a spark of a movement that can incinerate systemic racism. Acolytes of Fox News detect a raging cauldron of antifa-led insurrection. But step inside the Jersey barriers that block off numerous streets, and you’ll soon realize something else: It’s a peaceful realm where people build nearly everything on the fly, as they strive to create a world where the notion that black lives matter shifts from being a slogan to an ever-present reality.
The people who stream through the area are a census taker’s dream, a mix of different races, ages, genders, physical abilities, and class identities who rub elbows without seemingly rubbing each other the wrong way. Along the street, the collective mood runs from calm to contemplative, festive to mournful, the energy punctuated by the rhythmic call-and-response of today’s call-to-arms: “Whose lives matter?” “Black lives matter!”
Inside one cordoned-off intersection, some 100 people focus on a lineup of speakers, including Mark Anthony. Jr., an African-American man in a clear plastic poncho and Seattle Seahawks facemask, who’s participating in a daily info session known as a general assembly. “This is what love and unity looks like,” Anthony, 32, says as he gazes upon the peaceful crowd.
Recently, this same intersection, site of one of the city’s five police stations, wasn’t so peaceful. Starting in late May and stretching into early June, Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers and protestors engaged in daily clashes outside the station. The seething confrontations were permeated with tear gas and punctuated by blast balls, tactics police deployed against protestors gathered in grief and rage over the death of George Floyd. But on June 8th, officers deserted and boarded up the gray-brick, blue-trimmed station, due to pressure, they say, imposed by area protestors. When police removed street blockades, people surged into the streets, reclaiming a space many believe is rightfully theirs.
Since then, the area has been reimagined. An improvised street-side market created with folding tables and open coolers, called the “No-Cop Co-Op,” offers free items from maxi-pads to oat milk. Street art adorns the pavement. Hitch trailers hold cubic yards of compost to spread in pop-up gardens that partially cover what, days ago, was open greenspace. Ever-growing altars, composed of printed photos and wilting flowers and dozens of flickering candles, honor Floyd and other black people, including Breonna Taylor of Kentucky, who were killed by police.
The station’s chain-link barriers now carry a gallery of protest imagery, from a cardboard poster that proclaims, “I Can’t Breathe,” invoking some of Floyd’s last words, to an upside-down U.S. flag sprayed with the all-caps message “LOVE + RAGE: BLM.” Even the words scrawled on a large sheet of black plastic express a bold community desire: “This space is now property of the Seattle people.”
The people have given the area a new name: CHOP, the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest. Some claim CHOP is the Capitol Hill Organized Protest. Others still call it CHAZ, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, its early moniker. The shape-shifting name represents a fundamental truth: How area appears today may not be how it appears tomorrow.
That’s because Seattle’s newborn neighborhood is an unfinished jigsaw puzzle spread over multiple city blocks. How long it will take to complete depends on who you ask, while sorting out what its final image will reveal baffles just about everyone. Will the area wind up as the headquarters for a revolution? The overblown aftermath of a local scuffle? A weekslong municipal headache? A party disguised as a protest?
But as everyone – from eager participants and perplexed city officials to strolling curiosity-seekers and right-wing firebrands – tries to assemble CHOP’s image to their advantage, local activists agree on one thing: This puzzling new area was born out of a call to create a space, and world, that protects and respects black and indigenous people of color.
In recent days, CHOP activists seem to have solidified three movement goals: defund the police; invest in local communities; release all protestors. But while the goals have gained focus, their meaning can still be blurry. Does “defund” mean strip SPD of every cent in its current $409 million budget, or only excise an unspecified amount? Are local communities that require investment located solely within the rapidly gentrifying Capitol Hill, or does the need extend to the already gentrified black neighborhood of the nearby Central District? And while some seek the release of protestors nationwide, the city attorney recently announced local peaceful protestors won’t be prosecuted.
Meanwhile, a nearby sign by the King County-Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter spells out five related, though not identical, demands. A CHAZ website that livestreams area events lists 30 demands. Make that 34.
This evolving aspect can be linked to the movement’s decentralized governance, a system where power is shared among many, instead of held by a few. Indeed, those identified as leaders by some community members tend to shuck off the label, claiming they speak only for themselves, not for CHOP as an entity. One reason for this is clear, says Sarah Tornai, 33: “You know what they do to black leaders? They shoot them.”
This lack of identifiable leadership has flummoxed city officials. On a recent appearance on Face the Nation, SPD Chief Carmen Best said police and others have been stymied in attempts to pinpoint someone who can say how long people plan to stay in CHOP.
“One of our real challenges there is trying to determine who is a leader or an influencer,” Best said. “And that seems to change daily.”
Jason Beverly, 23, says that relying upon one figurehead is counterproductive to the movement. “It’s not going to be successful through one voice being the loudest,” Beverly says, adding that, even without an identifiable leader, “The people have made their demands pretty clear.”
While Chief Best acknowledged the unprecedented response to the BLM movement taught her “policing will never be the same,” she still voiced concern that if someone in CHOP is harmed, it could lead to “something that devolves into a force situation.” When pressed by the broadcaster to clarify whether CHOP is peaceful, Best replied, “For the time being, yes, it is.”
Keeping folks safe is a near-constant thought for CHOP’s 20-plus volunteer medics, including one who parades around in a full suit of medieval armor. They’ve set up a command center on the outside tables of a popular Mexican restaurant, where Frank helps coordinate their actions.
Frank — a licensed medical professional who doesn’t want his last name or age used to protect his job — says the medic station was conceived when colleagues, who witnessed recent protests, realized some attendees involved in police skirmishes needed treatment. Since the precinct has been deserted, he says he hasn’t heard of any major trouble or witnessed medics respond to serious injuries or assaults. “It’s crazy to think this zone is what it is now. For about a 10-day period, it was very tense,” says Frank,
Tensions have all but disappeared, he says, and those who do seek medical care often return with gifts. The energy has changed, from people engaged in conflict to those supporting a movement or looking for a good time. “This is something new for everybody,” he says. “I call it the growing-pains stage.”
In contrast, some conservative media outlets portray a growing rebellion. FOX News digitally altered photos to create the image of a rifle-toting man standing in front of a broken store window, an event that never happened in CHOP. In President Trump’s ongoing practice of governance by tweet, he labels occupiers “terrorists” and “anarchists.” If Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan didn’t “take back” the city, he warned, “I will.” After reminding the president that sending U.S. military troops into the city would be illegal, Durkan replied, “There is no imminent threat of an invasion of Seattle.”
CHOP residents Nim and Jordan want to ensure any potential threats are defused. The pair, who identify as white and use they/them pronouns, have settled in one of the more than 80 tents pitched in an adjacent city park. Both Nim, 16, and Jordan, 20, say they came to CHOP to support people of color. A pair of night owls, they walk CHOP’s perimeters while others sleep, making sure nothing bad goes down.
“Everyone is looking out for each other,” Nim says.
Jordan agrees: “It’s a bit of a sanctuary.”
Any situations they’ve witnessed, including one where someone wielded a knife, have all been de-escalated by people in the vicinity. “It’s the opposite of violent,” says Nim.
If the advent of CHOP feels like the start of a new world order, social-justice activists in Seattle have a history of occupying spaces to achieve long-term goals.
In March 1970, some 100 unarmed indigenous people and supporters, seeking the restoration of indigenous treaty rights, attempted to claim part of an 1,100-acre decommissioned U.S. Army post called Fort Lawton. Riot-gear clad military police pushed out protestors, who camped outside the fort. Seattle resident Leonard Peltier, who went on to become a prominent Native activist, was arrested, while actor Jane Fonda voiced support for the nonviolent cause. After months of negotiations, indigenous leaders signed a 99-year lease on 20 acres of the fort, an area now home to the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center.
In October 1972, Latinx activists, disturbed by the defunding of an adult-education program at a local community college, peacefully took over the abandoned Beacon Hill School. The facility lacked running water and heat, yet protestors stayed for months. Some occupied the mayor’s office, leading to arrests. Protestors ultimately purchased the property for $1, though later negotiations with the school district established a monthly rent. The facility, home to an educational and social-service agency, is now called El Centro de la Raza.
In November 1985, several black activists employed similar tactics when they occupied the abandoned Colman School, a two-story brick building they wanted transformed into a black cultural museum. Group members lived in the building for eight years, an action that ranks among the country’s longest acts of civil disobedience. In 1993, the city eventually agreed to turn the building into the Northwest African American Museum, which includes 36 units of affordable housing.
So far, there’s no talk CHOP will occupy any structures in the area. Instead, organizers want their demands to occupy the headspace of attendees, though some attendees may harbor other thoughts.
Over the course of a weekend, the area at times exudes the vibe of a block party, as thousands stream inside the barricades. Domino’s delivery people drop off dozens of pizzas ordered by CHOP supporters and donated to those inside. One man carries a sign that proclaims, “This isn’t Coachella. This is a protest.” As if to amplify his point, a speaker system on a nearby ball field blares James Brown’s horn-drenched anthem, “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
A handful of businesses are reopening after shutting down during the pandemic, including a ramen restaurant offering indoor, sit-down service and a local queer bar whose door-person, after checking IDs, directs people to an outdoor patio. Pet owners bring emotional support dogs to share with folks in need of a canine cuddle, while drones operated by unidentified visitors swoop and buzz overhead.
Near the medic tent, the roadway is a street mural emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter.” The mural was co-organized by local artist T-Dubs, who helped solicit the talent of black artists, who stylized each letter with individual flair. T-Dubs describes the entire process as powerful, even laying out the letters: “I looked up and literally everyone was watching it,” she says. “To realize the world is watching is hugely impactful.”
T-Dubs, 33, a black lifelong resident of Seattle, hopes the message spelled out on street isn’t forgotten: “This is a majority-white city, and black issues have not been given the amplification they’ve deserved.”
Still, she hopes CHOP visitors understand black people aren’t asking for too much, just what they deserve. She believes change is possible. “I’m excited for what the future brings,” T-Dubs says.
Meanwhile, the future of CHOP remains fluid. The recent reduction of its original six-block footprint means some streets, previously blocked to emergency vehicles and locals, are now open with reduced traffic flow. To mark the new boundaries, the city’s transportation department, with the consent of CHOP activists, installed concrete barriers topped with plywood, the covers ready-made for artists to style at will. Just what imagery or messages will appear remains to be seen.
As for CHOP’s impact on the neighborhood, and the larger anti-racist movement, one thing seems certain: Many in the world will watch what happens.