Observations from inside Seattle’s CHOP
In my nearly two days at the CHOP, I was in search of the truth, the leaders, and the message.
Was it full of gun toting, hostile protesters attacking people and fighting every night? Were local residents and businesses supportive? Who was in charge? What was the point, the message, the end game?
What I found was a mixed bag of conflicting messages, community, communities, infighting, support and frustration among the locals, plenty of tourists, and no shortage of profanity that, in my opinion, is one of many factors drowning out the important cause that started all of this in the first place.
This was not my first time to the occupied area on Capitol Hill, but it was my first sustained period there where I observed and spoke to people at all hours of the morning, day, and night.
On Tuesday afternoon, I arrived to find concrete barriers being placed in a large semi-circle encompassing the East Precinct vacated by Seattle police just over a week earlier. Crews were also moving barriers to allow for one-way traffic to maneuver along East Pine Street, as well as 11th, 12th, and 13th avenues.
The barriers were covered with plywood that quickly became canvasses for tagging and art about the Black Lives Matter movement, lists of names of black people killed by police, and messages about defunding SPD. They quickly resembled the streets and facades of just about every business. Within 12 hours, much of that messaging had turned into profanity.
Within a few hours, some of the occupiers had blocked off roads now meant to allow one-way traffic so the roads were again impassible. But why? Supposedly the city had negotiated with “leaders” of the occupation to allow those roads to be open.
The problem, I would discover the next morning, was that there are an estimated 20-30 different people who consider themselves leaders. The city had communicated with some of them, but not all. Many felt allowing traffic through or giving the city back any of the occupied area was relenting after they had achieved such a victory taking over the initial six blocks.
Overnight, the barricades and vehicles blocking roads shifted. A huge tent encampment was set up on 11th between Pike and Pine streets, essentially shutting the street down again. A group of mostly white protesters moved fencing to allow locals in and out.
The shifting of the barricades went on through most of my nearly two days at the CHOP, with a much reduced footprint on the streets by the time I left Thursday morning. People in the group told me there was a lot of disagreement about how to proceed. Just walking along 11th Avenue, I could hear them arguing among themselves throughout all of Wednesday.
Pine Street had temporary canopies set up with free food, water, and other items. There were people selling Black Lives Matter T-shirts and others collecting donations for the cause, but what cause? It depends on who you ask.
The area around Cal Anderson Park turns into a party every night. People are drinking. There is a lot of open-air drug use. Half of the park has been turned into a huge tent encampment with a massive community garden. This area is plastered with signage warning people not to film.
One man recently reported being met with aggression when caught filming. I did not have that experience and was allowed to take pictures and walk through the gardens. In fact, I was never met with any aggression no matter where I was.
I did not see anyone openly carrying weapons, nor did anyone I spoke to admit to having any guns. However, some told me there had been people carrying to protect themselves from outside agitators. They had concerns about The Proud Boys and others trying to infiltrate and create a false narrative about what was happening there.
As far as hostilities, I did not see any knock-down drag-out fights, but I did see people getting aggressive on occasion. One man was outraged when he saw Seattle Department of Transportation workers installing one-way street signs along barricades they had placed after a supposed negotiation the city had with so-called leaders of the group.
There were general assembly meetings outside the East Precinct multiple times throughout the day and night with speakers addressing the original message on ending systemic racism and police reform, LBGTQ issues, anti-government rhetoric, and dozens of other messages.
Some residents walking through the area told me they felt unsafe and abandoned by the city, but many others were supportive of the efforts on police reform and ending systemic racism. However, some felt that message was lost in the noise of the “occupation.”
Many businesses told me the tourist attraction that the area had become was good for business, but others were tired of finding graffiti outside their front windows every day and called on the city to do something.
Black community activists I spoke with had grown frustrated and left Wednesday night, feeling the message had been lost to the party and tourist atmosphere.
Perhaps the most collective moment came on Tuesday night when more than a hundred people raised a giant black power fist structure and carried it across Cal Anderson Park. They wanted to stand it on top of a stone building.
You can see how that went here: