On the night of June 10th, 2020 a group of Seattle-area protesters, led by a city councilwoman, entered and occupied city hall. After a demonstration, they walked back to the infamous Capital Hill area where daily protests had turned into nightly violent clashes with the police outside of the city’s East Precinct. That night, the mayor gave the order to stop protecting the area and leave the precinct. Protesters took over and declared the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone – the CHAZ – was in the hands of the people.
I will not link to any of the articles about the place, since all of them would include some sort of bias about the movement and subsequent occupation of these roughly 6 city blocks. You can, and should, search for yourself and review the history, challenges and changes occurring daily in the Zone. For example, the Zone was in the process of being rebranded while I was there.
As of this writing, it is called the CHOP – the Capital Hill Occupied Protest. Again, I’ll leave it to you to research why the name was changed and the implications thereof. Here, I only want to share my own observations and feelings about the place.
All street entrances are barricaded to vehicle traffic. Even at 6:30 am, when I was there, all of the barricades were manned by several people with walkie-talkies who were in communication with other people in the Zone. No one stopped me as I walked in. I saw no one open-carrying guns during my time there. Although not crowded, the streets were still abuzz with activity even at that early hour.
It would be a bit of hyperbole to say that every square inch of the Zone is covered in graffiti, but that’s what it feels like. There’s art, slogans and myriad expressions of frustration and anger on practically every surface – buildings, streets, trees, outhouses. Much of the sentiment is in support of Black Lives Matter, and there are countless memorials to those black men and women who have lost their lives at the hands of the police. There is also quite a bit of rage expressed toward said police.
Being there was an unpleasant experience on multiple levels. My feelings, opinions and emotions about the place are complex and multi-layered. One of the strongest feelings I have is about a place like this even existing. For almost 2 weeks, people protesting for racial equality ended the nights being tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets. The Seattle mayor and chief of police eventually relented and allowed this Zone to form and operate on public city streets. People still live in this area, and some businesses still operate. There are several sites within this small section of town made famous on the news and social media, like the Conversation Cafe.
Here I had my first strong sense of history unfolding. Those umbrellas were famously part of the front-line clashes with police in an attempt to deflect tear-gas canisters and other crowd-controlling devices. The strategy was inspired by the protesters in Hong Kong. You also see conflicting messages about not accepting donations and also how to donate. With no central authoritative body, there is no one, clear message.
It was at this point where I was first confronted. A young man, with unnaturally intense eyes and no mask, got in my face and asked my why I was there. He asked me what the camera was for. I engaged him calmly while another gentleman, Clayton from Dayton, also introduced himself to me. The first man aggressively extolled some of the virtues of the Zone, like a lack of authority and hierarchy, before informing me that Krishna is God. He then went on to emphatically tell me that he is Krishna and also, this was very important to him, that he WAS Krishna. It was at this point that I politely disengaged.
As perhaps expected, the Zone is a beacon for the homeless. There are numerous signs about how the homeless are picking up trash. To their credit, I did see very little loose trash on the streets. However, I also saw several large piles of garbage bags piling up, especially in the park by the tent city. Near one of the entrances, several people were busy carrying these bags off somewhere. They left the Zone-proper, to where I do not know.
Perhaps the crown-jewel of the Zone is the now-infamous East Precinct of the Seattle Police Department.
Further along 12th Ave., standing atop the barricade at Pike St., a person was fervently talking into a walkie-talkie about a white sedan that had just pulled up. They were watching the car, talking to someone on the other end of the street, and dropping thoughts and observations to me at the same time. While we were there, a person (probably undercover police, according to my friend), got out of their car, ran to the front of the police station and took a selfie. They then ran back to their car and drove away.
This greatly bothered the barricade guard, who lamented, “Jesus, this isn’t Coachella.” I offered the suggestion that perhaps people are interested in being part of a historic situation but later reflected on the fact that these are still public areas. People can come and go as they please. I wished my friend well and left for another area of the zone.
After about 30 minutes, I was ready to leave. There is a palpable sense of paranoia throughout the Zone, and I was definitely an interloper. Some people were friendly when I was there, but many were not. It could have been the time I was there, or the big camera I was carrying (although I wasn’t the only camera-toting tourist), but something set me apart.
On my walk out, I acquired two black-clad escorts, both masked, wearing what looked like bullet-proof vests. “Did you get any good pictures?” one asked, somewhat aggressively. I told him I wanted to see and document a historic event. He asked me if I saw any harassment. Although I considered a sad interaction I’d seen between a young man who’d lost his bike to a crazed homeless person, I told my escort that I hadn’t seen any harassment. He lightened up a bit, we chatted about some things, and they left me alone.
When I walked into the CHAZ/CHOP, I saw that the Cal Anderson park, which it encompassed, had developed into a tent city. I planned on circling back and getting some pictures from inside this now-famous park. As I walked out of the Zone, however, that was the last thing I wanted to do. I no longer wanted to go anywhere near that park but felt I had to, for posterity, because I never planned on going back. The picture above is of the public restrooms. The graffiti-covered port-a-potties were being pumped out behind me. The drinking fountain and portable washing station were both out of order. I didn’t walk into the tent city and only snapped one quick picture with my phone.
By this time, I was anxious to leave. During the short walk back to my home and family, my emotions ran high. Do you remember the first time you saw Saving Private Ryan? That’s how I felt – I had a vague but somewhat desperate sense of depression. It wasn’t a good feeling, but maybe that’s the point of the CHAZ, to unsettle us. Its nature and ideals, however diffuse, extend beyond the perimeter, into the rest of Capital Hill, the greater Seattle area, and probably much further beyond.