SEATTLE — To hear Donald Trump tell it, the entire city of Seattle has been taken over by dirty anarchists intent on destroying America—and if the governor and mayor don’t “take care of it,” then by God, he will. On Fox News (with the assistance of faked images, of course), rioters appear to be practically burning down the city every night.
The reality, of course, bears no resemblance to any of this. I visited the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), the center of all this controversy, earlier this week to get a close look. It became obvious that not only is the takeover of six city blocks entirely peaceful and cooperative, but the primary threat of violence is from pro-Trump thugs who have been coming to the “autonomous zone” with the intent of breaking it up.
First, let’s clear the basic misperceptions promulgated by Trump and his enablers: CHOP is only a smallish six-block section of the much larger Capitol Hill neighborhood, marked mainly by the roadblocks that close the area off to car traffic. The only violence surrounding its formation was in the initial clashes between police and anti-brutality protesters in the first week after the killing of George Floyd.
And the only signs of potential violence at the scene were from the pro-Trump provocateurs and far-right extremists who came to CHOP hoping to create a disturbance. Mostly, they failed miserably.
The zone is primarily comprised of Cal Anderson Park—which itself is comprised mainly of a large, oft-used soccer field with artificial turf, and a water storage facility surrounded by grass—and a handful of residential and business blocks adjacent to it. Its busiest street is Pine Street, the arterial from downtown that borders the soccer field and is home to both a number of businesses as well as the building which formerly housed Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct, and which is now blocked off by red plastic barriers.
The East Precinct building at 12th Avenue and Pine is the center of the zone’s activism. After being occupied by protesters, and then abandoned by the SPD, the building has been remade as the “Seattle People Department”; a large black plastic tarp covering the entryway reads, “This Space is Now Property of the Seattle People.”
Protest signs—nearly all of them referencing police brutality against African Americans—decorate the walls along the cyclone fence that encircles the building: “Mass Incarceration is Slavery.” “Police Unions Are Terrorist Organizations.” “Defund the Police.” “Arrest the Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor.” And so on.
Pine Street itself—on which a gigantic mural reading “Black Lives Matter” has been painted—is the main hub along which various activists, nearly all of them people of color, speaking through a megaphone to the gathered crowds can be heard, mainly at the intersection with 12th Street. Some explain the rules of the zone—which began existence as Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), and then changed its name to the current one when participants and leaders agreed to do so—while others speak about the realities of police treatment of nonwhites and protesters.
All along the remainder of Pine inside the zone are booths that have been set up hawking wares, like a street fair—except that the offerings are primarily free. Signs announce the “No Cop Co-Op,” offering everything from medications and first-aid kits to food, water, and fresh produce. All of the goods on the shelves have been donated by Seattle businesses and residents, and it’s all free.
“Do Not Take One Granola Bar—Take the Whole Box,” one sign reads. “Take an Entire Case of Pop. You Do You.”
And everywhere, there are people—most wearing masks and practicing social distancing, but strolling the area amiably and chatting with each other. Some find spots on the soccer field to sit with friends. Others walk along the rows of tent booths on Pine, as well as the various tents offering goods and services set up around the edge of the soccer field. The whole thing has the feel of a mixed street fair and summer arts festival.
One of the larger tent booths on the northern end of the field is devoted to “Future Crystals,” a kind of open market for donations. Nearby, under a blue tarp, Native American carver Ricky Williams—the brother of a man notoriously shot by Seattle police in 2015—worked on his pieces, setting wares out for people to see.
Beyond the northern end of the soccer field sits a large encampment of people in tents; a smattering of other tents appears to be working northward to the lawns surrounding the water storage facility. These folks not only have a kitchen distributing free food to participants and a first-aid tent, but have actually established several large gardens in which they are growing both food and flowers.
Many of the tenters are homeless people. “I came here after the riots,” explained Gabriella Duncan, a homeless woman who oversees one of the gardens. “It became a space for people who are struggling to escape the kind of endless harassment we receive at the hands of police in this city.” The gardens, she says, reflect a desire to build community in the camp.
She is amused by the perceptions visitors to the encampment have brought with them, fed by mainstream and right-wing news alike. “Societal gaslighting, I call it,” she says. “It’s similar to what black people have seen for years in terms of the gaslighting, and it perpetuates itself. Because another story is told the next day, and the day after that. There’s no end to it.”
The primary food supplier for people in the encampment is the “Riot Kitchen,” a substantial booth situated on the border of the tents and the soccer fields. It’s run by an energetic African American woman who goes by the name Mayhem.
“This whole thing started with sandwiches,” she explained. “I went on the first Saturday of protests, May 30, and got tear-gassed. So a group of my friends started thinking of ways to do support, and we first did medical help—we went out with our eyewash and our saline and we were out all day, and I realized people were hungry. So before we went out the next day I made sandwiches, and it made me very popular. So I asked people to donate to my sandwich fund so I’d be able to keep making sandwiches.”
The response online was immense. “So many people donated that I started to think I could do a kitchen project,” she continued. “I figured the least I could do was get them all breakfast. That was last week. We were working out of kitchens until just yesterday. But someone suggested we set this up, and we did it. I helped put the tarp up, and everyone else came and set up the booth. The community came together and made this happen. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without all their help.”
It’s a popular spot, clean and well organized, decorated with a banner featuring a “Goodnight White Pride” logo. The food shelves are fully stocked. “All day yesterday, people were bringing us all kinds of food. The entire kitchen is being run on donations and all these volunteer workers,” Mayhem explained.
The scene is emblematic of the kind of bizarre disinformation being circulated about CHOP. As Jane Hu at Slate reported, these included claims that activists were controlling the borders of the zone, that some of the leftists were packing AR-15s (all risibly untrue), and that it was a pure socialist zone, even though kids sold T-shirts and vendors sold hot dogs and nobody blinked.
However, there clearly were people attracted to the zone for less than sympathetic reasons—and instead seemed committed to attempting to provoke a violent response from left-wing activists. This was obviously the case with a middle-aged white man wearing a “Trump Nation” T-shirt and red “Keep America Great” ballcap and carrying a large American flag—and accompanied by a camera crew ready to film. He was there to troll.
When he first arrived on the scene, he stood near a baseball backstop and read a speech mainly mimicking Trump’s declarations that “far left militants” had taken over Seattle, claiming that the takeover somehow shut down the entire city and “its hard-working, tax-paying citizens.” Then he began marching about the field, flag held high, clearly trying to draw some kind of attack.
However, the crowd wasn’t biting. While he was trailed by people talking to him, no one interfered with the man’s progress and let him. A woman from CHOP’s response team accompanied him for the entire walk, explaining loudly to the crowd that the man was there hoping to cause violence and draw attention to himself, that he nonetheless had free-speech rights and no one was to interfere with him.
At one point, someone came up and grabbed his flag, and the woman intervened, explaining: “This is not who we are.” That person let go, and the man continued his march around the field. Finally, near the end of his walk, behind the backstop near where he had started, a young man snagged the flag, ripped it off his flagpole in seconds, and ran away with it. The man marched on, finally exiting with more people defending him than haranguing him. Nonetheless, when he was finished, he complained for cameras about how viciously he had been attacked.
Joey Gibson, the leader of the far-right street-brawling gang Patriot Prayer, was there that day too. He walked around Pine Street, tried his usual pious-Christian preaching schtick, and found that hardly anyone was interested. He, too, left after awhile.
His erstwhile friend and street-brawling henchman Tusitala “Tiny” Toese—still on probation for assault that forbids him from attending protests in Multnomah County, Oregon—showed up first at the barricades and was met by people who knew him from street protests, telling him he was an “asshole,” but nonetheless letting him and his friends inside. These men included at least one well-known Seattle-area neo-Nazi.
Apparently unable to cause a fight inside the event, Toese and his friends afterwards were recorded assaulting a man with a phone camera on one of the neighborhood side streets with few people in view. The gang of men not only take the man down and destroy his camera, but the neo-Nazi—who clearly was carrying a handgun as well—retrieved a fighting baton from his car to use in the assault.
Perhaps just as disturbing were the men who could be seen walking around the zone—some of them far-right activists—who appeared to be casing out the scene. Despite the hysterical reporting from right-wing media about the scene in Seattle—a local right-wing ranter named Jason Rantz even went on Tucker Carlson to claim that he didn’t dare enter the zone for fear of being attacked—any violence lurking in the shadows so far is almost entirely the work of extremists intent on creating chaos. And if there is a potential for future violence, it seems most likely to emanate from the Trumpian far right’s toxic cauldron.
As Eric Scigliano explained for Politico:
What’s going on in these four blocks that shook the world is indeed an occupation, but it looks nothing like the conquista touted on Fox. It’s also the “block party” that Mayor Jenny Durkan has compared it to, to gleeful jeers from Fox commentators. And it’s other things as well—a protean, issue-focused but conceptually sprawling formative community, at once silly and serious, spontaneous and disciplined. Over the course of two evenings and an afternoon in the zone (plus a night observing a police/protest showdown there the week before), it seemed by turns like a commune (as in Paris 1871), an anarcho-syndicalist and small-L libertarian dream, a ’60s-style teach-in, a street fair and street market, a campout and weekend party, a poetry slam and pilgrimage, a school service day, a mass healing circle, a humbler urban version of Burning Man, and of course a protest rally.
“All day today, people have been asking to speak with us,” Mayhem told me. “I’m just thankful that people aren’t just seeing what they are seeing on the news and accepting it, because it’s not even close to being true.”