The CHOP Blocks
One of the first signs I saw upon entering CHOP asked simply, “Why are you here?”
I didn’t have a great answer. Why did I think it was worthwhile to walk through a crowded six-block radius of Seattle during a pandemic? It’s not that I thought going there was a mistake. I just didn’t have clarity on it. Maybe that’s exactly why I wanted to visit.
For those who aren’t familiar, CHOP is the Capitol Hill Organized Protest. It formed last week as a result of demonstrations in the city. Night after night, protestors marched outside the East Precinct of the Seattle Police Department, and things seemed to be escalating toward a violent clash as police and demonstrators met at assembled barricades. But then the police retreated. They vacated the precinct, and the protestors set up camp in the streets surrounding it.
What stands now is a kind of tent commune run by the people. It’s an autonomous zone that is part music festival, part Occupy Wall Street, and part volunteer headquarters, with booths set up to take donations of food and supplies. The streets are cleaned by members of the movement. If a crime or fire occurs in CHOP, it’s unclear what level of involvement city entities will have. The atmosphere is all at once somber and hopeful. There are memorials to victims of police brutality. There are couches set up for conversations. There are artists continually painting. When we visited, a Coast Salish group was performing a traditional drumming ceremony.
You may have heard Trump referring to CHOP when he condemned Gov. Inslee and Mayor Durkan for losing control of Seattle. Or you may have heard about Fox News disseminating doctored images to make the behavior inside CHOP appear violent. Our visit there, and the other visits we’ve heard about, have all been entirely peaceful. I rolled Ria through the streets in the stroller, and behind face coverings people smiled at Ria’s tiny mask as they gardened or made signs.
We went as a family because Kathleen wanted to go. It’s not that I didn’t, or that I even needed convincing. But Kathleen was the driver. She said when Ria is old enough to ask us about this moment in history, Kathleen didn’t want to have to admit that we stayed on the sidelines. Kathleen also said she wanted to feel more connected to what was happening. Seattle is a fairly big city, and our home is mostly removed from the protests. We can’t see them or hear them, even though they are a short drive or train ride away.
Inside CHOP, a man stood still holding a sign that said, “This is not a party. Learn something while you’re here.” Despite the appearance of being a street fair, CHOP is really a place of work, an advocacy zone. Leaders have very specific demands, such as defunding the police by at least half and releasing all protestors from jail. And the demonstrators don’t plan to leave until their business is completed.
It struck me that Kathleen’s sentiments about CHOP were very similar to the way I felt about the Black Lives Matter movement more generally. Until very recently, it wasn’t something I necessarily felt a personal connection toward. Of course, I was aware of it and sympathetic to it. But what did I really know about the movement and its demands? Up until a week or so ago, I had no idea dismantling police forces and rethinking the way we respond to incidents is not only possible, it’s crucial. I’m so on board with bringing in mental health professionals instead of militarized police officers. But it never occurred to me to truly question the way policing has long been carried out.
The way to lessen fears of the “other” is often to individualize rather than stereotype, to humanize instead of criminalize. I often think about gay rights (high fives all around for the surprising Supreme Court victory this week), and how people typically become more accepting of gay people after they have a family member or friend come out. The same goes for any minority group—the more people see other people as part of one human race, the better off all of us are. That individual connection is key.
I’m not sure I learned anything specific during my visit to CHOP, but I have since been reading about police reform and systemic racism. Kathleen and I have been watching documentaries and listening to podcasts. We’re trying to absorb as much as possible. And now, as I take in what I can, I think about CHOP and picture that guy holding his sign telling me to learn. I can see him very clearly. –Andrew Waite