By STEVE LEIGH
Steve Leigh is a member of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.
The Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) continues in its 17th day. The area around the former East Precinct of the Seattle Police Department is alive with free food and medicine, conversation centers, a No-Cop Coop giving away items, free legal advice, and just plain comradeship among opponents of police brutality and racism. It is also home to dozens of tents of homeless people and those camping out in support of the movement.
The artistic creativity of the movement is shown in the graffiti festooning the walls of the former precinct, demands and slogans written on the streets, in the slogans painted on the barricades, and in the numerous posters plastered all over. The names of Black people killed by police are up everywhere, and a statement by Malcolm X , himself a likely victim of police violence, adorns the entrance to the “No Pigs Zone”: That’s not a chip on my shoulder, that’s your foot on my neck!
From day one of CHOP (formerly called CHAZ—the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) the demands have remained the same:
- Defund the Police: Cut the police budget by at least 50%
- Invest in the Black Community
- Free all those arrested in demonstrations against police brutality.
These demands have not yet been met, though some other demands of the movement have been, at least for now:
The City Council has banned police use of chokeholds, chemical weapons, and rubber bullets by police. However, the police “union” Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), which was kicked out of the King County Labor Council last week, is demanding to bargain over these changes. See: https://socialistresurgence.org/2020/06/19/police-union-expelled-from-labor-council-in-seattle/
Mayor Jenny Durkan mandated that police leave their badge numbers visible and turn on body cameras. She has proposed a 5% cut in the nearly $400 million yearly police budget. This cut is mostly the result of austerity from the COVID crisis. The mayor is also proposing over $60 million in budget cuts to the budget overall.
People at CHOP are unanimous in their continued support. “It’s beautiful! It’s peaceful!” said one participant. “This movement is long overdue!” said another. Many are clearly excited by the creation of CHOP. Delilah Ventura, a writer who recently came to CHOP from Nevada to support CHOP, said, “I don’t think we should give up. It’s amazing! I never thought I’d be living through a revolution.”
Though people are still very supportive and excited by CHOP, there are criticisms. Delilah went on to say, “CHOP needs to be organized. It has lost focus.” There is concern that some people are coming to CHOP for the wrong reasons. Early on, a sign on a street leading into CHOP read, “This is not a festival!” Other concerns are drinking and drugs, which some fear take away from the message.
The underlying issues of racism and police brutality are still in the forefront for serious activists at CHOP, especially Black people and other people of color.
“ We’ve been in slavery for hundreds of years, and not just in the U.S.,” said Delilah. “The first 12 presidents were slave owners! Everything here was built on slavery. It’s deeper than just the police. We need change all the way to the White House. We need to change the whole system, change the constitution. We are still in slavery but its underground now. I don’t want to be stuck between Trump and Biden. I won’t vote for either one.”
Other CHOP activists stressed the continuation of racism today. “People don’t know that 90% of our DNA is the same. People who say ‘All Lives Matter’ are denying Black Lives Matter. They forget that we have to raise Black Lives Matter because our lives have not mattered to the system. Our message here is a powerful one. Micro-aggression is still a major problem. I actually had a white woman recently tell me, ‘you are pretty for a Black girl,’ and she thought she was paying me a compliment! Politicians don’t understand what ordinary people are going through. If they had to live on what we live on, they would understand.”
As expected, the sentiments of CHOP activists are not shared by city officials, especially the mayor and police chief. In the last few days, they have said that they want to return the police to the former East Precinct building. This would either eliminate CHOP or severely restrict it. CHOP activists instead want to turn the building into a community center.
The attitude of the city officials is that they have listened and made changes, so now it is time to wind up the protest. But the demands of CHOP have not been met! Why should the protest end when its demands are still outstanding? “We won’t stop until our demands are met,” said one of the organizers.
The major offensive from the mayor, police chief, and media has been around supposed violence at CHOP. Coupled with this are complaints from the police that CHOP has made policing in the area more difficult. Lorenzo Anderson, a 19-year-old Black man was tragically killed near the edge of CHOP on Saturday morning, June 20. The origin of the shooting is unclear, but of course CHOP is blamed. No one has shown any connection to CHOP.
Three other shootings on Capitol Hill are blamed on the atmosphere around CHOP. In all cases, CHOP medical teams got victims to the hospital faster than the fire department would have. Of course, the government and media are not giving CHOP credit for this.
Durkan told the Seattle Times that they “will continue to make changes on Capitol Hill in partnership with Black-led community organizations, demonstrators, small businesses, residents, and trusted messengers who will center deescalation.”
Police are engaged in a major propaganda campaign asserting that people in the area are less safe with fewer police around due to CHOP. This is wrong on two counts. No one has ever proven that more police in any area means more safety. In fact, statistics show that one-third of all people in the U.S. killed by strangers are killed by police! Since police are less than 1% of the population, this is a damning fact! Secondly, even without the precinct building, the police could organize themselves nearby to create quicker response times if they wanted to. Instead of doing that, they are using their deliberate disorganization as an excuse to shut down CHOP. Even before the recent violence, the city government had put new barriers on the street in CHOP to make emergency vehicle access easier.
Unfortunately, some moderate Black community leaders are at least partially echoing the mayor and police chief. Andre Taylor of Not This Time has appeared with the mayor and police chief and criticized the supposed violence at CHOP. He seemed to equate the tragic killing of Lorenzo Anderson at the edge of CHOP with the deliberate murder of George Floyd by police. Not This Time’s website expresses its purpose as “rebuilding trust between our communities and the police who are sworn to protect and serve us.”
Even official Black Lives Matter-Seattle/King County has mostly been aloof from CHOP though it did organize the largest march for Justice for George Floyd in Seattle—60,000 people in south Seattle on June 12.
This division is unfortunate but expected. Any movement, even if starting united, will divide over class and politics. There are (usually more middle-class) groups in the Black community that favor working with the police rather than abolishing or even defunding them.
Even in the first week of protest in Seattle, some new protest “leaders” were willing to talk to the mayor and police chief about mild reforms. This process seems to have stalled. After the establishment of CHOP, its demands have dominated. Even at CHOP itself, members of the African American Community Advisory Council to the police tried to convince people that Black Lives Matter should include Black police and that they should have dialogue with the police. In spite of this intervention, CHOP persisted, and defunding rather than mild reform has dominated discussions throughout the city.
Black Leaders at CHOP have been diplomatic, but have noted the division with the more moderate community leaders. David, a CHOP organizer, said that CHOP wanted support from community leaders but was disappointed that they hadn’t come out before. Instead they were coming out when efforts to end CHOP are reaching a crescendo. He said, “We respect the community leaders but hope they respect us in return. This is a chapter in the great American Revolution!”
The fight around CHOP is a battle over the direction of the movement. Across the U.S. there have been calls to follow the lead of prominent Black leaders. Yet, Black people are divided by class and politics as much as any other group. Often the call to follow Black leaders comes from moderates, who in turn are not willing to follow the lead of younger, more militant activists such as those at CHOP.
All those who really want a solution to the racism and brutality of the police should step up to defend CHOP against its detractors in the city government and among moderate community leaders. The fight over CHOP is likely to come to a head in the next couple weeks or even days.