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Gimme Shelter: the Brief And Strange History of CHOP (AKA CHAZ)

Photograph Source: Derek Simeone – CC BY 2.0

“Rape, murder—it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away”
–“Gimme Shelter” the Rolling Stones

The end has come for CHOP—or CHAZ. At first the six-block area just east of downtown Seattle was called CHAZ. The area was occupied by protesters on June 8th after it was reluctantly ceded to them by Seattle Mayor Jennie Durkan and the police. That was the day that the Seattle Police Department vacated and locked up its East Precinct building on 12th Avenue. When the police left, the occupiers painted “People” over the “Police” in the sign, “Seattle Police Department, East Precinct.” Then they declared the surrounding area the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, soon referred to simply as CHAZ. Whatever exactly it was, it had a name. Then some black community leaders suggested it be called Capitol Hill Organize Protest. Hence, CHOP, although CHAZ was still being used. Whatever you call it, as of the First of July it was no more.

In general, I’m against renaming things. Why rename the West Indies? It will forever remind us of Columbus pulling up in front of the wrong address. As my nephew said, “He get lost and he gets a holiday named after him. I get lost all the time.” My nephew lives a short walk from the area that briefly was known as CHOP or CHAZ.

In any event, the lack of agreement as to what to call themselves was not a good sign—it seemed to suggest the lack of a clear idea among the protesters as to what they were doing. And finally the protesters’ confusion was just about the only thing clear about the entire exercise. That confusion is the subject of this essay.

The next day June 9th one of the protesters posted on a blog a list of thirty demands. That’s a lot of demands. Soon four more would be added. For a nation used to the brevity of text messages and tweets even reading them was demanding. Among the demands foremost were the defunding or possibly the abolition of the Seattle Police Department and even the court system, the release of all protesters who had been arrested. then things followed like free health care, free college, free housing—I’ll stop there. The shopping list of demand is really only germane to this essay as an indication of the confusion that was to follow.

The reaction of the right wing to all of this was predictably hysterical. Trump tweeted that “Domestic Terrorists” had “taken over Seattle.” A bit of overstatement there. Since the six blocks under terrorist control lay in the middle of an urban area stretching more than 90 miles from Everett in the north to the state capital Olympia in the south. Of course, Trump’s grasp of geography is none too sure and his love of hyperbole is well known. The president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild Michael Solan actually outdid Trump in his geographical magnification of CHOP. Solan told Fox News, “This is the closest I’ve ever seen our country, let alone the city here, to becoming a lawless state.” The day after that on “Cavuto Live,” Solan said, “This could metastasize across the country.”

Solan need not have worried. There was—at that point—nothing going on in CHOP that would’ve upset his Aunt Bea.

The Guardian’s lead story on Friday, June 12th provided the best description of it in its youthful exuberance:

The space has both a protest and street fair vibe, with a small garden, medic station, smoking area, and a “No Cop Co-op”, where people can get supplies and food at no cost. There’s also a trio of shrine-like areas filled with candles, flowers and images of George Floyd and many others who have been killed by police…

For days, the area has been filled with all manner of speeches, concerts and movie nights, including “13th,” the Ava DuVernay documentary about racial inequality

Protesters have described the site as a safe and peaceful place, where the vast majority of people wear masks to protect each other against coronavirus and offer whatever skills or supplies they have. On Wednesday, people could be seen handing out masks, hand sanitizers, snacks and water.

Designated smoking areas and movie nights aside, most of the description of the scene in CHOP made me think of the Sixties, especially of Woodstock in August of 1969. One statement of a CHOP protester in particular stood out. The protester, Dae Shik Kim Jr., said, “I think what we’re seeing in CHAZ (sic) is just a snippet of a reality that the people can have.” [1]

Kim’s words reminded me at once of something Mick Jagger said during the Rolling Stones tour of the States in the fall of 69 after Woodstock. Jagger was answering a question at a press conference not about Woodstock, but about a free concert the Stones had proposed to be held at the end of their tour. Of the concert, then still in its planning stages—‘planning’ is a misnomer—Jagger said, “It’s creating a sort of microcosmic society, you know, which sets an example to the rest of America…” Well, it did that.

That concert was Altamont, a name known by anyone who is a Stones fan or has some knowledge of the history of rock ‘n’ roll. When the Altamont concert is mentioned fifty years later terms like “disastrous,” “notorious” and “infamous” still precede it. Hells Angels were at the concert either hired or not hired to provide security. They sat on the edge of the stage with their bikes parked in front of them, and from almost the beginning began to scuffle with the part of the crowd of 300,000 closest to the low stage. Shortly musicians were also fighting with the Angels. Four people died at the concert, three by various misadventures. The fourth, a black man named Meredith Hunter, pulled out a pistol in a melee while the Stones were playing and was stabbed to death by a Hells Angel.[2]

Woodstock and Altamont took place in an era of mass protests like CHOP, though neither as part of a mass protest as CHOP is—though they were not unrelated to the protests of that era by any means. They could be thought of as sort of contrapuntal events.

I went to mass demonstrations against the Viet Nam War in the late 60s and early 70s. I was then in my teens and lived in Seattle. The biggest demonstration was in 1970 after Kent State and Jackson State. The participants in the anti-war demonstrations reflected the various other causes that after 1967 were part of the anti-war movement, black civil rights, the Chicano movement, women’s rights, the environment—there were more—so that soon one spoke of The Movement whose goal was social change well beyond simply ending the Viet Nam War.

When Nixon campaigned for president in 1968, he said he had a “secret plan” to end the war in Viet Nam. The secret turned out to be that he shifted the war in Viet Nam from the ground to the air, thus reducing the number of ground troops—and casualties—and at the same time he replaced the draft with the lottery. The result was a large reduction the war casualties among American forces and also in the number of draftees. The net effect of these moves was seen by 1972.

The last mass demonstration I went to was in 1972 and it was the smallest. They had been growing smaller. Young white males, no longer threatened by the draft, stopped protesting. I remember one of speakers at that protest was a man named Roberto Maestas the leader of a Chicano group called, I think, La Raza. His speech was somber. Maestas began, “I’ve been coming to these demonstrations for years. The war is still going on and these demonstrations are getting smaller.” Then he talked about needing to find another way forward.

By 1974 no one any longer spoke of The Movement except in the past tense. Eventually we all found our several ways forward. By the Eighties Jerry Rubin of the Chicago Seven and Dennis Hopper of “Easy Rider” fame were Reagan supporters. And there followed the long domination of the right. We are still living with the way Nixon reshaped American politics.

CHOP is about half a mile from Swedish hospital where I was born. My sister lives now about twelve blocks southwest of CHOP. One of her two sons—the one who gets lost—lives a short walk north of it, the other a similar distance east of it. While they’re all sympathetic to the BLM protests both in Seattle and across the nation, CHOP seemed to them a more motley and less focused group than the larger mass of BLM protestors.

While all of the protesters agreed about the cause of Black Lives Matter, many people in CHOP brought with them many other causes that were not embraced by the larger mass of BLM protesters. There was also, more critically, a difference between the organization of the larger BLM protests and CHOP. Black civil rights groups and community groups provided some organization and cohesion to the larger protests—which was seen in how the initial instances of looting soon diminished. CHOP on the other hand really had no organization whatsoever. I read of a protester at CHOP saying its organization would grow “organically”—another Sixties buzzword that after 1972 was mostly used with regard to tomatoes.

Initially some of CHOP’s neighbors were enthusiastic. Lisa McCallister, a thirty-year-old case worker in Seattle who had attended the protests, described CHOP as “…amazing. It’s the retaking of a space that was covered in violence for no reason. They were teargassing and flash-banging at 12:30 at night for hours. And then to kind of completely retake this space with peace and love.”[3]

The Woodstock peace and love ambience was to last twelve days at CHOP. It took four months for the Woodstock peace and love thing to crash to the ground at Altamont. But things happen faster these days.

The first week of CHOP’s existence my sister complained of the disruption even in her neighborhood. Her younger son visited CHOP and he told her, “It’s like a poorly organized street fair.”

But even before CHOP came into being there were bad signs of things to come. The first took place not in the neighborhood where CHOP would be located, but across Lake Washington in the wealthy suburb of Bellevue.

On May 31st, somewhere between 1000 and 2000 people raced passed the security guards at the upscale suburban Bellevue Mall, smashed through plate glass doors and windows and looted the stores. Some of the looters had guns which they used to shoot out the windows of shops. While some headlines mistakenly linked it to the George Floyd protest, the event was nothing of the sort. Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett said that it was the work of gangs. He had evidence in the form of cellphone conversations that gangs, whose main line of business was drugs, coordinated and timed the raid so as to be camouflaged under the George Floyd protests. Mylett said, “I can’t emphasize enough how repulsive it is that people would take and exploit the homicide of George Floyd to further their criminal intention.”[4]

Then in the week after the birth of CHOP, my sister’s youngest son heard on the street where he lives the sounds of intermittent gunfire for a few nights. Likely it was the sound of a gun or guns being fired in the air by someone who wanted to make his presence in the area known to those who lived there. But who would that be? The most likely suspects were either rightwing militia members or gang members. The gangs as we’ve seen had already exploited the general confusion for their own ends. At the same time that my nephew heard gunshots in his street at night, rightwing militias made their presence known.

On June 15th and 16th a probation officer in Portland, Oregon received calls that a man in her charge had been in Seattle in CHOP and the area around it—simply being of the Portland area was a violation of his probation. The man, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, a resident of Vancouver, Washington across the Columbia River from Portland, was associated with the rightwing group the Proud Boys and had been convicted of 4th degree assault for an incident in Portland in the summer of 2018. Video shot near CHOP surfaced showing Toese with a group of men getting out of an SUV and confronting a protester. Toese throws the man on the pavement and then Toese and his fellow thugs kick and beat him.

A few days later on the afternoon of Thursday June 18th, a 37-year-old protester lured a 25-year-old deaf woman into his tent with a promise of free food and tried to rape her. A passing medic heard commotion in the tent, wrested the woman away from the man and got her out of his tent. After the medic got her out of the tent, the man tried to pull her back in.

Then, two days later on Saturday June 20th, two men were shot in two different locations though both were in or near Cal Anderson Park that was part of CHOP. Some of the confusion was caught on City security cameras that monitor the park. When the police responded they were met by a crowd. The police said the crowd argued among themselves about letting them in. But finally would not let them get to the sites of the shootings.

Omari Salisbury, a freelance journalist, had shot video documenting CHOP from its beginning. His video shot in the early hours of Saturday morning shows a tumultuous scene as he describes how one of the victims was receiving CPR by CHOP volunteer medics. An article by Seattle Times journalist Mike Carter was based on Salisbury’s video and what Salisbury told him. The following is excerpted from Carter’s article:

Salisbury described a scene of “pandemonium” at the medic tent when one of the victims was being treated there, as the medics and others argued over whether they should call Medic One or transport the victims themselves. “There was a lot of confusion,” he says on the video. Salisbury said the CHOP area “emptied out pretty quickly” after the shooting. “The population got real small, real quick,” he said.

Former nurse Alex Bennett said she was walking her dog with a friend when a passerby told her about a shooting. She was leaving, she said, when she turned the corner at 11th Avenue and Pike Street and came across the second victim on the hood of a car, bleeding from a wound in his arm. Bennett said she used her sweatshirt as a tourniquet to try to stanch the bleeding and asked someone to call 911. When a volunteer CHOP medic came by with a first aid kit, Bennett said they examined the man and found another wound in his chest. The man’s skin was turning clammy and his breathing was shallow, she said, and when it became clear an ambulance wasn’t coming — or wouldn’t be there fast enough — she and others loaded him into a van and raced to the hospital, where a medical team was waiting outside. They found at least one wound on the man’s chest. Afterward, she said, she was questioned by a police officer, who she said “told me that when they responded to the first victim they were chased out of there, which is why they didn’t come for the second one.”[5]

The hospital where the victims were taken was Harborview, about a five-minute drive from CHOP. How long it was exactly from the time the second victim with the chest wound was shot until the CHOP medics got him to Harborview is difficult to determine, but it seems it took at least twenty minutes. In any event, by the time he got to Harborview ER he’d lost too much blood to be saved and he died minutes later.

The next two nights there were two more shootings in or near CHOP. The victims were only wounded.

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat dropped by CHOP on the 23rd, the day after the last of the three shootings. Westneat wrote: “We can police ourselves!” a man was still insisting in one of the CHOP’s intersections on Tuesday when I stopped by. “The hell we can,” a woman responded under her breath.[6]

Whether the perpetrators of the shootings on Saturday and Sunday were gang members or rightwing militia members is unknown. The first night June 20th it appears there were actually two separate shootings that happened close together. The first victim of the first shooting, DeJuan Young, who was wounded, was shot by different people and a block away from where Lorenzo Anderson was shot and mortally wounded only minutes later. Young said his shooting was motivated by racism. “So basically I was shot by, I’m not sure if they’re Proud Boys or KKK,” said Young from his hospital bed. “But the verbiage that they said was hold this ‘N—–’and shot me.”[7]

The end of CHOP seemed in sight. On Monday June 22nd, Seattle Mayor Jennie Durkan said, “It’s time for people to go home.” To finally help CHOP go gentle into that good night, the mayor called for help from leaders of the black community in Seattle. Early the next morning June 23rd, another man was shot and wounded near the northeast corner of Cal Anderson Park.

The next day, Wednesday June 24th, a tweet from a group called “Capitol Hill Occupied Protest Solidarity Committee” said, “Few people remain in our beloved CHOP…The CHOP project is now concluded.” That same day some Capitol Hill residents and businesses filed a class-action suit against the City of Seattle for damages caused by CHOP. By Friday June 26th, probably less than a hundred people remained in CHOP.

In the meantime, Seattle City Council member Sawant, a socialist and member of the Seattle City Council had issued a new demand. Of the homicide she said, “Our movement should demand and insist that the Seattle Police fully investigate this attack and be held accountable to bring the killer(s) to justice.”[8] Since CHOP was a “police-free zone” the police would presumably in her view need to obtain a special dispensation from people in CHOP to conduct an investigation in it—and that might have to await the “organic” development of some organization. Once they have permission they will need to speed up their investigation before they are defunded. It begins look like “Duck Soup” with real bullets.

Over the weekend of June 27th and 28th, city crews began removing some of the “Jersey barriers” that the mayor had ordered set up when the occupation began, and the mayor announced the streets in CHOP would soon be reopened. But as soon as the crews removed the jersey barriers, protesters threw up new barriers made of more homely materials—sheets of plywood, trash cans and old sofas. Some of the press thought the City might somehow finally clear CHOP of the remaining protesters over the weekend, but it didn’t happen.

What did happen was that on Sunday June 28th, hundreds of the protesters who had left CHOP gathered at Warren G. Magnuson Park on Lake Washington, and marched from there past the house where in 2017 a black woman, Charleena Lyles, called 911 to report a burglary and she ended up being shot dead by the two police who responded to her call. The two policemen claimed they found no evidence of a burglary and that Lyles suddenly turned on them with a kitchen knife. Lyles had a history of mental illness and that case is still under investigation. From there the protesters marched to the wealthy district called Windermere where Mayor Jenny Durkan lives. How they learned of Durkan’s address would become a sub-plot in the CHOP story since Durkan’s address is protected under the state confidentiality program because of her law enforcement background as a US attorney.

The next day Monday June 29th in the early hours of the morning, there was yet another shooting in CHOP, the fourth and final one. This time the shooting apparently culminated in front of the still vacant police precinct building. Two young black men in a Jeep Cherokee were shot and were taken to Harborview Hospital where one man died. It seems that armed members of an Antifa group in CHOP shot them. There is video showing the vehicle driving wildly around in Cal Anderson Park and someone in it apparently shoots at people in the park or houses next to it. Then there is more video showing what are apparently the Antifa people running towards gunfire, possibly on 12th Avenue where the precinct building is located, and someone can be heard to shout, “Anyone without a gun, hit the ground!” By the time the police reached the bullet-riddled vehicle, homicide detectives said it was clear the vehicle had been cleaned of evidence, presumably by the armed Antifa group.

The mayor’s patience with CHOP was inexplicable to some or written off as weak-kneed liberal appeasement by others. But my sister told me of rumors that the FBI told the mayor that they had an informant in CHOP, and, on the basis of what their informant told them, she should not do anything about CHOP because it was so disorganized and so many of its factions were at odds with one another that it would disintegrate all on its own.

The mayor’s call for help from black community leaders to help end CHOP seems significant. It points to a difference between some of the black leaders and many white protesters. At some point if all of the protests across the country are to become an organized political movement that can bring about real change, the white protesters who are not organized will need to follow the lead of black organizers and leaders.

Regarding all the chaos, the violence and deaths Kshama Sawant issued a Trump-like statement. She said the violence was due to capitalism. Therefore, she and the protesters at CHOP bore no responsibility.

It’s true that Seattle shows some of the most egregious features of capitalism per Marx. It is the city of Jeff Bezos’ global colossus Amazon and it is also a city where a full-time employee of the US Postal Service lives in a tent under a freeway ramp because she can no longer afford the lease on her apartment. But Sawant cannot blame capitalism for the naiveté of many in CHOP who were oblivious to the possibility that criminal gangs and rightwing militias might exploit their social experiment with fatal consequences, nor can she blame capitalism for the attempted rape of the deaf woman by one of her confederates. That they are still debating what to call themselves as CHOP was disintegrating and being dismantled speaks to how ill-suited most of the protesters were to organize anything. Even movie night. The first film they should have screened is the Maysles Brothers documentary “Gimme Shelter.” That might have given them pause. Or maybe not.

The police chief, Carmen Best, at a press conference in CHAZ on Monday June 29th said, “Enough is enough.” Kshama Sawant has called for the mayor to resign or be impeached. Mayor Jenny Durkan has called on the Seattle City Council to investigate Sawant, noting the City Council may “punish or expel a member for disorderly or otherwise contemptuous behavior.”[9] Durkan is said to suspect that it was Sawant who leaked her address to the protesters who marched to her residence Sunday. Durkan also wants Sawant investigated for letting protesters into City Hall when it was closed due to the pandemic and for encouraging the illegal occupation of the police precinct building.

On July 1st, Seattle Police in riot gear cleared CHOP with the help of the Bellevue Police. At 4:58 am Mayor Durkan issued an order to clear the area. At 5 am the police entered CHOP and ordered everyone to leave within eight minutes or they would be arrested. They arrested at least 32 people. Policemen also reentered the precinct building though they did not move back in. City workers at the same time began to clear the last few barricades. Police also began investigating several vehicles without license plates that had been observed circling CHOP while the police were clearing it. The people in the vehicles had firearms and were wearing body armor.

That morning my sister flew to Palm Springs. There had been barely any police presence on her street the last few days. Junkies shoot up on her street now during the day, and the night before she left she could hear the shootings in CHOP. Last week a gang managed to distract the guard downstairs and break through all the high-tech security to get into the building where she lives. Residents can only use the elevator to go to the floor they live on, the business center, and the gym. The gang unlocked the apartment next to her and took everything, even the appliances.

My sister went to Palm Springs to look at a condo in a gated community. She and her husband who died last fall swore they would never live in a gated community. But she lives alone now and times have changed.’

Notes.

1) Kim’s remark and all the preceding excerpts are in the same article https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/11/chaz-seattle-autonomous-zone-police-protest For the sake of clarity with one or two exceptions I have changed CHAZ to CHOP in the quotes that follow.

2) Mick Jagger, an intelligent man, no doubt regretted his fatuous words soon after the concert. Jagger is also filmed in the documentary watching the Maysles brothers edit the footage of the interview. To his credit he didn’t ask the Maysles to cut his foolish remark.

3) https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/11/chaz-seattle-autonomous-zone-police-protest

4) https://www.kiro7.com/news/local/cellphone-video-leads-23-arrests-bellevue-square-mall-looting-frenzy/6YLITHLO4ZB5JIIUNLPHDZPBR4/

5) All of the following material is taken from an article written by a Seattle Times journalist, Mike Carter. I have altered the wording of his article in places. Where there are direct quotes, they are in Carter’s article which may be found at https://www.policeone.com/officer-safety/articles/seattle-police-release-video-of-response-to-autonomous-zone-shooting-that-left-one-dead-rc1XiwMtgt7T9vjk/

6) https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/the-irony-of-the-no-cop-chop-it-showed-how-much-we-still-need-the-police-after-all

7) Horne, Deborah (June 23, 2020). “Man critically injured in CHOP shooting says he was the victim of a racial attack”. KIRO-TV Retrieved June 23, 2020.

8) https://komonews.com/news/local/seattle-council-member-kshama-sawant-calls-on-mayor-durkan-to-resign

9) https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/durkan-asks-seattle-city-council-to-investigate-sawant-for-contemptuous-behavior/

 

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Daniel Beaumont teaches Arabic language & literature and other courses at the University of Rochester. He is the author of Slave of Desire: Sex, Love & Death in the 1001 Nights and Preachin’ the Blues: The Life & Times of Son House. He can be contacted at: daniel.beaumont@rochester.edu

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