By Azra Rahim
All entrances are marked with welcoming signs.
One of them states: “You are now entering Free Cap Hill.”
A smaller sign declares: “Stop Killing Black People.”
At the beginning, it was called CHAZ – the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone. Now most people refer to it as CHOP – Capitol Hill Organized Protest.
“But, what is CHOP?,” I keep getting asked. In its literal sense, CHOP is a six-block physical space, carved out of Seattle’s Capitol Hill area, which includes Cal Anderson Park.
Beyond the physical, CHOP is a rite of mourning. It is not a sad funeral. Rather, it is a boisterous and rowdy wake – a testimony to the will of those still alive, demanding to be seen and heard. It is the concretization of the ideals of Hope and Equity – a modelling of an alternate reality to the capitalist world.
There are pockets within the CHOP which allow for quiet reflection and prayer. There is a large shrine in memory of George Floyd and those killed in the ‘George Floyd Revolution’ as well as those lost to police brutality and bigotry. There are several smaller altars set up on pavements and chain link fences. People place flowers, light candles and incense. They pay respect, each in their own way.
Next to the large altar is an art installation – kente colors in thick, rebellious swipes of paint upon plywood mounted on a wooden frame (so as to not damage the building behind it). The black color represents death and mourning; the red stands for blood and strong political and spiritual sentiment; the green signals spiritual growth and renewal; the gold denotes high worth and prosperity. A few scattered white flower like markings denote pureness and cleansing rites and festivities.
Remarkably, the whole zone is a reflection of this Kente tapestry. The sometimes violent protests that created the space began after an unlawful death, a murder at the hands of police. Collective human heartache spread across the globe transmuting into an expansive expression of righteous rage. A black banner at the altar calls upon this sentiment when it states, “Mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
There is a “NO COP CO-OP.” Like all the other stations mentioned, here everyone is welcome, everything is free and no cash donations are accepted.
The space occupied by CHOP is a strong political statement against a state that has stripped many of dignity making them faceless, nameless and powerless. This is true for Black Americans. It is equally true for Native Americans. Their blood has been spilled callously for centuries and now their activism is rising. They demand justice. Not just for themselves but for all others who may be disenfranchised by a government pandering to white, capitalist Americana.
An ambitious and complex list of demands has been submitted by the organizers of CHOP. The demands range from defunding the Seattle Police Department and reallocating the funds to community health, free college education and free public housing. The protestors are embodying and living their goals within the space they are occupying. They are not just moving forward the ‘Black Agenda’. They are pushing for equity for ALL.
A black banner at the altar [ in memory of George Floyd and others] states, “Mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
Within the space, there are several free libraries – you can donate books or pick up books – books by authors of color, books about racism and inequality. There is a “Decolonization Conversation Café” with couches and chairs where people can engage in dialogue with people who might be outside their social or racial circles. It all starts with understanding that there are no “others.” There is a manned station with paperwork and expertise to help anyone apply for a job or apply for unemployment. There are two medical stations stocked with medical supplies and staffed by medics and physicians. They have received so much support that they are not in need of any supplies. They cater to protestors, tourists, the homeless and the sex workers in the area. There are stations stocked with amenities of daily living like toothbrushes and feminine hygiene products.
Further up in Cal Anderson Park, there is a victory garden taking shape with an assortment of garden beds loaded with tomatoes, lettuces and strawberries. The quiet verdant green is a welcome reprieve from the color and movement in the center of CHOP. Many people are at work. As I pause, a group is deciding on a watering schedule. A donated load of loamy soil rolls in on the back of an open truck and people run down with shovels to unload it. Elsewhere, a lanky teenager is doing her best to sort out the different donations of vegetable starts.
There is a “NO COP CO-OP.” Like all the other stations mentioned, here everyone is welcome, everything is free and no cash donations are accepted. There are crates of fresh fruit and veggies. An assortment of cold beverages. An assortment of snacks in large baskets, water bottle cases stacked up in several spots. Next to the CO-OP is a little low-brow bistro where young people, armed with two charcoal grills are cooking up anything from chicken to cheeseburgers. All who want to eat, wait patiently in line and eat for free. Right next to this bistro is a homeless man’s abode – set up with a tarp for sleeping, a personal pantry of various food items, as well as his walking sticks. He is not a young man and may have difficulty ambulating. But for now, he is fast asleep – secure in the knowledge that he will not be roused or roughed up. In the background, young people are busy unloading boxes of newly arrived donations from green leafy veggies to store bought bread to home baked goodies. They move purposefully, quickly and carefully stowing away the food which will probably be eaten within hours.
In the baseball fields, people are listening to an assortment of music while hanging out in groups. In the still warmth of the afternoon, they interrupt the music to broadcast the entirety of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s epic speech, “I have a dream.” In the evening, this space becomes a cinema theater which showcases movies like 13th – a documentary about racism and mass incarceration. The film is a reminder that inherent worth and prosperity can be stripped from black people and people of color by systemic racial bias and injustice.
In the basketball courts, spontaneous groups of varying skin tones come together to laugh and play ball. Further up in Cal Anderson Park, there is a victory garden taking shape with an assortment of garden beds loaded with tomatoes, lettuces and strawberries. The quiet verdant green is a welcome reprieve from the color and movement in the center of CHOP. Many people are at work. As I pause, a group is deciding on a watering schedule. A donated load of loamy soil rolls in on the back of an open truck and people run down with shovels to unload it. Elsewhere, a lanky teenager is doing her best to sort out the different donations of vegetable starts.
Beyond the garden is a grove of tents. Do they all belong to the volunteers who have paused their lives to channel their vigor into this movement at this pivotal point in history? Or do some of the tents belong to the large group of homeless who have now found neighbors and belonging in the streets of Seattle? Further up, near the water reservoir, a young black woman offers yoga and movement practices to improve health and vitality to all those who want to join in.
A fiery young woman reminds us that this ‘Black Revolution’ needs its allies to be successful. We all have a role to play. We are all allies in the pursuit of justice and dignity, for there can be no peace without justice for all.
Every surface within CHOP is a medium of expression. The paved road of East Pine? A continuous canvas of bright colorful images embedded within, “BLACK LIVES MATTER”. Cardboard signs, banners and flags are all creative outlets of pent up cultural wisdom. On culture day, the 3pm daily assembly is dedicated to the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest. There is easeful respect between all the groups present. The Duwamish and the Snohomish sing and dance in sacred ceremony. The beating of the drums echoes the beating of every human heart present, connecting us to each other and grounding us into the earth on which we stand. This is followed by a Black Power Rally in which a fiery young woman reminds us that this ‘Black Revolution’ needs its allies to be successful. We all have a role to play. We are all allies in the pursuit of justice and dignity, for there can be no peace without justice for all.
I went to CHOP with an intention to pray and be present to the people and the soil where tears, sweat and blood has been spilled. I returned home warm from the sun and the human connection. This is a peaceful activist community in the making, learning as it goes with a decentralized, consensus-based organizational system. It is not a careful, manicured process. It is an organic, rough and ready movement – less concerned about appearance and more invested in learning, growing and remaining authentic to its vision of service. Regardless of who is speaking out and who is silent, this community has deep support, guessing from the amounts of donations they receive in a day. There is also a clear understanding that the Black and Native American folk are front and center. They speak for themselves. Allies stand to the back and the sides doing the support work, except when needed to form a line of protection.
One of the many boards to be found in CHOP is a board titled, “What has been learned”. One of the many pieces of paper reads, “The Power is with the People.” To which someone has added, “The proof is around you.”
Guest Author Name
Azra Rahim, MD is a workshop presenter at the SDI Conference in Santa Fe, April 23-26, 2021. Her workshop is entitled, Seeking Feminine Wisdom from our Muslim mothers: poetry, writing and whirling as spiritual practice.
Azra is a medical doctor with a BSc in Molecular Biology. She describes herself this way: Muslim Sufi. Spiritual Quester. Truth seeker. Globe trotter. Lover of food, flowers and all things green. Indiscriminate dispenser of hugs. Kisser of all things beautiful.
More background: “I was born in India, raised in Iraq and immigrated to the United States with my family. Ethnically, I am part Afghani and Indian. Culturally, I am Indian with a love of Hindu mythology. I am a born Muslim Sufi. My parents went on a Sufi pilgrimage in lieu of a honeymoon after their arranged marriage. Growing up, I was steeped in a love of not only Islam but the Saints and Prophets, especially the Women.”