Diary

Agit Chop

View of the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest. All photos by author.

FOR THREE WEEKS, a six-block radius in Seattle was one of the freest spaces in America. The Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) was never planned—rather, it sprang up spontaneously after the police, who had violently suppressed the Black Lives Matter movement at their door for weeks, were ordered to abandon their own precinct. Protesters decided to pitch tents and set up an encampment and, after some deliberation, came up with a list of demands, including defunding the Seattle Police Department by 50 percent. As this no-cop zone flourished into a lively village, local artists including Kreau, Wolf Delux, and Afro SPK covered the perimeter’s concrete barricades with plywood paintings, while others spray-painted slogans on the walls of surrounding buildings. The artist Jon Top even carved a Black Power fist out of burned wood and crowdsourced the money to hire a crane to install it, people lifting the sculpture on their shoulders like a cross. 

For those first weeks, CHOP seemed an autonomous arcadia. Within these few barricaded blocks was a place where you could not just imagine but also inhabit a community without cops—a place where conflict could be de-escalated without state coercion or violence. Then came the string of senseless shootings and deaths, which drove out everyone but the diehards and the unhoused who had nowhere else to go. By the time I arrived at CHOP to document its tragic final week, the only way to get a taste of the zone’s earlier flavor was through the street art and graffiti that defined CHOP’s populist aesthetic and perpetually shifting boundaries, as the various barricade arrangements and the number of murals visible would expand or contract. “It’s not always pretty,” a protester painting the barricades told me. “But this art represents the energy this space generated.”

View of the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest. All photos by author.

People on social media love to advise others to “read the room”—an idiom I never really understood. What room are they talking about, and who’s in it? At CHOP, however, the writing was on the walls, and it set the revolutionary tenor of the space. “FASCISTS FUCK OFF AND DIE” shouted the sidewalk chalk at the entryway. “THOSE WHO MAKE PEACEFUL REVOLUTION IMPOSSIBLE WILL MAKE VIOLENT REVOLUTION INEVITABLE” warned the parking lot: a détournement of JFK’s famous adage that at CHOP, as much as anywhere else, would prove prescient.

One rainy afternoon, I met Malcolm, the protester designated as CHOP’s “art manager,” as he was unscrewing slabs of painted plywood from the concrete barricades. Malcolm and another CHOP leader named Mark told me that much of the art was getting taken down that day due to a recent cluster of nighttime heists. (The motives behind these vanishing acts were mysterious and likely varied—some pieces may have been stolen to sell, while others were simply used for campfire fuel. A museum educator and CHOP volunteer named Dawn later told me she tried to collect some signage after hearing that police were going to do a sweep, only to face attacks from protesters who slapped the material from her hands, claiming the art was never meant to be preserved.) “I’ve removed all the major pieces except for the barricades,” said Malcolm. “Good, don’t touch those,” said Mark. 

View of the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest. All photos by author.

A few days later, I came across a phalanx of art professionals who surrounded Malcolm, jostling to help preserve the works. They asked him if he would start a 501c3. “Why should we give the art to a museum when we can have our own gallery?” Malcolm protested. Then he turned to me and asked, “What is a 501c3, and why do we need one?” I shrugged: “Bruh, you’re asking ME?” As the others continued to argue over our heads, Malcolm quietly walked away, heading toward a large storage container the city had provided to safeguard the art. Letting me peek inside, Malcolm noted that he was preserving everything, regardless of quality. True to its ethics of decentralized democracy, the organizers didn’t want artists to feel unrepresented if their pieces weren’t deemed good enough to keep. 

Last week, the police showed up just before dawn, armed with full riot gear and pepper spray, to take back their precinct. “They were hitting people with their batons and saying, ‘This is a dispersal order, you have five minutes to pack and disperse, or we will arrest you,’” a protester told me. “If you were walking backward and you tripped, they arrested you.” The artwork, meanwhile, was carefully avoided. Now, with CHOP officially dismantled, the BLACK LIVES MATTER mural on the sidewalk is the only visual trace that remains—sloppily sealed into the ground in a DIY conservation job by a local artist. As soon as the police moved back in, they scrubbed the walls clean. 

View of the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest. All photos by author.

View of the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest. All photos by author.

View of the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest. All photos by author.

View of the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest. All photos by author.

View of the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest.

 

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