Seattle’s CHAZ tries to create its own narrative

A part of Cal Anderson Park that has been repurposed into a combination campground, community garden and union hall was abuzz Saturday with purposeful activity.

SEATTLE — A part of Cal Anderson Park that has been repurposed into a combination campground, community garden and union hall was abuzz Saturday with purposeful activity. Dozens of people with rakes and wheelbarrows spread topsoil and chicken manure in newly planted gardens.

Others gathered in small groups to discuss plans for no-till farming and fundraising for medical supplies. Another topic: How to cope with the growing number of onlookers who seem to regard what is known variously as CHAZ (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) or CHOP (Capitol Hill Occupied Protest), among other titles, as the city’s newest tourist attraction.

“It’s voyeurism,” said a silver-haired woman named Gabriella, a self-described “camp mom” who sometimes has to ask visitors not to take pictures of people in their tents.

Such concerns are a far cry from the ominous agenda that much of the outside world seems to have assigned this six-block experiment in alternative community, which is emerging in the heart of Capitol Hill and the center of the national debate over police reform.

Indeed, for some conservative commentators and parts of the political establishment, the occupation of this small stretch of Seattle has become the latest symbol of failed progressive politics and the unchecked rise of anarchy and protests.

“This is the closest I’ve ever seen our country, let alone the city here, to becoming a lawless state,” Michael Solan, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, told Fox News on Friday. “This could metastasize across the country.”

But on this particular afternoon, many of the members of that “lawless state” seemed less focused on defying the establishment than in recreating elements of that establishment in ways that advance the goals of the new community.

Near one of the newly planted gardens, a person named Clem described the emerging community in terms of something called a “social change ecosystem,” in which participants take on critical roles, such as disrupters, builders, healers, experimenters and front-line responders, to create a new kind of society. “It isn’t just necessarily anarchy,” says Clem. “But it’s allowing people to do what they want to do.”

Over the last few days, that has meant everything from managing Venmo accounts to handle cash donations to coming up with infrastructure for things like water.

Not far from Clem, a 31-year-old Columbia City man named Marcus Henderson talked with several other volunteers about ways to build a rainwater collection system. “We don’t know if the city is going to give us access to water,” said Henderson. “And even if they did give us access to water, we need to put down drip lines … so that we’re not out here with buckets.”

Another task: Organizing to handle potential tensions with police and other outsiders, especially after dark.

“We basically don’t sleep until the sun comes up,” said one man, who describes the constant concern members of the community have about being overrun by the police.

Others talk about the delicate and evolving challenge of making people feel safe under often stressful circumstances within a highly diverse and eclectic community. At any given moment, the six-block zone is home not only to activists of various political leanings and objectives, but people experiencing homelessness or other personal challenges who have flocked to the park because it feels relatively safe.

As a result, some occupiers say they often find themselves in the role of social service provider and dispute resolver. That describes Andy, a former cook who now works to “de-escalate a situation without using physical harm or being super confrontational.” When he finds someone in crisis or becoming confrontational, he says, his preferred technique is “just walk them around to make sure … they have someone to talk to for a second … because people just need to vent sometimes.”

Running this new community also requires a constant negotiating with the outside world. That has meant keeping up a dialogue with police as well as other city officials. Henderson, the water czar, says he has met several times with officials with city parks and other departments to see what the city will and won’t allow, in terms of projects such as raised bed gardens. “I think they’ve given us at least a yellow light to proceed with caution to kind of keep doing this.”

Members have also been acutely conscious of how their still-evolving objectives are playing to the outside world.

For some members that awareness has meant trying to come up with a less provocative name for the occupation. “I don’t like the word ‘autonomous,’” says one. “We’re not trying to secede from the city. We just want policing that’s less hard-core.” Another wanted to call it “auto zone.”

For others, that awareness of image has meant working to discourage any destructive acts that might play into the conservative narrative. On Friday night, for example, Seattle police reported that someone attempted to set a fire at the abandoned East Precinct building. Video of the incident showed nearby people on the streets rushing to extinguish it.

And on Saturday evening, some occupiers worked to defuse a shouting match between some of the occupiers and a small group of apparent counterprotesters who showed up at the park with a pair of American flags, one of which was grabbed away.

The flag incident highlighted just how complicated and paradoxical the situation is in the area. While some occupiers see their mission as setting an example of an alternative to mainstream city life, others seem to very much regard the “zone” as an independent state.

As the flag-bearing counterprotesters left, one occupier reportedly shouted “that’s the border — let them go!”

The incident also captured the deeply tenuous nature of occupation. Many members here seem deeply aware that their enterprise could be swept away as easily as if it were a homeless encampment.

In fact, some think that the only way to avoid such a fate, or at least forestall it, is to make sure the zone continues to be an attraction for ordinary Seattleites — even those who are just there to take a picture.