These sanguine and rather evocative words were uttered on CNN the other evening by Seattle’s mayor. She was speaking about the seven-block enclave on the edge of her city’s downtown, known variously as CHAZ (the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) or CHOP (the Capitol Hill Organized Protest), which was established after the recent race riots.
Durkan was born in 1958 and attended a private Catholic girls’ school before becoming “the first openly gay U.S. attorney in our country’s history,” as she boasts on her website. She would thus have been just nine years old, and perhaps coming to explore her own identity, at the time of the real Summer of Love. She may harbor a somewhat romanticized view of it as a result.
The Summer of Love is usually connected with the year 1967, but in fact it ran from about 1965 to 1971. It describes not just an event, but a particular lifestyle. Think pot brownies consumed while listening to the Grateful Dead, tie-dyed be-ins with Dr. Benjamin Spock in Central Park. These images may not have had anything to do with the lives of most Summer of Love participants at the time, but they have firmly passed into national mythology.
Above all, the Summer of Love signified an experiment in unfettered freedom of expression and peaceful self-rule which seemed to promise great things at the time, but which has now fizzled out. In any case, I’m afraid it bears very little resemblance to the scenes on Seattle’s Capitol Hill as I have recently experienced them.
The analogy that most struck me on my tour there was the old Checkpoint Charlie. It’s true that CHOP lacks the more grotesque accouterments of that iconic Cold War edifice. So far as I could see there were no guard towers, floodlights, alarms, land mines, metal spikes, or attack dogs. Nor were there any unsmiling East German VoPos with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. But the essential vista of a zigzagging maze of concrete blocks patrolled by guards, loomed over by a wooden sign advising the traveller that he was leaving one world and entering another, would have been instantly familiar to anyone who found himself in Berlin between the years 1961 and 1989.
Of course, and perhaps prudently, I chose to visit CHOP during daylight hours. There was a hint of the street fair about the erratically parked (and, one would hazard to guess, unlicensed) food trucks lining the pavements, while the tables of souvenir T-shirts and other merchandise irresistibly recalled the ordeal of the modern rock concert. The streets themselves offered a panorama of rat-infested waste and human filth, a scene enlivened by multicolored graffiti daubed on literally every available vertical surface. Think of one of those bombed-out landscapes beloved of Samuel Beckett, with a touch of Clockwork Orange-like menace thrown in, to get the flavor.
As I say, that was CHOP at its most benign. I was there in broad daylight, and despite my impression that upon entering I had singlehandedly raised the average age in the place to about 19, nobody physically assaulted me or asked the purpose of my visit. Although, I did notice one individual wearing a sort of toga customized with the slogan F— THE POLICE do a doubletake at my own T-shirt, discretely adorned with the face of Richard Nixon.
Perhaps it was the atypical Seattle sun that beat down that afternoon, but the general impression was of a community that lacked life and spirit. The young men and women there seemed sullen and malcontent, and yet apparently unwilling to do anything to alleviate their situation. With the exception of one hirsute teenager on some kind of drug raging incoherently at the sky, or the grown woman nonchalantly relieving herself on the steps of Seattle’s abandoned East Precinct police station, they existed in a state of disgruntled but suspended animation.
Evidently, things become more animated at night. Around 2:30 a.m. on June 21, Seattle police entered CHOP in response to the report of a shooting. According to KOMO News, the officers “received a hostile reception,” and after a protracted debate on the subject of jurisdiction and sovereignty, two badly-injured young men were “taken to the hospital in private vehicles by volunteer CHOP medics.” One, an unnamed 19-year-old, was later pronounced dead, while the second victim remains hospitalized in critical condition, as of this writing.
Just over 48 hours later, at about 5 a.m., the police were allowed temporary access to CHOP in order to evacuate a 17-year-old male who had been shot in the arm. In a separate incident, a 30-year-old man was hospitalized with a gunshot wound to his leg. After being treated for their injuries, both individuals asked to be returned to CHOP.
There have been nightly reports of other crimes in the area, including rape, arson, and burglary. “With not having a police presence here, people are free to do whatever they want,” a local resident named Bobby Stills told the Associated Press. The carnage has been consistently downplayed in the Seattle media, perhaps because it destroys the romantic supposition that peace and harmony will result when people are freed from wicked policemen and their ilk. In any event, after CHOP’s fourth shooting it seems to have suddenly occurred to Mayor Durkan that perhaps it wasn’t the Summer of Love after all. Later on June 23 she announced that “additional steps” would be taken should the residents of CHOP not leave the area voluntarily.
Of course Seattleites live in a tolerant city—excessively so, some might say —and the popular reaction to all this has developed accordingly. On my recent visit, I watched as a young white man wearing an official-looking armband attempted to explain to another young white man (alas, armband-less) that the public park that lies inside CHOP was currently a “black only” sanctuary.
In loving and peaceful tones almost visibly straining to be reasonable, the young park steward said:
“I’d really appreciate it if you could, like, give them their space, man—please.”
“Okay, dude,” the thwarted pedestrian said, also in that affectation of serenity, brotherhood-of-man idiom that distinguishes the daylight spirit of the area. A moment later, when the gatekeeper’s back was turned, the disobedient pedestrian stepped forward to stroll across the newly segregated park again.
The park used to be a popular sports field for local children, but has recently become home to a tented community where one can see painted faces, tattooed bodies, and babies being suckled at the breast.
Other Seattle residents less wholeheartedly committed to the cultural revolution have mixed feelings about CHOP. I spoke to one local resident who happened to be white and middle-aged, and she told me that she sympathized with the protesters but found it trying to have them camped on her doorstep. “It just feels like I’m living in a permanent Woodstock,” she said.
Another woman remarked on social media that she was looking for alternative accommodations, despite being a Black Lives Matter (BLM) supporter. “I am a liberal and supporter of #blm,” she wrote. “I am however being held hostage in my place by the Occupied protest. I can’t get to and from my apartment safely. I have been verbally hassled and physically threatened.”
Cole Smead, the president of a large investment firm, announced that he was moving his company headquarters from Seattle to Phoenix. Although noting that the decision to relocate had been made earlier in the year, he told KTAR News: “There is really not a downtown business community today…My biggest concern for Seattle was what the business community is going to come back to, and what kind of businesses are going to come back for customers.”
Other local companies have been more explicit in their misgivings about CHOP. Retail businesses there “are surrounded by a mob,” the owner of one small grocery store unfortunate enough to be trapped inside the zone told me. “Plenty of us are black or immigrants ourselves, but that doesn’t count. Nobody listens to us,” she said.
Suing for redress is the default position for many Americans, so it seemed only logical that a group of Seattle businesses should file a class action suit against the city, which they claim has “abandoned its duty” to them. Even then, the aggrieved parties were careful to emphasize their liberal credentials. “This lawsuit does not seek to undermine CHOP participants’ message, or present a counter-message,” their brief read. Nonetheless, they allege that the city’s decision to allow CHOP “has subjected businesses, employees, and residents of [Capitol Hill] neighborhood to extensive property damage, public safety dangers, and an inability to use and access their properties.” Their case continues.
Meanwhile, Washington’s feckless governor, Jay Inslee, has remained strangely silent on the subject of armed activists hijacking a sizeable chunk of his state’s biggest city.
Perhaps Inslee’s been too busy exercising his newfound power over almost the entirety of human life here to interest himself in such details. This power has been exercised under the pretext of protecting us from the coronavirus, with a whole slew of COVID-related decrees and proclamations—he proudly announced 23 of them in a single day recently.
One of my few moments of unfeigned joy in this otherwise wretched year came while watching Inslee address a press conference at which he was asked to weigh in on the CHOP shantytown. It had by then been up and running for the past 36 hours, in the full glare of the world’s media. “Well, that’s news to me, so I’ll reserve any comment,” he said, before giving an awkward chuckle. Not for the first time when watching Inslee in action, if it can be so called, I could feel my eyeballs protrude slowly from their sockets, and then slowly retreat again.
Self-loathing among a particular element of American society, extending to an anguished debate about the imaginary sin of systemic racism, is nothing new. As the pressure group The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond said in its manifesto 40 years ago:
The fabric of racism is inextricably woven and constructed into the founding principles of the United States…We believe that effective change happens when those who serve as agents of transformation understand the foundations of race and racism and how they continually function as a barrier to community self-determination and self-sufficiency.
By press date, a further shooting incident in CHOP early on June 29 left one teenager dead and put another in intensive care. Mayor Durkan has issued an executive order for police to clear protesters from the area. The experiment in communal living lasted 23 days, at the cost of two lives, numerous injuries, and untold property damage. The CHOP organizers have vowed to repeat the exercise elsewhere.
(Correction: in the 19th paragraph, Mr. Cole Smead’s title was incorrectly listed as “chief executive” rather than “president.”)
above: one of the entrances to CHOP, near East Pine Street in Seattle (photo by Christopher Sandford)
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