William Gosline

A Visit to the Autonomous Zone

("Welcome to CHAZ" photo by Derek Simeone, Wikimedia Commons)

Seattle writer, William Gosline, makes a family stop at CHAZ (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) to see what’s really going on. 

 

I went down to CHAZ with my son and six-pound Terri-poodle on Friday, Juneteenth.

We parked across the street from the 12th Precinct, now boarded up. I felt fine parking my car across the street from the under-guarded barricade.

During my time in Hawaii, I became familiar with occupations. The people involved usually take great pains to ensure the safety of anyone who comes in to visit, as well as to respect their belongings. They know that anything that happens there will be added to the list of sins the system has compiled as reason to retake the space by force.

We dropped off some canned food and pet toys at a tent-commissary.

My dog drank deeply at a water bowl for canine visitors.

We walked north and stopped at a makeshift shrine where the pictures of people killed by SPD hung randomly above blotted candle remnants. There was a picture of a native man named Willie Thompson whose kind, crinkled face was familiar.

At the intersection, the segmented cement barricade turned left. The organizers (disorganizers?) of the occupation had kept half the street open to allow vehicular access, though I didn’t see anyone driving inside the zone.

There were many signs clustered at the bottom of the boarded-up precinct, and many more messages scrawled on the plywood. The sentiments of the anonymous writers were personal, imperfect, enraged, plaintive, and sorrowful. They were nothing like the slick, impersonal, branded marketing that one is subjected to on a normal city street.

Across the street, a ragamuffin assembly of couches comprised what a handwritten sign called “The Decolonization Café.” On the last couch of The Decolonization Café, a young white guy with a girl on his lap complained of a pain in his arm. “It hurt like a motherfucker, yo,” he said. “This motherfucker hurts, yo.”

A bit farther down, a trans-person exulted in the street. “I look at it and it’s so beautiful!” they yelled to no one in particular, though a young woman with very white legs and dyed hair paused to nod her head. “It’s so beautiful!”

My son saw the baseball diamond behind the tall, canted fence. I realized that he didn’t recognize this area at all (we’d been there a month before to pick Mom up.) On the field were clusters of people sitting in lawn chairs in conversation. White people with black shirts held posts at places where one might access Cal Anderson field. I stopped to talk with one of them. He said the field was being used as a place for black healing. They were asking that only people who identified as black enter the field.

This seemed like a good space for indigenous people, so I asked if indigenous people were allowed in. He clarified that anyone could go in so long as they identified with the black experience and were respectful of that.

I mentioned the trans person I’d just seen, who had seemed a bit off their rocker. “It occurs to me this place might be a good place for the mentally ill,” I said. “In my experience, they respond more to energy than words.”

He said that his day job was as a therapist and that hadn’t occurred to him, but it made sense. “There are people shooting up heroin down the block,” he said. “It doesn’t make the place look good, but at least they don’t have to hide their addiction.” I mentioned Portugal and Switzerland which have taken different attitudes towards drug addiction.

While we talked, a chubby man in scrubs walked over to a shirtless black man leaning against the fence. “Hey there,” he said. “We heard you weren’t feeling so good. Mind if I check in on you?”

***

The grass field north of the field was nothing but dome tents and plant boxes, some with signs in memoriam. My son went straight to the playground. I took a picture of him on one of those aggravatingly safe newfangled seesaws in front of a faint message “Asians For Black Lives” written on the knee-high pillar of the wall. A black family in matching clothes came to the playground, blasting old school hip-hop from a hand radio. Their two kids raced the big toys before they were called away.

***

We walked to the end of the park where the tent settlements were more desultory and seedy.

The stone cone in the center of the now waterless fountain had become a brightly colored roost for children. A drone buzzed overhead. My son, who inherited an eagle’s eye from his mother, confirmed that one of the kids on top of the cone was operating it.

I told my son he could climb the cone, and then I sat down on the coping.

A woman pushing a stroller came with two slightly built men. She asked her kids on the cone to turn towards her so she could take a picture.

Another child whose parents sat nearby asked how her son had gotten the drone.

“A man gave it to him,” she said. “My son pulled it out of a tree and then the man gave it to him when he tried to return it. That’s the lesson, kids,” she broadcasted generally, “always be honest.”

The boy (age 14-15?) sent the drone hovering over the dirt road a minute, where it kicked up a cloud of dust. Then he came down and retrieved it. He was very close to me, so I got a good look at the drone, which was of excellent quality.

“What’s that at the bottom?” I asked.

“A camera,” he said.

“Let’s not talk about the drone,” the mother said. She would not meet my eyes. She took the drone and departed with the two men, leaving the stroller and her children to gambol. The youngest boy tried to offer me a broken piece of plastic, but I refused politely.

I spoke to the boy who had been operating the drone. He said they’d been helping the man operate the drone earlier. I explained that it was possible that he’d been given the drone so he could take pictures of people in the occupation.

He assured me that they weren’t cops.

***

At that point, we went to meet my sister-in-law. This time we elected to sit together at The Decolonization Café.

She reminded me of a run-in with the police she and my brother had at that exact precinct decades ago. They were at a club one night nearby. One of their friends, a black guy, stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. He threw the butt into the street and immediately got into an argument with a police officer, which turned into a street beat down.

My brother and another friend (also black) went outside to try and deescalate but instead were pulled into the Charybdian fracas.

“There were like fifteen cop cars!” my sister-in-law said. “I went inside for like thirty seconds to get a friend and, when I came back, whoosh, everyone was gone,” she said. “We raced around the city trying to find where the cops had taken them.”

She said that this was one of the first major lawsuits against the SPD regarding that sort of malfeasance, and that the judge and jury had tears in their eyes when they heard what had happened to this young black man, who was among other things an art teacher.

***

This one brush with the law had been very lengthy and stressful for my brother, I remember. Think about that for a minute: When we act as “race traitors” or “allies,” they come down hard on us. They try to scare us back into blithely accepting our privilege and turning a blind eye.

***

We were offered free Costco pizza individually wrapped in aluminum foil by a bearded man in overalls. As he was handing them out, a fellow organizer came over and told him that a certain someone was back. They turned their attention to a gray-haired man across the street with a black leather vest and a plumber’s crack who was dumping a tray into a bag. He’d been there the day before adding “KKK” to countervail the other slogans.

***

I suggested that we go to the park to get a little green. As we walked back towards the car, there came the familiar sounds of someone speechifying.

“I want to welcome anyone who has something to say up here to address the crowd,” a black woman said through a bullhorn.

A young black woman in a green halter top stepped to the curb and then turned the bullhorn on a black man who was walking away from the crowd. She exhorted him to listen to what she had to say. It was clear she was resuming a contentious debate they had been having.

She said that she identified as a black woman and queer and that she had something to say to black men. The man began yelling at her. A white man in front of me pounded the wooden divide and shouted, “Reclaim your space!”

I didn’t hear it, but apparently he called her a bitch, because this triggered another black man wearing a red bandana to step up to him. “You don’t support black women?” he demanded.

“If you knew who I was, you wouldn’t be talking to me like this,” the first black man said. I gathered he meant that he was some well-heeled BLM organizer.

“Oh, we know who you are,” another black man said. It seemed they just didn’t give a shit, at that particular moment.

***

I told my sister-in-law I’d seen similar struggles in Hawaiian sovereignty politics between men and women. Grassroots nationalistic movements are vulnerable to charismatic leaders, as is any movement that relies on forming a cohesive identity and message. The difference was that in the decades I’d been in Hawaii, these sorts of issues were kept in-house, so to speak.

The problem is that when you don’t air these tricky issues because you don’t want to give the opposition ammunition against you, then you have not done the necessary work to extirpate the problems. One need not look too far back into history to see how many revolutionary movements have transformed into strong-man dictatorships.

I thought that this young black queer woman was doing us all a service, as painful as it was to show the internal conflicts of the movement. The question is then how many “allies” will use the imperfection of the movement as a reason to withdraw support.

As a brief aside, I’ve recently heard numerous times that black women are the most organized, dogged, and persistent block of the Democratic party’s base; they were responsible for getting Doug Jones, among many other things. I’m glad to see activist-politicians like Stacey Abrams getting more airtime.

***

As we left the scene, I passed a white man dressed all in black, including a hood and black face mask. Only his eyes could be seen.

***

When I got to the car, I discovered that I’d forgotten to close the passenger side window facing the barricade more than halfway. I told my son that our stuff was safer here than it would have been before CHAZ/CHOP.

***

Later, when I was getting drinks and food from the grocery story to take to the park, I got a call from my wife. She was going to meet a friend who lived across the street from CHOP, but her friend had called it off because she’d seen numerous white men, like the one I’d seen, dressed all in black, bearing black backpacks, gathering at the southernmost edge.

***

That morning, two people were shot and taken to the ER in civilian cars because, at least as I heard it, state medics refused.

 

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