On Sunday afternoon, the smell of burning charcoal was strong around the blocks near Capitol Hill’s Cal Anderson Park. There were servers cooking up hot dogs on two small grills near a free grocery market known as the No Cop Co-op on Pine Street, where people could grab bread, granola bars, water, and other supplies (the market is no longer in that location, for reasons discussed later in this piece). Across the way sat a small outdoor cafe with couches and chairs, which had a sign indicating it was a space to have conversations about decolonization. That was right next to a lending library offering literature about social justice issues, as well as free coffee, tea, and snacks.
Over by the East Olive Street entrance to the park, there are several wooden planters with flowers and vegetables. The community garden was launched by Marcus Henderson, an urban sustainability expert, who has a deep interest in the ways food and social justice intersect, as he supports the Black Lives Matter protests in the city.
“I had been thinking about doing some guerrilla gardening in that area throughout the entire protests, just because everyone’s been doing art and other forms of revolutionary expression,” Henderson tells Eater Seattle. “And I believe gardening is an example of that, especially in public spaces. It kind of just took a leap of faith to bring a shovel down and get something started.”
This is the area originally referred to as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), now known better as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP). It was recently the site of a series of tense standoffs between police and protesters, where cops in riot gear tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed demonstrators for nights on end. After much backlash over those violent tactics, police eventually withdrew their heavy presence in the area and boarded up the front of the East Precinct. It’s possible they’ll be back at some point.
But for now, many protesters, volunteers, and local business owners say the atmosphere feels safer without weaponized police in riot gear standing behind barricades, despite brazenly deceitful portrayals from right-wing media saying otherwise. Fox News was recently called out for digitally altering images in its coverage of the CHOP, falsely portraying the area as a lawless war zone, even though these descriptions have already been widely refuted. It must also not be forgotten that Seattle has a long history of reclaiming public land and buildings as direct action for and by BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) communities.
With so much national attention on the politics, it may seem a small thing to focus on food, which is only one part of the ecosystem at the CHOP/CHAZ. But the way people eat there offers a glimpse into the energy of the protest space, whether it’s through pop-up community kitchens, street vendors selling items right in the middle of everything, or local restaurants trying to figure out their place as a support pipeline.
Citizen journalist Omari Salisbury — who has been tirelessly documenting the protests every day through the media outlet Converge — says the effort to feed demonstrators via a mutual aid network has been going on for weeks, even before the CHOP came about. Local businesses, donors, and volunteers helped get supplies near the front lines of protests during a time when people needed fuel to stand on their feet for hours at a time, confronting the cops face to face. He says many of the free stands around the CHOP are kind of offshoots of that, with some newcomers showing up on occasion.
“There was a person doing pho one day, and there are people who come in with deliveries from other neighborhoods — Pho Bac in the International District, Jerk Shack in Belltown,” Salisbury says, adding that sometimes there will be free boxes of pizza set out.
Salisbury emphasizes that the scene in the CHOP is not a “culinary destination” by any means. The food is simple, meant for people who have hunkered down for days at a time — and he’s personally starting to get a little weary of all the Kind and Clif bars. But he says things may get “interesting” from a food standpoint if the area continues to settle into a daily rhythm and the weather warms up more. “Will there be tourists coming in?” he asks.
A local bartender who goes by the name Erik Kalligraphy has been protesting every day since the demonstrations began, despite the police’s barrage of tear gas, flash bombs, and rubber bullets. Now that things are much calmer, he says the scene is constantly changing as restaurants reopen (Momiji across from the East Precinct has limited dine-in service) and street vendors making a buck intermingle alongside free operations.
Sometimes meals are as no-frills as it gets. “I’ve eaten beef patties out of people’s backpacks,” Kalligraphy says. “There’s a little bit of a health risk — because you don’t know where some of the food is coming from.” But, he adds, the selections and suppliers change often, with some pleasant surprises. He had a great banh mi sandwich recently, as well as Top Pot doughnuts. “There’s always been good food to sustain the protest.”
There are a couple of community-driven pop-ups as well. One at Cal Anderson Park called Riot Kitchen has been feeding the population experiencing housing insecurity, as well as protesters. Another, called Feed the Movement, set up shop near Hugo House initially, but has since moved locations. It’s run by a chef named Johnny Rajski, who used to work for a catering company serving large concert tours that came to Seattle, such as the Rolling Stones, before business dried up as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rajski’s operation started out small during the initial days of the protests (before CHAZ/CHOP was established), serving chips, energy drinks, and pizza, then gradually grew to more elaborate dishes, such as vegetable kimchi tofu “pastrami” reuben wraps and gochujang beef fried rice. He’s been working nonstop for almost two weeks, and isn’t sure how long Feed the Movement will last. “I just want to feed as many as I can as long as I can,” he says.
On Thursday, chef Eric Rivera from Ballard’s acclaimed Addo plans to give Rajski a bit of a reprieve, donating enough Puerto Rican dishes, such as braised pork, stewed yuca, and rice and beans, to feed around 400 to 600 people. “It’s a cool cause,” says Rivera. “We just want to be part of the community without being in front of it, like background music.”
Addo isn’t the only representative from the larger restaurant community helping out. Within the CHOP vicinity on Capitol Hill, Rancho Bravo has been giving out supplies to protesters and has medic stations set up in its parking lot. The Korean fried chicken specialist Bok a Bok offered free sandwiches and drinks, and the Italian cocktail bar Artusi has been storing cases of water in its restaurant and handing them out, after providing homemade saline solution back in the days when police were regularly tear-gassing protesters. Cafe Pettirosso had a sign-making station at one point, and Optimism Brewing has offered phone charging and bathroom breaks.
Tom Douglas Seattle Kitchen even recently donated some roast beef sandwiches to the No Cop Co-op. And on Sunday, a Ben & Jerry’s food truck rolled up to the area — lest one sees that as a sign of CHOP gentrification, the ice cream company is one of the few large food companies to release a frank statement on the need to dismantle white supremacy.
There is concern among many in the movement that the urgent message from the protests may get lost if the CHOP becomes too much like a street festival or curiosity, and less like a continuous, urgent protest with a list of demands that have still not been met. “The dynamics change every day,” says Kalligraphy. On Juneteenth, there will be a series of events at the CHOP to center black healing and community.
The future of the space itself is uncertain, with the Seattle Department of Transportation coming in to move some barricades recently to allow more room for residents, delivery drivers, and emergency vehicles to travel through the area.
The shrinking imprint is something Salisbury says has alarmed some longtime protesters in the CHOP, who feel change is happening too quickly and without their approval. On Wednesday, there was resistance to the reduction of the protest space, and the No Cop Co-op moved from its original spot, amid what The Stranger reported as some issues among its leadership. (Those who want to find out more of the day-to-day CHOP news can follow Salisbury, Capitol Hill Seattle, The Stranger, KUOW, and other local outlets.)
But whatever the immediate future holds, the people holding down the CHOP are still making a statement. That includes Henderson, who hopes that the community can find a sustainable path forward.
“I’m really passionate about pedestrian streets and getting rid of cars,” says Henderson. “Now that we’ve kind of turned [the CHOP] into that, how can we build infrastructure to support it and sustain it, and pull in local businesses so that they can still operate and feel safe? We’re not trying to hurt people. We just want our demands to be met, and that pressure should be on the SPD and the mayor. We’re not trying to put that pressure on people who don’t deserve it.”