“Killing field open tomorrow,” said the moto taxi driver on the street outside my hotel in Phnom Penh. “Close today. Flea. Look, no pay.” But you paid for the ride there, just like at any other tourist site.
It was October 1995, and I was in Cambodia for the first time. An Australian colleague and I were in town to write journalism, not history, but when we had a morning free we hired two moto guys to take us to the museum in the former prison at Chheng Oek, some fifteen kilometers south of the city on bad roads. My driver was a mild-mannered fellow named Uong Leap, who later became a friend. When I summoned the nerve to ask, he told me that he was thirty-eight years old. That meant that he had been eighteen in 1975, when Phnom Penh fell. His brother had been killed by the genocidal Khmer Rouge, who accused him of being with the CIA. “But not true,” insisted Leap. “He not with CIA!” On a later visit, Leap took me to his home village in southeastern Cambodia, the area that had borne the brunt of the secret bombing in 1969 and the invasion in May 1970, as the Americans laid the groundwork for their long-drawn-out withdrawal from Vietnam. His memories of the early 1970s included seeing KR fighters in the tops of palm trees, shooting AK-47s at U.S. helicopters.
“Oh, crazy time!” he said.
The other moto driver on our day trip to the killing fields, Mr. Elephant, began unbidden to tell us stories. His nickname was Elephant because he belonged to the Phnong ethnic minority, so he was bigger than Khmers, with darker skin and a bigger nose. He was my age, thirty. He remembered being made to work long into the night in the fields during the Khmer Rouge time, on two small bowls of rice every day. People were so hungry, he said. If you were working away in the paddy field, planting or harvesting rice, and you happened on a lizard or a frog, you would hide it as best you could – he made sneaky, comical pantomime gestures – until you could convince the supervising cadre that you needed to go to the bathroom. Then you would slip away and eat the lizard or frog.
He had been of foot-soldier age in the years after the Vietnamese invasion of 1979 ended the terror, only to begin the new horror of a civil war that lasted throughout the 1980s. I asked if he had been a soldier. No way, he said. After slaving for the Khmer Rouge, he wasn’t about to spend any more of his life working to support anyone in power. When the conscriptors came to his house, his mother told them he wasn’t home and – more gestures – “Psht, I go out back door.”
“This happened in Europe too,” I reflected.
“I know,” said Mr. Elephant. “Germany. But they kill another people.”
My Australian friend observed that Communists always kill their own people, as the Bolsheviks had done. Same with the Khmer Rouge.
“But democracy alway kill another people,” said Mr. Elephant.
I make no predictions or direct comparisons, but Leap’s words have lately been ringing in my ears: “Oh, crazy time!” And I keep seeing that image of pajama-clad guerrillas in palm trees firing at American gunships.
And I can’t avoid wondering what our current crazy time is leading to. Cambodia’s crazy time never really ended.
It’s been ten days since the Seattle Police vacated the East Precinct and something call the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) was declared in part of the Seattle neighborhood of Capitol Hill, east and uphill across the freeway from downtown. At some point during the days since, some group or faction or entity seems to have decided that it should instead be called the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP).
Jason Rigden, who lives in the neighborhood and has been interviewing protesters for his Talk to Seattle podcast, tweeted that the CHAZ-versus-CHOP debate was “the most Seattle thing” about the whole thing, like the scene in The Life of Brian with the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean Popular People’s Front. Some have apparently argued (in earnest?) that CHAZ sounds too much like the name of a frat boy or a white hipster. In any case, despite attempts to enforce the CHOP usage, CHAZ seems to be the acronym that has stuck, mostly. Or at least it’s the one that I prefer.
I’ve avoided writing about the CHAZ until now because I’ve been surfing the tension between wanting to study and understand – or at least to watch and read some sampling of all the coverage – and feeling compelled somehow to document my own lack of understanding as itself an element of the situation. It’s been strange to see something happening in my own city covered as a big deal in the national and even international media, and bludgeoned as a whipping boy by Trump and by Fox, complete with brazenly faked photographs (removed after the Seattle Times busted them for it). One evening, Jenny and I watched live as a KING5 reporter marveled that when he got into journalism, he never imagined that one day he would be reporting that a mayor had expressed confidence that the city of Seattle was not going to be invaded by the United States Army.
There is no simple statement of fact to be made about the CHAZ. It’s a kind of Rorschach test: either a heartening display of people power, or an understandable overreaction to police violence to be co-opted and managed by legitimate authorities like Mayor Jenny Durkan and Chief of Police Carmen Best, or a lawless mob that must be crushed. Which of these it is depends not on the CHAZ itself but on the observer. It’s a science experiment in human society, being conducted in real time. And, just as right now every institution in America seems in abeyance until further notice, so every ideological predilection and presumption is ripe for reconsideration.
For my part, I’m making my peace with the conclusion that fully wrought, properly composed essays are not an appropriate literary form for this moment. What I have to offer are notes and musings, plus some stray firsthand observations.
Is the CHAZ really a “cop-free zone”? Should it be?
“This is the closest I’ve ever seen our country, let alone the city here, to becoming a lawless state,” Seattle Police Officers Guild president Michael Sloan told Fox News on June 12.
“There is no cop-free zone in the city of Seattle,” asserted Chief Best. “I think that the picture has been painted in many areas that shows the city is under siege. That is not the case.”
The Washington Post reported on June 16 that “Core to the zone is a vision of a self-governed community with no formal policing. Instead, volunteers, many of them avowed police abolitionists, have begun to organize their own safety force.”
The same report quoted a volunteer named Antonio Ochoa: “We have a chance to really build something here, so I have a vested interest in defending that as a part of my community. I live on the Hill, and the police presence here has always been tense and kind of malicious.”
Is the CHAZ truly autonomous? Should it be? What does “autonomous” mean, anyway?
“It isn’t just necessarily anarchy,” a volunteer named Clem said in the Seattle Times of June 13. “But it’s allowing people to do what they want to do.”
“It really seems like some organizers in Seattle are threatened by the decentralized nature of the CHAZ,” commented Jason Rigden on Twitter on June 13. “I think what these leaders fear most is people realizing how little some of them bring to the table.”
In a June 16 Guardian video, a young Black volunteer named Marcus said: “Twenty-twenty’s been an interesting year, like, creating a lot of situations where people are kinda forced to rethink how they live their lives.”
On June 15, I met Dennis and his wife Anne outside their building near the Convention Center and we walked together the few blocks uphill to the CHAZ. The first thing we noticed was that the fancy Starbucks Reserve Roastery on Pike at Melrose Avenue was open for business. As we passed it, Anne remarked that the United States Supreme Court had just ruled that people can’t be fired from their jobs for being gay or transgender. “That was huge,” she said.
“Be careful, he’s in writer mode,” Dennis warned her.
“Well, in that case I won’t tell you about [a certain topic of mutual interest],” said Anne, and she didn’t, even though I promised her that I wouldn’t write about it.
The Amazon Go mart at Pike & Boylston that opened with fortuitous timing in March, and where they had begun shopping, was boarded up. “Looks like they got smashed up,” Dennis observed. Anne inquired about how Jenny and I were holding up, with the loss of her job and everything else going on. I told her we were doing as well as could be expected, and better than a lot of people.
“So you’re more or less okay.”
“So much of everything is ‘for now,’” she sighed.
The windows of the Honey Hole, my go-to sandwich place when I’m with my friend Jeb, were painted over with colorful murals. The iconic Comet Tavern also had murals. There were many murals, and I took many pictures. There were also many flyers. One was headed DEAR NON-BLACK PHOTOGRAPHERS and included bullet-pointed instructions on what to do before, during, and after taking pictures: “Why are you photographing? For personal gain, or to help the movement? … Have you educated yourself on systemic racism and your potential contributions to it? … Are you prioritizing space for black photographers to document?”
On the wall of Elliott Bay Books, on 10th Avenue between Pike and Pine, was spray-painted:
FUCK A COP
BURN IT DOWN
A mural on the Oddfellows Café next door sported the enigmatic slogan: STAND SIX STEPS BACK AND PROMISE YOU LOVE ME. At Pine we came upon the now-famous huge letters, each of them decorated by a different artist, spelling BLACK LIVES MATTER along the tarmac. There was a medical station outside Rancho Bravo Tacos at 10th& Pine, and a sign:
SAFETY OF OUR
A handwritten sign I saw propped up on the ground nearby behind an orange cone said:
IT IS NOT
THEM, WE ARE
Another across the street declared:
“Yesterday was like the county fair,” Dennis commented. “Today might be a little more dour.” I wouldn’t use that adjective, but it definitely was largely quiet and uneventful when we were there, between two and three on a Monday afternoon. Later that day, some right-wingers wearing Proud Boys getup started a fistfight with a protester just outside the zone.
“It’s an organic thing,” said Anne. “They had a giant teepee. There was a tent and a drum circle, that doesn’t seem to be there today.”
“I was glad to see that the Indians pushed themselves right to the forefront, which is where they ought to be,” said Dennis. “John T. Williams’s brother was there yesterday.” John T. Williams was a woodcarver and a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth tribe who was shot four times and killed by Officer Ian Birk of the Seattle Police Department on August 30, 2010, while crossing the street near the intersection of Boren Avenue and Howell Street holding a piece of wood and a single-blade pocketknife.
We walked through Cal Anderson Park. “It’s definitely a little grittier than it was yesterday,” said Dennis. “Yesterday was families picnicking and stuff. The difference is all the nine-to-fivers are at work.” On the grassy areas, and around the edges of the large AstroTurf playing field, many tents were pitched, and one man was busy constructing the frame of what looked like a small yurt out of two-by-fours. There were also rain barrels and raised vegetable beds. One of these featured a sign:
Many different indigenous communities
have been growing the THREE SISTERS
*o’neste (CORN), *onon’onhsera, (SQUASH),
*o’saheta (BEANS) for thousands of years.
They help one another grow & when eaten
together, give your body complex nutrients.
Leaving the park we passed another of the zone’s barriers, where there were signs: WHITE SILENCE = VIOLENCE and:
Anne left us, and Dennis and I spent the next several hours walking around other parts of the central city. At Terrace & Terry on First Hill, where the hospitals are, we passed a Covid-19 testing station. “Do you guys have an appointment?” asked a woman wearing a mask and scrubs.
“No, we’re just passing through,” said Dennis.
It was then that I realized that my pen was running out of ink.
“Well, you’re just going to have to remember extra good,” he said.
We walked down through the recently and impressively redeveloped Yesler Terrace to Little Saigon, and from there to Pioneer Square and up through downtown all the way to South Lake Union, then back to Pike Street. At the height of what used to be rush hour, we casually jaywalked across two wide arterials, Fairview and Denny. Work was back in progress on the skeleton of the Convention Center expansion that – if now-uncertain financing allows – will eventually cover the full block north of the iconic Paramount Theatre. For now the Paramount remained visible, BLACK LIVES MATTER on the left side of its marquee and, on the right:
WHEN THE POWER OF LOVE
OVERCOMES THE LOVE OF POWER,
THE WORLD WILL KNOW PEACE
“Glad you came?” asked Dennis.
“I wanted to come so nobody could tell me I didn’t see what I saw.”
It’s interesting and encouraging to be reminded that there are at least two other locales within the city limits of Seattle, both of them familiar to me from the urban hikes I’ve done with my friends, where similar autonomous zones have led to lastingly useful community institutions. From the Seattle Times, June 10:
On March 8, 1970, more than 100 members of United Indians of All Tribes and their allies took over Fort Lawton, which would later become part of Discovery Park, proclaiming:
“We the native Americans reclaim the land known as Fort Lawton in the name of all American Indians by the right of discovery.”
Dozens later were arrested by military police. Some protesters said they were injured.
Months of demonstration ultimately led to construction of the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in 1977. The center hosts a permanent art collection and serves as a Native American cultural space.
In October 1972, Latino activists, after months of negotiations with Seattle leaders over community space, occupied the shuttered Beacon Hill Elementary School. Dozens stayed to sleep in classrooms after a tour of the abandoned building.
“We are trying to dramatize our needs to unresponsive agencies,” Roberto Maestas, a leader, told The Seattle Times nearly 50 years ago.
After spending months there, demonstrating and even occupying City Hall chambers, the school building was renovated and the community group, El Centro de la Raza, had a home. The social justice organization remains influential today.
From the Guardian, June 18:
A small and peaceful demonstration in an Ohio town to support the Black Lives Matter movement at the weekend was overwhelmed when hundreds of counter-protesters – some armed with rifles or baseball bats – harassed the group. …
A few counter-demonstrators “started coming over and ripping signs out of our hands, ripping the hats and masks off of our faces, ripping things out of our pockets,” wrote demonstrator Abbi Remers on Facebook, along with a photo of a man’s bloody cheek, a bloodied mask, and video of men shouting “This ain’t Seattle!” and “This is a Republican state!”
June 19 was the original announced date for Trump’s rally in Tulsa. It’s also, as the white world now knows, Juneteenth. It’s also Jenny’s and my wedding anniversary.
Contrary to cliché, Jenny has typically had more trouble remembering the exact date than I have, but we both always end up remembering it each year and marking it in some way. Whenever I need to be reminded, I can look at the nice metal picture frame, containing a photo of us kissing on the day, and decorated with a pineapple in relief at the top and engraved with our names and the date. It was given to us by our good friends Bill Henning and Thomas MacDonald, who came all the way from Massachusetts just to be there. That was ten years ago tomorrow.