Following one of the nation’s largest and most televised protests in response to the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other unarmed Black Americans, chaplains in Seattle have set up a humble presence at the center of what has become known as CHOP – the Capitol Hill Organized Protest.
Protesters had assembled in the area located in the blocks adjacent to Seattle University to rally outside the city’s Third Police District building the weekend of June 5-6. As tensions grew between police and protesters Sunday, as police used tear gas and other crowd disbursal measures, a motorist drove into the assembled crowd and shot one of the protesters. By Monday, the East Seattle Police Precinct had been abandoned and protesters soon set up the barricades originally meant to keep them out in an effort to prevent further drive-in assailants.
The Rev. Cecilia Kingman, minister for faith and justice at Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Congregation, says watching footage of police treatment of protesters near her home was heart wrenching. She offered her home as a staging area, and her children helped pen an “Interfaith Chaplain” sign.
Late Monday afternoon, dressed in clerical garb, eight chaplains – three Jewish, three Unitarian Universalist, and two Christian – went into the six-block area originally called CHAZ (the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone), along with their hand-drawn sign, a folding table, and a willingness to offer faithful presence for anyone who needed it.
“What else would we do but go in there?” she asks. “If people are hurting and being traumatized, what are we going to do, sit and watch the livestream?”
Justin Almeida, an Indigenous Unitarian Universalist chaplain, offered sage smudges that first evening as a blessing and purification. Other chaplains prayed with or talked to protesters. In a city known for its non-religiosity, they were welcomed by participants and organizers alike.
“It was a very holy moment,” says Kingman.
Area clergy colleagues saw social media posts from the chaplain’s first night. A post by Rabbi David Basior read, in part, “Keeping up the pressure, the momentum, the support, and the community care means the demands cannot be ignored.”
Over the past week a dozen chaplains showed up to the table near the center of CHOP, eager to be present with protesters and onlookers alike.
The Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell, pastor of Queen Anne Baptist Church in Seattle, saw Basior’s post on Tuesday and volunteered for her first shift Wednesday. After the events of the weekend she says, “there was definitely a feeling that we needed to be there to provide spiritual care and support and also help folks with the trauma of what they’d experienced.”
Welton-Mitchell says one person who approached their table commented on the racial justice teach-ins, speakers, sharing, and cooperative nature within CHOP.
“‘I don’t know what the long game is, but I do know where are glimpsing a vision of how things could be. Even if it doesn’t last, we’ve seen it,’” she paraphrased. “That was a kingdom of God moment, like Jesus feeding the 5,000 – it offered something different.”
Standing at the chaplain’s table, sandwiched between a voter registration tent and a free clothing stand, my interview with Rev. Aaron Monts, pastor at Seattle’s United Church, is interrupted by a passer-by who shouts from the street, “Thank you for being here! Thanks for providing spiritual support!” when he sees the chaplain’s signage.
“That’s the other thing we get,” Monts says with a chuckle. “What people have told us is that we’re a calming presence, a peaceful presence – that we are working to deescalate things, just by being here and that goes to further the goals of what this space is.
Although the demonstrative nature of the protest movement has quieted in this protected area over the last 10 days, it’s clear CHOP is still a protest. On June 13, a steady stream of speakers presented on topics of racial justice and police reform to a large audience assembled on the sports field at the south end of Cal Anderson Park. Teach-ins and other presenter platformers were stationed at three other intersections within the cordoned-off area. As an early evening rain shower began, a Native American group gathered at the main intersection to offer song and drumming.
Other support for protesters includes the few restaurants that have opened under COVID-19 restrictions and free food from the “No Cop Coop.” Volunteers roam the streets offering free bottles of water, coffee, snacks, and facemasks to the few not wearing them. The police precinct is boarded up, as are several businesses locals say hadn’t reopened since the coronavirus shutdown. As of Wednesday, June 17, Seattle’s mayor office and police department have given no indications of when or if they will attempt to remove protesters.
“I see this as great struggle, to use the words of MLK,” says Motts of what many anticipate being an extended protest movement in Seattle and around the country, even if the Capitol Hill Organized Protest area ultimately disbands. “What gives me hope is the number of white people – specifically younger white people – who are activated for this movement. But they need to stay activated.”
Kingman joined CHOP’s Healing Justice committee this week to talk about the chaplains’ presence and the ongoing need for spiritual trauma care. She says the chaplains are still welcome and they will staff the table until CHOP leadership asks them to cease.
“Our goal is to support Black and Indigenous leaders. Period. End of story,” she says. “We will continue to talk about how we can support folks on the ground with these accountability partners who encouraged us to organize this group of anti-oppression and anti-racism clergy.”