I’ve started and restarted this letter so many times in the last few weeks. I wanted to talk about grocery shopping, my experiences volunteering at the ECC, gardening, re-envisioning public spaces in the wake of this disease, “COVID bubbles”, and preparing for a second wave and other concurrent disasters. I was thinking about how the lack of clean water in the Navajo Nation affects their coronavirus infection rate. But then my thoughts and focus moved, as things continue to change.

In honor of the Capitol Hill occupation, or autonomous zone, or whatever they’re calling it by the time I send this, I’m going to tell you a story about December 1, 1999. I’ve been reflecting on how over time, trauma can become a kind of scar that acts as a shorthand for the experience, and so after a while you look at the scar and say, “oh yeah, that scar I have on my left arm” and skate over the act that caused it. I don’t think I’ve ever really told this story in its entirety, and not with my current perspective.

This particular scar begins in Seattle, where I had been living for about two years, attending the University of Washington. I lived in a shitty studio apartment next to the freeway, and all my friends were people I met on the internet. The loudest voices of these were ESR-respecting libertarian technocrats. I realize now that my life experiences to that point differed from them in significant ways, not just because of my gender, sexuality, economic class, parents’ relationship status, or what state I went to high school in, but also in that I came from a liberal Catholic family that still maintained an immigrant identity (though perhaps flawed), and how I previously lived in a Black urban neighborhood with a complicated history. I saw the city of Seattle differently, from the start.

The World Trade Organization meetings that started in late November were an obvious touchpoint for many concerns; from labor and free trade, to environmental regulation, to the debt carried by impoverished nations, to the issue of globalization and whether large multi-country organizations could override local laws. Seattle was not the sort of city that normally hosted these kinds of things, making this a big step up from local sports and Bumbershoot. My low-budget apartment was just the other side of the freeway from the convention center where it was all happening, so as all sorts of groups came together in official and unofficial, coordinated and ad-hoc events, with so many different concerns, I found myself walking through it on the way to the bus stop to go to campus.

I knew people who were protesting, but my innate difficulty with any kind of team spirit kept me as an observer. I brought a camera, just a point-and-shoot thing that didn’t handle low light well. It rained throughout the week, and some of the most significant moments happened at night, so I don’t have pictures of the things that had the strongest impact on me in the end.

The first night of the official event, November 30, is the one most people remember from the news. Protesters formed a human chain all the way around the convention center complex – which is a pretty large area! – blocking off streets and keeping anyone from going inside or leaving their hotels. I walked around the outside of one section and found a person I knew from local bike activism forming part of a line near 7th and Pine. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood.

As night came, the police aggressively pushed protesters up the hill, into the neighborhood, which would be a pattern. I remember a night I went and stayed with a friend, and another that I listened on the radio while a city council member who lived on Capitol Hill stood with their neighbors, facing off against the police who were continuing to use chemical weapons against anyone who was still outside. I don’t remember which night was which, since our neighborhood was fairly well occupied by police throughout the week. In-the-moment information was hard to come by; you either had the tv news freaking out, or Indymedia which was a mess of proposed and real actions to take place. At that time, I didn’t have a tv at home.

On December 1, following the first night’s curfew, a friend and I had heard that people were gathering to protest in favor of free speech at Seattle Central Community College that evening, in the area of earlier police activity but outside the officially restricted zone. It was a strange day to begin with; businesses had boarded up their windows due to ongoing rumors that ‘anarchists’ were looking to cause more damage throughout the city. It was all out of proportion to any real chaos I’d seen. The atmosphere downtown, what I’d walked through the previous afternoon, had been festive. There were even people dressed in Santa costumes.

I remember a reporter from a local paper asking to take a photograph of my friend, who had brought a sign. I stood out of the way, and declined to give my name. Maybe I felt a little out of place. I suppose we talked about something, as the crowd became bigger, though I don’t know what. At some point I realized that police had moved to cut off the block on Broadway, and were coming along Pine as well. I think it’s likely that we had started to talk about leaving, but it was unclear which way to go.

The historical timeline of events I found cuts what happened next down to so few words:

Police try to scatter crowds with tear gas and flash bombs. An armored car is swarmed and kicked. Police reply with concussion grenades.

That doesn’t seem like nearly enough. All of a sudden, I couldn’t see or make sense of anything. There were people in armor yelling “go! go! go!” but it was impossible to know where. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I could not see where I was going. I was probably going to die, if not from the tear gas then by being crushed while running down a hill with other people in the same state, no way to tell how close the police were to clubbing us. Somehow we made it to the sidewalk, running in the direction of the one place we could think to go – my ex’s apartment, just a block away.

He was home, he let us in, we shoved our heads under the kitchen faucet. I remember stopping for a moment, and trying to blink, but it hurt so much. I went back under the water.

Eventually, we were cognizant enough to realize that there were actually two people in the apartment, and one of them had been naked when we barged in. The police were still outside, so we had to wait for things to clear out. It was an awkward cap to the day’s events. I didn’t know if I would be arrested, if I went outside too soon.

I remember I was so angry, helplessly, at how little we had been doing to provoke such a response. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the impossible command for us to disperse, when there was nowhere to go. I was furious at the city, at the people in the suburbs and the people working downtown who thought a broken window was more important than any of the hundreds of reasons that brought people out to demonstrate. I remember saying, if Seattle wants to host this kind of event, why aren’t we willing to accept the disruption to business as usual?

After that I joined the nightly activist meeting, even though I was there alone, without an affinity group. I just needed to listen, to try to understand what was happening to us. Between my classes, I took more pictures. There are closed intersections, now by police cars and not giant sculptures and puppets. There’s a person putting on a sign before walking into the restricted area – he’s not black blok, so they probably didn’t arrest him. Camera crews from every news channel imaginable stationed themselves along an otherwise empty street. National Guard officers stood around, making things even more surreal, and if you went a little further north you’d run into the Secret Service.

And what did I learn?

It is unfathomable to me that in the time since, police departments throughout the US have been given access to more and more military weapons. What they did in Seattle, they have done so many more places now. And still there, too. To even briefly remove the police from Capitol Hill now, during this uprising, is significant.

I was already the leftmost-leaning person in most of my circles, but after that I questioned why we needed police on the streets at all. In my neighborhood, the police didn’t stop the gay bashing – for that we had the Q Patrol. They didn’t stop a local musician from being raped and murdered on her way home – we had to create our own self-defense classes and teach each other to walk fast, keep your eyes up, stay in the light, and always know where you’re going.

I learned that one lone police officer is plausibly human and a group of them are monsters. I learned to always keep moving and don’t ask questions — sometime later, I was taking a similar apartment-to-bus-stop route as I had during the protests, when a police officer drew his gun and pointed it in my direction. He wasn’t aiming at me, and I did not stop to get a look at who that gun was for.

I discovered that every street protest has a clock, one that you’re not allowed to see, and when the timer goes off the police will attack. For a while, I could guess with some accuracy that this timer lined up with dinner and/or nightfall.

I didn’t go to a lot of other protests after that December, not really until the Black Lives Matter movement.

Still, it took a while for me to come to believe in abolition, not reform. I had to ask myself honestly about the experiences I’d had with the police, and whether they had hurt or helped. I had to meet people who believed in transformative justice, who knew from experience that we’re the ones who keep each other safe. I had to meet people who survived civil war and torture and learned these lessons in even more painful ways.

A little while ago, I watched Portland’s city council vote on the annual budget, with amendments that would have been unfathomable even a few weeks ago. To my astonishment, they voted to approve $15 million in cuts to police programs, then failed to pass the budget as a whole. Given widespread calls from our community to reduce the budget by a full $50 million, Chloe Eudaly said she couldn’t go against her conscience and only go after the “low-hanging fruit”. That budget will probably pass next week, with a 3/1 split, but who knows? These are strange times.

I love you all, and wish you as much safety as is there to have right now. Be well.