28 December 2023
[Update 12/28: Black Star Farmers has issued their own statement, which I’ve uploaded here. They’ve also updated their website, which for archiving purposes you can find here. I’ve reached out for further clarification and will write a new story if it continues to develop.]
Cal Anderson Park — The Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation demolished the Black Lives Memorial Garden early this morning, under supervision of the Seattle Police Department and private security firm Evergreen Off Duty.
The garden began as a single basil start in June of 2020, planted by activist Marcus Henderson during nationwide BLM protests. It had been maintained for over three years by members of the community as a mutual aid project, and was one of the last surviving landmarks from the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), alternatively known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP).
SPR has issued a press release which alleges that its removal is meant to address “public safety issues” caused by the garden; specifically, public drug use, rodents, and the formation of homeless encampments. The prepared statement also claims that its “good faith conversations” to relocate the park were rejected by community organizers, who in return allege that those same negotiations were uncomfortably one-sided.
While the press release suggests that the city is open to “conceptualizing a new commemorative garden”, no specific details, requirements, or timelines were provided.
SPR was contacted for clarification; deferring to the prepared statement, Communications Manager Rachel Schulkin politely declined to answer any followup questions.
By the time I arrived at 9am, the garden had already been reduced to a mud pit. A bulldozer’s wheel was currently stuck in a rut it had created, bringing some compensatory cheer to a few dozen dismayed protesters gathered around the chain-link barrier.
I spoke at length with approximately eight members of the community who were in attendance for the demolition, with a few more just passing through with comments.
Some of them were just arriving; others had been watching for the last three hours. Many called Capital Hill their home, and all were gracious enough to share their experience and perspectives with me on the condition of anonymity.
The project had taken many of them by surprise.
“There was no warning,” said one bystander, among the first to arrive that morning. “They got here around 6am. It was still dark. They set up that excavator real quick, and had already started by 6:30.”
They estimated that at that time, the equipment had been accompanied by approximately 30-40 police officers. Many of them were still there, huddled in pockets of four or five around the barrier.
Yet this was not the first attempt to remove the garden.
“They’ve been trying to do this for months,” another protester recalled, “but we didn’t know they’d do it today.”
He claimed that the city had been in talks with an activist group, which I later identified as Black Star Farmers, since at least May of 2023, to discuss relocating the garden. Fittingly, the individual expected to negotiate with them was Marcus Henderson himself, who lists Black Star Farmers on his LinkedIn. (Henderson has not yet responded to requests for comment on this piece).
They told me that a two-week deadline was issued in lieu of a resolution, with SPR warning that it would begin construction on October 13th and that all plants and structured must be moved or destroyed by then.
While I was not able to locate any formal announcement of this deadline from the city at this time, multiple statements in response to those communications are still available on the Black Star Farmer’s website, which was last updated on October 24th. A guest post in the International Examiner, also authored by Black Star Farmers, indicates that a deadline matching this timeline was issued by SPR on October 4th. It was covered again on the 11th by the Seattle Times.
“We believe that the garden deserves to stay, not on the outskirts of the park, not down in Rainier Community Center, but right here where people live and are walking every day… two weeks notice to exit a garden space that has been growing for 3.5 years feels very jarring and unexpected.”
Instead, the group organized a protest to “Save the Garden” and block excavators, sharing invitations through social media and encouraging a day-long occupation. Though I was not able to find any footage from the event, one of my sources who claimed to be at the protest that day described it:
“Parks and Rec just made this announcement, with no window for public comment, and showed up with an excavator. The community organized and they had to give up. People surrounded the space, linked arms so they couldn’t get through.”
In October, they’d had time to prepare. SPR added some light fencing, which honestly looked pretty cute, and that was the extent of it.
Today, there would be no such opportunity. Just two days after Christmas, before sunlight, and with no advance notice, it’s clear that SPR did not want to be interrupted this time.
For most of the people I talked to today, the garden had been a symbol of the Black Lives Matter protests; a memorial of lives lost to police brutality; and a reminder of lightning that had once been caught in a bottle, when it seemed like something might change.
“This is a space of protest,” said one person, “it’s a community of people who made the space theirs. I think the city is threatened by that.”
Others speculated about how the city viewed it.
“Parks [and Recreation] just wants to use the space for events. It’s a commercial thing. It’s just about property value [to them].” And it was difficult not to view the move as politically motivated, they said, given SPD’s relationship with protesters.
But one answer, in particular, will stick with me, because it’s personal.
“My 4 year old planted collards in this garden. They’d come out here every day to take care of them, and play, and pull out weeds. When I told them what was happening, they were almost in tears… they just couldn’t understand why the police would take their collards away.”
The protesters also believe that the number and intensity of encampment sweeps have escalated after the missed October 13th deadline. They alleged that this project was just the latest in a series of callous displacements meant to hide the poor from sight.
“They say the garden is an eyesore,” said one member of the community on this topic, “but what they mean is unhoused people are an eyesore. That’s what they [really] want to get rid of. I genuinely think [the city and SPD] are okay with them dying, as long as the right people are dying.”
As if to illustrate this, someone on the other side of the park asked if anyone was carrying Narcan at that moment, and a prepared citizen dutifully bounded off to assist. Nearby officers remained crowded and chatting around the bulldozers. Charitably, they may not have heard. The bulldozers were loud.
One member of the community described the struggle of balancing mutual aid projects against city ordinances: providing heat, food, or makeshift shelter to neighbors in need, and the ways that can backfire. When an intervention is successful, it becomes visible, and without context can be weaponized.
“This is what they do,” they told me, “this is the pattern. A movement will reclaim a space, de-colonize it. The community comes together to address a need [that the city isn’t addressing], they try to highlight it. And when they do, the city narrative is always, look at the problems you’ve created.”
And admittedly, this isn’t exactly contradicted by SPR’s messaging today.
“This is the 76th time the Unified Care Team has resolved encampments at Cal Anderson in 2023,” the press release reads, “which is one of the most frequently addressed areas in the city for repopulated encampments.”
A sign hanging on the newly erected fence near the garden reads, “With great parks comes great responsibility”. It’s probably for generic use, not unique to this project. But in proximity to the almost disciplinary tone of the press release, I understand how that might sting. Someone clearly felt the same; the feedback “Fuck your colonial anti-human billionaire agenda!” was scrawled over top it in sharpie.
The city’s frustration with increasing encampment presence has been unambiguously communicated to the onlookers I spoke to today. They even agreed that Cal Anderson had become less pleasant since October… that is, specifically because of attempts to make the garden a less attractive gathering spot!
For example, one source described an altercation they had witnessed with SPD around the second week of December, in which the doors of the bathrooms outside the garden were welded shut to prevent them from being occupied overnight by the unhoused, or for public drug use. They claimed that one such occupant had to be forcibly removed as work began.
Initially, SPR declined to confirm or deny even whether the bathrooms had been decomissioned. However, I was eventually able to verify with SPD that the doors had in fact been welded shut earlier this month due to complaints of drug use.
So this isn’t just and issue of unauthorized or makeshift structures. The permanent facilities are also being degraded in the struggle for Cal Anderson’s identity.
The city has described the controversial renovation and uptick in encampment sweeps since 2021 as part of an “ongoing effort to keep public spaces clean, open, and accessible to all”. But it’s not clear what, if any, additional resources are being made available to the unhoused citizens who are regularly swept up, and if you’ll permit me to editorialize for just a sentence or two, I would expect them to be included in the subset of “all”.
At the conclusion of my interviews, I had a few new questions. 1
I’d heard from members of the immediate community, but obviously I needed the city’s perspective, too. I could imagine how some version of these events might be necessary, depending on what organizations they had been negotiating with and the circumstances of why those had been unsuccessful.
I was first referred to Lt. Bryan Clenna, who I was told could help me locate the departments PIO (Public Information Officer). I was informed that they had been mistaken, there was no PIO on scene and that he would not be available today at all, but Lt. Clenna agreed to put me in contact with someone else instead and I appreciate that.
When asked to describe the project: “Just one of those cleanups. Cleaning up the park.” He asked me to hold my questions, and that the next person could definitely answer them.
After calling around a bit, I was introduced to Jon Jainga. According to his Linkedin, he is the “Emergency Management and Park Security Manager”, and has worked for the City of Seattle for a little under 20 years. I did not know this in the moment but could have guessed by the end of the conversation, which would be approximately 15 seconds later.
I asked Jainga to confirm a few basic details about the project.
“The Department of Parks and Recreation is trying to re-establish the lawn area of what’s considered the Cal Anderson [Sun] Bowl,” he said. His tone was very professional, and I got the sense he chose his words carefully.
Jainga handed me a square, pre-cut slip of paper contact information for Rachel Schulkin, and continued:
“It’s a very historical site, and they’re just trying to re-establish that.”
On this, we agree; the garden was also a historical site, after all. Maybe that made it double historical! I probably should have pressed on that, in retrospect, but I had just noticed his uniform; his title was printed on a patch on his chest.
I asked him, if he was the emergency operations manager, was this morning’s project a surprise? How long had this been planned, and when had he learned about it?
Jainga would only say that I should call Schulkin, and that this time, Schulkin could definitely answer all of my questions, for sure. So I thanked him, got some filming guidelines from the folks on duty and a bit of footage, and called her instead, because I am an amateur.
After a little bit of phone tag (my fault), I managed to get in contact with Schulkin via email, but I was unable to schedule an interview. Instead she sent the press-release, which I had indicated I’d already read, and now realize somewhat sheepishly that probably indicated the conversation wasn’t going to go any further.
I sent my questions along anyway, and Schulkin declined to provide further comment, the end! I don’t see any reason why I can’t share them, though, so in the interests of transparency, here’s what I wanted to know:
I did end up answering a few of these questions on my own, confirming things like the welded door, and the identity of the party SPR had been negotiating with, which I still think is an odd omission.
There are a few other puzzling things about the press release I wish I could have gotten clarification or comment about, though.
For example, one open question is regarding the testimony provided by Mariay Rose Jones, representing “BrownGirlFarmer LLC”. According to the Washington Company Directory, this perpetual-duration, limited liability company was formed seven months and two days ago, in Spanaway, with Jones as the sole director. That’s not an unreasonable distance, given the connection to farmland, but is a little bit of a drive. It’s also approximately the time that negotiations are alleged to have fallen through with Henderson and Black Star Farmers. I emailed Jones directly to see if she could clarify her organization’s relationship to Seattle Parks and Recreation, and will update if I hear back.
Some of the other feedback chosen for the press release lands a bit oddly, too. I’m not sure how, for instance, Henderson could reasonably have been responsible for informing every relative of every victim of police violence, for three years after starting the garden, what it was dedicated to. Given that the occupation of Cal Anderson made national news coverage for many weeks, I’m not certain what more could be done, or that being unaware of it is a strong indicator of the movement’s authenticity. None if this is to diminish the author’s grief, which is valid and requires no justification; I’m only confused how the copy relates to the specific mutual aid initiative that SPR has attached it to, and how they came to make that selection.
I also wish I had asked what conditions had changed which rendered SPR unable to conduct events, given the successful ones which have been organized in the three and a half years since the garden’s establishment. It wouldn’t have been answered, but would have been good practice.
The biggest weakness in my understanding: I’m curious about the allegations of misconduct by Black Star Farmers alluded to at the end of the press release, which depending on the specifics and veracity has the potential to change my understanding of this story dramatically. I recognize I am probably not the best candidate to lead that investigation, given my lack of roots in Seattle’s Black communities (or any community actually, I mostly talk to cats). I would prefer to pair with a more experienced colleague. If you have more information you’d like to share, I can be reached at email@example.com, and I’ll do my best!
As our interviews were wrapping up, I asked my sources one last question.
Well, two last questions: what didn’t I ask that I should have, always ask that one. But also: what do you need as members of the community? I think journalists ought to ask that more often.
“We need housing,” was one answer, “and supervised consumption.” They argued that targeted, effective support for the members of the community that the garden was meant for would eliminate much of the conflict. The problem was ending one program, without an alternative. I fully agree with this one. It’s needed desperately. It’s also, um, out of my power to give personally, but! Let’s work on it together.
Another offered their thoughts:
“I think people need to know what’s happening, and the intent behind it.” Well, I can help with some of that, probably. I hope I did your perspectives justice.
Seattle Parks and Recreation has said on record that they are still willing to build a new garden. It’s not the ideal outcome, but provided an adequate budget, the next could be even nicer, last even longer. I hope the community takes them up on it, and that the city follows through.
And even if they don’t?
Beside me, three protesters were already throwing bags of seeds and trail mix back over the fence and into the newly raked mud.
One way or another, they are determined to build a garden.
Oh, right, for those of you who are new here; so am I! This is only my second feature, and I like to share the process with my audience as I’m learning. It’s a little candid and weird but, shrug! Welcome to HMW. ↩