“Growing up, my mother did water colours"
The ‘Warlord’ of the Seattle Capitol Hill Organized Protest(CHOP) smiled as he recalled his upbringing in the arts to a small but attentive audience on June 24th, 2020. Solomon ‘Raz’ Simone sat on the ground in a parking lot of a church regaling an audience with memories from his childhood, perspectives on American race relations, and his role in the now notorious CHOP zone, just down the hill from where they sat. Inside the church, a dozen of the leaders from CHOP discussed with Seattle Mayor Jenny Derkin the future of the protest and the fate of the Seattle Police Department East Precinct that they surrounded. The Warlord was conspicuously not one of the leaders present, choosing to sit outside instead.
"Me being in there won't help," Simone commented when asked why he wasn’t in the meeting. His reputation preceded him, and no doubt the reputation of “The Warlord” was not something that would help discussions. Instead, after a frantic jockeying for the positions, several of Simone’s people were selected to be inside instead of him. The mood on that sunny June afternoon was chaotic, yet optimistic. The city was willing to talk, negotiate, and perhaps concede to the occupation. None of the leaders who debated the future of CHOP would have known that in seven days it would be finished.
Late June was the twilight of CHOP. The scenes of thousands of people filling Pine Street in Capitol Hill had made way to a dwindling collection of protesters with a fraction of the jovial atmosphere. People recalled fondly the “better times” of just weeks earlier in an acceptance that something had been lost. National and presidential attention of the occupation had brought trepidation and unease to CHOP. The branding of Simone as a warlord and the movement as a collection of anarchists resulted in the narrative quickly fall out of control of the protesters themselves and into a cacophony of voices interpreting from the outside. Portrayed as either a “Summer of Love” street festival, or a chaotic Marxist enclave lead by a fierce and confrontational warlord, all depending on what political slant was reporting on it. The demands of police reform now competed with the need to regain the narrative of CHOP; this was a race against the clock. For the time being, Simone’s physical presence inside CHOP was no longer a boon to the movement, and Simone slipped quietly behind the scenes.
Simone’s role in the Seattle activism in Capitol Hill started early on as one of the multitude of protesters calling for police reform. While Simone denies the formal appointment of the “Leader of CHOP”, let alone the rise to a warlord, there is no denying his voice, presence, and reputation made him well suited to be followed by many.
“I just happened to be one of the people who made speeches early on,” Simone recalled on how leadership came to him. “Early on it was the chants you hear all the time, but I started doing speeches and I guess it just came from that.” And so rather than seeking it, leadership fell onto his lap. It was the abandoning of the East Precinct on June 6th that changed the protest from a local to a national story. After this unplanned turn of events the protesters “took” the Precinct, finding themselves with both a liability and a bargaining chip. Once the Precinct was abandoned, the protesters consolidated the area with barricades, and CHOP was born. This unprecedented act changed the tone of many commenters on the outside, and the protest swiftly became intensely scrutinized, with partisan organizations eager to defend or dispute its existence. One of the first instance of this escalating polarization came at the expense of Simone.
The now-notorious video of Raz handing out a firearm to an onlooker transformed who he was perceived as from the outside world from a leader to a violent agitator. One that many in the media capitalized on.
“It was that Tucker Carlson guy. I think he called me an ‘African Warlord’'". He laughed as he showed a video his friend had sent him of the Fox News broadcast that gave him the nickname. Simone has never been to Africa.
“I fit the bill: a scary looking black guy with a gun. We were told that white supremacists were coming. The police were gone, and we were afraid we were going to get shot up,” Simone shrugged his shoulders and leaned back in his chair. Inside one of his Airbnb rentals in downtown Seattle, he reflected on what got him to that point. Rather than an ostentatious and aggressive demeanor that one would expect from a “warlord”, Simone had a kind, thoughtful, and intelligent persona. Despite sharing the rage over George Floyd’s death and participating in the public outcry, Simone was able to take a step back and see the problems in the context of how events were covered by the national news media. As Simone saw it, the partisan and divisive nature of how the movement was covered created ideological echo chambers that further drove people to the fringes of politics.
“If anyone’s in the middle they’re alone. If you’re conservative you’re over here and if you're liberal you’re over here.”
There was no place for moderates, a disappointed Simon described. The freedom of speech that is promoted by both sides, was found in neither and it was that discourse with the opposition that was key to solving these issues. Simone disliked ‘Cancel Culture’, seeing its desire for retribution over understanding as more counter-productive in the eventual goal of addressing systemic racism in America.
“I’ve had conversations with people who never met a black person until they were grown. They love Trump for reasons, because they love God and they think Trump’s a Christian. Or because they love guns too. I had a Trump supporter here the other day, and he said to me I’ll watch your six if you watch mine’. Racism had nothing to do with they he liked Trump and I learned that by having a conversation with him, not by cancelling his voice.” Simone saw that racism was taught so in turn racism can be educated out of it through honest conversation.
CHOP had become a place where ideals and values were easy to declare, but hard to transform into action, and it was next to impossible to balance the multitude of competing visions without defined leadership. The drama that unfolded in the final weeks around the Precinct showed this in action, a final act of a play, where the dogged few who remained struggled to regain control of a movement that was so far out of their hands.