2020 has seen tumultuous times — pandemic, civil unrest, and economic downturn. But, thankfully, folks from all walks of life have stepped up to help others this year.
Seattle has been the focus of many of 2020’s most pressing news stories. It was the first major U.S. city exposed to and shut down by Covid-19, and it’s been a focal point of media coverage during the 2020 protests for racial justice. In the heart of the popular Capitol Hill neighborhood and located across the street from the Seattle Police Departments East Precinct, Cal Anderson Park in particular has been a hotbed of contention.
Beginning on the night of May 29th, the protests inspired by the murder of George Floyd were regularly met with tear gas, flash bangs, pepper spray and other violent methods of crowd control. But when the Capitol Hill Occupied Protests (CHOP) started in a moment of peace after police abandoned the precinct area on June 9th, citizens reclaimed the park as a public space for the community to protect and assist one another.
Mutual aid sites were set up around the neighborhood where community members would donate food, water, PPE, and other supplies to hand out to vulnerable individuals such as the local homeless population. Though these sites would overflow with small snacks to feed the community, one organization saw the importance of a hot meal in order to keep the protests sustained.
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Riot Kitchen is a mutual aid kitchen that began feeding the community of the occupied protests, and became a warm comfort for the tireless protestors camped out in the park. The organization’s founder Maehem is a queer Black chef aspiring to “cater the revolution.”
After being let go of her restaurant job due to Covid, Maehem got involved with the protests by handing out sandwiches to the those on the front lines. In response to the droves of people gathering to protest police brutality, Maehem recognized the power she had in keeping the movement not only sustained, but nourished. “Food is what I’ve always done, so it is the only way I know how to help.”
Seeing the need for a hot meal to prolong the movement in order for it to make its impact, Maehem enlisted other unemployed restaurant workers to help provide four meals a day to protestors.
Working solely off of donations — both food and financial — Riot Kitchen prepared healthy meals throughout the day, including vegan and gluten-free options to meet the needs of the community. As local food banks and mutual aid stations would collect the donations, Maehem would be able to plan out weekly menus.
Food was available 24 hours a day from their base camp in the CHOP. Breakfast would range from breakfast burritos to oatmeal, while lunch and dinner would often feature tacos, soups, and stir fries; food that is customizable to different diets and easily adaptable to feeding a crowd. Even outside of the designated meal times, grills would still be loaded with burgers and hot dogs for people to fix themselves and volunteers would hand out snacks and beverages to anyone who asked. “We recognized the necessity for food equality as part of the revolution” according to Maehem.
In addition to the three square meals and snacks that would flow out of their guerilla tent kitchen, Maehem made an emphasis on the need for a late night fourth meal in order to keep tensions calm. Days would both start and end at 3:00 am for Riot Kitchen as they would serve late night snacks to the CHOP campers.
“Food is the best way to deescalate a situation, it distracts people” says Maehem. “People can get restless at night after the protests wind down, but food and a hot drink give people a reason to stop and remember why they’re out here.”
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The team often drove south to Portland in order to help a similar organization called Riot Ribs. But after Riot Ribs was shut down by Portland authorities and Riot Kitchen’s home base was subject to multiple police sweeps clearing out the protestors, Maehem saw the need for food to be accessible to communities across the country,
The organization started in a makeshift kitchen of donated folding tables, propane stoves, and instant canopy tents, but the need to sustain the movement brought enough attention to the organization to help quickly fund a new food truck along with a school bus to bring their mission to communities across the country.
In an effort to feed the movement outside of their community, Riot Kitchen and their caravan of vehicles left Seattle with the intent of bringing food to protestors in other cities on their way to the March on Washington D.C. After news of Jacob Blake’s murder in Kenosha, WI broke, Riot Kitchen made a detour to feed Wisconsin citizens in the midst of protests similar to those in Seattle earlier in the summer. On August 26th, eight volunteers were arrested by local police.
Kenosha police seized their vehicles and detained nine people in the event, all of whom were charged with disorderly conduct and are currently waiting on an official hearing. Riot Kitchen released a public statement after they were freed on August 29, disavowing any ideas of violence. “We were there to cook food. Our organization has always been and will always be about feeding people.”
Riot Kitchen had been the target of police at protests throughout the summer when they would go on sweeps of the park, clearing out the homeless encampments and throwing out donated supplies, but Riot Kitchen always managed to get food out to the community regardless. While the attention from police have often set the organization back to re-stocking their reserves of donations, they remain committed to feeding everyone free of bias.
When CHOP was officially shut down by city officials on July 1, police were sent to clear the area and Riot Kitchen offered the police cups of coffee.
“We know from our time in the CHOP that food, food culture, and food equality is an important tool of this revolution, one to de-escalate and to nurture this movement,” says Maehem.
Kurt Suchman is a writer based in Seattle. Their work covers the intersections of music, food, fashion, and identity politics, and they have been a featured writer for Paste Magazine. Follow them on @KurtInterrupted.
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