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On the leafy streets of Capitol Hill in Seattle, six blocks have become an activist hub, attracting attention from Washington, D.C., and beyond. Last week, amid tense rallies against racism and police violence, officers abruptly vacated the local precinct, and the activists christened the area the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.”
This weekend, they changed the name to CHOP. But what that stands for depends on whom you ask, a reflection of the movement’s evolving goals and leadership. Outside views of the area are even more complicated, with some supporters seeing it as a beacon of hope for their movement, and conservative critics as a danger.
But here in the zone – where a diverse community has set up open mics and a garden, and danced in the street – activists say CHOP’s main purpose is to imagine, debate, and experiment with a radically different relationship between police and community.
The night the zone was created, “lots of people who had had their voices silenced for generations had a chance to get up in front of the crowd. It was the people’s mic,” says a protester named John, an unemployed theater worker who lives a block away. “It was a remarkable turn of events. That felt like a victory to me.”
As a police chopper circles overhead, a protester named John, wearing a Black power pin, stands watch at a barricade at the entrance to Seattle’s spontaneous new hub of activism – a six-block area that demonstrators initially dubbed the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ).
Orange barricades left behind by police, who abruptly vacated the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct building last week amid rallies against racism and police brutality, are now plastered with posters calling to “Defund SPD” – a key demand of activists here who seek to shift half the police budget into community services.
But views are mixed on the police role and future of the station. Many signs and graffiti are hostile to cops. Yet John, an unemployed theater worker who lives a block away and withheld his last name for privacy, says “autonomous zone” is a misnomer, and stresses that police can return to the station “whenever they want.” City officials, including police, Fire Chief Harold Scoggins, and Mayor Jenny Durkan, have freely entered the “zone” in recent days, along with flocks of visitors.
“There is no reason peaceful protest can’t coexist with police presence,” John says of the CHAZ, which over the weekend was renamed the CHOP. What that stands for, however, depends on whom you ask – a reflection of the movement’s evolving goals and leadership. An entry sign calls it the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest; some say the O now stands for “Organized.” John and others say they sought freedom to protest, but never asked police to leave.
Ensconced in Capitol Hill, a nightlife and entertainment district long a center of the city’s LGBTQ and counterculture communities, the protest zone has been largely peaceful since police left, although tensions have flared with counterdemonstrators. People speak at open mics, cook, paint protest art, light candles at a memorial to those killed by police, garden, watch documentaries and dance in the streets.
The main purpose of CHOP, activists here say, is to occupy the space in order to imagine, debate, and experiment with a radically different relationship between police and community.
“It’s showing the world that having police breathing down your neck all the time is not necessary,” says Black Lives Matter organizer Mark Henry Jr., standing in front of the boarded-up precinct building, its sign altered with gold spray paint to read: Seattle People’s Department. “This place will be a monument to social justice, and a beacon of hope to the world that police reform is not only possible, it is necessary.”
In the limelight
Seattle’s protest zone has grabbed the national and international spotlight, with sharp attacks from conservative critics including President Trump. On Sunday, Mr. Trump depicted it as a “takeover of Seattle” by “far-left militant groups.” On Monday, he repeated threats to crack down on the zone if Mayor Durkan and Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee do not.
Ms. Durkan, a former U.S. attorney, has called the president’s description untruthful and his threats illegal.
The zone “is not a lawless wasteland of anarchist insurrection – it is a peaceful expression of our community’s collective grief and their desire to build a better world,” she tweeted.
Last week, Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best told officers their departure from the precinct in Capitol Hill was “not my decision,” saying she was concerned about arson, but the city “relented to severe public pressure.” But both she and Mayor Durkan have initiated policing reforms in consultation with the community.
“This is a pivotal moment in history,” Chief Best, the first black woman to hold SPD’s top post, said Sunday in an appearance on Face the Nation. “We are going to move in a different direction and policing will never be the same,” she said, after participating in a Black Lives Matter march of 60,000 people in Seattle on Saturday that she said brought her an “epiphany.”
Seattle has moved rapidly to meet some protester demands – temporarily banning the use of tear gas except in life-threatening situations, requiring police to display name tags and wear body cameras at protests, and withdrawing the National Guard.
Experts in criminal justice reform say that too often, police are called because social workers or other professionals are not available, which Mayor Durkan says must change. More broadly, the United States needs to expand investment in low-income housing and mental health and addiction services, which have been underfunded for decades, says Katherine Beckett, a professor of law, societies, and justice at the University of Washington.
“The U.S. now spends twice as much on social control as on social welfare,” says Dr. Beckett.
On the leafy streets of Capitol Hill, the multiracial community of protesters ranges from professionals with remote day jobs to laid-off workers and homeless people. Activists have set up tents for shelter and started a community garden in Cal Anderson Park. Donated food and medical supplies, including gloves, masks, and hand-sanitizer to fend off the coronavirus, are distributed from sidewalk stalls. Everyone pitches in to pick up trash.
“It seems to be a good place to live. I’m not going to be bothered by the cops,” says Ada, an out-of-work computer programmer who moved here from Dallas several weeks ago and has been living out of her car. “It’s history in the making. It’s cool,” she says, cooking a pan of beans and rice over a camping stove set up in a red wagon, “but also complicated.”
One complication, protesters say, involves threats from white extremist groups, such as Proud Boys; several men wearing “Proud Boys” shirts showed up Monday. Protesters have kept police barricades in place, which they say is primarily to keep drivers from harming crowds, as happened last Sunday when a gunman drove toward protesters, shooting one in the arm who tried to stop him. They have also formed a night watch from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. “I help out where I can with the watch,” says Ada, who declined to give her last name.
Over the weekend, occupiers grouped in circles at the CHOP main intersection discussed goals, and then formed teams to handle different duties ranging from security to technology and communications. “Our long-term goal is to … make a community center so we have a place we feel safe to come to,” says Anthony Barr, a laid-off Applebee’s server and front-line protester.
At the same time, protester representatives are making headway in regular talks with Seattle officials led by Fire Chief Scoggins, who they say has won their trust. This week, they reached initial consensus on an option to ease access for residents, businesses, and emergency vehicles, while preserving space for demonstrations and improving safety.
Sam Zimbabwe, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, told citizen journalist Omari Salisbury the alterations are designed so “the neighborhood can get back to co-existing with the protests… this is Seattle values….we are all really trying to find space together.”
Ron Amundson, a local property owner, said some businesses are afraid to open, and voiced concern about fire and safety, as did some residents who no longer sleep in the zone at night. He urged the group to decide quickly on a way forward. “We can all work together here and turn this into something good,” he said. Police Chief Best has said that while response times are increased, officers would respond to important emergency calls in the zone.
Some businesses are thriving as people crowd the area. “Honestly I do feel safer” since the police left, says Kohl Travis, host at Momiji, a Japanese restaurant across the street from the abandoned precinct building. “It’s definitely a less hostile environment.”
Surveying the scene from the “No Cop Co-op” on East Pine Street – where “Black Lives Matter” is written in huge, colorful letters – Brian, a health care worker who asked not to give his last name, is moved by the crowd and sidewalks spray painted with Black and white fists side by side. “You have people of all races coming in and helping,” he says, as he hands out donated Clif Bars. “Some people don’t have much money … maybe they only have two water bottles, they just want to give something, anything to the cause. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Back on the barricade, John recalls his feeling the night the police left, after more than a week of tension. “They hopped on their bikes and rode up the street and disappeared,” he says. “I never thought the police would do that.” The next night, “we finally had the square and set up the PA, and lots of people who had had their voices silenced for generations had a chance to get up in front of the crowd. It was the people’s mic,” he says. “It was a remarkable turn of events. That felt like a victory to me.”