Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone

George Floyd

The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), Free Capitol Hill, the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, and the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP), is an occupation protest and self-declared autonomous zone in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. The zone, originally covering six city blocks and a park, was established by George Floyd protesters on June 8, 2020 after the Seattle Police Department (SPD) vacated its East Precinct building.

Local governance in the zone is decentralized, with the goal of creating a neighborhood without police. Purported demands associated with the zone include rent control, the reversal of gentrification, the abolition or defunding of police, funding of community health, and releasing prisoners serving time for marijuana-related offenses or resisting arrest, with expungement of their records.

Reactions to the zone have varied through the political spectrum. President Donald Trump referred to the occupants as ‘ugly Anarchists’ and called for the governor of Washington and the mayor of Seattle to ‘take back’ the zone, while Mayor Jenny Durkan on June 11 described the zone as ‘four blocks in Seattle that is more like a block party atmosphere. It’s not an armed takeover. It’s not a military junta. We will make sure that we will restore this but we have block parties and the like in this part of Seattle all the time … there is no threat right now to the public.’ On June 14, ‘USA Today’ confirmed the festive atmosphere, reporting that protesters who had previously clashed with police “have had their rough edges dulled by tens of thousands of tourists and sightseers. CHAZ has morphed into what looks and feels like a mini Burning Man festival.’

On June 12, BLM protesters were reportedly negotiating with local officials to leave the zone. Four days later, the zone’s roadblocks were replaced and moved, allowing for emergency service vehicles to pass through and decreasing CHAZ’s size to three blocks. Capitol Hill is a district in downtown Seattle known for its prominent LGBT and counterculture communities. The district was previously a center for other mass protests, such as the 1999 Seattle WTO protests and Occupy Seattle.

Protests over the killing of George Floyd and police brutality began in Seattle on May 29, 2020. For nine days there were street clashes involving protesters, the Seattle Police Department (SPD), Washington State Patrol, and Washington National Guard. Protests eventually coalesced around the SPD’s East Precinct building, where the SPD used aggressive dispersal tactics, including blast balls, flash bangs, and pepper spray. By June 7, police were placing barricades around the precinct and boarding up its windows. The following day, amid growing protests, the SPD abandoned the East Precinct. Protesters, initially suspicious of the police’s motives, moved into the area, erected street barricades at a one-block radius from the station, and declared the area ‘Free Capitol Hill.’

The zone is centered around the East Precinct building. It stretches north to East Denny Way, east to 13th Avenue, south to East Pike, and west to Broadway. The entirety of Cal Anderson Park falls inside of the zone. Protesters used blockades and fences to construct staggered barricades at intersections. The entrance of the zone’s territory is marked by a barrier reading ‘You Are Entering Free Capitol Hill.’ Other signs declared ‘You are now leaving the USA.’ Spray paint renamed the occupied police station as the ‘Seattle People’s Department East Precinct’ and covered the facade with anarchist symbols and graffiti.

On June 16, the city and representatives of CHAZ agreed on a footprint for the zone. The new layout was posted on Mayor Durkan’s blog following the agreement. The blog entry states the reasoning for the agreement between the two parties: ‘The City is committed to maintaining space for community to come to together, protest and exercise their first amendment rights. Minor changes to the protest zone will implement safer and sturdier barriers to protect individuals in this area.’ As part of the agreement the city agreed to remove the old barriers and replace them with concrete along the new agreed-upon zone boundaries.

On June 18, ‘NPR’ reported, ‘Nobody inside the protest zone thinks a police return would end peacefully. Small teams of armed antifascists are also present, self-proclaimed community defense forces who say they’re ready to fight if needed but that de-escalation is preferred.’

Reports describe the zone’s structure as a cross between Occupy Wall Street and an independent student housing cooperative.  Occupants of the zone favor consensus decision-making instead of designating leaders. Protesters hold frequent town halls to decide strategy and make plans. However, City Journal in a June 10 article claimed that former mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver formulates the commune’s political strategy. Seattle officials have not seen evidence of Antifa umbrella groups organizing in the zone.

On June 16, Seattle’s KIRO-TV quoted an eight-year tenant of an apartment near the East Precinct as saying, ‘We are just sitting ducks all day. Now every criminal in the city knows they can come into this area and they can do anything they want as long as it isn’t life-threatening, and the police won’t come in to do anything about it.’ Frustrated by blocked streets, criminal behavior, and lawlessness, some residents have temporarily moved out and others have installed security cameras. A man who said he ‘100 percent’ supports the protest told KOMO-TV: ‘I don’t even feel safe anymore.’

On June 20 at 2:19 a.m., local residents reported gunshots in the zone to 9-1-1. At least seven shots were fired in under three seconds. Two victims were transported to the hospital by volunteers. A 19-year-old man died and a 33-year-old man was in critical condition in the Intensive Care Unit with life-threatening injuries. The shooting occurred at Cal Anderson Park. SPD attempted to respond but was, according to its blotter, ‘met by a violent crowd that prevented officers safe access to the victims.’

Organizers pitched tents next to the former precinct in order to hold the space. They established the ‘No Cop Co-op’ on June 9, offering free water, hand sanitizer, snacks donated by the community, and kebabs. Stalls were set up which offered cuisine such as vegan curry while others collected donations for the homeless. Two medical stations were established in the zone — the stations deliver basic health care to the homeless and sex workers. The intersection of 12th and Pine was converted to a square for teach-ins, where a microphone was used to encourage people who were there ‘to fuck shit up’ to go home. An outdoor cinema with a sound system and projector was set up and used to screen open-air movies. The first film shown was ’13th,’ Ava DuVernay’s documentary about racism and mass incarceration. The Seattle Department of Transportation provided portable toilets. An area at 11th and Pine was set aside as the ‘Decolonization Conversation Café,’ a discussion area with daily topics.

The city is still providing services to the area, including trash removal and fire and rescue services; the SPD has also said they will respond to 9-1-1 calls within the area. The public health department of King County has provided COVID-19 testing in Cal Anderson Park.

Vegetable gardens have been planted by the occupants of Cal Anderson Park, with a farm also operating in the park where communards grow a variety of food products using donated seeds. On June 14, ‘USA Today’ reported that most businesses in the zone had closed, ‘although a liquor store, ramen restaurant and taco joint are still doing brisk business.’]

Mayor Jenny Durkan called the creation of the zone an attempt to ‘de-escalate interactions between protestors and law enforcement,’ while Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said that her officers would look at different approaches to ‘reduce [their] footprint’ in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Protesters in other cities sought to replicate the autonomous zone in their own communities. Protesters in Portland, Oregon and in Asheville, North Carolina also tried to create autonomous zones but were stopped by the police. On June 12, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee condemned the attempts to create an autonomous area in Nashville, warning protesters in the state that ‘Autonomous zones, and violence will not be tolerated.’ In Philadelphia, a group established an encampment that has been compared to the Capitol Hill occupation; however, the primary focus is not autonomy but to protest Philadelphia’s anti-homelessness laws.

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