Seattle protesters’ experiment with a police-free community and protest space has ended.
On Wednesday, dozens of officers from the Seattle Police Department arrested more than 30 people and cleared out the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), formerly known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), at Mayor Jenny Durkan’s order. The mayor’s executive order came in response to a wave of nighttime violence in the four-block area, including four shootings and several alleged sexual assaults.
Katie, a local who protested in the neighborhood before and after CHOP was established, said they sobbed when they saw police clearing it out Wednesday morning. “I’m glad that people were able to see what a space like that could be,” they told Vox. “I had some complaints about it but it was beautiful to see.”
Durkan praised the mostly peaceful protest in a statement Monday, yet signaled that it was time for protesters to leave CHOP because of the late-night violence.
“[O]ver the last month thousands of people, including families, have visited the area and shown their support for the messages of equity and change,” read the statement. “Unfortunately, that message has been undermined by the violence in the area. The area has increasingly attracted more individuals bent on division and violence, and it is risking the lives of individuals.”
The violence at CHOP shows the difficulty in trying to create a police-free neighborhood, especially without investments in community anti-poverty efforts, out of what was primarily a protest space. It also highlights the pervasiveness of certain forms of violence — like violence against women, which some residents told Vox was a problem in the neighborhood (a nightlife hot spot in the city) even before CHOP was established. Those previous incidents were not subject to a national media microscope.
While Durkan and the Seattle Police Department used the recent violence as justification to move in and retake the area from protesters, some people who live in the area worried about the SPD’s return. “I feel marginally more dread than the early parts of the protests,” local Capitol Hill resident John McCartney told Vox. “People here seem angrier, but there also seem to be fewer protesters.”
What we know about the violence during — and before — CHOP’s existence
The “autonomous zone” idea for the protest area began as a meme after SPD vacated the nearby East Precinct building on June 8 following eight straight days of police clashes with protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. But protesters very quickly seized on the idea of creating a sustained occupation-style protest in the area, working with city personnel to block off street traffic in a six-block radius around the precinct.
In the first week of CHOP’s existence, people who were spending a lot of time at the protest told Vox they felt safe there. “Talking with my friends and talking with a couple of people on the ground, I keep hearing people say, ‘I never felt this safe walking in the city,’” Carla, who had been regularly hanging out in the area, told Vox in mid-June. “The knowledge that the police aren’t there [has created] this feeling that this is a space that belongs to everybody.”
But what initially started as a local curiosity, drawing residents and families from the surrounding area, eventually took a turn for the worse. Over the past nine days, the area saw four shootings, two deaths, arson, and several alleged sexual assaults. According to FBI data, there were 34 homicides reported in 2018 in all of Seattle.
“It’s been a terrible week for the area,” said Justin, the publisher of CapitolHillSeattle.com who has been covering the goings-on within CHOP since its inception. “But these kinds of violent spikes do come in waves. And we’ve seen this before in other parts of the city.”
Vox spoke with 13 local residents and protesters on background — most of whom have taken part in the protests against racism and police violence that preceded CHOP, and also spent time in and around CHOP — about what’s been happening in the neighborhood over the past week and a half.
Locals paint a muddled picture of an area where confusion — and fear of far-right counterprotesters — often reigns. One person who works a block away from CHOP and asked to remain anonymous to protect her privacy, said her car was vandalized while she was at work last week, which she attributed to her left-wing political bumper stickers. Since then, management from her employer have escorted her to her car every night after her shift is over.
In speaking with locals, a tale of two CHOPs emerges: daytime CHOP and nighttime CHOP. During the day, there’s more of a community feel, with neighbors out and about inside CHOP while protests are ongoing. But most of the people who spoke with Vox didn’t feel safe walking at night in the area, especially in the past week and a half.
But that’s not necessarily a unique feeling in the area, which is a popular bar and entertainment district within the city. The type of violence has changed since CHOP was established, one local explained: In their accounting, it went from drunk white bar patrons (often men) causing havoc on Friday and Saturday nights, along with the occasional police response to a homeless person in the area, to the violence that has taken place inside CHOP recently.
“Like a lot of nightlife districts, it is not a comfortable place for female-presenting folks to be out at night,” said McCartney, who was the only local willing to be quoted by full name for this story. Several women and trans people speaking on background confirmed his statement to Vox. In August 2017, for example, a trans woman was allegedly assaulted by a group of male patrons at a bar in the neighborhood.
At the same time, McCartney said, there’s a rift between people who have lived in the area for a while and the tech workers who have moved in recently. “I feel a lot of the current ‘it’s not safe’ stuff comes from either people who aren’t living in the neighborhood itself or from affluent new arrivals, or from business owners.”
CHOP featured a seemingly unstructured organizing format, similar to the Occupy Wall Street movement of the early 2010s. Protest organizers declined to speak with Vox, as they also did for a previous story from mid-June. It’s also been difficult for journalists and the public to pin down exactly who is in charge at CHOP, and there was no central group issuing public statements. But organizers from Washington Youth for Climate Justice, who have been active on CHOP’s front lines since its establishment denounced the police clearing Wednesday morning. “We feel that the handling of CHOP’s dispersal, such as calling in officers wearing riot gear and using pepper spray on demonstrators, was completely unethical and unnecessary,” a spokesperson for the group said in a statement to Vox.
Of particular concern for locals has been the recent spate of gun violence in the area. There have been four shootings in CHOP since its inception, and a shooting Sunday evening left one person dead and another hospitalized.
“It’s clear that there is gun violence associated with CHOP,” said Justin. “There are young people with weapons. There are very well-trained volunteers with weapons. There’s just a lot of guns in the area.”
But local residents won’t necessarily feel safer with police back in control of the neighborhood
Most of the people who spoke with Vox took part in the eight days of intense — and often violent — protests that preceded the abandonment of the East Precinct building and the establishment of CHOP. They largely don’t view the police as protectors of the area and worry about potential retaliation now that police are seemingly back.
One local woman who spoke to Vox on condition of anonymity had become frustrated with CHOP violence over the past 10 days, especially the latest shooting. But she also said the police likely aren’t the answer to the neighborhood’s violence problem.
“The police aren’t what make me feel safe or unsafe; I certainly didn’t feel safe when they were tear-gassing the neighborhood and shooting rubber bullets at us as we marched,” she said. “But if the police presence can disperse the people that have gathered and made camp here who are perpetuating violence, then yes, I’ll feel safer. But that’s not a guarantee.”
Another pointed out that the Seattle Police Department has been under federal oversight since 2012 following several incidences of violence against the community. One example cited in the case was the death of John T. Williams in 2011 when an SPD officer was overheard shouting a racial slur about a Latino man. Mayor Durkan, who was a US attorney at the time, led the investigation.
CHOP wasn’t the first organized protest against SPD violence either. In 1965, community leaders in the city’s central district, which borders Capitol Hill, began following police patrols around the neighborhood to observe and record their handling of the local Black population. Called “freedom patrols,” they drew both praise and criticism, though police mistreatment of the city’s Black population extended back decades. In 1938, three Seattle police officers beat a Black man, Barry Lawson, to death. They were subsequently convicted of second-degree manslaughter before being pardoned by the governor in 1939.
What can future organizers learn from CHOP?
CHOP was not the first organized protest space to experience violence. While the Occupy movement a decade ago didn’t see any killings like CHOP, both saw several allegations of sexual assault associated with the protests. According to the Seattle alt-weekly the Stranger, a CHOP medic intervened to stop a sexual assault in progress inside a tent at Cal Anderson Park, where many protesters had been camping.
That all raises questions about how such dedicated protest spaces can maintain safety — without replicating the abusive powers of the police system.
“The ‘community center block party’ vibe ended after the first week,” said one local woman. “This reminds me of NYC during Occupy Wall Street almost to a ‘T.’ Except here people are getting killed.”
The issue, she said, is that she felt the protests shifted away from police violence and Black Lives Matter into more of an anarchist message. “The people with the loudest voices are all sharing the same ‘fuck capitalism/establishment/burn it all down’ rhetoric. The camp and the early infrastructure is similar,” she said, saying that the lack of clear leadership hurt efforts to make the area safe. “Sure, burn it all down, but have a plan. The lack of a central voice, the lack of a plan, and the elevation of people who don’t even live here are very similar.”
A centralized power structure isn’t necessarily needed — Occupy protesters in New York created a de facto security team of volunteers that would deescalate conflicts. In CHOP, there were armed and organized security volunteers, according to several people who spoke with Vox.
But Justin pointed out that many businesses in the area ended up hiring armed security guards to patrol property in the area anyway. “When you look at that and you start thinking, maybe in a year from now, we’re going to really wish that we didn’t defund” the police, he said. “But [instead] we did reform and that we kept these assets and resources within the city instead of having guns for hire communities to guard buildings.”
What CHOP (or Occupy) didn’t have was the type of long-term investment in anti-poverty and community-building programs that activists say is the counterbalance to defunding the police.
Part of the issue, according to Justin, is that, despite coverage to the contrary, including from Vox, CHOP was never set up to be a true police-free neighborhood. It was, above all, a protest.
“I don’t think it’s fair as a laboratory for” a police-free neighborhood, said Justin. CHOP “also lacks so many other investments and so many other resources that you’d have to have to make that world work that it’s just not fair to measure it that way.”