Written by Elissar Zabaneh
Capitol Hill is a district in downtown Seattle, known for its prominent LGBT and counterculture communities. The district was previously a centre for other mass protests, such as the “1999 Seattle WTO” protests and “Occupy Seattle”. Outcry over the murder of George Floyd and police brutality began in Seattle on May 29, 2020. For nine days, there were street clashes involving protesters, Seattle Police Department (SPD) and the Washington National Guard. By June 7, metal fencing and large cement blocks were placed around the precinct. Later that day, a car drove into a crowd of protesters, after which the driver shot a protester who had attempted to disarm him, before surrendering to the police.
The following afternoon, in a "police retreat," the SPD abandoned the East Precinct, covering the windows with plywood and leaving the front door open. Protesters erected street barricades and declared the area "Free Capitol Hill."
On June 8, the Seattle Police Chief Carmen best said that the force would be moving out of the East Precinct, where a police station was located, because protesters "want the streets open for peaceful marches and we're going to facilitate that". Law enforcement officers boarded up windows, took some essential items, and vacated the area. In response, protesters descended upon Capitol Hill, the area of Seattle in which the precinct was located, cordoning off around six city blocks and starting the "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone". Artists and other members painted a mural on the streets of CHAZ featuring a giant "Black Lives Matter" slogan. Movie nights have been held, as well as people's assemblies. Demonstrators handed out free food at the "No Cop Co-Op", running a hot dog stand, a medical centre and a community garden. Members of the Lakota and Yakama tribes have performed there, too.
Some hope to turn the police precinct into a community centre eventually. The residents of "CHAZ" have faced significant pushback online, with Trump labelling them "ugly anarchists" and "domestic terrorists". Tweets have claimed that a "Soundcloud rapper" is the "warlord" presiding over the area. However, residents have defended themselves against these accusations, with Raz Simone, the Soundcloud rapper they were referring to, denied that he was either leading CHAZ or a "warlord" on social media. News reports have relayed that there has been a cheerful, festival-like atmosphere in the area. As for when police plan to return, they say that they aim to, but have not said when they will do so. Protesters in the area will continue to use this experience to reimagine a world without police brutality; with some calling for the abolition of police, some for reform, while others are hesitant to politicise the issue at all.
Organisers 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 sanitiser, 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 f*ck sh*t up" to go home. An outdoor cinema with a sound system and projector was set up. The first film shown was 13th, Ava DuVernay’s documentary about racism and mass incarceration.
On June 9, 2020, a blog post containing a list of 30 demands appeared on Medium, which was "shared widely by people on the ground and familiar with the reality of the situation in the CHAZ." Demands included the abolition of the Seattle Police Department and the court system; defunding the SPD and reallocating those funds to community health; banning police use of firearms, batons, riot shields, and chemical agents; immediately releasing prisoners serving time for marijuana-related offences or resisting arrest, with expungement of their records; mandatory retrials for people of colour who are serving sentences for violent crimes; and prison abolition. Other demands included reforming education to increase the focus on black and Native American history; free college; and free public housing.
On June 12, BLM protesters were reportedly negotiating with local officials to leave the zone. Four days later, the one's roadblocks were replaced and moved, allowing for emergency service vehicles to pass through and thus, decreasing CHAZ's size down to 3 blocks.
On June 15, SPD Chief Best said, "There is no cop-free zone in the city of Seattle." Best indicated officers would go into the zone if there are threats to public safety: "I think that the picture has been painted in many areas that shows the city is under siege," she added. "That is not the case."
“Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” has been rebranded and renamed – “Capitol Hill Organized Protest.”