‘History in the making’? Seattle protest zone prompts rethink on policing.
As a police helicopter circles over him, a protester named John watches with a black electric needle on a barricade at the entrance to Seattle's spontaneous new center of activism - a six-block area that protesters originally called the Capitol Hill (CHAZ) autonomous zone ).
Orange-colored barricades left behind by the police who abruptly cleared the building of the East Precinct of the Seattle Police Department last week at rallies against racism and police brutality are now provided with posters calling for the "Defund SPD" - an important demand from activists who trying to shift half of the police budget into charitable services.
However, views on the role of the police and the future of the station are mixed. Many signs and graffiti are hostile to the police. John, an unemployed theater worker who lives a block away and keeps his surname for privacy reasons, says that "autonomous zone" is a misnomer, and emphasizes that the police can return to the station "whenever they want". City officials, including the police, fire chief Harold Scoggins and mayor Jenny Durkan, have entered the "zone" freely with crowds of visitors in the past few days.
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"There is no reason why peaceful protest cannot coexist with police presence," says John of the CHAZ, which was renamed CHOP this weekend. However, what that stands for depends on who you ask - a reflection of the evolving goals and leadership of the movement. An entrance sign calls it the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest; Some say the O now stands for "organized". John and others said they sought freedom to protest but never asked the police to go.
The protest zone is located in Capitol Hill, a nightlife and entertainment district that has long been a center of the city's LGBTQ and counterculture communities. Since the police left, the protest zone has been largely peaceful, although tensions with counter-demonstrators have increased. People speak with open microphones, cook, paint protest art, light candles at a memorial to those killed by the police, work in the garden, watch documentaries and dance on the street.
The main purpose of CHOP, activists say, is to occupy the space to imagine, debate, and experiment with a radically different relationship between the police and the community.
"It shows the world that there is no need for the police to keep breathing down your throat," said Mark Henry Jr., organizer of Black Lives Matter, who stands in front of the boarded-up building in the district and whose shield is painted with a gold spray paint Reading has changed: Seattle People's Department. "This place will be a monument to social justice and a beacon of hope for the world that police reform is not only possible but necessary."
In the spotlight
The Seattle protest zone has captured the national and international spotlight with sharp attacks by conservative critics like President Trump. On Sunday, Mr. Trump portrayed it as the "right-wing militant group takeover of Seattle." On Monday, he repeated threats to act against the zone if Mayor Durkan and Washington Governor Jay Inslee did not.
Ms. Durkan, a former U.S. attorney, has described the president's description as untrue and his threats as illegal.
The zone "is not a lawless wasteland of anarchist insurrection - it is a peaceful expression of the collective sadness of our community and its desire to build a better world," she tweeted.
Last week, Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said that leaving Capitol Hill was "not my decision." She was concerned about arson, but the city "gave way to strong public pressure." But both she and Mayor Durkan have initiated police reforms in consultation with the community.
"This is a crucial moment in history," said Chief Best, the first black woman to hold the top position in the SPD, on Sunday in an appearance on Face the Nation. "We will move in a different direction and the police will never be the same," she said after taking part in a Black Lives Matter march with 60,000 people in Seattle on Saturday that brought her a "revelation."
Seattle has made rapid progress to meet some of the protesters' demands. It temporarily prohibits the use of tear gas, except in life-threatening situations. Police have to attach name tags and body cameras during protests and withdraw the National Guard.
Criminal law reform experts say the police are called too often because social workers or other professionals are unavailable, which Mayor Durkan says needs to be changed. In a broader sense, the United States needs to expand its decades-underfunded investment in low-income housing, mental health and addiction services, says Katherine Beckett, a professor of law, society and justice at the University of Washington.
"The United States is now spending twice as much on social control as on social welfare," says Dr. Beckett.
In the green streets of Capitol Hill, the multiracial community of demonstrators ranges from professionals with remote day jobs to laid-off workers and homeless people. Activists have set up tents as shelters and set up a community garden in Cal Anderson Park. Donated groceries and medical supplies, including gloves, masks, and hand sanitizers to ward off the coronavirus, are distributed from street stalls. Everyone comes in to pick up trash.
“It seems like a good place to live. The police won't bother me, ”says Ada, an unemployed computer programmer who moved here from Dallas a few weeks ago and lived off her car. "It's a story in the making. It's cool," she says, cooking a pan of beans and rice over a camping stove in a red car, "but it's also complicated."
A complication, protesters say, are threats from white extremist groups like Proud Boys; On Monday, several men appeared in “Proud Boys” shirts. The demonstrators have held police barricades in place, the primary purpose of which is to prevent drivers from injuring crowds, as happened last Sunday when a gunman drove up to demonstrators and shot one in the arm who tried to attempt him to stop. They also formed a night watch from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. "I help with the clock wherever I can," says Ada, who refused to give her last name.
At the weekend, the occupiers grouped around the main CHOP intersection discussed the goals and then formed teams to complete various tasks ranging from security to technology to communication. "Our long-term goal is ... to create a community center so that we have a place where we feel safe," said Anthony Barr, a fired Applebee server and front protester.
At the same time, protesters are making progress in regular meetings with representatives of Seattle, led by Fire Chief Scoggins, who they say has gained their trust. This week they agreed on an initial consensus on an option to facilitate access for residents, businesses, and emergency vehicles, while making room for demonstrations and improving security.
Sam Zimbabwe, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, told citizen journalist Omari Salisbury that the changes were designed so that "the neighborhood can once again coexist with the protests ... these are the Seattle values ... we all really try to find a place together." ”
Ron Amundson, a local property owner, said some companies are afraid of opening and are concerned about fire and security, as well as some residents who no longer sleep in the zone at night. He asked the group to quickly choose a way forward. "We can all work together here and make something good out of it," he said. Police chief Best said that while response times would be extended, officials would respond to major emergency calls in the zone.
Some companies are thriving because people are crowding the area. "To be honest, I feel safer," says Kohl Travis, host in Momiji, a Japanese restaurant opposite the abandoned area. "It's definitely a less hostile environment."
Brian, a healthcare worker who asked not to give his last name, is moved by the "No Cop Co-op" on East Pine Street, where "Black Lives Matter" is written in huge, colorful letters, crowd and Sidewalks sprayed side by side with black and white fists. "They have people of all races who come in and help," he says as he hands out donated clif bars. "Some people don't have much money ... maybe they only have two bottles of water, they just want to give something, something for the cause. It's a nice thing."
Back on the barricade, John remembers how he felt the night the police left after more than a week of tension. "They got on their bikes and drove up the street and disappeared," he says. "I never thought the police would do that." The next evening “we finally had the space and set up the PA, and many people whose voices had been silenced for generations had the chance to stand up in front of the crowd. It was the folk microphone, ”he says. “It was a remarkable turn. It felt like a victory to me. "
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