Seattle Protesters Establish 'Autonomous Zone' Outside Evacuated Police Precinct

Is the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone a brave experiment in self-government or just flash-in-the-pan activism?


Anti-police-brutality demonstrations are cooling off in much of the country. Not so in Seattle, where over a week of protests and street clashes has resulted in police abandoning a precinct building, demonstrators establishing an "autonomous zone" in the surrounding streets, and a brief occupation of city hall.

The site of much of this drama has been the Seattle Police Department (SPD) Eastern Precinct in the city's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Late Sunday night and early Monday morning saw police and National Guard troops push protesters away from the Eastern Precinct with tear gas and pepper spray in what local alt-weekly The Stranger describe as "the most aggressive and sustained" response to protests yet.

The use of tear gas was particularly controversial, given that Mayor Jenny Durkan and SPD Chief Carmen Best had announced a 30-day ban on the police's use of the stuff against protestors that past Friday. The SPD, via tweet, said that its officers were being pelted with projectiles and that the presence of an armed gunman justified its use. The city of Seattle is now being sued by the protestors represented by the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union over its crowd control tactics.

Then, on Monday afternoon, in an apparent attempt to prevent similar clashes from playing out, SPD boarded up the Eastern Precinct building and announced that it would be opening up nearby streets to demonstrators.

Later that night, Durkan said on Twitter that police had removed barricades around the precinct building "to proactively de-escalate interactions between protestors and law enforcement" while still "safely securing the facility."

The SPD's announcement said that the precinct would continue to be staffed. However, pictures from the scene show the building totally boarded up and heavily graffitied, and the Capitol Hill Seattle Blog—a neighborhood news website—says that the building is empty.

That Monday night, in the absence of a police presence, protestors formed what's now being called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). Reassembled barricades went up around the new zone, with some featuring signs welcoming people to "Free Capitol Hill." The Seattle Times reports that tents have started to go up in the CHAZ and that folks are hoping to turn the boarded-up cop shop into a community center.

The first night of the autonomous zone reportedly saw some speeches from demonstrators and an appearance by socialist Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who sparred with some protesters about how much to cut the SPD's budget.

A few assembled demonstrators reportedly demanded a 100 percent defunding of the police. Sawant, reports The Stranger, said that that was infeasible under capitalism, and touted her own plan to cut the department's budget by 50 percent.

A news crew from the local Fox affiliate was reportedly chased out of the zone by some demonstrators.

Tuesday saw more activity in the zone, with more barricades going up, and some businesses in the area opening up to offer water, bathroom facilities, and food to demonstrators.

That night, Sawant led a crowd from the CHAZ to Seattle city hall for an hour-long protest inside the building, where people chanted and demanded the resignation of Durkan and the defunding of the police.

The City Hall occupation, reports Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, saw more fights between Sawant and some demonstrators wary of her coopting of their movement. The councilmember touted her plan to tax Amazon. Another speaker countered that the focus should remain on racial justice issues.

Afterward, protesters returned to the CHAZ for a screening of the documentary 13th.

The zone has attracted national and critical attention. Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) tweeted about how the situation was "endangering people's lives."

Yet so far the zone appears neither as lawless as conservatives fear nor as autonomous as some of its occupants might like. The city's Fire Department says it has committed more staff to cover the area. Other city departments have been on-site to clear away trash and empty dumpsters. SPD says it will still answer 911 calls in the area.

With the situation on the ground in flux, it's impossible to know where the CHAZ is headed. While the movement behind the zone can't be described as libertarian (a Medium essay purporting to be a list demands from the Free Capitol folks includes calls for both police abolition and rent control), it is still vaguely encouraging to see people try to set up their own self-governing enclave in the vacuum left by the police's withdrawal.