‘Welcome to Free Capitol Hill’ — Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone Forms Around Emptied East Precinct

by JSeattle, Jake Goldstein-Street and Alex Garland

(This article originally appeared on Capitol Hill Seattle Blog and has been reprinted with permission)

The first night in the so-called Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone that has formed in the wake of police giving up the week-long blockade of the East Precinct was rainy and peaceful and full of speeches from activists, agitators, poets, and socialist city council members.

“I guess whatever the fuck we’re doing is effective,” one organizer identified as Magik said over a megaphone early in the night as police were still clearing the area. “They are going to move up. They are going to get everybody out of here and we are free to move through these streets and protest and march.”

“Yesterday we were on 11th and Pine. Today we have victory on 12th and Pine. They tried to stop us!,” another exclaimed.

The night brought tense moments but compared to the previous week of blast balls and clouds of gas and pepper spray, Pike/Pine was calm if not quiet — the county sheriff’s helicopter stayed circling overhead until midnight providing observations to SPD command on the ground and often drowning out speeches below. The only major reported conflict came when a TV news crew for the local Fox affiliate was temporarily chased from the scene and took up refuge in the nearby fire station.

The surprise pullback of SPD riot police and National Guard troops came together quickly Monday afternoon after a day of hastily clearing out equipment, moving trucks, and reports of a “mobile shredding unit” at the building at 12th and Pine that is home to the East Precinct headquarters as well as department office facilities. “The decision has been made to allow demonstrators to march past the East Precinct later today,” an announcement sent to department staff about the decision to close the building read. “Additional measures are currently underway to enhance our ongoing efforts to ensure the security of our East Precinct and provide for the safety of all our officers.”

“The East Precinct will remain staffed,” the announcement concluded. CHS observed officers being dispatched from mobile locations away from 12th and Pine. The building is empty and windows covered with plywood. By morning, the wood was covered with graffiti giving the precinct an unexpected continuity with much of the rest of the neighborhood as many businesses are still in the process of reopening after weeks of COVID-19 restrictions.

The pullback and boarding-up of the precinct follows a Sunday night conflagration described by many as the most aggressive show of crowd control firepower yet by SPD that came only hours after a Mayor Jenny Durkan speech on deescalation.

Monday night, Durkan remained silent on the developments at the precinct until late into the night.

At 11:20 PM some seven hours after Chief Carmen Best held a hastily arranged press briefing outside the facility, the mayor tweeted that the retreat is “an effort to proactively de-escalate interactions between protestors and law enforcement outside the East Precinct” and said Best had ordered the barricades surrounding the East Precinct removed and secured the building.

“Keeping demonstrations peaceful must be a joint effort between our community members and law enforcement,” Durkan said. “I am hopeful that tonight, with these operational changes, our city can peacefully move forward together.”

A city representative also tells CHS that Seattle Fire removed “many personal effects of the officers normally stationed in the East Precinct” as part of a “proactive effort to guard against potential damage or fire.”

The Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, meanwhile, sent an ominous sounding message to area businesses and organizations that warns of a “credible threat” to burn the precinct building down, notifying them that the building and nearby apartment buildings were to be assessed for possible treatment with “a biodegradable foam fire suppressant” by the Seattle Fire Department as a preventative measure.

Sunday after a week of protests and frequent clashes and outbreaks of heavy-handed crowd control tactics, Durkan had made the case for why SPD must mount a strong defense of the precinct headquarters due to what she said was “specific information from the FBI” about threats to the 12th and Pine facility and other buildings in Seattle.

Those fears proved to be unwarranted on the first night of occupation following the East Precinct’s exit.

Tuesday morning
The first morning brought a new configuration to the streets. The police barricades and walls left behind have provided protesters the resources they need to create their own path through the neighborhood. Barriers have been dragged into a zig zag maze to block traffic from passing through 12th Ave or up and down E Pine with a steady stream of cars and trucks performing u-turns and three-point turns to avoid the blockades. Tent shelters have been put up to help keep volunteers dry at the edges of the core around 12th and Pine. At one on the southeast corner of the intersection, a few people sat around while one approached CHS and encouraged “white people” to come to the scene and help them hold the block. Above the walled-off entrance to the building, the sign has been spray-painted to now read “SEATTLE PEOPLE DEPARTMENT EAST PRECINCT.”

The groups are not yet camped out but organizers say they are prepared to stay in the area replenished with marches and rallies until demands over cuts to the SPD budget and more spending on social programs are met.

Meanwhile, neighbors come and go through the mazes, many taking pictures of the scene, other urgently walking tiny dogs.

Those shocked by vandalism and graffiti should look away. Tagging and paint jobs abound from Cal Anderson to E Union. Seattle Public Utilities, meanwhile was at the scene with a large crew of contractors clearing up debris. As crews grabbed a pile of signs, one volunteer ran over. “Those aren’t trash!” she said as the nonplussed worker dropped the pile of soggy boards and cardboard back to the sidewalk.

The mayor said previously she hoped the crews would help to clean up the area daily. The city is also maintaining chemical toilets in Cal Anderson and will add a new bank of toilets outside Seattle Central on Broadway in a bid to avoid the health problems that dogged the neighborhood’s Occupy camp nearly a decade ago.

Neighborhood businesses, meanwhile, are in limbo. As reopening continues under COVID-19 restrictions, some near the main protest area have been damaged by blast ball explosions and need to be cleaned of residue left by the massive clouds of tear gas and pepper spray that filled the streets.

Residents in the area are also getting used to the new status near the precinct. Many of them played key roles in documenting and providing live updates of the protests from above the scene.

Politics not umbrellas
Instead of umbrellas, water bottles and rocks, Durkan and SPD officials instead are now facing political threats.

“What we are seeing now is an uprising. A rebellion of young people. Not just nationwide but globally,” District 3 representative and longtime Durkan critic Kshama Sawant said in her time at the community microphone during Monday night’s rally and speeches.

“Two years ago, there was a police contract up for the vote. It was a bad contract. It was a racist contract,” she said to boos. “It was going to roll back the limited accountability measures that were hard fought for by community members. And the community spoke with one voice and pleaded — pleaded — with Mayor Durkan and the City Council, ‘Please vote no.’ What do you think happened?”

“I was the only ‘no’ vote on that contract,” Sawant said. “We have to remember that what built the movement is not people who are in power that may look like you or me. But it is people who have shown to through their actions that they are in solidarity with ordinary people in marginalized communities.”

Tuesday night, Sawant and her staff are planning to hold a meeting in Cal Anderson on the initiative to ban chemical weapons and #DefundPolice demands of cutting the SPD budget. The future of the emptied East Precinct building will also likely be a point of discussion. The session will also be live-streamed on the council member’s various social media channels. Demonstrators at the scene CHS talked with Tuesday morning said they would likely attend the meeting given its proximity to the ground they hope to hold at 12th and Pine but it’s clear that many remain skeptical of aligning directly with the Socialist Alternative leader.

As for the greater goals that have emerged for the various community groups and activists involved in the protests, the Seattle City Council on Monday discussed the possibility of cutting the police department’s budget and restricting the use of chemical agents amid rising calls for the mayor’s resignation.

Sunday’s demonstrations were the most chaotic at the 11th and Pine intersection, with a man driving a car into the crowd and shooting one protester as well as aggressive dispersal measures from police hours later as demonstrators pushed forward up Pike within feet of the line of law enforcement.

Tear gas was deployed by police, despite the mayor’s 30-day ban on the use of the chemical agent in most circumstances.

Sawant, who was at the front of the demonstration after giving a speech a few hours earlier at another protest in Rainier Beach, said she was maced as tensions escalated around midnight.

Sawant on Monday introduced two pieces of legislation related to police handling of the protests. One would ban the use of all types of chemical weapons and the other would ban police from employing chokeholds.

“Seattle police are attacking peaceful protesters daily, from young children to the elderly, with chemical weapons that are internationally banned in warfare,” Sawant said in a Monday afternoon meeting of the full council. “The police had come prepared to inflict violence without provocation.”

On Saturday night, the protesters again saw explosives used by law enforcement as they pushed the barricade closer to police who subsequently deployed pepper spray and non-tear gas explosives in an attempt to disperse demonstrators.

The council appeared to be united in prohibiting the use of tear gas by law enforcement and many council members seemed receptive to the idea of defunding the police in some way.

Council member Alex Pedersen representing Northeast Seattle said that while he believes “most of our police officers are good people, but they’re working within a tainted institution. We need to boldly rethink and change things.”

Four council members joined with more than 20 other local elected officials in signing a letter calling for a demilitarization of the police force and redirecting funding from SPD to community-based alternatives.

Sawant has also been vocal in calling for Durkan’s resignation after more than a week of conflict between protesters and police across Seattle. At a peaceful protest with minimal police presence on Sunday afternoon in Rainier Beach, Sawant said that if Durkan doesn’t resign, she will bring articles of impeachment against her.

It would take six of the nine council members to vote to remove the mayor from office.

Citywide representative Teresa Mosqueda, who attended Saturday night’s demonstration on Capitol Hill with other elected officials, joined Sawant in this call Monday, saying that Durkan should “ask herself if she’s the right leader and resign.”

Mosqueda, who chairs the council’s budget committee, also announced that the council will be “launching an inquest into Seattle Police Department’s budget.”

“What we’re hearing from community right now is that our residents do not feel safe in our own city from police,” she said in the council’s Monday morning briefing. “Unlike past practices, we are not going to nibble around the edges of the mayor’s proposed budget.”

Mosqueda added that the council would not pass the mayor’s budget until it has the opportunity to get a “full, thorough, and simultaneous transparent deep dive” into the SPD’s funding.

“I am committed to defunding the police; to using most of that money, 50% ideally, to invest back into communities that we failed,” she said, citing possible investments in low-barrier housing options, permanent supportive housing, and equitable transit.

South Seattle rep Tammy Morales, who attended the thousands-strong march in the Rainier Valley Sunday afternoon, called the mayor’s response tone-deaf and said “perhaps it’s time for her to consider resigning.”

Morales also cited a letter from the co-leaders of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative change team that calls for a defunding of the police department by at least 50%, an expansion of investments in Black and brown communities, and an increase in police accountability.

Accountability measures the group mentions include not prosecuting protesters, a full review of past killings by SPD, making officers’ uniforms easily identifiable to the community, and renegotiating the SPD’s union contract.

Council meetings on the budget will begin Wednesday.

JSeattle is the founder and publisher of Capitol Hill Seattle Blog

Featured image: Alex Garland