It seems I live in a city undergoing a “totalitarian takeover” that will lead to “fascist outcomes” and could “metastasize across the country.” Its government “has handed over an entire portion of the city to domestic terrorists.” This “group of rogue protesters” is attempting “to get a stranglehold on the city.” This radical “army” of “conquistadors” has “rolled over the police like Cortez rolling over the Aztecs.”
Welcome to our world, out here in Seattle—at least according to the hosts and commentators of Fox News. Lesser voices on the digital right have announced even more dire supposed developments: “Rapper-turned-warlord rules commune streets with the iron fist of a privatized police force.” But it’s Fox that has been all over the story of the so-called Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone or CHAZ (which its Black Lives Matter organizers on Saturday renamed the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, CHOP): four-plus blocks of street and sidewalk in Seattle’s traditional gay and bohemian nightlife district, surrounding a boarded-up police precinct headquarters that the mayor ordered vacated last Monday to dampen a week-and-a-half of escalating confrontations between police and protesters. From there, the fluid protests, spearheaded by BLM but involving a wide spectrum of activists and ordinary citizens, coalesced with surprising rapidity into something like a provisional government.
What’s going on in these four blocks that shook the world is indeed an occupation, but it looks nothing like the conquista touted on Fox. It’s also the “block party” that Mayor Jenny Durkan has compared it to, to gleeful jeers from Fox commentators. And it’s other things as well—a protean, issue-focused but conceptually sprawling formative community, at once silly and serious, spontaneous and disciplined. Over the course of two evenings and an afternoon in the zone (plus a night observing a police/protest showdown there the week before), it seemed by turns like a commune (as in Paris 1871), an anarcho-syndicalist and small-L libertarian dream, a ’60s-style teach-in, a street fair and street market, a campout and weekend party, a poetry slam and pilgrimage, a school service day, a mass healing circle, a humbler urban version of Burning Man, and of course a protest rally.
You’d hardly guess all that from the breathless attention Fox has lavished from Day One on this tiny strip of Seattle—while ignoring, among other peaceful protests, a 60,000-strong BLM march that proceeded in solemn silence through chilly rain and nearly no police presence on Saturday. The litany of elisions, misconceptions and misrepresentations that have spread from Fox’s coverage across social media and in the public and presidential minds may still surprise even those with diminished expectations of the network.
The most brazen have been visual. On Friday the Seattle Times revealed three sleights of the photo-editing hand on the Fox site, two of which it managed to preserve before the channel took them down. In one, Fox led a package of stories headlined “Crazy Town: Seattle helpless as armed guards patrol ‘autonomous zone’” with an incendiary photo of a man running between a burning car and building. That photo was actually taken May 30 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Seattle’s protests have produced no such blazes.
Fox also undertook two cut-and-pastes of a photo of a young sentinel standing calmly with a semiautomatic rifle on a quiet nighttime street in the zone, which it had already published intact. In one altered image, it set him in front of shattered storefront windows that had been photographed a week before CHAZ/CHOP was set up, more than a mile away. (Storefronts and windows have been spared in the autonomous/organized zone—even those in the vacated police station.) In the other, he stands by a street barrier and a hand-lettered sign reading, “You Are Now Entering Free Capitol Hill.” An editor’s note acknowledging the removal of the storefront mashup called it a “collage,” suggesting it was not intended to look like a single photo.
Fox is also slippery in its verbal attributions. It has hammered at the idea that the CHOP has made neighbors alarmed and fearful. But the only purported “resident of this part of the city” it has presented is a “former Seattle City Council candidate” named Ari Hoffman, who said nothing about the neighborhood but inveighed against “domestic terrorists.” One problem: Hoffman, a familiar face on Fox, isn’t from Capitol Hill. He lives in Seward Park, an affluent neighborhood 4 miles away. And when a member of the Police Department’s African American Community Advisory Council told protesters they had “hijacked” the movement and “taken the meaning away,” a Fox headline, echoed in later coverage, blared something very different: “Black Lives Matter protesters say Seattle’s autonomous zone has hijacked message.”
Such misrepresentations reverberate in subsequent reports and commentaries, painting a dark picture of the “organized protest” as illegitimate, divided, armed and violent. Many of these tropes derive from an on-camera statement Wednesday by Police Assistant Chief Deanna Nollette. “We’ve been hearing from community members that they have been subjected to barricades set up by the protesters with some armed individuals running them as checkpoints,” Nollette said, adding, “we have heard anecdotally of citizens and businesses being asked to pay a fee to operate within this area. This is the crime of extortion.” Nollette urged “anyone who feels threatened to call 911.”
The next day, Police Chief Carmen Best walked back that statement, saying that only “rumors” and social media claimed extortion. At least one such claim is an evident fake. The Greater Seattle Business Association, which is based on Capitol Hill, checked with local businesses and “found no evidence of this occurring.” Detective Patrick Michaud, a Seattle Police spokesman, says the department has received no 911 calls or other complaints about extortion, intimidation, guns or checkpoint barriers in the CHAZ/CHOP.
It’s understandable how the barriers around the zone—movable wood and plastic left behind by the police—and the hygienically masked sentinels standing at them could look intimidating to residents. But I passed through them perhaps a dozen times over three days and, like everyone I saw and talked to in the zone, was never stopped or asked my business. Even if this were the “border wall” Fox commentators call it, it would hardly be impenetrable; people could still come and go through the park abutting the zone.
I chatted with one of the border guards, a slight young man of East Indian descent with a stick-on name tag reading “Elijah.” He lived in the suburbs, he said, and hadn’t joined in the protests. “I’d seen what the media said,” he explained. “I came out to see what it was like”—and wound up volunteering. The only disturbance he’s seen, he said, “was someone trying to pull the barriers apart. We asked her to stop.” Otherwise, he said, he was “surprised” how mellow it all was. “Some of the nicest people I’ve seen have been here.”
The barriers, other guards explained, were there to stop cars from driving into the occupied streets—a real fear. Last Sunday, a motorist drove into the protest at that very intersection and shot a man point-blank who tried to make him stop, hitting his shoulder. He then charged through the crowd, gun in hand and surrendered to police. According to charging documents, he told police he was a security guard, his brother worked at the precinct, and he’d come to the protest “to see how bad it was,” with his Glock on the seat beside him.
Fox’s Vandana Rambaran reports, without details, that there have been “multiple shootings,” at the protests. Michaud says Seattle police have received no reports of shootings or guns at protests or in the occupied zone.
There have been guns in the zone, however, at least in its first days (I never saw any in later days). The sentinels carrying them belong to a left wing gun rights and self-defense group called the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club, which offers “support upon request to those in our communities targeted by white supremacists and other agents of oppression and exploitation.”
Mindi Welton-Mitchell, a pastor at Seattle’s Queen Anne Baptist Church, was at the “Interfaith Chaplain Table”—where Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy offer counsel, masks and hand sanitizer—when two John Browners came by and identified themselves. Far from intimidating, she says, they were so inconspicuous, with their guns at their sides, “most people didn’t notice them.”
Welton-Mitchell and the other minister at the table, Aaron Monts, saw unarmed barrier attendants deal with a man who approached “screaming and shouting” with a “Don’t Tread on Me” bath towel draped over his shoulders. “They moved him out without touching him,” Monts says. “One talked to him, heard what he had to say, and calmed him down. The de-escalation technique was superb.”
Pastors and progressive gun-toters are just the start; just about every conceivable sort of volunteer has brought whatever she or he can offer. “We do not accept $ donations of any kind,” the No Cop Co-Op announces over tables heaped with groceries for anyone who wants them. Other ramshackle stalls and tables offer free clothes, battery charges (for tools and bikes as well as phones) and food, from camp-stove fry-ups to the enormous tureen of crab soup one Asian family ladles into disposable cups. The free books at the Chaz People’s Library and Mutual Aid Books tend to be crisp and movement-friendly.
Two women circulate with a handwritten sign offering mental-health help. Yes, they say when asked, we are certified therapists. Others circulate with garbage bags, darting at every scrap of litter. The trash cans are stuffed but I’ve never seen the street so clean.
“This is the first time I’ve done this,” says 27-year-old Layla Lacos, standing behind a card table and a handwritten sign saying “Register to vote.” “But I believe passionately in voting.” She figured this might be a good place to enlist new voters, so she secured the necessary forms and a stash of “Vote/Vota” buttons from the county and ventured into the zone. Her hunch seems spot-on. “I just got here an hour ago and I’ve already signed up 30 or 40 registrations and address changes.”
Cash-free mutual aid hasn’t entirely dimmed the entrepreneurial spirit. Despite all the free food, people line up for $6 hot dogs at a commercial cart. A vendor stationed in the middle of the street does a land-office business in $30 Black Lives Matter T-shirts.
Jordan Lyon, an irrepressibly earnest and enthusiastic young community organizer, is fired up with a more social entrepreneurship. The day before, he brought down four folding chairs and a table, hung signs saying “Conversation Cafe: Let’s make a friend” and “Let’s talk about antiracism,” and wondered if anyone would sit down. Others brought more chairs and couches, until he had some 30 seats arranged in three circles.
All are now full, and the conversations hum. Some are confessional, testimonials to racism practiced and experienced. The circle I slip into looks toward broader solutions. A middle-aged African American man who says he works in “construction and performance art” urges the mutual investment that is a perennial, and perennially difficult, goal in black communities. “We need to do what they do in Chinatown,” he says. “Invest in business!” A fair-haired young woman, just graduated from the University of Georgia, wonders if what she learned in her Marxist-Leninist study group might be pertinent. Worlds collide, but gently.
“There is a level of trust here that is remarkable,” Lyon says, and I realize he’s talking not just about this conversation space but what he calls the surrounding “commons.” “I see this as potentially permanent. I would so love to see the Black Lives Matter Commons here—like Barcelona superblocks, like [car-banishing] Copenhagen, but about black culture.”
Across the street in the park, other volunteers are planting literal roots. Someone has planted four chestnut seedlings, memorials to George Floyd and three local victims of police violence. (Alas, they’re too close together to reach full glory.) Four carefully plotted, compost-heaped vegetable gardens also have taken shape, suitably framed: “This Garden Is for Black and Indigenous Folks and their Plant Allies.” One lead gardener tempers his hopes, however. “I want it to be beautiful so it will look really bad when they tear it up.”
On Pine Street, local black artists have laid down a blocklong “street mural” so beautiful and conspicuous officials may shrink from removing it, if they even want to. Seventeen-foot-high, meticulously drawn and painted letters, each by a different artist or team, spell out “Black Lives Matter” in styles by turns whimsical, geometric and symbolic. The project emulates similar new street art in Washington, D.C., and, especially, Charlotte, N.C.
This mega-artwork symbolically reclaims embattled turf, ground zero for more than three decades in Seattle’s battles over class, power and race. The precinct headquarters was only located there in the early 1980s because of a community uproar; it was to go in the Central District, the pre-gentrification center of Seattle’s black community, a mile to the east, but activists there resisted. So the cop shop landed on Capitol Hill, where reaction was more muted, even welcoming.
In the more turbulent ’90s and 2000s, however, things changed for the testier. Police confrontations with massed street kids and May Day protesters often turned violent. Rioting broke out in downtown Seattle, as elsewhere, in 1992 following the acquittal of the Los Angeles policemen who beat Rodney King, the first on-camera police violence to become a national sensation. Seattle police ill-advisedly pushed the rioters from downtown up Pine Street, where they scattered across Capitol Hill on a smashing and torching spree. The 1999 “Battle in Seattle,” when massive demonstrations shut down the World Trade Organization meeting, culminated on these same blocks as well. Demonstrators, many from the neighborhood, massed below the precinct building until police, backed by National Guard troops, drove them off with barrages of tear gas, flash bangs and rubber bullets. It became a battle for turf, just as the current occupation has. Chants “WTO must go!” gave way to “Get off our hill!”
Now that long-simmering local history has come to a boil, precipitated by accumulated outrage at police violence and racial inequity. Everything converges here. Mayor Durkan is as besieged as the precinct building (and like the police, the target of profuse graffiti, the most printable of which proclaims “Impeach Jenny Durkan”). Protesters, and at least a third of Seattle’s left-leaning City Council, want her to resign. Her own police chief has publicly disputed her decision to evacuate the precinct. Critics on the right, including the Seattle Police Officers Guild’s firebrand president, call it craven capitulation.
That decision may look better in retrospect, however. It bought time, preventing further, perhaps catastrophic escalation and giving volatile demonstrations the chance to morph into orderly occupation. The name change announced Saturday signaled a further consolidation of the movement, although some media still managed to confuse the issue by calling the new CHOP the “Capitol Hill Occupied Protest.” As one of them explained, BLM organizers had no idea who slapped “CHAZ” on the project, but “Capitol Hill Organized Protest” makes it clear: “This is not an autonomous zone. We’re not trying to secede from the United States,” merely to have “our rights upheld.”
An organized protest is one you can negotiate with. City officials, protest representatives and neighborhood business and property owners have begun talking about first steps: cooperating on safety and emergency services, trimming back the CHOP perimeter to let firetrucks and ambulances through. Much bigger issues remain: At a hundreds-strong “people’s assembly” outside the shuttered precinct station, I hear Nikkita Oliver, a charismatic former mayoral candidate and the most visible presence at CHOP public gatherings, lead the throng in a catechism of “core demands”: defund the police, release all arrested protesters, close the precinct. Kshama Sawant, the furthest-left member of our City Council, wants to turn the building into a community center.
Unlikely as that last measure may sound, there are precedents. Three hallowed Seattle institutions—the Northwest African American Heritage Museum, El Centro de la Raza, and the United Indians of All Tribes’ Daybreak Star Cultural Center—were born out of protest occupations, the first two of empty schools, the last of an obsolete army fort.
At the same time, the city has been steadily closing streets deemed unnecessary for auto traffic to create open pedestrian corridors. Pedestrians are already more dominant on Capitol Hill than in any other district.
Perhaps a Black Lives Matter Commons isn’t so far-fetched.