Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone or “CHAZ” is making the case for grassroots government and defunding the police. The newly established zone has been thriving under community-led activism and initiatives — without the police.
Since the Seattle Police Department vacated its East Precinct building last week, following days of tense protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood has transformed into an occupied precinct. Over the past week, organizers have created a vivid community, which pushes the message of Black Lives Matter.
As it demonstrates what an area that is free from the local government structure and control looks like, CHAZ finds itself at the center of the national debate on policing. Here’s everything you need to know about it.
How did it come about?
The clashes between demonstrators and police in Seattle drew nationwide attention after law enforcement officials made widespread use of controversial crowd control tactics like stun grenades, pepper spray, and tear gas. In response to widespread criticism and mounting outrage, the city’s mayor Jenny Durkan ordered the police to yield to protesters. On Monday, June 8, the police department pulled officers out of Seatle’s East Precinct.
“The [Seattle Police Department] seem like what they wanted to do is abandon the East Precinct and then wait on the borders, just like a few blocks away, for somebody to try to set a fire to repeat what was going on in Minneapolis,” a protester told Vox. “Then they can rush in and say, ‘Now our use of military force against unarmed civilians is justified.’”
Instead, protesters set about creating a peaceful and safe police-free neighborhood, or “autonomous zone.”
What is it used for now?
The six-block zone has evolved into a center for peaceful protest. It is now home to a community garden, painted murals, and free co-op grocery stores. The “No-cop Co-op,” for instance, supplies free food, water, and face masks.
Protesters have also invited the city’s homeless population to come and stay in the neighborhood. Community activities such as debates, movie nights, and games have been staged as well.
The zone is leaderless, however, it runs on volunteers, who have stepped in to keep the community running, doing everything from distributing food to cleaning up garbage in the area.
What do protestors in the zone want?
While the atmosphere is festive, there is an incredibly serious underlying message at the core of CHAZ.
A Black Lives Matter mural runs down the main street, and Stat the Artist (who pained the “I”) told ABC News: “The main message we’re trying to paint is police brutality, right, and we’re saying, if you kill a black person, we don’t want you to do that with impunity […] We want a conviction and we want a prosecution to the fullest extent.”
The city’s police force has been hit with more than 12,000 complaints since the protests began, including using pepper spray on a young girl and kneeling on the necks of two people during arrest — actions that inspired CHAZ, and why its residents are demanding change.
Have any officials spoken out about it?
President Trump is not happy about CHAZ. In a tweet on Friday he characterized its occupants as “terrorists” and “anarchists” and demanded the takeover should be ended. And in an interview with Fox News, the president once again dangled the possibility of military invention, saying “If we have to go in, we’re going to go in.”
Meanwhile, mayor Durkan is pondering the next steps for CHAZ. In an interview with CNN’s Andrew Cuomo, she discussed the possibility of peacefully reintroducing police into the precinct. “The police will be policing there, I want to be very clear on that… our chief of police was in there assessing today […] We want to make sure that we are being very thoughtful about how we respond.” Watch the full interview below.
Seattle’s Police Chief, Carmen Best, has also been vocal about getting her officers back in Capitol Hill, saying, “I am very angry about the situation that we have, and at this point we just want to make sure that it gets resolved.”
For now, the situation in CHAZ remains up in the air as it’s unclear whether authorities will intervene.