By Ingrid Antill ’22
On July 1, dozens of Seattle police officers armed with batons and rifles arrested over 30 protestors and cleared out the six blocks in Downtown Seattle once known as CHOP.
CHOP (the Capitol Hill Organized Protest) initially called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), was a self-declared autonomous zone and occupation protest established in the midst of the George Floyd protests in Seattle. Nightly standoffs between protesters and police had grown intense, with Seattle police being accused of using excessive force against protesters, medical personnel, and journalists, accumulating over 12,000 complaints about the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) response to the demonstrations. After nine days of continual clashes, police staff at Seattle’s East Precinct headquarters vacated the building on the evening of June 8.
It remains unclear who ordered the evacuation of the East Precinct. Neither Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan nor Police Chief Carmen Best has taken responsibility. “We were asked to do an operational plan in case we needed to leave,” Best said at a press conference on June 12. “The decision was made. We’re still evaluating about how that change came about but it didn’t come from me.”
Once the police were gone, protesters reversed barricades, creating a protective autonomous zone spanning six blocks of Downtown Seattle. Protestors put up a barrier reading “You Are Now Entering Capitol Hill,” signs reading “You Are Now Leaving the USA,” and used spray paint to rename the now-occupied police department as the “Seattle People’s Department East Precinct.”
The zone sought to decentralize local government and create a neighborhood without police. Protestors published an extensive list of demands in a blog post to Medium on June 9, split into four categories: the justice system, health and human services, economics, and education. Their demands included “an end to the school-to-prison pipeline and the abolition of youth jails,” abolition of the Seattle Police Department, a full-scale federal “investigation into all past and current cases of police brutality in Seattle and Washington,” and “decriminalization of the acts of protest.”
Perception of the zone varied throughout the political spectrum. In more left-leaning circles, activists initially expressed doubt over the true goals and nature of the zone. “These people, I’m not even sure they know why they’re here,” said Tracy Stewart, a Black mental health therapist and protester, on June 14. “White people need to stay in when it gets uncomfortable and stop treating this like it is a party.” Many felt that its atmosphere was comparable to that of a music festival rather than an organized protest or occupation with its hot dog stands and visitors posing for pictures in front of murals depicting victims of police brutality. This evolution from occupation to block party garnered a fair amount of reproval early on in its existence, but the more common criticism—largely perpetuated by right-wing media outlets—is quite different and sees CHOP in a more sinister light.
Reports from conservative media portrayed the zone as an anarchist threat to society. Fox News was called out for its usage of various photoshopped images depicting a masked gunman amongst protestors in an article published on June 12, the New York Post made claims that a “SoundCloud rapper” had become CHOP’s “assault-rifle toting leader” on the same day, and the SPD made public claims on June 10 that CHOP protesters were extorting businesses and cited “local reports” that armed guards were demanding IDs at the barricades. These reports, amongst other alarmist allegations, have since been debunked, and the SPD walked back on their extortion claims on June 11.
There have been four shootings in or near the zone within ten days, resulting in two fatalities, according to CNN. The first shooting, which occurred one block away from the empty precinct on June 20, led to the death of nineteen-year-old Horace Lorenzo Anderson Jr. The SPD attempted to respond but were allegedly met with a “violent crowd,” declaring that the victim “left the premises” and had already been taken to the hospital by volunteer medics. The motive is currently unknown, but CHOP representatives made a statement saying that the situation escalated due to “gang affiliations” between the individuals involved. The following day, on June 21, a 17-year-old was taken to Harborview Medical Center with a gunshot wound to the arm and refused to speak to investigators.
33-year-old DeJuan Young, who was also shot near CHOP, claims he is still alive because of the protestors and says that he was shot on his way out of the zone in a racially-motivated crime according to KIRO 7. Despite being technically outside of the CHOP zone, Young says it was CHOP’s volunteer medics, rather than the SPD, who tended to him and drove him to Harborview Medical Center. The most recent shooting, which occurred on the morning of June 29, resulted in the death of 16-year-old Antonio Mays Jr. and left a 14-year-old boy in critical condition.
President Donald Trump called the protesters “ugly anarchists” and demanded that Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan “take back” the zone immediately, referring to the organizers as “domestic terrorists” in a tweet on June 11. Mayor Durkan proposed a $20 million cut to the SPD budget and a hiring freeze on the police force on June 24. On June 17, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee approved a major police reform bill, marking Congress's first attempt to address the issue of police brutality since the death of George Floyd. Politico reports that Seattle's CHOP had been “a recurring theme throughout the proceedings.”
On June 22, Mayor Durkan said that the SPD would return to the East Precinct “peacefully and in the near future,” following the three shootings in or near the zone, and on June 24, a Twitter account titled "Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (Official Account)" tweeted that "the CHOP project is now concluded.” After these announcements, for a few days, there was a reported presence of protesters denying talks of an exodus. Then, on July 1, after Mayor Durkan issued an executive order, the SPD cleared the area and reclaimed the station.