Dispatches from CHAZ, Seattle's new autonomous zone
For 10 nights, protesters faced off with police on Capitol Hill in Seattle. The protesters wanted racial justice, for system overhaul. For the police to be defunded.
On the eleventh day, the police left, effectively abandoning the precinct. The East Precinct did not burn down that night, as some had predicted. Instead, protesters claimed six blocks here and turned it into the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ.
This week, KUOW’s journalists fanned out across CHAZ to get a sense of this new autonomous zone. --Isolde Raftery
Wednesday: Protection at 12th & Pike
Armed guards stand in front of barriers into the CHAZ at 12th and Pike Street.
"We try to vet each other based on the knowledge we have," says one, holding an AR-15 rifle, talking about others in the area who also carry firearms.
"It's pretty easy to spot somebody who thinks they know what they're talking about, but they really don't," he says. "We call them out and we don't let them get up here. They're free to practice their Second Amendment right, but, not gonna lie, we keep an eye on them just to make sure..."
Another guard, carrying an AR-15 along with a pistol, notes recent right-wing protests in Olympia.
"You notice that all the white protesters that showed up to capitol buildings armed, police didn't fuck with them because they showed up and they show that they weren't fucking around," he says. "So we show up the same. We show we're not fucking around anymore -- then look, they leave."
--Casey Martin, reporter
Wednesday: Welcome to the autonomous zone
crowd gathers at 12th Avenue and East Pine Street, inside the (self-proclaimed by protesters) "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone," to listen to speakers.
Graffiti and chalk drawings covered the pavement and building walls. A vigil grows with candles, flowers, and pictures. One message reads "Rest in Power to Those Killed During the George Floyd Rebellion."
Orange barricades surround CHAZ. No cars allowed, here.
--Megan Farmer, photographer
Thursday: CHAZ wakes up
ost people visit the "free" zone in the afternoon or at night, when there's a buzz of activity with public speakers, bands, and community brainstorms. I check it out at 7:15 a.m.
People sleepily sip coffee, I overhear chatter about police reform, and the paint is drying on the street. Last night, artists had painted a giant BLACK LIVES MATTER mural on Pine Street. That’s the largest of countless murals, graffiti, and other signs in the CHAZ.
There's a free food co-op covered by over a dozen umbrellas (formerly used as pepper-spray shields), and people brewing coffee. While it still looks like Capitol Hill, the feeling is different -- at least for me.
People pay attention here. When a woman wanders by, crying, the CHAZ folx call her over. "Hey, would you like some food?" they ask. Yes, she nods, she wants food.
The coronavirus pandemic is rarely mentioned in the CHAZ, but it doesn't need to be. Most wear masks, and the juice shop I like is boarded up, as are most of the businesses on the block.
--Paige Browning, newscaster and reporter
Thursday: Feeling good in the CHAZ
"Excuse me, sir, what are you going to do in the letters?"
Walking through the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone on Thursday, Francis Vann, 15, pauses to speak with an artist.
The letters B-L-A-C-K L-I-V-E-S M-A-T-T-E-R had been painted in large white block print down Pine Street the night before. Artist Moses Sun had been given the letter "M" to paint.
Sun shows Francis and her sister Shazzy Vann his conceptual sketches. The sisters ooh at the pretty colors.
Francis is a freshman at Ballard High School; Shazzy recently graduated from Washington State University in Pullman.
"It feels very accepting here," says Francis. "I love the energy. I feel safe as a Black person here."
Francis says she feels awkward in high school, where there are few Black students. "I feel uncomfortable," she says. "I feel really extra tired. When people are trying to talk about slavery, everyone looks at you. I'm not a slave. Why are you looking at me?"
Shazzy Vann says their mother taught them about Black history. All they learned in school was about slavery, she says. They learned about Emmett Till when they were 10.
"She is straight-forward," Shazzy Vann says. "She told us the truth."
Francis says she came to the demonstration after a conversation with her aunt, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. when she was Francis's age.
Francis Vann was staying with this aunt, who lives in Tacoma. The next morning, she got on the 594 bus, straight for the protest.
--Isolde Raftery, online managing editor
Thursday: The artist with the letter "M"
Moses Sun, a mixed media artist who lives in lower Queen Anne, got a text from a friend about painting a letter on the BLACK LIVES MATTER block letters down Pine Street.
The text said Friday would be the day for painting, which Sun debated, because his 6-year-old daughter would be with him that day. But the block letters were finished early, by Thursday morning.
Sun’s work acknowledges various diasporas. A painting titled “Red” honors Harlem's vibrant energy.
“I’ve always noticed that where I’ve found real comfort and acceptance was always black people, Asian people and Latino people,” Sun says. “I have my white co-conspirators, too, but they have to be co-conspirators, I’m not interested in allies.”
What is a co-conspirator?
“A co-conspirator is going to watch my back, not just contribute,” he says. “A co-conspirator is going to be like, ‘I’m not just going to buy your art, I’m going to be there by your side.”
A loyal friend, in other words.
“Someone could say, ‘I’ve donated to Black Lives Matter,’ but when they go home, there is no one black around them,” he says. “Yet they can feel good about what they did as an ally. But they never really learned, or got to know, or put themselves out there to be embarrassed enough to be like, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m interested.”
--Isolde Raftery, online managing editor
Thursday afternoon: Vegetable starts at Bobby Morris Playfield
Hundreds of people with bikes congregate on the Bobby Morris Playfield at Cal Anderson Park.
A single voice leads the chant “Black lives matter,” and the crowd echoes back, louder, “Black lives matter!”
It is the end of one of many rallies here within the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, calling for an end of police brutality -- and often the police, full stop.
Nearby, on the field, Ian Butterworth, 31, places a tray of tomato and cucumber vegetable starts against a light pole. Butterworth wears black clothing, and a black bandanna over his face. Dark shades cover his eyes; tattoos climbed his arms.
He uses black marker to spell out “Protest together! Plant together! Live together!”
Butterworth has attended most days of the protest.
“This is a movement that people are working to build on," he says. "I think, personally, in my goal, it's to not be a weekend warrior.”
The tear gas and the explosions from days before were traumatic. Gardening provides a sense of release. The plants he brought, to give away for free, would likely survive in a pot, in a front yard, without fertilizer, and minimal care, Butterworth says.
“Someone might take it, and it might inspire them to kind of grow a bigger garden maybe next year,” he says.
--Ashley Hiruko, reporter
Thursday: A walk through CHAZ
tands emerge, offering free food and coffee. A sign-up sheet for "night watch."
Businesses are mostly boarded up because of the coronavirus pandemic but some are open, like a ramen shop. Someone gets their hair cut at a barber shop.
Art projects are underway ... people walk their dogs ... the mood is light and fun. A brief respite from days of tension and protest.
--Juan Pablo Chiquiza, Social Media Strategist
Thursday: Living near the CHAZ
Around midnight, I heard a low rumble in the street and I jumped on Twitter. Was that a police blast? No, it was my neighbor dragging in the garbage.
I live 10 blocks from the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone with my husband and son, age 9. My husband’s office is at the main intersection of CHAZ Central, at 11th and Pine. We’ve lived here more than 15 years and know these streets, the cafe owners, the regulars on the hill.
Our son grew up calling the now occupied park Kaller Handerson. (It’s Cal Anderson.)
I am relieved the nightly police blasts have fallen silent. I am relieved the unrelenting news helicopters have retreated. I am relieved this evolving autonomous zone has remained peaceful and offers a space for conversation.
I’ve walked the perimeter of the zone almost nightly since the protests here started, since before it was nicknamed CHAZ. I wore a mask to protect from Covid-19, I came home before dark, I talked to people at a six-foot distance about their experience there.
Before CHAZ, I watched demonstrators and police in a nightly standoff that showed no sign of detente. One afternoon, I watched demonstrators try to block any cars from exiting the police barricade. When an officer attempted to speak to the crowd, someone with a loudspeaker yelled “don’t trust him just because he’s Black.”
A few nights before that I watched a livestream where a protester repeatedly yelled for all the cops to kill themselves. Then I watched how nights ended when police unleashed stun grenades and tear gas on the crowds. Often, we had reporters on the ground nearby, and I was up keeping tabs on them through a flurry of texts. “Are you safe?” “Where are you?” “How much phone battery do you have left?”
The scene has transformed. The vibe is a mix of street party, historical revolution, media spectacle, teach-in, artist collective, ecovillage. Above all, it is protest ground. I learned quickly that many people don’t want their pictures taken there. “No faces,” two young women reminded me, as I snapped photos of them painting a BLM sign big enough for the helicopters to read.
The medic vehicles also have signs requesting no photos or video that identify them. One told me they fear retaliation at work or from police for joining in the protest. Near the East Precinct Tuesday night, I chatted with two armed security guards outside a local business.
“We have a front seat to the revolution,” the guard said, beaming. “I never thought I’d get to live through something like this. I hope they keep it going.” The other guard nodded along. One was Black; the other looked Latino. Both around 30 or so.
Groups on the perimeter told me they were there to keep a watch, to help keep things peaceful. On that Tuesday night, as I left the zone, a young Black man cruised by on his bike and said thank you. I guess he was thanking me for coming? I reflexively said thank you back. Returning home, a neighbor asked me about the scene. Her high-school age son asked me about it the night before. She won’t let her kids go near the protests.
“You don’t have to think about that,” she tells me. “There’s no way I’ll let them go.” She’s Black. And she’s right. My son is very blond; you’d never guess his mom is half Mexican. But her reaction was before CHAZ even had a name; the police had just cleared out. I wonder if she’ll let the kids wander up there now? And what they’d think of it?
As for the helicopters, they’re back occasionally, and I’ve come to embrace the noise. And rather than a nuisance, I think of them now as a reminder of this urgent and defining moment.
--Liz Jones, editor
Thursday: Signs of the times
Welcome to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, the sign says. These six blocks are covered with signs and graffiti for racial justice.
Thursday: Baby Tilden attends the protest
Gabe Magic and his 10-month-old baby Tilden Magic walk through the CHAZ. The Magics live eight blocks away in the Central District, where they heard the loud helicopters every night. Now that it is quieter, baby Tilden has come out for the first time to the CHAZ.
--Isolde Raftery, online managing editor