SEATTLE — The Seattle Police Department East Precinct has been boarded up since Monday and surrounded by protesters. A large banner over one wall now states, “THIS SPACE IS NOW PROPERTY OF THE SEATTLE PEOPLE.”
There’s another sign that states, “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” also called “CHAZ” on social media. The area that is now barricaded off by protesters covers about six city blocks.
At 11th and E. Pine, there’s a "Cop free CO-OP” that’s stocked with free food and supplies. Murals cover almost every wall — many of them honoring the black lives killed by police.
Now both police and protesters are starting to talk about what’s next.
“I think it means a lot of things. Everything in the autonomous zone is free right now,” said Kate VanPetten, who works at Caffe Vita in the neighborhood. “It’s an anti-racist zone,” she said. VanPetten said she and most employees have been participating in the protests almost every day.
Many businesses in the area that are starting to reopen amid the pandemic are supporting the movement.
“We’ve been setting out free coffee for the protesters and doing everything we can to support them,” VanPetten said.
There are also barricades preventing the Seattle Fire Department from accessing and responding to emergencies.
“We’re working to maintain a bit of health and safety,” said Chief Harold Scoggins of the Seattle Fire Department. “The ultimate goal is we want to see our streets open,” he said.
Some residents in the neighborhood say access to their buildings is blocked.
“It’s a bit stressful. It’s like checking in with somebody to get into your own home,” said Mckenzie Diamond, who lives in the “Autonomous Zone.” “Just making it so people can get into their buildings. Keep the zone however they want, and move the fencing so people can go home,” she said.
The Seattle Police Department removed barriers and cleared out the area Monday to de-escalate the situation. Officers also boarded up the building.
“We wanted to be able to facilitate and support peaceful demonstrations,” said Assistant Chief Deanna Nollette.
She said the department heard reports of individuals checking for people’s ID at barricades that people set up.
“No one at these checkpoints has the legal authority to demand identification from anyone. We ask if anyone is subjected to these demands to call 911 and report the incident,” Nollette said.
“We’ve heard, anecdotally, reports of citizens and businesses being asked to pay a fee to operate within this area. This is the crime of extortion. If anyone has been subjected to this, we need them to call 911,” Nollette added.
She said officers are responding to priority 911 calls in the area,; though, response times are slower since they’re not operating out of the East Precinct.
She also said the department was made aware of several threats to burn down the East Precinct building and pointed out the building is connected to apartments and businesses.
“This would endanger residents, firefighters and businesses,” Nollette said.
Protestors said they’re here to spread their message peacefully.
“Anyone causing any trouble towards the building does not have anything to do with what we’re trying to do. They are on their own agenda. They’re on a selfish agenda. We are here for the people,” said Rooks, a Seattle musician and protester.
But he emphasized it was critical to take over the building — at least from the outside.
“Now they’re being forced to look and hear us out,” Rooks said. “This isn’t normal for people. We shouldn’t have to force ourselves to live like this just to be heard,” he said.
He added that he feels the “Autonomous Zone” detracts from the goal.
“We’re not trying to take over a part of the city. We’re just trying to send a message and get some justice and equality,” Rooks said.
The Seattle Police Department said it is working to restart conversations about how to move forward.
“It’s just a matter of establishing this dialogue. We’d love nothing more than to be able to open our precinct buildings,” Nollette said. “What we want to do is give an opportunity for everyone’s tempers to calm, and for us to approach the table with a view towards equity,” she said.