SEATTLE — Tracy Stewart stands on a street corner in the newly claimed Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone and shakes her head.
Young white people are wandering what’s become known as CHAZ, White Claw seltzers in hand as a tuba player lofts a jaunty tune into the evening air. A woman is drawing chalk art on the street as dozens of others wait patiently in line to buy hot dogs, ignoring the free food piled across the street at the “No Cop Co-Op” tent. A red-haired woman roller-skates in turquoise boots and couples wander the six-block area with $16 craft Negronis. A Pilates instructor poses for photos at the “Free Cap Hill” sign and a group of people sit on couches at the “Conversation Café” near a Post-It covered Dream Board.
“Somebody’s dead. Why do Black bodies have to be in the street for people to have to show up?” says Stewart, a Black mental health therapist. “These people, I’m not even sure they know why they’re here.”
In just a few short days, Seattle protesters who once violently clashed with riot police over the death of George Floyd have had their rough edges dulled by tens of thousands of tourists and sightseers. Once criticized by President Donald Trump and FOX News commentators as a haven for anarchists and the far-left Antifa movement, CHAZ has morphed into what looks and feels like a mini Burning Man festival, complete with its own corps of volunteer street cleaners and medics, as well as dreadlocked white girls blowing soap bubbles and taking selfies in front of paintings of men and women killed by Seattle police.
The autonomous zone’s evolution from a somber protest site to street festival highlights the problem Seattle’s Black residents say they face: The city’s overwhelmingly white population loves to protest but might not be taking the Black Lives Matter movement as seriously as they should.
King County, home to Seattle, has about 2.2 million residents, and is about 65% white. Only about 6% of residents are Black and the Seattle Police Department has a long history of using excessive force against the area’s minority population. In 2012, President Barack Obama’s Justice Department implemented strict oversight of Seattle police, leading to a 60% drop in the use of serious force against the community over the next eight years as taxpayers poured an extra $100 million into the department.
In early May, city officials asked a federal judge to remove the decree, arguing Seattle police were no longer the racist, violent department they once were.
Eighteen days later on Memorial Day, Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man in Minneapolis, was pinned to the ground by officers after being accused of passing a fake $20 bill at a grocery store. In a video of the encounter, Floyd gasped for breath as officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes while three other officers looked on.
Floyd’s death sparked a wave of protests internationally, and Seattle’s veteran protesters swung into action, with a massive demonstration on May 30. There were incidents of looting and violence, and a Seattle police officer was caught on video restraining a man by kneeling on his neck.
The protests grew more confrontational, with police using tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the massive crowds protesting police brutality. And then on June 8, police withdrew from the East Precinct station, ceding control over what’s now known as CHAZ. Protesters ransacked the building, and with spray paint renamed it the “Seattle People Department.”
Most businesses in the area have since closed, although a liquor store, ramen restaurant and taco joint are still doing brisk business. Police officers have showed no sign of trying to reassert control in the area, and a steady flow of city officials, including the fire chief and mayor, have visited to discuss trash, sanitation and emergency response concerns.
In an interview with local TV station King5 on Friday, Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, who is Black, declined to give a timeframe for reasserting control, although she noted losing access to the precinct station has dramatically increased response times of officers responding to 911 calls in the area.
Friday afternoon, poet Roberto Carlos Ascalon visited CHAZ with his family and friends, towing children ages 3, 4 and 5 in a small wagon. He and his wife live in a nearby neighborhood and they wanted the children to witness history unfolding.
Ascalon, 46, saidthe national response to the coronavirus pandemic — which includes $600 payments to the unemployed, billions of dollars in business grants to restaurants and shops, and widespread mask-wearing and social distancing — demonstrates that society can transform itself when and if it decides to.
“If we have a chance to abolish systemic racism and white supremacy, shouldn’t we do everything we can to take that chance?” says Ascalon, a first-generation Filipino American. “We are changing the entire system of the world on a dime. We can actually do this.”
Stewart, however, shakes her head as she thinks about the problems and solutions. A big part of the problem, she says, is that white people who love to protest fail to follow through by holding city officials accountable for new police contracts or spending priorities. She wants to know: Where were these people when the chief pushed back against union contract changes? Where were these people when the city declared the police department “fixed” early last month?
“White people need to stay in when it gets uncomfortable and stop treating this like it is a party,” she says. “The marching and the protesting, all of that is important. But the work is every day holding the mayor and the City Council and the Legislature and all the way up to the president accountable.”
A big feature of the Seattle protests is the lack of specific leadership and who gets to negotiate change with the political establishment.
There’s no equivalent, at least not yet, to a Martin Luther King Jr., Congressman John Lewis, Jesse Jackson or Patrisse Cullors, the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement who has organized protests after the death of Floyd and other Black men, women and children in recent years. Ben Crump, the civil rights attorney for Floyd’s family, hasn’t put in an appearance in Seattle. The local chapter of Black Lives Matter has helped organize protest marches, but the CHAZ doesn’t have anyone in charge.
Participants have posted signs around calling for changes ranging from maintaining the police consent decree, to reducing police funding to put more counselors and nurses in schools, and even requiring police officers to ensure their badge numbers are readable.
Other protesters are demanding financial reform to prohibit the super-wealthy, like Seattle-based Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, from getting richer without also investing in their communities, and to call for more financial and community assistance for the city’s large population of people experiencing homelessness.
“We are not here to become a bunch of armed mercenaries. We just want equal rights,” said Matthew “Bootleg Bill” Born, 40, who is white. “This is so into the unknown. We can only ask for so much and try to leverage that. We’re trying to leverage space at the table. We’re tired of being victimized by police officers in riot gear. We’re not at war.”
But if the CHAZ lacks a leader, it most definitely has two visible faces: community journalists and activists TraeAnna Holiday, 38, and Omari Salisbury, 44, who have been conducting live Facebook and YouTube broadcasts daily from next door to the abandoned police station, based out of a loft borrowed from a Microsoft techie. Holiday and Salisbury, who are both Black, work for a marketing firm, Converge, using its resources to raise questions and highlight issues they’ve been pushing for years.
Walking around CHAZ, Salisbury is greeted like a celebrity: people stop him for selfies, they boast how often they watch his videos, or ask for advice on how to get started in citizen journalism. They offer free coffee, doughnuts, handshakes and hugs, which he sometimes forgets to decline amid the pandemic.
He’s has been on the front lines of the protests for days, capturing videos that he says shows police lied about who has been starting confrontations, in particular when an officer grabbed a umbrella protesters were using to shield themselves and pepper-sprayed the crowd.
Like many Black residents in Seattle, Salisbury has a deep-seated fear that these new white allies will once again quickly lose interest.
“This is a time for tough questions,” he says. “A lot of the things the community has been saying, especially the Black community, they’ve been saying for a long time. There’s hardly anything out there that’s new. These aren’t new things.”
Friday evening, Salisbury interviewed Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, asking her what assurances she could give the Black community that things will actually change this time. Three members of the nine-member Seattle City Council have called on Durkan to resign over how the city has mismanaged the protest response. None of the council members are Black.
“We have let people down. And we quit too early. We got comfortable with the changes we made and we thought it was done,” Durkan told Salisbury. “And it’s not done. Words, in many ways don’t matter. It’s going to be action. So peoplegotta see what I’m going to do and how I’m willing to listen and then do what the community needs and wants.”
What the community wants is change, say many Black protesters. Change from the status quo. Change from institutional racism and biased policing and violence that targets minority faces. Change so that white allies will do more to support people of color.
Some Black protesters expressed gratitude that white allies were showing up.
“We’ve gotta have hope that it’s going to change. Otherwise we’re going to die,” says Lawanna Wright, 44, as she watched some of the estimated 60,000 people march through Seattle Friday afternoon in a silent protest organized by Black Lives Matter. “It’s great to see the variety of people. There’s not a lot of Black faces out here. And that gives me hope we’re not out here fighting this battle alone.”
But many are worried they will soon be left alone to take on the city’s racist structures.
Like many of the city’s Black residents, Wright, a substance abuse counselor, notes that Seattle’s white residents are really good at protesting but not so good at bringing about systemic change. There were the 1999 World Bank protests opposing globalization and the 2011 Occupy Seattle protests, both of which did little to halt the increasing corporate control over daily life in the city. And while the city has a reputation as a liberal bastion, Durkan is a former federal prosecutor criticized for overzealous “sweeps”of homeless encampments. Meanwhile, during the 2017 mayoral election, only 42% of registered voters participated.
Wright’s colleague Candis Dover, 55, says the true test will be time, calling this moment “the Kumbaya phase.” Her father, born in 1918 in Georgia, quit school in the third grade to pick cotton as a sharecropper because that was his only option.
“They freed the slaves but didn’t give them a pot to piss in,” she says. “We have to keep this momentum and keep moving. We can’t let up. We just can’t do this by ourselves. We have police in the schools but no nurses. We have police in the schools, but no mental health counselors.”
Watching the silent protest flood into Jefferson Park, protester Mackenzie Thornquist, 28, a flight attendant, says she’s confident her generation is ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Black community.
“My parents and their parents, some stood up for what was right but not enough of them,” says Thornquist, who is white. “The younger generation is ready to stand up. A lot of people have been too neutral.”
Back at the CHAZ, Holiday, the community activist and citizen journalist, lets a note of frustration creep into her voice as she thinks about the way the media has covered the protests, riots and takeover of the area. Conservative media has focused on the presence of armed men in the area, none of whom were breaking the law, or simply concocted fake images like FOX News, which was forced to apologize after publishing a doctored photo that appeared to show an armed man in front of a looted store.
Trump in a statement on Twitter Friday demanded that city officials end the takeover: “The terrorists burn and pillage our cities, and they think it is just wonderful, even the death.”
Holiday says all she sees around her is love, kindness and community, from the free food to the colorful artwork and the volunteer medics helping everyone stay safe. What’s been startling to politicians, she says, is that Americans truly want to see change, and they’re increasingly demanding it.
“The apathy in this nation has been so real. Seeing people stand up and say ‘we can’t see this happen anymore’ has literally shocked the world. It’s making every leader think about their position,” she says. “I have two sons. Two Black boys. What I want is real change. Not minor. Not incremental. But something that makes the world shift.”