by Renee Raketty
The standoff between the Seattle Police Department and Black Lives Matter protesters entered a new phase on Monday. The Seattle Police Department abandoned it’s East Precinct in an effort to de-escalate rising tensions with protesters who have sought to curb police abuses in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police. Local protesters have rallied around the East Precinct as a symbolic victory and stepping-off point for organizing around racial, social and economic injustice.
“I don’t want to celebrate until we have that real change that we are looking for,” said Raz Simone, a rapper and local activist. “I’m just being mindful and staying focused.”
“We need to start thinking about solutions and other ways to build on other systems because we are talking about defunding the police department. We are probably going to go after education next. So, we need to make sure that what we have as a substitute…is going to do what we need it to do… We need to focus on what actually needs to be done.”
The protesters have since claimed a six-block area near the East Precinct as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). The area had been a flashpoint between police and protesters for several days, culminating in the longest and most aggressive police action undertaken by the SPD. Just after midnight on the morning of Monday, June 8th, the police unleashed a volley of crowd control devices such as flash bangs, pepper spray and tear gas, which led to minor injuries among protesters.
The Seattle Office of Police Accountability announced that they were investigating the SPD actions. Likewise, the ACLU and other groups have filed for a restraining order against the SPD to halt the use of “excessive force.” U.S. District Court Judge Richard A. Jones will hear oral arguments on Friday, June 12th. The legal documents claim that “the SPD has indiscriminately used excessive force against protesters” on an “almost nightly basis” against legal observers, journalists and medical personnel.
Reverend Beth Chronister, a minister with the University Unitarian Church, says she has sided with the protesters. She has lived in Seattle for four years and has never seen a situation escalate so quickly or violently; not even in the Midwest where she has roots. “There has been legitimate anger, grief and demands here but they have been gathering peacefully to demand change and to demand accountability,” said Chronister. “That is being met with this use of force that has been unnecessary and uncalled for by the police. The use of tear gas, curfew and arrests I have been seeing the police escalate this during the protests and not creating a safe space to listen to the demands.”
“The protection of Black people and Black lives is God’s vision for life. Every person has inherent worth and dignity. The system of racism and the system of racist police deny that truth by taking the lives of black people with impunity.”
The SPD has countered that items had been thrown at officers and their actions were justified to maintain public safety. Assistant Chief Deanna Nollette said that they are looking to dialogue with the protesters “on a way to move forward” to reopen the East Precinct. They say the closure of the precinct has reduced response times and their ability to continue criminal investigations. According to Nollette, people within CHAZ have also been asking for identification and seeking donations from area businesses. She added that if anyone “feels threatened or intimidated” by the protesters that they should report it to 9-1-1.
A walk through the CHAZ on Wednesday showed an incredibly organized effort. A “No Cop Co-Op” dispensed food, while sidewalk booths featured masks, hand sanitizer, and even faith providers offering blessings to anyone assembled. Artistic efforts were on display everywhere, including on the walls of East Precinct, where one mural read: “Unity, Diversity, Freedom.” A small group was also busy painting “Black Lives Matter” onto Pine Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues. Not since the “invasion” of Fort Lawton by Native Americans in 1970 have minorities and their allies sought to claim land to address systemic injustices that robbed people of color of equal opportunities, civil rights and led to health and economic inequalities – among other social ills.
“This is a work in progress,” said Jerry Knight, who celebrated outside the East Precinct on Monday. “This is a victory as long as we really focus on the foundation of racism and its history.”
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant says she too was the victim of police action during the police assault on Monday morning. She suggested turning the East Precinct into a community center for restorative justice while speaking at a rally inside Seattle City Hall on Tuesday. She has also introduced a bill to ban chokeholds by members of law enforcement – the likely cause of Floyd’s death.
“The thing about winning victories is that you need to build on it. We need to engage in a massive and peaceful escalation of our movement,” Sawant told the crowd on Capitol Hill during a celebratory gathering on Monday. “To be honest, to win it, we will need to build an even bigger and more powerful movement than we have to date.”
“We have to remember that what built the movement is not the people who are in power that may look like you or me but it is the people that have shown – through their actions – that they are in solidarity with ordinary people and marginalized communities.”
Nikkita Oliver, a former mayoral candidate and local activist, took to the mic on Monday to say that the movement was not about personalities or who “does or doesn’t show up to the barricade” but a diffuse movement “organizing under a set of the same demands, values and principles.”
“We are unifying,” said Oliver, “We have people that are rivals in the same space talking about one aligned vision, one aligned struggle against the white supremacist system. That’s powerful.”
Meanwhile, President Trump took to twitter on Wednesday to threaten the future of CHAZ and the activists that created it. In a tweet to Governor Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, he wrote: “Take back your city NOW. If you don’t do it, I will.
This is not a game. These ugly Anarchists must be stooped [sic] IMMEDIATELY. MOVE FAST!” The President followed that up with another tweet 38 minutes later in which he added that “[d]omestic Terrorists have taken over Seattle.”
More protests are planned for Friday. The Seattle Public Schools plans to approve a resolution that would end its partnership with the SPD for one year during its school board meeting on June 24th.