A black plastic tarpaulin sign hanging out the front of the now defunct Seattle Police Department East Precinct Building reads, “This Space Is Now Property of the Seattle People”, as the city and its local police abandoned the building on 8 June.
The East Precinct police building is situated inside what’s now known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), which is a six block area in the middle of Seattle, plus a park. The sector is currently operating as a police-free area in the city, with civilians running the show.
At the height of the Black Lives Matter uprisings that swept the US following the 25 May Minneapolis police killing of African American man George Floyd, Seattle police spent a week inside the precinct building engaged in a nightly standoff with demonstrators, until officers eventually gave up.
And with the police gone, protesters took over the city’s art and cultural centre, setting up roadblocks at the entrances, and christening the setup CHAZ.
The space now has something of a festival atmosphere about it, with its emphasis on racial justice, and families from elsewhere are visiting daily.
A no-cop zone
CHAZ is an experiment in what could be, at a time when calls are being made right across the US to defund the police, or completely abolish the institution.
Indeed, the autonomous zone embodies the concept of handing back responsibility for community safety to the people.
As the CHAZ has continued operating autonomously, it has increasingly done so with the implicit approval of city authorities. And the Capitol Hill Business Alliance has been in contact with local business owners, who have assured all is well from their side of the bargain.
“We have four blocks in Seattle that is more like a block party atmosphere. It’s not an armed takeover. It’s not a military junta,” Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan told CNN a few weeks back. “There is no threat right now to the public.”
Activists occupying the zone have issued the city with a list of demands. These include the abolition of the police and youth prisons, a reopening of police brutality cases and reparations for the victims, the decriminalisation of protests and expunging past cannabis convictions.
The urban experiment continues
Over the weekend, detractors of the protester-run zone – which unsurprisingly includes president Trump – have had reason to rebuke the experiment, as early on Saturday morning, two people were shot in the park: a 19-year-old man died, while another person was critically injured.
Although, those occupying the CHAZ promptly dealt with the matter. As reported in the New York Times, medics in the zone rushed to help the victims. And when the fire department failed to arrive at a previously designated meeting place, the injured were rushed to the hospital by activists.
The Seattle Times outlined on the day following the shootings that there was no evidence to suggest the violence had anything to do with the CHAZ protesters, and the area had since returned to the peaceful “living experiment in urban policy” that it is.
The images of the CHAZ flag and the No Cop Co-Op were sourced on Wikimedia Commons.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.