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‘A really nice community feeling’: Inside the occupation of Seattle streets, protesters push for change

By Jared Brown For The Spokesman-Review

SEATTLE – Former police barriers, many of them decorated with community art and set up in part of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, now act partly in reverse, marking a section of the city that is free from law enforcement but still protected from violent outside agitators.

Confusion about what to call the area, which was first dubbed the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ, continued Saturday, as some started to espouse more support for referring to the police-free city blocks as the Capitol Hill Occupy Protest, or CHOP.

“We are here occupying the space, protesting,” said Malcolm, who walked around the CHOP leading chants with a megaphone but hesitated to call himself a leader. He declined to provide his last name.

“We have to actually tell people what they can do,” he added, noting how the demonstration is about education and change. “I hope that with all the people coming in we can captivate them. … And hopefully, they can take something positive home.”

The CHOP makes up only about four blocks, mostly on Pine Street, but it has drawn the ire of President Donald Trump’s tweets, sparking significant national media attention.

Some demonstrators bristled at so-called “tourists” who came into the area to take photos, grab free food or drink alcohol but did not stay for speeches, such as the Black women-led teach-in held Saturday afternoon, or engage in discussions.

The demands relayed by demonstrators also vary but overlap on three objectives: reducing funding to police departments, investing resources in community services and releasing jailed protesters.

Demonstrators acting as a combination of greeters and neighborhood watch volunteers staff the entrances at major intersections, such as 12th Avenue and Pike Street and 10th and Pine, at all hours. They radio in potential disturbances, such as men armed with assault-style rifles, and wave goodbye to people on their way out.

“It’s insanely calm,” said Noah Holton, a 21-year-old college student who was staffing one of the gates for the second day and hadn’t heard of any injuries to demonstrators. “It’s just a really nice community feeling here.”

Holton said he had been camping at Cal Anderson Park, which is inside the CHOP, for two days as of Saturday. He joined the demonstration when he saw people being tear-gassed by Seattle police, which he later experienced firsthand.

A woman walked by at one point to ask Holton a few questions and take pictures to disprove rumors that people with guns are guarding the gates and that businesses inside are being charged fees to operate.

“We’re not going to deny anyone access, as long as they don’t mean us any harm,” said Holton, who noted how people trained in de-eseclation are ready to respond to incidents.

Inside the CHOP, booths lined the street doling out free water, food and face masks, which nearly all people had brought with them already. A steady stream of people dropped off supplies, while signs also directed people where to send monetary donations via the smartphone app Venmo.

One man was collecting and distributing clothing donations as a part of a community effort. Many people spent the day planting produce in a community garden for people of color in the park.

Other groups gathered signatures to place a local tax on Amazon and helped people with paperwork to register to vote.

The primary distraction from progressive causes, which proceeded throughout the day, was a few men playing Christian music on a speaker who interrupted speakers and claimed the protest went against the teachings of the Bible.

A number of demonstrators struggled with one of the men in particular for hours while others asked people to ignore them. A few onlookers debated whether the men deserved to be heard throughout the day.

A woman, who played a drum and sang the indigenous “AIM Song” to drown out the man’s rebukes of demonstrators, performed music with two other Native American people later in the afternoon.

Around 2 p.m., hundreds gathered around a stage for the teach-in at 12th Avenue and Pine Street outside the Seattle police East Precinct, which was surrounded by fencing, art and memorials to Black people who died from police violence. One sign declared it a community center, and lettering on the building was painted over to read “Seattle People Department.”

Dozens of Black people were called to the front by speakers, followed by other people of color, while far more white people stood and sat behind them.

One of the Black female speakers, Tarika Powell, a fossil fuel infrastructure development policy analyst, said the CHOP had restored peace in the days since protesters were met with violence by police.

“This brings joy to a place of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and other violence,” Powell said. “SPD wants to come back in here without meeting any of our demands, and this is not acceptable.”

Powell, who said she survived Hurricane Katrina and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, recalled her reaction to a flash-bang grenade exploding near her at a demonstration: She froze.

She said police hit her directly with two more flash-bang grenades before a man in all black, likely an antifa protester, pulled her to safety and stayed with her until she was walking normally.

“Now (police) claim all they want to do is communicate,” said Powell, who riffed on officers’ lack of directions to protesters before firing tear gas and explosives.

Powell said demonstrators already have come to the table with demands for city leadership and that it’s their turn to respond, not look for leaders with whom to negotiate. CHOP demonstrators said there are no real leaders of the movement.

Another speaker, who wore a mask and did not give her name, called on more people to take action rather than treat the CHOP as a block party, call out friends and family members for prejudiced actions, and not kneel with police in shows of solidarity.

“Know your place and be active in that space,” said a speaker who referred to herself as J. “It’s showing up the next day and the next day and the next day. … It’s calling out of work. It’s quitting your job.”

She also said white allies should shield Black demonstrators from police violence during protests. And she reminded people that the CHOP shouldn’t be thought of as a grand victory.

“I want the abolishment of the police state. That’s what I’m here for,” J said. “This is a step in the right direction.”

Javi Cordero, who directed people taking photos of the Black Lives Matter mural on Pine Street to go educate themselves at the teach-in, said some demonstrators have discussed concern about police retaking the East Precinct and pushing people out of the CHOP.

“But I’m not,” he said. “If we lost this whole block, it doesn’t matter. (The movement isn’t) living on this block. That’s the point.”

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