The US suburb that is now police-free
Protesters in Seattle have cordoned-off a six-block section of the city, declaring it to be an "autonomous zone" - free of state police and federal authority.
Now President Donald Trump is threatening to "take it back".
The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone was declared Monday last week when demonstrators protesting police brutality and institutionalised racism compelled Seattle police to abandon their East Precinct headquarters.
It followed several nights of intense clashes between protesters and police, with heavy use of tear gas despite moratoriums on its use.
The demonstrations were part of a nationwide backlash against the killing of George Floyd after a police officer refused to remove his knee from the detainee's neck despite pleas that he couldn't breathe.
Seattle Police boarded up the doors and windows of the building before evacuating the district.
Soon after, graffiti appeared on the boards declaring it to be the "Seattle People Department" and "The Property of the People".
Sensing a symbolic victory, protesters erected signs declaring the abandoned police district to be an "autonomous zone". Police barricades were reversed. Signs announce across a six-block stretch of the city that "You are now leaving the USA".
The move attracted immediate and intense media attention and has become a favourite talking point among shock-jocks and commentators across the country.
Seattle police, regretting the move, are now determined to reoccupy the building. "We're currently working to get our officers back into the facility," says Police Chief Carmen Best. "We think it's really important that we have police presence there and that we are able to continue to do our work."
But the demonstrators aren't willing to let them back in.
The Capitol Hill neighbourhood of Seattle is a gentrified, middle-income district not far from the city centre. It is known for its fashionable bars and restaurant, as well as gay clubs and indie stores.
But the abandonment of the police East Precinct headquarters has seen a six-block area surrounding the building walled off by demonstrators.
Graffiti declares it to be a "police free" zone. Protesters and some of the area's residents are proclaiming it to be a safe-haven for free expression and mutual care.
Movie night and more in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. They screened "13th," the 2016 doc film by @ava #CHAZ #capitolhillautonomouszone #georgefloyd #blacklivesmatter More pics here: https://t.co/2BGCyAs4x6 pic.twitter.com/ZTsWPZ1jgI— David Ryder (@davidmryder) June 10, 2020
It's provoked US far-right commentators to call the "territory" as the first formal foothold of "domestic terrorist antifa" plans to seize control of the country. They're painting the zone as "Mad Max movie mayhem come to life". Locals, however, insist it's all "extremely chill" And there is no formal organisation behind antifa (short for anti-fascist) beyond the message in its name.
artists get together in Seattle to create a Black Lives Matter mural in CHAZ pic.twitter.com/uOGpTpb5VB— sharan dhaliwal 🏠 (@peatreebojangle) June 12, 2020
Meanwhile, life within the zone is adapting to its new circumstances.
There is now a "No Cop Co-Op" distributing free vegan pizza, a books table, community garden, community medical centre and hot-dog stand. There are open-air film screenings, smoking zones and a community co-ordination group that insists it is "not associated with any 'organisers,' 'members,' 'residents,' or other people involved with either the co-ordination of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, nor with the City of Seattle".
Local media describe the scene as more festive than insurrectionist.
"This place has gone from being filled with explosions and tear gas to being a place of healing," one resident declared.
There is a more ominous side, however. Amid the hipsters are residents and protesters carrying semi-automatic rifles. Washington is an open-carry state. But that hasn't stopped commentators accusing the autonomous zone of being an armed rebellion.
SUM OF ALL FEARS
"I am very angry about the situation that we have, and at this point, we just want to make sure that it gets resolved," Chief Best said in a recent Good Morning America appearance. "While I really support First Amendment free speech, this is not that."
Seattle's mayor, however, openly contradicted her police chief.
"Lawfully gathering and expressing First Amendment rights, demanding we do better as a society, and providing true equity for communities of colour is not terrorism. It's patriotism," Mayor Jenny Durkan told a press conference.
Meanwhile, Best refused to criticise Trump for describing the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) protesters as "domestic terrorists".
Trump tweeted Thursday that his patience with Seattle's mayor and the police chief was running out. If they didn't "take back" their city from "anarchists", he would do so for them.
"Take back your city NOW. If you don't do it, I will. This is not a game. These ugly Anarchists must be stooped IMMEDIATELY. MOVE FAST!"
Radical Left Governor @JayInslee and the Mayor of Seattle are being taunted and played at a level that our great Country has never seen before. Take back your city NOW. If you don’t do it, I will. This is not a game. These ugly Anarchists must be stopped IMMEDIATELY. MOVE FAST!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 11, 2020
He's also been venting his anger at Washington State's governor, Jay Inslee.
"These Liberal Dems don't have a clue," Trump tweeted again. "The terrorists burn and pillage our cities, and they think it is just wonderful, even the death. Must end this Seattle takeover now!"
Mayor Durkan responded by telling the president to "go back to your bunker".
"Our country was born out of a protest. The right to gather -- the right to protest, the right to challenge the government when it is wrong -- is our most fundamental constitutional right."
President Trump has repeatedly threatened to use a centuries-old Insurrection Act to deploy federal troops against protesting US citizens to "dominate the streets".
"Domestic Terrorists have taken over Seattle, run by Radical Left Democrats, of course," he tweeted.
The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone would be a highly visible target for such a use of force.
But US Defence Secretary Mark Esper last week told media he opposed any use of the act against demonstrators.
Seattle Mayor says, about the anarchists takeover of her city, “it is a Summer of Love”. These Liberal Dems don’t have a clue. The terrorists burn and pillage our cities, and they think it is just wonderful, even the death. Must end this Seattle takeover now!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 12, 2020
Meanwhile, the autonomous zone continues to be a magnet of disinformation and incitement.
Mainstream media pundits are repeating conspiracy claims that the Capitol Hill district has been seized by a "SoundCloud rapper" intent on becoming an antifa-insurgent warlord.
Other groups are merely painting the district as "woke-ness gone mad".
But Seattle's police chief has been forced to apologise for repeating false claims. Chief Best, facing 12,000 complaints of brutality during the protests, publicly declared protesters were extorting Capitol Hill businesses. She was later compelled to admit there had been no reports of extortion.
"We don't want to exacerbate or intensify or incite problems that are going to lead to harm to the officers or the people who are standing by. We know that several are armed. We want to make sure that we are being very thoughtful about how we respond."
Seattle's police continue to steer clear of the autonomous zone mostly. Though they are not entirely gone.
"The City will continue to assess the area on a regular basis and work with community and other stakeholders on a path forward that allows individuals to demonstrate, businesses to continue their operations, and preserves public safety for local residents," the mayor's office said in a statement. "Officers in the East Precinct have continued to respond to calls. Chief Best and Command Staff have been on-site at the East Precinct ... and some personnel are now staffing the precinct."
Originally published as The US suburb that is now police free