Shootings Test Viability of Seattle’s Protest ‘Autonomous Zone’

2 weeks ago
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SEATTLE — From the ice cream shop she runs in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, Molly Moon Neitzel has watched as protesters have laid claim to the area’s streets over the past two weeks to demand racial justice.

The barricades and graffiti outside her storefront have carried messages that Ms. Neitzel embraces: Race equity, she says, is the top issue facing the city.

But this weekend, two shootings rocked the so-called Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone set up as an experiment in communal living, free of the police, in the area around Ms. Neitzel’s shop. Now, a memorial sits outside her shop for a 19-year-old man who died in the gunfire over the weekend.

“From my perspective, it’s time for the residents and organizers of CHOP to think about where they are going to go from here to effect policy change,” Ms. Neitzel said on Monday, as Mayor Jenny Durkan tried and failed to broker an end to the standoff with protest leaders. “I don’t think that policy change is going to happen only in the middle of Pine Street.”

The violence over the past few days — a total of three people shot — has rattled a neighborhood that until now had largely enjoyed a festival-like atmosphere after officers boarded up and abandoned the city’s East Precinct station and left several blocks of the city to police themselves.

“Black Lives Matter” was painted down a full block of Pine Street, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. A banner hung from the boarded-up police station declaring that the building was now “property of the Seattle people.”

After the weekend shootings, the crowds milling through the zone on Monday were much smaller than on previous days, and people were openly talking about what to do next.

Until now, the city has given tacit approval for the protest zone to continue, helping reorganize barriers and provide logistics such as portable toilets.

Protesters have used the scene to hold speeches and movie nights on streets with artwork and memorials to those who have died at the hands of the police. On Monday, some continued to sit on couches and chat at the Decolonization Conversation Cafe.

But in the wake of the violence, Ms. Durkan’s spokeswoman said that city leaders have been reaching out to some of the organizers to find a peaceful resolution.

That effort was led in part by Andre Taylor, who has been outspoken against police violence since his brother, Che, was fatally shot by Seattle police during an arrest in 2016. Mr. Taylor said he had encouraged various leaders in the protest zone to come to the table to talk about a different path forward. He was hopeful they would meet with the mayor on Monday. That did not materialize, and Mr. Taylor expressed some sympathy for the situation in which city officials find themselves.

“If you put yourself in the shoes of anyone in authority that has to care for the well-being of its people, you can’t allow killings and shootings to happen on a daily basis,” Mr. Taylor said. “You can’t do it. I wouldn’t do it.”

But the protesters, with an uncertain leadership structure, have had various goals. Some activists have called for focusing on a few key demands, such as defunding the Police Department, while others have talked about larger problems, such as economic inequality, or more specific issues, such as whether the boarded-up police station could become a community center.

Among those who have led efforts in the CHOP is Raz Simone, a musician. He said on Twitter that the police could come and go through the zone as they please but he did not respond to a message seeking comment. Other prominent organizers also did not respond to messages.

Ms. Durkan had indicated that she was open to allowing the protests to continue through the summer. But her office said on Monday it is now working with organizers to find a “peaceful resolution.”

The first shooting at the zone occurred early Saturday morning. John Moore, a medic working at the scene, said it began with a series of confrontations among people in the crowd. He treated the 19-year-old who was shot and then transported him to a hospital before he was pronounced dead. A 33-year-old man was also shot nearby.

Mr. Moore said he was upset that the Fire Department had not entered the zone to help with the man who died. Fire Department officials said they had been following procedure and waiting for the Police Department to secure the area first. Police officers had taken time to stage outside of the zone and, when they did enter, they encountered hostility from people who said the victim had already been removed from the scene.

The second shooting occurred late Sunday night. A 17-year-old boy who was shot was treated at Harborview Medical Center and released, a spokeswoman for the hospital said.

No suspects have been publicly identified in the cases, and the Police Department said it was looking for witnesses to help piece together what happened.

Teri McClain, who was at the protest zone on Monday, said the zone had given people a place to have a platform and to mobilize. But given the latest violence, she said, she would not object if the protest came to an end. She said she was hopeful that the people who gathered there were ready to continue taking action in other ways.

Part of the challenge, Ms. McClain said, was that there are various groups and interests in the zone. Some of those there are simply homeless, or are there to party or cause trouble, she said, and the ones who are there for social justice reasons have different goals and agendas.

“You can’t walk in here and say, ‘Excuse me, where’s the office of the person in charge?’” Ms. McClain said. “There’s all these different groups working on different things in different places.”

Along with Black Lives Matter activists, the zone has included a variety of people talking about larger social issues. Kshama Sawant, a member of the City Council, led protesters in a demonstration calling for new taxes on Amazon, which is headquartered in the city.

Gerald Hankerson, the president of the N.A.A.C.P.’s Alaska-Oregon-Washington State Conference, an organization that has been an active player in race issues in the region for years, said his group had been mainly on the periphery of the CHOP effort.

Mr. Hankerson said he appreciated how the protesters have kept the issue of the unjust treatment of African-Americans by the police at the forefront of discussions, but wondered whether the emphasis on holding several blocks on Capitol Hill would prevent the police from killing black people.

“While some may consider this a victory,” he said, “it’s only a battle in a much larger war.”

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