Was Seattle’s Notorious Protest Zone Doomed by Recent Shootings?

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After a few remarkable weeks of free food, far-right agitation, and most recently, multiple shootings, Seattle’s Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) looks like it might be on the rocks.

The CHOP (formerly known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ) is an approximately six-block zone in Seattle where, after a violent crackdown by police against racial justice protesters, the city agreed to withdraw police and clear the streets for demonstrations. Activists quickly set up tents and issued a list of demands including police abolition and de-gentrification measures like rent control.

But Seattle never agreed to keep police out forever. And after a trio of shootings in and around the zone, the city is calling to dismantle the CHOP, leaving activists wondering how to keep the protest going.

In a Monday press conference, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said the city would work with activists to dismantle the CHOP.

“It’s time for people to go home. It is time for us to restore Cal Anderson [Park] and Capitol Hill so it can be a vibrant part of the community,” Durkan said at the press conference. “We can still accommodate people who want to protest peacefully, come there and gather. But the impacts on the businesses and residents and community are now too much.”

She added that police would re-enter the neighborhood precinct, which was boarded up when cops left the area on June 8, although she did not elaborate on a timeline for the reintroduction of police. Seattle Police did not return a request for comment.

A spokesperson for the CHOP-affiliated group, Seattle Organized Protest Support said the disbandment talk had led to divergent views within the neighborhood.

"There is a lot of uncertainty going around in the CHOP right now, different people have different opinions," the spokesperson told The Daily Beast. "As far as the groups that I’m in, it seems that the general consensus is to follow Black leaders for the next step, which is tricky in and of itself because we never know who is working with the city and who isn’t."

Other encampment-based movements have faced similar predicaments in the past. The Occupy Wall Street protests lasted approximately three months camped in a downtown Manhattan park before police raided the scene and sent the movement spiraling. Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor and author of the book Occupy Nation, said the uprooted camp sites face an ideological reckoning.

“The problem for manifestations that come together around an occasion, like a park to occupy, is ‘well then what?’” Gitlin told The Daily Beast. “How do you sustain yourself when the occupation is over? In the case of Occupy, there were these hundreds of encampments, but they were all land-dependent. They had no other identity. They had no other connections.”

Some Occupy organizers turned to more electoral politics, like joining the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, or became active in issues like housing rights, Gitlin noted. Others appeared to leave the political scene.

The CHOP zone’s cop-free cred is one of its main attractions. But several shootings in or near the CHOP in recent days have left some Seattle officials, Durkan included, calling for resumed police details. Early Tuesday morning, a man was injured in a non-life-threatening shooting near—but apparently not in—the CHOP. The incident followed a Saturday morning shooting that left a 19-year-old dead and a 33-year-old critically wounded in the CHOP. A 17-year-old was also shot in the arm Sunday night.

Some activists and at least one Seattle City Council member have sparred with officials over the characterization of the incidents.

“We completely reject the characterizations – by right-wing & corporate media, Trump administration, and Seattle Police Officers Guild president – of the CHOP as a violent place & the claims that the presence of police would have prevented either shooting,” Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant tweeted on Monday. She noted that neither of the weekend shootings appear to have been committed by protesters. (Police have not made arrests in either case.)

Other activists have taken issue with the police chief’s claim that a “hostile crowd” of protesters prevented officers from responding to the Saturday shooting. "No one within the CHOP denied entry to PD within any organizational capacity,” organizers told KOMO News after the shooting. “Officers deciding on their own not to enter an area is not the same as being denied entry." (Police body camera footage from the incident appears to show some people yelling at police, but officers moving without obstruction.)

Nevertheless, the shootings have placed new challenges on a protest movement that was already a favorite villain of conservative voices and far-right groups, some of which have entered the CHOP armed and been involved in a fistfight near the zone.

After the Saturday shooting, the group Voices of CHOP issued a letter “acknowledg[ing] that no organizations, protests, or revolutions are perfect. We must be willing to collectively learn and react quickly to mistakes within our movement. We do not want to see what was started with the intention of lifting the BLM message destroyed.”

The group suggested two changes to curb unruliness in the CHOP, including “safe [drug] use areas near the outskirts of C.H.O.P.,” along with signage asking people to “keep safe distance away from C.H.O.P. while intoxicated.” The letter also acknowledged that “the late hours of C.H.O.P. tend to give way to some problematic behavior.” The group suggested reducing the CHOP’s operating hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., clearing the zone out overnight but leaving enough people “for peace keeping and occupy purposes.”

Sawant tweeted that her City Council office supports the proposal to cut operating hours in half.

But momentum behind the protest zone shifting to part time also comes as attendance has apparently begun to fizzle out. A live-streamer who has closely covered the protests told the Washington Post attendance has dwindled since its beginning in early June.

Amid the mayor’s calls to dissolve the CHOP, and the reportedly organic dissolution by protesters who’ve stopped showing up, some CHOP backers are emphasizing the protest’s more abstract qualities as a way to keep the movement alive.

“As socialists,” Sawant tweeted, “we recognize capitalism is a deeply violent system, and that an occupation in a few city blocks cannot by itself form a society separate from the violence, trauma, and ills that absolutely pervade capitalist society as a whole.”

For some protesters, that means returning to the protests extensive demands. As of Monday, a handmade sign on the zone’s abandoned precinct announced some activists’ stance not to leave until the city defunds its police force by 50 percent, introduces new funding for Black communities, and releases people arrested in the protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

The CHOP has been in place fewer than three weeks. Occupy Wall Street stayed in its encampment nearly three months—and even still, Gitlin characterized the protest as “more of a moment than a movement.”That said, Occupy made enduring political waves because “it was a moment that dovetailed with other moments, and we can see retrospectively that they contributed to a kind of revitalization or awakening outsider energy looking for ways to get traction in the American scene.”

The CHOP might be short-lived, some organizers have indicated, but it stems from sweeping, nationwide protests, into which activists might continue their energy.

The Seattle Organized Protest Support released its own statement on Monday reiterating those three demands, noting that, as an occupied area, “CHOP may not be a sustainable fight.”

The six blocks weren't the point of the original protest, the SOPS spokesperson said.

"CHOP wasn’t the goal, and the people who are fighting the fight recognize that," the representative said. "The people came up with three demands that were the original goal, everything born out of that is temporary and was never meant to distract from the purpose of the fight."

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