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Jun 9, 20

Get In the Zone: A Report from the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle

The following is an interview with a Seattle resident who has been out on the streets during the recent uprising and watched as both vigilantes, police, and the National Guard have attacked protesters in the Capital Hill neighborhood. Now, after over a week of intense rioting and clashes with the authorities, Seattle police have evacuated from their East precinct and an autonomous zone has sprung up around the empty building. Wanting to know more about what all is going down, we caught up to discuss how the last week and a half has played out on the streets.

IGD: Broadly speaking, what’s been happening in Seattle since intense rioting broke out in late May? 

Things began in Seattle on Friday, May 29th, with Saturday the 30th being the most intense day of rioting and looting. The days that followed all had similar arcs and tones, but were generally focused around the Seattle Police Department’s East precinct in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. This is where the majority of the evening clashes with police took place.

Every day has seen massive demonstrations throughout the city while protest infrastructure along the main business corridors of Capitol Hill has grown. Food, music, medics, literature tables and a vigil to the fallen all appeared over the course of the week.

IGD: The other day, the police announced that they were gathering their things and leaving their precinct. What do you make of this? 

This, to be very honest, is anyone’s guess. There are many theories around why they abandoned the precinct. Some feel that they ran out of resources, some feel that it was a politically expedient move on the Mayor’s part. From my perspective-this was a “good” move on the city’s part. They were getting hammered in the press for the nightly tear gas barrages and street clashes, and the crowds never really got smaller. When an active shooter was on the scene, people rushed to the neighborhood to give support.

Every day has seen massive demonstrations throughout the city while protest infrastructure along the main business corridors of Capitol Hill has grown. Food, music, medics, literature tables and a vigil to the fallen all appeared over the course of the week. 

The risks that people were facing in standing off with the cops night after night were just not the deterrent I assume the city thought it would be. Once they left the precinct, while certainly a blow to their power, the focus has been taken off of the heavily militarized police that is still lurking in the area.

They also mounted a hard counter ‘arson’ campaign through fearful social media posts about the “threats of arson to the precinct” and the Seattle Fire Department on “standby.” From my perspective, it was a strategy gamble on the city’s part once they realized that the thing they were defending was symbolic at best. What they might not have factored in is how important symbology is to revolt – the statues coming down all over the world is a good example.

IGD: The area in the Capitol Hill neighborhood that people have been gathering around has been described as an autonomous zone. Can you speak more about this? 

Autonomy is going to mean a lot of things to a lot of people. This space is certainly not controlled by the city at this point. But it’s important to remember that because of the pandemic, this neighborhood was nearly abandoned for the last 2 months, which has made it an excellent choice to occupy but also an easier space to tip over into feeling like it’s ours.

Capitol Hill is the historic queer neighborhood, and back in the day it was where the punks and the musicians and all the freaks lived. The pitched battles around Ferguson in 2014/2015, Occupy in 2011/2012 and the anti-police movement of 2010/2011 saw a majority of these conflicts on the Hill. This has always been “our” neighborhood – but as with literally every other city in the US, rapid gentrification and demographic shifts kicked everyone out, corporatized Pride month, and built the neighborhood into a tech corridor. Currently, the streets are ours again, and with that comes the next battle of what does it mean to be autonomous?

IGD: What is the crowd coming out to these events like? How have bureaucratic Left groups/peace police attempted to maneuver in this context and how have they been received? 

With 9 days of riots, looting, demonstrations, sit-ins, clashes and everything else it’s hard to categorize the crowds in any way. But across the board, especially for the Pacific Northwest, this was some of the most diverse, inter-generational and generalized revolt that I have ever seen.

The streets have been filled with energetic Zoomers and street hardened anarchists, “peaceful protestors,” and those wanting to directly confront the police and capital. What has emerged tactically is the idea that militant defense was acceptable, and that more aggressive actions against the police were more controversial, leading to a deep “peace police” element which has been consistent. Despite that, people of all types continued to charge cop lines, throw sooo much shit at the police and try to create tensions with the cops literally raining tear gas down on people’s heads. The complex nature of race and leadership has been prominent in these clashes, with white people stopping Black youth from doing their conflictual thing because they have some sort of in with, “Black leadership.” These dynamics have made cohesion in the crowd difficult but not impossible. Fuck, despite the peace police people have been able to keep the National Guard at bay and get them to abandon their beloved precinct, so they couldn’t have been that powerful in the end.

Overall, there has been a lot of emotion felt viscerally on these blocks. So much joy and so much anger held at the same time as people have been coming together physically for the first time in months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Live music has been played every night by these musicians calling themselves the Marshall Law Band, less than a block away from where police would be shooting tear gas and flash-bang grenades at protestors. Surreal barely describes the experience.

IGD: The National Guard has now left; does this change anything at all?

The National Guard as of last night (6-8-2020), is very much still present in Seattle. They’ve been spotted at various public school parking lots and parks in the areas surrounding the neighborhood. Not seeing them in backing up the police lines, that have also disappeared from the block, clearly allow a more tranquil atmosphere to take place. There was a lot of rage and anger voiced at the National Guard when they would physically march with police to press protestors back, people still seem very attached to this idea that the National Guard is supposed to serve the “American people” and everyone’s been calling them traitors for serving a role in suppressing the uprising. The public school district of Seattle posted on twitter that they were looking into finding a way to block the Guard from using their parking lots as staging areas, an encouraging statement for all of us who’ve had to stare them down over the last week.

IGD: Law enforcement in Seattle and Portland seems to have trying to outlast the people on the street; tear-gassing people again and again. Can you say anything to their over all strategy on the street? How have people responded?

The police in Seattle have very clearly tried to fix their public relations image in the last couple of days that led up to their withdrawal from the precinct. Seattle police have been issuing countless warnings via sound-system, specifically citing the importance of peaceful protest and stating things like, “It is you the protestors who have advanced your line towards us, we have not made any movement towards you.” Eventually these warnings turn into a deluge of crowd-dispersal tactics, including but not limited to tear-gas, OC canisters, pepper-balls fired from paintball guns, rubber bullets and flash-bangs shot directly at protestors.

It was a horrifying and incredible moment that was a clear example of how a liberatory process will incur attacks from all sides and will have to defend itself in a bunch of different ways. Those who were involved clearly found that the police do not care for our well being, and that we can protect ourselves from reactionary violence without the aid of the police.

I have been nothing short of inspired by the crowds’ ability to remain calm in the face of these aggressive maneuvers by the police. Countless videos show the crowds simply slowly falling back from advancing police lines, forming defensive lines with shields and umbrellas, and even sometimes throwing tear-gas and OC canisters back towards the police. However, it is also in these moments where some individuals have taken the opportunity to throw things at the cops, which is still incredibly unpopular in the streets, even as the police are actively attacking people.

IGD: The other night in Seattle, a vigilante drove into the crowd and opened fire, hitting one person. Has far-Right and/or vigilante violence been a re-occurring problem? 

So far, the identity of the shooter is very confusing. As far as most people can discern, he is a unaffiliated, not-white regular ass dude from the South End of Seattle. Instead of focusing on him, I think it’s important to think about the response to his attack – which is irrefutable.

When he drove his car at significant speed towards the crowd, people did not hesitate to try and stop him. People put themselves in the way, tried to pull him from the car, pulled others to safety, and physically stopped the car with repurposed cop barricades. Someone was shot for his efforts. It was a horrifying and incredible moment that was a clear example of how a liberatory process will incur attacks from all sides and will have to defend itself in a bunch of different ways. Those who were involved clearly found that the police do not care for our well being, and that we can protect ourselves from reactionary violence without the aid of the police.

Our general response has been to show up, to be there, to have literature and info available, to stick with it night after night and confront the peace police and help the medics drag bodies out, to get people out of jail and have some of the conversations that need to be hashed out-and to make the alliances and build the crews we we will need to continue this past a conflict with the East Precinct. 

The threat of reactionary violence is very real, and I fear that we will see this boomerang back at us soon. But in the current moment one of the bigger threats seems to be the fear around these forces. As we speak, hundreds if not more people are messaging, tweeting and generally boosting unsubstantiated claims of reactionaries on their way to the Hill at any given times. This constant signal boosting of public police scanner channels has deeply hampered the ability to organize real and consistent response to if and when the right does choose to engage us.

IGD: Riot shaming, liberal disinformation, conspiracy theories – the wider Left has really shown itself to be lacking in overall analysis and understanding of the current moment. Just curious how people are dealing with the sea of misinformation and bad-faith actors.

There are so many people engaged in this movement it is difficult to break down one exact way in which these ideas are being addressed. It also greatly depends on which perspective you are coming from. We can see that the people positioning themselves to “lead” this movement are disingenuous grifters, while others think the same way about anarchists. Our general response has been to show up, to be there, to have literature and info available, to stick with it night after night and confront the peace police and help the medics drag bodies out, to get people out of jail and have some of the conversations that need to be hashed out-and to make the alliances and build the crews we we will need to continue this past a conflict with the East Precinct.

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