But the neighborhood’s residents and activists say the autonomous zone is nothing of the sort. Locals describe a block party-like atmosphere with concerts and movie screenings. Protesters have set up barricades so cars can’t get through. Volunteers give out free food and medical care and take turns performing night watch and other civic services.
The city is providing trash pickup and portable restrooms serviced daily. And even as a handful of armed Seattle Police Department officers began making their way back into the East Precinct on Thursday, the situation remained peaceful. Protesters are still encamped around the station, putting finishing touches on a new “BLACK LIVES MATTER” street mural modeled on the nation’s capital.
The “autonomous zone” is nestled in a normally bustling strip of bars, restaurants and apartment buildings. It was borne out of protests against police brutality, sparked by the killing of George Floyd while in police custody. On June 1, protesters marched from downtown Seattle up to Capitol Hill. When they found their route blocked by barricades set up around the neighborhood’s police precinct, the crowd swelled and police eventually declared a riot.
Protesters returned daily, and the situation devolved into a tense seven-day standoff. Police deployed tear gas, pepper spray and blast balls on multiple nights. On Sunday, a man attempted to drive his car into the crowd then shot a protester before surrendering to police. The scene shifted Monday, when the Seattle Police Department vacated its building, leaving the neighborhood to the protesters. As the last officers rode off on bicycles, a crowd streamed past the barricades in a victory parade.
Once the police left, protesters immediately took over the intersection to ensure it would remain police-free. They repurposed barricades set up to protect the precinct, using them instead to block roads, effectively turning a six-block area into a pedestrian zone. Artists set to work stenciling, tagging and muraling messages and symbols such as “Black Lives Matter,” “RIP George Floyd,” and “ACAB” or “1312,” shorthand for “All cops are b——s,” on the precinct and surrounded walls.
Volunteers served at medical aid stations and staffed pop-ups such as the “No Cop Co-Op,” a tent filled with free snacks. Pho and coffee were distributed to the activists camping in tents. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, someone set up a projector to host outdoor film screenings of documentaries such as Ava Duvernay’s “13th” and “Paris is Burning.”
The nearby Domino’s Pizza was flooded with delivery calls. On Thursday morning, a UPS deliveryman arrived with an Amazon package addressed to “PROTESTERS IN FRONT OF PRECINCT (ANY PROTESTERS)” at the East Precinct’s address. A volunteer at a medical aid station signed for the package. Inside was a blanket. Members of the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club, which provides armed community defense for anti-racist events and other social justice activities, were on site, standing near the barricades with no visible weapons.
At least one person had a gun on his waist; he was not a member of the John Brown club. Washington is an open-carry state, although Mayor Jenny Durkan banned weapons in an emergency order following the first major protest on May 30. Residents of the autonomous zone worked together to address conflicts through negotiation and de-escalation. When a group of individuals attempted to break into the precinct between 4 and 5 a.m. on Thursday morning, other members of the community convinced them to stop.
By 6 a.m., roughly a dozen young men were engaged in a heated discussion in the middle of the street about why one would want to trespass in the precinct. At a Thursday afternoon news conference, Durkan said city officials continue to monitor the situation.
“SPD did an assessment today, and there is going to be an ongoing assessment about when it is going to be safe to move in there,” she said. “We don’t want to introduce additional flash points.”
J. Cam Manny, a restaurant manager who has bartended in the neighborhood for years, lives in an apartment building inside the autonomous zone.
He stayed through the seven-night police standoff and the three-night experiment without cops. “As someone who works in the bars in the area, I see more violence on any given Friday and Saturday night on the street, pre-pandemic, than I do in these last three nights here in my neighborhood,” he said.
“They call for medics, people are being proactive, and they are understanding that everyone is in a very heightened situation of tension and frustration and doing a pretty good job of working it out,” Manny said.
On Wednesday evening, Manny began talking with protesters about the need for vehicular access to allow for package and grocery delivery, as well as trash pickup. What started as a yelling match settled into a cordial dialogue, with Manny’s dog serving as an icebreaker.
“That’s the magic about a small community,” said David Lewis, a project manager at Lululemon who described himself as a “facilitator” of the Seattle protests. “This has become a micro-neighborhood, a microcosm. In a small population it is very easy to self-protect — I am hesitant to use the word police — with a unified message and a community in which everybody knows each other.”
“With conversation and dialogue built on the foundation of respect, we can and have been able to de-escalate every situation,” he said.
But, he added, there are challenges, particularly since the president’s tweets.
“Having a community that is autonomously policing is ideal and beautiful. I’m absolutely for that, given the right structure,” he said. “That said, declaring autonomy against a city or against a nation like America is by no means a goal I wish to stand behind at this moment.”