Life in Seattle’s Autonomous Zone, According to the People Who Live There

Cardboard with the word “CHOP” written on it. The cardboard is in the street of the Seattle Autonomous Zone, a police-free area also known as CHOP or CHAZ. An
entrance to the Capitol Hill Organized Protest in Seattle,
Washington on June 14, 2020. | Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

What it’s like to live through tear gas and an Occupy
movement.

When Seattle declared its stay-at-home order in March, the
usually bustling Capitol Hill neighborhood turned into a pretty
eerie place. Businesses started boarding up. Artists followed suit
and painted the plywood-covered windows with murals to remind
passersby that the coronavirus isn’t permanent, to wear a mask,
to think about the community — that things will slowly but surely
return to a new normal.

Historically home to artists, activists, and the LGBTQ+
community, Capitol Hill is a hip neighborhood. “It’s one of the
traditional party centers of Seattle,” says Sophia Lee, a Capitol
Hill resident and a transgender woman who found solace and
community in the neighborhood, which she moved to over six years
ago. It’s also quickly gentrifying: Homeless people live on the
doorsteps of apartment complexes that house tech workers, where
rent can climb over $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.

However, the neighborhood’s community roots might have helped
it find its new role. In recent weeks, Capitol Hill has sputtered
back to life by taking a central role in the ongoing protest
movement. What’s sprung up in the neighborhood is a radical
experiment: It’s a place where people self-govern without leaders
or law enforcement. While some residents appreciate the social
movement, others fear that the original intent of the space — as
a gathering place that amplifies the message of the Black Lives
Matter movement — has been diluted because of what has become a
tourist attraction.

This movement wouldn’t have existed without the deaths of
Black people at the hands of law enforcement and days of relentless
community protest. After the recent killings of George Floyd,
Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, people in Seattle took to the
streets in spite of the stay-at-home order. For about a week, the
protesters congregated at the East Precinct located in the heart of
Capitol Hill. What were intended to be largely peaceful protests
turned violent, with law enforcement tossing canisters of tear gas
and deploying flashbangs and pepper spray.

On one of the first days of the protest at the East Precinct,
Lee was caught in the crossfires of the tear gas. “It’s like
breathing in a hot pepper,” she says. With the sting of the gas
piercing the back of her throat, she ran back to her home a block
south of the precinct. Others were dispersing as well. When she
arrived at her apartment, people were assembled outside her door,
coughing. After a few hours, the gas had dissipated. “I was able
to sleep okay that night, but there was the constant sound of the
helicopter outside,” she says.

The atmosphere in the neighborhood was tense, especially for
residents. Ruben (who did not want his last name used for privacy
reasons), who lives across the street from the East Precinct, had
to show his ID and key fob to law enforcement and the National
Guard, which barricaded the streets, to enter his building.

Over the following week, protesters returned to the precinct.
The police continued to hold the line. After one intense evening of
flashbangs, pepper spray, and tear gas, the atmosphere changed. On
June 9, the police returned the following day to board up the
precinct. Then the protesters took over.

Most of Seattle and the rest of the nation now refer to this
neighborhood — a series of six blocks or so — as the Capitol
Hill Occupied Protest zone, or CHOP for short. (It was initially
called CHAZ — the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone — but the name
has since been revised to reflect the goal of the original Black
Lives Matter protest.)

At first, protesters barricaded a few blocks surrounding the
East Precinct and decided that it would be for the people. Signs at
the barricades say “YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE CAP HILL,” where
you don’t have to pay for anything — No Cop Co-op, for
instance, has free snacks. “Help yourself,” a sign reads.
“This is by you, for you.” Inside the CHOP, someone
spray-painted over the word “POLICE” at the precinct and wrote
“PEOPLE” in its place, such that it says “SEATTLE PEOPLE
DEPARTMENT, EAST PRECINCT.” A banner next to it reads “THIS
SPACE IS NOW PROPERTY OF THE SEATTLE PEOPLE.” Artists made a
memorial for Black lives lost one block west from the precinct.
Over the course of a few days, artists had painted “BLACK LIVES
MATTER,” running west to east, along Pine Street. Others with a
green thumb have
developed a garden at the nearby park
, which is now surrounded
by tents where demonstrators are staying.

Meanwhile, residents within and nearby the CHOP are rethinking
their relationship with their neighborhood. Lee has started
changing the landmarks that she associates with where she lives. It
used to be that, when she meets up with friends, “I make this
mental judgment if they would know Pony” — a gay bar — “or
the Ferrari dealership better. But now, I definitely do tell
people, ‘I live half a block south of the CHAZ or the
CHOP.’”

Others who live in or near the CHOP have mixed feelings about
it. It’s not necessarily noisier than life before the shutdown,
but Akin (who also did not want his last name used), who lives on
the border of the zone, felt the need to leave his home the first
Sunday of CHOP, overwhelmed by the number of people nearby. “It
just feels like I’m next to the Eiffel Tower,” he says.

Tensions have escalated since the inception of CHOP. Late on
June 14, someone broke into an auto shop in Capitol Hill. This past
weekend, there were two shootings in the CHOP, one of which ended
up killing a man.
Police say they tried to respond but were thwarted by the
protesters who didn’t want them there.

Other residents have begun to feel restless. One woman who lives
next to CHOP posted on Nextdoor that she was looking for an
alternate place to live. “I am a liberal and supporter of
#blm,” she wrote. “I am however being held hostage in my place
by the Occupied protest. I can’t get to and from my apartment
safely. I have been verbally harassed and physically threatened by
occupants. (I am choosing to differentiate them from the #blm
protestors.)”

Finally, the inevitable happened: On June 22 — two weeks after
the grand experiment began — Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan announced
that the Seattle Police Department will be returning to the
precinct but did not specify when.

In some ways, CHOP is a double-edged sword. Even though it’s
been a source of anxiety for residents, it’s also been a
welcoming gathering space that centers Black people.

Over the past few days, Ruben, who lives in the center of the
CHOP, has witnessed many of its changes. During the first weekend,
Ruben saw someone who was dressed like Jesus Christ escort an
“aggressive street preacher” off the center stage. The day
after, he watched hundreds of people gathered around the same
stage, which featured indigenous people singing songs and
dancing.

“That’s my life in 2020 now,” Ruben says. “Black folks
died for this to exist. But honestly, I’m just going to roll with
it, because I could listen to Black women speak their truths from
outside my window every single damn day.”

Source: FS – All – Architecture 10
Life in Seattle’s Autonomous Zone, According to the People
Who Live There