| 13.9°C Dublin

Community spirit of Seattle's 'occupied' autonomous zone at odds with Trump's national hysteria



LONG STRANGE TRIP: A man in a raccoon mask in Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. Photo: Jason Redmond/Getty

LONG STRANGE TRIP: A man in a raccoon mask in Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. Photo: Jason Redmond/Getty

AFP via Getty Images

LONG STRANGE TRIP: A man in a raccoon mask in Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. Photo: Jason Redmond/Getty

The light grey brick building that once housed the headquarters of Seattle police's east precinct is now sealed with chipboard.

Crude graffiti has crossed out the word 'police' on the sign above the main entrance that now reads: "Seattle People Department".

While police across America fought running battles with protesters amid looting and violence, the officers from the east precinct packed up and left.

Abandoned by the law before it could be ransacked or burnt like many others, the building now stands at the centre of a protester's utopian dream that has left six residential blocks of Seattle "occupied". The so-called Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone looks and feels closer to the Electric Picnic than the terrifying Antifa and rioter-ruled free state that has become the bogeyman of the US president and his allies.

There is a "conversation cafe", with sofas where people are encouraged to discuss racial oppression, several "no-cop co-ops" giving out free food, a community garden, medic stations, rainbow-painted streets and an artificial grass field where groups of blissed-out teenagers soak up the sun as hip-hop music plays in the background.

But not everyone is happy. Carmen Best, the first black woman to become Seattle's police chief, wants her station back. "I am very angry about the situation that we have and, at this point, we just want to make sure that it gets resolved," she said.

She says emergency call response times have tripled. "Rapes, robberies and violent acts have been occurring in the area and we're not able to get to it."

Members of local police liaison group the African American Community Advisory Council visited the zone last Thursday with Best and accused protesters of distracting from the core aims of Black Lives Matter.

The takeover came after days of confrontations between police and protesters outside the east precinct. When Mayor Jenny Durkan ordered barriers to be removed and officers pulled out last Monday, the protesters took to the streets. The plan, organisers say, is to turn it into a community and social services centre. Local government is split on how to respond. Durkan, who paid a visit to the zone last Friday and walked with protesters on a silent march, has been conciliatory.

"I think we've just got to listen to people and figure out a way that there is still a place for people to have that kind of free expression," she told 'citizen journalist' Omari Salisbury.

Protesters say they've been unfairly portrayed as thugs linked to the more violent elements of the unrest.

"Right now we're being lied on about Seattle being burned to the ground. But then people come here and they see people walking with their children," says Mark Anthony, an organiser who led the crowd in a community meeting last Friday.

Usually a brand ambassador for technology companies, he has been out with protesters for the past 10 days. Despite rumours about Antifa, the left-wing movement that President Trump has blamed without evidence for the national unrest, he says there was no organised group leading the charge here.

"It was just members of the community that came together. The ones who stayed and showed up every day are the ones whose voices are being listened to."

The group has a series of demands, including defunding the Seattle Police Department, the release of protesters arrested during last weekend's demonstrations, and reparations for the victims of police brutality.

The city council has begun an inquiry into the $400 million annual police budget, and last Friday a judge ordered police to halt their use of tear gas, pepper spray and flash-bang devices for two weeks.

Locals in this leafy, middle-class part of the city are nonplussed by the national hysteria. Ryan McLean (33), an engineer who lives nearby, said he has received lots of calls from worried family in other parts of the country since the Zone was established.

"It's funny, because last week we had helicopters, scuffles, flash bangs, tear gas," he says. "I was a little concerned about my safety then, but this week it's fine."

Seattle, home to tech giants Amazon and Microsoft, is almost two-thirds white, but has the largest black population in the northwestern coastal area. It is among the wealthiest and most liberal American cities.

Its citizens were horrified by the local police response to the Black Lives Matter protests that spread across America in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, last month, with most of them facing tear gas, rubber bullets and riot shields for the first time in their lives.

Jeff Paul (27), who was staffing one of the pop-up free food stalls in the zone, is a teacher at a primary school in a well-heeled part of the city.

"We also got people who have money and resources and can come and donate money to get the supplies that fed the movement," he says.

So how will it end?

There is some anxiety about the "autonomous zone" moniker, because of the argument that seceding from the United States can be used as an excuse to strip inhabitants of their rights. Angered by the protests, Trump has threatened to send in the military.

During last Friday's meeting, one protester asked the crowd what they would do if the police arrived then and there to take back the precinct. "I don't think we're ready," he said.

The threat doesn't just come from the authorities. There have already been two incidents in the city where people drove into protesters with their cars, though the drivers' motivations are not clear in either case.

Protesters are defiant. "Are you scared of Donald Trump?" Anthony asked them last Friday afternoon. "No!", the crowd responded.

"Don't be scared, you guys," he said. "This is Seattle. We're going to be the ones lighting the world, we're going to be the ones to figure this out. Don't let them scare you."