Inside Seattle's autonomous zone where residents are trying to 'enact change' 'in a new way'

David Ryder/Getty ImagesBy EMILY SHAPRIO and MATT GUTMAN, ABC News

(SEATTLE) — Near downtown Seattle, a several-block section of the city is sealed off.

Inside, people can walk freely among murals, access free food and gather to organize to protest. Critics have called it a block party, but participants are calling it an “ad-hoc conglomeration of people” in a festival-like environment “where the only headliner is change.”

When protests over the death of George Floyd erupted across the country, some of the most explosive standoffs with police were in Seattle, where officers blasted demonstrators with tear gas, flash-bang grenades and pepper spray.

Following days of clashes, Seattle police on June 8 largely withdrew from the Capitol Hill district, leaving a void for protesters.

The protesters seized a roughly six-block area, including the east precinct, to create an “autonomous police-free zone.” Sealed off from outsiders by barricades, patrolled by armed residents, police aren’t allowed inside.

The zone, initially called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ, has been renamed the Capitol Hill Organized Protest.

Slate, a CHOP security leader who didn’t provide a full name to ABC News, described CHOP as an “ad-hoc conglomeration of people who want some change” within the police department.

But exactly what kind of change varies among groups within CHOP. Some want the Seattle Police Department abolished, while others want it defunded, with more money reallocated to community programs.

“We want our money back, because we’re not getting our money’s worth,” said Riall Johnson of the Snohomish County NAACP.

Johnson is not a member of CHOP but has given speeches within the zone and worked with its members.

“We need to revaluate our policing system,” Johnson told ABC News, and CHOP is an “example of what things can look like without the police.”

CHOP leaders are in ongoing negotiations with the city.

“If it seems kind of chaotic, that’s because it is,” Slate said. “The more the idea of what CHOP is changes, the more the situation on the ground will change.”

President Donald Trump has blasted Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan about the zone on Twitter, threatening, “Take back your city NOW. If you don’t do it, I will.” Last week Trump tweeted that the protesters are “anarchists.”

“We’re not trying to start a new nation. We’re not trying to build some empire,” Slate said. “We’re trying to enact change in a way that this city hasn’t seen before.”

Durkan, for now, is refusing to take back the area.

“One of the most fundamental rights we have as Americans is the right to peacefully assemble, to protest government and to exercise free speech,” Durkan told ABC News’ Nightline. “And we protect that kind of speech and disagreement with government.

“These protests are protests fundamentally about a policing system that has tried to dominate black Americans through the history of our country. You don’t meet those protests with domination. You meet them with listening and with change. This president just wants to distract. If he truly cared about America and the divisions that were happening now, he’d be bringing us together and find ways for us to move forward,” she said.

Durkan said de-escalating the tensions between the people and police in Capitol Hill requires time and distance.

“We need to have some time for people to feel that they have had the ability to protest and raise their voices and have the time to work, not just with the people on Capitol Hill but with all of Seattle,” she said.

As for the occupation of the police department’s east precinct, Durkan said, “The precinct itself is just the building. Our focus is on how do we make sure that policing adapts to this situation.”

But Victoria Beach, chair of the police department’s African American Community Advisory Council, said Durkan’s stance is giving license to a lawless party.

CHOP “has nothing to do with black lives or what happened to George Floyd. I feel like it’s not honoring or respecting him,” Beach told Nightline.

“It’s not a protest … I call it Burning Man,” Beach said. “It’s very disrespectful. The message is totally taken away.”

Slate and Johnson disagreed.

To Slate, it’s a festival-like environment “where the only headliner is change.”

“There’s a lot of activism going on there,” Johnson said, “but it’s also mixed in with art and a general sense of community.”

Johnson described the environment in the zone as a block party, which he said is not out of the ordinary for Capitol Hill — especially during Pride Month, as the neighborhood has a large LGBTQ+ community.

“It’s a community of people taking care of each other,” Johnson said. “People donating food, money. There’s doctors there. Homeless people are actually getting the help they need.”

“Call it whatever — drum circle, block party, festival,” Johnson said. “There’s still a lot of people there vigilant, knowing that there’s a mission there — that mission is changing the police system.”

Like Beach, activist Sean Gaston also is frustrated. He said the autonomous zone looks “chaotic” and “like buffoonery,” with scattered tents and brightly colored writing, but “no message.”

“We don’t march no more and we’re not saying nothing beneficial,” Gaston told Nightline. “No one cares about the economic issues of black America. No one wants to talk about how we need to have housing, jobs.”

“Black poverty is real and it’s systemic,” he added. “And it makes us commit crimes against ourselves and our own communities because there’s nothing there, and the only people we can victimize are blacks.”

As CHOP continues, its future remains unknown.

“This is not an easy, clean, cute story,” Slate said. “Change is coming incrementally, but it’s very hard to be the city to negotiate with the CHOP, because the CHOP is … an idea. It’s not really a goal.”

“It took this to get to the negotiation table,” Slate said. “The system as a whole has been ignoring us for so long.”

When asked how long she thinks CHOP will last, Durkan told Nightline, “I think it’s the wrong question.”

“I think the question is,” she added, “how quickly can we start changing as a society to address all of the concerns we’ve heard from the millions of people? We need to change how we do policing, but we also need to invest in communities, in health care systems, education, economic opportunity. It is time for us to make the promise of America real for all Americans.”

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