After a week of protests and tense encounters with security forces, protesters in Seattle set up an area that they are calling an “autonomous zone” with the blessing of city government. Inside CHAZ, they’ve been handing out food, holding vigils for black people killed by the police and organising discussion groups. They say its main aim is to be a “safe space” for protesters.

If you search the hashtag #Chaz, which stands for the "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone", then you’ll come across hundreds of photos and videos from Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighbourhood, which has been transformed into a space for protesters. One of the entrances is marked with a sign that says “you are now entering Free Cap Hill”. Inside, people set up a wall paying homage to black people killed by police or during protests against police violence and systemic racism.

 
 

Protests against police violence have been ongoing in Seattle since May 25. On June 7, after a week of particularly tense protests, police abandoned the East Precinct station in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in an attempt to lower the heat. Since then, protesters have occupied Cal Anderson park as well as two neighbouring streets.

This map, made by activists, shows the area that they have occupied.

Activists immediately started organising events within the zone, including concerts, speeches and screenings of films. Some people even started setting up tents.
 
 
Groups have been holding concerts in the area. 
 
 

'CHAZ has been a great place for talking and been a support for the other protests happening in the city'

Matthew Butler is a bartender in Seattle. He’s been out protesting with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement since protests began on May 25. He goes to CHAZ almost every day.
 
Black Lives Matter protesters have created this space as a “safe space” for protestors. We created a list of demands that were given to the city [Editor’s note: one demand is to change the police station into a community centre] and we expect them to start a conversation and change.

We provide everyone with food and water thanks to donations and help from local stores. We have a large agreement on masks and social distancing. Everyone is taking precautions there and no one is unnecessarily exposing themselves.

CHAZ has been a great place for talking and to support the other protests happening in the city. The general idea of the place was to provide a space that is safe from the police so that the protesters could get care and a chance to be surrounded by others. I would say that about 60 to 70% of people in CHAZ are black and about 30 to 40% are allies. We make sure that black people in the community take the lead. We are here to support them.

We want to force the city to stop and listen to us as well as the other six city council members who have been joining the protestors. CHAZ is not only a statement, it’s also a movement that has perpetuated around the world already so that means we are accomplishing something.
 
This is a list of local stores that support the Black Lives Matter movement. (Photo: Matthew Butler)

 Anyone can grab free food in CHAZ. The poster reads: “Help yourself, this is by you, for you!” (Photo: Matthew Butler)

Free food

The Capitol Hill neighborhood has a rich history as a symbolic place of protest in Seattle. In 1999, huge protests took place in Capitol Hill during a summit of the World Trade Organization. Occupy Seattle (a movement inspired by Occupy Wall Street) took over the area in 2011.
 
"Those ugly Anarchists must be stooped [sic] immediately,” wrote one social media user, alongside of photo of colorful sidewalk painting reading “Welcome to CHAZ.” The tweet is a reference to a tweet by President Donald Trump on June 11. He tweeted the mayor of Seattle and Governor of Washington state, saying: "Ugly anarchists must be stopped immediately!".

"It’s a space that states ‘the people, united, will never be divided’, which is especially important in the USA with so many different races and ethnicities"

"The Luminous Pariah" (who prefers to remain anonymous) works in a Seattle cabaret and is African American. He has been documenting the protests on his Instagram account and goes to CHAZ as often as he can.
 
It is lovely now that the police aren’t instigating violence. Before, I was helping with medical for people who had been tear-gassed and pepper sprayed. When things are quiet, I’ve been helping to make sure that supplies are distributed. I help hand out masks, food, etc. Folks are organising amongst themselves in small groups. They tell their unique stories, they talk about their experiences with the police and they talk about what needs to change.

Some people believe that it’s a literal takeover. That we “won” against the police. Others, like me, think that this space is more symbolic and states “the people, United, will never be divided”, which is especially important in the USA with so many different races and ethnicities.

 
Jenny Durkan, the Democratic mayor of Seattle, responded to President Trump’s directive to get her city back under control by defending Seattle residents’ right to protest. She also told Trump to “Go back to your bunker.”

Protesters in CHAZ say they will stay until their demands are met. They are calling for a drastic reduction in the police budget and for that money to be reallocated to health and other community services.

It’s relatively common to set up autonomous zones during large protest movements. In 2016, several hundred people gathered in Paris’s Place de la République as part of the Nuit Debout movement, which was protesting against proposed labour reforms.

Article by Marie Genries.