As demonstrations against police violence and racial injustice spread across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, the situation in Seattle took shape in a way distinct from other protests. Activists took over an area in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood that would become a scene of peaceful gatherings but also tense faceoffs with police and violence visited on demonstrators.
The occupation was repeatedly highlighted on cable news, and President Trump has tweeted about it, decrying the demonstrators and the local and state leaders responding to them. Activists have said that media coverage has focused only on the violence rather than the calmer aspects, which included documentary screenings and concerts.
Durkan, at a news conference Wednesday afternoon, said comments by the president and his administration were unhelpful and made the situation “more volatile.”
But gunfire in the area known as the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, or CHOP, had increased scrutiny on the gathering. (The region has also been called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ.) In the latest incident, police said that a 16-year-old was killed and a 14-year-old wounded in a shooting early Monday at or near the barriers surrounding the zone.
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best issued a statement early Wednesday saying that she supports peaceful protests and would continue her department’s work to engage with activists.
“But enough is enough,” Best said. “The CHOP has become lawless and brutal. Four shootings — two fatal — robberies, assaults, violence and countless property crimes have occurred in this several-block area. My job, and the job of our officers, is to protect and serve our community.”
The White House praised the zone’s elimination Wednesday, and Attorney General William P. Barr said violence in the area had undermined “the very rule-of-law principles that the protesters profess to defend.”
“The message of today’s action is simple but significant: the Constitution protects the right to speak and assemble freely, but it provides no right to commit violence or defy the law, and such conduct has no place in a free society governed by law,” Barr said in a statement.
Police officials headed into the zone early Wednesday, wearing protective gear because people there were “known to be armed and dangerous,” the department said. About 100 officers took part in clearing the zone.
They made three dozen arrests Wednesday, police said, describing the cases as involving failure to disperse, resisting arrest, obstruction and assault. One man, they said, had a pipe and knife on him when he was arrested. Police said they planned to continue asking people to leave the area and would keep arresting anyone who did not cooperate.
“After walking through the area, I was stunned by the amount of graffiti, garbage and property destruction,” Best told reporters Wednesday afternoon.
Durkan called for charges to be dismissed for those who were arrested for alleged misdemeanors, such as trespassing or obstruction. The mayor also said the Seattle parks and arts departments would preserve a community garden and artwork and murals protesters created within the zone.
By midmorning Wednesday, the journalists at the scene seemed to outnumber the demonstrators gathered under the gray sky on the cool, soggy day.
Officers stood lining the area’s perimeter and had bicycles blocking the roadway in the hours after they first made their approach. A crowd of maybe two dozen people remained in the area by midmorning, some protesting and some appearing to just watch the scene.
One demonstrator, who was not wearing a mask, shouted at people, “Do not engage!” A young man, also not wearing a mask, screamed, “No more political prisoners!” A third moved to within a few feet of police, yelled an obscenity and told the officers, “You are not protecting the people.”
Police did not respond.
Durkan’s order described ways in which she said the city had facilitated demonstrations — including by modifying streets and access routes for pedestrians and allowing obstructions of public streets and sidewalks — but also said conditions had worsened, describing other shootings, “numerous reports of narcotics use and violent crime,” and damage to property in the area.
In her order, Durkan said everyone “unlawfully occupying” the space must be ordered to leave and could be arrested if they did not comply.
She directed transportation officials to remove barriers in the area, parks and recreation officials to begin cleaning, and other city officials to assess any property damage and power issues.
As the small crowd lingered in the area, vehicles pulled barriers away. Some of the vehicles rumbled down wet roadways, passing a spot where someone had used pink spray-paint to write on the street:
“ ‘NOW ENTERING’ COP FREE ZONE. LONG LIVE CHAZ!”
Berman reported from Washington. Guarino reported from New York.