President Donald Trump says Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, a largely police-free community space fashioned amid protests, is run by “domestic terrorists.” Seattle’s police department made (and walked back) a claim about anarchists “extorting” businesses in the area.
But actual businesses around the zone say they’re watching Ava DuVernay films, handing out granola bars, and having a nice time.
Following several nights of showdowns between police and protesters, in which cops made liberal use of tear gas and flash grenades, Seattle reached a detente with activists on June 9. The city would open up a few streets for Black Lives Matter marches in its Capitol Hill neighborhood, and police would evacuate the nearby precinct. With police mostly gone, activists—including a mix of Black Lives Matter organizers, anarchists, and the two groups’ overlap—set up barricades around several blocks and proceeded to turn the interior into a sort of cop-free commune. Local businesses are chipping in with free food and open bathrooms, despite rumors that activists were holding them prisoner in their own beer halls and indie movie theaters.
But the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ as it quickly became known, has inevitably became the focus of conservative hand-wringing. “Domestic Terrorists have taken over Seattle,” Trump tweeted late Wednesday, alongside a demand that state and local officials “take back your city NOW. If you don’t do it, I will. This is not a game. These ugly Anarchists must be stopped IMMEDIATELY. MOVE FAST!” The president has continued to inveigh about the allegedly dangerous project underway there.
Seattle Police circulated their own talking points about the CHAZ. “We’ve heard, anecdotally, reports of citizens and businesses being asked to pay a fee to operate within this area,” Assistant Chief of Police Deanna Nollette said on Wednesday. “This is the crime of extortion. If anyone has been subjected to this, we need them to call 911.”
Not only is that not true, local business owner Gay Gilmore told The Daily Beast, but some businesses are actually opening to protesters for the first time after long closures for COVID-19.
Rumors that “businesses have actually been tithed or taxed by the autonomous zone [are] absurd,” said Gilmore, who co-owns the Optimism Brewing Company with her husband. “No one is doing that there. I have no idea where that idea came from and I'm in contact with lots of the businesses who are in this neighborhood.”
Local business associations made the same observations.
“GSBA and Capitol Hill Business Alliance have also reached out to businesses in the area, and we have found no evidence of this occurring,” the Greater Seattle Business Association tweeted on Thursday.
The few concrete claims of discomfort stem from a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article that cites unnamed businesses worried about safety, and reports of at least one person carrying a gun on the scene. (Washington is an open-carry state, although Seattle banned weapons in an emergency order on May 30.)
The Seattle Times traced the extortion rumors to a fringe Canadian blog that focuses almost pathologically on overheated fears about leftist activists. That article cited unnamed police sources, who allegedly claimed businesses were being extorted. Those claims spread quickly through the right-wing media sphere, until police repeated them on Wednesday, prompting more articles and completing the ouroboros of extortion rumors.
The department appeared to backtrack on those claims Thursday, stating its “anecdotal” reports had come from media and social media.
“That has not happened affirmatively,” Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said during the Thursday evening press conference. “We haven't had any formal reports of this occurring.”
The zone’s Northwest Film Forum, Northwest Liquor and Wine, and Pel Meni Dumpling Tzar all told Seattle’s Q13 FOX News that businesses were not being extorted.
“I’ve been talking with neighboring businesses and they’re all elated honestly,” a Pel Meni employee told the station. Some businesses told the Seattle Times that their sales had actually improved, since people were placing walk-up orders that didn’t require delivery fees.
“This protest has not hurt us at all,” Brian O'Connor, co-owner of the zone’s Bok a Bok Chicken told the paper, adding that someone gave him a free sandwich when he entered the CHAZ.
Mx. Pucks A’Plenty, a local activist and performer who asked to speak under their performance name, said Capitol Hill is a historically Black and queer neighborhood, and that that history informs locals’ interactions with the CHAZ.
“The people of Capitol Hill have been extremely giving,” Pucks told The Daily Beast. “They have helped provide supplies. They have helped take care of people when they were tear gassed. They had their phones turned on to the police and made sure that people of the world were watching what's happening here in Seattle. And so I think a portion of what we were seeing on, on the Hill right now is this desire to give back to a community that really did support what was happening in it.”
Rancho Bravo, a restaurant in the CHAZ, was hosting a medical tent—even after its trash cans were damaged in the protests, Pucks said. “You have restaurants in the area making food and delivering it to people on the frontline,” they added. “You have the Vermilion [an art gallery and bar], which was storing supplies, giving out supplies.”
Optimism—a large beer hall located just outside the barricaded area—has been closed for months as COVID-19 swept the country.
“The business is in debt,” Gilmore said, adding that they were opening a proper reopening in a few weeks. Even so, she and her colleagues agreed to open the beer hall’s bathrooms for protesters, after seeing them line up for a pair of port-a-potties on the street. “It was the one thing that we could do was to open the bathrooms.”
Her staff has even been volunteering and using the hall’s long tables to collect donations for CHAZ-dwellers, she added.
“I'm looking at three huge tables covered in water bottles and toilet paper rolls and tampons and bandaids and markers to make signs and granola bars and oranges and bananas,” Gilmore said.
CHAZ activists have used those donations to assemble bags of food for the homeless, part of an organic activism program that also includes teach-ins on racial justice and movie screenings at night. Ava DuVernay’s film 13th, which highlights racist underpinnings of America’s criminal justice system, screened Tuesday night.
It’s a radical change from the tear gas and flash bangs that dominated the streets just days ago, and echoes similar mutual aid networks set up in protest flashpoints like Minneapolis. Likewise, local businesses allying themselves with protesters echoed the solidarity on display during past activist waves, including Occupy Wall Street.
“For the past few days, it hasn't [ever] felt safer,” Gilmore said of the neighborhood. “I'm taking the paper down from our windows. We are getting ready to open, now that the police are not here.”
For all the progressive activism, however, Pucks expressed concern that the initial protest—one for Black lives—was being lost in the noise.
“I think the concept in and of itself is amazing and brilliant,” they said, but “I am terrified that [it will] be at the expense of the Black Lives Matter movement. It will be at the expense of getting equity for Black folks, and that will get forgotten again. There’s gotta be a balance and I’m struggling to see that.”
Pucks’ son is Black, autistic, and tall for his age. “My investment in this is that I gave birth to a Black man and I don't want my son to be killed because he's having a bad day or he's having a bad moment,” Pucks said. “That's my place in this fight. I am not in the business of giving birth to black children to bury them.”
Threats like Trump’s, which implied the National Guard or other armed forces might move on the CHAZ, added to concerns about Black lives in the zone.
“Whenever Trump tweets, it’s pretty alarming because we’re watching someone who doesn’t feel like he’s connected to the reality of things that are happening. I read a tweet from him and it’s like the Twilight Zone. It doesn’t feel real,” Pucks said. But, they added, “none of this feels real. Sometimes I feel like, am I in the middle of a fever dream?”