What the Heck is Going On In Seattle?

People keep asking this question, so here’s some context

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UPDATE: As of 6/13, the area formerly known as the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” (CHAZ) has been renamed “Capitol Hill Organized Protest” (CHOP).

1. Seattle = American settler capitalism on steroids

Since its 19th century gold rush beginnings, Seattle has attracted prospectors of all sorts. Their economic prosperity has always come at a price for somone else: on February 7, 1865, the Seattle Board of Trustees passed an ordinance that banned “indians” from living within city limits, with the exception of those who were employed and housed by white settlers. To this day, the Duwamish—the original inhabitants of what is now Seattle — do not have federal recognition from the US government. Meanwhile, the city of Seattle is named for a Duwamish Chief, whose face is also used as a city logo.

2. Durkan is a pro-corporate, anti-activist mayor

Amazon’s influence over local politics cannot be overstated. In 2019, Amazon poured millions of dollars into “Seattle’s Most Expensive Election Ever” in an attempt to buy candidates who will not try to tax them. In 2017, they gave $350,000 —their largest-ever political contribution at the time—to a group supporting Jenny Durkan for mayor.

3. Seattle’s distrust of the police runs deep

Since 2012, the Seattle Department has been under a federal consent decree for excessive use of force. Here’s how King5 described the circumstances leading up to that ruling:

4. Distrust of police has recently intensified

Just a sampling of the events that have weakened trust in the past two weeks:

  • The arrest of Evan Hreha, who had posted a viral video days earlier of a young child who had just been pepper sprayed by Seattle police.
  • The excessively violent arrest (livestreamed by many residents at the time) of another protester, who was accused of allegedly tapping a police officer on a bicycle with her car.
  • The situation involving Nikolas Fernandez, who barreled down the street in a car on a collision course with protesters, shot a protester, and ran to the police. (It was later revealed that his brother worked at the East Precinct.) Fernandez’s last Instagram post before the incident was a meme minimizing the value of race-based civil rights struggles; while he was in police custody, his Instagram was scrubbed clean.
  • Multiple falsehoods that have been asserted by the Seattle police have been credulously and unquestioningly amplified by local networks (such as the Sinclair-owned KOMO). This includes the accusation of protesters throwing “improvised explosives”—(the image they shared was clearly of a broken prayer candle).
  • More recently, the accusation was made during a press conference that “armed guards are requiring IDs for people to walk through the area of the East Precinct and requiring business owners in the area to pay a “fee” to enter”—a false claim that has been debunked by area businesses. The Seattle Times later traced the claim to a comment on a post made by instigators on a right-wing blog. Meanwhile, FOX News and other national outlets have continued to push this blatant falsehood.
  • On the night of June 8, after the police retreated from the East Precinct, police could be heard over their scanner warning about “20 to 30 Proud Boys” making their way to the area, perhaps in an attempt to scare away protesters. It is doubtful whether these Proud Boys existed. The police also warned of a “credible threat of arson” to the precinct. A widely circulated image of a protester with a gun was taken that night, when protesters had reason to believe that they needed to protect the abandoned precinct from arson, and themselves from roving street gangs. (UPDATE: On June 14, Fox News admitted to digitally manipulating photographs of this protester in their coverage of #CHAZ/CHOP.)
  • SPD Chief Carmen Best called the department’s retreat from the intersection an exercise in “trust and de-escalation.” But the erosion of the city’s trust in its police have only been exacerbated by the department’s handling of recent events. As Lola E. Peters wrote,

5. Nikkita Oliver is the true mayor of our hearts

In 2017, attorney, poet, and activist Nikkita Oliver launched a bid to become mayor of Seattle. While her campaign, running on an anti-gentrification and social justice platform, was ultimately defeated in a crowded primary, her People’s Party captured national attention and helped set the tone of an agenda that continues to shine through in the best aspirations of the events of the past weeks. Oliver is a good person to follow for information about current events. (Another Seattleite to follow is Omari Salisbury, a citizen journalist whose coverage over the past two weeks has been nothing short of heroic.)

  • Reallocate funds to investments in Black and brown communities (community-based health and safety programs, mental health programs)
  • Release and do not prosecute protesters

6. The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone is, by and large, a supremely peaceful endeavor

I do not say this to delegitimize more confrontational tactics — Martin Luther King, Jr. called riots the “language of the unheard.” But organizers have made clear that they wanted to handle the retreat of the police from the area peacefully, and protesters have overwhelmingly respected their wishes.

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“Rest in Power to those killed during the George Floyd Rebellion” — Photo by Vivian Hua.

Artist and historian. PhD student researching religion, material culture, media, and politics. Bylines at The Wire Magazine, Art in America + more.

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