Road trip to Powder Keg City: The collapse of Seattle's autonomous zone

What we saw in Seattle was hopeful, angry and sometimes violent. It was nothing like what you saw on the news

Published August 1, 2020 7:30PM (EDT)

 A sign is seen on a barrier at an entrance to the so-called "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone" on June 10, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. The zone includes the blocks surrounding the Seattle Police Departments East Precinct, which was the site of violent clashes with Black Lives Matter protesters, who have continued to demonstrate in the wake of George Floyd's death. (David Ryder/Getty Images)
A sign is seen on a barrier at an entrance to the so-called "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone" on June 10, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. The zone includes the blocks surrounding the Seattle Police Departments East Precinct, which was the site of violent clashes with Black Lives Matter protesters, who have continued to demonstrate in the wake of George Floyd's death. (David Ryder/Getty Images)

Day 1: Powder Keg City 6/22/2020

"We fought a good fight," a man yelled into a megaphone at the end of a conciliatory speech. A group of roughly 25 people sat on their knees listening on the edge of the occupied zone in Capitol Hill, Seattle's formerly cool, currently hip neighborhood.

Had we just driven 21 hours, from Southern California to Seattle's autonomous zone, for nothing? 

Across the street was Cal Anderson Park. A congregation of people stood in the middle of its fenced field. Perhaps they had a different take.

"That day I learned something so divine and so incredible," an activist named David Lewis spoke into the megaphone, "that a seemingly random group of human beings, all founded together with the same vision, with the same drive, of simply justice for the death of George Floyd, and beyond that the passion that Black lives truly do matter, could unite and create something beautiful."

Around the edge of the field, occupiers packed up their tents. A man named Dragon pleaded, "Why are you leaving?" He was almost in tears. "Stay!" he cried. 

The megaphone was handed off to a lanky man in slippers named Karim.

"I want you to know that you are standing in a war zone. Whether it's a park, a street, or up the street, you have witnessed people disenfranchised your entire existence, and the moment that they stand up, they got a foot on they fucking necks for everything they've been through."

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan had announced that police would disband the occupation "in the near future", and most likely that night. It was clear that a line was drawn within the zone. Stay and fight, or leave in peace. The group we saw upon arriving, and those packing up their tents, had chosen the latter. The meeting ended with a call to defend the precinct from the imminent raid. 

As the crowd marched up to the police station, we ran back to the car. This was it. We stripped down in the street and geared up for the worst — two pairs of overlapping jeans, a sweatshirt, and a $5 pair of safety goggles.

Back at the precinct, a disorganized mass of delinquents, rebels, anarchists and activists writhed and argued amongst each other. Different alleged organizers roared defense strategies into megaphones. 

"Any white people willing to lay down [on the road in front of the precinct] please come over here," one of them yelled. 

Another woman stood atop a repurposed police barricade giving a speech. Sirens sounded around the perimeter of the occupation.

Within minutes of arriving at the precinct, an hour after setting foot within the occupation, we stood locking arms with other protesters, creating a human chain around the precinct — our purest intentions of objective coverage out the window. The almighty they had been replaced with we

We didn't know much. The problem with a scene like this is that most news outlets don't want to touch it. It leaves you scrolling through endless Twitter threads — a landfill of he-said-she-said, rumors and trolls. 

What we had pieced together during our journey up the West Coast was that, concurrent with uprisings across the country in the wake of George Floyd's murder, Seattle's East Police Precinct had become a zone of daily protest. On June 8, the city had abandoned the precinct. 

Around the police station, a six-block police-free zone, guarded by heavily armed activists, anarchists, leftists and the like, was formed. A community grew out of this spontaneous takeover, as various activists set up a coordinated network of services — a food coop, a medic tent, an art department, a security team. Indigenous artists painted and Black musicians performed. Teach-ins and movie nights were held. The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) was born.

Tense hours passed, and as police did not show up, we milled around the zone, wading between ski-masked men, eavesdropping on conversations, trying to figure out what was happening. Groups of people ran every which way. A living organism composed of other living organisms, tentacles extending and connecting to form a network so far obscured to the casual observer that it was nearly impossible to tell it was connected at all. A hive mind of uncertainty. 

We introduced ourselves to Rick, an older gentleman with two pistols strapped to his body, a can of mace in his back pocket, black slacks, leather loafers and a sweat-stained tank top under an unbuttoned white shirt loosely concealing the firearms. 

We walked quickly from one side of the street to the other and back, as he briefed us on what was going on. "The organizers are behind the scenes," he said, preferring to stay underground and strategize. 

"The police are not stupid," Rick warned, "This is their house, and they'll take it." Rick had publicly proposed retreating from the precinct, but continuing to hold the streets. Nobody listened. "Majority rules, and it's time for me to step back," Rick chuckled, leaning against a barricade, coffee in hand. 

Across the street at the food coop, a man named Kwan bagged nuts. He asked if we were Youtubers or vloggers. We were writers, we explained, masking our wounded pride with amusement. He told us that when the precinct was abandoned, a power vacuum was created, leaving a number of groups within the area competing for control — who would dictate the narrative, negotiate with city officials, strategize, mobilize the protesters? A recent contentious decision had been the renaming of CHAZ as CHOP, for Capitol Hill Organized Protest.

A brass orchestra assembled behind us, kicking into a blaring version of Pete Seeger's "Solidarity Forever."

Against the backdrop of the boarded-up police station, a legless man rolled past. "We're in Powder Keg City," he shouted.

Kwan described CHOP as different from other protests in Seattle's past. While focused on police violence against the Black community, the central goal of defunding Seattle's police and funding impoverished communities expanded toward all members of the working class. 

The muted clap of a fist to a face and the subsequent crack of head to asphalt rang out. "Solidarity Forever" ground to a halt. Rick stood over a limp body, bald head glistening in the streetlights. "No violence! No violence!" he screamed.

A man had attempted to light a gasoline soaked umbrella on fire, and in doing so had broken an unwritten rule of CHOP: No fires. Fires create panic, fires distract, fires signal destruction. For this transgression, Rick had crushed the man's jaw. Justice was swift and brutal.

A crowd formed, hurling insults at Rick. "He was lighting a fire!" Rick asserted in defense. As witnesses backed him up, the argument was settled. After all, the man had been attempting to light a fire.

In our sleep-deprived minds, we tried to make sense of what we were witnessing. This wasn't the street fair that Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan had described, nor the anarchist Shangri-La we had envisioned. It was something darker, more hopeful, angry and violent. Think Occupy Wall Street with a "Pulp Fiction" adrenaline needle shot straight into the heart of an open-carry state. 

Day 2: A beautiful day for a psy-op 6/23/2020

We recognized familiar faces from the night before as we approached the precinct. David Lewis stood tepidly on the corner. A few feet away, Rick reclined in a lawn chair. 

A shooting had occurred within the occupation while we slept. The fourth in four days. 

Caught up in the madness of the night before, we hadn't fully explored the occupied area. Leaving the police station, we walked down East Pine Street and onto Cal Anderson Field. Lining the edges of the turf were 20 or so tents. Extending off the field, the turf turned to grass, and around 50 more tents spread through the wooded area. A long-haired man who looked like he had been birthed from a Luna bar stirred some mulch.

We sat down on a bench to drink coffee. Two men shadow-boxed in the middle of a drained fountain. One of them, tanned with thick leathery skin, wore a cowboy hat and no shirt, cigarette dangling from his mouth. 

As we watched the men spar, a kid in his early 20s walked up to us. "Can I get a smoke?" he asked. We handed him a cigarette and lighter.  

Within a minute, another man approached. "Any chance I can get a cig?" 

"Sure thing." We chatted with him for a few minutes, before he made up an excuse to leave. 

Both men seemed to have no political affiliation with the camp. It dawned on us that many whom we had mistaken for anarchists and protesters the night before were in fact a contingent of unhoused people, a large portion of whom had been living in the park well before the inception of CHOP.

While some resented the unhoused residents, blaming them for violence and crime, most welcomed them as comrades within the occupation. Free food and services provided by the food coop and other tents were enthusiastically provided to anyone within the zone.

As we took in the scene, a man darted by, pulling something from his satchel. Screams. To our right, someone dressed in black snapped a radio from their belt. 

"Hatchet... Man with hatchet!"

The man swung the weapon in circles above his head, emitting a pulsating cry: "Eight, seven, six, five …" Before he hit zero, the CHOP security team swarmed in, disarming him. 

Later that night, we caught word of an important meeting at Cal Anderson Field. Walking over, we heard a man named Malcolm speak to a group of 40 people sitting on the synthetic grass. A car with body-armored men hanging off the windows circled the group. Someone ran screaming through the field. We moved in closer to listen. 

"CHOP is moving." We scribbled in our notebooks attentively. "CHOP is moving forward. CHOP is moving to … the Space Needle." 

A deafening silence engulfed the crowd as people processed what we considered the worst idea we'd heard in a long time. 

"Hell no, I'm not going anywhere," one lady yelled, and as others joined in, the meeting devolved. We recognized David Lewis, a man who had spoken the night before, and went over to hear what he had to say. 

"The problem is capitalism," a gap-toothed shirtless man, angry red nipples standing in stark contrast to a pasty chest, said to David. He went on, "We have enough people here to occupy all of the vacant apartments in Capitol Hill."

"To what end?" David asked. 

"To abolish capitalism," the man fired back.

"Listen, I'm here because of police violence against the Black community," David replied with restraint. 

Interjecting and aiming a question at David, we asked, "Why is moving to the Space Needle a better strategy than staying here?"

"It's not," he replied. 

As we finished talking, a tall slender man in his late 20s, prickly beard poking out from his face mask, pulled us aside. 

"You know David Lewis is an informant?" he told us.  

"How do you know this?" we asked.

"Trust me, it's just known," he said ominously, in a way that deterred us from asking additional questions.

It didn't make any sense. David Lewis, just a day earlier, had pleaded for people to stay — to defy the mayor's orders. "I will stand with you all these days, if you stand with me," he had said. 

We began to piece together what was going on. In recent days, paranoia had begun oozing through the camp. Rumors spread that 17 women had disappeared, and many suspected that the far-right Proud Boys, or gangs involved in human trafficking, might be responsible. 

It was true that Proud Boys had beaten a man on the outskirts of CHOP, but the nomadic nature of many residents made it impossible to verify if anyone had actually gone missing.

Four days earlier, a group of teenagers had discovered the chopped-up remains of a body stuffed into a suitcase on the bank of a nearby river. Warnings sounded within the camp: "There's a new serial killer in Seattle, y'all."

As for political organization, whispers that even previously trusted leaders were undercovers or informants became commonplace. 

Earlier in the day, a man in a beret had sat on the field joking on a megaphone. "It's a beautiful day for a psy-op, ladies and gentlemen!" 

It was clear that morale had shifted: Daily meetings had turned into yelling matches between political factions. After midnight, the camp became an uncontrollable zone, leading the CHOP security team to dissolve out of fear for their own safety. 

Whether or not the rumors were true, they, along with the verifiable tensions and the physical threats, had been accepted into the camp's psyche. CHOP was a skeleton of what it had been just the night before — most tents, including the food coop, were suddenly gone. The movement was collapsing. Cannibalizing itself. 

Just after midnight, we walked over to the precinct. Rick was recounting an incident from the previous night. Hearing shouts from a tent, he went over to investigate. A man was attempting to assault a woman in Cal Anderson Park. Rick took out his gun and fired two shots into the air. The man fled. 

"Gangs have guns, police have guns," he said. "If I'm not armed, I'm going to lose every time."

Instinctively, we felt for the Swiss Army knives in our pockets. A 1.5-inch blade. Maybe Rick was right. Or maybe we just needed some sleep.

Day 3: Reformation 6/24/2020

We gathered for the daily meeting at the center of Cal Anderson Field.

A number of prominent activists in the camp formed a line to speak. David Lewis was among them. One by one, the speakers advocated a renewed focus on the original goals of the occupation — cut funding for the city police budget, redistribute those funds into the community, ensure amnesty for protesters. 

To negotiate with the city, control over the precinct was the strongest leverage CHOP had. Instead of occupying the seven-acre expanse of the park, leaving the camp vulnerable to a police raid and other violence, they advocated consolidating around the precinct.

Since arriving, we had witnessed three groups battle for control over the mainstream narrative and ground strategy of the occupation. One was an anarchist contingent, looking for an experiment in a police-free society. Another was a Black Lives Matter movement-focused group, critical of CHOP's occupational nature, but using the zone as a rallying point to stage marches. Thirdly, there was an Occupy contingent, whose main focus was holding the precinct hostage until their demands were met. 

As the occupiers presented, the crowd listened with an energy we had not seen before. They had a clear set of demands, and a clear strategy of how to meet them. People sat on a set of bleachers, chatting excitedly. It seemed this group was taking control.

After the meeting finished, the People's Assembly, an anarchist remnant of CHAZ, commenced. Three separate circles were formed: long-term planning, short-term planning and a "vibe check" circle. For some unjustifiable reason, we joined the vibe check circle. 

Sitting opposite us was a man in his early 20s with a thick mustache and curly hair held back by a red bandana. He looked like a well-rested David Crosby. The man explained that CHOP's goals were too small. We needed to think bigger than Seattle, bigger than Earth … we needed to change the universe.

Fearing that staying in the vibe check circle any longer would trick us into attending some sort of Rainbow Gathering, one of us left to join the short-term strategy circle. 

A man held the megaphone. He had a buzzcut, a camo bandana and oversized brownish-orange aviator shades. His black hooded sweatshirt displayed an AK-47-wielding militant — a memorial to a fallen revolutionary. 

"I can teach you how not to die," he said. 

He was ex-military, he said, and spoke of the need to reform our security force. He would offer training he had learned when deployed overseas. 

As he spoke, a group of organizers from the BLM movement marched up to us. A young black woman led a chant: "This looks like a bureaucracy." The crowd echoed in sing-songy antagonism. "Enough talk," they demanded. They were marching two miles to Seattle's Western precinct. With the People's Assembly wrapping up, we joined them.

Day 4: The revolution will be comfortable 6/25/2020

On the morning of the fourth day, we walked into camp around 11 a.m. Shouts could be heard as we approached, and on the corner of the precinct, four people sat in lawn chairs holding their faces. A lady poured milk into one man's eyes. Down the street, a giant of a man, strode around the camp screaming. 

Behind him, Rick was in hot pursuit. 

"Don't mace him!" a woman yelled. More cries for nonviolence were shouted into the morning air. 

Rick maced him. 

We took a seat on a concrete barricade. A man with Karl Marx tattooed on his tricep served vegan breakfast burritos. More tents had appeared since the night before. People were coming back. 

The four men gripping their faces had been collateral damage from when Rick had maced the giant 10 minutes before this most recent instance. Among them was Karim, whom we had heard speak the first night. He was in good spirits and we got to chatting.

"The revolution will not be televised, but it will be comfortable," he said, gesturing to the newly arranged living room on the sidewalk under the precinct. "I like all this shit, so I made it happen," he said with a handsome smile. 

A few hours later, the giant, along with Karim and a number of others, were sitting around having beers in their makeshift lounge. 

We made a trip to the store and came back with an 18-case of Rainier and a box of smokes. We joined the group. 

Wizard, an "almost full empath," said he grew mushrooms that could decompose plastics. An EMT kid looking to start a hardcore band chatted up a man in an ICP shirt. Karim joked about the five pillars of society. One of them was yogurt. 

Nobody checked Instagram for their latest cultural homework assignment or book recommendation. Copies of "White Fragility" were replaced with dime bags and cushions. We sat there in front of a police precinct, held hostage until SPD's ungodly budget was reallocated to communities in need. There was a bag of weed on the table and a case of beers. An act of insurrection. An act of solidarity. 

Outro: Eggs Benedict in San Francisco 6/26/2020

We took Interstate 5 south out of Washington, through Oregon and all the way to San Francisco, where we stopped for the night at a friend's apartment. There was not a soul in the Haight-Ashbury. People in masks went about their days as we ate eggs Benedict and drank coffee at an outdoor café. 

"I think the almond milk in the latte is bad."

"Oh shit. Send it back."

A day's drive north, a war raged. Here, there was no sign of the revolution. 

We drank and laughed like mad men at the absurdity.

A week before, we had left home expecting to witness a feudal struggle of serfs against kings. We wanted to write a Homeric war song, but instead of facing us in an epic clash, the forces of power lobbed rotting carcasses over the walls and waited for sickness and starvation to run their course. They thought people would tire, put down their weapons and go back to their daily lives. They were wrong. 

If you only read internet news stories, CHOP might have seemed like a hyper-violent test case validating the police state. But shootings happen every day in Seattle, a testament to communities with no economic mobility, left to fight among themselves over the scraps. When they happen in a zone occupied by protesters, they make the news.

In regular Seattle, in the regular United States, the howling giant we saw get maced would have been shot instead. A hammer sees a nail.

CHOP was an imperfect system set up spontaneously in a number of days, but while we were there, we saw people feed each other and support each other. There was no monetary gain for those who cooked or the medics who stayed up all night on patrol. People traveled from all over the country to build a different world, a kinder world. In CHOP, at least for a few days, they did. 

By Sean Edwards

Sean Edwards is managing editor at The Kollection, and the frontman of punk outfit PINNR.

MORE FROM Sean Edwards

By Gabe Fuente

Gabe Fuente is a freelance data scientist, still lamenting the defeat of his former boss, Bernie Sanders.

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