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Seattle protesters set up 'autonomous zone' after police evacuate precinct

The atmosphere at the "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone," where hundreds have gathered, has been part protest, part commune.
Image: Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone
A sign on a barrier at an entrance to the "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone" in Seattle on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.David Ryder / Getty Images

"THIS SPACE IS NOW PROPERTY OF THE SEATTLE PEOPLE" reads a giant black banner with red lettering at the "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone," an area around the abandoned police precinct that demonstrators moved into, setting up tents with plans to stay.

The Seattle Police Department vacated the East Precinct on Monday night, and protesters against the killing of George Floyd and police brutality established the zone, known as CHAZ, and changed the boarded-up building's sign to read "Seattle People Department."

Since then, hundreds of people have been gathering in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, where the atmosphere has been part peaceful protest, part commune, with speeches, distribution of free food, live music, a community garden and late-night movie screenings.

Wednesday night, the atmosphere was "like a block party," Omari Salisbury, a citizen journalist who has been documenting the zone, told NBC News on Thursday morning.

Hundreds of people were out in the protest zone, some playing Frisbee, some enjoying music from a live band and some enjoying a late-night screening of "Paris Is Burning," a documentary about underground LGBTQ dance culture during the mid- to late 1980s. People painted BLACK LIVES MATTER in the middle of the street and renamed two streets BLACK LIVES MATTER Way and BLACK LIVES MATTER Square.

"It was a very jamming situation," he said.

Salisbury said many of the people who have been protesting live and work in the community.

"This is a highly progressive and resilient neighborhood, and they were the protesters," he said. "Outside people come along during the protests, but people who live across the street from the precinct were the people who were at the barricade. People who own businesses over here were at the barricade because of the use of the high level of tear gas," he said.

Image: Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle
People stand in front of the Seattle Police Department's East Precinct sign in the "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone" while continuing to demonstrate against racial inequality and call for the defunding of Seattle police in Seattle on Tuesday, June 9, 2020.Lindsey Wasson / Reuters

"These are the people in the neighborhood protesting against the police precinct. That's what led to all of this," he said.

Courtney Blodgett, 37, a consultant from Seattle, told NBC News that "CHAZ feels like a breath of fresh air."

"People are friendly, calm, helpful and inspired," she said. "I heard multiple conversations of people who want to help further the area — 'How can I donate food? What else can we do?'

"There are discussions of how we can continue to peacefully push for racial justice," she said. "There is a somber and thoughtful sentiment of the people looking at the many tributes to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Charleena Lyles and other Black people killed by police."

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best arrived at the precinct with other officers Thursday morning and inspected the building, while other officers stood outside, Salisbury said.

"The officers on the outside of the building have made it clear — they said that they didn't come here for a police action today, but they made it clear they want the building back, and once they have the building back in their hands, they'll be ready to address any community concerns," he said.

A group of community members gathered outside to watch the scene, Salisbury said.

Salisbury said it was unclear whether the officers would eventually leave the precinct later Thursday or whether some planned to remain in the building later in the day.

Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country

In an interview with Salisbury, Best said losing the physical presence in the neighborhood has led to a lag in response times to priority calls in the Capitol Hill area.

"Ultimately, we need to have a building and facility where we can come in, service the public, answer calls for service," she said, while recognizing that "there are a lot of folks that have a lot of concerns about accountability and police responses, and those conversations should be going on."

Still, she said, "what we really need to start with is regaining community trust."President Donald Trump said in an interview Thursday with Fox News that this would not have happened had there been more “toughness,” adding “if they don’t straighten that situation out, we are going to straighten it.”

Asked what he meant, he said, “We are not going to let Seattle be occupied by anarchists,” adding later, “If we have to go in, we are going to go in.”

He tweeted Thursday morning that the protesters needed to "get out of Seattle now" and that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, was looking like a "fool."

Image: Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle
The beginnings of a Black Lives Matter mural begin to take shape on East Pine Street in the "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone" in Seattle on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.David Ryder / Getty Images

Late Wednesday, the president called the peaceful demonstrators "Domestic Terrorists," saying they had taken over the city.

Inslee responded to the president's criticism earlier, saying, "A man who is totally incapable of governing should stay out of Washington state's business."

Meanwhile, the scene at the "autonomous zone" remained peaceful and communal Thursday.

Blodgett said that people had been gardening in the new community gardens and that local businesses and faith institutions were offering hot food and drinks and use of bathrooms. Music played in different areas while masked people swayed to the beat. Stations were set up for trash and recycling.

Mayor Jenny Durkan compared the area to past block parties or the city's pride parade, telling reporters during a news conference that it was "really not that much of an operational challenge."

"But we want to make sure the businesses and residents feel safe," she said.

Asked if police planned on returning to the vacated precinct, she said the decision would be based on "an ongoing assessment about when it would be safe and appropriate for them to move in there."