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Seattle Activists Create Autonomous Zone Near Abandoned Police Precinct After Days of State Violence

Web ExclusiveJune 11, 2020
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Image Credit: Omari Salisbury

We continue our interview with Seattle-based citizen journalist Omari Salisbury, who has been live-streaming the uprising and police crackdown there, and get an update on how protesters have barricaded a six-block autonomous zone, declaring it “Free Capitol Hill.”

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is_Democracy Now!_, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Protesters in Seattle, Washington, have taken over several city blocks after a protracted standoff with the police force there, shutting down a police precinct, declaring part of the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood as an autonomous zone, Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ. A banner on the perimeter of the area reads, “This space is now property of the Seattle people.” Activists took the area after a week of rising tension over the police killing of George Floyd, as police responded with tear gas and force, prompting calls for the resignation of Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.

Citizen journalist Omari Salisbury live-streamed Seattle police using pepper spray, tear gas and flashbang grenades on demonstrators and reporters, like himself.

OMARI SALISBURY: There’s the spray. There’s the spray. There’s the spray. Now you saw them now. It’s on. East Precinct, they’re losing control. State police are trying to open the barricade. They’re putting the pepper spray in the air. Share the street! Share the street! Share the street! Share the street! This [bleep]! God [bleep], they got me! You [bleep]!

AMY GOODMAN: Facing mounting criticism for its militarized response, the Seattle Police Department abandoned its Capitol Hill precinct this week.

Last night, President Trump tweeted, quote, “Radical Left Governor @JayInslee and the Mayor of Seattle are being taunted and played at a level that our great Country has never seen before. Take back your city NOW. If you don’t do it, I will. This is not a game. These ugly Anarchists must be stooped IMMEDIATELY. MOVE FAST!” President Trump tweeted, then said, “Domestic Terrorists have taken over Seattle, run by Radical Left Democrats, of course. LAW & ORDER!” Trump tweeted.

The Seattle mayor, Jenny Durkan, responded by tweeting, quote, “Make us all safe. Go back to your bunker. #BlackLivesMatter.” Congressmember Pramila Jayapal tweeted, “Don’t you have a bunker to be in?” She was referencing Trump’s visit to the White House underground bunker when mass protests first broke out in late May. Trump has insisted he went to the bunker for an inspection, a claim his own attorney general contradicts. William Barr has said the move was to protect Trump from the protesters.

Well, for more, we’re going to Seattle to speak with Omari Salisbury, who’s been covering the protests in Seattle since they started, on Twitter and for his website, Converge Media.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Omari. Describe where you are right now, and then talk about what’s taken place, what the CHAZ is.

OMARI SALISBURY: Yeah, good morning. Thank you, Amy. So, I’m literally in a building that’s just 10 feet from the East Precinct. I’m in the heart of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or the CHAZ. And, I mean, I think we’re going into day number three or day number four here. And these guys are very serious about creating their autonomous space. I actually attended a town hall meeting yesterday where they’re trying to find a mayor and formalize all their policies.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Omari, I want to ask about the step that Mayor Durkan took last week, namely about banning the use of tear gas, but City Councilmember Kshama Sawant denounced this ban, saying, in fact, it wasn’t a ban at all. Can you explain exactly what the ban entailed and what it didn’t?

OMARI SALISBURY: Well, the thing is, is that I think the issue was the proportionality of the use of tear gas, or even tear gas use in this residential neighborhood right here. We’ve seen it used in Seattle downtown plenty of times with protests there, but it was the use in the — the East Precinct lies in a residential neighborhood, Capitol Hill. And I think that the whole world kind of saw the amount of tear gas and what it looked right there through my lens and a lot of other people’s lenses.

And the city needed to act to be able to try to pull something into control, and so they put a 30-day ban on it. But, you know, SWAT is still able to use it. And there’s other chemical weapons that they announced on Sunday, when — the last day of the confrontation here, that they were going to still use other gas if people didn’t disperse. But the city had to do something, because it was out there, and it was two, three days in a row of just continuous gas on the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about — just take us through what has happened in these last two weeks since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. Describe for us what happened in Seattle. You’ve been live-streaming it for the world to see.

OMARI SALISBURY: Right. Well, you know, the thing is, is that the big protests downtown Seattle, we’ve seen them before, kind of May Day and some other things, way back in ’99, WTO. And, you know, it was an ugly scene there. But then, Sunday is when the peaceful guys kind of reclaim the streets, you know.

And it kind of — it started on Sunday. They marched up here to the — they wanted to pass the East Precinct. The East Precinct would not allow passage on Sunday, and they turned the protesters back twice. And then, every day — the Monday they came back, they tried to pass peacefully. And again, the Seattle police did not allow passage and barricaded the street. And from there, the standoff began.

And that Monday, that’s the day that you guys played the clip from right there. The people in the neighborhood, where before — before they got the gas came out, it was all about George Floyd. It still is. It still is about inequality and things like that. But the majority of the people, this is — like I said, these are residents. So it was something different. So, they got entrenched. Like, when something happens downtown, nobody really lives in the financial district, so people go home. But on Monday, while the gas came out, the rubber bullets came out, the flashbangs came out, and the people in the neighborhood were impacted, it became very entrenched. They set up supply lines over here, mutual aid, their own medics and everything else, to kind of fuel the protest, because they were like, “Man, it’s no way that we’re going to leave our own neighborhood, and, you know, have this street barricaded.”

And the thing is, is for days, for over one week, they said they just wanted to peacefully pass Pine Street. And, you know, I don’t think the police believed them. And I’m sure the police had their reasons not to, as well, when people saw what happened in Minneapolis with Precinct 3. But ultimately, it came down to a sustained — it was really an occupation. It wasn’t even approaching — people just occupied the area. And so, you had people over here in the parks. You had bands playing. You had mutual aid giving people food, water, supplies and everything else. And they just — they fed the protests. And some people, I mean, they camped out here. They stayed here on the frontline.

And, you know, every day, you didn’t quite know. It was three days of violence, three days of peace, two days of violence. And then, Sunday was the day that just got real ugly out here. Even though they couldn’t use the tear gas anymore, there was all kinds of other chemicals in the air. And the rubber bullets came out, the National Guard. The rubber bullets came out. Our security guy, our security guy in front of me, he got shot five times with the rubber bullets, just, you know, protecting me so I could keep the stream going.

And then, Monday, they were going to put up a chain link fence, because they kept on having problems with the barricades. And City Hall looks like they changed their mind. They had a change of heart on Monday, and it changed from building a fence to abandoning the precinct. And we were standing right here, and the city released a statement saying that they were just reducing the footprint. But we could tell. There was moving trucks going in and out, officers carrying bags. They boarded up the building. They put a gate there. They definitely abandoned the precinct.

And then, later on that day, they removed the barricades, and the people of Capitol Hill rushed into the streets and, you know, celebrated in front of the precinct and immediately started crowdsourcing ideas of what their zone was going to look like. And, I mean, just to be full-on transparent, you know, the protesters didn’t start with the intention of creating an autonomous zone. When the police withdrew from the area, you know, it created a situation. And the police had already barricaded part of this Capitol Hill neighborhood. The people in Capitol Hill were like, “Well, hey, we don’t want the police to come back. We’ll just police ourselves. We’ll have our own zone.”

You also got to remember, this is Seattle’s art district, as well. So, you know what I’m saying? You kind of got guys who — they move quickly with the arts, with the ideas, the creative concepts and things like that. And at first, I was like, “Oh, OK, the autonomous zone. Sounds cool,” you know, and kind of ingest. But, man, these guys are just serious. It’s a real serious thing out here. And they’re actually working with — like, the fire chief comes here every morning, inspects buildings. They’re coordinating with Medic One for response, for deliveries, barricade access and everything else.

I don’t know how long it’ll last, considering the Seattle police yesterday said that they now want their precinct back, which creates an issue, because how is — you know, what’s that going to look like with the Seattle police wanting the precinct back?

But, you know, it’s been three nights of peace here. Last night was like a big block party. Everybody’s out. They put up a projector right next to the East Precinct. They watch movies and everything else. And for them, what they’re saying is — I think a lot of people thought, when they released the precinct, the precinct was going to be burned to the ground. The first thing that the community members did was surround the precinct. They said they want to protect the precinct. And they were like, “Hey, man, we want to turn it into a community center.” And so, you know, the thoughts of maybe people going in and occupying and burning it or looting it or whatever, that has not transpired here.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Omari, you actually interviewed Seattle’s police chief, Carmen Best. Can you explain who she is, and your assessment, overall, of how she’s handled the situation?

OMARI SALISBURY: So, Carmen Best is a rank-and-file officer here, started her career here, 26 years on the force, a Black woman police chief here in the city of Seattle.

And I think that she — the way that they’ve handled it here, I just don’t think that, whether it’s Chief Best or a lot of people, high-level politicians, not just the mayor’s office, but other people, City Hall, community leaders, they were out of touch with the actual what was actually fueling this standoff here. A lot of people put it just about George Floyd and the right, the fight for equality and everything else. The people of Capitol Hill, you know, they had a beef with the East Precinct, because, I mean, these are people who’ve never seen tear gas. They’ve never seen flashbangs or rubber bullets. So they felt like the East Precinct militarized their residential neighborhood. And because, like, every time someone would try to talk to the protesters, they would try to talk to them like, “Well, we know what happened to George Floyd was wrong. We stand with you and everything else.” But no one addressed that they had a — you know, the legitimate concern that the residents of Capitol Hill had with the precinct.

I think, like with anything, there’s been some missteps downtown with the mayor and with the police chief. And now, I mean, the biggest issue is, is that in giving up — you got to remember, on Sunday night, or even Monday morning at 1:00, all the protesters had was their voice. They had their feet and — you know what I’m saying? — their power of protest. By Monday afternoon, the protesters had a police precinct. And so, you know, the bargaining chips around this and, you know, the power struggle, the leverage and everything else went into a totally different direction. And now guys who, you might say, were just protesters are people that actually have a position of leverage with the city, because right now the East Precinct is in their hands.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you have President Trump now tweeting, if the mayor doesn’t take her town over, if the state doesn’t take it over, Seattle, he will. What is the response to this, when the mayor responds, “Go back to your bunker,” and meanwhile, protesters, some of them, have been calling for her to resign, Omari?

OMARI SALISBURY: Well, I mean, let me help you set the scene, though. The Capitol Hill neighborhood is a neighborhood that’s full of people, first responders, because there’s a lot of hospitals over here. So you got doctors and nurses and medical professionals that are over here. And also, a lot of people from Amazon, Facebook and Google, they live in this neighborhood. It’s also an arts community and everything else. So, when you talk about taking back, especially if you’re talking about taking back by force, you need to keep in mind — you know what I’m saying? — of who, you know, the people are here. These aren’t people, at least at the moment, who have migrated into this zone. These are residents who lived in this zone.

And, I mean, I think that, one, there definitely needs to certainly be some kind of formalization of what’s going on here. It’s a very fluid situation. I don’t think that fanning flames right now would be helpful. And you got to remember, these are people that just went through 10 days, 11 days over there in protest. And, I mean, they’re not just going to walk away. But cooler heads definitely need to prevail. I’ve been saying all along on my stream that this is a perfect opportunity for leadership to come to the front. And, you know, I think a vacuum maybe in leadership between the actual city government and the people has allowed it to get to this point. There definitely needs to be more talk, and meaningful talk, about the issues that are really impacting the people in the neighborhood. But I saw the stuff on Twitter. And, you know, I don’t think that it’s helpful. I’ll put it like that.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to your coverage of one of the earliest days of the protests. You captured this rare moment when police were ultimately forced to open the street to protesters that they had previously blocked.

OMARI SALISBURY: This is something that I didn’t expect, is that the officers — the officers are moving back. The officers are moving back. The officers are moving back, and they’re allowing the protesters to go. Now, I’ll be honest with you. This right here, totally unexpected. Totally unexpected.
This protest is back underway. They’re heading to Westlake.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Omari, you are narrating what’s taking place there when the police move away. And I’d like you to describe the moment, but also your role as a citizen journalist, as you broadcast essentially to the world.

OMARI SALISBURY: Yeah, well, you know, when the barricade actually moved away and things like that, it was very unexpected, especially right here at the East Precinct, because we saw that they were actually giving up the precinct. There was some talk about them opening up Pine. And, you know, initially, I thought that the police would just kind of be lined up out in front of their part of the block, and then the street would be open. And so, when you talk about the precinct being boarded up and them actually leaving, it was totally unexpected. And like I said, I personally didn’t think that, you know, they would abandon the precinct and it would go into the hands of the protesters, so to speak.

Man, as far as a citizen journalist, you know, I was just somebody who was like, “Man, let me just cover this story here with my phone.” It’s an old iPhone 8, to be honest with you, you know, three, four years old. But it’s just the phone that I had. And I was like, “Well, let me just see how I could tell the story maybe differently.” I kind of always think, as a small independent journalist, let me put paint where it ain’t, you know, and let me find the spaces that aren’t being covered.

And what I found was that I don’t think that there was a lot of storytelling on either side of issues here to be able to tell people what’s going on — I mean, even on the city side. You know, I interviewed Chief Best. She took me behind the lines of the protest. I talked to quite a few officers over this timeline here to get their opinion and everything else. I think it’s important to be on the ground and to be able to just turn on the phone and let people talk, and let people see what’s going on. You know, my mom thinks I’m crazy, because I was sitting up there on the frontline of a lot of stuff, took quite a few rubber bullets, you know, over the time. But, I mean, clearly, we can see the impact of people kind of getting out there and allowing people to tell the story from the frontline.

I mean, it’s ended up — me ending up here on your show is kind of proof of that. And some of the video that I took and the stories that we’ve told has gone viral globally. And I didn’t expect that, didn’t set out for that. It was just like a guy trying to do his job, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Omari, can you talk about these protests in the midst of the pandemic? I mean, Washington state was the original epicenter of the pandemic. How are people protecting themselves? You’ve got the tear gas. You’ve got the pepper spray. You have people who are compromised then, their respiratory systems. And you’ve got this virus that doesn’t care if you’re a protester or police.

OMARI SALISBURY: Yeah, well, you know, the thing is, about Seattle, Seattle is kind of like one of those frontline PPE kind of places, so you find that almost everybody is wearing a mask or a face covering, whether it’s they’re trying to defeat COVID or trying to defeat the tear gas, you know. But, I mean, it’s a lot of people that are out here. And I testified at City Hall. And one of the things with City Hall, we talk about protesters and police, but it was so much tear gas that was out there, people at City Hall were like, “Hey, the tear gas came into my house. My child had an allergic reaction. We had to go to the hospital.” I mean, so these are the kind of things that impacted people far beyond just the protesters that were there.

COVID is very real. The thing is, here, at least with this protest, there’s the mutual aid and the medics. Believe it or not, man, I mean, they walk through the crowds here all the time. “Hey, do you have a mask? Do you need hand sanitizer? Do you need this and that?” And it kind of speaks to — remember I told you that they were entrenched here and they were ready to be here for a long time? The medics and the medical staff that were serving the protesters, I mean, there was big areas where you could just go get PPE, get a face mask, goggles, gloves, hand sanitizer and everything else. You know, it’s a real deal, though.

But I think that, you know, also in our state, that they they’ve said that racism is actually as big a threat, or bigger, than COVID-19, is what they’ve said, as well, and that they’re saying that people who wanted to exercise their free speech should, but they should do it carefully. But they’re very clear here in the state that racism is just as big or bigger than COVID.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much, Omari, for joining us. Omari Salisbury, citizen journalist, founder of Converge Media, has been covering the protests in Seattle since they started. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. This is democracynow.org.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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