If you didn’t know better, that is, if you listened to President Donald Trump and a few conservative media outlets, you would think that Seattle’s downtown was aflame, with lawless anarchists running amok.
Law and order, it’s not. But the president’s tortured portrait of a four-square-block area in the city known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone mostly made Seattleites chortle.
Capitol Hill is a quirky, densely populated residential neighborhood with small businesses, funky restaurants and gay clubs. It is not downtown, as a Fox News report claimed.
After many nights of protest, the police briefly abandoned their precinct in the center of the zone to de-escalate tensions with protesters who had gathered after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The move largely worked.
And the autonomous area — CHAZ, as it sometimes called — is more street fair in the rain with tarps and soggy food than a place given over to ISIS-like mobs, as the lieutenant governor of Texas bizarrely suggested.
Some police officers have returned to work at the precinct but not at full capacity, according to a mayoral spokeswoman. On a walk through the neighborhood recently, I ran into Seattle fire Chief Harold Scoggins, who frequents the area and is greeted warmly by protesters and passers-by. He is worried about the place; his department provides medical support on the periphery, but not so far inside the zone.
Mayor Jenny Durkan was there as well, talking to organizers, trying to find a way, her spokeswoman says, for Seattle to lead the nation on criminal justice and police reform.
Durkan, who earlier in her career was a U.S. attorney who led the charge for Seattle to reform its Police Department, is in some political hot water for her handling of the unrest. Protesters are unhappy, for example, that she promised during one night of dissent last week to discontinue the use of tear gas for crowd control, only to turn around and allow it two nights later.
Then came the Trump tweet: “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 (sic) IMMEDIATELY. MOVE FAST.”
What a gift (typo included) for a mayor eager to change the subject. Durkan joined the tweet battle.
“Make us all safe. Go back to your bunker,” she tweeted.
Could a mayor of liberal Seattle invent a better foil?
Inside the autonomous zone, the mood is primarily peaceful. Mothers can be overheard schooling teenagers in the art of public protest. Half the people carry coffee cups. Most are wearing masks.
Businesses seem largely supportive, with “Black Lives Matter” signs in most windows. There is a van providing free medical care and a tented speaking area where people can hear poems. Everyone is filming everybody. Eltana bagels, advertising itself as “Hole Foods,” closed during part of the day so workers could hand out free bagels at a nearby protest.
Mostly, the zone is filled with a diverse group of people. A man leaning against a plastic barricade identified himself as Sunbeam Virtuous, 38, a recent arrival from Portland, Ore.
“I’m so honored to be here,” he said. “We have been begging on our knees for change. Please don’t kill our black brothers and sisters. Please don’t kill black trans women. Please don’t kill the poor.”
At another spot in front of the police precinct, a man calling himself J.D. who slept outside the night before, discussed whether the Black Lives Matter message was getting lost in too many other movements.
The coronavirus may not be one of the issues on these people’s minds, but cases are creeping upward again in many states, including Washington, although not enough time has passed to determine if the protests themselves prompted a spike.
This is a time of great disequilibrium for many people. But things realigned for a lot of Seattleites at least for a moment when the president and his off-the-wall description brought them together, a solidarity that grew even more pronounced when they learned that Fox News had hyped its coverage with digitally altered photos of their city.