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A Look At What's Happening In Seattle's 'Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone'


Demonstrations against racism and police brutality targeting African Americans continue across the country this weekend. Protests erupted in Atlanta overnight after police shot and killed a black man at a Wendy's. We'll have more on that story later in the show.

But in Seattle, things have gone a step further. Protesters now occupy a part of a neighborhood after Seattle police vacated their precinct in the Capitol Hill area. And it's become a self-described autonomous zone. President Trump has labeled the protesters domestic terrorists, and he's warned that if local officials don't clear them out, he will. NPR's Hannah Allam is in Seattle, and she's been spending time in the CHAZ, as it's known.

Good morning, Hannah.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So where do things stand now in the self-described Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or the CHAZ?

ALLAM: Things are calm for now, which is pretty remarkable when you think about how this week began, with scenes of police using tear gas and violent confrontations with protesters. And now it's given way to this camp where people are trying really hard to show that they can provide everything the community needs and keep people safe without a police presence.

And we should point out that this is not the only show in town. There are massive Black Lives Matter protests in other parts of the city as well. But much of the focus has been on the CHAZ and whether the city will meet the demands of protesters. Those include calling for the precinct building to be turned into a community center and for the city to cut funding for the police and to put it toward more social services.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what are the police saying in all this?

ALLAM: Police Chief Carmen Best has made it clear it was not her decision to abandon the precinct. She said she wants to work out an arrangement that would allow the police to return and that she's looking at reducing the cops' footprints in the neighborhood. But those talks haven't been fruitful, in large part because police say they don't know who to negotiate with. There is not one clear leader in the zone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So there are these ongoing efforts, you say, to start a dialogue. But in the meantime, we have this kind of six-block experiment in how a police-free zone might operate. Hannah, you filed a report that takes us inside the CHAZ. Let's listen.


ALLAM: The sun's going down, and street musicians strike up a tune. Protesters in Black Lives Matter shirts start dancing. Others line up for free pizza. Some take selfies in front of the vacant precinct where the Seattle Police Department sign has been defaced to read Seattle People's Department. But the carnival vibe is just one aspect of the autonomous zone. Around the corner, the scene is somber. Visitors light candles at a sidewalk memorial for black people killed by police. A big poster says, remember who we're fighting for.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Black lives matter.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Black lives matter.

ALLAM: For some activists, there's concern that the controversy over the autonomous zone is overshadowing the core fight - police violence against black people. At the zone's open-air conversation cafe, a young black man addresses a group of white protesters, urging them to spread awareness beyond the CHAZ.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Everybody's out here like, oh, who's the leader? Who's the leader? No, be leader-ful (ph). And bring what you have and - the knowledge that you obtain here and bring that back to your community and give them understanding.

ALLAM: The hundreds of protesters here are keenly aware of how their camp is portrayed by right-wing media outlets and by President Trump. They say it's ridiculous to cast them as insurgents or, as the president's called them, domestic terrorists.

SHANNON MCMINIMEE: I took great glee. I'm like, I'm a domestic terrorist now (laughter).

ALLAM: Shannon McMinimee is part of the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club. The armed antifascist group is guarding the zone despite an emergency ban on weapons in the city that's been in place since protests began. McMinimee points out Washington is an open-carry state, so what's Trump's problem?

MCMINIMEE: He also professes belief in the Second Amendment. What makes me different? My political ideology.

ALLAM: Protesters worry they're being vilified, perhaps to justify a retaking of the police precinct by force. They point to doctored photos published by Fox News that showed a gunman and fiery scenes that didn't even take place in the CHAZ and to police officials accusing them of extorting local business owners, claims the police later walked back.

SALVADOR SAHAGUN: Black Lives Matter really saved our business, though. It's just kind of an amazing thing 'cause we were really struggling with the corona recession.

ALLAM: Salvador Sahagun is the manager of a Mexican restaurant on the edge of the CHAZ. He says the business from protesters has been a godsend. Sahagun voted for Trump in 2016 and might do so again in November. Still, he says, the president is way off-base when it comes to what's happening here.

SAHAGUN: I think they should invite him down.

ALLAM: Even if he's not on board with every demand, Sahagun gives protesters credit for building a peaceful camp from the ashes of a violent week.

SAHAGUN: We just witnessed a historical event, so you have to be proud of them. It doesn't even matter if you agree with them or not. They just changed the world.

ALLAM: Perhaps not quite the world, but they have left their mark on six blocks of Seattle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Hannah, I guess the question now is, are people talking about how and if this is going to end?

ALLAM: Yeah. There's a lot of speculation about that. And right now, it's a game of brinksmanship. The city and the police have rejected Trump's ultimatum to clear out the zone. So far, they're following a wait-them-out approach, perhaps betting that the protesters don't have the stamina or the organization to keep this up.

And the activists are betting - or hoping, really - that the police aren't going to come storming in because that would just be more bad PR for the city and for the Seattle PD. They've already seen a federal judge issue a temporary injunction on the use of tear gas and flash-bang grenades. So for now, the protest camp remains. But you can feel this undercurrent of anxiety there among all the stakeholders that unless a deal is struck, some kind of showdown is still to come.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was NPR's Hannah Allam.

Thank you so much.

ALLAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.