SEATTLE (Reuters) - Seattle crews on Tuesday used heavy machinery to remove some barricades around the city’s “autonomous zone”, as die-hard anti-racism demonstrators camped out for a fourth week despite legal and political pressure to end their protest.
Following four nights of gun violence in the last 10 days that left two black teenagers dead and two more people hospitalized, the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) outside an abandoned police precinct has diminished in size and scope.
Medic stations, a mobile health care clinic, and multiple free food tents in a police-free zone set up in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody have dwindled to a single free kitchen.
The crowds that came by the thousands to listen to speeches about police brutality and marvel at street art commemorating black lives, have disappeared.
But at least 100 activists remain in the streets, having occupied the area since police on June 8 moved street barricades and vacated their East Precinct station in a move city officials say aimed to reduce tension.
President Donald Trump has demanded the state and city eject the protesters, calling them “domestic terrorists”, but city authorities have so far taken a nonconfrontational approach.
The removal of three of the six concrete barricades - which city workers installed to improve traffic flow and ensure protester safety - found no resistance. However, protesters quickly replaced the barricades with things like couches, plywood, and signs.
“We are grateful that (Seattle Department of Transportation) had given us these barricades to begin with,” David Lewis, a product manager at Lululemon who has been organizing protests in Seattle since late May, told Reuters. “More lives would have been lost a couple of days ago as that drive-by (shooting) happened.”
In the latest shooting on Monday, a 16-year-old boy was killed and a 14-year-old boy remained in critical condition.
Police investigations into the shootings have been hampered by lack of access to the site. But the zone has also become a place to party at night and the shootings do not appear to be politically motivated, protesters say.
“Enough is enough,” police chief Carmen Best, who is Black, said Monday at a news conference outside the abandoned precinct. She reiterated her goal to move police back into the East Precinct but gave no timeline.
Businesses in the area, a trendy neighborhood of hipster bars and boutiques, have also had enough. Attorneys have filed two class action lawsuits against the City of Seattle: one on behalf of nearby businesses and residents for depriving them of access to their property and another to prevent city and state leaders from allowing the establishment of any future “lawless autonomous zones.”
The first lawsuit established a June 26 deadline to initiate a plan to remove the protest, which prompted Mayor Jenny Durkan to hold a closed-door meeting with protesters and hash out a proposal to begin removing barricades.
“It’s time for people to go home,” Durkan told a news conference last week, a day before proposing a 5 percent cut to the Seattle Police Department budget. Protesters have called on the city to “defund the police” by cutting its budget in half.
Later on Tuesday, the parks department closed Cal Anderson Park to remove trash and assess property damage following three weeks of occupation, but indicated they would not remove or alter artwork or a newly planted community garden.
One block away, two employees with the city’s Human Services Department offered referrals to shelters for people sleeping in tents.
Protest leader Lewis said he appreciated the city’s efforts. “We are not against the city,” he said. “We are Seattle against (the police department). Period.”
Reporting by Gregory Scruggs; editing by Bill Tarrant and Richard Pullin