Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said Monday that the Seattle Police Department will be returning to its abandoned East Precinct building “peacefully and in the near future,” following a weekend in which three people were shot at the edges of the protest area that has emerged around the building.
Durkan said the city would attempt to phase down nighttime activity in the Capitol Hill Organized Protest area, known as CHOP — or earlier, as CHAZ — but would not be using police to clear the zone. Rather, Durkan said, they’d ask people to leave the area voluntarily at night, offering resources for homeless people and working with community groups to try to cajole people to leave the area, where dozens of tents have sprouted up in recent weeks, along with couches, guerrilla gardens and graffiti.
“It’s time for people to go home, it is time for us to restore Cal Anderson and Capitol Hill so it can be a vibrant part of the community,” Durkan said. “The impacts on the businesses and residents and the community are now too much.”
Shifting the protests away from evening hours mirrors changes sought by some protesters themselves.
Some organizers affiliated with the protest zone distributed an unsigned letter Sunday calling for “suggested” CHOP hours of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. to encourage the area “to stop being a chaotic, immobile zone” in the overnight hours, though their plan called for some people to remain through the night.
Durkan and police Chief Carmen Best, at a news conference, offered no specific timeline for returning to the East Precinct, but said it would be done in a “phased” way.
Protesters have largely blocked law enforcement from the area around East Pine Street and Cal Anderson Park for the last two weeks, amid protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
But questions around maintaining public safety in the area were heightened after this weekend’s shootings: Horace Lorenzo Anderson, a 19-year-old who went by his middle name, died from gunshot wounds early Saturday, and a 33-year-old man was taken to Harborview Medical Center with life-threatening injuries. Late Sunday, a 17-year-old boy was taken to Harborview with a gunshot wound in his arm, police said, and was treated and released.
When police responded to the Saturday night shooting, they were met with a hostile crowd and told that Anderson had already been taken to the hospital in a private vehicle.
On Monday, Best seemed to pin blame for Anderson’s death on the Seattle City Council, which last week passed a ban on the use of tear gas and similar munitions by police, even though that law has not yet gone into effect.
“A life might have been saved if not for the circumstances created by hasty legislation,” Best said. “Right now what officers have is their riot batons and their handguns and that is not sufficient.”
Councilmember Lisa Herbold, chair of the Public Safety and Human Services Committee, said she didn’t understand how tear gas would have helped the situation Saturday.
“They were presumably there to facilitate the fire department’s efforts to retrieve the victim,” Herbold said. “So why would you need to use tear gas in that situation?”
CHOP was created after Seattle police abandoned the East Precinct building, following nearly two weeks of hostile standoffs between police and protesters, which frequently ended with police firing tear gas and other nonlethal weapons to try to disperse crowds.
Meanwhile, pressure has been building on political leaders from some residents and workers on Capitol Hill who expressed frustration at the weekend’s violence and lack of action by city officials. Some said they believe the original intent of the protests — to end institutional racism at the hands of government, and specifically the police — had been “hijacked” by what one woman called the “activism industry.”
“The message of Black Lives Matter is being exploited,” said the woman, a 25-year resident of Capitol Hill who, fearing retaliation, would only give her name as Lisa. (As she spoke, a man was setting up a table selling “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts).
“It’s not a street fair,” she said. “It’s disheartening. There’s a lack of integrity.”
A free meal program that’s been operated for 35 years from Central Lutheran Church, across the street from Cal Anderson, has moved because of CHOP, according to Jeff Wolcott, executive director of Community Lunch on Capitol Hill. He stressed that he’s not speaking on behalf of the church.
Wolcott has seen participation in the meals drop — about a third of his guests stopped coming to the meals when campers began setting up tents in Cal Anderson Park, he said.
Wolcott realized they had to leave the church on Tuesday, when a homeless guest suffered a seizure. When he called 911 and gave his location, he says emergency responders refused service unless he could move the man two blocks, to 13th Avenue.
“I could not maintain health and safety of my guests and my volunteers,” Wolcott said. “I can’t meet our mission there, because of safety.”
The Eltana bagel shop has been open all through the coronavirus pandemic, the protests and now CHOP. Co-founder Stephen Brown said that business “ebbs and flows,” but no one has bothered him.
The front of his store was tagged with profanity for the first time Friday night. And on Saturday morning, Brown said, “Some well-intentioned young people came in to apologize for the bad behavior.”
He’s not angry, he’s not scared, he’s not worried.
“It’s complicated,” Brown said of the scene outside his window. “I support systemic change between government and society in general. I’m empathetic.”
The city’s efforts last week to install new barriers and modify the area’s boundaries in an effort to improve emergency access proved insufficient after Saturday’s shootings.
Herbold faulted Seattle police for saying that officers arriving on the scene of the Saturday shooting were met by a “violent” crowd that prevented them from getting to the victims.
She noted that officers, in real time, described the crowd as “extremely hostile” but never said violent, according to the dispatch log released by police.
“Those words have completely different meanings.” Herbold said. “I have been urging the police department to not editorialize.”
She said police were not on the site of the shooting until 18 minutes after the 911 call, even though fire department medics were a block away within minutes, waiting for police to secure the scene before they approached. The fire department said they do not send medics into “scenes of violence” until police have secured the area.
Seattle police staged their response at 12th Avenue and Cherry Street, at least seven blocks from the shooting.
“Grieving family members and friends deserve to know whether or not this young man’s death could have been prevented if Seattle Fire Department medics could have responded to calls for help,” Herbold said.
But Herbold has also stressed that the current situation, with first responders asking people who need medical help to come to the edges of CHOP, is not sustainable.
All three shooting victims were taken to Harborview by private vehicles. The first, who later died at the hospital, was gone before police arrived at the scene.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant said decisions regarding CHOP are “the movement’s,” not Durkan’s, but that she supported focusing protest activities in the area between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Sawant walked back her unfounded Saturday claim that the shooting “may have been a right-wing attack.” She now says that appears to be incorrect.
Andrè Taylor, an activist against police violence whose brother was killed by Seattle police in 2016, stood with Durkan and pleaded with leaders of the protest zone to try to clear the area at night. He said the protest movement was about more than just occupying the park and the neighboring blocks.
“I feel like I cannot help the situation now because of the violence that will probably continue,” Taylor said. “CHOP is not a place, it’s an idea.”
Seattle Times Staff reporter Scott Greenstone contributed to this report.