Dozens of Seattle Department of Transportation workers spent Tuesday morning putting up new barriers in the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), which used to be known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), that will shrink the area’s footprint in an effort to improve local and emergency vehicle access.
Protesters have occupied the area, around Cal Anderson Park, for the last week, as Seattle has been dominated by sustained protests against police brutality and systemic racism, following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
“The City is committed to maintaining space for community to come together, protest and exercise their first amendment rights,” Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office wrote in a blog post Tuesday. “Minor changes to the protest zone will implement safer and sturdier barriers to protect individuals in this area, allow traffic to move throughout the Capitol Hill neighborhood, ease access for residents of apartment building in the surrounding areas, and help local businesses manage deliveries and logistics.”
On Tuesday morning, crews used frontloaders to lower concrete barriers into place. Then they covered the barriers with plywood crowns, to be painted or decorated by artists affiliated with the protests.
The barriers were being installed around the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct, which has been boarded up after being the site of nearly two weeks of often hostile standoffs between police and protesters. Police Chief Carmen Best said Monday the department is looking to city officials to negotiate with CHOP leaders about police returning to the building.
“We’re just trying to get some emergency vehicle access,” said Seattle Fire Assistant Chief Willie Barrington. “It’s fluid, it’s dynamic.”
In a meeting with some protest leaders over the weekend, Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said they were trying to protect both the protesters and the people who live in the neighborhood.
“Sidewalk access to every resident, to every business, that’s important,” Scoggins said. “I understand the protests, I understand the point. I’d recommend change the footstep, change the landscape.”
Barriers running down the middle of East Pine Street and 12th Avenue will allow for one-way car access on the two blocks bordering the precinct. The changes also will clear access to an alley that runs behind the East Precinct building.
“The Seattle Police Department will dispatch to respond to significant life-safety issues in the area,” the mayor’s office wrote. Life-safety issues include assaults, fires, active shooters and medical issues, the mayor’s office said.
Transportation Director Sam Zimbabwe said his department tried to work with organizers as the city planned new barriers.
“There’s still a lot of concerns about what this is and how this operates,” Zimbabwe said. “There’s a lot of complicated demands.”
Tuesday morning, CHOP was calm, as protesters continued to offer free groceries at the “No Cop Co-op” and tend to the new gardens planted north of the park’s ballfields.
A man who gave his name as Cove, who’s been protesting and doing volunteer security in the area since the demonstrations began, said he was pleased with the changes.
He said the concrete barriers were safer than the makeshift structures that have blocked off streets to date and offered more protection from cars that may seek to drive through the area.
Last week, before CHOP was established, a man was shot after a gunman drove into a crowd of protesters.
“The conversation between us and the city has been, ‘We want to support you, but at the same time it has to be safe,'” he said. “We think it’s going to increase the safety aspect.”