The Slatest

What It Was Like in the Final Days of Seattle’s Autonomous Zone

People walk around a street lined with tents.
Pedestrians pass tents outside of the East Precinct in the area known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest on Monday in Seattle, Washington. David Ryder/Getty Images

In the early hours of the morning on Wednesday, Seattle police swept through the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, clearing the “autonomous zone” near the city’s downtown that has been described as a dedicated protest movement, a radical utopian experiment, or an anarchist conflict zone, depending on one’s politics.

CHOP (formerly CHAZ, for Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) came into being during the anti-racist protests against the death of George Floyd. On June 8, police vacated Seattle’s East Precinct building after reportedly receiving threats. Protesters then entered the building and declared the surrounding area a police-free zone. The zone expanded to six blocks and included Cal Anderson Park.

CHOP had no official leaders, and for almost a month, it was filled with medic tents, co-op shops, community gardens, and memorials to victims of police violence. Unhoused people gathered, along with the protesters and artists. The scene became a tourist attraction, with some describing it as akin to a large block party. But the mood changed on June 20, when a man was injured in a shooting. Other shootings followed, resulting in the death of two Black teenagers. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan made the decision to clear CHOP on Tuesday, and the next day police arrived in riot gear to end the experiment, arresting 31 people.

Tessa Hulls is a visual artist and writer who documented the rise and fall of CHOP as a citizen journalist through video, social media, and, primarily, her comics. (Hulls is currently working on a nonfiction graphic novel.) Hulls, who tells me she “accidentally embedded” in the protest, has lived in the zone since June 12, just four days after police vacated the precinct. To get a better understanding of what CHOP really was and what it meant, Slate spoke with Hulls about the complexities of a leaderless movement, the violence that changed it, and what the future is for its activists. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate: How did you end up taking on this role? 

Hulls: I lived four blocks from the CHOP for five years. It’s a community and neighborhood that I know very well. I’ve actually been living out in a small town on the Olympic Peninsula for the last couple years, but when the flashpoint between the police and protesters started happening, and there was such a huge disconnect between what people I trust were telling me and what I was seeing in the media, I felt obligated to go in and use community networks and my understanding of the space to see if I could give a little bit of clarity.

How would you define what CHOP was?

It arose from, obviously, the murder of Black Americans by the police. What happened was sort of a fortuitous accident: When the original protests were happening downtown, the protesters kept getting driven up Capitol Hill. And so this large protest got driven up to outside of the East Precinct and was met by a barricade. It was an accidental location. I think that’s something that’s been lost in the larger story here: The protesters were never trying to claim the precinct. It was only because they ended up being met with force that it became ground zero for this standoff. When the police left, the protesters who were on the ground took the barricades, turned them around, and accidentally began this experiment in mutual aid.

Did you see the different versions of what CHOP was?

It changed hugely. At first, it was this really incredible experiment where no one was laying any real claim to the space. All these different groups came in, and there was more free everything than I’ve ever seen. Anything you might happen to want, from a sandwich to medical supplies to books to clothes—it was just there being freely and readily offered. And that created tension, because some of the protesters who had been on the front lines and who saw that this was something that sprang from police violence felt like the space was being co-opted and was becoming a farmers market or street fair. That was always a very interesting tension within the space, these very disparate groups occupying it for different reasons.

Who were those groups occupying the zone?

In the time that I was there, I saw a group of new Black voices emerge. They started doing teachings and worked with a lot of the indigenous activists in Seattle to do a day of “indigenous voices,” where tribes from all over Washington and Oregon came in. There’s always been that overlap of people who were there because they were met with police violence on the front lines, people who were looking for education, and people who are looking for the East Precinct to become a community center. The only constant thing about CHOP was the fact that it was always changing and there was never one cohesive party line. Who was dominant, or who was seen as being in control in the larger narrative, would shift. And once the shootings began, that was really when it became a very different space with a very different feel. Violence started to come in at the vacuum left around the edges, and it became almost impossible to treat it as something that could still be left to define itself.

How were people thinking and talking about those shootings?

It’s really complicated, and there’s no consensus. One thing that I think is very important to note is Capitol Hill—and particularly that area—has always been a place where there’s been a lot of violence and shootings. And that usually starts to happen during the summer. I’m not in any way trying to excuse the fact that people lost their lives there. But I do think that that context is something that gets left out of the conversation.

Are there other things you think have been missing in the discussions about CHOP?

I think it’s really hard for people on the outside to understand that this is a place with no leadership, and that the voices who grabbed the microphone and put themselves in front of the camera are being seen as leaders, even though there might not be anything to back that up. People who are watching from the outside don’t really understand that who they’re seeing on screen or in print is just some random person that a reporter happened to turn their lens or notebooks to.

What was it like watching CHOP being cleared out after so many days?

I was in Cal Anderson Park for that sweep. By the time police came in, the population of CHOP had really been reduced, so there wasn’t a huge presence to put up a fight even if they had wanted to go in that direction. The police came in with an enormous show of force, with well over 100 officers, some of them heavily armed. And they just formed a line across the entire park and went through peoples’ tents, shaking them out. They pushed us all out across the park. One protester with a green bullhorn was the whole time saying, “Keep it peaceful, keep it peaceful, don’t let violence undermine what we’re trying to do here.” So it didn’t become an active violent confrontation. But I think that’s just more because the show of force was so strong, you could see that there was nothing to be gained by trying to resist it.

Was there always a sense that CHOP could be ended so quickly, and so easily? 

There was this moment when there was a beautiful sense of hope that the pressure being put on by the physical occupation from CHOP would actually cause the city to turn over the East Precinct as a community center. But that didn’t last very long. And I think anybody who would be realistic about the complexities at play understood that this was something that wasn’t going to last. There was a population of unhoused people who had been living in Cal Anderson Park, and that population just kept dwindling. And I would say for the last week, maybe longer, of CHOP as a physical space, there wasn’t that sense of optimism anymore.

Why do you think it couldn’t last?

You ended up with a space that was supposed to be about freedom, but because underlying discrepancies in power hadn’t been addressed, it was sort of doomed to fail as an actual experiment.

What do you think CHOP’s legacy is?

There’s a group of Black leadership that came out of the top called the Black Collective Voice. They decided to embrace the idea that CHOP was a concept rather than a physical place. The three demands that were put forth were to defund Seattle Police Department by at least 50 percent, invest it in the community, and release protesters without charges. And so those three demands are the idea of CHOP. The group of Black activists are taking that message and moving it forward with programming and educational events. I’m hoping we can think about CHOP as being something that really caused a lot of pressure and focus on underlying issues, and that gave rise to a new generation of Black activists.

What are you doing next?

I haven’t actually fully left the space yet. I’ve been camping out in the offices of an arts nonprofit that’s about two blocks away. I’m still sleeping on the floor there, and I’m trying to decide when I’m going to fully exit. I obviously can’t keep up this fever-pitch of production. I stepped into what clearly was an unmet need and felt a sense of moral and ethical obligation to keep providing these news updates. But now that CHOP as a physical space has come to an end, I’m stepping back to focus more on the underlying issues that gave rise to CHOP. I will say my first act when I can really step back from this, is I’m going to go backpacking for four or five days and finally think about all of this. I haven’t had time to think about it yet.

For more of Slate’s news coverage, listen to What Next:TBD.