'Remember Who We're Fighting For': The Uneasy Existence Of Seattle's Protest Camp

Jun 18, 2020
Originally published on June 18, 2020 1:44 pm

The fiery scenes of just over a week ago seem like another lifetime in the sprawling protest camp built around the Seattle Police Department's vacated station in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Tear gas has given way to the smoke from a hot dog stand. Makeshift clinics now stand on the streets where young protesters were injured by flash-bang grenades. Music — calypso on one corner, Public Enemy on another — mingles with the sound of speeches about defunding the police. Selfies are snapped in front of signs welcoming visitors to "Free Capitol Hill."

A person in the occupied zone lights candles at a memorial to victims of police violence. The reminder speaks to the unease that many black protesters express about the protest zone and its use of Black Lives Matter slogans.
Jim Urquhart for NPR

Lest the message get lost in the new street-fair vibe, there's also a candlelit memorial for George Floyd and other black people killed by police. "Remember Who We're Fighting For" reads a large poster. The reminder speaks to the unease that many black protesters express about the protest zone and its use of Black Lives Matter slogans. Underneath the peace-and-love vibe is an undercurrent of anxiety that this won't end well and that black people might get the blame.

"I don't want it to divert from the main topic for us: We want justice," said Sitai Brown, a black protester. She said she's not sure yet what to make of the occupied zone, though she said it has been refreshing to see nonblack protesters taking action for police reform. She wondered if newly minted white allies have the stamina for an open-ended fight against systemic racism.

Protesters have established a food co-op, a community garden, medical stations, a speaker's stage, movie nights, book exchanges and round-the-clock security patrols. They see their camp as a prototype for a self-reliant, safe enclave that doesn't need police.
Jim Urquhart for NPR

"It's a long game, and I hope that everybody sticks together and goes that distance," Brown said. "Or else all of this would have been for nothing."

The open-air protest camp is a week old. In that time, protesters have established a food co-op, a community garden, medical stations, a speaker's stage, movie nights, book exchanges and round-the-clock security patrols. They see their camp as a prototype for a self-reliant, safe enclave that doesn't need police.

Black activists say there must be follow-through to make sure their communities remain the priority in a majority-white protest movement whose camp has taken on the feel of a neighborhood block party that's periodically interrupted by chants of "Black Lives Matter!"

"It's not enough to just show up. You got to really make sure that the resources are going to be for the black community," Kim Mustafa says.
Jim Urquhart for NPR

"We've been in the back for so long. And if we can't get pushed up, then there's no reason for all this. No reason," said Kim Mustafa, a black woman who owns a head-wrap business in Seattle. "It's not enough to just show up. You got to really make sure that the resources are going to be for the black community."

The city hasn't dispatched officers to retake the East Precinct; only a few have visited the building since it was vacated. Instead, officials are following a wait-'em-out approach, perhaps betting that infighting and the loose coordination of a leaderless movement will ensure its eventual demise. After all, the protesters don't even agree on what to call their occupied space; there was a strong backlash to early "autonomous" declarations.

People walk around new concrete barricades topped with plywood that were installed by city workers. To the city, the new barriers open access for local traffic, but protesters believe the move shrinks their protest space.
Jim Urquhart for NPR

On Tuesday and early Wednesday, city workers removed the protesters' makeshift barriers and replaced them with concrete blocks topped with plywood. To the city, the new barriers open access for local traffic, as well as sanitation trucks and emergency workers. Irate activists called it an irresponsible move that shrinks their protest space and endangers lives by creating what one protester called "a drive-by shooting lane."

Black activists in the zone said they'll honor the new route during the day but not overnight, when the site is more vulnerable. They vowed to remove the barriers themselves.

"A forklift is on the way!" organizer Jaiden Grayson announced, to loud cheers from protesters.

Activists said it's too early to relinquish the space. Only a few demands have been met — a ban on police chokeholds, for example — and talks are still going on for the bigger asks, namely slashing the Seattle Police Department's budget and redirecting funds to health and social services.

Nobody inside the protest zone thinks a police return would end peacefully. If cops show up, protesters say, they plan to block the precinct with their bodies, with white activists pledging to stand up front as a symbolic shield for black and brown comrades. Small teams of armed anti-fascists are also present — self-proclaimed community defense forces that say they're ready to fight if needed but that de-escalation is preferred.

Seattle officials sound a defiant tone, but they're responding gingerly.

Protesters listen to a speaker in the occupied zone. Activists said it's too early to relinquish the space. Only a few demands have been met — a ban on police chokeholds, for example — and talks are still going on for the bigger asks, namely slashing the Seattle Police Department's budget and redirecting funds to health and social services.
Jim Urquhart for NPR

"There is no cop-free zone in the city of Seattle," Police Chief Carmen Best said in an interview with Fox News. "I think that the picture has been painted in many areas that shows the city is under siege. That is not the case."

Over the past week, several Republican and libertarian visitors have streamed into the zone, along with far-right militia and anti-government types. Right-of-center visitors who come in good faith for dialogue, protesters say, will find no shortage of people willing to engage. But if they're perceived as agitators, the visitors are promptly surrounded by protesters and herded out.

"A lot of the people who are trying to provoke keep repeating, 'It's freedom of speech' — which is true, we all have that freedom," said Brynne Alexander, a young white protester. "At the same time, there's an inherent fear from the violence that is occurring from groups like the Proud Boys coming in. Nobody wants that."

Members of the far-right group Proud Boys hold firearms as they disrupt a gathering in the occupied zone in Seattle on Monday.
Jim Urquhart for NPR

Several conservative media figures have livestreamed unimpeded from the zone. Their feeds show peaceful scenes that contradict right-wing media portrayals of a lawless den of communists or, in the words of President Trump, "domestic terrorists." Last week, Fox News was forced to admit it had doctored photos in a way that portrayed the protest zone as dangerous and aflame.

Conservative news outlets dwell on claims — which Seattle police have walked back — that protesters are extorting money from local businesses in the occupied zone. Missing are voices like Salvador Sahagun's. He manages a Mexican restaurant on the edge of the zone and said the uprising is both a moral imperative and a financial godsend.

"Black Lives Matter really saved our business," said Sahagun, who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and said he might do so again in November. "We were really struggling with the corona recession."

Sean, a white law enforcement officer who declined to give his full name because he doesn't have authorization to speak, said he felt "duped" by the alarmist coverage of right-wing outlets like Breitbart. He said that doesn't mean he buys into "white guilt" narratives but that he appreciates the importance of seeing the protests through his own eyes, without the partisan filter.

"We can walk away, shake hands and leave, respecting each other but maybe not agreeing. And maybe agreeing a little more," Sean said. "Me being here is just moving the marker."

Indigenous activists express support for Black Lives Matter in the occupied protest zone on Sunday.
Jim Urquhart for NPR

Ixtli White Hawk is an Indigenous woman who has been spending time at the camp, organizing across communities whose pain she sees as linked — "stolen people on stolen land." The police station is "just a building." The real heart of the occupied zone, she said, is the intense dialogue going on among people who often lack the opportunity — or perhaps the curiosity — to get to know one another.

"I see how many who don't have the same experiences as we do, and they are being educated," she said. "It's planting a seed."

But how will this experiment end?

"I don't believe in ends," White Hawk said. "I believe in changes."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
Activists work to install a large wooden fist in the occupied zone on Wednesday.
Jim Urquhart for NPR

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we hear some of the national conversation after the police killing of George Floyd. Much of that conversation is on social media or on TV or on this radio network - in other words, not face-to-face. But in one part of Seattle, people are getting right in each other's faces. Protesters have occupied six blocks of the city, and they have attracted visitors who want to talk. NPR's Hannah Allam went to listen.

BART: The last person related to a person that actually fought in the Civil War just died.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: A white man in a cowboy hat with a gun at his waist stands out among protesters here. So do his views. Suffice it to say he does not agree that blocking off a police station and declaring a free zone helps the cause of racial equality.

BART: I have never met a veteran that would agree with you.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: She's a veteran.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: She's a veteran.

BART: Do you agree that there should be a separate country in our country?

(CROSSTALK)

ALLAM: So ding, ding - Round 1.

BART: Will you listen to what the world's saying?

(CROSSTALK)

BART: Not the mayor - the world is seeing this as a crime.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #3: A black man shot in the back is a crime. That's what the world's seeing.

ALLAM: Some of the voices are muffled. They're wearing face masks. The tense exchange goes on nearly six minutes - Americans of different backgrounds with different ideas about justice, hashing it out on an occupied sidewalk. The protesters try to keep it civil.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #4: I'm glad you're here because you know why? We need to hear other people's voices. Exactly.

ALLAM: The 64-year-old visitor - he'd only give his first name, Bart (ph) - tells the group he supports their cause, just not their tactics. The protesters see they're at an impasse.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #5: Excuse me, but when your opinion is based in inaccuracies and a lack of facts...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #6: Peace. Peace. Take it from a longhair that lost his hair. Just say peace, smoke some weed and go with it.

BART: I like your hat. I like your hat. I like your hat.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #7: We can agree to disagree. It's all good. This is America. We can agree to disagree.

ALLAM: This is America at its most raw, its most exposed. The debates taking place here reflect the broader soul-searching many nonblack Americans are doing these days. In the free zone, protesters set up an open-air Conversation Cafe to get talks going, like this one between a white suburban couple and a black woman in a colorful head wrap.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #8: I'm sad that this is what the police have been about, and our eyes are kind of open, and we need to change it big time.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #9: I'm just so grateful that...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #10: I'm in favor.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #9: ...Your eyes are open. I couldn't believe that white people didn't understand our plight and they couldn't see it. I just couldn't believe it.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #10: I can't believe it either, which is the frustrating thing. And I'm OK with being frustrated right now. I want to listen.

ALLAM: This moment is a test of the capacity for nonblack Americans to hear and respond to a pain that stretches back centuries. It's also a test of protesters' tolerance for opposition. In the six-block area they call a free zone, not everybody's welcome. A few critics, some of them armed, have shown up in MAGA hats or with big American flags. As protester Brynne Alexander explains, agitators typically get herded out.

BRYNNE ALEXANDER: The way we've been dealing with it is just crowds of people are kind of just like, we don't want to hear your voice right now, so we're just going to walk with you and kind of weirdly push you out without ever touching you.

ALLAM: But those instances are rare. Generally, protesters say, if visitors of any political leaning come in good faith for dialogue, they'll find someone willing to talk.

SEAN: I actually lean right, very much so, and I am feeling very duped by the things that I'm hearing and seeing on Breitbart, Infowars, and I actually - I had to concede a lot of that yesterday. And it's not white guilt. It's nothing of that nature.

ALLAM: That's Sean, a white law enforcement officer. He declines to give his last name or details about his job. He says he could get in trouble for speaking without permission. Sean says George Floyd's death made him think about the, quote-unquote, "bad apples" he's come across on duty and why he didn't always speak up.

SEAN: I feel like I have a lot to learn. I'm not going to concede to some of the narratives. That's not what I'm trying to do. But what I am trying to do is be open-minded and learn and challenge and test myself a little bit.

ALLAM: At one corner of the protest zone, Royce Evans takes it all in. She's watching thousands of people, predominantly white, stroll by in Black Lives Matter T-shirts. Evans is a black woman who works in HR. She doesn't want to sound cynical, she says, but she knows firsthand how stubbornly racism persists in and out of the workplace.

ROYCE EVANS: It's been maddening, like, hearing people finally come to the light. Like, it's a good thing, but it's also like, we've been speaking about this for years so what now? Why do you believe now?

ALLAM: It's Evans' first visit to the camp. Like many black protesters in Seattle, she's skeptical. Is the free zone a distraction from the fight against inequality, or is it a laboratory for a new way of thinking and talking about race in America?

EVANS: And it's good to see people who you used to argue with about these things, like the but what about people, and now you see them kind of confronting, like, their friends and their family members that are, you know, where they used to be. So I think all in all, it's going to be good, but I think more than anything, like, there just needs to be concrete change, right? And so there needs to be some type of action behind it.

ALLAM: Talk alone, she says, is no longer enough. Hannah Allam, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.