Who owns the street? Seattle protest zone sparks property rights debate

by Gregory Scruggs | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 1 July 2020 18:46 GMT

A demonstrator sits at the self-proclaimed Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle, June 15. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

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Seattle's protest zone has fueled the debate over how to balance the right of peaceful assembly with the protection of property rights

By Gregory Scruggs

SEATTLE, July 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Seattle authorities moved on Wednesday to dismantle the city's "autonomous zone", protesters and residents are squaring off over a question that has become integral to the Black Lives Matter movement: Who do a city's streets belong to?

Police moved to retake the protest zone after Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan declared the gathering in and around the police department's East Precinct and Cal Anderson Park an "unlawful assembly", the police chief, Carmen Best, said in a statement.

For nearly a month, hundreds of protesters asserted their right to occupy the public right of way in the densely populated Capitol Hill neighborhood to press their demands that the city cut police funding by half, release all arrested protesters and invest in Seattle's Black community.

But residents and businesses who have spent weeks behind barricades put up by the city to contain the protest zone are less convinced of the occupation's legitimacy, even if they largely support its anti-racism message.

"Our role as the City is to protect both protesters, residents and businesses," said mayoral spokeswoman Stephanie Formas.

"There are more than 500 residents and dozens of businesses and employees. The City has an obligation to protect their safety and essential services," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.

The police action comes one day after city workers removed some barricades in response to a class action lawsuit by residents and business owners, fueling the debate over how to balance the right of peaceful assembly with the protection of property rights.

'UNPRECEDENTED DECISION'

Fueled by chants of "Whose streets? Our streets!", activists have led roving marches throughout Washington state's largest city for more than a month since the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in Minneapolis police custody, sparked worldwide protests against racism.

Protesters had been occupying several blocks in Capitol Hill since June 8, when police vacated their East Precinct station and moved street barricades to section off the area, dubbing it the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.

Mayor Durkan's office said in a statement the aim of the move was to reduce tensions following a week of violent clashes between protesters and police.

About 500 demonstrators created a makeshift camp behind the barricades, covering the abandoned precinct in graffiti which included a banner declaring "This space is now property of the Seattle people".

The occupation, now known as the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP), started off largely festive.

Artists painted murals commemorating Black lives, outdoor screenings showed documentaries about race, activists gave speeches on police brutality, and protesters and passersby converged at a "conversation cafe".

While the city provided portable bathrooms and trash pick-up, protesters insisted that police stay away.

But following four nights of gun violence since June 20 that left two Black teenagers dead and several injured, the mood has soured.

Neighboring residents and business owners lament the lack of reliable police service, with some resorting to hiring private security, according to security firm Iconic Global.

They say their property rights have been infringed upon as their vehicles must navigate the barricades managed by the whims of protester volunteers, according to a class action lawsuit attorneys filed against the City of Seattle last month.

Neighborhood businesses, residents and homeowners' associations highlighted the city's "unprecedented decision to abandon and close off an entire city neighborhood, leaving it unchecked by the police, unserved by fire and emergency health services, and inaccessible to the public at large."

The lawsuit goes on to say that "the City's decision has subjected businesses, employees, and residents of that neighborhood to extensive property damage, public safety dangers, and an inability to use and access their properties."

In response to the lawsuit, this week city workers removed three of six concrete barriers that had been installed to improve traffic flow and ensure protester safety.

Protesters quickly replaced the barricades with things like couches, plywood and signs.

Protesters link arms in front of the Seattle Department's East Precinct after reports that police may arrive soon, June 22. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

FRAGILE RELATIONSHIPS

Lawrence Yeh's sushi restaurant Momiji sits directly across the street from the precinct. He said the occupation has had little impact on his business.

Despite the constantly changing barricade configuration, his deliveries have been arriving "99% of the time" and customers have come on foot unfettered, Yeh said.

"We have a pretty good relationship with the protesters," Yeh added. "It varies block to block."

One block over, apartment dweller J. Cam Manny said his relationship with protesters has deteriorated.

After attending daily meetings in the early days of the protest where activists tried to figure out their next steps, Manny said he has since been physically assaulted and threatened by protesters who chased him from his home.

He shared photos with the Thomson Reuters Foundation of vulgar messages directed at him by name spray painted on the sidewalk in front of his apartment building.

"I'm now a CHOP refugee," he said, adding he was staying with his dog sitter in another neighbourhood and planned to wait a few days before returning home.

One protester who gave his name as Daniel P. disputed any bad blood between protesters and residents.

"We have worked with every resident that has actually bothered to have communications with us," he said.

"Every time when we have been asked to open up (the barricades), we have. We have done nothing but be respectful. We helped protect property when the cops didn't show up. We have done what the city departments would not do," he said.

BALANCING RIGHTS

The tide gradually turned against the protesters, with even once-sympathetic voices calling for the area to be cleared.

"The community initially embraced the CHOP as an alternative to police violence, joining in the call for change, a change we still demand," said Community Roots Housing and Capitol Hill EcoDistrict in an open letter.

Community Roots is a neighborhood non-profit affordable housing developer whose properties near CHOP are home to nearly 700 low-income residents.

"But what's happening in the area now has little to do with the movement for Black lives," the letter continued.

"Most of the activists have moved on. The park has become an encampment, our residents have been threatened and chased and businesses are being hurt."

The city has promised to preserve aspects of CHOP's legacy, like artwork, a Black Lives Matter street mural and a community garden. (Reporting by Gregory Scruggs, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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