SEATTLE — As suddenly as it appeared, the Capitol Hill Occupation Protest was gone.
Around 5 a.m. Wednesday, Seattle police arrived at the roughly two-block area and began removing roadblocks, tents, protest signs and all other evidence of the site’s 23-day existence. The night before, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, a Democrat, issued an executive order characterizing the area, also known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, as “unlawful assembly” and ordering city agencies to close it to the public.
Almost immediately, Republican officials celebrated the move. “I am pleased to inform everyone that Seattle has been liberated,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany declared at her Wednesday afternoon media briefing. Characterizing the zone as a “failed four-week Democrat experiment by the radical left,” McEnany criticized Durkan’s for responding less aggressively to protests in her own city than President Donald Trump had in Washington.
“Law and order must prevail to preserve peace,” McEnany said, echoing what has become her boss’ mantra in response to the nation’s wave of mostly peaceful protests against racial injustices and police brutality.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) opted fro sarcasm, commenting, “Boy, nation-states seem to be lasting shorter & shorter.”
Durkan’s destruction of the CHOP was a reversal of her previous position. On June 12, when Trump accused her of letting anarchists take over the city, Durkan responded, “Seattle is fine. Don’t be so afraid of democracy.”
But over the last few weeks, the CHOP had become increasingly controversial. While the daytime scene resembled a music festival or cultural event, the nights became more violent. Six shootings, two of them fatal, occurred in or near the zone in the last two weeks of June, a rate of violence that exceeds the average for both the Capitol Hill neighborhood and Seattle as a whole. Protesters repeatedly clashed with the city over the placement of road barriers and access for emergency vehicles.
At the same time, the CHOP became a fixture of right-wing news sites. In the first week of its existence, Fox News ran 71 segments on the CHOP (the network later admitted to manipulating news pictures to give the impression that armed guards were manning entrances during the daytime). Sites like Breitbart and The Daily Caller ran near-daily dispatches.
The political dynamic at work in Seattle and for its residents bore little resemblance to the version that appeared in right-wing media. For one, Durkan may be a Democrat, but she is not particularly progressive and CHOP was not an outgrowth of permissiveness on her part. A career prosecutor, she has generally sided with the city’s police department against protesters since the start of the nationwide uprisings sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.
Under Durkan’s administration, the police department has used teargas against protesters and told conflicting stories about the reason officers abandoned the East Precinct, the site around which the CHOP was established. In clearing the zone Wednesday, officers prevented journalists from filming and blocked access to the offices of nearby news outlets. (The department later characterized these events as misunderstandings). Some homeless people living in the park inside the CHOP had their belongings confiscated and destroyed.
To the Trump administration and other Republicans, the CHOP served as an example of failed Democratic policies. To Seattle’s protesters, though, it was a reaction to how leaders who identify as Democrats still hold strikingly conservative views when it comes to criminal justice and policing.
“It’s not Democrats versus Republicans, it’s people versus police,” said J., a community organizer who declined to provide her full name due to fear of police retaliation.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the future of CHOP remained unclear. Hours after they cleared the area, police stood guard at every entrance. Helicopters buzzed overhead.
J. described the CHOP not as a good thing or a bad thing, but simply as a beginning.
“It served its purpose,” she said, “and it will serve its purpose again when it moves to a new area.”