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What It's Like Inside The 'Autonomous Zone' Near A Seattle Police Precinct


For the rest of this hour, we're going to be looking at policing in the United States. It's not the only subject of national protest that have been playing out over the last few weeks, but it's certainly at the heart of it. We'll hear from police who tried to point out misconduct in their own departments. We'll take a look at the powerful police unions that protect and advocate for officers and who are also blamed for standing in the way of change. We'll trace how policing has evolved through U.S. history and how it's been portrayed on television and why that matters.

But we're going to start at the scene of one ongoing protest against police brutality happening now in Seattle. Hundreds of activists are occupying an area that surrounds a police precinct that's been largely vacated. Some are calling it an autonomous zone. And NPR's Martin Kaste is there. And he's with us now. Martin, thanks so much for joining us.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Oh, my pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: So tell us what's happening where you are.

KASTE: Well, this is, for people who know Seattle, Capitol Hill. It's kind of the younger part of town. A lot of alternative politics has always been centered here. A lot of people who live here work in the arts or in the service industry. So unfortunately, also last couple months, a lot of people here are out of work. But right now, I'm here on the Hill, looking over downtown Seattle. And the East Precinct building of the Seattle Police Department has plywood in all the windows. It's got a fence around it. It's been tagged. And it's got pictures of Angela Davis, various slogans and a big sheet of plastic that says this space is now property of the people. And the police, as far as we know, are not inside anymore after they gave it up, strategically or tactically, on Monday.

MARTIN: So who are the activists? And what do they say they're trying to accomplish with this autonomous zone?

KASTE: And that very word - that autonomous zone - is contentious because there is no one group here. And there is some dissension about what this is, that CHAZ - some people use the acronym for Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. That's been disputed. I just watched them painting over a sign that said that. They painted off - over the autonomous zone. These were some of the activists who are more focused on racial issues, they said that's not what we're about. We're not declaring independence from Seattle or from the United States. This is more of an occupation protest.

They've blocked off a couple of entrances to this sort of three- or four-block-long area of Pine Street. You know, there are barriers there, but anybody can walk in. You don't see police patrolling here. But EMTs and firefighters are welcome, and the police say they will respond to 911 calls. They're not seceding, really, from the city; it's more about sort of occupying a space for a long-term protest about policing and race.

MARTIN: And how has the police department or the mayor or both responded?

KASTE: Well, it's been very fraught for them because, you know, this started, basically, last weekend. There were repeated large protest crowds outside this precinct building that kept kind of crowding around it. The police, you know, understandably were on edge because of what they've seen in other parts of the country, notably the torching of the 3rd Precinct building in Minneapolis. So there was a sense that there was sort of a tactical retreat here.

After the use of tear gas and other anti-crowd measures, there was so much anger here, the city decided the best course of action would be to vacate the building, take their files with them, take sensitive equipment out and just get out for now and kind of wait it out. The chief here - the police chief, Carmen Best, was not happy with that. She put out a video to her officers on Thursday saying it made her angry to do so and that it was an insult to them after having to hold the line on this police precinct building. But there's a sense in Seattle that, politically, this was really the only course of action for the city to avoid something more serious happening here.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Martin Kaste in Seattle. Martin, thanks so much for joining us.

KASTE: You're welcome. *

(SOUNDBITE OF LEON BRIDGES' "BAD BAD NEWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.