As opposed to treating the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) as an armed takeover of the city, Seattle officials saw it as an opportunity. This is information gathered through a release of emails about the so-called Seattle autonomous zone, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Knowing there were safety concerns and access impediments for residents, businesses and emergency services, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) still proceeded with closing streets for the occupied area and installing concrete barriers as demanded by those occupiers.
The area was taken over on June 8 after Seattle Police were ordered by the Mayor to abandon the East Precinct. Occupiers used police barriers which had been left behind to blockade streets and established an armed perimeter.
Though many in the mainstream media said no one was being denied access to the area, SDOT emails tell a very different story. In a June 10 email, while discussing permanent closures to the area SDOT, director Sam Zimbabwe wrote "Right now, it’s a little bit more chaotic. The organizers have people at most times at most of those barriers because they are still paranoid that someone is going to come to do them harm. So they really aren’t 'open' to anyone except through checking in with the person at the barrier. That’s not sustainable, but it is the way it is right now."
Emails indicate that Zimbabwe saw the CHOP as an opportunity to close more streets in Seattle. SDOT and the Mayor have faced mounting criticism from Seattle drivers about limiting access and rising commute times due to new bike lanes, "road diets" and street closures. Last month, Mayor Durkan and SDOT arbitrarily closed 20 miles of streets in the city for more "recreation space" during the coronavirus "Stay Home Stay Healthy" orders, with no public hearings or input from residents.
Zimbabwe asked: "Are you asking how it is or how we would like it to be? I would LOVE to get to a 'Stay Healthy Streets' approach, perhaps a little upgraded." Zimbabwe begrudgingly continued: "…And eventually I still think there needs to be some traffic on Pine, like the 11 bus, for example…"
Jason Kelly, part of the city’s communication team even offered to help with the closures. "Let us know what we can do at the JIC to help on this issue of CHAZ Healthy Street designation."
Other documents show that officials including the Mayor and City Council sent representatives to meetings in which residents and business owners made it very clear how dangerous it was getting in the CHOP and yet continued calling it a "peaceful protest." According to one city representative’s notes on the meetings:
"[Businesses] indicated if action does not occur quickly then they may be willing to speak to the press about the deteriorating public safety situation inside of CHAZ/CHOP… The potential lawsuit from business interested in suing the City was NOT mentioned at this meeting."
Before the lawsuit became public, businesses were reluctant to mention the safety concerns fearing retribution from CHOP occupiers.
Meanwhile city officials disregarded the growing safety concerns "…Adrienne suggested we need to amplify the stories of small businesses and residents inside of CHAZ/CHOP to provide more nuance to the on-going issues- this was met with a lack of enthusiasm."
These meetings were the result of a letter sent on June 12, four days after the occupation, by two business owners to the Mayor, the Seattle City Council and bcc'd to local residents the day after the Mayor compared the CHOP to a "Street Fair" and a "Block Party" and said on CNN that Seattle could have "the summer of love."
Business owners and residents demanded the city help them and stop enabling the occupiers: "Remove all city barricades and planters or at least tighten the footprint … Remove city funded portable toilets."
Residents and business even offered to help solve the situation themselves "We have volunteers ready to help with cleanup... The City needs to deploy mental health professionals to CHAZ... The civilian checkpoints are intimidating..."
But instead, city representatives suggested using tax payer funds and have Amazon pay for their failure to protect the people and businesses in Capitol Hill: "How do we re-appropriate the City's stabilization fund to serve businesses in CHAZ?... Can the Amazon small business loan expand to CHAZ?..." referencing the loans Amazon extended to businesses near their campus in Lake Union to help get them through the company’s decision to have employees work remotely during the shut down orders.
The only city representative who seemed willing to help the residents and businesses and bridge the divide with the occupiers was Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins “Hello Sabrina, Can you send me the notes from the meeting with the business owners? I want to use the(m) to advocate for the business owners. Thanks, HDS”
The June 12 email from businesses fell on deaf ears. In an email dated June 15 SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe said:
"…we should think about how we could make a perimeter border that can be used to make art too. The protestors have added plywood sheets in front of some of the metal barricades and made art pieces on them. I wonder if we could do a barrier system of ecology blocks with plywood 'facing' that could then be decorated."
The art Zimbabwe refers to is graffiti that covered almost every square inch of wall space inside the CHOP, including many private buildings. Preserving the occupiers art seemed to be a bigger priority than safe guarding the residents. "The Black Lives Matter mural on Pine looks good and there are discussions about how best to preserve it. Could we look into materials to seal it or otherwise preserve? It won’t be open to traffic yet, but I think this is a good thing to start exploring," an email said.
Emails reveal that SDOT seemed to be taking orders from the occupiers rather than elected officials
A reporter from KUOW asked "…I heard SDOT is trying to replace the orange barricades at the 'Autonomous Zone' with planters and make the area a 'Safe Street' but protesters won’t allow SDOT to take the orange barricades away. Can you confirm this?"
Gerard Green from SDOT responded: "Yes, SDOT crews placed 15 black plastic planters as a sample at 10th Ave & Pine street. The protesters liked the layout and look of the planters at 10th, but we couldn’t get consensus from the factions within the protest group, to approve removing any barriers."
In one chain of emails, the city spent more time addressing the interests of a citizen who wanted planters installed so he could garden in the area than any of the emails sent by businesses or residents.
Multiple emails show that SDOT was not even sure of access to the area:
"Sam, quick question on this – if a vehicle drives into the area via the 12th & Pike local street closure, does it have full ability to circulate on all of the streets behind the hard closures?"
"Hmm. Sort of? But it’s likely going to be escorted. We had garbage trucks circulating within there this morning. Private cars would probably not be able to get onto Pine."
"Only news I got was the access plan we’re putting together for deliveries and emergencies. I visited Sunday and saw the planters. Basically folks are parking two cars in front of barrier entry points to keep people from driving through."
Throughout the process, emails show that the Seattle Police Department was trying to get back into the area and that the city ignored the requests: "For everyone’s awareness, the TOC was just contacted by SPD with a request for SRT to remove barricades in the Pine/12th/10th area. Mohammed has forwarded the request to MOD. We do have the SPD officer’s number to call if we need further info."
What is clear from these emails, is that the elected officials of Seattle were more interested in appeasing the occupiers than in working with residents and businesses owners to secure the safety of their homes and livelihoods. Isn't that colonialism at its finest.