“Know What’s Worth Dying For”: Inside The Police-Free CHAZ

Western entrance to the CHAZ. Photo by Alex Glidewell. CC BY-SA 4.0

CONTENT WARNING: Contains descriptions of violence and drug use.

Protests against police brutality erupted worldwide following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. The unique demonstrations in Seattle, Washington have captivated the news media. On June 8, 2020 the Seattle Police Department pulled out of the East Precinct at 11th and Pine in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Since then, protesters and Black Lives Matter activists have taken a foothold in 6 blocks around the precinct, christening it the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone”, or “CHAZ”. Protesters defined borders with road barricades and signs, many of which read “NOW LEAVING USA” when crossing the threshold.

The area is now a police-free zone, with hundreds of people camping in the streets and in Cal Anderson Park. Black Lives Matter speakers take the podium several times a day. Counter-protesters disrupt the talks by heckling and harassing attendees, sparking fears of a violent confrontation. However, pointing to the positives, many activists say that this is what a police-free city could look like.

I sat down with an anonymous source who worked for five days as part of the border patrol team at CHAZ. This is a first-hand account of their experiences. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

We meet at a local burrito place. It is raining hard, and I’m late. They order the jalapeno popper burrito. The atmosphere is affable.

When did you first decide to go to the CHAZ?

It was a super spur of the moment decision. I had been hearing about it over Twitter, Reddit and everything. They desperately needed people, especially people who had any sort of experience being a street medic. From getting the idea of, “maybe I should fly out there” to being on a flight was about 6 hours. I booked that flight the same night I left. I brought enough clothes for 2 weeks, both my phones, a pair of headphones, my medications, and a blanket.

What did you find when you arrived?

Nothing, really. I got an Uber from the airport and just walked in. There wasn’t any sort of greeting or orientation. It was more just, everyone knew their place. I went out to the park and met some folks. I joined security by just hanging around people and talking. Just being like, “hey, I’m involved in organizing outside of stuff. I help run XYZ. Here’s my site, here’s some of the stuff I’ve worked on, here’s some of the interviews I’ve done”. And it moved from there into, “hey, we need people. You’re not doing anything right now, would you mind helping?”

What did you do as security?

Everyone took their own initiative. If you had 5 or 10 minutes to go help out someone, you do that. If you want to stay up the entire day and help monitor the barricades, you can do that. One of the first things I did was speak to a few different journalists. I think it was the Seattle Times. I spoke to one of their reporters for a good 20 minutes and discussed my outsider’s perspective, being originally from [withheld] and having just flown in maybe two days before.

What was the situation with the media?

It was a mixed bag. There were some outlets that were really nice and respectful, and there were other ones that were complete assholes. The biggest offenders being Fox, unsurprisingly. NBC, VICE News, and I heard the BBC was being a pain in the ass but I never interacted with them. Of all the media outlets, the one acting the best was one of China’s state media outlets. They were completely respectful!

The other outlets would either just run up to us and film with no context or warning. A lot of us obviously want to hide our identities. They would try and frame things. If they were reporting on one thing they would make sure certain people were in the background of it, or they staged the situation so they can report on it in a way that they like. It was a lot of stuff like that. I probably saw that a dozen times.

At its peak probably about 3% of people there were journalists. Either independent, photographers, cameramen, reporters, whatever. There was a massive media presence. A lot of what was going over the radios at that point became babysitting the media and making sure they didn’t start problems. No media outlet was perfectly correct. The best way to put it, as much as it makes me wanna puke saying this, is that Fox News had some things right, but so did CNN and Unicorn Riot and BBC. It was definitely a compromise of all these different views. And that was the reality. Because everyone has their own bias to it. I’m biased for having been out there for 5 days and having loved it as much as I did. But I needed to leave.

Was there an undercover police presence?

Oh absolutely. Everywhere. And they didn’t try to hide it. So you’d see people walking around trying to look as “plainclothes” as possible. They were still wearing a button-up shirt and khakis and being like “hello fellow leftist! Is there anything I can help you with?” There were people who were visibly wearing wires. I think they were either working for or in the pockets of [the Seattle Police Department] or other groups. Obviously Seattle PD realized “hey, there is actual credibility to people wanting to defund us, we need to make some sort of chaos to prove that we’re needed”.

I spoke with a bunch of residents in the area, sanitation workers, and all these other groups, who were saying that it was actually better off than it was before. That precinct was right in the middle of the neighborhood. So despite the parties going on until 3am, it was actually quieter than before because there were no sirens. Once they realized that residents were starting to get on the side of the protestors and organizers I think that’s when they sent out the undercovers and people wearing wires to try and create chaos. Or at the very least get an idea of what was going on.

Was there any bad behavior by the partiers?

Yes. There were folks who definitely treated it more like it was a festival than a protest. And it got to the point where we were nicknaming it “CHAZella” like “Coachella” [laughs]. People were just going out there and having little fucking raves until like 3am and sleeping through the day, and disrespecting the organizers who were fighting for Black Lives Matter.

Beyond that there was SO MUCH drug use. I don’t have an issue with weed or psychedelics because I did my fair share while I was out there. But you’d find needles everywhere. There was multiple times where I had to babysit the homeless or just anyone who was fucked up on meth or heroin. It was a bad situation.

What was your day to day routine?

I’d wake up about 1 to 2 PM. I would walk about 2 blocks from the park area where all the tents were to about a block from the precinct. That’s where all the tents like No Cop Co-op and volunteer groups were set up. I ate lots and lots and lots of pizza because it was everywhere. People were donating pizza from all over the world. There were local food banks out there making soup, rice, and pasta.

There was a surprising amount of good food and it was completely free. I’d grab some and sit down on a bench or a couch or something. Eat and check my phone, reply to some emails just because real life doesn’t stop when you’re out there.

And then from there I would head back to my tent and throw on a hoodie, gloves, sunglasses, boots, tie my hair back and then head over to the barricades and grab a radio. And then it really depended on what was really going on. From there I’d be on call for 10 to 12 hours typically. Sometimes up to about 16. I’d walk back and grab some more food and then maybe drink a beer, smoke a blunt, and then go to bed.

Were any locations in the CHAZ renamed?

Yes there was. So I’m not sure if it was the park or the baseball field that was there, because they’ve both been referred to as this. Both of them got affectionately renamed to Tear Gas Park, because everyone was saying “when the cops come back they’re gonna be pissed that there’s people here and they’re gonna tear gas all of you”. So all the idiots who were camped in a field were like “oh this is teargas park now!” So it got to the point where people were taping over the signs and writing Tear Gas Park! That was fuckin’ awesome.

Beyond that there wasn’t too much. The park had a few different names, but everyone knew it as the park because it was the only one in CHAZ. The precinct briefly became the “Seattle People Department East Precinct”. They painted over “Police’’ and replaced it with “People”. Beyond that I think it became the Capitol Hill Community Center. And then everyone just went back to calling it the East Precinct. With there being no exact leadership there was no official names of things. It was more like “this group of people called it this, this group of people called it that”.

Was there any incidents at the border while you were there?

I didn’t experience anything firsthand with police. But there was a lot of counter protesters there and they weren’t being subtle about it. There was one guy who ran through with a bike and started swinging around his pistol. That was fun. He was just trying to scare us, so naturally everyone else pulled out their concealed carry. All of the leftists there were concealed carry. Not a surprise, because the Socialist Rifle Association and the John Brown Gun Club were out there, and that scared him away.

We also had Proud Boys, Boogaloo boys, Three Percenters, I think there was a brief run-in with Patriot Front but they were just pussies about it and ran away. There was nothing super violent but there werewas a few times where people pulled out their guns just in case.

What was your most interesting experience?

A lot of us were working anywhere from 14 to 18 hours at the barricades at once. With maybe a little nap in between. And a lot of us were chugging coffee, or smoking packs and packs of cigarettes to keep us up. I thought “well fuck, what do I do?” because I’m not a big drinker and I can handle coffee in some regard.

And I was offered some LSD. I thought “I’ve wanted to take psychedelics anyways, might as well take it”. Fun fact, LSD can actually keep you up because it activates parts of your brain that otherwise wouldn’t be in use. And so I took maybe 4 tabs, something like that, and I was up for probably another 6 hours at the barricade after that. I swung back to my tent for a little and just zoned out because I’d never been on psychedelics before. So it’s like “woah dude, everything’s kinda movin around, my phone looks like it’s melting!” (laughs).

People were super cool about being helpful about that. I was given a blanket because it was raining. I swung back up to the barricades and I helped out for maybe another two or three hours. And then I was like “okay I’m starting to crash guys, I’m going to go back to my tent and sleep this off” and they told me to be safe. I handed over the radio and I walked down to 12th and Pine. 12th and Pine is about a block and a half from where the precinct is. The precinct was where all the speakers and activity and people were most of the time. So in order to get back to the park, I had to walk from 12th and Pine next to the precinct then down that road and turn and go into the park.

There was some black leadership speaking and there were probably about 500–1000 people in that area at that time. There was this man with two large speakers. Two large PA System speakers that he could carry around. They were pretty fuckin big and they were loud. And beyond that he had a banner with some sort of bible quote about how “God is great” and blah blah blah. The issue was, he was starting to attack people and get violent because they were listening to black leadership and not him.

So with that going, me and the rest of the security who were either taking a break or listening to black leadership or walking back up to the barricade had to jump in and restrain him. Note that I’m still tripping balls at this point. So I end up jumping in and helping restrain him to the ground. I move his speakers and everything. Everyone else who’s working security knows I’m tripping balls and they’re laughing about it. Like “really? This is an interesting first time on acid” and I’m like “fuck yeah it is!”. Naturally, if there’s any sort of conflict there, people and especially the media are gonna record it. So what resulted from that was a video of this religious man “being attacked by ANTIFA” for “preaching his values” and meanwhile he was on meth or crack or something. He was just screaming nonsense and bible quotes. And then there’s me pinning him down, on acid, just looking so fucking confused. It was something.

What was the most serious security incident that you had to deal with?

So this one wasn’t talked about. This drives me insane. So this was about a night or two before I left, and I actually left because of this. At that point people were starting to get burnt out. They were just kicking back, smoking, drinking, whatever. Just trying to relieve some stress. I was already up for about 24 hours at that point and I was still at the barricades. I thought “okay, I’ll work the radios so I’m not running around multiple blocks trying to help people”. So I’m hanging out with Socialist Rifle Association guys and some of the John Brown Gun Club guys. And I get a radio in saying that there is a man brandishing a gun in the middle of the park. It was super frantic, there was no more information than that. Conventiantly, the radios started to break up. So it’s like “well fuck, this isn’t good”. Then from what I was hearing, I was under the impression that shots were fired. I think it was actually firecrackers or fireworks or something off in the distance because people were setting those off all weekend.

So obviously being under the impression that shots were fired and that a shooting was going on, I told all the [Socialist Rifle Association] and John Brown Gun Club guys “hey get your fucking guns and run down to that park right now!” I started helping people file into the buildings. I’m radioing in, trying to manage everything. They run off with their rifles built or their sidearms or whatever weapons they had on them. Ready for there to be an active shooter. So I’m still trying to get people in for about 5 minutes. I dip over to the medic tent to let them know that we have an active shooter going on. “you guys need to listen in on the radios and stay safe. You’re probably going to need to deal with gunshot wounds”.

I walk back, panicking, and there’s adrenaline going on so I’m trying to keep my cool. And they’re like “oh there’s nothing, there was just a fight and someone pulled a gun and the gun got stolen”. So it was better than an actual active shooting. But for the next few hours we were under the impression that there was still a potential shooting going on. And with everyone slacking in terms of radio communication, it just became an awful fucking mess.

Once everything seemed to clear up, I grabbed a blunt and a glass of wine or something and slumped back in my tent and cried for an hour. I thought “holy fuck, that was really scary”. I decided that was too much. I was in charge of about 3–5 thousand people’s lives because that’s how many people were in CHAZ at that point. Most of them being day visitors or journalists. When you’re one of the few people manning the radios and you have that many lives to be accountable for, essentially, that’s fucking terrifying. And that was the last night I worked security because of it. I decided I couldn’t handle it. So I called a few friends and I was looking at flights back, and then about two days later I was back on a flight over here.

How long do you think it will last?

At the airport on my way there I thought it would last maybe two weeks. I didn’t think it was going to last very long at all. Mainly because people would go there for attention to appear “woke”. Like “look at me, I’m out here at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, I’m woke, I’m an ally to the minorities!” and a lot of that did happen. But when I landed, I realized how well organized and set up things were. And it only got better and better for multiple days. To the point where I was thinking “this could actually last for 3, 6, 8 months”. And there were folks out there from Standing Rock. That went on for about 2 years. And they were like “yeah, this is better off than Standing Rock ever was”. There were people who were at Occupy Wall Street and they were saying the same thing. It was like “wow, this actually has potential”.

But around day three of being there, once all these security concerns happened and everything, I started to realize things were crumbling and they were crumbling quick. About two hours before I left for the airport I was speaking with some black leadership who I’m going to leave unnamed. And what I was told was “hey, me and my guys [12 medics and 10 armed individuals] are all leaving. We got doxxed. Pick your battles”. Meaning that their documents are now out there and they were now identified and were being attacked. Once that happened, everyone seemed to know “this isn’t going to last much longer. You need to get out of here if you need to avoid arrest” which I needed to.

I’m surprised it’s lasted as long as it has at this point. I haven’t been monitoring it too much, mainly for my own mental health. But I’m still seeing stuff on Twitter about how it’s still doing. I mean it’s a shell of its former shelf, don’t get me wrong, but it’s still going. It’s significantly smaller. We’ve lost multiple blocks of space. There was significantly less people camping there. But it still technically does exist. So I’d consider it over because it’s not what it once was and not what it was intended to be. But it does exist in a sense.

Do you think the eventual takeback will be violent?

Absolutely. I think without a doubt there’s going to be tear gas and pepper spray and shit, because there has been prior. But I wouldn’t be surprised if when there’s the inevitable takeback there will be live ammo. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were people who would shoot back. There is a way too high chance that it could be a Waco. I don’t think it’s a high chance. But I think the chance is way too high for comfort. That’s primarily why I left. I was like “this is going to get bloody if I stay out here” and obviously I can’t afford that.

Do you think you’re in danger now?

Oh absolutely, yes. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was some sort of intelligence that I was out there. Especially being involved in running the groups I do. I think anyone who’s out there should maintain a low profile. As much as you can, stay inside. Order food. Just don’t use social media. Those general good practices for staying under the radar. As much as it sucks, being an activist is dangerous. And it’s a lot more dangerous than people want to give it credit for.

What was your main takeaway from visiting the CHAZ?

Pick your battles. Know what’s worth dying for and what’s worth fighting for. Know when it’s time to walk away. For me it was time to walk away. My plans from here are just to lay low. I might continue political activism, I might not. Depending on how the next few weeks pan out in terms of my own safety. It’s really a matter of keeping your own safety as your foremost priority. You can only do much when you’re in active danger and being targeted by far right individuals.

Thank you for your time.

Interview conducted June 18 2020.

Hey there! I’m a journalism student and freelance archivist interested in preserving old and forgotten media. jaycie.erysdren.me

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store