Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) or Organized Protest (CHOP) (Seattle)

  • By Brad Holden
  • Posted 12/30/2023
  • Essay 22870
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In the summer of 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, killed George Floyd Jr., a Black civilian, during an arrest attempt. Captured on video, the incident triggered nationwide protests. In Seattle, demonstrations against police violence merged with the Black Lives Matter movement and resulted in several days of street protests, primarily in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. The intensity of these protests led to clashes with police, eventually prompting the Seattle Police Department to temporarily abandon its East Precinct building. Immediately afterward, protestors moved in and claimed a six-block radius of the surrounding area as their own. For the next 23 days, this occupied zone – known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (or CHAZ), and later as the Capitol Hill Organized Protests (or CHOP) – would attract national media attention and become the focus of heated political debate. 

The Protests (May 25 to June 7, 2020)

On May 25, 2020, George Perry Floyd Jr. (1973-2020), a 46-year-old Black man, was killed during an arrest attempt in Minneapolis when a white police officer kneeled on his neck and blocked his airway for a prolonged period despite Floyd’s pleas that he was unable to breathe. The incident was captured on video that quickly went viral, resulting in widespread condemnation, nationwide protests, and the emergence of a newly energized racial-justice movement. 

In Seattle, the first large-scale demonstration in response to Floyd’s death occurred on Saturday, May 30, 2020, when local faith leaders and community activists staged a noontime “March for Justice” from Westlake Center to the Federal Courthouse and back. Several thousand people showed up and the march itself remained a peaceful event, as had been intended. During the march, such chants as “Black Lives Matter," "No Justice, No Peace,” and “I Can’t Breathe” became popular slogans that would help symbolize this quickly forming protest movement. 

Later that afternoon, hours after the march had ended, a large crowd that had remained in downtown Seattle started to become unruly, throwing bottles and setting fires. By nightfall, they began vandalizing businesses and looting stores, causing damage that stretched for several city blocks. In response, the Seattle Police Department used tear gas, pepper spray, and flash bang grenades, and made 27 arrests. Governor Jay Inslee (b. 1951) activated the Washington National Guard and Mayor Jenny Durkan (b. 1958) declared a 5 p.m. curfew, though such measures did little to calm the situation.

On June 1, police dressed in riot gear faced off against more than 7,000 demonstrators, this time near a barricade that had been set up near the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct building in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. This barricade, near the corner of 11th Avenue and Pine Street, would soon become the central gathering place for all subsequent demonstrations. By 9 p.m. the scene was officially declared a riot, with injuries sustained on both sides. In response, Durkan extended the curfew for a third consecutive night, prompting some members of the Seattle City Council to begin questioning the city’s response to the protests. The mayor maintained her call for a curfew, but promised to meet with protestors in order to address police accountability. 

The following day, on June 2, Durkan – joined by Police Chief Carmen Best (b. 1965) and Fire Chief Harold Scroggins (b. 1965) – spoke directly to thousands of protesters from the steps of the downtown Emergency Operations Center. Durkan promised that recent police actions would be reviewed, but also emphasized that any demonstrations must remain lawful. “We want you to continue on the path of justice, but we need you to please do it peacefully,” she told them ("After Days ...").

Later that night, protests resumed on Capitol Hill, with tear gas and flash bangs once again being utilized. The following day, city councilmember Tammy Morales (b. 1968) posted a video on her social media in which she reported that she had received thousands of emails concerning excessive use of force by the police and advocated for a drastic cut in the police department’s budget. This idea about reducing the budgets of police departments, under the catchphrase of “defund the police,” would gain traction in the coming days and become an important component of the protest movement.

As the protests continued for the next few days, an increasing number of complaints were filed against the Seattle Police Department related to dispersal tactics. In response, Best held a June 5 news conference in which she announced an order banning Seattle police officers from using tear gas on protesters for the next 30 days, though the ban did not include flash bangs, pepper spray, or other crowd-control tactics. Best acknowledged the importance of police accountability but also praised her department’s handling of recent events, stating, "As your police chief, I will speak out and I will condemn officers who abuse their power and I will hold them accountable, but I will also speak out and support the officers who are doing the right thing" ("Seattle Police Chief ...").

The following day, on June 6, skirmishes again broke out as police attempted to push protestors back from the East Precinct barricade. Reports of police using pepper spray and flash bangs began spreading on social media, prompting a group of politicians, including four Seattle City Council members, to join demonstrators on the front lines, where they made statements critical of Durkan's leadership and echoed demands for stronger police accountability measures. 

Things reached a crescendo on the evening of June 7, when a man drove his vehicle toward a large crowd gathered near the Pine Street barricade and shot a protester who tried to stop him. The driver of the vehicle was taken into police custody, though the incident aggravated an already volatile situation, causing things to quickly escalate. Protesters once again began clashing with the police, leading to a tumultuous night. The following day, in a desperate effort to calm things down, the police would remove all barricades surrounding the east precinct, board up all its windows, and withdraw all officers working there, essentially abandoning the building. Chief Best explained the effort as being "an exercise in trust and de-escalation" ("They’ve Given Us ..."), though leaving the precinct would unintentionally result in the establishment of the occupied zone.

CHAZ (June 8 to June 12, 2020) 

A few hours after the East Precinct was relinquished on June 8, protesters slowly started moving in and began claiming the area as their own in what was initially known as “Free Capitol Hill.” Later that day the territory was renamed as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or simply “CHAZ.” CHAZ was initially centered around the east precinct building and encompassed six city blocks (including Cal Anderson Park) that extended east to 12th Avenue, west to Broadway, south to East Pine Street, and north to East Denny Way. Protestors used the police barricades that had been left behind to set up a perimeter. Afterwards, a large sign was posted that read, "This space is now property of the Seattle People.” This was soon joined by other signs, murals, memorials, and different types of art, including a shrine for George Floyd, where people left flowers, candles, and handwritten messages. 

In the beginning, the autonomous zone was a leaderless and self-organized space, much like the previous Occupy Wall Street movement. Its inherent goals seemed to be addressing police accountability and helping to further the Black Lives Matter movement. Any important decisions were made using group consensus in which all people were encouraged to speak. Volunteers staffed a variety of booths that offered everything from food, supplies, and first aid. Special tents were set up that provided free medical care, including free COVID-19 testing, and portable toilets were provided by the Seattle Department of Transportation. 

Cal Anderson Park served as one of the central areas during the occupation and was gradually repurposed into a combination campground, community garden, and public gathering space. At some point, an outdoor cinema with a sound system and projector was set up and used to screen films. The intersection of 12th Avenue and Pine Street was converted into a public speaking square, complete with a microphone, and it was here, on the first night of the zone, that a group known as The Collective Black Voices asserted a list of demands that were then transcribed and disseminated online. Their primary demands called for cutting Seattle's police budget by 50 percent; redistributing those funds to community programs and services in historically Black communities; and ensuring that protesters would not be held criminally liable or charged with any crimes. Other, less-specific demands involved free public housing and college, socialized healthcare, and educational reform. Several of these demands were then posted throughout the zone on boards and posters.

Within a couple of days, the national media took notice. All of the major network news outlets paid visits to CHAZ, though much of the coverage seemed to highlight the more sensational aspects of things. With all this media attention, CHAZ soon became a political hot topic. In a Twitter post on June 10, U.S. President Donald J. Trump (b. 1946) described the CHAZ occupants in a derogatory manner and demanded that Governor Inslee and Mayor Durkan take back Seattle, suggesting that he would send in federal troops if they did not. The following day, Durkan responded at a news conference, stating that, “The threat to invade Seattle, to divide and incite violence in our city is not only unwelcome, it would be illegal” ("Like In Portland ..."). Inslee also condemned Trump’s social media post, telling him to stay out of Washington state's business. 

Things became just as contentious at the local political level. Seattle City councilmember Teresa Mosqueda (b. 1980) joined others on the council who were calling for a reduction of the police budget, stating, "I am committed to defunding the police and using most of that money, ideally 50 percent, to invest back into communities that we've failed" ("Seattle City Council ..."). At the same time, councilmember Kshama Sawant (b. 1973), who was loudly advocating for Durkan's removal, led a group of protestors on a march from CHAZ to Seattle City Hall (which had been closed to the public due to the pandemic), where the group then occupied the building and protested the mayor, as well as the city’s response to the protests. 

Back at the occupied zone, a group of Black artists led by Takiyah Ward began painting the words “Black Lives Matter” in 19-foot-tall letters down the center of Pine Street between 10th and 11th avenues. The block-long mural was completed on June 11, with supplies purchased from collected donations, and would instantly become an important symbol of the occupied zone. At this point of the occupation, the atmosphere of CHAZ was largely viewed as being peaceful and was often described as being part block party, part street protest, and part urban art gallery. With the media coverage it quickly became a tourist attraction, drawing a range of visitors and curiosity seekers. 

Despite its festive reputation, stories were beginning to emerge of residents being harassed by demonstrators and businesses being asked to pay extortion fees if they wanted to continue operating inside the zone. While the police department denied that it had received any such complaints, questions were being raised about the safety and welfare of the local community who now found themselves trying to exist inside the boundaries of an area that was perceived to be mostly lawless. Additionally, the number of tents was increasing inside Cal Anderson Park, as was the level of trash, leading to concerns that CHAZ was becoming another homeless encampment. This, in turn, prompted questions from the media about when the Seattle Police Department intended to reclaim the precinct. When asked about this on June 11, Chief Best echoed her original strategy of de-escalation, answering, "A lot of that is going to be predicated on how we can get police back in here peacefully, the last thing we want is some sort of confrontation" ("Seattle Police ..."). 

On Friday, June 12, more than 60,000 people participated in The March of Silence, which had been organized by the Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County chapter. Holding signs reading “No Justice, No Peace,” and “Defund SPD,” the 1.8-mile march started in Judkins Park and ended in the nearby Beacon Hill neighborhood. Various speakers at the event outlined the group’s demands, including that $100 million be cut from the Seattle Police Department’s budget and that a youth detention center in King County be closed down. 

CHOP (June 13 to June 21, 2020) 

On June 13, demonstrators decided that a name change was needed to better reflect the true purpose of the protest zone. Using consensus voting, the area was renamed as the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, or “CHOP.” Later, in an effort to de-emphasize occupation (noting that Seattle itself is an occupation of Native land), it was changed to Capitol Hill Organized Protest. A number of media outlets reported on this new acronym, thus helping to cement its popular use. 

Two days later, an auto repair shop located inside CHOP was broken into and set on fire. Nearby witnesses called 911, but reported there was no response from the police or fire departments. The suspect managed to steal some cash before being detained by a makeshift security team. The incident was widely reported by local news outlets, raising further concerns about the safety of residents and businesses inside the occupied zone. Police Chief Best later appeared on CNN and offered reassurance that police were responding to calls within CHOP and would respond to any threats to public safety. “What is happening in Seattle, there’s not a ‘no Seattle police response zone,’” she stated, but also emphasized the precariousness of the situation, adding, “We have to make sure people are safe but we don’t want to have a confrontation that ends up with more people hurt” ("Chief Best ...").   

As a result of these new concerns, city officials met with CHOP representatives to discuss the issue of public safety. An agreement was reached in which the Department of Transportation was allowed to install new concrete barriers that allowed for some traffic to move through the zone on Pine Street, 11th Avenue, and 12th Avenue. Businesses were now able to receive deliveries, and most important, emergency vehicles could now access the area if needed. Despite these new access points being opened to traffic, there continued to be increased public concern about the level of lawlessness inside the zone. 

Such worries were further heightened on June 18 when a reported sexual assault took place in a tent in Cal Anderson Park. Then, on June 20, two people were shot in separate incidents inside CHOP. In the first shooting, a 19-year-old male was killed after sustaining multiple gunshot wounds. The second victim, a 33-year-old man, was hospitalized due to a gunshot wound, though he was released with non-life-threatening injuries. There was no evidence that either shooting was connected to the protests, though that did little to soothe escalating tensions. The following day, a third shooting took place. The victim, a 17-year-old male, was treated for a gunshot wound to the arm and released. For many, this violence underscored how volatile things had become. The zone’s festive “block party” days were officially over. 

The Last Days of CHOP (June 22 to July 1, 2020)

The shootings prompted a public outcry in which Capitol Hill residents loudly expressed their concerns to the local media over personal safety issues. In response, Mayor Durkan and Chief Best held a news conference on June 22. Durkan said that recent violence was distracting from the protest movement’s original message and that it was time to wind things down. She asked people to begin leaving the zone voluntarily, especially at night, and announced that plans were in place for the police to reclaim the East Precinct. “It’s time for people to go home, it is time for us to restore Cal Anderson and Capitol Hill so it can be a vibrant part of the community ... The impacts on the businesses and residents and the community are now too much” ("Local ...").

Within a couple of days, the number of people and level of activity inside CHOP had declined considerably, but for many the damage was already done. On June 24, more than a dozen Capitol Hill businesses filed a class-action lawsuit against the City of Seattle over its handling of the CHOP situation. The suit alleged that the neighborhood immediately surrounding the zone suffered “irreparable harm” after the city decided to remove all police officers from the east precinct, leaving residents feeling unsafe and businesses experiencing significant financial losses. 

At the same time, there was increased frustration within the local Black Lives Matter movement that the circus-like atmosphere within CHOP was detracting from the group’s original goals, and was also allowing things to be mischaracterized by the media. On June 25, the Twitter account for the local Black Lives Matter chapter (@BLMSeattleKC) posted a statement addressing these concerns: “These issues we are all fighting for – defunding the police, actually ending homelessness, providing direct access to basic services and support, and addressing systemic racism – they are not new and they certainly aren’t new to Seattle. #CHOP has been widely misrepresented in the media. We deserve to gather, to heal and to defend our right to live in safe, Black-led spaces. It's disheartening that individuals who are ostensibly fighting for Black Lives continue to blame #CHOP for the violence that other parties have inflicted upon it.”

On June 29, a fifth shooting took place near 12th Avenue and Pike Street, leaving two teen boys in critical condition. Calling the situation "dangerous and unacceptable," Best told reporters: "Enough is enough. We need to be able to get back into the area” ("'Enough': 1 Killed ..."). That same day, Best met with protesters and informed them that police would soon be returning to the precinct. On June 30, police and other city employees began removing a number of concrete barricades, and also posted notices announcing the closure of Cal Anderson Park for cleaning and repairs. That evening, Durkan issued an executive order declaring that any gathering in the occupied area was now considered an unlawful assembly that required immediate action from city agencies. The following morning, more than 100 police officers moved in with tactical vehicles to issue dispersal orders and clear the area. A total of 44 people were subsequently arrested, but by the end of the day CHOP had been cleared of occupants and the police department began the process of moving back into its building. Over the next few days, there would continue to be clashes between protesters and police, leading to more arrests. 

By July 3, the three weeks of occupation had officially come to an end. After the area was cleared of protestors, city workers began the task of cleaning up trash and pressure washing the area clean of graffiti. Streets were reopened to traffic, though city leaders promised they would do everything possible to preserve the Black Lives Matter mural on Pine Street. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer proclaimed, “Capitol Hill is starting to look like Capitol Hill before it turned into the CHOP” ("Pine Street ..."). 


In the days following the closure of CHOP, tensions lingered within Seattle city government, especially over the proposed police budget for 2021. The city was facing a $400 million budget shortfall due to the financial impact of the pandemic, and in light of continuing public calls to defund the police, the majority of the city council members remained committed to cutting the Seattle police budget. 

Mayor Durkan, who publicly opposed any severe cuts to the police department, instead proposed a hiring freeze and a reallocation of funds that would amount to a 5 percent budget cut. The city council sidestepped the mayor’s proposal and voted instead to reduce the Seattle Police Department by up to 100 officers through layoffs and attrition, as well as reduce the salary of Chief Best and some other command staff by as much as 40 percent. While it did not slash the police budget at the levels being demanded by protestors, it still represented a substantive budget cut and was seen by many as being a form of punitive retribution due to tensions that had formed between the council and police officials.

On August 10, 2020, the day after the city council’s budget cuts were reported, Best announced her resignation from the Seattle Police Department, sending shockwaves throughout the city. Mayor Durkan held a news conference, stating, "Losing her is a deep loss for our city, and it is even more profound given where we are at this moment in history. She has taken on an enormously challenging job in the best of times, and she has done it in the most challenging times" ("Seattle Police Chief ..."). The Black Lives Matter Seattle chapter also released a statement denouncing the city council’s decision to slash Best’s salary, stating, "It does nothing to further our fight for authentic police accountability and the safety of Black lives, that the first Black woman to hold the position of Chief of Police of the Seattle Police Department has been forced out of her job by the Seattle City Council. Racism is racism" ("Seattle Police Chief ..."). Over the next two years, the Seattle Police Department would lose about 25 percent of its total officers. 

On December 7, 2020, Durkan announced that she would not seek reelection, though several months later, while serving out her term, she would face a major CHOP-related scandal when it was reported that text messages from her work phone had been deleted in violation of public-disclosure laws. The news story, which was first reported in May 2021, revealed that the deleted texts covered the first four weeks of the protests, when there was intense conflict between police officers and protestors, as well as during the initial formation of the occupied zone. A probe into the situation revealed that other city officials, including Chief Best, had also deleted text messages from that period. This was first discovered during a forensic report conducted on behalf of the 2020 lawsuit that had been filed by frustrated business owners and residents. A Federal judge would later find that the mayor, police chief, and other government officials had illegally deleted tens of thousands of text messages relating to the city’s handling of CHAZ/CHOP. In February 2023, the City of Seattle agreed to pay $3.65 million to settle the lawsuit, which included $600,000 in penalties related to the deletion of the text messages, and also agreed to improve its record-keeping practices. 

The block-long Black Lives Matter mural on Pine Street is the only permanent physical reminder from CHAZ/CHOP. In September 2020, it was announced that the Black Lives Matter mural would become permanent and would be maintained by the Seattle Department of Transportation. In 2022, after the art piece had started to show wear from traffic, the city worked with some of the original artists in order to restore it back to its original luster. The city has since pledged to provide periodic maintenance of the mural, calling it “a reminder of the importance and cultural significance of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement” ("Seattle’s Restored ...").   


Jonathan Choe, “March In Response To George Floyd's Death Planned For Saturday In Downtown Seattle,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 30, 2020; Becca Savransky and Alex Halverson, “12,000 Complaints Filed Against SPD; Seattle Mayor Defends Police Amid Council Member Questions,” Ibid, June 2, 2020; Becca Savransky, “After Days Of Protest, Seattle Mayor Speaks To Crowd Followed By Questions Over SPD Accountability,” Ibid, June 3, 2020; Becca Savransky, “Seattle Police Chief To Ban Use Of Tear Gas On Protesters For 30 days,” Ibid, June 5, 2020; Alex Halverson, “Local Politicians Join Anti-Racism Protests On Seattle's Capitol Hill, Criticize Use Of Pepper Spray,” Ibid, June 7, 2020; Alex Halverson, “One Shot After Man Drives Into Seattle Protest Crowd; Police Take Suspect Into Custody,” Ibid, June 8, 2020; Matt Markovich, “Seattle City Council Unclear What A Defunded Police Department Would Look Like,” Ibid, June 10, 2020; Becca Savransky, “In The New Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, Protesters Come Together To Give Aid And Fight For Change,” Ibid, June 11, 2020; Joel Connelly, “Anarchists 'Takeover' Of Seattle: More Threats, Distortions From Trump,” Ibid, June 12, 2020; Jonathan Choe, “Seattle Police Hope To Make Deal With Protesters To Reclaim 'CHAZ',” Ibid, June 12, 2020; Becca Savransky, ‘How CHAZ Became CHOP: Seattle's Police-Free Zone Explained,” Ibid, June 15, 2020; Tammy Mutasa, “Chief Best: Seattle's CHOP Ss 'Not A No-Police' Zone,” Ibid, June 16, 2020; Callie Craighead, “CHOP Members Propose Changes To Protest Zone, Including Curfew, Safe-Use Sites After Violent Weekend,” Ibid, June 22, 2020; Becca Savransky, “Businesses, Residents In CHOP Sue Seattle; Allege Public Safety Dangers, Property Damage,” Ibid,  June 25, 2020; KOMO News Staff, “1 Dead, 1 Wounded As Another Deadly Shooting Mars CHOP Area,” Ibid, June 29, 2020; Nick Popham, “Force Might Be Necessary To Take Back East Precinct From Protesters, Expert Says,” Ibid, June 30, 2020; Becca Savransky, “Durkan Calls On Seattle City Council To Investigate Kshama Sawant, Consider Action Against Her,” Ibid, June 30, 2020; Callie Craighead and Becca Savransky, “Seattle Police Department Sweep CHOP Under Executive Order From Mayor; 44 Arrested,” Ibid, July 1, 2020; (accessed from 8/2/23 through 11/28/23); The Seattle Times Staff, “Protests, Then Pandemonium,” The Seattle Times, May 31, 2020; Daniel Beekman, “Seattle Mayor Extends Curfew As City Council Questions Police Actions,” Ibid, June 2, 2020; Evan Bush, “Welcome To The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, The New, Police-Free Protest Center,” Ibid, June 11, 2020; Lewis Kamb, “How The Black Lives Matter Street Mural Came Together On Seattle’s Capitol Hill,” Ibid, June 11, 2020; Paul Roberts, “A ‘Lawless State’ To Some, CHAZ Tries To Create Its Own Narrative,” Ibid, June 14, 2020; Daniel Beekman, “Protesters Crowd City Hall,” Ibid, June 10, 2020; Evan Bush, ”Capitol Hill A Flashpoint For Politicians, Protesters,” Ibid, June 12, 2020; Jim Brunner, “Fox News Runs Digitally Altered Images From Protests, CHAZ,” Ibid, June 13, 2020; Scott Greenstone and Paige Cornwell, “Thousands Show Their Silent Support,” Ibid, June 13, 2020; David Gutman, Brendan Kiley, Hannah Furfaro and Mike Carter, “Deadly Shooting In CHOP Leads To Questions And Soul-Searching,” Ibid, June 21, 2020; David Gutman and Nicole Brodeur, “Local,” Ibid, June 23, 2020; Sydney Brownstone, Christine Clarridge and David Gutman, “Local,” Ibid, June 30, 2020; Brendan Kiley, Ryan Blethen, Sydney Brownstone and Daniel Beekman, “The End Of The CHOP,” Ibid, July 2, 2020; Mike Carter, “Seattle Settles CHOP Lawsuit For $3.6M, With $600K For Deleted Texts,” Ibid, Feb. 17, 2023; (accessed from 8/2/23 through 11/28/23); David Kroman & Lilly Fowler, “Seattle Mayor Imposes Curfew After George Floyd Protests Escalate,” Crosscut, May 30, 2020; David Kroman, “City Council Will Consider Defunding Seattle Police,” Ibid, June 8, 2020; Hannah Weinberger, “In Seattle's CHAZ, A Community Garden Takes Root,” Ibid, June 15, 2020; Lilly Fowler, “Like In Portland, Federal Agents Were In Seattle,” Ibid, July 21, 2020; David Kroman, “Durkan Hits Back At Pledge To Defund Seattle PD By 50%,” Ibid, July 13, 2020; David Kroman, “Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best To Resign In September,” Ibid, August 10, 2020; (accessed from 8/2/23 through 11/28/23); Burns, Chase; Smith, Rich; Keimig, Jasmyne, "The Dawn of 'Free Capitol Hill’,” The Stranger, June 9, 2020; Jas Keimig, “CHOP's Black Lives Matter Mural Gets Scrubbed, Repainted, And Preserved,” Ibid, Sep 23, 2020; (accessed on November 10, 2023); Melissa Santos, “Seattle's Restored Black Lives Matter Mural Is An Outlier,” Axios, June 21, 2023; (accessed on October 20, 2023); Esmy Jimenez, Isolde Raftery, “‘They've Given Us The Precinct.' 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