Reports of harassment and possible extortion are being made in a Seattle neighborhood that has been declared a “cop-free autonomous zone.”
Officers abandoned the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct on Monday following days of violent protests and clashes with marchers in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.
Demonstrations in the neighborhood had mainly been peaceful, but that changed over the weekend when there were several shootings, including one after a man rammed his vehicle into a group of protesters.
Fencing now lines the perimeter of the neighborhood, where armed guards who are not police stand watch.
“We’ve heard, anecdotally, reports of citizens and businesses being asked to pay a fee to operate within this area,” Assistant Police Chief Deanna Nollette told media Wednesday. “This is the crime of extortion. If anyone has been subjected to this, we need them to call 911.”
There are also reports of people who live in the area being asked to show identification before being allowed in.
“It is illegal to operate a checkpoint on a public street,” she said. “No one at these checkpoints has the legal authority to demand identification from anyone. We ask if anyone is subject to these demands to call 911 and report the incident.”
Officers have been ordered to stay away from the neighborhood and only respond there for 911 calls.
McKenzie Diamond, who lives in the area, told local news channel KIRO7 that the atmosphere has been “stressful.”
“It’s like checking in with somebody to get into your own home,” she said. “Keep the zone however they want and move the fencing so people can go home.”
Although Washington state has an open carry law, Nollette said it would be illegal for the volunteer armed guards to present their weapons in a threatening manner. Media photos show several of them with AR15 rifles strapped to their shoulders.
Nollette said police officials are hoping to start negotiations with the protest leaders to regain access to the precinct.
“It’s just a matter of establishing this dialogue,” she said. “We’d love nothing more than to open our precinct building. What we want to do is give an opportunity for everyone’s tempers to calm, and for us to approach the table with a view toward equality.”
Those occupying the zone have set up tents and painted murals and are playing music from speakers around the clock.
The Center Square- Ted O’Neil
Cover photo: Andy Ngô