By Lindsey Wasson
SEATTLE (Reuters) – Seattle authorities moved on Wednesday to dismantle a protest zone that the city’s police chief derided as "lawless and brutal" and which had prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to call for action against demonstrators.
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Officers, clad in helmets and extra protective gear, entered the "autonomous zone" early and by mid-morning had arrested 31 people for failure to disperse, assault and other alleged crimes. One man was detained with a metal pipe and kitchen knife, according to the police department’s Twitter feed.
Police moved to retake the zone after Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan declared the gathering in and around the police department’s East Precinct and Cal Anderson Park an "unlawful assembly," the police chief, Carmen Best, said in a statement that highlighted a recent spate of shootings.
Harry "Rick" Hearns, a protester who said he volunteered to provide armed security at CHOP for 24 straight days, told Reuters he supported the police crackdown "1,000 percent." He said he blamed the violence on outsiders who had marred an otherwise successful month-long occupation.
"The outsiders come in with guns, violence, rocks, sticks," said Hearns, 59. "We don’t represent violence. People brought that to us."
Police were walking in and out of the precinct on Wednesday, re-establishing control. Weeks earlier, they abandoned the building following clashes with protesters in the wake of the May 25 killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of that city’s police.
Floyd’s death triggered a nationwide wave of largely peaceful demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality, giving rise in Seattle to the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) zone east of downtown.
"The CHOP has become lawless and brutal. Four shootings — two fatal — robberies, assaults, violence and countless property crimes have occurred in this several-block area," Best said in a statement.
Trump has been demanding that local authorities eject the protesters which he labeled "domestic terrorists". Conservative pundits have pointed to the zone in Seattle to support an argument that protests across the country were less peaceful than they were generally being portrayed.
Seattle police officers in black armored vehicles and officers in helmets carrying batons patrolled the perimeter of the area that was barricaded with spraypainted plywood, some marked with phrases like "All Lives Don’t Matter Until Black Lives Matter" and "RIP E Precinct."
Bicycle police employed three dozen bikes to create a barricade at East Pike and 12th Avenue, allowing city crews to take down protesters’ tents. Some officers sipped Starbucks’ coffee, evidence the operation had so far met no serious resistance.
"Officers continue to give dispersal orders and are checking Cal Anderson restrooms," the police department said. "Thank you to the individuals affiliated with the CHOP who have assisted officers in encouraging people to safely leave the area."
The zone has become less crowded and active over the past several days. Crowds that came by the thousands to listen to speeches about police brutality and marvel at street art commemorating black lives have disappeared, as have medic stations and multiple free food tents.
Businesses in the area, a trendy neighborhood of hipster bars and boutiques, have been pushing for a tougher stance by authorities. Attorneys have filed two class action lawsuits against the City of Seattle, including one aimed at preventing city and state leaders from allowing establishment of "lawless autonomous zones" in the future.
(Reporting by Lindsey Wasson in Seattle, Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Bernadette Baum and David Gregorio)