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Seattle Police Forcibly Clear Protest Zone

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Police in Seattle spent weeks responding to protest with patience. During the height of the George Floyd protests, people took over a small part of the city. They called it the Capital Hill Organized Protest or CHOP. They called for changes in policing, and the local police gave them space, until the mood soured and police moved in yesterday. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The CHOP started when police here made a tactical decision to abandon the local precinct building in the face of huge, nightly protest three weeks ago. But early yesterday morning, they were back and in force. Everybody was ordered to leave the streets and the park. Those who didn't were arrested.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Where should that money go?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: To Black communities.

KASTE: By 10:00 a.m., the remaining protesters had been pushed to a perimeter closely guarded by police. Rick Hearns is one of the elder statesmen of the CHOP.

RICK HEARNS: They came in with a little force, and a little force came back to them. But we already made history.

KASTE: The city came in with more than just cops. They brought in social services for the homeless people who joined the camp, as well as heavy machinery to remove the barriers, tents and other debris from the streets and the adjoining park. They say they'll have to keep the area off-limits to nonresidents for 10 days as crews assess damage and clean things up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARMEN BEST: I was just stunned by the amount of graffiti, garbage and property destruction.

KASTE: That's the police chief, Carmen Best. Weeks ago, she said that abandoning the precinct was not her decision, and now she seems gratified that the police are back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEST: If anybody wants to protest and do so peacefully and exercise their right, we certainly encourage that. What we can't have is that we saw there, where people were entrenched, where crimes and lawlessness were occurring, where people were being assaulted, raped, robbery, and as you know, two murders.

KASTE: It was those murders, part of a recent rash of shooting incidents in and around the CHOP, that seemed to have pushed the city to act. The defenders of the CHOP say they're not to blame for those shootings.

JAMES MADISON: It was all gang violence. Every single shooting was gang-related.

KASTE: This is James Madison, or at least that's the name he goes by here. He's well-known as having been part of CHOP's volunteer security effort. A photo of him holding a semi-automatic rifle at the entrance to the CHOP was picked up by websites around the world. But yesterday, he was ambling around the new perimeter, making small talk with the police and lamenting the difficulty that he and his colleagues had had keeping this neighborhood safe.

MADISON: So towards the end, when the shootings started to happen, at that point, we had decided we were going to start pulling out because we saw what was - what we refer to as a power vacuum.

KASTE: That power vacuum was also felt by some local business owners. They sued the city last week, accusing it of abandoning them. Residents also felt the strain. Tahir Haseebullah and his wife have an apartment inside the CHOP. He says while he supports the protesters' aims, toward the end he started to feel as if he was being held hostage.

TAHIR HASEEBULLAH: We were watching fights happen almost every day, daily. So, like, everyone's jockeying for position and giving orders and authority. And somebody is waving a gun and saying, I'm in charge. And somebody else shows up with a bat and says, no, I'm in charge. It gave us a taste of what being a lawless world would look like.

KASTE: Even some of the most dedicated supporters of the protest here have come around to the idea that the occupation - camping out - was a mistake. Asya Morgan is a young African American woman from Tacoma.

ASYA MARTIN: I'm a believer that if we are going to protest, we should keep it moving. Be like water, guerilla warfare. This isn't something that - where you just sit and fight. Like, this is a constant battle.

KASTE: And city officials say they welcome that. The police chief repeated her support for lawful protests and a continuing conversation about reimagining police, while the mayor said she's already planning to cut tens of millions of dollars from the police department budget. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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