Photo credit: VDB Photos / Shutterstock.com
A little over one year ago, on July 1, 2020, then-White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany proclaimed with fanfare that “Seattle has been liberated from the anarchists.”
At the time, many Seattleites shrugged off this bizarre declaration that seemed so at odds with the city they inhabited – and with the facts on the ground.
When the Biden administration six months later revoked the Trump administration’s designation of Seattle (and Portland) as “anarchist jurisdictions,” my third-generation Washingtonian mother gleefully rang me, and a childhood friend dispatched holiday cards jokingly reassuring out-of-state recipients that the city was safe to visit.
But just how did Seattle, like Portland, become a symbol of political disorder?
The most immediate impetus was the occupation by protesters of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, under the banner of Free Capitol Hill. First established on 8 June 2020, the so-called “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” (CHAZ, subsequently renamed Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, alternatively Capitol Hill Organized Protest, or CHOP) had sprung into life when Seattle police abandoned their East Precinct headquarters in the wake of protests over George Floyd’s death.
CHOP quickly became a protest, teach-in, art collective, and street party rolled into one. Just a few weeks later, CHOP’s barricades had been dismantled, its colorful murals painted over, and its citizens dispersed. Though it lasted less than a month, CHOP became a specter haunting American politics.
For those on the left, CHOP’s utopian aspects pointed to a future in which “another world is possible.”
For those on the right, the zone instead became a symbol of the imagined dangers of a future with defunded police and the rule of the “leftist mob.”
Deeming Seattle a haven of “anarchists” and “domestic terrorists,” then-President Trump repeatedly criticized the city’s mayor and Washington’s governor for permitting what he called a leftist “takeover,” presumably by the combined forces of “the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters” he promised to defeat in his 2020 Fourth of July “Salute to America.”
As Trump delivered those remarks at Mount Rushmore, DHS agents from both Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement tactical units headed to Seattle and Portland to quell any possible unrest over the holiday. This presaged the deployment of federal agents to Portland and the decision in late July to send a Special Response Team operated by Customs and Border Protection to remain on “stand by” in Seattle. Trump subsequently signed a memo on September 2nd calling for the federal defunding of “cities that allow themselves to deteriorate into lawless zones” – chief among them, Seattle.
Seattle’s “Autonomous Zone” didn’t last long. In the wake of several shootings and assaults in CHOP, the city’s mayor Jenny Durkan called for “de-escalating” and dismantling the zone in light of “continued disorder” and the presence of “individuals bent on division and violence.” Seattle Chief of Police Carmen Best – who subsequently resigned over the issue of cuts to the police budget — flatly declared, “Enough is enough.” By July 1, the city had demolished barricades and arrested 31 defiant protesters.
But the occupation, far from being an aberration, reflected a long tradition of radical activism in Seattle. The activists in CHOP and beyond drew on a playbook whose tactics have been forged over the past century. When Black Lives Matter of King County called a general strike in June 2020, the group was deliberately evoking the 1919 Seattle General Strike.
Yet the radical strain of Seattle’s history has made it easy to presume a link between leftist activism and extremist violence, as Fox News did when it manipulated images of looted storefronts to CHOP or when the New York Times falsely claimed the use of Molotov cocktails at the 1999 “Battle in Seattle” over the WTO meetings.
In fact, much of the city’s historical experience actually points to ongoing violence against the left, making for an alternative history of “Old Seattle” before its rise as a corporate powerhouse.
In the early 20th century, Seattle grew up around its port, with an economy based on resource extraction, primarily timber. Indeed Seattle was home to the original “Skid Road”: technically referring to the pathway along which timber was “skidded,” it soon came to stand for those down on their luck and “on the skids.”
The bustling port city and its ethnically mixed population of sailors and lumbermen offered fertile ground for the International Workers of the World (IWW), colloquially known as the Wobblies. In the boom and bust economy of the Pacific Northwest, the IWW offered a much more radical vision of change and social justice than its primary competitor for organized labor, the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The IWW also extended its scope to include farm and transient workers, as well as women and ethnic and racial minorities.
In 1913, a brawl between sailors and soldiers in town for the Potlatch Days Festival spilled over into an assault on the local headquarters of the IWW and the socialists. Nonetheless, the local press unfairly pinned the blame on the IWW for the incident, setting a precedent for coverage of the IWW in the region.
The union’s opposition to American involvement in the Great War intensified regional political hostilities. In 1916, two steamships filled with IWW supporters traveled from Seattle to nearby Everett only to be met by a vigilante crowd headed by the Snohomish County Sheriff. The resulting melee left two deputies and at least five Wobblies dead. IWW leader Thomas H. Tracy was put on trial for the deputies’ death but acquitted the following year.
Even after the Great War ended, Seattle was roiled by protests. In 1919, Seattle’s five-day General Strike consolidated the city’s reputation as the capital of what Postmaster General Farley would later (only half-jokingly) deem “the Soviet of Washington.” Though peaceful, the 1919 strike fueled fears of communism and served purveyors of the First Red Scare with an example of the supposed dangers of lurking Bolshevism.
This was the Seattle – a city polarized between proponents of leftist change and upholders of the status quo — in which controversial Hollywood actress Frances Farmer came of age. In 1931, As a senior at West Seattle High, Farmer won a national essay contest – and notoriety — for her piece, “God Dies.” This led to national outrage over “atheism” proliferating in Northwest schools. While still a student at the University of Washington, Farmer visited the Soviet Union in 1935 after winning a subscription contest for The Voice of Action, a paper with communist affiliations. Though mental illness and substance abuse sidelined Farmer’s film career in the 1940s, a semi-fictionalized 1979 biography (followed up by a 1982 biopic starring Jessica Lange) cemented her status as a hometown radical persecuted for her political beliefs. In particular, Farmer was embraced by the city’s grunge rock movement, many of whose bands got their starts playing in the saloons of Pioneer Square, along the old “Skid Road. For Nirvana’s third and final album, Kurt Cobain (who grew up in the old IWW stronghold of Aberdeen) wrote the song “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.”
The casting of Farmer as an icon of an alternative leftist culture occurred just as Seattle was transforming itself into a global business hub. Still a largely one-company town in the 1970s, the recession at the beginning of that decade hit Boeing and, by extension the city, hard. An infamous billboard pleaded, “Will the last person leaving Seattle – Turn out the Lights.”
Seattle’s subsequent and spectacular economic rise thanks to its intersecting empires of coffee, computer software, and (e)commerce sat uneasily with its past as a rough-around-the-edges frontier town known for labor activism and, by the 1990s, a subculture rooted in disaffection and angst.
Not surprisingly, since the 1999 WTO meetings and the attendant “Battle for Seattle,” protesters have often attacked symbols of the wealthy, corporate “New Seattle.” In the 2020 protests following George Floyd’s murder, for example, looters targeted the city’s commercial and shopping districts, making off with luxury goods from homegrown franchises like Nordstrom and defacing Starbucks.
In Seattle, then, the protests over economic and racial inequalities that gained such prominence over the past year drew upon a lived past embodied by people, places, and strategies of activism, with CHOP merely the most recent addition to a historical topography of protest.
The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone represented not just a critique but an alternative way of being and potentially new ways of conceiving of both “law” and “order.” Yet despite a well-documented history of violence against political protesters and labor movements, the perception of Seattle as a nest of violent instigators — or what Fox News, in a headline about the autonomous zone, proclaimed “crazy town” – persists.
As we take stock of CHOP one year on, then, deeper consideration of both historical experiences and perceptions of activism should inform efforts by authorities in the region and beyond to work together with community leaders and activists to address the pressing issues of police reform that gave birth to the autonomous zone.
Undeniably, CHOP and its aftermath have transformed Seattle’s political scene. As 2020 came to a close, embattled Mayor Jenny Durkan announced she would not seek re-election. Carmen Best, Seattle’s first female African American head of police, had already departed her position several months prior. In May 2021, a lawsuit by Black Lives Matter’s King County organization against the city led to revelations about deleted or unsaved emails and texts from Mayor Durkan, as well as ex-Chief Carmen Best and Fire chief Harold Scoggins, for the period including the police abandonment of the East Precinct and CHOP.
In the midst of continuing local political debate over CHOP made even fiercer in the context of a contentious mayoral race, perhaps the zone’s most visible mark on Seattle is the massive BLM mural on East Pine Street painted by the Vivid Matter Collective.
As the mural’s creators envisioned it, in its best moments CHOP stood for the political power of art. Of community. Of imagination. And of the simple but essential message that Black Lives Matter.
Pamela Ballinger is Professor of History at the University of Michigan, author of The World Refugees Made, and a fourth-generation Pacific Northwesterner.