The future of Capitol Hill’s protest zone may lie in Seattle history

Could the East Precinct follow in the footsteps of Daybreak Star, El Centro de la Raza and Northwest African American Museum?

Scene in the CHOP. The word "police" in the SPD building's sign is spray painted over with the word "people

Demonstrators gather outside of the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct building in the Capitol Hill protest area, June 11, 2020. The area around Cal Anderson Park has been blocked off by protesters and now includes art installations, a co-op, a medical tent and a pop-up library. (Sarah Hoffman/Crosscut)

A large black tarp with spray painted orange letters dangles like a curtain from the second floor of Seattle's East Precinct police station. “This space is now property of the Seattle people,” the banner declares.

The largely abandoned station, a concrete block at the heart of one of Seattle’s most lively neighborhoods, is now the center of gravity for what’s become an extended sit-in against police: the newly declared Capitol Hill Organized Protest (the area formerly known as CHAZ, or the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone).

The backdrop for a tense, dayslong standoff, the building now sits mostly empty, its windows partly boarded up and decorated with portraits of Black and Native people killed by law enforcement. At the entrance, the metal lettering that once read, “Seattle Police Department,” has been altered, thanks to some strategic spray paint, to say: “Seattle People Department.”

“[The police] chose this building as a symbol of their power and so now this building is a symbol of our power,” said Tarika Powell, one of the thousands of people who have spent days protesting on Capitol Hill. “We didn’t make this building that symbol; they made this building that symbol.”

Seattle’s history reveals many times when buildings have served as symbols for civil rights struggles. The current local movement, driven by Black Lives Matter demonstrators advocating for social and racial justice, echoes other times when multiracial coalitions claimed buildings and land as a form of direct action. Many such “takeovers” led to the creation of beloved cultural centers, including the Daybreak Star Cultural Center in Discovery Park, El Centro de la Raza on Beacon Hill and the Northwest African American Museum in the Central Area.

Read more about Seattle’s activist history and how Black women have shaped it

Just last week, after pressure from local organizations revived a process started years ago, the city announced (with few details) it would transfer ownership of the decommissioned Fire Station 6 in the Central Area to the community to establish the William Grose Center for Cultural Innovation, named for an early pioneer and African American entrepreneur.

Some hope the East Precinct will follow a similar — but speedier — trajectory. Protesters and Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who represents the district in which the Seattle East Precinct sits, have called for turning the building into a permanent community center, pointing to Seattle’s past activism as a roadmap.

“It’s very inspiring and moving to us because we can reminisce about what we were doing — some of the things that the people out in the streets are doing now,” said Larry Gossett, a civil rights icon and former King County Council member. Gossett is the last living member of the Gang of Four group of Seattle activists, also known as the Four Amigos.

This historical photo shows members of the Gang of Four celebrating the Seattle City Council's vote to renovate the Beacon Hill School into what would become El Centro de la Raza. They are, left to right, Larry Gossett; Estela "Chata" Maestas (now Estela Ortega); Roberto Maestas, holding Vitta Mendoza; Juan Hernandez (partly obscured); and an unidentified man. (Tom Barlet/Seattle Post-Intelligencer via MOHAI)

The foursome, which also included Bob Santos, Roberto Maestas and Bernie Whitebear, rose to local fame in the late 1960s through the 1980s with acts of civil disobedience to advocate for housing, employment, education and health care equity. Though Santos used to joke that the Gang of Four and their followers were “really good at occupying buildings,” their activism often also rested on other forms of direct action, including occupying the mayor’s office, organizing rallies and sending out petitions and letters.

As Maestas, who in 1972 led the three-month takeover of the “crumbling” Beacon Hill School that became El Centro de la Raza, once put it: "I found that the only way to get things done in this city is to do it — and then work it out.”

If Maestas were still alive today, he’d call the protest area on Capitol Hill “another liberated territory,” said Estela Ortega, executive director of the nonprofit El Centro and Maestas’ wife. “He would always say that El Centro de la Raza was a liberated territory,” said Ortega, who joined the occupation at the time. “He would say the same thing [now] and encourage those young people.”

Movements, of course, are complicated, and each one is unique. Powell, the demonstrator, standing near the loading dock of the East Precinct building, emphasized that no one has actually occupied the station. Ortega noted that she’s seen reports of police moving back into the building. Police Chief Carmen Best has said the department intends to move back into it.

In contrast, other Seattle buildings that became emblems of local activism were vacant or soon-to-be vacant schools — not hastily abandoned precincts. The Horace Mann School was slated to be renovated when members of the Africatown Center for Education and Innovation after-school program, including Omari Tahir-Garrett, refused to leave the premises in 2013. Though Africatown's Center did eventually find a place in Columbia City, the three-month occupation ended in a stand-off with SWAT teams and the arrest of Tahir-Garrett and others.

That wasn’t the first time Tahir-Garrett had taken over a school. He was one of the activists who, in the mid-1980s, occupied the Colman School, which had been closed to make way for the expansion of Interstate 90. The group of activists camped out there for eight years without running water. The building now houses the Northwest African American Museum as well as affordable housing.

To Garrett’s son, K. Wyking Garrett, who was a kid at the time of the Colman School occupation and to a certain extent grew up there, the issue then and now is the same: elected representatives who fail to respond to community needs. “It’s ‘we the people,’ ” he said. “People have to take the actions to bring about a better community and a better society.”

Gossett, who helped lead the occupation of the Beacon Hill Elementary School that became El Centro de la Raza, doubts a takeover of the East Precinct would be as effective, since the school had been abandoned and boarded up a year before its occupation in 1972.

“I don’t think anything is going to be built out of taking over the police station,” he said, adding, “It makes more sense to figure out how Seattle could adopt the defund police philosophy that is occurring in some other cities, and demand that the center of that action begin to take place at that facility.”

Demonstrators gather in front of a makeshift memorial for people killed by law enforcement across the United States during protests in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood on June 9, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

But the history of the East Precinct itself points to the potential power of an effective occupation. The plan to build a precinct in the Central Area, the city’s historically Black neighborhood, had been met with community pushback since it was proposed in the 1970s. In 1981, after Seattle proposed placing it on a city-owned lot near 23rd Avenue and Yesler Way, a group of activists cut down the property’s prickly bramble bushes and occupied its abandoned fourplex to make clear that the area needed “houses — not jailhouses,” as The Seattle Times reported at the time. City officials abandoned the plan, and the East Precinct station opened in 1986 at its current location on Capitol Hill.

Now, the precinct has once again become a symbol in discussions about policing, power and protest.

“Part of it is working out the trauma and emotions and trying to exert power in the face of feeling like you have no power for that extended period of time, where people are allowed to brutalize you,” said Powell, the protester. “This in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone is about exerting some control over that power structure.”

The task of defining the protest area on Capitol Hill — both its physical boundaries and its ultimate purpose — is constant and fluid. But the area has quickly grown into an example of what many protesters are demanding: the defunding (or abolishment) of the Seattle Police Department, and, in a broader sense, a society without a militarized police force.

“From the takeover of Fort Lawton to the takeover of the Colman School, now NAAM [the Northwest African American Museum], there were legitimate grievances,” said state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, wife of the late Bob Santos, famous for his fierce fight against the gentrification of the Chinatown-International District. “This was not just about people intending to be outlaws. They were trying to make a political point. You see the parallel today.” 

In the case of El Centro, Maestas and others wanted to draw attention to the lack of housing and access to jobs for and racism toward the Latinx community and, according to Maestas, unresponsive city agencies.

At Fort Lawton in Magnolia, demonstrators, many from the United Indian People’s Council, took over the decommissioned military base to reclaim land stolen from its original inhabitants. But the action was also meant to highlight the marginalization of many “Urban Indians,” and the accompanying high unemployment and poverty rates, lack of housing and short life expectancies.

In a sense, “what we’re fighting for today, is the same thing we were fighting for then,” said Randy Lewis, who was part of the occupation at the time and is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. “There comes a time in every generation in which we have to stand up and say: ‘Stop. Just Stop. These people have got to live. This is all wrong,’ ” he said.

In 1970, a group of activists led by Bernie Whitebear took over the decommissioned Fort Lawton military base in Seattle to reclaim stolen land and to highlight the marginalization of many “Urban Indians.” (Cary Tolman/Seattle Post-Intelligencer via MOHAI)

Lewis, who was in his early 20s at the time of the Fort Lawton takeover, remembers police tear-gassing protesters then as well. When demonstrators were removed from the fort, the protest continued outside the gates, where a makeshift camp had grown, with medical aid, water, food, clothes and blankets provided to the protesters — a community similar to the one that has emerged on Capitol Hill. Then, as now, international media flocked to the encampment. “We lobbied, we fought for a portion of that land in the arenas of public opinion,” Lewis said. In the end, the group was able to secure 40 acres, on which they established the Daybreak Star Cultural Center.

But Gabe Galanda, a lawyer who works on tribal issues and is a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, resists comparisons between today’s activism and the Native land reclamation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which included actions that led to the establishment of the Daybreak Star Cultural Center. “That was addressing at least two centuries of Indigenous land displacement and dispossession,” he said. 

Even though the struggles of the Black and Indigenous communities were and are distinct, “people of color and Indigenous people have had to fight to claim space in the city ever since the first incorporation of the city,” said Coll Thrush, history professor at the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia. “Some of the city’s earliest ordinances explicitly forbade Indigenous people from entering the city. Ever since then Indigenous people and people of color have had to push really hard for public space or even private space in the city."

Community activist Nikkita Oliver believes the push is worth it. “There’s something very significant about reclaiming a space, or liberating a space for the people,” said the past mayoral candidate, who has been a near constant presence at the Seattle protest. From teach-ins to cultural performances and marches, she said, “there is a healing element in that space.”

In 1985, Earl Debnam, pictured here, and three other activists occupied the abandoned Colman School in the Central Area to claim the site and prevent its demolition. Debnam occupied the building for 8 years, until 1993, when a non-profit was formed to oversee the museum project. The Northwest African American Museum opened in the old Colman School building in 2008. (Ellen M. Banner/Seattle Post-Intelligencer via MOHAI)

Calls for the precinct to become a community center, said Oliver, are not an unreasonable ask. But, she said, “What goes in that building matters. That it’s not just another community center. We have community centers, but they don't necessarily meet the needs of the most impacted communities.”

Although Oliver supports the idea of the East Precinct as a center focused on public health and safety for the most impacted communities, she doesn’t want to lose sight of the demands that percolated when the protests started: defunding the police and investing in communities and social services instead.

As a young law student in 2013, Oliver joined a group of activists at the Central Area’s Horace Mann School, who had occupied the building in an attempt to raise awareness of the racial achievement gap in Seattle schools and emphasize the need for a Black youth center.

Since then, Oliver said, she hasn’t seen much change in the criminal justice and education systems. Today, she’s still fighting for the same thing, something that goes beyond a community center: systemic change.

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.