Derrek Jones rolled out of his tent Friday morning at the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest – or CHOP – to find a yoga class for people of color underway in the park. He joined for some stretching before heading to a thousands-strong Juneteenth march and rally in the historically black Central District.
Jones, who is black and lives on predominantly white Whidbey Island, 45 miles north of Seattle, has been in the city since June 5 protesting police violence.
“That was the biggest Juneteenth I’ve ever had,” he said.
As those celebrations continued after dark and mixed with general Friday-night revelry and end of school year celebrations, a volatile mixture of fireworks, alcohol and firearms triggered violence.
Early Saturday morning, two men suffered gunshot wounds. A 19-year-old died and the other, age unknown, is in critical condition in the intensive care unit at Harborview Medical Center, hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg confirmed to The Washington Post.
The incident has sparked a debate about whether the six-block protest, which has occupied the streets around an abandoned Seattle police precinct since June 8, can manage public safety concerns such as an active shooter situation and how police can respond to the area formerly named “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” or CHAZ.
Protesters cordoned the area off following police vacating the precinct in Capitol Hill after a week of clashes with demonstrators, who threw objects at officers, protesting in light of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In response, police used tear gas and other crowd control measures.
The organizers of the protest have demanded city officials abolish the police department, investigate allegations of police brutality and pay reparations to victims of violence by police.
The occupants have remained mostly peaceful in the past two weeks.
But the zone has become a boogeyman for conservatives, including President Donald Trump, who believes it is dangerous and has threatened to “take it back” from the protesters.
Law enforcement has generally steered clear of the area.
But on Saturday, responding to the shooting, a phalanx of armed police officers entered the zone.
Seattle Police Department said in a statement officers initially had trouble getting to the scene of the shooting because they “were met by a violent crowd that prevented officers safe access to the victims.” The police officers’ arrival into the zone, filmed by people occupying it, didn’t appear to show violence.
Police said they are searching for the shooter or shooters and had no description or motive to share as of Saturday morning. Investigators gathered shell casings from the scene Saturday.
According to observers, starting at 11 p.m. Friday, cars began parking outside the barricades bordering the zone at 10th and Pine streets, eventually numbering about 20 vehicles. The atmosphere was festive at first, with fireworks set off to celebrate high school and college graduations, and eventually, firearms were discharged into the air, several recounted.
Jones recalls trying to discourage that behavior with at least one reveler who had a concealed weapon and claimed knowledge of gun safety practices.
“I encountered a younger kid who had a gun and wanted to let his friend shoot it off as a celebration,” Jones said. “I was telling him this can’t be that type of environment, we’re trying to protest. Actively using guns in any form or fashion is going to bring wants and desires for the cops to come back.”
After 2 a.m., the festivities turned violent. One eyewitness described an argument that escalated into a fight and resulted in 10 gunshots. The suspects fled the scene while volunteer medics, who were stationed on the same corner, rushed to treat the victims. Upward of 20 “sentinels,” who provide volunteer security to the police-free protest zone, also responded to the scene.
“Arguments happen in the crowd all the time, even during celebrations. But gunshots change everything,” said a sentinel on-site at the time who gave his name only as Cat, who was carrying two knives visibly Saturday. “It goes from some people are arguing and some people are celebrating to everybody is running.”
Volunteers transported both victims to the nearby University of Washington-affiliated trauma center. The hospital confirmed that the two men arrived about 25 minutes apart in private vehicles.
The city said 9-1-1 calls placed about a half-hour apart indicated the men were shot a block away from each other.
Omari Salisbury, a citizen journalist for Converge Media, live-streamed on Facebook as the officers approached and announced they were coming to extract a shooting victim. The crowd shouted back: “He’s already gone.” A Seattle Fire Department ambulance was stationed one block away while medics prepared to transport the victims.
Officers, some with riot shields and others with guns drawn, seemed to search the area as protesters chanted “hands up, don’t shoot” and followed the roving patrol.
In bodycam footage later released by police of the same exchange, one protester becomes visibly upset by the presence of officers, grabbing his head with his hands, and shouting “Why are guns here?”
Police eventually retreated to their patrol cars. All but one drove away, which a smaller group of protesters converged on and appeared to kick and hit the vehicle, which then drove off.
“Violence has now besieged the area known as CHOP,” Seattle Police Officers Guild President Michael Solan told Fox News on Saturday. “It is no longer the summer of love, it is the summer of chaos.”
Republicans seized on the shooting, calling for Mayor Jenny Durkan, a Democrat, to disband the zone.
“Last night, radical left-wing [policies] and [Durkan] complete lack of leadership resulted in a young teenager dead and another injured,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., tweeted. “First responders attempted to render aid after a deadly shooting in the #CHAZ, but were met by a violent mob and forced to retreat.”
Durkan didn’t immediately respond to The Post’s request for comment.
President Trump and other conservatives, without proof, have said the zone is dangerous and lawless.
“Take back your city NOW,” Trump tweeted at Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, and Durkan last week. “If you don’t do it, I will. This is not a game. These ugly Anarchists must be stooped IMMEDIATELY. MOVE FAST!” He also suggested “domestic terrorists” organized the occupation.
Trump said Saturday at his Tulsa rally that he was waiting for Inslee to call him. “I would love to do it,” he said of bringing in federal forces to invade the protest zone. “It’ll take less than an hour, and it will be over with and you’ll have your city back.”
Durkan pushed back against Trump’s earlier attacks, saying that they were baseless as the autonomous zone had been mostly peaceful. In a news conference last week, Durkan mentioned occupants holding potlucks, displaying Black Lives Matter art and screening movies.
“Lawfully gathering and expressing First Amendment rights, demanding we do better as a society, and providing true equity for communities of color is not terrorism,” she said. “It is patriotism.”
In the afternoon following the shooting, relatives of the teenage victim, arrived at the scene with flowers and candles, erecting up a memorial to “Lorenzo” or “Lil Renz.”
A half block away, an artist put the finishing spray paint touches on a mural that reads LOVE emblazoned with a heart. On the opposite end of the park from where the shooting occurred, a guerrilla garden cultivated by and for BIPOC, or those who are black, indigenous or people of color, continued to grow with handmade signs heralding famous black agriculturalists and memorializing victims of police shootings. A volunteer from Bakersfield, Calif. turned the compost heap, unaware there had been a shooting at all.
However, there was an armed sentinel patrolling in broad daylight Saturday with an AR-15, which was previously uncommon in the CHOP.
Jones said the response by the protesters, sentinels and medics was an improvement over police action, which could have further escalated the situation.
“Last night was a complete success story [in dealing] with an active shooter,” Jones said. “Usually in an active shooter situation when police are involved, they let the shooter run out of bullets and then they get in there. That did not happen here. As soon as there were shots fired, people got actively involved, and there was a medical team on-site immediately. We didn’t need sirens and more guns to get the job done.”
(c) 2020, The Washington Post · Gregory Scruggs, Meryl Kornfield