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January 18, 2021

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Abolish the police? Those who survived the chaos in Seattle aren’t so sure

Khan

Grant Hindsley / The New York Times

Faizel Khan, who is part of a lawsuit that says the city allowed occupying protesters to damage property and stifle revenue in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, at Cafe Argento, his coffee shop, July 23, 2020. For 23 days in June, about six blocks in the neighborhood were claimed by left-wing demonstrators and declared police-free. A group of business owners’ lawsuit claims the city abandoned them.

SEATTLE — Faizel Khan was being told by the news media and his own mayor that the protests in his hometown were peaceful, with “a block party atmosphere.”

But that was not what he saw through the windows of his Seattle coffee shop. He saw encampments overtaking the sidewalks. He saw roving bands of masked protesters smashing windows and looting.

Young white men wielding guns would harangue customers as well as Khan, a gay man of Middle Eastern descent who moved here from Texas so he could more comfortably be out. To get into his coffee shop, he sometimes had to seek the permission of self-appointed armed guards to cross a border they had erected.

“They barricaded us all in here,” Khan said. “And they were sitting in lawn chairs with guns.”

For 23 days in June, about six blocks in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood were claimed by left-wing demonstrators and declared police-free. Protesters hailed it as liberation — from police oppression, from white supremacy — and a catalyst for a national movement.

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, the Black Lives Matter movement is calling to defund the police, arguing that the criminal justice system is inherently racist.

Leaders in many progressive cities are listening. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a plan to shift $1 billion out of the police budget. The Minneapolis City Council is pitching a major reduction, and the Seattle City Council is pushing for a 50% cut to Police Department funding. (The mayor said that plan goes too far.)

Some even call for “abolishing the police” altogether and closing down precincts, which is what happened in Seattle.

That has left small-business owners as lonely voices in progressive areas, arguing that police officers are necessary and that cities cannot function without a robust public safety presence. In Minneapolis, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, many of those business owners consider themselves progressive, and in interviews they express support for the Black Lives Matter movement. But they also worry that their businesses, already debilitated by the coronavirus pandemic, will struggle to survive if police departments and city governments cannot protect them.

On Capitol Hill, business crashed as the Seattle police refused to respond to calls to the area. Officers did not retake the region until July 1, after four shootings, including two fatal ones.

Now a group of local businesses owners — including a locksmith, the owner of a tattoo parlor, a mechanic, the owners of a Mexican restaurant and Khan — is suing the city. The lawsuit claims that “Seattle’s unprecedented decision to abandon and close off an entire city neighborhood, leaving it unchecked by the police, unserved by fire and emergency health services, and inaccessible to the public” resulted in enormous property damage and lost revenue.

The Seattle lawsuit — and interviews with shop owners in cities like Portland and Minneapolis — underscores a key question: Can businesses still rely on local governments, which are now rethinking the role of the police, to keep them safe? The issue is especially tense in Seattle, where the city government not only permitted the establishment of a police-free zone, but provided infrastructure like concrete barriers and portable toilets to sustain it.

The economic losses that businesses suffered during the recent tumult are significant: One community relief fund in Minneapolis, where early protests included vandalism and arson, has raised $9 million for businesses along the Lake Street corridor, a largely Latino and East African business district. “We asked the small businesses what they needed to cover the damage that insurance wasn’t paying, and the gap was around $200 million,” said Allison Sharkey, the executive director of the Lake Street Council, which is organizing the fund. Her own office, between a crafts market and a Native American support center, was burned down in the protests.

Some small businesses have resorted to posting GoFundMe pleas for donations online.

The impact of the occupation on Cafe Argento, Khan’s coffee shop on Capitol Hill, has been devastating. Very few people braved the barricades set up by the armed occupiers to come in for his coffee and breakfast sandwiches. At two points, he and his workers felt scared and called 911. “They said they would not come into CHOP,” said Khan, referring to one of the names that protesters gave to the occupied Capitol Hill area. “It was lawless.”

But he considers himself lucky — and he was. Even weeks after the protests, blocks of his previously bustling neighborhood remained boarded up and covered in shattered glass. Many business owners are scared to speak out, Khan said, because of worries that they would be targeted further.

One mid-July morning in the neighborhood, workers in orange vests were mopping off the sidewalks and power-spraying graffiti off the sides of buildings. Two window repair guys said they had their hands full for weeks. Shattered street lamps were being unscrewed and replaced.

A confusing array of security teams wandered around, armed with handguns and rifles.

When a tall man in a trench coat and hiking boots walked over to question Khan, the man spread his coat open, revealing several pistols on harnesses around his chest and waist. He presented a badge on a lanyard that read “Black Lives Matter Community Patrol.”

His name is Rick Hearns and he identified himself as a longtime security guard and mover who is now a Black Lives Matter community guard, in charge of several others. Local merchants pay for his protection, he said as he handed out his business card. (Khan said he and his neighbors are now paying thousands of dollars a month for protection from Iconic Global, a Washington state-based private security contractor.)

Hearns has had bad experiences with the police in his own life. He says he wants police reform, but he was appalled by the violent tactics and rhetoric he witnessed during the occupation.

He blamed the destruction and looting on “opportunists,” but also said that much of the damage on Capitol Hill came from a distinct contingent of violent, armed white activists. “It’s antifa,” he said. “They don’t want to see the progress we’ve made. They want chaos.”

Many of the business owners on Capitol Hill agreed: Much of the violence they saw and the intimidation of their patrons came from a group these business owners identified as antifa, which they distinguished from the Black Lives Matter movement. “The idea of taking up the Black movement and turning it into a white occupation, it’s white privilege in its finest definition,” Khan said. “And that’s what they did.”

After President Donald Trump took aim at the governor of Washington state and Seattle’s mayor on June 11, Mayor Jenny Durkan defended the occupation on Twitter as “a peaceful expression of our community’s collective grief and their desire to build a better world,” she wrote, pointing to the “food trucks, spaghetti potlucks, teach-ins, and movies.”

The lawsuit by the small-business owners, filed by the firm Calfo Eakes on June 24, seizes on such language, pointing out that the city knew what was happening and provided material support for the occupation.

These days, storefronts in the neighborhood remain boarded up, covered in Black Lives Matter signs and graffiti. Demonstrators still hold evening protests, albeit smaller and quieter than before.

But the area is slowly going back to its old normal. The park and playing fields have been cleared, and police officers have returned to the streets. An apartment building that opened earlier this summer is finally attracting prospective tenants.

A spokeswoman for Durkan did not comment on the lawsuit but acknowledged frustrations from small businesses.

“Many who live and work in Capitol Hill and other parts of the city continue to witness daily protests that are rightly demanding an end to systemic racism,” she wrote. “In some circumstances, businesses and residents have faced property destruction in the last two months.”

She encouraged the businesses to file claims.