Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday commended Seattle police chief for taking action to restore order after parts of the city were occupied by protestors for weeks in a so-called autonomous zone known as “Capitol Hill Organized Protest” zone, or CHOP.
His remarks come after Seattle police officers moved in to clear the area early on Wednesday in an effort to disperse the demonstrators in the Capitol Hill neighborhood who had occupied the area since June 26. The police officers were enforcing an executive order by Mayor Jenny Durkan issued on Wednesday, declaring the gathering in CHOP as an “unlawful assembly.”
“I commend Police Chief Carmen Best for her courage and leadership in restoring the rule of law in Seattle. For the past several weeks, the Capitol Hill area of Seattle was occupied by protesters who denied access to police and other law enforcement personnel,” Barr said in a statement.
He said that Best had “rightly committed” to further discussions about the distrust of law enforcement by members of the African-American community while ending violent defiance of the law. He noted that the autonomous zone had become “a haven for violent crime,” citing shootings that took place in and around the zone, which had resulted in the deaths of two teenagers.
“The people of Seattle should be grateful to Chief Best and her Department for their professional and steadfast defense of the rule of law,” Barr said. “The message of today’s action is simple but significant: the Constitution protects the right to speak and assemble freely, but it provides no right to commit violence or defy the law, and such conduct has no place in a free society governed by law.”
In a statement on Wednesday, Best said although she supports the peaceful demonstrations and call for meaningful change following the death of George Floyd, CHOP had become a “lawless and brutal” zone.
“Four shootings—two fatal—robberies, assaults, violence, and countless property crimes have occurred in this several block area,” Best said. “[E]nough is enough.”
According to statistics from the department, 65 criminal incidents took place and were reported to authorities in the area from June 8 to June 30. That was an increase from 37 in the previous year. Meanwhile, response times to crime reports in the CHOP soared in recent weeks because occupiers repeatedly blocked police officers from entering.
The police operation to vacate the area is still ongoing on Wednesday afternoon. The police department said on social media that they had so far made 32 arrests for failure to disperse, obstruction, assault, and unlawful weapon possession. Officers have also issued a number of dispersal orders since the morning and are continuing to ask groups and individuals to leave the area.
Barr was previously asked in an interview with Fox News whether the federal government had a responsibility to intervene in restoring order in CHOP. The attorney general said that in the first instance, the local and state officials have the responsibility to protect its citizens, but he added that “at the end of the day, the federal government does have a responsibility to make sure citizens are not deprived of their federal rights,” without disclosing any specific plans about what they were going to do about the area.
The attorney general has said that he understands the concerns expressed by protesters about police misconduct and injustices of the criminal justice system and is taking steps to address those issues. But, he has repeatedly warned about extremist agitators who have “hijacked” the protests to pursue their own agendas.
“We have evidence that Antifa and other similar extremist groups, as well as actors of a variety of different political persuasions, have been involved in instigating and participating in the violent activity,” he said in a previous press conference. “We are also seeing foreign actors playing all sides to exacerbate the violence.”
The death of Floyd, a black man who died while in Minneapolis police custody, has ignited widespread outrage triggering protests and riots across the country.
Zachary Stieber contributed to this report.