SEATTLE – Following days of violent confrontations with protesters, police in Seattle have largely withdrawn from part of a neighborhood where protesters have created a festival-like scene that has President Donald Trump fuming.
Trump taunted Gov. Jay Inslee and Mayor Jenny Durkan about the situation on Twitter and said the city had been taken over by “anarchists." “Take back your city NOW. If you don’t do it, I will,” Trump tweeted.
The president continued his complaints in a Thursday interview with the Fox News Channel. “If we have to go in, we’re going to go in," Trump said. "These people are not going to occupy a major portion of a great city.”
The “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” stretches over a couple city blocks and sprung up after police on Monday removed barricades near the East Precinct and basically abandoned the structure after officers used tear gas, pepper spray and flash bangs over the weekend to disperse demonstrators they said were assaulting them with projectiles.
The president has sparred before with Inslee and Durkan — both liberal Democrats. Inslee previously sought his party's presidential nomination.
Inslee tweeted Thursday that state officials will not allow threats of military violence from the White House. “The U.S. military serves to protect Americans, not the fragility of an insecure president,” he tweeted.
The zone set up by protesters stretches a portion of Capitol Hill, where dozens of people show up to listen to speakers calling for police reform, racial justice and compensation for Native groups on whose land the city of Seattle was founded.
Signs proclaim “You are entering free Capitol Hill” and “No cop co-op” along sidewalks where people sell water and other wares. On Thursday, speakers used a microphone to discuss their demands and how to address the police presence after they visited the precinct during the day. Down the street, artists continued painting a block-long “Black Lives Matter” mural on the street.
“The people that you see here have all come together because we see injustice in our system and we want to be part of the solution," said Mark Henry Jr. of Black Lives Matter.
Henry said Trump's rant about the gathering was unfounded. “Donald Trump can call us a terrorist if he likes to, but what you see out here is people coming together and loving each other,” he said.
Over the weekend, police were sharply criticized by City Council members and other elected leaders. Since officers dialed back their tactics, the demonstrations have largely been peaceful.
Police officials say they are looking to reopen the precinct. At a news conference Wednesday, Assistant Chief Deanna Nollette said the barriers were removed from the front of the building after it became a flashpoint between officers and protesters.
Nollette said the precinct has been boarded up because of credible threats that it would be vandalized or burned. She offered no details about the threats and no fires have been reported at the site.
She said protesters have set up their own barricades, which are intimidating some residents.
Police Chief Carmen Best posted a video message to officers Thursday in which she said the decision to leave the Capitol Hill precinct wasn’t hers and she was angry about it. She also reiterated that police had been harassed and assaulted during protests.
“Ultimately, the city had other plans for the building and relented to severe public pressure,” Best said.
At a Thursday news conference neither Best nor Durkan made it clear who decided that police should leave the precinct.
Durkan said regarding Trump's statements about Seattle that one of the things the president will never understand is that listening to community is not a weakness, but a strength.
“A real leader would see nationwide protest, the grief in so many communities of color, particularly our black communities, and the call to be an anti-racist society, as an opportunity for America. An opportunity to build a better nation,” she said.
Protesters have said they want to see the precinct turned into a community center or used for purposes other than law enforcement.
City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant disputed accounts of violence or intimidation by protesters within the area on Capitol Hill and said it was more like a street fair with political discussions and a drum circle.
"The right wing has been spreading rumors that there is some sort of lawlessness and crime taking place at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, but it is exactly the opposite of that,” said Sawant, a socialist and a critic of Durkan and the police.
Sawant said she wants the precinct to be "converted into a public resource that will actually be helpful to society.”
Associated Press writer Lisa Baumann contributed from Seattle.