The Seattle Police Department retracted a claim late Thursday that demonstrators in Seattle were allegedly demanding protection money from local businesses in an area that has become known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or “CHAZ.”
But Fox News, which had promoted the accusation, is still pushing it anyway — with or without the police department.
“That has not happened affirmatively,” Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said Thursday afternoon. The Seattle Times reports that Carmen explained that these claims were based on anecdotal reports including in social and news media. “We haven't had any formal reports of this occurring.”
The Seattle Times also traced the claim to an article written on the right-wing site The Post Millennial, written by Ari Hoffman, who ran unsuccessfully for the Seattle City Council in 2019: “Hoffman said his sources were ‘rock solid’ and that he had first heard of the alleged extortion on conservative talk radio station AM 770 KTTH.”
The area has become a center of national attention this week, after police boarded up and abandoned the East Precinct building near City Hall, which had become the center of a protest encampment as part of the ongoing nationwide demonstrations against police brutality.
The Seattle Times and The Stranger report on an atmosphere in the community that is half-protest and half-street fair, with an air of uncertainty about what exactly is supposed to happen next. (The New York Times also reports that the CHAZ is operating “with the tacit blessing of the city,” noting that the city’s fire chief has worked with demonstrators to set up portable toilets and sanitation services.)
On Wednesday, however, Assistant Police Chief Deanna Nollette claimed at a press briefing, “We’ve heard, anecdotally, reports of citizens and businesses being asked to pay a fee to operate within this area. This is the crime of extortion,” and she urged anyone subjected to this treatment to call 911. Fox News picked up the claim.
Journalists working for both The Seattle Times and the local Fox-owned TV station, however, received denials from local business leaders that any such threatening activity was going on, and the Times reports that restaurant owners say business is going well.
In his article for The Post Millennial, Hoffman sourced his claim to two police officers, currently stationed outside the CHAZ/East Precinct zone, who remained anonymous:
Police officers were stationed outside of the West Precinct on Wednesday, and two of them provided comment to The Post Millennial under the agreement that we conceal their identities.
"Antifa are extorting money and businesses in the Capital Hill Zone for protection money," said one of the officers who was previously stationed at the East Precinct.
"Those running this Capital Hill Zone are employing stop and frisk to anyone who walks through, and shaking down businesses for $500 for protection," added another officer.
Even with such thin sourcing, followed by outright denials from local businesses and then a walk-back by the police department itself, Fox News is continuing to push this allegation at a national level.
On Thursday’s edition of The Ingraham Angle, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik said CHAZ organizers were “threatening” and “extorting.” “This is a criminal haven already, and it's something that has to be addressed,” Kerik declared.
At the end of the interview, host Laura Ingraham added: “This is a political movement, and now it's turning into an extortion racket and a continuing criminal enterprise.”
And then on Fox’s nightly “news”-side coverage, correspondent Trace Gallagher continued to state that police were making this claim. Appearing on Fox News @ Night with Shannon Bream, Gallagher said police were “getting complaints about protesters inside the zone frisking residents and forcing business owners to pay protection money to armed guards,” among other “Lord of the Flies-type enforcement” going on in the neighborhood.
Friday morning on Fox & Friends, as part of extensive coverage of the CHAZ in the show’s opening block, correspondent Ashley Strohmier noted that “officials also say business in that autonomous zone are reportedly being asked to pay a fee to operate — which is considered extortion.”
Co-host Steve Doocy did at that point mention the police chief’s retraction, though he seemed to express skepticism that she was right.
Strohmier appeared again later on the show and said: “And there were rumors that occupiers were extorting businesses in that autonomous zone, but police retracted that claim and says that that’s no longer the case.”
The show also hosted Ari Hoffman — the original pusher of this claim — to discuss the overall situation. And while he was full of criticism about the mayor and the CHAZ participants, the particular topic of business extortion just never came up at all.
Then on America’s Newsroom, the network ran an update on the Seattle situation that included a chyron: “Police: ‘Autonomous Zone’ Has Armed Guards, Businesses Threatened With Extortion,” though Fox News correspondent Dan Springer did not repeat the charge verbally during the segment.
Co-anchor Sandra Smith then discussed the story with Fox News Radio host Guy Benson, who decried “rumors, disputed, about extortion of businesses.”