For a police-free zone, the CHOP sure has a lot of people in uniforms standing around with guns.

I noticed them the last few times I’ve walked through the Capitol Hill Organized Protest area, which is centered on the boarded-up, fenced-in East Precinct station that police left a few weeks ago. They’re mostly men, in blue or black uniforms or vests, pacing nonchalantly in front of various buildings or driving the side streets in white SUVs.

“Who are you with?” I asked one of them Monday.

“Keeping everything safe,” he said, motioning toward the buildings on the block. “It’s a private matter.”

On Monday morning some protesters and a Fox News reporter got into a shouting match, which was broken up by black-clad, gun-toting men who appeared to be officers. One’s vest read, vaguely, “Public Safety Officer.” The other was more grandiose: “Iconic Global Officer.”

If you’ve walked by some of the businesses in and around the CHOP and seen people in uniform with guns up on the roof, that was likely Iconic Global. As the Capitol Hill Seattle news site reported Monday, Iconic Global is a “high threat private protection” service for hire, from Auburn, that has deployed multiple armed men and women to the area at the request of local businesses.

Judging by photos on its website, it has up to a dozen uniformed security in the zone, who drive SUVs blandly labeled with a seal that says “Officer.” It also employs “plain clothes protection” — the photo for this shows three scarfed, stereotypical Seattle-looking people in flannel and a “Belltown Strong” sweatshirt.ADVERTISINGSkip AdSkip AdSkip Ad

Also known to be providing private security in and around Capitol Hill are firms called Homeland Patrol Division and Fortress Security. One told The Seattle Times they’ve been getting up to 200 calls a day from businesses there and downtown.

It’s part of the splintering of the city in both the coronavirus and protest eras, in which inequality may only be widening.

“Ferrari dealership has (3) armed security guards — pepper spray and AR15 weapons,” a police blotter item notes from one of the June protests on Capitol Hill.

“You talk to probably any business owner in the downtown core, they’ll tell you just straight up that Seattle police response time is not the best,’’ one private security manager told The Seattle Times, referring to property crime calls. “It’s slow if it isn’t fire, flood or blood.”

Well these days, in parts of Capitol Hill, the public cops don’t make it there fast even for the blood. A delayed police and emergency response has now been a part of both fatal shootings in and around the CHOP, which is trying to keep the police out. On Monday, when a 16-year-old was killed and a 14-year-old wounded, the victims were transported away and the crime scene disturbed by the time police got there, the police said. It isn’t known who shot the boys, but some protesters said they were being fired at, so someone inside CHOP fired back.

“We need to defend ourselves,” a CHOP protester told KIRO-7. “We need to retaliate. We need to exercise our Second Amendment right.”

The CHOP had failed as a police-free experiment a week or two ago. But now we’re seeing what fills that vacuum — namely, citizen militias and corporate hired guns, along with other armed people orbiting the outside.

It’s like a replay of the turn of the century law enforcement scene, where the cops were either corrupt or ineffectual, so militias and neighborhood groups defended their turf while businesses hired Pinkerton’s and other private guards. In the span of two weeks on Capitol Hill, we’ve time-traveled back a century.

Obviously the CHOP has got to end (it’s already too late). Even if the violence isn’t attributable to the protest zone, this situation where emergency crews can’t get to victims because police can’t get in to secure the scene is a travesty. The mayor and City Council members such as Kshama Sawant need to check their petty squabbling — “you resign, no you resign” — and figure a path forward before anybody else gets killed.

As for “Defund the Police,” that slogan doesn’t mean get rid of the police completely. It’s to cut their budget and demilitarize their roles while boosting social services. This is a rational goal, but we can already see one possible unintended outcome if the people of Seattle perceive that traditional police services are declining. Those with money will just hire their own “high threat private protection services.” They’re already doing it.

There’s a ton of work to be done reforming the police. But going back to the Pinkerton’s era has got to be one of worst ways to reduce inequality in a city already riven by it.Danny Westneat: [email protected]; Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region’s news, people and politics.