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The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone and the American Uprising

J. W. Barlament is an author, blogger, and researcher of political, philosophical, and religious issues.

Introduction

The uprising, perhaps unsurprisingly, has started in Seattle.

For week over a week as of the time of this writing, protests related to the death of George Floyd have been held in hundreds of cities in all 50 states and several foreign countries. Many have been entirely peaceful. Others have been marred by rampant police brutality. Others still have included looting by a whole host of alleged perpetrators. The defiance of protestors against the police had been gaining steadily ever since the protests began, but the night of June 8th marked a sudden and significant escalation. Seattle police abandoned their East Precinct building, with rumors circulating that they expected protestors to burn it down. Instead, protestors chose to band together and occupy both the precinct building and the surrounding streets.

The Story So Far

The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ for short, was established on the night of June 8th. For several days beforehand, Seattle had been a hotbed of police brutality, with some of the most harrowing footage of crackdowns and abuse coming out of Seattle streets. All throughout the day of June 8th, cellphone footage coming out of the city showed police emptying out and boarding up their East Precinct building. There were reports that they were preparing for a fire – either hoping the protestors would start one or planning to start one themselves to frame the protestors for. Later on, the police abandoned the area entirely, but when night fell, there were no blazes to be seen. Instead, protestors chose to surround and protect the precinct, and as the night progressed, barricades, comradery and autonomy followed.

The CHAZ, in the few days since its inception, has gone on to establish itself as a long-term autonomous zone, rather than just a one-night demonstration. For the days of June 9th and 10th, basic necessities and public utilities were still readily accessible to the residents of the CHAZ, and protestors had made amenities to open up their barricades for garbage disposal and fire department services. On June 10th, speakers at a livestreamed CHAZ community assembly revealed that principal organizers had been in contact with the mayor’s office and the fire department, indicating both serious recognition from and genuine cooperation with established authorities. Also on June 10th, some of the protestors from the autonomous zone (and possibly allies from elsewhere in Seattle) marched on and briefly occupied city hall to demand the resignation of the mayor and the defunding of the police, as well as reportedly expanding the borders of the autonomous zone, showing the protestors’ continued strength. The situation is developing by the day, but as of this writing, it seems the organizers of the CHAZ are in it for the long haul.

map of the CHAZ on the night of June 8th

map of the CHAZ on the night of June 8th

New Developments & Speculations

Naturally, such a radical development has led to lots of questions, and it’s been hard for people to separate fact from fiction over the past few days. The livestreamed CHAZ assembly on the 10th shined some light on the inner workings of the area. Assemblies, open to all in the area, seemed to be a daily occurrence in the CHAZ, complete with speeches, Q&A sessions, impromptu community “think tanks”, general information, and more. A couple hours of tuning in to this revealed startling amounts of both organization and disagreement. The CHAZ seems to operate with a small group of self-appointed leaders making the final calls, and although these leaders try to stay accountable to the community, they regularly receive criticism for unaccountability. One of these leaders, a local rapper and activist named Raz Simone, is of particular interest. A video surfaced of him walking around with a gun, harassing graffiti artists, identifying himself as the new police, which obviously caused quite the stir. Later reports from CHAZ residents, however, described him as more of an activist who briefly lost his cool than the sort of permanent warlord that social media painted him as. The truth behind the Raz Simone situation remains hazy, but what is clear is that his influence is limited and very much disputed within the CHAZ.

The area maintains a decidedly autonomous, but not at all sovereign, attitude. The aforementioned communications with local officials show that the leaders of the CHAZ aren’t at all trying to assert full independence. Rather, they seem to be using their control of the area as leverage to have their demands met by the city. Some people called for the area to be turned into a non-autonomous community center, using their very public activism to lobby city officials, somewhat like what happened with Manhattan’s High Line Park. On June 11th, police were even allowed into the CHAZ to visit and inspect their abandoned precinct building, although they didn’t stay in the area for long. Thus, it can be said that the CHAZ is less of an independent commune than most people seem to think. Despite this, speeches at the CHAZ assembly included several denunciations of capitalism — capitalism even being mentioned more than Black Lives Matter. The area has even attracted its own miniature internationalists, housing activists from at least as far away as Wisconsin. From this evidence, as well as the widespread communal attitude of the CHAZ, we can understand this phenomenon as an evolution of racial and police brutality protests into a more broadly and boldly anti-capitalist struggle.

a sign on a CHAZ barricade, referencing Northern Ireland's Free Derry

a sign on a CHAZ barricade, referencing Northern Ireland's Free Derry

The Future of the CHAZ and the George Floyd Protests

In a city routinely marred by police brutality, the CHAZ can serve as a case study for what those in power will do when the people seriously challenge them. Since the creation of the CHAZ, Seattle PD has largely stayed peaceful and city government has been pushing for peaceful integration of the area back into the city. The response of the Seattle city government has been one of integration; attempting to reincorporate the CHAZ into the city so the protestors lay down their arms and the world doesn’t get another round of footage of government crackdowns and police brutality. The only alternative to reintegration, of course, is a forceful retaking of the area, which will clearly lead to a massive escalation of violence. It is clear, however, that Seattle isn’t going to let the CHAZ continue to survive and thrive uninterrupted. In the evening of June 11th, as this is being written, reports have started trickling in that police are trying to secretly sneak their way into the CHAZ. The future, of course, will answer all questions, but the point here is that what happens to the CHAZ may very well set the tone for the protests to come.

If the people of the CHAZ decide to take the liberal approach — cooperating with city officials and compromising to make modest improvements to people’s lives — then it will set a precedent that protests can be quelled with reforms. Now, of course, reforms haven’t done much of anything to solve any systemic issues in this country, so the people of the CHAZ could also put their anti-capitalist rhetoric into action and take the leftist approach. This would involve an outright refusal to cooperate with city officials and a hardline insistence that their demands — a lengthy list of ambitious policies, available in the sources below, that would greatly affect all of Seattle — be met. The liberal approach would be the peaceful option, and it could help deescalate the situation and ensure that no one else gets hurt in the struggle in Seattle. However, time and time again, reform has proven ineffective in bringing about actual equality in America. If the CHAZ becomes a hardline leftist project, unwilling to compromise or return to normalcy, then the friendly demeanor of the city will likely switch to violent repression in the blink of an eye. Basically, the conundrum is this; the CHAZ can be used as a bargaining chip for reform, even though this reform won’t solve any systemic issues, or the CHAZ can become the heart of hardline civil disobedience, even though this would invite violent repression.

Right now, all eyes are on the CHAZ. No other city — not even Minneapolis, D.C. or NYC — is making as many headlines as Seattle. The way this conflict plays out will have a profound impact on the rest of the George Floyd protests. Will CHAZ protestors promote reform, reconciliation, and a sole focus on racial injustice? Or will the CHAZ become a center of insurrection or a graveyard of martyrs for a far broader anti-capitalist cause? The protestors themselves seem split. In their livestream, some stayed strictly realistic, pointing out that they hadn’t even taken the precinct building and were woefully unprepared for an invasion by the Seattle PD. Others, meanwhile, hailed the CHAZ as a starting point from which to occupy all of Seattle and inspire autonomous zones as far away as the capitol. The future is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that the outcome of the CHAZ experiment will have a major impact on the rest of the protests.

The people are angry. If they see footage of merciless police and SWAT teams turning a peaceful commune into a warzone, that anger isn’t going anywhere. On the other hand, if they see peaceful protestors working hand-in-hand with listening officials, they might be convinced that strongarming their oppressors is the only way to bring about any actual change. Either way, the CHAZ marks an escalation in the protests, but whether that escalation inspires peaceful efforts or revolutionary fervor is up to both the protestors and the police of Seattle. Expect the American unrest to reach a turning point within a week or so. A spirit of reform and reconciliation can be forged. A spirit of bold disobedience and civil strongarming can be formed. Or, perhaps unlikely but entirely possibly, a spirit of hardline anti-capitalism and deviance against systemic oppression can be forged. No matter what happens, the future of the movement will be decided in Seattle.

map of the CHAZ on the night of June 10th

map of the CHAZ on the night of June 10th

Sources

https://www.facebook.com/nwartstream/videos/1108824466151161/

https://medium.com/@seattleblmanon3/the-demands-of-the-collective-black-voices-at-free-capitol-hill-to-the-government-of-seattle-ddaee51d3e47

https://townhall.com/tipsheet/juliorosas/2020/06/10/seattles-approach-to-protesters-creating-autonomous-zone-at-abandoned-police-station-appeasement-n2570377

https://www.capitolhillseattle.com/2020/06/sawant-and-protesters-briefly-occupy-seattle-city-hall-as-capitol-hill-autonomous-zone-grows/

https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2020/06/10/43884077/the-future-of-capitol-hills-new-autonomous-zone-is-predictable

https://heavy.com/news/2020/06/capitol-hill-autonomous-zone-chaz/

https://thehill.com/changing-america/respect/equality/502129-seattle-protesters-take-city-hall-declare-police-free

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2020 JW Barlament