Seattle’s CHAZ: A Bastion of Change or Short-Lived Utopia?

Revolution is an idea. And in order to survive, ideas must be embodied across time and space. One such embodiment has come to fruition with remarkable gusto in Seattle amidst the protests raging across the US in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

Hundreds of protesters have taken over seven blocks in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood of Seattle, Washington, transforming it into the ‘Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone’, or ‘CHAZ’, with the aim to provide an example of how a community without formal policing can function.

Following several days of clashes between protesters in Seattle and law enforcement authorities (during which the officers deployed tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets), the local police vacated its East Precinct headquarters on June 8.

Protesters, who have been camping in the area for days, promptly stepped in to declare that “THIS SPACE IS NOW PROPERTY OF THE SEATTLE PEOPLE.”

There are currently no police officers in the zone, and some armed protesters are monitoring who enters and exits the place, even as all those in favour of the Black Lives Matter movement and against police brutalities are urged to join in.

Over the last week, CHAZ has not only been inaugurated as a “safe and peaceful place” where disgruntled Americans can channelise their frustrations towards creating constructive change, it has also assumed the character of a Harlem-esque locus of art, with speeches, concerts, and movie nights, which included an open-air screening of 13th, a documentary by Ava DuVernay exploring the history of racial inequality in America.

Animating with a zeal that is reminiscent of the Occupy movement from a few years ago, CHAZ contains umbrellas as makeshift shelters, portable toilets and restrooms, a small garden, a medic station for the handing out of masks and sanitisers, a “No Cop Co-op” for free food and other necessary supplies, a designated smoking area, and a series of shrines dedicated to the memory of George Floyd and other victims of extrajudicial violence.

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Nikkita Oliver, who ran for mayor of Seattle in 2017 and is one of the most prominent voices emanating from CHAZ, told Vanity Fair that “the beauty of what’s happening now [is]…there are so many leaders all over the city doing their own thing but aligning to the common values and goals, which is incredibly powerful”.

These values and goals include three main demands that protesters at CHAZ have been asking for (though they have also presented a more comprehensive list of potential measures in their blog) – defunding the police, investing in community healthcare services, and dropping criminal charges against protesters.

President Donald Trump has been swift in his condemnation of CHAZ, labelling the protesters “domestic terrorists” and urging the Seattle mayor, Jenny Durkan, as well as Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, to “take back your city” from those Trump believes are “ugly anarchists”.

Neither Durkan nor Inslee has acted in accordance with Trump’s instructions, with the former going so far as to say that the president’s partisan framing of the protesters is “simply not true” and that Trump should head “back to your bunker”.

In light of all this, an obvious question emerges: is CHAZ a genuine reflection of community policing that can be seen as a model of change, or is it a matter of time before this “autonomous zone” is dismantled and CHAZ becomes a short-lived manifestation of a pipe dream?

According to Durkan, who seems in no mood to jump to a rash decision about CHAZ, Trump cannot send in the military to evict the protesters and tear down the place, as such actions would be both “illegal and unconstitutional”. Durkan’s stance, as of now, is to listen to the community and cooperate with them to arrive at a new understanding of life in one of America’s most bustling localities.

Critics of CHAZ, including a blithe Fox News, have alternatively described it as the “196th country” in the world, a “burgeoning republic”, and a “refugee camp” that is a product of the so-called woke-ness of Seattle’s progressive residents who do not have a manifesto for the future. In reality, while CHAZ claims not to be a part of the US (a sign at one of its blockades reads, “You are now leaving the USA”), it is, of course, not an official nation and does not have any formal structure of governance. The most likely aim that CHAZ wants to culminate is the reformation of Seattle through a drastic overhauling of administrative functioning.

In the blog listing their blueprint for transformation, the brains behind CHAZ have suggested numerous moves that are ostensible outgrowths of common sense but have not yet been implemented by those in power, such as the public distribution of footage from body cameras fitted onto police officers (which are to be kept active at all times), releasing the names of officials involved in police brutality, bringing an end to “prosecutorial immunity”, eliminating youth and for-profit prisons, creating community-based localised anti-crime systems, among others.

What, however, makes things trickier are their more radical requirements, such as the total abolition of policing as well as the retrial of all people of colour (convicted of violent crimes) in front of a jury comprising their community peers.

The blanket nature of some of these demands has led to depictions of CHAZ as fetishisers of racist reconfiguration and far-left extremists indulging in a bit of “Communist cosplay in the streets”. The truth, though, maybe more complex, for CHAZ, notwithstanding some of its incredible ambitions, is a space for debate and discussion, not for ideology and imposition. The protesters, open to negotiation, do not claim to be the final authority for an incipient sovereign state and their assembly should not be seen as the building blocks for an armed secession.

Instead, what CHAZ stands for is the emergence of all the tensions and insecurities that have formed the undertows of American politics for years, rising to the unmissable surface of tangible activism, catalysed by the killing of George Floyd, and channelised through a spirit of compassion and cooperation that has been evident internationally, from the agitating streets of Hong Kong to the electrified ambience of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh.

This makes the prospect of CHAZ’s ultimate fate one of utmost importance, not just for the fervour gripping America, but also for the precedent it sets for dissent and discursive politics all across the globe.

So far, CHAZ has managed to retain its emancipatory spirit without plunging into chaos, extortion, or violence. If it is able to sustain itself across the next weeks and months without spilling over into the anarchy that its opponents claim is its destiny, it would not only have etched its well-deserved place in history, but also initiated constructive change towards a reimagined America, proving that revolution can still move from idea to reality.

Featured image credit: Reuters