The rise and fall of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone
- March 11, 2021
Anarchism & Autonomy
The CHAZ was imperfect, but we can learn from its mistakes to inform our response to the catastrophes created by capitalism and the state looming on the horizon.
Sign at the entrance of the CHAZ. Seattle, Washington / USA – June 10, 2020. VDB Photos / Shutterstock.com
The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, colloquially known as the “CHAZ,” was an occupation that took place between June 8 and July 1 of 2020 in Seattle, Washington during the midst of mass protests against the police killing of George Floyd. On July 1, the Seattle Police Department retook the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), giving rise to the following account:
We awoke in the early hours to the sounds of police sirens. We had all grown used to this sound over the past five weeks. This time around, the sirens were not met with the voices of thousands, but, instead, they were met with what felt like a whisper, the final words of someone close to death. We knew this day was slowly approaching as we saw the barriers removed and car traffic slowly began to flow through the streets that we saw clouded in tear gas for weeks. Our tents and, for some, all their possessions were torn apart and thrown into garbage trucks by police in riot gear, backed up by armored vehicles.
The supposed “leaders” who had negotiated on our behalf with the city, were nowhere to be found as we were left to fend for ourselves against the brutal fist of the State. We were left on our own before, at the hands of these “leaders,” during the weeks of protests leading up to the creation of this space, so why should we be surprised?
News crews, who were all too comfortable being stenographers for the State, once again followed behind the police, eagerly documenting the brutalization of common people, with a policestate-apologist narrative. A collective mood of numbness was felt throughout those who woke up that morning as we drifted our tired, lonely souls out of Cal Anderson Park and into the arms of an indifferent world that had already quickly reconciled with the rule of the city.
The following account is made up from primary sources of the events and the political environment leading up to the CHAZ. This includes first-hand accounts and conclusions from members of our group, the Cooperative Assembly of Cascadia (CAC), who were active participants in this historic event.
The Cooperative Assembly of Cascadia is a local, Seattle-based group committed to direct democracy through neighborhood assemblies, mutual aid and education at the most fundamental levels of communities. Our organization is not just a reaction to, or a critique of the system; we work to reconstruct an alternative political, social and economic system, starting with ourselves. Our observations and analysis of the CHAZ come from unique individuals yet are conveyed here by consensus. In bringing them together, we aim to diagnose the contradictions inherent to the CHAZ and suggest a praxis that encourages the success of future movements which will no doubt arise again.
The Rise of the CHAZ
The CHAZ was born out of the George Floyd uprising. While the fire of the rebellion was fueled by now-infamous murders of Black Americans, it was also fanned by other problems such as the COVID-19 pandemic, subsequent lockdowns and the unwillingness of government powers to properly care for its citizens, all which caused mass unemployment and unrest. When the footage of George Floyd’s murder arrived on May 25, people all over the world witnessed it without the distractions of long hours at work, school, or even leisure activities.
Four days after George Floyd was murdered, small protests sprung up around Seattle. On the evening of May 29, over 500 people marched downtown. Demonstrators brandished no weapons, nor destroyed any property, but they were still swiftly kettled by the Seattle Police Department (SPD) who attacked them with tear gas, mace and batons.
Approximately 10,000 people arrived at the protest the next day. When the crowd reached its peak, people were intently listening to speeches by Black community leaders. Yet while they listened, explosions sounded around the edges of the crowd. The SPD encircled them, firing tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and mace. Enraged by the police’s use of force, people lobbed the canisters back at the police and formed barriers to block their onslaught. As everyone tried to figure out what was happening, Black and brown protesters began calling “white bodies to the front.”
Protesters held their ground building barricades out of construction and road equipment. Cop cruisers were set on fire and iconic corporate businesses were looted. Street medics came prepared with water and other solutions for flushing out peoples’ burning eyes. In these early days, everyone was uncertain about how dangerous COVID-19 would be at these protests, but many were unwilling to sit it out.
The violence of the police during the first two days quickly radicalized many of the protesters. Cries to defund and abolish the police dominated the chants heard in the streets. Sustained protests began outside of the East Police Precinct. Each day, thousands of people assembled in the streets of the Capitol Hill area, attempting to approach the precinct. Protesters adopted tactics from Hong Kong, France, Chile and elsewhere, covering the front lines with umbrellas and using lasers to subvert law enforcement who were snapping photos. Road cones and water were used to smother and douse tear gas canisters.
Despite the efforts from police, the National Guard, and infiltrators, protesters held their ground at the East Precinct. Eventually, the police station was encompassed by demonstrators, forcing the exhausted officers to abandon the building. To cover their exit, the cops used their police scanners to fabricate threats of imminent violence from fascist groups such as the Proud Boys. After these threats were discovered to be false, masses of people returned to the East Precinct and the area was dubbed the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone”.
Following the declaration of the CHAZ, protesters and organizers almost immediately began inhabiting and laying the foundations of the newly freed space. To sustain those devoting their time and energy around the clock at the CHAZ, people set up multiple donation-based hubs. These hubs provided various supplies to everyone in attendance. Restaurants in the area also donated meals throughout the day, supplementing the many groups or individuals dispensing snacks and water.
Couches and chairs were set up on the street to create the “Decolonization Cafe,” a place to promote casual conversations and a free exchange of ideas. This important resource gave participants in the CHAZ a structured space where they could open new dialogues with one another. Conversations revolved not only around the goals of the CHAZ and the movement for Black liberation, but also around people supporting each other as they talked about their own lives and got to know their neighbors. Participants dug a garden on the grassy knoll of Cal Anderson park. In the middle of the city, all people were welcome to set up tents and cultivate permaculture.
Assemblies at the CHAZ
As the daily activities of the CHAZ grew, so did the need for coordination. As events initially began in a fragmented and disintegrated fashion, a primary goal was to ensure that people in the CHAZ were accountable to each other and to create a lasting structure that could transcend beyond the space.
Within the CHAZ, we made attempts to develop an assembly structure similar to that of the Occupy Movement. Indeed, the idea to occupy the abandoned space was also partly-inspired by Occupy Wall Street. Occupations of this sort are not uncommon, especially locally in the Pacific Northwest. Local examples include the Fort Lawton occupation in 1970 by Indigenous activists, the El Centro de la Raza occupation in 1972 by the Chicano movement, as well as anarchist communes of the Puget Sound in the late 1800s. This lineage notably includes the global justice movement, which reached its peak in Seattle at the 1999 WTO protests.
Yet early assemblies at the CHAZ were little more than open mics. The masses of people who showed up on any given day were rarely on the same page about how to conduct a meeting, what our common goals were and how to achieve them, or the legitimacy of the decisions made within the assemblies. We worked with friends from other groups to announce a regular meeting time for democratic assemblies and to teach CHAZ participants about the general structure of these assemblies in order to ingrain foundational knowledge and encourage participation.
We hoped that continuous participation in these meetings by the general public would instill an understanding of how successful assemblies are run. Several comrades organized at an early assembly by facilitating break-out groups to deliberate on topics and report back to the main group, similar to a spokescouncil. We also hoped these activities would hold the people of the CHAZ accountable to each other and establish a self-maintaining horizontalist structure. Over time, these assemblies were able to gain some traction. Lacking power and effectiveness, however, they unfortunately fell victim to multiple death blows, including hemorrhaging attendance after the call to return to work, and the police’s eventual seizure of the CHAZ.
Assemblies were plagued by counter-insurgents who did everything in their power to disrupt and undermine them. The most common tactic we called the “dictatorship of the microphone,” the purpose of which is to waste as much of people’s time as possible, exhausting them with lengthy stories of individual oppression in an attempt to deprive the broader group of exercising autonomy over the decisions that affect them. According to one comrade’s first-person account:
The CHAZ had a very mixed atmosphere every time I visited. Depending on the people you were talking to it was either a summer festival or a revolution against police brutality or global capitalism. Even among the people there to make major change, the actual goals of the CHAZ were mixed. Many felt that the police only needed minor reforms while others understood the necessity of police abolition. The life of the CHAZ in many ways reflected the constant struggle between liberals, who desire moderate social reform without any kind of radical change, and leftists, who desire the destruction of all oppressive institutions that will appear within any movement that gains broader appeal.
The attempts at the creation of democratic assemblies within the CHAZ were central to this conflict. While several activist groups, including ours, desired the creation of democratic organizational structures, many other groups felt that such organization was a threat to the CHAZ. Notable and consistent objections were that democratic assemblies would “undermine Black leadership” and “would lead to such assemblies having undue influence over the CHAZ.”
Such objections were not legitimate, as assemblies would only have served to govern the actions of those in attendance. However, it quickly became clear, at least to me, that both liberal activists and, oddly, festival-goers would take seemingly arbitrary actions to prevent such assemblies. Notably, bands refused to get off the stage at the times the assemblies were planned, and marches were consistently planned at the same time as assemblies, despite fair notice being given. The festival-goers also found themselves in conflict with the liberal activists due to drug use within the space.
Even without external disruption, the overall lack of assembly etiquette often led to a breakdown in productive conversation. While this was a problem even at the best of times, lack of structure made it impossible to address in the presence of agitators. Interruptions often occurred at key times of the meeting, such as the beginning of the assembly when procedures were being explained, when subgroups were breaking out, during reportbacks by delegates. or while voting on proposals. Moreover, there was documented interference by plainclothes officers who sought to pit demonstrators against each other, while uniformed police officers monitored the CHAZ from inside the East Precinct. In these ways, the CHAZ was no different than other revolutionary movements that have encountered divisional tactics by the state.
The Fall of the CHAZ
Numerous factors contributed to the premature downfall of the CHAZ. In our analysis, the primary factor was a lack of democratic structures through which various factions could communicate and make decisions together. Without a recognized democratic assembly with participation by the majority, anyone was able to claim being a “representative” of the CHAZ, making it easy for the city to hand-pick individuals with whom to negotiate. This led to so-called “leaders” handing parts of the CHAZ back over to the police and the city, as well as the removal of street barriers that kept people safe from automobile hit-and-runs.
One of our members made the following observation:
During one of the first assemblies, the topic of whom to trust came up in a breakout group I was in. I recall a well-meaning white woman lamenting a harsh truth about the societal make-up of the self-proclaimed “progressive” Seattle. She called out the fact that because this city is so segregated, a lot of the white people who were coming out to support had zero previous connections with members of the Black community.
There was such confusion about who to listen to, or who was “legit” because they had never interacted in Black spaces before, let alone radical Black spaces. They had no foundational networks within that community, so they were unable to recognize people to trust. In their panicked attempts to be good white allies, they found themselves being scattered by the various Black voices calling for a range of tactics and goals. Many were simply just listening to whichever Black voice had the loudest microphone, a qualification that we saw end up being severely flawed.
These self-proclaimed, liberal-leaning “leaders” — those who continuously met with the mayor without democratic consensus and were openly lauded by members of the city’s power structure like Police Chief Carmen Best — were directly responsible for watering down the “30 Demands” proposed by the collective Black voices of Free Capitol Hill. These demands, “neither brief nor simplistic” were focused on the tenets of “the Justice System, Health and Human Services, Economics and Education.”
What followed was an oversimplified and liberalized list of three demands, “to cut funding for the Seattle police by 50%, to devote that money instead to community efforts including restorative justice and health care, and to ensure that protesters are not charged with crimes.”
According to another first-person account:
There were many speeches which gave space for BIPOC to express their voices and some of their ideas were recorded to later form demands. I say “some” because there were self-appointed “leaders” who were filtering voices with these speeches. Oftentimes, if a BIPOC radical would express their thoughts, the “leaders” would shut them down and misconstrue their words. Again, this was a result of a lack of accountability. Cis men of color were allowed to dominate the narrative. Frequently, when that domination was put into question, the one doing the questioning would be silenced by the dominant man’s companions, or by using his identity as a shield against accountability.
Instead of creating a space for collaboration and collective power, identity became the catalyst for domination to occur. It laid the foundation for infiltration, co-optation and corruption, which is exactly what happened. There were self-appointed leaders popping up left and right as the voice of the CHAZ. The decisions to shift the name of the zone from CHAZ to CHOP was no exception and became a pivotal moment in the unraveling of the space. A minority of people were able to decide for the majority. It was this structurelessness which weaponized identity in order to bring about tyranny. It became the barrier to what could be possible, which made many people feel powerless. In turn, they would go to the CHOP as just a thing to do, which shifted the energy and focus from a liberatory act to that of a block party.
With most of the standard recreational outlets shut down due to the COVID-19 crisis, tourists and adventurists sought out this newly created “autonomous zone.” This counter-revolutionary, festival atmosphere conflicted with the more radical elements.
Adding to the social strife and tyranny of structurelessness was the fact that the physical location of the CHAZ was a strategic nightmare. This issue is likely a primary reason the police abandoned the area in the first place. There are no geographical characteristics of the area to help with defense. An agitator could enter to cause harm with several options for an exit. With the location being a concrete-laden, urban zone, there was an extreme lack of green space to sustain life in the CHAZ. Food and supplies had to be shuttled in from outside, toilets were provided by the “graciousness” of the city — only to be removed once they tired of placating the protesters’ demands. Despite the inspiring installation of a garden, this communal experiment was too short lived to reap any of what was sown.
Massive propaganda campaigns from both the liberal and conservative media portrayed the project as either dangerous or useless. Vilified in media coverage, the CHAZ became tied to the usual operations of organized crime and gangs. This public perception was exacerbated by several highly-publicized shootings near the CHAZ. Despite protesters’ continued efforts to organize security, the CHAZ became unduly tied to various violent acts such as the shooting of two Black teenagers. At the same time, fascists consistently showed up to the CHAZ to intimidate and pick fights.
Over time, the zone was slowly stripped down to a few blocks with one way traffic forced through, which put all those in attendance in much greater danger of vehicular attacks and made it easier for police to access with their vehicles. Without an expectation of safety, the number of occupants also quickly dwindled from the thousands to hundreds and then to less than a hundred by the end. These smaller pockets of demonstrators became easier targets for arrest and were effortlessly dislodged from the space.
Perhaps one of the largest causes for a drain in participation was when Governor Inslee decided to re-open many businesses in June, like restaurants and gyms, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to this, a lot of that workforce was free to take part in these demonstrations. The premature roll-back of the shutdown order forced a large number of present bodies to reallocate their priorities to survive working in hazardous conditions.
Analyzing the “autonomous zone”
The term “autonomous zone” was popularized by the book T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism by anarchist Hakim Bey, also known as Peter Lamborn Wilson. Bey characterizes autonomous zones as a Dionysian break from structured society, where chaos can take its “natural” course. Although Bey does not define the term autonomous zone outright in the text, he posits a vibe most clearly summed up by social ecologist Murray Bookchin’s response to it in his essay “Social anarchism or lifestyle anarchism: an unbridgable chasm”:
T.A.Z. presents itself as a state of mind, an ardently antirational and anti-civilizational mood, in which disorganization is conceived as an art form and graffiti supplants programs. The Bey (his pseudonym is the Turkish word for ‘chief’ or ‘prince’) minces no words about his disdain for social revolution: ‘Why bother to confront a ‘power’ which has lost all meaning and become sheer Simulation? Such confrontations will only result in dangerous and ugly spasms of violence.
According to Bey’s vision, the autonomous zone is not a method to challenge power, but rather a praxis devoted to offering alternatives to it. Bey waxes poetic about all of the things one can do in an autonomous zone that cannot be done within an organized society, such as vandalism, theft and even the rape of children. Hakim Bey is precisely what the right attempts to characterize as anarchism. He is uninterested in providing meaningful solutions to the problems of the modern day, worships chaos for its own sake and opposes the state apparatus, not because it perpetuates unjust hierarchies, but because it happens to oppose certain actions that he wishes to commit.
Although the idea of building structures independent from capitalist society is a praxis that many on the left consistently espouse, the praxis of the autonomous zone does not challenge the status quo, rather it attempts to create a space outside of its laws, where individuals are unbound by the limitations on their own power. As such, Jeffrey Epstein’s island may be a far better example of a modern day autonomous zone than the CHAZ by Bey’s own depiction. That being said, despite the popularity of Bey’s terminology, he does not seem to be widely read on the contemporary left.
The CHAZ in several ways did fit some of the parameters offered by Bey. It was a space outside of general societal norms where people could perform actions that they normally could not. The CHAZ had large amounts of drug use and at times had an atmosphere similar to that of Burning Man and other popular festivals.
Yet, in other ways, the CHAZ was a microcosm of how a popular revolution could look. We saw how the mayor, police, media, politicians and other key players would respond to a full-scale uprising. The George Floyd uprising and the inception of the CHAZ in Seattle represent a dress rehearsal for our response to the catastrophes created by capitalism and the state that loom on the horizon. These include the COVID-19 pandemic, with subsequent unemployment, market collapse and mass homelessness; rising fascism and ecosystem collapse.
We might then in the future think not of autonomous zones, but of a “liberated space” built in explicit opposition to capitalism and the state. A few examples of liberated spaces include the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria in Northern and Eastern Syria, Chiapas in Mexico, Vio.Me and Notara-26 in Greece, or the Paris Commune. While spaces like the CHAZ may be able to exist outside of the normal social order, a liberated space is built to oppose the social strata and hierarchical institutions. While an autonomous zone lacks a coherent structure, and as such falls to the tyranny of structurelessness, as characterized by feminist Jo Freeman, a liberated space must be highly organized, through democratic means, to ensure that they do not fall to such tyranny.
The direct actions held across Seattle during the spring and summer of 2020 threatened to upend the current order. We could have turned the entire city into a liberated space. Indeed, many of the more experienced militants wanted to march on all of the police precincts, overwhelming them day after day. In this way, the removal of police from the East Precinct in Capitol Hill actually served to consolidate protesters at one spot, effectively turning a movement with serious revolutionary potential into a singular, toothless “autonomous zone.” This effectiveness of this strategy can be heard in the words of Los Angeles Police Department’s police chief, Michel Moore, when he said, “We can handle one 10,000-person protest, but 10 1,000-person protests throughout the city will overwhelm us.”
The kinds of individual opportunism that whittled away at the CHAZ also spring up in the movement that has gone by “Black Lives Matter” since 2013. According to Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, co-founder of the Black Liberation Army, BLM originally meant “Black Liberation Movement.” The original BLM was a revolutionary expression that threatened to wage war against racist police. Many members of the Black Liberation Army were arrested for attacking and even killing racist police.
The sentiment that “Black lives matter,” by contrast, is hardly controversial. When the liberals who co-opted the movement created a hashtag on social media, they were capitalizing on the general agreement among progressives and radicals. As new Pan-Africanist Modibo Kadalie puts it, Black Lives Matter is essentially a liberal fundraising response to a genuinely horizontal expression of Black rage. Over the years, the words “Black lives matter” have been parroted by celebrities, politicians and corporations to simulate solidarity with Black people. By 2020, this devolved into a widespread practice through which business owners and even gigantic corporations sought to protect their storefronts from being targeted by demonstrators. It is significant that the George Floyd uprising was neither coordinated nor led by Black Lives Matter. The movement for Black Liberation must live on beyond neoliberal cooptation.
Legacy and Vestiges of the CHAZ
At the CAC, our process of collective reflection has revealed several lessons from the attempt to practice direct democracy during the CHAZ. Although the CHAZ was unable to survive state intervention, there are many remnants that will leave lasting traces in Seattle’s collective memory. The CHAZ experiment helped to broaden existing networks as well as to birth new groups. Even after the dissolution of the CHAZ, some of these groups continue implementing direct action by holding meetings and marching daily for Black liberation and against police brutality. A robust network of mutual aid projects was also formed directly from the CHAZ that continues to support one other in their neighborhoods.
Our memories themselves are important because they solidify our shared experience during the summer of 2020, combating misconstrued narratives aimed at gas-lighting us and undermining the validity of our actions. Having these shared experiences, many of which have now been written down as a consequence of the trauma inflicted by the state, can only deepen our collective identity, bringing us closer together. Communal knowledge gives us the opportunity of avoiding repetition of past mistakes and being more prepared for the future.
Thanks to the ever-present, personal technology most of us possess, we now have well-documented, irrefutable evidence of police aggression. These are the images and reports to which we can turn when the police try to rehabilitate their image. They can be used to show that we do not forget the police’s true face, their true character and to build new coalitions against the violence of the state.
There were moments during the occupation when one could see the earliest stages of a democratic confederalist or libertarian municipalist model were being practiced. Occupiers were able to set up food distribution, direct action, healthcare, collect and distribute essential supplies and modes of self-defense. In hindsight, we see that it is important that processes of consensus and direct democracy are built as soon as possible, especially so under conditions like the ones present at the beginning of the CHAZ, and that these processes are paramount to achieving any kind of ongoing success or longevity.
At critical moments, people turn to those structures and processes that are the most readily available — not necessarily because they are the most ideal or desirable, but because they appear to be the most easily deployed at the moment. If a coherent, democratic process is ready at the critical moment, then it has a stronger chance of being the method adopted. Otherwise, people will default to their conditioning and familiarity with extant institutions and practices. In this way, dominant institutions and behaviors continue to re-emerge, as much as within pockets such as the CHAZ as within whole revolutionary uprisings against those very institutions.
Democratic systems must be coherent and complete, with all their basic components rendered understandable, easily adopted, and ready to be taught and applied ahead of the critical moment. They need to be modular and widely available. Without meaningful, tangible praxis that can be deployed during a spontaneous revolt, reversion to known patterns within the very social systems being opposed is inevitable.
The experience of the CHAZ has aided in developing the CAC’s own practices for achieving democratic norms, not only in moments of spontaneous rebellion, but through the foreseeable future. We respect a diversity of tactics among the broader left while continuing to focus on creating place-based democratic assemblies built through our understanding of social ecology, democratic confederalism, decolonization and bioregionalism. We desire the achievement of a stateless democracy that is ecological in nature and non-hierarchical. Our short-term goals and praxis must be in line with this.
In The Democracy Project, the late anthropologist David Graeber writes, “It’s not a question of building an entirely new society whole cloth. It’s a question of building on what we are already doing, expanding zones of freedom, until freedom becomes the organizing principle.”
As we work towards liberation, we cannot act as if we exist outside of history. We are not attempting to build some imagined utopia from a priori knowledge but rather repurposing the best ideas of the past, while also drawing from our own, unique experiences in our time, in our place and among our people. The CHAZ was imperfect, and we can learn from its mistakes to inform future movements.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/rise-fall-capitol-hill-autonomous-zone/