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Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone and the revolutionary potential of communal living

Writing by Paula Lacey. Illustration by Heather Baillie (@heatherscreativeplace on Insta).

Image Description: A black ink drawing depicting a re-imagining of Joe Rosenthal's Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, where in place of American soldiers raising the US flag we see feminine presenting people of colour raising a black lives matter fist flag. 

June 2020 saw the US swept with a wave of civil unrest in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, with peaceful protests against the state-sanctioned brutalisation of minorities. This powerful revival of 2015’s Black Lives Matter movement has been a sobering reminder that the illusion of diversity and inclusion only goes so deep, and that listening to the lived experience of racialised people in the US reveals a very different story. It has inspired widespread movements across the world to bring police brutality and other issues of systemic racism to the forefront of the political sphere, from toppling statues of slave owners to calls to defund the police in favour of public services. In almost every major city in the US, police departments used aggressive crowd control methods such as rubber bullets, tear gas and mass arrest with little regard for social distancing laws. In the face of such violent backlash the protests became volatile, with protestors trying to regain space, safety and empowerment with increasing desperation.

On June 8th in Seattle, after over a week of daily protests, police officers in the downtown area of Capitol Hill abandoned their East precinct, leaving the area effectively unpoliced. The neighbourhood was swiftly occupied by activists who declared it the ‘Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone’. Within a matter of hours, the zone was a fully functioning, self-organised community. Occupiers planted gardens, distributed medical supplies, provided free meals from the Riot Kitchen tent, set up a free grocery market called the No-Cop co-op and a free anti-racist resource library, and held film screenings and workshops centered around conversations of decolonisation and abolitionism. It became a dynamic ecosystem with particular emphasis placed on the safety and empowerment of BIPOC members of the community, with spaces reserved for caucuses, as well as meeting place for protestors to discuss future direct actions and ways to keep themselves safe from a police force enacting violence in the name of keeping peace. The zone remained a vibrant center

 for local activism for nearly a month, providing for underserved communities and demonstrating the power of solidarity and mutual aid.

Seattle wasn’t the only city that saw protestors trying to reclaim public space in the name of community empowerment and resistance against power-drunk police forces. In Portland on June 18th, occupiers in the Patrick Kimmons Autonomous Zone reported a similar atmosphere of hope, a respite from the onslaught of police brutality of the previous two weeks. That is, until officers arrived in full riot gear five hours later and violently cleared the area. A similar fate was met by activists in Washington DC on June 22nd, who set up the Black House Autonomous Zone (in opposition to the White House), which was also dismantled overnight followed by serious threats of violence from a President who doesn’t seem opposed to unleashing military force on his own citizens. In Philadelphia, the disused Hahnemman Hospital was revived by a coalition of healthcare workers and community members known as Care Not Cops in a brief occupation demanding that police funding be redirected to healthcare. Volunteer nurses began to see patients, the first to be treated at the hospital in months, but a threatening police presence split up the makeshift clinic after a few hours.

And although CHAZ managed to outlast other occupation attempts, it too came to a bittersweet  end. In the ten days leading up to the closure of the area, there were four shootings in which two Black teenagers were killed, alongside emerging allegations of power imbalances and sexual assault amongst occupiers. These tragic events naturally changed the dynamic of a community already rife with extreme burnout and mental health crises. On July 1st, Seattle PD announced the zones immediate closure in the light of the recent violence; the area was cleared, and over 40 people were arrested. The sweep involved the destruction of tents, supplies and portable toilets by heavily armed police, as well as the dispersal of many houseless community members who had been living safely within the area for weeks. Although justified by the increasingly hostile atmosphere, it is likely that the protest would not have been allowed to continue for much longer. As seen in the response to other occupations and peaceful protests, US police departments have been mobilised to use military-style force against any threat to what is considered capital-A American. CHAZ represented an alternative to the individualism and self-reliance that characterises so much of the US political climate; one in which neighbours look out for each other, resources are shared, and help is given for free to those in need. 

However, there were aspects of CHAZ that prevented it from becoming a sustainable resistance effort, and these must be acknowledged and learnt from. On June 13th, it was announced that CHAZ was being renamed to the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (or CHOP), in order to better reflect the demonstration’s message; not as an attempt to set up a self-governed nation fully autonomous from the incumbent American state, but as a political occupation with demands upon the government. The key difference here is interaction with versus separation from the US government, and although the renaming was released to the press, it is unclear whether it was agreed on by every member of the community. The website very clearly states that “CHAZ will always be CHAZ. The attempt at a name change is an operation to detract and disorient. A name is important, but it does not need to be literal”, underneath the title “YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE USA”. This is symptomatic of a failure to come to a compromise between conflicting ideas of what the zone symbolised, which was interpreted by the media and right-wing critics as the inevitable result of anarchist living: inconsistency and disorganisation.

The occupation was built around principles of hyperdemocratic, decentralised, non-hierarchical organisational structure. Long facilitated meetings with breakout sessions would be held where members could voice their ideas and grievances, and plans and solutions would be decided on using consensus decision making processes. Naturally, as a group gets larger and more ideologically diverse, these processes become more and more challenging. In CHAZ, a key issue that arose was the problem of security, protection and justice. The protest was inherently anti-police, but given the context of what can best be described as a warzone between local police and protestors, it was necessary to have some sort of volunteer-based security force to protect themselves from the Seattle PD and right wing groups such as the Proud Boys. It is impossible and, honestly, pointless to say as an outsider whether a more formal alternative to policing would have prevented the shootings in CHAZ’s final days. However the allegations of abuse represent a lack of effective accountability procedures for identifying and remedying power imbalances within the community, despite constant discussions of restorative justice. The fact remains that toxic power structures emerged, undermining what could and should have been a safe space for all who chose to take part. 

But the breakdown of peace towards the occupation’s end was not an ‘inevitable’ endpoint of anarchist living projects. Interpersonal issues that arose will have been compounded by the fact that the protestors were physically and emotionally exhausted from weeks of daily clashes with the police. The threat of eviction and arrest (or worse, particularly for the BIPOC members of the community) was a constant presence, and decisions were made and enacted in real time. As a result, mistakes were made and vital processes were overlooked. This is inexcusable and CHAZ therefore shouldn’t be seen as a blueprint, but rather it’s successes should be celebrated and its failures ought to be learnt from. No matter the revolutionary potential of autonomous left-wing communities, care and attention must be given to the protection of the most vulnerable before focusing on outward impact. A project cannot be truly revolutionary without ensuring the safety of its members. A community must be built from the ground up until they are strong enough to seize power, and CHAZ attempted this process in reverse due to its spontaneous beginning. And although internal divisions prevented it from becoming sustainable, longevity is not the only metric for judging the impact of occupations. As one protestor said, “I don't think it was meant to be a permanent thing... it was meant to be a moment in time, a piece de resistance - and in that way it served its purpose”. CHAZ must be remembered as a cautionary tale of trying to build a revolutionary occupation top-down at the expense of members’ safety and wellbeing. But at the same time, it must be respected for the impact it had on reinstating hope and solidarity in an underserved community, and how it briefly demonstrated the power of reclaiming space in the face of an oppressive government. One failed experiment does not mean that there is no way for this kind of project to succeed.

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