Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone – a sign of things to come?

17th June 2020

On 8th June, Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) came into being. But what is it, how did it come to be and what do they want? More importantly, what could the formation of CHAZ mean for wider society and the burgeoning ‘defund the police’ movement’? This article will investigate some of the demands and look into how they relate to the wider picture in America currently.

The CHAZ has drawn comparisons with other such communes such as Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark and, more recently, the Occupy Wall Street movement. It has also been said to resemble the 1871 Paris commune in the way that the proletariat barricaded themselves in Paris after the French army advanced on them in response to protests against other long term economic oppressions.1  In this modern iteration it is the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters barricading themselves in response to the perceived lack of accountability within the Police force and began after a series of standoffs between the Seattle Police and protesters.2 During these standoffs, the Seattle Police were widely criticised for their heavy-handed tactics and liberal use of tear gas, most famously on a young girl who was pictured having her eyes washed out with milk.3 4 The use of these tactics was met with widespread public outcry with the city seeing over 12,000 complaints over the handling of the protests, leading Seattle’s Mayor, Jenny Durkan, to call a 30-day suspension on the use of tear gas.5 6 Despite the moratorium, tear gas was still used to disperse protesters to widespread outrage from both activists and city officials, resulting in the departure of the Police department from the East Precinct building of Capitol Hill in order to prevent ‘additional flashpoints’.7 Subsequently, BLM protesters entered the abandoned area and set up barriers across six blocks, dubbing the area the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.8 Within the newly established autonomous zone, a grassroots civil society has developed with teach-ins, film nights, and a ‘no cop co-op’ offering free water, hand sanitiser, face masks, and food.9 10 There have also been reports of open weapon carrying, which is legal in Washington state, and armed checkpoints within the autonomous zone with the local John Brown Gun Club claiming to provide ‘armed community defence during social justice events’.11 12 Whilst some small skirmishes have broken out the CHAZ has been largely peaceful, with a claim by the Assistant Police Chief, Deanna Nolette, that protesters were extorting local businesses being retracted.13 14

As can be expected, the establishment of the CHAZ has garnered polarising views with the city’s famously liberal Mayor having supported the activity in Capitol Hill, long known for its liberal disposition, and defended the demonstrator’s first amendment rights.15 Washington’s State Governor, Democrat Jay Inslee, has been similarly nonchalant about the affair and has warned President Donald Trump to stay out of the State’s affairs after the President branded the demonstrators ‘domestic terrorists.’16 In his tweets on the matter, it appeared that President Trump alluded to the intention to invoke the 19th Century Insurrection Act after a tweet calling for Washington State to “take back your city now. If you do not do it, I will. This is not a game. These ugly Anarchists must be stopped immediately. Move fast!” 17 The tweet has since been deleted. If President Trump were to invoke the Insurrection Act it would allow the Federal Government to intervene without state authorisation and would be the first time the act had been invoked since the 1992 LA riots, which occurred after the acquittal of Police officers in the Rodney King assault trial.18

In regards to the long-term ambitions of the occupants of the CHAZ, some simply want to turn the East precinct into a community centre that can build a localised movement that runs ‘education initiatives, programs to address homelessness, and [the] building [of] a community movement where unarmed Police are designed to de-escalate.’19 However, a broader list of demands has emerged that can be found here and include, amongst other things the demand for the abolition of the Seattle Police Department and court system; reparations for victims of police brutality; a retrial of all people of colour currently serving a prison sentence for violent crime; and the release, and record expunction of, anyone serving time for a marijuana-related offence or resisting arrest offence where there were no other related charges. In addition to this, the demands also included the abolition of imprisonment and the ‘creation of restorative/transformative accountability programs’ and the redirected of Seattle Police funds to community initiatives. Alongside demands on law and justice were also those concerning society and the economy that deal with the de-gentrification of the city, the employment of mental health experts to deal with 911 calls, as well as increased conflict de-escalation and anti-bias training for jobs in education, medicine, and media. Demands have also been made towards hospitals and care facilities for the employment of black doctors and nurses to care for black patients. At first glance, these demands appear radical but may actually have clear logic behind them. For example, whilst the call for black doctors and nurses to take care of black patients may seem extreme at face value, it becomes much more understandable when we take into account that black patients’ ailments are less likely to be taken seriously than their white counterparts. One such study that gives evidence for this was conducted by Rubix Life Sciences, a biotech research firm based in Boston, which found that ‘black patients that exhibited COVID-19 symptoms were six times less likely to receive testing or treatment, in comparison to white patients who exhibited symptoms.’20 Furthermore, it is wise to consider that, according to 2017 figures, 33% of the prison population were black despite only comprising 12% of the US adult population. Comparatively, white people make up 64% of the US adult population yet only 30% of the prison population.21 Even when putting socioeconomic factors aside, these numbers suggest a racial bias, and regardless, both seem to be a product of systemic racism.22 Leading on from this, a staggering one in five people who have been incarcerated have been arrested for non-violent drug offences with roughly 450,000 people currently in prison for these crimes.23 When considering that many states have now made marijuana legal, including Washington, it would appear beneficial for society that these convictions at a minimum be reviewed.24

Overall, the demands given by the occupants of CHAZ have clearly drawn influence from the wider narrative surrounding the defunding of the Police currently popularised in the wake of increasingly publicised incidents of Police brutality such as the cases of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks (whose death was recently ruled a homicide).25 As with the demands of CHAZ the ‘defund the Police’ movement seems extreme until you dig a little deeper. Whilst the rallying cry is to defund or dismantle the Police, this is not the protesters’ literal demand, instead what is wanted is the reallocation of funds where reformation of Police forces has failed. This is a stance that has become all the more potent when considering that Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, had spent millions of dollars over five years retraining Police to ‘target institutional racism and Police brutality’ with Police spending already costing 30% of the city’s budget.26 Further to this, the ever-inflating budgets have become all the more unpalatable in the wake of COVID-19 where the cost of policing is now at $155 billion against a backdrop of drastic budget cuts and unemployment, tripling in the last four decades.27 Evidence of these changing attitudes can be seen in Los Angeles, where the Police budget has recently undergone a review to consider cutting up to $150 million off the Los Angeles Police Departments $1.8bn budget, over half the city’s entire budget, just days after pushing for a 7% increase. Despite this, BLM protesters have called for further cuts to the Police force, recommending the Police budget be 5.7% of the city’s overall fund.28 Those calling for the defunding of the Police have argued that the reallocation of funds would ‘naturally shrink’ the Police’s remit and better serve the community, by reinvesting ‘more broadly in community infrastructure, like employment, housing and education’ as well as the funding of women’s centres, youth centres and trauma services.29 Whilst there is no definitive proof that increased Police presence results in an equal reduction in crime, in New York City in 2014/15 a deliberate reduction in ‘pro-active policing’ actually led to a reduction in major crimes.30 In CHAZ similar discussions are being held with one resident ‘calling for the “repurposing” of the Police function’ and the dismantling of a militarised Police force. In other recommendations, the resident suggests that new recruits be 25 years or older and ‘undertake stringent tests to determine their levels of empathy and if they have entrenched biases’.31

America has undergone a significant shift in its political landscape seemingly to have been brought about through a combination of Police brutality and systemic racism alongside a health and economic crisis induced by COVID-19. Within this new landscape, that has seen giant corporations profit at the expense of local businesses, many people’s priorities have changed, and this change needs to be reflected at city, state, and federal levels. As urban sociologist Saskia Sassen theorised, the city is the ‘place where the powerless can make history,’ a theory that can be seen in action first hand through the CHAZ that has provided a ‘real-world example of what a community can look like without Police’.32 33  Methods of occupation being utilised by the demonstrators in the CHAZ have a history of being effective and have already resulted in Seattle’s Mayor, Jenny Durkan, agreeing to invest $100 million on establishing a community-driven Black Commission, as well as investing in the city’s minority community in general.34 35 As Forbes have pointed out now, more than ever, open and honest dialogue must be held by those at all levels of government, as well as with ‘business, health and community leaders’.36 Depending on how successful the residents of the CHAZ are at getting concessions, defunding the police could seize to be a movement, instead becoming policy – and could be a sign of things to come.


Photograph by Alex Glidewell – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0