You’ve heard about Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), right? With free press from President Trump, people both in the US and abroad now know about the “Seattle takeover” and his imperative to “Take back your city NOW”.
Well, dear reader, if you believe that I am reliable narrator, let me share with you my observations of the CHAZ.
First of all, this is how the CHAZ website describes the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone:
The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone née “Free Capitol” is a 6 block section around the East Precinct in Seattle, WA. Abandoned by police and left to burn, this area was instead siezed [sic] by anarchists, BLM supporters and other protestors who have since transformed it into a unverisal [sic] community based on mutual aid. Fundamentally, CHAZ is an occupation of Capitol Hill, not an official declaration of independence.
Here’s some context about the Capitol Hill neighborhood where the CHAZ is located: In addition to being the gay mecca of the Pacific Northwest, Capitol Hill is the hip neighborhood of Seattle.[1. Some would comment that Capitol Hill is the hipster, not hip, neighborhood of Seattle.] Bars old and new cater to the spectrum of genders. There’s wood-fired bagel cafe; a bike shop where, after spending time in the physio lab, one can order a Matcha Chicken Avocado Bowl; and a music venue called whose full name includes “Crystal Ball Reading Room”. Two blocks south from the CHAZ is a dealership shared by Ferrari and Maserati. A local cafe offers apricot jam doughnuts for $3.85 each. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment near the CHAZ is around $2000 a month.
Now, onto my observations:
According to the City of Seattle, about 65% of the city population is white and nearly 7% are Black. The vast majority of people (much more than 65%) I saw in the CHAZ were white. Perhaps this was due to the clumps of white tourists who wanted to witness the CHAZ themselves. Maybe white allies had taken upon themselves to “do the work” and use the CHAZ to advocate for Black Lives Matter (BLM) causes and demands. (Of note, I cannot find any comments from the Seattle-King County chapter of BLM about the CHAZ.) Despite the ongoing pandemic, a notable fraction of these white individuals were not wearing face coverings.
While there is a beautiful mural of “Black Lives Matter” physically on Pine Street and references to Black individuals of Seattle and beyond who have been killed by police, the overall vibe of the CHAZ seems more focused on opposing authority. The graffiti on and around the now abandoned police station, the “conversation cafe” stations, and the new community gardens seemed to chiefly cater to white audiences and suggest an anti-establishment philosophy. Black Lives Matter and “a universal community based on mutual aid” are not the same thing, and this is highlighted in the deliberate demands of the Seattle-King County chapter of Black Lives Matter. To be fair, there is overlap between the demands of CHAZ and BLM, though what people do often reveals actual intentions compared to what people say.
In addition to philosophical contrasts, there were physical contrasts within the CHAZ. A man was hugging his adult poodle like a baby, while a crowd of people were nearly running after a man who was yelling at someone about a stolen phone. A white man with what appeared to be a taxidermy weasel draped around his shoulders got into a profane shouting match with a Black man (one of the very few I saw) seated on a bench, a push cart stuffed with belongings next to him.[2. I promise you, dear reader, that there was indeed a man who had draped what appeared to be a taxidermy weasel around his neck. Maybe it was a plush weasel, but the effect was the same.] A (white) man was shoveling wood chips into a new community garden marked with a hand-written sign that read “This garden is for Black and Indigenous folks and their plant allies”. All the doors to the public bathroom were closed and the phrase “shoplift your future back” was scrawled in spray paint on its foundation.
Meanwhile, Seattle Parks and Recreation collected trash from the CHAZ and hauled it away. An employee, wearing a face covering, emerged from a Seattle Public Utilities truck with a clipboard and headed towards the park.
Here are my questions:
Is the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone a distraction from Black Lives Matter? If yes, what are the consequences of that distraction at local, state, and federal levels, now that President Trump has condemned this “occupation of Capitol Hill”? What are the consequences to BLM if it is conflated with the CHAZ?
Could an Autonomous Zone exist anywhere else in Seattle? Does it matter that this part of Capitol Hill is young, trendy, and expensive? Could the Autonomous Zone exist in a Seattle neighborhood with more Black lives, such as the Central District or Rainier Valley? Even if the Autonomous Zone could exist in another neighborhood, would it exist? Would protestors want that? Would the neighborhood support that?
Has the local chapter of BLM made a statement about CHAZ? If yes, why is it difficult to find? If no, what worries or hopes does BLM have about doing so? The Seattle-King County BLM chapter has demonstrated great thoughtfulness about its activities in the midst of this pandemic, including specific rules about their protest. Their silent march drew around 60,000 protestors despite the rain. I look forward to learning more about and supporting their perspectives.
Will the CHAZ protestors vote? Some argue that the only way to change the system is to join it. Others insist that change can only come from the outside, as there are too many conflicting interests from within. Voting applies in either scenario.
Will the CHAZ protestors follow the lead of BLM? Sometimes the urge to “do something” is overwhelming, when the most productive and helpful action is to wait and follow. Before people congratulate themselves on the actions they are taking, it is prudent to ensure that these actions are in the service of the goal that will both change and improve the system.
How will the CHAZ end? Will the protestors leave of their own accord? Will they stay until forced to leave? Will there be non-violent negotiations, or will we witness more violence? How much effort will Seattle Police put into returning to their precinct building? What is the Mayor’s strategy about this, now that she is the target of antagonizing messages from both Seattle residents and the President of the United States?
When will the CHAZ end? With unemployment rates high in Seattle, as in the rest of the nation, some people may choose to remain in the CHAZ because the economy continues its slump. There is a Presidential election in November and if the President continues to give his attention to the CHAZ, that may reinforce their desire to remain. If Seattle sees a spike in coronavirus cases, will the city recruit Public Health to help assess the safety of the encampments and gatherings and then ask people to leave?
If you live in the Seattle-King County area and are able, please donate money to the Seattle-King County chapter of Black Lives Matter. Whether you live in Seattle or elsewhere, please also participate in the US Census and make sure you vote in the upcoming elections. Please continue to ask questions, engage your mind, and exercise critical thinking. Change will take all of us.