Protester Paradise

The CHAZ Has Become America’s Fascination

But how long will the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone stick around?

By Benjamin Cassidy June 11, 2020

Better known as "the CHAZ."

The Stranger describes it as an “anti-capitalist police-free Vatican City inside Capitol Hill.” The New York Times deems it “part street festival, part commune.” President Donald Trump alludes to it, via tweet, as a bastion for “anarchists” who “must be stooped [sic].”

Seemingly overnight, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone—or, “the CHAZ,” as everyone’s calling it—has become a local and national fascination. It was only Monday that the Seattle Police Department loaded up trucks and ditched the East Precinct at 12th and Pine, the site of tear gas-clouded confrontations between officers and Black Lives Matter-inspired protesters in the days after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Protesters have since barricaded and transformed a cluster of city blocks into a mostly peaceful enclave of free food, face coverings, resistance art, educational town halls, and even some live music. Seattle Police Department chief Carmen Best says she’s heard of armed people patrolling the area and businesses having to pay “protection” fees, but as of this writing, no formal police reports related to either situation have been filed.

At a time when cities are mulling the defunding and, in a few cases, abolition of their police departments, some people might be looking at Seattle’s police-free movement with a mix of amusement and genuine curiosity: Is this communal version of the American experiment a blip, or is it a preview of what’s to come in other population hubs this summer? For many, however, the questions are more fundamental: How long will the CHAZ (or the People’s Republic of Capitol Hill, or Free Cap Hill, depending on your sign preference) stick around? And what are its aims?

No one really knows the answer to the first question yet. Today, mayor Jenny Durkan was noncommittal about the area's future; at a press conference, she noted that Capitol Hill is accustomed to accommodating summer celebrations in its streets. "This isn't really that much of an operational challenge," she said.

Earlier in the day, Best said it wasn’t her decision to leave the precinct. “We had solid information to believe that anti-government groups would destroy the precinct once we left, whether through vandalism or arson.” Assistant SPD chief Deanna Nollette has said that the department wants to reopen the East Precinct after “establishing a dialogue” with protesters. The timeline for those conversations isn’t clear at the moment, nor is the willingness of those inhabiting the CHAZ to allow officers back into their harmonious space.

The community’s objectives haven’t crystallized yet, either, including its plans for the precinct. (Could an occupation sprout a cultural center like El Centro de la Raza?) On CHAZ's website, the current list of demands includes police abolition and reforms to educational and economic policy. But as the New York Times piece notes, different factions exist (naturally) among the ranks of the rebellious. Some want those broader structural changes to society. Others want to keep the focus on causes directly related to the Black Lives Matter movement.

One thing is certain: The cause that spawned the uprising—to protest police violence and racism—hasn’t been forgotten. Last night, a man applied a paint roller to Pine, spelling “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in thick lettering, just like in Washington D.C.’s freshly coined Black Lives Matter Plaza. Signs mourning George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a stand promoting Black authors and artists, and a “No Cop Co-Op” at the corner of 11th and Pine flanked him. Later, a screening of Ava DuVernay’s 13th, a documentary about the failures of America’s criminal justice system, would be held.

The peaceful streets were at odds with the disorderly scenes one might cobble together from the president’s tweets (which quickly prompted governor Jay Inslee and mayor Jenny Durkan to tweet their burns). Cal Anderson Park only added to this air of calm. In its fields, people now tend to gardens or retreat to tents. If the CHAZ is a temporary settlement, it certainly doesn't feel that way.

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