Opinion: Debunking myths of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone

Jun 12, 2020, 8:56 AM | Updated: 1:05 pm
Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone...
The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. (Nick Bowman, MyNorthwest)
(Nick Bowman, MyNorthwest)

Seattle’s protests against police brutality have evolved in recent days. Whereas before they were defined by a series of clashes between police and protesters near the city’s East Precinct, the movement has now taken root in the form of what’s now become known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ.

And while the messaging of the CHAZ has at times been imperfect, it’s also the start of something truly powerful.

Scores of people are camped out in the six-block area of Capitol Hill, after police made the decision to clear out of the East Precinct. The movement’s philosophy has largely centered around remaking Seattle’s police department, in the face of a widespread campaign of disinformation designed to obscure that message.

A look inside Seattle’s newly-formed ‘Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone’

That all being so, it’s important to clarify what the CHAZ is and is not.

Rumors circulated around social media have made some pretty wild, largely unfounded claims, some painting a picture of a post-apocalyptic, anarchist nightmare-scape. One outlet went so far as to label it “‘Mad Max’ movie mayhem come alive.” Another particularly outlandish claim posited that Seattle-based rapper Raz Simone had positioned himself as a “warlord” in charge of the area.

Meanwhile, police said Wednesday in a brief seven-minute press conference that the department had heard reports of armed protesters checking IDs and extorting local businesses.

Chief Best repeated the latter claim Thursday, before walking it back entirely later on in the day, admitting that the department actually didn’t have “any formal reports of this occurring.” Businesses contacted in the area have also roundly denied it, with one saying that “for the police chief to engage in this fear mongering is bad for our city.”

“We hadn’t felt safe to reopen UNTIL the police stood down,” Optimism Brewing, situated blocks away from the CHAZ, said Thursday.

After spending time in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone Thursday, the scene was less “‘Mad Max’ mayhem” and more “peaceful and cooperative.” No one checked my ID, there were no burnt-out husks of buildings, and the mood from many was a mix of solemn and hopeful.

Food and first aid tents are scattered throughout the six-block radius. Kids drew in chalk on the pavement. A hot dog vendor was selling food at the corner of 11th and Pine. Memorials to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sat in front of graffiti art adorning surrounding buildings. Spirited discussions and debates took place in public forums in front of the now-empty East Precinct.

There have been plenty of other reports of businesses happily cooperating to pitch in with snacks, supplies, and bathrooms. CHAZ residents even convened Wednesday and Thursday to go over everything from garbage collection to what the political messaging should be in the days ahead.

It’s in that messaging where things are still a work in progress. Daily discussions among protesters, while productive, haven’t always had everyone seeing eye to eye. That being so, it’ll be important in the days ahead for the group to keep its original intent in the forefront of discussions: massive, systemic reshaping of the policing system.

That’s a tall enough order on its own, but when you start mixing in a wide swathe of other progressive causes, it’s easy for others to muddy the waters and dismiss the larger movement as a bunch of people co-opting a cause to live out their anarchist fantasies (which it decidedly is not).

When protests moved inside City Hall on Tuesday, we heard one speaker implore Councilmember Kshama Sawant and others to “please stop taking advantage of us.” That came after Sawant spent a good chunk of her speech using the protest as a springboard for her “Tax Amazon” campaign.

Sawant later clarified that she believes her big business tax directly addresses the issues of racial inequality (which in some ways it certainly does). Even so, the larger demands from many protesters remain centered around remaking the city’s policing.

A list of of 30 demands from the group published online also covers a lot of ground. Much of it is rooted in reforming and remaking the justice system, and will likely be an important part of any future discussion on where to redirect excess police funding. But as a collective work, in many ways it attempts to swallow the elephant whole, so to speak.

Demands posted on flyers inside the CHAZ put forth a much simpler, three-point list, representing the core of the movement’s goals: Defund the police department, fund community-based health and safety, and drop all charges against protesters.

Opinion: No more reform — it’s time to rebuild Seattle policing

With national outlets (and President Trump) turning their focus to the CHAZ, Seattle’s movement is now under a microscope. When the rest of the country peers into that microscope, the CHAZ will have to ensure that what people see is a strong, united, and focused message.

More than that, there’s a vested interest from opponents to make it look dangerous, disorganized, and violent. We’ve seen that in the many seeds of disinformation sown in recent days.

On the other side of the barricades, protesters want to prove not only that they can function safely, but thrive without the police. If that experiment proves successful, it poses a very real, existential challenge to policing as we know it, proving that maybe, just maybe, there truly is a better way.

Whether that way exists within the confines of that six-block span of Capitol Hill remains to be seen, but things are certainly off to a promising start.

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Opinion: Debunking myths of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone