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The CHAZ Revelations
A generation of Americans woefully illiterate in civics, political philosophy, and government theory just got a crash course in lessons we could easily have learned from history and tradition.
Case Studies in Reanimation
I have a confession to make. I have a morbid fixation with The Walking Dead. I’ve tried to stop watching it multiple times, and have even gone as long as a year without watching an episode. But I always come back to get my fix (to my wife’s ongoing mortification).
I only mention this because one of the things I find so fascinating about The Walking Dead is that, despite the threat of undead, corporeal manifestations (who are in various degrees of decay from day one but somehow hold together enough to gnaw at the cast years down the road), they have either wittingly or unwittingly created a franchise that recreates various elements of man in a “natural state” and the struggle to impose order on an unforgiving world drowning in violent chaos.
In other words, the story of The Walking Dead presents a case study in both natural law and social contract theory. This fascinates me to no end, especially when these theories are so reflective of human nature that the writers, directors, producers, and cast members are probably acting out this case study unintentionally.
For example, the seventh season is a perfect depiction of the societal transition from small autonomous groups protecting themselves from roving bandits to forced integration into a broader collective under the despotic control of a stationary bandit, who solidifies his dominance by assuring a monopoly on violence (taking everyone’s guns) and exercising that monopoly through arbitrary and summary execution, ensuring control through terror and fear.
But I digress. What I’m getting at is the current generation of Americans is woefully illiterate in civics, political philosophy, and government theory. Burn-it-down Populism has gripped major factions on both sides of the aisle, who revel in tearing down institutions, angrily disposing of societal norms, and pulling down the fabric of a system they feel has betrayed them. And yet, time and time again, when members and supporters of these factions get the chance to tell a new story or build something from the ground up, they tend to recreate that which they worked so hard to discredit (or demonstrate the evils the system was designed to avoid).
This brings me to CHAZ.
What Was CHAZ?
The Capital Hill Autonomous Zone, variously called the No Cop Co-op, Free Capitol Hill, The People’s Republic of Capitol Hill, and, most recently, CHOP, or the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, was a six-block area of Seattle that police had abandoned to anti-police protestors.
Some have called CHAZ a police-free block party. Others, like the inestimable Mayor of Seattle, say CHAZ is what patriotism and democracy look like. Many just call it Occupy Wall Street under a new banner and with a different message. I, however, call it what it is: a two-week-long failed city-subsidized experiment in anarcho-communism.
But just how did CHAZ come to be? As anyone who’s been reading recent headlines knows, protests and demonstrations have rocked America in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. While many, and I like to hope a majority, have exercised their freedom of speech in service to their cause peacefully and responsibly, others have engaged in violence and vandalism. When peaceful protest turns to unlawful assembly, the police must move in to protect lives and property.
The efforts of police to restore law and order, and protect peaceful protest from violent interlude, has been met with varying degrees of success throughout the country. Some states had only dealt with one or two days of violence before local leaders helped assert the expectation that protests remain peaceful. Others have seen dangerous escalation by violent offenders in the face of “soft-presence” attempts to dissuade violence (combined with an unwillingness to condemn violence and vandalism by local and national leaders).
In Seattle, government leaders vacillated considerably in their approach as they balanced their duty to assure law and order with their desire to signal to the protesters that they stood with them. This confused and ponderous response eventually concluded with the complete abandonment of the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct. With a vacated police presence, protesters settled in and declared the area an autonomous zone.
The American public became fascinated with CHAZ. Every major news outlet ran stories discussing this small “police-free commune.” The Left looked at it optimistically, either hoping it could demonstrate law enforcement through neighborhood cooperation and without police or, at least, as another manifestation of growing discontent that society needed to address. The Right, and especially the President, derided CHAZ as a treasonous group of anarchists and domestic terrorists.
Whatever it was, it didn’t turn into a new “Summer of Love,” as the ever-astute mayor of Seattle had hoped. At best, it was, to use Guy Benson’s description, “communist cosplay.” While President Trump’s description of armed domestic terrorists occupying U.S. territory is an exaggeration (that description better fits the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge), it is fair to say that CHAZ was an attempt at collective self-government with no leaders and no police, a mob occupation of Seattle streets that hoped to create an anarcho-communist collective.
And, it’s an experiment that ended rather quickly and ingloriously.
“I Thought We Were an Autonomous Collective”
Let’s clarify real quick that this “autonomous zone” was never remotely autonomous. Just as the online anti-capitalist mobs use the technology and products of the free market to deride the same, the “occupation” of CHAZ relied on the goodwill of Seattle’s government, the voluntary surrender of the precinct by police, and the services and amenities of an already established municipality to exist.
As Noah Rothman points out, this “enclave in the heart of a major American city was never ‘occupied.’ It existed at the pleasure of the authorities who surrendered these blocks to the mob.”
For all intents and purposes, CHAZ was literally subsidized by the city of Seattle.
The protestors had access to existing water lines and electrical grids. The city continued to provide waste removal. The mayor even directed the Seattle Department of Transportation to set up portable toilets for use by the occupants of CHAZ and had the King County Public Health Department provide COVID-19 testing at Cal Anderson Park. In fact, despite it being a “No Cop Co-op,” CHAZ was still largely serviced by public safety institutions as fire and rescue attempted to respond to fire call-outs, and police tried to respond to 911 calls.
Seattle People’s Department East Precinct
But what was it that CHAZ was trying to create? The most generous descriptions of their efforts suggest they wanted to forge a small autonomous zone that engaged in pure democracy through consensus decision-making, with no oppressive authority, and with an absence of police for the enforcement of the law. It was to be a “safe space” for free expression and protests against systemic racism and police brutality.
Protesters altered the wording of the local precinct building to read, “Seattle People’s Department East Precinct.” Signs placed on the borders of CHAZ read, “You Are Now Entering Free Cap Hill” and “You Are Now Leaving the USA.” The intention seemed to be to create a small nation unto itself, free from government violence and a veritable safe space for speaking out on the issues that mattered to the protesters.
What’s interesting, though, is the voiced vision that came out of CHAZ went far beyond supposed “free speech zone” inclinations. They didn’t merely want to be left alone to demonstrate the effectiveness of their communal non-police existence, nor did they see their presence as a peaceful and non-confrontational occupation, but a militant hostage-like occupation with a list of demands.
In a Medium post from June 9th, a list of thirty demands was laid out by “the collective black voices at free capitol hill.” The demands included:
Complete abolition of the Seattle Police Department and “attached court system.”
Complete defunding of Seattle Police, including existing pensions.
A ban on all uses of force for law enforcement. “No guns, no batons, no riot shields, no chemical weapons.”
The abolition of juvenile detention centers.
The reopening of all closed law enforcement use of force cases.
Reparation for all victims of police brutality. (Given their other demands, we can only assume they consider every use of force as an instance of police brutality)
A retrial for “all People of Color currently serving a prison sentence for violent crime.”
Decriminalization of the acts of protest. (Again, we can assume this relates to acts of protest currently considered unlawful assembly, as peaceful assembly and freedom of speech are already protected under the federal constitution and all state constitutions).
A general amnesty for all arrested protesters.
Release of all prisoners held for resisting arrest, with expungement of their criminal records.
The abolition of imprisonment generally.
Allow the people to create autonomous and localized anti-crime systems.
That body cameras always be on and that the recorded video from these cameras should be easily accessible public record.
Free public housing.
Naturalization for all undocumented immigrants.
De-gentrification and rent control.
End of displacement of homeless “neighbors” and end of all evictions.
Black patients in hospitals should be treated by black nurses and black doctors.
In other words, far from an autonomous collective or experiment in the kind of police-free society they desire to create, the inhabitants of CHAZ were demanding, through occupation, a complete reconfiguring of the city of Seattle and the state of Washington. (The word demand was used 45 times, and italicized in almost every instance)
“The Violence Inherent In the System”
But, they did, in fact, attempt to go about enacting their demands as they could within the realm of their influence.
The first thing they did was establish a border. Then, they put up barricades and fencing marking the border of their “autonomous” zone. A border wall, if you will. (They literally replaced the hated police barricades with their own). And, they established something akin to the autonomous and localized anti-crime system they spoke of in their demands.
How did it go? Well, their anti-crime system amounted to armed volunteers, including open-carrying members of the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club, manning their barricades and enforcing rules of conduct.
On June 10th, Assistant Police Chief Deanna Nollette told media that police had received reports of “armed individuals” running checkpoints at the barricades and “intimidating community members” and that police had “heard anecdotally” of demands for fees to operate businesses in the area.
Hip hop artist Chaz Ramone was reportedly an active and armed presence and seemed to be the de facto leader of the anti-crime “brute squad.” One video surfaced of Chaz Ramone engaging in a fistfight with someone putting graffiti “in the wrong place” as another CHAZ “patrolman” shouted, “We are the police of this community now.”
There was even a pro-life supporter reportedly “deported” from CHAZ at one point.
And what about their attempts at pure democracy and consensus decision-making? It seemed no reliable mechanics to determine consensus ever developed, and it was the protesters “occupying” the city space who were largely involved in whatever attempt to create consensus did occur. Business owners and residents inside CHAZ were mostly at the mercy of the protesters.
One resident posted on Nextdoor that she’s “being held hostage in my place by the Occupied protest. I can’t get to and from my apartment safely. I have been verbally harassed and physically threatened by occupants.”
A group of local businesses has recently filed a suit with the city of Seattle, alleging that “officials have been complicit in depriving them of their rights to their property,” and that business owners were threatened “with retaliation if those businesses painted over graffiti.”
Despite the declared egalitarian goals of CHAZ, it seems the lack of consistent law and order in the zone severely impacted those who live and work there. The USA Today reported that most businesses in CHAZ had been forced to close as far back as June 14th. Residents of the zone were forced to live in a constant state of disruption and fear while the zone remained under the control of the protesters.
Far from a fully representative collective, we can identify a micro-representation of what has typically happened in socialist and communist takeovers across the world. The governing body and its members claim to speak for “the people” but qualify “the people” as those who are sufficiently dedicated to the cause. The protesters were effectively “the party” and conducted themselves as an ideological oligarchy imposing its will without full representative participation while claiming to nevertheless fully represent the people’s will.
The Fall of CHAZ
Ultimately, CHAZ failed for two reasons. First, the protesters could not secure effective law and order through an autonomous anti-crime system. Second, it became apparent they had hijacked legitimate grievances of the African American community in service of an extreme anarcho-communist narrative.
In the two weeks that CHAZ existed, crime dramatically increased, and 911 response times in and around that part of Seattle rose to 45 minutes. Police Chief Carmen Best reported “shootings, a rape, assault, burglary, arson, and property destruction” within CHAZ itself, adding that “robberies, and all sorts of violent acts have been occurring in the area and we have not been able to get to it.”
The unraveling situation only got worse as four shootings in and around CHAZ occurred in just the last week, with three of those occurring in the span of four days. A victim of one of these shootings, a 19-year-old African American named Horace Lorenzo Anderson, died of his injuries. Even in the heart of an “autonomous” zone dedicated to Black Lives Matter and absent a police presence, the life of a young black man still ended in violence.
On top of a spiraling cycle of violence and crime, CHAZ began drawing the ire of other Black Lives Matter supporters. One frustrated activist even shouted at the CHAZ protesters, “You have hijacked this!”
Even the most ardent supporters of progressivism in the heart of Seattle were quickly realizing that a moment of consensus against police brutality was being squandered as the focus of the city, the state, and the nation was upon young agitators play-acting as revolutionaries.
With support for CHAZ dwindling and with crime in the area on the rise, the ever-wise Mayor of Seattle finally concluded that the “autonomous” zone wasn’t what democracy looks like after all. The experiment of CHAZ, at last, concluded. All but a few holdouts have left, and the encampment will likely be cleared out sometime next week.
The CHAZ Revelations
CHAZ, in its brief existence, did a lot to demonstrate how little consideration of history and human reality the hard-left puts into their ideology.
In just two weeks’ time, we saw a mini-nation ostensibly secede from America to create a peaceful and welcoming pseudo-society where protesters could exercise freedom of speech without fear of state coercion or police brutality that ended up creating a border, building a border wall, embracing the open carry of weapons, enlisting an armed squad of law enforcers that allegedly engaged in extortion and excessive uses of force, “deport” at least one ideological dissenter, and declare itself the voice of the people in CHAZ while repressing the residents and businesses inside the zone who had little to no say in the operations of the commune.
It’s safe to say that the “faults inherent in the system” are the faults of human weakness that will exist in whatever system they create, especially those that build themselves on ideologically thin air instead of on the learned experiences of generations who came before them.
CHAZ demonstrates why tear-it-down populism just creates more dysfunction, more violence, more chaos, and more death. Our system, our institutions, and the norms and moors of our society are far from perfect, but they are built on sound notions of human behavior and informed philosophy. We are inheritors of a society that has been built slowly but steadily over the course of history, and each generation learned valuable lessons and added to the brick-and-mortar of shared experience.
Trying to build something new and radical out of thin air only leads to rediscovering all the lessons we have failed to learn from those who came before us. Instead of tearing down all that we have received and spreading the dysfunction of CHAZ across the nation, we instead need to build. We need to assess our institutions and reevaluate our system and shore up the breaches. We need to find ways to build even better upon the foundation we stand upon and leave the next generation a more perfect union.
This is a lesson we are going to learn one way or the other. We can either learn it through understanding why things are the way they are or by experiencing all the travails of learning the lessons of generations freshly and vividly for ourselves.