By VIEWPOINT MAGAZINE
A few days ago Viewpoint sat down on June 13 with P, an activist based in Seattle, for an in-depth conversation about the history and current dynamics of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), the challenges that lie ahead, and lessons still to be learned. Responses have been lightly edited to account for recent developments.
Viewpoint: Over the last few days since the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) erupted, people have already been comparing what is happening in Seattle to the Occupy movement, for better or worse. There is clearly an echo of some form, at least to the way it is being perceived, if not on the ground there. We expect that people will try to replicate the occupation elsewhere, so it seems important to figure out what that means and how it relates to other tactics. We and many others outside Seattle are also curious about what the occupation is like, and how it came to be. Also, what kind of racial composition and dynamic does CHAZ have?
P: To understand what is going on in the CHAZ, about which so much has already been written and said, I think you need to first start with how we arrived at this situation in the first place. The CHAZ came directly out of a nine-day long direct confrontation with the Seattle Police Department at the East Precinct on Pine Street, right near Cal Anderson Park. The fact that it was held there – in that neighborhood, in that space – is what made the CHAZ possible.1
I don’t think people realized that the protest itself was going to become the political form. In other words, I thought that after tensions eased, the people would hold general assemblies to decide what to do next. However, people became passionately attached to that space and to that particular conflict.
So things started popping off in Seattle more generally on Friday, May 29. There were seemingly spontaneous roving marches that were antagonistic toward police that went well into the early morning. There’s a Ferrari dealer in Capitol Hill, this hideous glass building and a constant target for protests, that had its windows broken. The front windows in the store I work at on Broadway were broken, same with an Amazon grocery store on Pike.
On Friday, the confrontational elements were smaller and relatively contained. Then on Saturday, May 30, that is when you had the series of larger marches with diversity of tactics and looting.
And those Saturday marches, I think that’s when everyone—all of us—had the impression that like, damn, this is different. This is a different atmosphere. People are ready to fight the cops and shift the relations of force in the streets. The Saturday marches were focused on the downtown core of Seattle around Westlake Center, which is about 20 minutes walking distance downhill from Capitol Hill. Straight down Pike Street, you get to Pike Place Market, which is this glitzy downtown shopping district where many of the protests were held that first weekend. And there’s also police headquarters downtown to the south, by the Public Library, courthouses, City Hall, and the King County Correctional Facility. A confrontation there ended with tear gas and flash bangs and all that. Shortly after, an emergency notice was sent to phones that a curfew was to take effect, maybe 30 minutes after the message was sent.
On Sunday, May 31, people gathered in the same place downtown. However, it quickly became clear that the police wanted to hold and control the downtown area because of what had happened on Saturday. Sunday’s marches were a bit smaller and more dispersed across the city, and they kept up the antagonistic thrust and resulted in the wide deployment of flash bangs and other crowd control measures by the police, especially when crowds collectively resisted individual arrests.
On Sunday, when the 5 pm city curfew came into effect, it became clear that the police wanted to hold downtown because of what happened on Saturday.
That is when the attention shifted to the East Precinct, the Capitol Hill precinct, which doesn’t really belong in that neighborhood in the first place. It’s right next to the Northwest Film Forum, which held a lot of Red May events. Seattle Central College is nearby as well. It’s this bustling cultural district and a historically queer neighborhood, and this precinct is like a fortress on that corner. It just did not belong there, and the police were determined, I think, to not let us march past it.
It’s a little unclear why – probably because of fears that people would torch it – but that just became a ground the police would not cede. And people just kept coming back for the next week. And really, this amazing core group of street medics – some of whom are medical workers, and some who are just people with first aid training – these activists really were the ones that kept the thing going. They provided a lot of the coordination work for sustaining the protest and running supplies out of the parking lot of the Rancho Bravo taco shop. The other really organized group was the bicycle brigades, who shut down traffic around the protest area and ensured safety of the participants. Those were really the two key organizational forms within the protest that kept things going. Sometimes I would walk by on a Friday night and it would be a bustling scene, people facing down the cops with umbrellas held high, youth hanging out in the park and in the back of the crowd. Other times I’d walk by in the early morning and there’d be no more than 15 people out. But things never stopped, the self-organization never let up.
But again, Seattle is very dense in terms of its organizations, in terms of left formations, especially Capitol Hill. I bet if you went through the street medics and the bicycle teams, it was made up of ordinary people from all parts of the political left: antifascists, queer activitsts, anarchist groups, solidarity networks, antiracist collectives, prison abolition groups – the entire gamut of that whole spectrum of activity, I think, was represented in those forms and within the protest itself. But there were also residents, college and high-school students, working-class people from all over the region who showed up at various times.
So to get back to questions. Seattle is a pretty white city. But, you know, depending on the day, I think the crowd at the CHAZ can be diverse. I haven’t conducted a rigorous survey, but it was pretty multiracial and there were visible black protest leaders. So going through the CHAZ last night (Thursday, June 11), it was noticeably less white. There were probably about 2,000 people out last night, and it was really mixed in terms of racial composition.
VP: And what kind of activities take place there?
P: Cultural work and practice is central to the CHAZ. In the first days, a central activity was the painting of a Black Lives Matter mural on the street by local artists. There’s a free library (“Pay the Fee”) and bookstands on the street going up and down Pine, legal aid. Graffiti and street art are everywhere you turn, and are visual chronicles of the struggle that’s taken place. There’s a vigil to those killed by police, both near and afar, in the main intersection of the CHAZ, off 11th and Pine. More recently, one of the wooden road dividers recently put in place by the Seattle Department of Transportation (a fiercely disputed move), artists have drawn murals dedicated to black trans women killed by police.
There’s a bunch of community support groups focusing on harm reduction. There’s a “People’s Community Clinic” that’s been set up. There is an interfaith booth set up, there’s a conversation cafe, just to talk to people individually about issues going on, about racial injustice in America. And then there’s Cal Anderson Park.
You have more supply stations and provisions popping up, too. There’s also a co-op – the No Cop Co-op. There’s all sorts of food. And there’s a permanent people’s mic too. There are also teach-ins on all sorts of topics related to racial inequality and the history of anti-racist activism.
VP: But are there working groups? Is this basically happening through those groups and organizations that use the space, or out of the working groups that have emerged from the space itself?
P: There are affinity groups that meet everyday at 3pm in the area around the precinct. A division of labor has emerged for maintaining the space, strategizing, etc. You can get plugged into groups working on security, tech, mutual aid and food, ecology, demands, music, arts & culture, political education workshops, childcare, medic work – the list goes on. I’m sure those meetings are happening elsewhere as well. You can sign up for night-watch and other tasks. And there was the People’s Assembly on Wednesday, though these assemblies have sometimes been speak-outs or directionless, which is a problem, but that might also be changing.
VP: As opposed to what?
P: As opposed to spaces for deliberation and decision-making. That work isn’t always publicly done, at least. I’m sure it’s happening in Signal groups and between organizers because it seems like – from my vantage point, I could be wrong on this – it seems like a lot of the street medic people and people who were heavily involved in the protests and at the frontlines everyday switched over to be organizers of the CHAZ, or at least provided a logistical infrastructure.
I do think it’s been kind of a unity-in-action type of thing, where it’s not so much about designating roles. I mean, there’s a division of labor in that people are doing different activities. But I think people are pitching in when they are able to devote time and wherever they can.
During Occupy, general assemblies and organizing groups were central to the movement. In contrast, I think the issues at hand in the George Floyd Rebellion demand a more nuanced approach to organizing. It would be misleading to say that the CHAZ is a white space – it is very multiracial at any point in the day. However, specifically black individuals do not make up the majority of those showing up in Capitol Hill. Again, Capitol Hill is not a black neighborhood, as the nearby Central District is. I think there’s some legitimate hesitation for non-black organizers in stepping up to decide what the CHAZ should be about or what next steps are going to be.
VP: What is your sense of how people are engaging with Chaz? We’ve seen a list of demands circulating; do you feel like that is a representative list of demands, or has that kind of been put out in the name of this larger thing? I guess we’re trying to figure out what connections there are between the external picture, on the one hand, and how people are thinking and talking within the CHAZ, on the other. Because now there’s this whole external image in many of the news reports you cited. Obviously, the president and right-wing media have their version of what’s happening, social democrats who are ignorant of what’s going on have their version of what’s happening. So we’re just trying to figure out, how are those discourses progressing in the space, if at all?
P: It’s funny, inthe New York Times article about the CHAZ they make a snide remark about these three different lists of demands circulating from the Seattle movement, and how the protesters seem not to be able to make up their minds. But there’s overlap between the ledgers of demands.
There is one list of around 30 demands, many of which have to do with actually socializing social services in addition to defunding and abolishing the police. That list was hashed out by participants at the CHAZ during an informal rally. That was the night the police abandoned the precinct, and it was people just getting up and speaking about what they felt was important and what the group needed to demand, to articulate. It was informal, someone with a loudspeaker set up these amps and everyone was allowed to state their demands to the group. Someone then heroically stitched together the actual list.
Kshama Sawant’s campaign was also circulating a list that was somewhat responsive to the demands coming from the street, but it was also a little bit divisive, due to its focus on her personal policy program – the Tax Amazon campaign.
Then there was the list of five demands posted on the fence in Cal Anderson park – the five demands of Seattle King County BLM. So for much of the protests I think those are what people attached to. BLM-SKC has also developed a more comprehensive list of demands on its website.
Finally, there’s three “condensed” demands now posted on the outside of the precinct (or its new name, the Seattle People’s Department): the immediate 50% defunding of SPD; a call for city government to prioritize “community-led health and safety strategies, which would include access to “affordable housing, community-based anti-violence programs, trauma services and treatment, universal childcare, and free public transit”; and the dropping of all charges for protesters.
I’ll also say that I don’t think the outside discourse grasps how actually attuned these protestors are to the practices and policies of Seattle, to the police department and the mayor’s office, how aware they are of the history of the Seattle PD and the implication of the wider legal system – the prosecutors, judges, correctional facilities, and so on – in providing a rationale for these policies. The visions and demands that have exploded into the national conversation have been elaborated through the painstaking research, analysis, and militancy of local activists. That political intelligence continuously needs to be recognized and engaged with.
VP: What do you mean by that point about the protesters being aware of the SPD’s institutional history?
P: So, for instance, the first demand of King County was that the city of Seattle drop the lawsuit against the Department of Justice consent decree. What that means is, in 2010, Seattle police killed an indigenous man, John T. Williams, shooting him as he was crossing the street. The Department of Justice investigated this in 2011, and found that Seattle PD has a consistent pattern of using excessive force. For the next seven years, they set up compliance guidelines that SPD had to meet. They barely met them – they were found to be slightly out of compliance for a couple of years. And then last year, Mayor Durkan and the city brought a lawsuit in order to lift that consent decree. The city is just really aloof in terms of thinking about their police department. They think they use the force in a justified, correct manner. And quickly, after this protest, when it became clear that this protest was not going away, Durkan dropped the lawsuit. So they’re going to keep complying with the consent decree. So people are well aware of the procedures and policies, which SPD should but does not adhere to, if that makes sense. They’re aware of the material conditions of policing. People are knowledgeable about the activities of the SPD, and the political context it is a part of.
VP: The concrete operations of day-to-day policing and the political activities of municipal governments seem highly politicized in these protests.
P: Absolutely. There’s one other thing I just want to recall. Few journalists have mentioned it, but do people remember what happened on the third night of the WTO protests in 1999?
VP: The Battle for Seattle?
P: One of the key moments of that battle was a conflict in Capitol Hill, when Seattle police pushed people out of downtown. There was an eight-hour fight, well into the early morning, between police and protesters over holding ground on Capitol Hill, almost at the precise site where the current protests are occurring.
They indiscriminately used tear gas and pepper spray to overwhelm residents and protesters. And in the wake of that, the Seattle police chief, Norm Stamper, said they were wrong to use that excessive force, he changed the whole trajectory of his career because of it. So there’s this real erasure of memory there on SPD’s part. Almost the exact same thing happened 20 years ago. And here they are again, viciously and wantonly attacking protesters, seemingly not expecting a response from a challenge like that. They nearly killed a woman with a stun grenade in the final assault, a stark evocation of the murder of Rémi Fraisse in France and past police killings involving flashbangs. I found that to be kind of stupefying on the cops’ part.
You would think the fallout from the WTO protests would have impacted their handling of the present situation. However, on June 12th, a Federal Court found that SPD had used less-lethal weapons disproportionately and without provocation, and issued a restraining order temporarily restricting the use of the crowd control measures that were used earlier in the week.
But there’s a couple of really good lessons in there, the first being the lasting kind of tactical memory and legacy. You can have these earlier tumults and struggles. They became etched into the fabric of the neighborhood.
VP: There’s also this other lesson. Everyone’s been talking about how police basically operated under a great deal of ideological, legal, and juridical cover in the name of reform for the last 60 years, which builds in all sorts of structural amnesia, precisely the kind that you’re highlighting there. They always seem to forget their past crimes.
P: Yes. This amnesia is a driving force for why abolitionist perspectives are taking hold in the current moment. Ordinary denizens here are absolutely aware of how SPD functions, its disavowal as an institution that regularly engages in excessive force and cruel policing practices. They are more aware of this fact than the cops themselves.
VP: Can we ask a question about Kshama Sawant? We now have a healthy crop of socialist electeds around the country. We’ve seen them at a bunch of demonstrations in New York, and some of them have spoken at demos. But the way they seem to relate to the protesters is to reflect at a properly political or policy level what people are pushing for in the streets.
Now, what’s interesting, from what we can tell from Sawant, is that, by doing things like unlocking City Hall, and by speaking at these demo assemblies, she seems to also be participating in the kind of tactical character or the organizational process of the movement itself, more than just clarifying its policy demands. Is that wrong, or is that a fair characterization of the role she is playing? Could you say more about Sawant and how she relates to all this? Are there voices on the ground that say she’s an outsider or she’s external or extraneous to the process of the organizing happening in CHAZ?
P: Yeah, I think that last point is absolutely true. I think what’s happened with her is very complex, and a good lesson for people in the DSA who think of the electoral path as an obvious thing to bank on. They operate on the belief that socialist politicians who win can easily maintain a link with social movements on the ground. What has happened with Sawant, which is at a hyper-local level, I think shows that you can never take that link for granted.
So, Sawant – I just want to say she is a principled politician, she goes to all sorts of demos and actions; she came out to the Book Workers Union’s first public event at Elliott Bay in early March. She has been a consistent left voice in city government during the pandemic. And she’s just an amazing public speaker. She’s able to distill certain anticapitalist ideas for mass audiences, which is not easy.
She has also been involved in anti-racist campaigns in the city for a long time. She was an early supporter of the Block the Bunker campaign, which was in response to when, in 2017, SPD asked for $150 million to construct a new precinct. It’s a great predecessor and organizing model for the calls for defunding police departments happening now. She amplified the voices of other activists and got the allocation cut to $12 million for renovations to the existing structure. She’s been involved in pushes against the construction of jails. She’s definitely been involved in and supported BIPOC organizing on abolitionist-type demands.
So what happened here? What happened with CHAZ is that she came to the frontlines a few times, spoke, and was supportive of what we were doing. She got tear gassed.
On Monday night, after they abandoned the precinct, Sawant was there. She said a lot in support of the movement, in support of defunding the police, expelling the Seattle Police Officers Guild from the King County Labor Council, but she’s also on this Tax Amazon campaign, kind of the successor to the head tax that was repealed. She connects everything to that in a way that I think people found her to be speaking over or overlooking the demands of the protest.
On Tuesday, the night after they abandoned the precinct, she had a rally where a lot of speakers from the movement showed up. But again, people were immediately suspicious that she was there to co-opt the movement. On one of her flyers, the demand to free all political prisoners – protesters who have been arrested – was written in small print, while Tax Amazon was emphasized. And of course, she’s not wrong in that. Abolitionism is inherently linked to questions about the role of policing in upholding and protecting property. In a city where Amazon holds so much property and so much wealth, abolition work has to question their role gentrifying and developing, basically owning huge swaths of Seattle. But she did it in a way that people felt was overbearing, and was not really responsive. She was really flat-footed in terms of how she approached this new space and the demands that people were making.
I think she could have kind of sidelined that issue, and maybe brought in an Amazon worker from Amazonians United as one of the many speakers. Maybe a worker of color at Amazon, of which there are thousands in this city, who work insane shifts as warehouse laborers or Prime drivers with little protection, and let them speak. I think that might have highlighted the connection between Amazon’s wealth and this movement – showing how Amazon’s exploitation of workers, and POC workers in particular, helps to buttress the oppressive conditions and dynamics of accumulation that the police enforce on the street.
And the response was such that people called her out at City Hall about it. She’s taken a few days off from the space. Last week, she said she was going to introduce legislation to turn the precinct into a community center. So I think she’s trying to repair that break. But there is a lesson here – don’t come to a movement with a pre-existing program. You have to be responsive to the mass line.
VP: We’re not sure how widespread this was, but we noticed that Sawant said she would introduce legislation to cut the police budget by 50%, and then some people, at least online, were giving her flak for not doing 100%. This seems notable. It’s something everyone in office is potentially facing right now: being outpaced by the militancy of the demands that are circulating. It was unexpected that “defund the police” became the slogan; then, seemingly all of a sudden, everyone is a police and prison abolitionist, making that demand for abolition in non-incremental terms. If you go read a bunch of prison abolitionists, they’ll say, well, it’s always incremental, and abolition is more like a guidepost by which we measure everything we do. So to say cut it by 100% – it is interesting that something so radical as 50% has already been proposed, and that it doesn’t satisfy the movement right now.
P: That’s a good point. And now, on the council, there is a majority in favor of defunding. Sawant did actually address her demand to cut the budget by just 50%. She said that as a socialist she is for the complete abolition of the police, but that she didn’t want to make promises she couldn’t fulfil. She referenced the promise to completely disband the Minneapolis Police Department, and a fear that that project was already kind of faltering – that there were still going to be police in Minneapolis. Full disbanding just seems like an impossible thing to ask for – which we can disagree with, push back against, and so on – but defunding has been the movement’s translation in the policy realm in Seattle.
VP: What is the relationship of all this to Occupy? How does this movement relate to Occupy in terms of demands, composition, terrain, relationship to the state? Watching this from the outside, it strikes us as if there are some parallels. But obviously we aren’t there. So we’re just curious, having lived through these cycles before, is this like an Occupy 2.0, or how is the Autonomous Zone diverting from that, if at all, in ideological, compositional, geographical terms?
P: I kept saying, as the protests progressed, that it was taking on more and more of an Occupy feel. But I think one major difference is that protesters are not shying away from at least making demands on the power structure; they are making demands that can be acted upon.
The other thing is that there has been an absence of the general assembly, which I think is also striking.
Ideologically, there are many people in Seattle who would object to using the word Occupy again. If Sawant speaks the language of class struggle, most activists in this protest speak about, you know, reparations, land, decolonization. A crucial moment in the early phases of the CHAZ was when the land was ceded to the Duwamish people. There’s also a different vocabulary that I think has come out of the other end of the 2014–15 BLM sequence and other movement spaces, that people have taken up. The two vocabularies are of course intertwined, they both refer to racial oppression in capitalist social formations and need to be consistently articulated, but sometimes that’s hard to do on the ground. And I think they would be suspicious of some of the operating categories that were circulating Occupy. A lot of these people were like 10 when Occupy was happening. That’s the other striking thing. It’s still very young, the movement, in terms of the people involved. Part of demonstrating the seriousness of this movement will be in steadfastly generating what Noel Ignatiev called for during Occupy: “persistence, creativity and resistance to repression, including by means other than those deemed acceptable according to the rules of conventional politics.”
VP: Do you have the impression that for the activists coming from there, like from Seattle 1999 or Occupy — is there a complete disconnect?
P: They’re present, but not necessarily key organizers. There are definitely layers of experience among activists on Capitol Hill that I think have definitely helped. I sense many of the people who are the most involved, for reasons of life-stations, are people who were not involved in those prior struggles. In some ways it’s positive, since they don’t see those moments and movements as a burden. They’re just like: that happened. We can try something like that again. They are not afraid to put forward a serious radical vision, through means other than what conventional political channels deem possible.
I don’t know if you’ve felt that elsewhere, but there is one other point I wanted to make, on organizing. I think the mutual aid organizing that was already happening around COVID-19 set a basis for people to be already connected and already involved. This lent itself to a project like what’s happening with the CHAZ. I think people were kind of warmed up and ready to devote time to political work. You know, in Capitol Hill there were tenants’ meetings happening, calls for a rent strike, other support work happening around community health from the onset of the pandemic, strikes by Instacart drivers, walkouts and sickouts by Amazon and Whole Foods workers, etc.
VP: So would you say that the social reproduction aspect is prominent?
P: Yes, I would say it’s one of the main features.
VP: Do you think it’s fair to suggest this is a concern, that there might be a tension between the thrust of these demands? Maybe this is a question about the defense and growth of the autonomous space. How does it relate to the demands that are being pursued by the movement elsewhere in Seattle and nationwide? Or is it now operating according to its own political logic?
P: The protest resulting in the creation of the CHAZ had definitely taken on a momentum. When people first started protesting at the precinct every night, there were no real leaders in place. People had a lot of ideas about what our goals were, and what our strategies would be. There were different ideas coming from the black activists and black organizers. Early on, there was one black organizer who was heavily involved, who some speculate may have been an infiltrator, but who was definitely sympathetic to cops. They were pushed out early, but those tendencies did creep in. There were activists puzzling over why we just keep putting ourselves in the position to get tear gassed night after night. Like, what was the purpose. It also wasn’t clear what was going to happen if they let us through, if they let us march by the precinct. People were like, what does this have to do with black lives, fighting for black lives?
That was definitely an issue. I think it points to what is going on in the CHAZ now. The continued repression just brought greater mobilization. Traditionally, repression results in less mobilization without a certain degree of support, but here that dialectic just exploded. People wanted to take on the police, they wanted to come back and show that tear gas, stun grenades, and blast balls can’t defeat this movement. They had developed an insurgent practice that those in power, both in City Hall and the precincts, could not keep up with, an insurgent practice that people in power flailed against.
I think that was unexpected. Now, it seems like the CHAZ is becoming kind of a collective act of disobedience against the city, against a police department that really terrorized a neighborhood for over a week. People feel they won this space, that they prevailed over the power of the ruling authorities.
However, the people’s possession of the space is still fragile. Both sides are still trying to claim it as their own. There’s still going to be a struggle over that. Jenny Durkan, the mayor, recently called what we’re doing an act of patriotism. In response, the people who won the space want to keep it as base for ongoing contestation.
VP: How do you think the CHAZ has changed the dynamic of the protests within the city? What would have happened without Capitol Hill? We are interested in the dynamic between the protest at large and the liberation at Capitol Hill.
P: It started to happen early on, within that first week. As I mentioned earlier, after that first weekend, things started to move to another phase. The looting and property damage had already died down. If people had not centered in the protest in Capitol Hill, I think there would have been more peaceful marches. The discourse of “peaceful protest” was already pervasive. The idea that it was the police who were the aggressors against us would still have taken hold.
However, I think it may have been easier for the SPD to shore up their legitimacy had the Capitol HIll confrontations not occurred. There was a continuity to the actions in Capitol Hill. There were people filming and livestreaming every night from the apartments above the precinct. All the police actions and all the protestor’s actions were caught on camera. A political learning process unfolded among a mass of young activists, who rapidly shared resources and updated their tactics adequately to the situation. The borrowing of streetfighting tools and insights from Hong Kong was one dimension of this learning process. We witnessed the protesters holding a space, and the police slowly fumbling away any shred of credibility. They were lying about what was going on, and the people of Seattle were given a bird’s eye view to call them out on it.
It is hard to predict what would have happened if Capitol Hill didn’t become the symbolic center of the protest. I think you would have witnessed similar dynamics, but the marches may have been easier to contain, and what happened within them might have been less visible to the public. The actions in Capitol Hill also forced the mayor to rescind the curfew. We could have seen a longer period of the curfew, those kinds of things.
The police assaults usually happened late at night. People were holding that space 24 hours a day. I think without that space people might have just gone home after the marches, things might have deescalated.
VP: Is there a difference between the marches and this space? Is it losing the capacity for expansion beyond activist circles and leftists?
P: What is interesting is that there are a lot of families at the CHAZ. When people are there, they aren’t necessarily participating in direct political action. I mean, the space is political, but I don’t think you have to see yourself as participating in a direct action while you are there. I still think there is the capacity for expansion within the space. I think it would be wise for it to become some sort of organizing hub.
I don’t know though. I think one of the issues is that it is physically disconnected from the black communities in Seattle, so that is a problem. But there is still potential for extension beyond this place, this area.
VP: So when they marched to City Hall the other day, they did that from the CHAZ, right?
VP: So this has been a staging ground for some marches. Can you speak to that? Is that an example of the expansion?
P: Even before the police abandoned the precinct, the confrontation period, there were marches happening from that area, taking off from that space to other parts of the city. Some people would stay behind while others marched throughout the surrounding neighborhoods. And now it is a staging ground of some kind. I think there are still tendencies pulling in different directions. On the one hand, we have to develop the space, people want to hold onto it and keep it sustainable. But at the same time, we need to still use it as a way to reach other parts of the city. There have been marches from there to some of the wealthier parts of the city. There have been black youth-led marches, leaving from the CHAZ with Nikkita Oliver, a long time organizer in Seattle. She is a comrade and former mayoral candidate against Durkan. Now, CHAZ has become the meet-up point for nightly marches to the West Precinct and brief highway takeovers.
VP: You mentioned families coming to the CHAZ. What do you mean by that, what are they doing?
P: I think some people come out of curiosity. But also, it is happening at a park. People seem to be bringing their kids to teach them about the movement. But people also bring their kids to play. There is a jungle gym in the park. Last night there was kind of a family-friendly dance party in the street. It’s a pretty tame atmosphere right now. There’s a festive element to it.
There is a line often repeated by organizers at the CHAZ: “this is not Coachella.” This has become a refrain elsewhere, too. But at the same time, this inviting atmosphere could be seen as a way to visibly counter the Seattle Police Department’s misinformation campaign. There are no citizens’ checkpoints. Families are coming and going. The area around it is a residential neighborhood, too.
VP: There’s always got to be an effort to work up the political content of people’s behavior when they go to these things. We can’t assume it is a given. That was probably just as true of some of the parades going on in other cities over the last few weeks.
VP: We want to ask a question about the houseless too. Because, anytime you take space like this, you have to confront the militarization of our cities, the destruction of public space, the policing strategies as they relate to urban redevelopment and houselessness. Whenever there are these moments to carve out some kind of autonomy or push back the cops, houseless leaders and organizers and activists are involved. That was really present at Occupy protests; we’re curious about what homeless involvement looks like there in Seattle.
P: This is an interesting question because Capitol Hill as a neighborhood and Seattle in general has a large houseless population. It’s an area where the housing crisis felt across the West Coast has been particularly acute and devastating in its effects on vulnerable populations. In Capitol Hill there have been ongoing cycles of investment in “luxury” housing developments. In the past two decades there’s been an influx of tech wealth that has changed things, like who can afford to live there. But there has also been a lot of resistance. The gentrification there has been uneven, resistance has been constant, and there is still a significant houseless population that have their own community. There are a lot of services for houseless people there and in the neighboring First Hill. And again, it’s a good question, because one of SPD’s most egregious tactics has been its sweeps of homeless encampments. There has also been a strong conservative movement in Seattle to ramp up policing of homelessness. (See KOMO News despicable “Seattle is Dying.”)
A lot of the people who are involved in the protests also support affordable housing. Some of the demands have focused on reinvesting money from SPD into public housing and homelessness solutions. There is definitely an attempt to make all people feel welcome at the CHAZ. There has been free food and clothing provided for whoever needs it.
But to my knowledge, houseless individuals haven’t really taken on leadership roles. At least not that I have seen.
VP: What about COVID at the protests. Is there concern that the encampment could ramp up contagion? Public health concerns are often used as an excuse to break up camps. Is that a concern here?
P: COVID-19 has definitely been a concern throughout these protests. And in some ways it is concerning when you have gatherings of up to 60,000 people in the middle of a pandemic. People aren’t really social distancing. BLM Seattle King County has been really hesitant to ask people to get out on the streets. Given that people of color have been amongst the hardest hit by the virus, and black people in particular, that makes a lot of sense.
Now though, it seems like people really are being stringent about trying to contain the spread. Almost everyone is wearing masks. There are always people around giving out free masks to those who don’t have them. People are being encouraged to get tested.
Seattle is doing free testing right now. Right now their website has a big alert in red letters that says, “results are in from UW Medicine and out of 3,000 tests fewer than 1% were positive. To our knowledge and based on volunteered information, there is no evidence so far of people testing positive for COVID-19 from attending protests in Seattle.”
There is information being passed around that the consistent use of masks and the outdoor setting are both doing a lot to slow the spread. Still, there are obviously a lot of unanswered questions here. And now with people staying for longer periods of time in the same space, people are taking off their masks to eat, drink, sleep, etc. There is definitely more that could be done to prevent and there is definitely more that could be done to try to make sure this isn’t a super-spreader event.
VP: Could you talk a little bit about what DSA is doing or has done in this movement? In other parts of the country like Portland, DSA came out as a big player. In Seattle, what is its relative importance to the movement?
P: So, I will preface everything by saying that I haven’t been that involved with the Seattle DSA since moving here, other than with their excellent Workplace Organizing Collective. But, DSA has been out here almost every day. There is an Afro-Socialist Caucus in Seattle who released a solid statement during the first marches and was handed out during breaks in the action. They have definitely had a presence in the Capitol Hill protests, signing people up, trying to be visible. In fact, the last few days at the CHAZ they have had a tent near the front of the CHAZ on Pine and 11th. And I think they have really been reflecting on what their role is and should be, as they’ve quickly got a Defund SPD petition up and running.
But here, because it is a crowded field organizationally, and especially in Capitol Hill, they have taken on more of a supportive role. Individuals from DSA have been volunteering in their different capacities, very much so. I talked to someone who was part of the bicycle brigade, and there’s been people at the tent or in Cal Anderson Park everyday.
I think the leadership of the movement in Seattle, and the people organizing the CHAZ are suspicious of “the white left.” DSA and even Sawant are really seen as part of this. And the DSA does have a POC membership problem. I think they are aware of this but it is a very white group. At the same time, the Seattle DSA has really strong working groups around immigration, tenant organizing, and other issues that impact POC. But there is still this belief that they neglect the interests of POC people.
Seattle DSA had definitely been a strong force prior to the George Floyd Rebellion. It’s visible in their actions around COVID-19. Not only were they involved in mutual aid networks, they were also sending people to help out farm workers who were on strike in Yakima Valley over health and safety concerns in their working conditions. I think this social revolt is also a tremendous opportunity for those who invested time and energy in the Bernie campaign to engage in a different mode of politics.
But I also want to be very upfront about the fact again, that I’m not that involved in DSA here. There could have been a lot of organizing going on that I just didn’t hear about. Seattle is a very geographically dispersed city, and I’m sure there are a lot of members outside of Capitol Hill.
VP: For many people outside of Seattle, what is happening there is viewed as the vanguard of the struggle, a kind of exception to a very demoralizing liberal cooptation that we are all dealing with right now. To what degree are people in Seattle thinking in these terms, that they are an exception or a vanguard? And to what degree are they strategizing to replicate or multiply or export it? What is the view from the inside-out, strategically?
P: I don’t think people are thinking about this in terms of a vanguard. And I am going to come off as a little pessimistic about exporting the model elsewhere. I think people are more astonished that they took control of this six-block area and committed to keeping it. At the same time, the police came in last week to get some things out of the precinct. Seattle Department of Transportation and the Fire Department presence are reminders of the fact the city still sees itself as controlling the space. I don’t want us to exaggerate what is going on here; the forces of order can still come in and crush us.
I also don’t think people here are thinking in terms of it being a vanguard because there is so much work to do to just maintain the space. I do think there are those who want to see this exported. I don’t think it is easily replicable. I think it was a political form that emerged out of a struggle, that would be really hard to do elsewhere. But it points to the possibilities of citywide popular power. It could become essentially a movement base. I sense those are strategic avenues that could come out of this. I would like to see more organized assemblies happen. And there are working-class neighborhoods in South Seattle where a liberated area like this could be an even more powerful challenge to the political decision-making of the elites in the city, and a concrete challenge to the police and the state’s juridical apparatus.
The CHAZ is a distillate of the self-activity of protesters. I guess the question is how to encourage other parts of the city, like the working-class neighborhoods of color in South Seattle, to embark on similar projects and precinct protests? The 60,000 who showed up for the Friday BLM silent march and the concurrent one-day general strike demonstrated that people are still ready to take to the streets; how do we plan and organize those detachments elsewhere? How do we maintain this movement as a living “arena of struggle,” as Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor observed about the shortcomings of the prior BLM cycle?
What has happened here is that in the midst of struggle, the ruling-class power has just evaporated, at least in this very small corner of Seattle. The people have been left to fill the void themselves. People have taken a political leap and are exploring its consequences. I think that is basically what this has become: an open-ended political experiment. I still think it has to develop organs of decision-making, but for now it is still in the early stages.
|Since this interview was conducted, the people at the CHAZ began forming more working groups and holding limited general assemblies. After a barrage of right wing press fearmongering about the “autonomous zone” and other concerns, the people voted to rename the area. The ongoing struggle in Capitol Hill is now being referred to as CHOP – the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, in many senses a more accurate name. This change was agreed upon in order to send a message to the public that they did not view themselves as being a separate entity from the United States. It was also changed in response to criticism that the autonomous form that the CHAZ was projecting was not the purpose for the occupation. Instead, the purpose of the struggle at Capitol Hill is to continue to fight for black liberation, and against police violence and social control. The occupied area need only be occupied until the goals are achieved.
First published by Viewpoint Magazine, June 17, 2020