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The Democratic People’s Republic of CHAZ

The paradoxes of the Seattle armed enclave.
June 17, 2020
The Democratic People’s Republic of CHAZ
People paint an acronym for "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone" near the Seattle Police Departments East Precinct on June 10, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. The zone includes the blocks surrounding the Seattle Police Departments East Precinct, which was the site of violent clashes with Black Lives Matter protesters, who have continued to demonstrate in the wake of George Floyds death. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

What does “defund the police” mean in practice? We may be getting a little rehearsal in miniature with the establishment of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, endearingly nicknamed CHAZ.

This is the product of anti-police protests in Seattle that led the mayor to order the abandonment of one of the city’s downtown police precincts, ceding a six-block area of Seattle’s downtown to the protesters, who have turned it into a kind of anarcho-socialist utopia, with free food, free music, no cops, and lots of peace and love, man.

But we’re starting to see cracks in utopia already. It’s not as if this is the first time it’s been tried, after all, and this one seems to be on schedule to teach us all of the same old lessons over again.

CHAZ certainly set a record for socialist utopias when it comes to running out of food. Within the first day, they were already sending out the alarm: “The homeless people we invited took away all the food at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. We need more food to keep the area operational. Please if possible bring vegan meat substitutes, fruits, oats, soy products, etc.—anything to help us eat.” I’ve checked to see whether this is parody, and as far as I can tell, it’s not.

This is an urban area with no farmland of its own, so it’s no surprise that it is dependent on supplies from the outside. As one wag put it, how autonomous are they if they have to order in pizza?

Another area where they are well ahead of schedule for a socialist utopia is in putting up walls and establishing checkpoints with internal passports. When the police retreated, instead of demolishing the barriers erected against them, the protesters rearranged them, setting them up as barriers against the outside, with armed men at checkpoints making people prove they belonged there.

Some residents in the neighborhood say access to their buildings is blocked. “It’s a bit stressful. It’s like checking in with somebody to get into your own home,” said Mckenzie Diamond, who lives in the “Autonomous Zone.”

Good thing we got rid of the police, because they might be intrusive and oppressive and stop people arbitrarily to ask them for their identification.

This leads us to the big question about the “autonomous zone”: Whose “autonomy” is it? Certainly, it’s not the autonomy of the people who actually live there, who did not invite the protesters and never had the opportunity to vote on whether they wanted to reject the protection of the Seattle PD and establish new protectors.

One of the protest groups issued a statement with a ridiculous list of demands, which includes a recognition that “we stand on land already once stolen from the Duwamish People, the first people of Seattle.” But notice that it offers no recognition of the present-day residents and business owners of the district. The people who live there were never asked whether they wanted to be part of an autonomous zone run by people who don’t live there. Then again, another of the protesters’ demands is “the de-gentrification of Seattle,” so they have already taken upon themselves the prerogative of deciding who should and should not be allowed to live in the city.

As to their new protectors, notice that residents of the Capitol Hill neighborhood did not choose those protectors—nor do they have any way of holding them accountable.

This all began with complaints about “police brutality” and the police being insufficiently accountable for their misconduct. But now you have armed and masked men patrolling the streets and manning the checkpoints. The guy in that photo, by the way, is the same one photoshopped into misleading images on Fox New (which increasingly seems like an operation designed to discredit the right). But he was a real guy from a June 10 Getty photo taken at Capitol Hill, and there are a lot of others like him.

These armed men are different from the Seattle PD in only one respect: They have no badges, no identification, no body cameras, no chain of command—no means of identifying them, recording their activity, or bringing them to account if they use excessive force.

But these are a bunch of mellow hippies who wouldn’t harm anybody, right?

I’m sure some of them are. Then there are guys like Solomon “Raz” Simone, a rapper and “activist” whose crew was filmed assaulting a graffiti artist because he painted over somebody else’s graffiti. Simone has been called CHAZ’s “warlord,” which seems a bit overwrought—conservatives pouncing, as they tend to do. But it was his own gang who were filmed shouting, in the moments before this assault, “We are the police of this community now,” and, “We are the leaders of this community now.” Oh, yeah? Well who voted for them?

With leadership seemingly up for grabs, CHAZ is the scene of sporadic petty scuffles, which activists are asking people not to film because it might make them look bad. Yes, well, I’m sure the Minneapolis PD felt the same way.

Seriously, this whole thing started because of a violent act whose perpetrators could only be held accountable because it was captured on video by a bystander’s cellphone. And now the protesters want to prevent bystanders from capturing video of violent acts.

And since this is all about securing the unobstructed right to protest, surely the folks at CHAZ will be respectful of the rights of dissenters who protest against them, right? Yeah, you already knew the answer to that one.

My favorite description of CHAZ is from a Seattle Times article which says it has “mostly been peaceful.” That’s a favorite bit of journalistic spin. “Mostly peaceful” is how you describe something that’s violent when you don’t want the reader to draw that conclusion.

Put all these pieces together and what do we get? We have an “autonomous zone” whose permanent residents have no say over who runs it, who polices it, or what they are allowed to say in public. Not much autonomy for them, I guess.

This is the paradox of protest in a free society with a representative government. Protests can be an effective means of drawing attention to an agenda and convincing politicians that there is a constituency for it. But when it comes to actually implementing political change, you cannot claim to be doing it on behalf of “the people” without asking them at the ballot box. Yet that is precisely what happens when you empower a gang of “activists” marching in the street to impose your agenda. Seattle already has a city government that represents its citizens. To replace that with a new entity is to replace it with one that is not representative.

That’s not a protest, it’s a putsch.

The loudness with which CHAZ trumpets the idea of “autonomy” without providing any actual mechanism for the people to control it reminds me of the old Cold War joke about how a country that has the words “Democratic” or “People’s” or “Republic” in its name is almost certain not to be democratic, not to be a republic, and not to be accountable to the people.

It looks like that’s a lesson we’re going to have to learn all over again from the Democratic People’s Republic of CHAZ.

Robert Tracinski

Robert Tracinski is editor of Symposium, a journal of liberalism, and writes additional commentary at The Tracinski Letter.