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The Grim Lessons of CHOP

As Seattle police tear down the barricades after several weeks of occupation, one obvious takeaway: you can’t reform the police with a mob.
July 1, 2020
The Grim Lessons of CHOP
SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 30: Concrete barriers are situated outside of the Seattle Police Department's vacated East Precinct inside the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) zone on June 30, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. Earlier in the day, city crews removed barriers at one entrance to the CHOP and placed park closure notices throughout Cal Anderson Park, which is located inside the CHOP zone. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Early this morning, Seattle police began dismantling the barricades, tents, and signs that demonstrators had used to control several city blocks for most of the last month. The area was originally known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), but had recently been renamed, for reasons nobody could quite explain, the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (or Occupied Protest), producing the ominous acronym CHOP—as in what happened to dissenters during the French Revolution.

In recent weeks, the area had begun to acquire a correspondingly evil reputation, particularly after nightfall.

This reached a breaking point about a week ago with two shootings in 48 hours. In one of them, a 19-year-old kid who was trying to get other protesters to stop setting off dangerous fireworks was shot and killed. The protesters prevented police and ambulances from arriving at the scene. The victim died after being taken to the hospital by CHOP “medics,” and no suspects have yet been identified in his death.

On Monday there was another shooting, which left a 16-year-old dead and a 14-year-old in intensive care. In this case, there is some indication that the shooting may have been done by CHOP “security” after they had been alerted that the Jeep the victims were driving was stolen. So much for addressing the problems of police brutality and excessive use of force.

As with the previous shooting, there are no suspects and no one in the CHOP was cooperating with police.

Both of the young men killed were black.

Now that the barricades are falling and CHOP is apparently coming to an end, we must ask: How could a movement so quickly and so thoroughly become that which it claimed to despise? Nobody who has studied the history of socialism and its supposed utopias should be surprised by any of this.

I previously pointed out the lack of accountability in this zone of anarchy. Unlike the police, the armed men who were patrolling CHOP were nameless, kept no records, and answered to no one. That was precisely the case being made by a relative of last week’s victim:

Stacy said she is Anderson’s godmother, and . . . wants accountability for Anderson’s death. Specifically, she wants to know why the protesters didn’t let 911 medical help arrive sooner to her godson, and if the CHOP “medics” have legitimate credentials to give medical aid and make decisions on how the teen was treated and cared for following the shooting.

Some of the people at CHOP proposed reforms:

In an open letter addressed to the CHOP leaders and organizers, a group of approximately 25 activists and volunteers proposed changes that include setting up a safe use area on the outskirts of the occupied area and creating signage that encourages intoxicated people to stay away from the protest zone.

That’s “safe use,” as in “the safe use of drugs,” which seems to be a bit of an oxymoron in this context.

Their other big proposal was a little more draconian.

The group also suggested creating curfew hours to prevent late-night activity within the zone. “The late hours of CHOP tend to give way to some problematic behavior,” wrote the group. “As such, to help lessen the load of overnight volunteer security, medics, and residents, we propose suggested CHOP hours of 8AM-8PM.”

The police might be oppressive, so let’s create a utopia in which we have to impose a curfew in order to keep the drug addicts from killing people.

Or there was another alternative: vigilantism: “[One man] appealed for those responsible to give themselves up to police, suggesting protesters would take a harder line: ‘Turn yourself in, because if you don’t . . . it’s better that the police get hold of you than they do.'”

That’s a curious line from people who were running protests against the excessive use of force by the police.

Folks at CHOP knew the end was coming, not just for their enclave but for its role in any larger cause:

Andre Taylor, who founded the anti-police-shooting organization Not This Time! after his brother was killed by Seattle police in 2016, said Monday that he had warned protest organizers that the city would need to retake the area because of the violence. “That CHOP area is attracting this kind of activity and it’s unsafe.”

Seattle’s dippy mayor, Jenny Durkan, had earlier gushed that “We could have the Summer of Love”—a reference to the hedonistic heyday of the hippie movement in 1967—which might have given her pause had she reflected on the not-so-loving strife that followed it in 1968 and beyond. Because we’re living through a shallower and quicker recap of all those same disasters, Mayor Durkan began having second thoughts and making vague promises about clamping down on CHOP.

After the latest shooting, Seattle’s police chief, who never wanted to abandon the Capitol Hill district, said, “Enough is enough.” So this morning’s police action should surprise no one.

The happy inmates of CHOP—the residents and business owners of the Capitol Hill district—were initially reported to be perfectly thrilled with their position at the center of utopia. Then again, surrounded as they were by massive mobs of angry people, with no expectation of police protection, they weren’t exactly free to speak their minds, were they?

There’s not much autonomy for those unfortunate enough to be trapped inside the Autonomous Zone.

So to carry this story full circle, the locals began suing the city to demand police protection:

In the class-action lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, about a dozen businesses, residents, and property owners said they had sometimes been threatened for photographing protesters in public areas or for cleaning graffiti off their storefronts. The owner of the auto shop Car Tender said a burglar broke in the night of June 14, started a fire using hand sanitizer as an accelerant, and then attacked his son with a knife when confronted.

The owner and his son managed to put out the fire and detain the burglar, the complaint said, but police never responded to their 911 calls. A large crowd of “CHOP participants” then came to the scene and forced the owner to release the arsonist….

The plaintiffs are seeking damages for lost business, property damage, and deprivation of their property rights as well as the restoration of full public access.

This is the massive contradiction of the whole campaign to use street protests to delegitimize and defund the police, because it’s now clear that the anarchic forces unleashed when the police withdraw are far more dangerous.

One of the organizations that was still trying to run interference for CHOP even in its final days, blaming the chaos on everyone and everything but themselves, is called Black Collective Voice. Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Setting yourself up as the self-appointed voice of the “collective” is a great way of avoiding any actual accountability to the people you are claiming to represent.

This illusion of “collective” power is an old lesson of socialist utopias. It always turns out that some people are more equal than others.

In a civilized society, the use of force—especially by our would-be protectors—must be limited, controlled, and held accountable.

How can we do that? Perhaps by having an official roster of these protectors who are required to tell us their names, undergo background checks and training, keep records, and wear body cameras.

These protectors should be bound to appear in court to answer for any misdeeds. Also, they should report to officials elected by the people they are supposed to protect.

In other words: the police. Police forces are the means by which the use of force is controlled by the people.

The police do not always do their jobs professionally—and the people do not always do an adequate job at holding them accountable—and there are moments like now when we become acutely aware of the need for reform.

But reform means: lobbying for new rules and laws, electing new public officials, and doing the follow-up to make sure the new rules are actually implemented and lead to the intended results.

This is difficult and often unglamorous, but there is no better alternative. When you hand over the use of force to an unthinking, unaccountable mob and the self-appointed “voices” of the collective—well, we now have a perfect illustration of where that gets you.

Robert Tracinski

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