Future Tense

What’s Really Going On at Seattle’s So-Called Autonomous Zone?

Failed experiment by radical anarchists, a new sort of utopia, or just a place?

People sit on the grass in small groups at sunset
Cal Anderson Park in Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone on Wednesday. David Ryder/Getty Images

“CHAZ went from terrorist organization, to sovereign nation, to violent anarchists, to being robbed by crackheads, to begging for food from cops, to deserters & protestors IN 24 HOURS!” one user tweeted about Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, with a cry-laugh emoji. On my feed, it was followed immediately by a tweet that painted a very different picture: “So far, the CHAZ is the ideal society. No fear of the police. People helping and supporting one another. Class solidarity.”

If you’re trying to figure out what CHAZ is or what’s happening there, what you read will likely reflect your network’s political beliefs. If you lean right, you might see CHAZ mocked as a failed experiment run by radical anarchists; if you lean left, you might see posts praising it as a new sort of utopia, comparable to Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark. As misinformation and cherry-picked videos and images spread across the internet, I noticed people outside of Seattle had two very different views of what was happening in CHAZ. Friends and family texted me to check in or opined on social media about the space. Some were scared that I might be in danger, while others wanted their cities to create similar spaces and wished to live vicariously through descriptions of CHAZ. And after President Donald Trump tweeted a threat that he would “take back” the area from “anarchists,” it became clear that this misinformation could have real consequences for the city.

One major misconception about CHAZ is that protesters “seized” the space from the police. It’s really more like the police left the area, and the protesters who were already invested in a round-the-clock occupation of the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct continued staying there. On June 1, protesters began demonstrating at SPD’s Capitol Hill precinct building nightly, and most nights, police used flash-bangs and chemical irritants like pepper spray and tear gas to disperse the crowd around the barriers it erected in the blocks surrounding the precinct— including June 7, just two days after Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a 30-day moratorium on tear gas. On June 8, the SPD removed its barricades and suddenly vacated the building. SPD and the city government braced for violence, saying it had received “credible information about a potential intent to set fire to the East Precinct.” At the time, it was not clear to the general public why the SPD left the East Precinct or whether it would be back. It’s since become clear that Durkan had ordered the decision, one police Chief Carmen Best said she was angry about. At a press conference Thursday, Durkan said she made the decision in hopes it would de-escalate the conflict between police and protesters.

Soon after the SPD left, activists turned police’s barriers around and declared that the surrounding area—roughly 5½ city blocks, which includes a public park—would be for the people. Activists spoke just outside one of the precinct’s entrances, now surrounded by metal gates, the sign above now spray-painted to read “Seattle People’s Precinct.” Signs at the barriers declared visitors were entering the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.” In the first hours of CHAZ, viral tweets presented the area as a sort of separatist movement; one photo showed a sign at a barricade marking the CHAZ: “You are now leaving the USA.” Another showed a map of the area marking the “Capitol Hill Free Zone” and the “Regime Occupied Safeway” where police were allegedly gathering.

Rumors that CHAZ activists were enforcing the area’s boundaries spread through Facebook and Twitter. At a press conference, the SPD cited “local reports” that activists were demanding IDs at the barricades and extorting businesses by asking them to pay a fee to operate in the “autonomous zone.” Local news reported this claim straight from the presser, but hours later, at least two reporters had followed up on their newsrooms’ initial claims by actually asking local businesses about their experiences. So far, they haven’t found any who say they have been extorted. At a news conference on Friday, Best admitted that there were no formal reports, only anecdotes. Creating a beautiful full circle of hearsay, she said that some of those reports came from “the media.”

And then over the weekend, Fox News ran a sensational story including the false claims about extorted businesses, along with claims that “armed guards patrol anarchists’ ‘autonomous zone.’ ” It showed images of fire taken in Minnesota and edited pictures to make it appear as though there were armed guards next to a “You are now entering Free Cap Hill” sign and the smashed window of an Old Navy. (If you know Seattle’s Capitol Hill, the idea of there being an Old Navy in the neighborhood is laughable, let alone the thought that any protester would be standing guard at it.)

Over the weekend, I went to see for myself what CHAZ was all about and sort out whether claims I’d seen online were truths, half-truths, or flat-out lies. (You can also check out a livestream with six angles showing parts of the space; it looks like any other mundane city street cam of people walking by, sometimes with cute dogs.) The first thing I learned: CHAZ is no longer the preferred nomenclature. Organizers are now asking that people call it the CHOP—the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest—and signs at the barricades welcome visitors to CHOP. While CHAZ’s original claim to “autonomous zone” may have gotten attention, it’s obvious to anyone in Seattle that the zone is not autonomous. People live there, and businesses are still operating. Residents still need to get in and out of the barricades and are allowed access; at a barricade on the eastern side, activists even painted some makeshift parking spaces for liquor store customers. Those businesses and residents—as well as CHOP occupants—still use electricity and water. And unlike any actual autonomous zone, people move freely in or out. While I was in CHOP, I saw at least one resident driving through a CHOP barricade to access an apartment building garage.

At those barricades, there were no armed guards, and no one asked me for ID. Right-wingers’ claims of “infiltrating” the space seem needlessly dramatic; you can just walk right in. But if people recognize you and they’re not fans of your work, there is a chance you’ll be confronted by a crowd asking you to leave. (Tim Eyman, a local politician known for his anti-tax measures—and for stealing a $70 chair from Office Depot—was asked to leave last week.)

While there were no guards when I visited, there were people stationed at each barricade, handing out masks and directing cars through to provide supplies or access their homes. I also saw volunteers at one barricade radioing to the rest to ask whether any others needed supplies and to seek a mental health expert to help manage a man sitting on a corner throwing trash at passersby. Gaebriel, 21, who was greeting folks and directing traffic at the barricade near 10th and Pine streets, told me she’d seen the media reports of armed guards and thought they were unfortunate but inevitable with how quickly misinformation spreads on social media. “I just hope people come see for themselves,” she said.

After all, there is no official word on CHOP or CHAZ. Though there are several prominent figures in the Seattle protest scene who are heavily involved with CHOP, there is no central leadership. And it’s worth noting that the people don’t always agree. For instance, some activists say that the CHAZ is hosting the CHOP, suggesting some are still thinking of this area as a permanent zone. Other activists have voiced hopes that the SPD will eventually turn the now-empty precinct building into a community center. There’s also a range of protester demands. The most prominent one, now painted on the wood boarding up the precinct building, is to defund the SPD by 50 percent. But walking around the CHOP, I also saw a list of police reform demands taped to a tree, which included asks like mandating police to wear body cameras and developing new processes to handle misconduct claims. Someone had taken a Sharpie and crossed the whole thing out and wrote over it: “NO COPS! AT ALL.”

People also had different reasons and motives for being in the CHOP. While some were clearly residents or heavily involved volunteers, others seemed to be cultural tourists and documentarians. As soon as I arrived at CHOP’s northwest corner, a man asked me to take a photo of him with his partner and dog. “This is history!” he said. “Someone might look at this picture 400 years from now!” A woman named Kayla told me she’d come down for posterity’s sake too; she’d brought her 5-year-old son with her to show him what’s going on. “I wanted my son to know we came down here when he’s older.” A woman named Claudia also brought her kids—Gabby, 12, and Lemanuel, 16—to support the movement. Gabby helped her aunt, a local artist, paint a letter in the “BLACK LIVES MATTER” mural in the center of CHOP, and the family mixed Gabby’s grandma’s ashes into the yellow paint they used.

While many were clearly connected to or moved by the memorials and art, others had the opposite takeaway. I saw a man recording the heavily graffitied walls of the precinct with a somber voice-over: “Oh, yeah, they completely destroyed the place.” Others seemed less focused on protesters’ main demands—defunding the police and protecting Black lives—and were more invested in CHAZ as a socialist experiment. I watched as one white man held his phone up to record another white guy. “What this is about,” he said to the camera, gesturing at the crowds at Cal Anderson Park, “is community and taking care of one another as a whole. We don’t need capitalism!”

Those men were standing a few yards away from a free clothing booth, which had only been in operation for about 48 hours but already had mountains of donations. Walking around CHOP, I saw countless mutual aid booths. When I’d been in the same area the week before, back when it was just a regular old protest space, activists had already established similar booths, but their size and sophistication had grown. The “No Cop Co-Op” had piles of bread, jam, oats, and peanut butter, with a sign encouraging people to avail themselves: “Do not take one granola bar—take the whole box. Take an entire case of pop. You do you. Just stop looking and start shopping.” (The extreme abundance of food I saw is noteworthy if for no other reason than to counter social media rumors that people inside CHOP ran out of food.) Volunteers have also created community gardens in the area. But just as there are plenty of communal resources, there are also still plenty of capitalist endeavors. I saw one enterprising young man selling Rainier tallboys out of a cooler right outside the liquor store (which was open). Others walked around CHOP selling “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts and “I can’t breathe” masks.

CHOP, like any cross-section of the U.S., is a mix of beliefs, politics, and ideologies, and to paint it as either a utopia or a hellscape is to erase its nuances. The one message activists and CHOP visitors I talked with seem to agree on is that Black lives matter, and that CHOP is a symbol of the powerful cultural shift currently happening in the U.S.; CHOP, as a place, is meaningful to many, but the movement is bigger. At Culture Day on Sunday, community organizer Nikkita Oliver reminded the crowd that the movement is “not about this space—it’s about a system of dismantling white supremacy.” She asked people to reflect on why they were there. “There are folks taking pictures and saying they went to the CHAZ—that’s not about Black lives,” she said. “Be about the work. Be about the movement, not just hanging out at CHOP or the CHAZ or whatever you call it.” The future of CHOP is still unclear, but the cultural conversations it has spurred will last a long time yet.

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