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What’s it like in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone?

At night there’s a touch of Dunkirk as you pass by rows of bedraggled-looking campers hunched together around braziers

Seattle

Ah, Seattle, that environmentally obsessed city where all is decorous, the sidewalks immaculately swept, the parks rigorously trimmed, proverbial for its snow-capped mountains and sparkling lakes, and now, too, for its riotous Capitol Hill residential neighborhood where free spirits roam with their feral dogs and semi-automatic weapons. Their little community survives — even flourishes — by handing out free stuff like gas masks from the back of trucks, eating lentils cooked over an open fire, and sustaining each other’s morale by peak-decibel showings of the racially-themed movie 13th. Apparently they’re in it for the long haul. A 30-year-old dreadlocked hip-hop artist named Solomon Simone, who goes by the moniker Raz, has emerged as a spokesman for the six-block enclave. ‘This is not Coachella,’ he remarked through a megaphone late on Wednesday night. ‘Bring your sleeping bags and tents. We here.’

But why? The short answer is that in the wake of the George Floyd killing local protesters engaged in a spirited discussion with police, punctuated by the sound of blast balls and flash bangs, up and down the city’s Capitol Hill. In scenes reminiscent of Assault on Precinct 13, Seattle’s finest took the decision on the night of June 8 to abandon their station-house in the area and surrender it to the mob. ‘This is an exercise in trust and de-escalation,’ explained Seattle police chief Carmen Best. Exact statistics are elusive, but there currently seem to be between 300-400 full-time residents of the ‘Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone’, or CHAZ, where signs greet you reading ‘Property of the People’ and ‘Leaving USA’. 

Behind the barricades, Raz and his team have reportedly shown a generous cast of mind. One CHAZ resident tweeted, ‘It’s a victory for #seattleprotests, but please remember that we are still occupying Duwamish Indian land.’ There have been similar effusions of solidarity with the gay community, illegal immigrants, the ‘fascist-oppressed’ in general, and even to the memory of poor George Floyd. But apparently our town’s experiment in communal living has also had its challenges. ‘The homeles [sic] people we invited here took away all our food,’ one Twitter user reported glumly.


Apart from the ubiquitous rain, it’s all pretty much like July 4 up in Raz’s domain. There’s an ambient smell of grease in the air, and people sear hotdogs on curbside grills. Admittedly I didn’t see any patriotic bunting or hear the National Anthem when I visited, but for some reason there was a mural depicting the late Ronald Reagan in an unusual pose. Some teenagers passed a bottle of beer among themselves, while another group was busy at work spray-painting the wall of an abandoned convenience store. At night there’s a touch of Dunkirk about the scene as you pass by rows of bedraggled-looking campers hunched together around braziers or stretched out on army-surplus cots.

You also have to hand it to the inhabitants of CHAZ for their ambition. ‘This is no simple request to end police brutality.’ the organizers tweeted at the head of a 30-point list of demands. These range from specific criminal-justice reforms up to what might be called the socio-economic realm. They want the ‘de-gentrification’ of Seattle, for example, increased funding for ‘arts and culture’, and a segregated local healthcare system. (Yes, that’s right: ‘Only black doctors and nurses should be employed specifically to care for black patients,’ it says here.) Just how all this might be achieved remains fuzzy, but no mainstream Seattle official has seen fit to seriously question the protesters’ agenda. The grown-ups have abandoned the family home to the teenagers, who are hanging off the gutters and binging on vodka like Russians, and there’s no prospect of them returning to restore order anytime soon.

Which brings us to 46-year-old, Indian-born Kshama Sawant, of the Seattle City Council, who believes that her adopted city is a ‘playground for the rich’ who need to be punitively taxed as a result. On Tuesday night, Sawant led demonstrators down the hill from their exclusion-zone into the normally hushed chamber of Seattle City Hall. Once inside, the thousand-strong crowd (who appear to have taken a relaxed view of social distancing) spent an hour chanting about police brutality and railing at the absent Mayor Jenny Durkan. After that the protesters headed back to their collective on Capitol Hill. No police officers attended the scene.

Meanwhile, the gloriously feckless Washington governor Jay Inslee was asked at a press conference to weigh in on the no-go zone that had by then been up and running for the last 36 hours. ‘Well, that’s news to me, so I’ll reserve any comment,’ Inslee said. Could this be the same man who for the past three months has issued a near-daily series of executive orders and fiats that control every aspect of his citizens’ lives? (As I write this, King County, which includes Seattle, is in the throes of applying to the state Department of Health to ‘Potentially allow for limited openings of businesses in a Modified Phase 1 of the state’s Safe Start Plan, [while] meeting daily to help prevent misinformation, prejudice, and stigma.’) In this jungle of a governmental system, as incalculable as any oriental sultanate, it appears that our chief executive somehow remained oblivious to the fact that gun-toting activists had seized a sizable chunk of his largest city some two days earlier.

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In the last resort, maybe it’s all down to something about the Pacific Northwest. Until the likes of Bill Gates came along the area was dominated for a century by logging and fishing, with an aggressive blue-collar tradition. The Northwest has been called the hideout capital of the USA, a far-flung outpost where generations of the nation’s failed, fed-up, and felonious have gone to disappear.

It apparently cuts both ways, because in 2016 we had one of those white-supremacist standoffs beloved of CNN when a dozen or so armed militants occupied an Oregon wildlife refuge seeking to take a ‘hard stand’ against government ‘tyranny’. The protesters gave up following a six-week siege, after a spokesman for the group had been shot dead by police.

The Capitol Hill crowd may dominate the news cycle today, but forces of a very different sort are still out there, brooding and volcanic. Whatever happens to Raz and company, I’m not convinced this will ultimately end well.


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