I was born and raised in Seattle. Last week I returned to the city that was my home for thirty years to visit my brother, still a true-blue Seattlite. While I was there I couldn’t resist touring the hotspot that’s bemused journalists across the nation. I had to go to the CHAZ (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) and see this new pseudo-nation for myself.
The Birth of a Zone
The CHAZ is the center of protests for Seattle’s #BlackLivesMatter movement, and a whole lot more. Sort of. The more extreme CHAZes declared it an autonomous zone, almost like a separate country-within-a-country. A rapper named Raz Simone then declared himself in charge of security and his heavily armed posse began patrolling. I heard rumors that he was arming any adult who showed up and wanted to join, but couldn’t verify this. They’ve already been accused, with video evidence, of abusing their powers.
It’s not clear that other residents of, and visitors to, CHAZ wanted this. They had more realistic goals. The secessionist extremists apparently want to create a utopia free of racism, police brutality, and GMOs. I just made up that last one, though it’s not far off some of the sillier demands of CHAZes. Example: a sign asking for vegan food donations, posted after the homeless people invited to CHAZ stole all the food.
When there was a shooting, my brother dismissed it as the inevitable result of having thousands of people together in a park. I didn’t buy that: every day has rallies, concerts and events without violence. It reminds me of the Rolling Stones Altamont Speedway concert back in ‘69- the Stones were so sure that “every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints,” they hired Hell’s Angels as security guards rather than using the police. Predictably, four people died, including one who was stabbed to death by the Angels themselves. The CHAZ has had four shootings with two fatalities so far.
That’s the crux of the issue. It’s good to hold cops to higher standards than regular civilians, but it shouldn’t be infinitely higher. If the counter-culture’s security forces, like those in CHAZ or at the Altamont Speedway, are twice as likely to kill people as cops are, are they still better? What if they’re ten times as likely? Where do you draw the line? And how do you tell the grieving widows and orphans to be grateful their lost loved ones were killed by private citizens instead of cops? How much consolation is that?
What’s In A Name?
Let’s get the semantics out of the way. Is it called CHAZ or CHOP (Capitol Hill Organized/Occupied Protests)? Yes! Also, no. CHAZ doesn’t have the top-down leadership that creates consistent branding. Anyone can make up their own name for it. I saw one sign calling it CROCH — Citizen’s Republic of Capitol Hill. I think it was tongue-in-cheek and, being a teen boy at heart, I liked it. I also see it as a good omen: the protesters at CHAZ give off a whiff of fanaticism, but if they let the gentle self-mockery of CROCH exist, then they can’t be that uptight.
Calling it CHAZ was a terrible idea and protesters were right to oppose that name. It’s not an attempt to secede, which would be a doomed and foolish attempt at treason.
On the other hand, that sensationalistic name is why CHAZ has received so much attention. The attempt to rebrand it as CHOP reminds me of the Mortal Kombat series going woke by dressing its female characters in sensible clothes instead of combat bikinis. The Mortal Kombat franchise only succeeded because of its appeal to the adolescent male id, and now it’s trying to gain respectability by throwing its base under the bus.
CHAZ’s name change is also a product of a changed reality. The well-documented insanity and violence of the first few days has been replaced by a tense peace (CHAZ insiders will object to the “tense” description, but that’s because they’re in power and are at no risk of violence). It has no pretensions of being an independent country now.
I Take a Walk on the Wild Side
When I toured CHAZ, I was surprised by how small it is. It’s limited to a small park and the nearby blocks, with a failed garden and vibrant protests. The park was half-covered in tents, and graffiti was everywhere, even on the tents. The vandalism was a mix of activist messages and the usual city art: tags, murals, and obscenities.
The CHAZ had the usual energy of Capitol Hill. There were partially dressed young people strolling and shouting at each other with music playing and marijuana smoke wafting in the background. In other words, it was full of weirdos.
I love weirdos; they’re the only people I fit in with. My problem was always that Capitol Hill has SO MANY of them. The streets are bustling with people, and while the unpredictability and eccentricity of weirdos are great in small numbers, they’re sketchy when they come in packs. When you’re downtown, on the other hand, and surrounded by business people in suits hurrying to work, you don’t have to worry about them doing anything crazy. You may not be able to relate to them, but you can rely on them to do their own thing and ignore you completely.
CHAZ wasn’t all business-as-usual. One new feature was a small, but loud, march. These were apparently a regular occurrence. Another was the vaguely menacing atmosphere. Everywhere I looked there were violently-themed messages: destroy, revolt, crush, and so on. A sign that simply said “love” had been crossed out and replaced with “fuck the police”.
A young female reporter was trying to interview a CHAZer but was instead being interrogated by bystanders. When asked about her motives, she said she was there to rebut the mainstream narrative about the area. I thought that was a sufficiently Lefty answer, but her interviewer was skeptical and asked if she was working for the Illuminati.
It may have had a distinct atmosphere, but it wasn’t an “autonomous zone”. The border posts no longer existed. It was closer to a music festival without the music. If there were any secession minded CHAZes, they had either left or fallen silent by the time I showed up. The only remaining attempt at independence was their efforts to keep city employees out of the zone. Autonomy didn’t seem to be the point.
The CHAZ’s new name, CHOP (Capitol Hill Organized/Occupied Protest), is closer to the mark. The area was saturated with anti-racism signs, graffiti, and marches. The O in Chop is misleading, though, as it wasn’t particularly organized and didn’t want to be. I suspect whoever came up with the acronym was pressed for time and couldn’t think of anything better. They knew they had to replace the awful CHAZ moniker ASAP and even an imperfect replacement would do. The “CHAZ” name was discrediting their ideas.
You Can’t Make an Omelette
Some believe that the facts-on-the-ground are irrelevant. The CHAZ should be judged on its ideas. After all, even if there’s some ugliness, weirdness, or chaos, it’s being done for the greater good. They say you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. The people who say that usually end up making shit sandwiches not omelettes.
Judging the CHAZ’s ideas is hard because the ideology of the zone is a Rorschach inkblot test. Some protesters say it was a cry of frustration about the brutal military tactics of the police, particularly Seattle’s. That’s reasonable. Other protesters wanted to decolonize the world and abolish the police. That’s not an exaggeration, they were there and proudly holding their signs.
Maybe it’s fate that my brother and I attract secession movements. The last time we spent much time together we were in Spain, and we entered Barcelona just as Catalan separatist activity peaked. Our opinions split the same way then as they do now. He’s one of the rebels and wants to be on the street taking rubber bullets alongside them. I see them as glory hounds whose hunger for drama comes at the expense of the innocent masses, who just want to make it through the day without their friends and family getting hurt.
In fairness, then, as soon as the CHAZ was founded our opinions leaned one way or the other. We weren’t set in stone, though. If CHAZ looked as good as the surrounding neighborhoods then I’d grudgingly give it some credit. Like a good Bayesian analyst, I update my beliefs with every new piece of data I learn.
Why would I consider it a success if the CHAZ was merely doing as well as its neighbors? Because autonomy and devolution of powers are intrinsically good. The American Revolution may not have made Americans better off materially, but it meant that political power moved closer to the people being ruled. Each additional expansion of democracy had the same benefit, from women’s suffrage to black suffrage to the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18.
The harms of autonomy sometimes outweigh the good. The feudal system’s hierarchy of power worked because, though the nobles had power over their fiefs, when they were too awful, the peasants could appeal to the king to kick them back into line. The same situation was mirrored in the segregated South, with black people looking to the federal government to protect them from the tyrannical state governments. The secession wing of the CHAZ appears to want the power of the nobility without having the oversight of a king, or the power of the Southern states without the pesky meddling of the Feds . That’s the recipe for tyranny.
The CHAZ extremists don’t seem to have worried very hard about this possibility. Their stance has all the hallmarks of adolescent male posturing meant to impress girls who like bad-boy rebels. It’s the 21st century equivalent of wearing a Che shirt and shouting about smashing the state. I’m sure the CHAZes have had great sex lives the last few days, living in a romantic fantasy land where they’re forging a new society to replace the evil, corrupt, racist old order. The problem is that the rest of us have to clean up their mess and we didn’t sign up for this shit.
Seattle had a run-in with this crowd twenty years ago. I was in high school at the time, and I remember my classmates leaving school to attend the WTO rallies that would later be called the Battle of Seattle. Incidentally, some openly admitted they were only protesting because it would be marked as an excused absence, which is one reason why it’s hard to take teenage protests seriously. The protests were going great until young male “anarchists” from Oregon showed up to throw bricks at the police and loot Starbucks. They, too, wanted “autonomy.”
The CHAZ as a Microcosm
The root problem of the CHAZ is that it’s too much feeling and not enough thinking. You can’t deny that the CHAZes are sincere and idealistic. Of course, the world’s worst atrocities were committed by sincere believers. Ideals aren’t enough.
If the CHAZes were willing to sit down and think about their goals and the consequences of their actions then they could change the world for the better. Instead, their self indulgent idealism is making things worse. In that, CHAZ is the perfect symbol of the woke Left.