“Everything seems so fragile and powerful at the same time.” A conversation about the Seattle Autonomous Zone

Two people in the CHAZ (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) in Seattle have kindly agreed to answer some questions for Liaisons on a still rapidly evolving situation.

In this interview, we explore the confrontational dynamic in Seattle that forced the police to abandon a police station and to let a strange “Autonomous zone” spring up in the heart of the city. It’s worth mentioning that the interview was conducted on June 12.

To begin with, can you give us some background about the local dynamics and revolt in Seattle and its surroundings regarding the present movement? What happened before the creation of the CHAZ?

Leading up to the formation of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone the mood is similar to the one developing across the country. George Floyd’s murder highlights the everyday violence of the police, and in particular police violence against black people, with a visceral clarity. In the middle of a massive economic crisis, after months of practicing isolation, people came together in the streets. The the whole country watches as time and time again the police brutalize those protesting police brutality highlighting the exact issues at play. I am not one to bemoan how it’s always the police who start things or erase the more proactive attacks on police and property, but it really was just a flow of constant examples of police attacking peaceful demonstrations. These attacks by police were followed by unprecedented rioting and expropriations. Police abolition, a phrase drawing its lineage from the movement to abolish slavery, becomes a common topic at dinner tables and on mainstream news. The police no longer feel as invincible or as much of an inevitability as precincts burn. Those who already know the police are their enemy become emboldened. Many others can no longer keep their silence about the police as a historical and present day force of oppression, and anti-black oppression in particular.

In Seattle, an explicitly anti-police demo is called for Friday, May 31st. As is to be expected the police attack the demo and a small storm of vandalism is unleashed in the downtown area against Amazon storefronts, government buildings, and the police themselves. The crowd remains into the night, but it is also not the same crowd. Slowly people leave and others arrive until the crowd is more reflective of the general demographics of the city and full of Black rage. Eventually the crowd makes their way out of downtown towards Capitol Hill taking the opportunity to attack the Youth Jail, a luxury car dealer, and police they find along the way. “Fuck 12″ (think nique les kuefs in the height of its popularity) and “George Floyd” are the chants of the evening. My friends and I expect that this is going to be as extreme as it gets, but we are wrong. 

The next day, a crowd gathers downtown for a broader demo with dogmatically pacifist and riot-shaming undertones. Regardless, the police again attack the crowd. After their attack all the police can do is try to hold their line as people begin to loot almost every store in the shopping district and attack every police vehicle in sight. Preachers and others hold space in a plaza in the midst of all this, urging calm, but angry black youth and their accomplices set fire to more and more police vehicles and steal more and more from the surrounding stores. Nothing like this has been seen in this city, let alone state, in decades.

The mayor, the cops, the governor, and local corporate media are whipped into a counter-insurgent frenzy. A curfew is declared. The National Guard, a local branch of the military usually used for disaster relief, are deployed for riot duty. The FBI  begin to mobilize. Every local station is pushing “good protester vs bad protester” rhetoric. In their panic the state sends most of their police in the surrounding cities to the downtown area, this proves to be a mistake and rebels again humiliate the police by looting luxury complexes and malls in the peripheral cities that have been sapped of their policing power.

For those downtown they learn the hard way that that terrain is very inhospitable for rebels. Fresh faced movement leaders emerge who seem to be working hand in hand with the police, the mayor, the media, etc. parroting their propaganda and following their designated routes. Even letting the police chief and mayor speak unchallenged at their rallies. The rallies also become increasingly bourgeois and white. The movement eventually shakes these so-called leaders, and Black abolitionists step in at this critical juncture calling a rally in the park right next to the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct. This park in Capitol Hill, the gentrified historically gay neighborhood and site of many glorious May Days and anarchist demos including previous anti-police riots, then becomes the new rallying point for the demos for Black lives and against the police.

Every day for the rest of the week people come back to that park, to the line of riot cops and National Guard soldiers defending the precinct. Every night people defy the curfew. Every night the police attack the crowd with streams of pepper-spray, rubber bullets, blast balls, and tear-gas the whole neighborhood. Every day hatred of the police grows and defensive tactics proliferate. A shield wall of umbrellas forms on the front line. More and more people begin to dress like “front liners” riffing off tactics from revolts all over the world. There’s no extremely offensive tactics. Some lasers, some water bottles are used against the police, but those who gather every night show their courage in another way. Coming back again and again and each time with a fiercer edge. Standing ten feet away from the line turned into being right up against them and so on.

When Friday rolled around again, a group of us decide to make a martyrs vigil for those killed by police and white supremacists during this uprising. We build the vigil right next to this space of daily confrontation with the riot line. One banner at the lists the name of the more than a dozen of people that have fallen and another reads “Amnesty for all. No bad protesters. No good cops.” It wasn’t this vigil alone, but gestures like this and the constant antagonism with the police shift the disposition of the crowd. Radical ideas that seemed so far from gaining generalized appeal begin to become common notions between almost everyone on the ground.

That very night as we are discussing abolition and lighten candles for the fallen the relative calm is disrupted by a car barreling down the road towards the crowd. One comrade subdues the driver and is shot for his efforts. The shooter emerges from his car and quickly makes his way to the safety of the police line. It is made evident that the police do not in fact protect us and we in fact can defend each other even from armed attackers. That night the police announce they are going to withdraw from the precinct. 

At the end of that week though were still many aspects of the movement that might prove to be its undoing, countless lessons had been learned. A sort of defensive militancy has broken through the violent-nonviolent divide and a radical rejection of community policing counter-insurgent strategies had been normalized.

That was already a lengthy contextualization, but I think there’s a little more information that’s important. In the past few years Seattle’s police and police in surrounding areas have killed several Black and Native people making the necropolitical nature of policing all the more apparent. Also the Seattle Police Department in particular had gotten into a pattern of brutalizing protesters and had just done a series of brutal sweeps of homeless camps in the middle of both a COVID-19 and Hepatitis outbreak. Likewise the Seattle police union Seattle Police Officers Guild has just elected a far right president who has had increasingly reactionary influence. Similarly the Democrat mayor, Jenny Durkan, used to be a prosecutor responsible for repression of anarchists in the 2012 Grand Juries in the area and for numerous entrapment campaigns against radicals and Muslims using a pedophile informant. Durkan cloaks herself in shallow progressive politics, but has been revealing herself more and more as of late. She has failed to sweep police violence under the rug as well as she has in the past which certainly lead up to the moment we’re in now.

Could you give us an account of how the Autonomous Zone came to be, it’s short history. Is it an emanation of Black Lives Matter (as an organisation) or is it linked to other local forces? How can we interpret the fact that the police station was left abandoned?

I’ll answer these three questions at once. First, the police absolutely made a tactical retreat. They felt they could no longer hold the precinct in the way that they felt they had to, that is with tear-gas etc, without generalizing and intensifying radical anti-police antagonisms. Removing the police presence was explicitly a part of a deescalation and pacification strategy. The retreat also forced the rally into the more reactive defensive position rather than the police who could theoretically now operate with more maneuverability and more proactively. This is not to say that they weren’t forced to leave. They absolutely were forced into a socially untenable situation and for all intents and purposes forced to leave due to people besieging their precinct every night. They also lost a lot of face and lost a base of operations, an important thing when it comes to logistics. This no doubt also sewed some tension between the more hardline SPOG loyal police and the more soft power savvy higher ups.

There was a, in my opinion, paranoid idea that the precinct was abandoned as a way to bait people into attacking it. A result of “police in people’s heads” as far as I can tell. Anyway it was left unoccupied tho redecorated. The street was taken in front of it and barricades were set up to create perimeter. To be clear these are not hard check points, but mainly to block cars from running people over and to slow a potential full on police raid. There had been some barricades before, but these were largely repurposed police barricades that shifted the atmosphere. Someone, I don’t know who, started joking about it being an autonomous zone and people thought it was both funny, but also oddly not inaccurate. A seemingly wild idea, seemingly realized.

One thing about the zone that is immediately clear is that this area is no longer policed, at least overtly. There was some “peace policing” by protesters and controlling macho behavior, but after a forum where abolitionist Black women spoke out against that people listened. Graffiti is everywhere in the zone and much of it is anti-cop or in the vein of radical black liberation, but also people are just putting up their own personal tags. People are also drinking with open containers, something usually not allowed which adds a sort of festival feeling whether for better or worse. Also, rough sleepers can camp or sleep in doorways relatively undisturbed. Some could say it is just an expanded public park with an open mic, but there’s a level of ungovernability that pushes beyond that. Likewise the dissemination of radical ideas and effective ways to operate in the street push beyond that.

In terms of the CHAZ’s relation to Black Lives Matter it depends on what we’re talking about. There is a formal organization called Black Lives Matter whose local affiliate is Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County who largely stayed out of all the recent events and hosted their first one today, June 12th, two weeks after the first manifestation. They have had people in the Zone, but stayed relatively distant for the most part. 

The other more informal ‘Black Lives Matter movement’ is certainly present. Though there are diverse opinions and peoples within it, Zone has a very intentional culture that centers black liberation and police abolition and anything that deviates too far from that seems in poor taste. Other than the formal Black Lives Matter group there are also several all-Black run abolitionist groups and Black groups equity groups on the ground, but no organization like this formally runs the place or formally endorsed it or anything like that. They all came as individuals trying to foster a broader abolitionist movement and give what they can to the space. There’s also many Black radicals who see Black Lives Matter as a sort of already sold-out movement and prefer to talk about what’s going on as Black lead revolt or the abolitionist movement or even ACAB Spring. 

The CHAZ is a heterodox space that solves emergent problems as they arise in a horizontal manner. There’s no official leadership, there’s not official rules(there’s suggestions posted around though), there’s no official decision-making body, etc. In terms of the actual functionality of the Zone, working groups and affinity groups of various scales and formalities take care of various projects and roles. There’s medics set up on the patio of the still operating Mexican Restaurant in the Zone, there’s a garden, there’s something like a general assembly everyday at 3pm. If someone is causing a problem whoever is around intervenes in the best way they can think of and calls for help if they need it. Logistics are organized on Telegram, Discord, Signal, and of course in person at meetings on the ground. Whatever you may have heard from Trump or from anarchists online, it’s not an “anarchist controlled area” there’s a diverse group of people here. The zone is using arguably anarchic means of course, but it would be an over estimate of anarchist abilities and an underestimate of the more troublesome liberal dynamics to call it “anarchist controlled.”

And ah yes Trump has been tweeting about it. A lot of people have. We’ve made the National news every night since the CHAZ’s inception. Reactionaries are terrified spreading enormous amounts of propaganda and proving themselves to be paper tigers for the most part never backing up their threats. We’ve also gotten reports of attempted anti-police and black liberation “autonomous zone” inspired occupations popping up across the country. It may be obvious, but we too were inspired by another “autonomous zone,” the one the sprouted from the ashes of the precinct that got burned down in Minneapolis. They too chased out their cops and started immediate mutual aid programs and made a space of encounter. In Minneapolis, when the car repair store AutoZone was looted someone spray painted “Autonomous Zone” on the side of the building which doubt in part is referenced in the name Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. As we were inspired we hope that we also inspire others.

At this point we’ve forced the liberal wing of the state and corporate media to pivot and start talking about us positively, no doubt in an attempt to capture its energy and pacify it. It hasn’t been quite the same as the shockwave sent out during the early phases of this wave of revolt, but we are making ruptures of our own that find resonance across state and national borders and everyday building our shared power in support of black liberation and against the police. 

What are the perspectives that we can imagine for the Autonomous Zone? Are there discussions about it’s defense and how it can be developed further if it holds?

One interesting development is that the police, after getting insulted by Trump in the media and taking advantage of low numbers of defenders in the early morning, snuck into the CHAZ with a dozen or so officers and accompanied by friendly self-appointed community leaders and actually entered the precinct. This was a turning point. There was much discussion of what to do, but what came out of it was a resolve to block all further police incursion and escort the remaining officers out as they leave the building. Similarly, known reactionaries have been surrounded and forced out several times. The defensive ethos remains but it is firm in it’s commitment to a police free zone. The police and city also tried to have a meeting with some “leaders” and “elders” inin a move right out of the US Armies counter-insurgency manual in attempts to negotiate a surrender of the precinct back into their hands, but it failed miserably and was disrupted. With no formal leaders or popular figures willing to sell-out the city is at a loss. 

It is possible the city may still be able to incorporate the CHAZ into some sort of parks, art, and culture project trying to wait out its more conflictual edge. The mayor has even come out in “support” of the zone saying it’s not “anarchist” and that Capitol Hill has always been “autonomous.” So far it’s not working. The mood of the zone can seem like a party. Movies are screened, people are having fun all over, Djs, play sets, etc, but when the police show up the bubbly crowd becomes spiky.

There are also broader implications of the Zone in Seattle itself. If people learn how to defend the space in a way that also retains public support then sweeps become a thing that are much easier to defend against. Since sweeps are often announced. Defense teams with newly found courage and developed tactics can deploy themselves to defend the camps. And the CHAZ itself is becoming such a tent city. It is replete with hand washing stations, a people’s clinic, plenty of food, bathrooms, trash pick up, and of course free of the usual police harassment that poor people face. 

Regarding defense, I should also mention that there are at pretty much all times people armed with guns in the camp. These people of course are not there to defend against a police incursion as the crowds often frown at people doing something as harmless asthrowing plastic water bottles at cops. Rather these armed individuals are there to deter an attack by armed reactionaries. I called them paper tigers earlier, but there was of course already a shooting and the shooter came to the location with two magazines taped together,  which is usually something someone only does if they plan on taking out a lot of people. There have also been other shootings in other parts of the country by reactionary vigilantes so the threat is real. And though having a standing army or official security team is something pretty much no one at the space wants, if people of their own accord want to come down to offer what they can no one seems to mind it. It also should be mention that it wasn’t armed people who countered the armed reactionary who drove his car into people, but people who took decisive action when they saw a fatal threat. 

In terms of development the thing a lot of my friends were worried about was keeping pressure on the city, but holding the precinct seems to be doing that so far. There’s also of course bettering our coordination, bettering rumor control (which has come a long way), and other things like that. Though people tinker with the barricades every day and add things on, fortifications aren’t necessarily a primary concern at all right now as the struggle is thankfully mostly social right now. There could be better watches at night and that’s a thankless job usually so were trying to come up with ways to make it a more pleasant position. We’re also constantly trying to put out critical practical information related to anti-repression practices and relevant theoretical stuff that will be particularly palatable in this space in ways it hasn’t been before. One other area that’s being worked on is our relations with the first peoples in this land, the Duwamish, the Muckleshoot, and other Coast Salish peoples. They too have lost many people to the hands of the police and any zone that wishes to be autonomous in a good way, should follow protocol to build such relations.

This whole thing is interesting cause it’s sometimes considered cutting edge wisdom that the police and the reactionaries are but obstacles on the way to revolution and building what we want, which is true in many respects, but this space as made possible by just stubbornly directly confronting the cops long enough that they had to leave and that tension with the cops seemed to be an important factor in creating this space and cultivating the current abolitionist disposition. Now not only are we looking at defensive measures, but we are thinking how to expand our actions outside of the Zone or possibly launch from it or in coordination with it. Demos are already called at other precincts in part intentionally blocking in police cars in trying to maximally disrupt their logistics, people are eyeing confederate monuments, and others go on graffiti outings only to run back to the safety of the Zone. On top of trying to not loose the animating tension, there’s also keeping the Zone a space oriented around black liberation.

Everything seems so incredibly complex and so simple at the same time. Everything seems so fragile and powerful at the same time. There’s seemingly dead ends everywhere and potentiality oozing up from the cracks in the concrete. It’s wild.

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