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Seattle's Police-Free Zone

24-Aug-2020Stephan Kimmerle

Audio recording of the following article, read by Jesse Dreyer

Seattle's Police-Free Zone

The Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) inspired activists across the country, even as Trump and Fox News used the Seattle zone to whip up confusion and fear. Discussions about the experience, including the huge pressures CHOP faced, will help strengthen the movement against racist police violence in the years ahead.

During the height of the uprising for Black lives in June, Seattle protesters succeeded in forcing the police to abandon their East Precinct Police Station. This victory resulted in protesters occupying the blocks around the police station and part of Cal Anderson Park in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. The occupation became a flashpoint of national discussion and media attention.

Initially called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), and later renamed the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) to emphasize its purpose, the occupation was a lively hub of resistance. Thousands came out every day to discuss politics, listen to speeches, plan activities, and build community together with gardening, tents, free food, and free medical services.

However, three weeks later, CHOP had turned into a political liability which was starting to undermine political sympathy for the protest movement among the broader public. An increasingly tense atmosphere, punctured by right-wing attacks and a number of shootings which resulted in the death of three people, led to CHOP’s decline even before the police regained control of the area and reclaimed their police station.

What started as an “autonomous police-free zone” saw an increase in different kinds of policing. A number of armed activists declared they would take responsibility for patrolling CHOP. This happened in response to real and rumored threats of attacks by far-right groups as well as conflicts within CHOP, but without democratic agreement or formal accountability to the CHOP community. At the same time, there was a “Pinkertonization” of the area with businesses, big and small, hiring their own private security forces, even less accountable to the public than the police.

The problem was not that the police were kicked out, as media and establishment politicians claim, but that they were not replaced with a well-organized force held accountable by the protest movement. Unfortunately, there were no democratic structures and no democratically accountable peacekeeping force which could enforce principles of solidarity, anti-racism, and anti-sexism, which is unavoidably needed given the conditions of the racist, sexist, alienated, and deeply unequal class society we live in.

This points to a much larger task within the struggle to defund the police and the efforts aiming to abolish the police. In the end, a mass movement of the multiracial working class, fighting for a democratic socialist society, will need to develop its own self-defense forces that take on the organization of public safety.

The Start of the “Police-Free Zone”

When Seattle police barricaded Pine street on June 1 and blocked a march against George Floyd’s murder from getting close to the East Precinct Police Station, they initiated a week-long stand-off with protestors. Night after night the protestors stayed, despite the violence of the police being on full display. The police used massive amounts of pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades, and even stationed snipers on rooftops.

Police and the political establishment (all Democrats) waged a fierce war in the media to delegitimize protestors (such as displaying a broken candle and labeling it an “incendiary explosive”). Nonetheless, support for the protests continued to grow.

Facing widespread public opposition, the authorities felt compelled to pull the police back temporarily and even abandon the East Precinct Police Station in order to try to defuse the situation.

The police, angry at having to abandon their police station, spread rumors in the media that protestors were going to burn down the station. Instead, something wonderful happened. Using donated resources, they turned the previously militarized block into a peaceful nexus of anti-racist organizing, discussion, and expression. It was a largely celebratory atmosphere with daily speak-outs, street murals, and free food.

None of the organizers chose the terrain or the timing. The diverse group of protestors did the best they could facing all the complications that a “police-free zone” entails, staffed only by volunteers in the middle of a highly unequal city. At every turn, activists were under a national spotlight, with Donald Trump and the right-wing media intent on weaponizing every single issue to demonize the entire protest as violent. Fox News infamously photoshopped the same photo of one armed participant into multiple shots.

Under these circumstances, as the situation developed further over the next three weeks, three main factors were at play:

1. The Threat of the Police against CHOP

Protesters, including those in the autonomous zone, were never truly autonomous from the threat of violence by the Seattle Police Department and other security forces of the state.

Seattle Mayor Durkan, needing to distance herself politically from Trump's attacks, defended CHOP at first as a kind of carnival with a “block party atmosphere,” while also working behind the scenes to try to dismantle it. On multiple occasions, the mayor and the police signaled they would reclaim their police station, but for weeks public support was too high to actually execute the sweep. It wasn’t until July 1 at 2 a.m. that Durkan signed the official order for the police to forcefully sweep the area. A White House spokesperson declared “Seattle has been liberated.”

2. The Threat of Nazis, White Supremacists, and the Far Right

Far-right activists represent a very small part of society, but they have been emboldened and empowered by Trump, and they are increasingly a threat.

There were multiple attacks by far-right groups before and after the establishment of CHOP. Shortly before CHOP was established, one person drove their car into the protests and, after being stopped, shot at demonstrators.

The day after CHOP was established, several police officers talked on unencrypted communication “scanners” (which the public can listen to) about a group of 30 white nationalists marching toward the area. Protestors got ready to defend each other, but it turned out the white nationalists were a hoax. Even though no violence occurred, the media took many photos of protestors equipped to defend themselves and circulated these images nationwide to portray CHOP as militarized and violent.

A sign that read “You are now leaving USA” broadcasted widely by the media, inflamed real far-right groups who came at various points to “re-take it for the US,” sometimes carrying giant American flags, other times coming in vans without license plates, and attacking protestors with bats.

There is no known record of any arrests resulting from these far-right assaults.

3. The Violence within CHOP

The police were constantly waging a propaganda war against CHOP with made-up stories about CHOP violence. The day after police abandoned their police station, the mayor and police chief held a press conference where they claimed protestors had set up ID checkpoints and were extorting local small businesses. These claims were spread far and wide by the corporate media. Yet when pressed on who had reported this, the police chief contradicted herself, saying “We haven’t had any formal reports of this occurring.”

Although many of these claims were manufactured, CHOP was also never a violence-free utopia. Over the weekend of June 20-21, three people were shot at or near CHOP, and one black 19 year-old tragically lost his life. In response, Police Chief Carmen Best claimed “that if the Seattle City Council hadn't banned less-lethal weapons like rubber bullets and tear gas, officers could have responded sooner” (The Stranger, June 22). She also claimed that protestors had stopped police from reaching that first victim. This was a powerful tool in turning public opinion against CHOP, although later review of video evidence showed this claim was a lie.

The Capitol Hill Blog reported about further gun violence on June 23, with one teen killed and a 14 year-old wounded in another shooting in the early morning hours of June 29. One of the outbreaks of violence was reported to be linked to domestic violence, and a number of sexual assault allegations were raised.

We do not have complete information and—as outlined above—the mayor and the police continuously spread misinformation, which was echoed by national media. Nonetheless, after these deaths, the atmosphere at CHOP completely changed.

The ability of the movement to respond in an organized way to these challenges and threats was limited. With no regular decision-making general meetings at CHOP to discuss a way forward, and without a democratically elected leadership, it was difficult or impossible to make necessary adjustments or implement changes.

The End of Policing?

The self-declared police-free autonomous zone crumbled not only because it was dismantled by the Seattle police. Unfortunately, it was already imploding. The media—including the liberal media—were happy to seize on this. CNN claimed on July 5 that “human nature” made it difficult to create a world without police, adding:

Protesters wanted to end police violence against Black people by defunding the department by 50 percent. They argued armed officers shouldn't be called to respond to issues of mental health, homelessness, poverty. But once they created a police-free zone, they immediately had to deal with all those issues and more — with only the donated time and supplies of fellow protesters, who still had day jobs. With police absent from the 6-square-block area, the experiment spun out of control, with accusations that it ended up causing exactly what it had aimed to stop: more violence against Black people.

Rather than demonstrating some permanent feature of “human nature,” CHOP showed it was impossible to create a sustainable island of peace surrounded by an ocean of capitalism with all its violence and inhumanity. Many CHOP organizers and participants sensed from the beginning the very real limits of what could be sustainably built in CHOP.

Activists in the “Occupy Wall Street” occupations in 2011 had similar experiences: The encampments, born out of protest against the conditions created by capitalism, suddenly had to manage the worst outcomes of capitalism — without the necessary resources to do so. Some of the people camping in tents were there to protest; others were homeless people who gained a more stable place to live.

All the features built into this society — poverty, racism, sexual assault, homophobia — are challenges that social movements and left-wing organizations have to deal with all the time inside their own ranks. With a situation like CHOP, with no overarching plan, tensions rose between organizers about what the space should look like, and how to deal with those mounting difficulties.

The police are used by the ruling class to enforce the laws of their exploitative system, but also to keep a certain "order" or lid on the pressure cooker of conflict and tension that runs throughout this society. Our collective liberation will require lifting this lid, but the movement must raise itself up to the task of dealing with the pressure cooker itself, by addressing the underlying social conditions that systematically generate tension, conflict, anti-social behavior, and violence.

The demand to defund the police points in the right direction, and the left in Seattle has to fight tooth and nail to ensure the seven (out of nine) city councilmembers fulfill their promise to cut the SPD budget in half. (Eight members of the Seattle City Council are Democrats. Only one, Socialist Alternative's Kshama Sawant, is not.) However, even if the $200 million that makes up half the SPD budget would be completely reinvested to meet the urgent needs of communities of color and the wider working class, it would only be a drop in the bucket compared to what is truly needed.

A violent and repressive police force is a cheaper “solution” for the corporate elite rather than actually solving the underlying social problems, which would require investing a massive amount of resources to meet the needs of working and poor people. The inevitable economic and social tensions of this crisis-ridden capitalist society create the need to “keep things under control” (of course, a "control" favorable to the interests of the ruling elite, achieved by right-wing methods necessary for such "control"). Almost all people who argue for “abolishing the police” acknowledge these societal tensions and are trying to come up with other ways of creating “public safety” with some kind of replacement for the police.

Different Ways to Defund the Police

There are different ways to defund the police:

A left-liberal approach to defunding the police isolates and separates the question of police violence from other social problems, arguing to reduce the harm done by the police while dire racial and class inequalities remain intact for the most part. This left-liberal approach fails to fully address the underlying issues of inequality, exploitation, oppression, and alienation, which give rise to crime. With this approach, fears that defunding the police will cause a lack of “public safety” will gain traction, not only among white relatively better off working-class people, but also among communities of color and poor people.

This left-liberal approach overlaps with an anarchist approach which argues that, after dismantling the state, the door would automatically open up for fundamental economic and social change. In contrast to this belief, the experience at CHOP showed how quickly policing was reestablished not just by the businesses around CHOP who hired their own armed private security, but by protesters themselves out of the desperate need to deal with the contradictions that arose.

On the other hand, there is a socialist approach that also vehemently argues to defund the police. However, socialists link defunding the police to the need to fundamentally change society, for example with Medicare for All, jobs guarantees, reparations, and a huge redistribution of wealth to communities of color and the wider working class. Within this approach, revolutionary socialists argue that this must be part of a struggle to end the rule of the capitalist class and dismantle their police and other repressive agencies. Revolutionary socialists believe this requires the multiracial working class taking over the running of society, including organizing public safety.

The Movement’s Own Ability to Create Places of Solidarity

CHOP developed out of the uprising for Black lives - and it was a beautiful attempt to build the movement. Future movements could attempt to build upon this by grappling with two main questions:

a) Can there be a democratically elected and accountable leadership?

Multiple Black leaders have led the movement for Black lives in Seattle. Community organizer Nikkita Oliver, in particular, has played a very valuable leadership role. Early on, Nikkita was one of the driving forces, helping to unify and build the movement by organizing over 300 organizations to sign onto a statement in support of three key demands: (1) defund SPD by 50%, (2) redirect those funds to community-led health and safety services, and (3) free all the protesters without charges. Nikitta also publicly called out Mayor Durkan for attempting to hand-pick “leaders” that the mayor wanted to serve as “spokespeople” for the movement.

When Nikkita has been asked to speak on behalf of the community, she has often responded that the community will speak for itself. The movement has a healthy skepticism of anyone claiming to speak on its behalf. However, mass movements of thousands of people will inevitably need some leaders to serve as spokespeople to represent the movement’s views in the media, to articulate demands, and to organize mass actions that can unify the movement.

Since the movement is inevitably going to need such leaders and organizers to play these indispensable roles, it should be done in a democratic way. For example, general assemblies could be held to discuss key issues facing the movement and democratically elect leaders that the movement actually supports, as opposed to those claiming to speak on their behalf. To ensure the leaders carry out the will of the majority of the protesters, the leaders should be subject to a recall election at any time and participate in regular mass meetings of protesters where all viewpoints could be aired.

b) Can the movement develop its own peacekeeping stewarding force to defend itself from violent right-wing and police attacks, and to deal with any anti-social 1conduct that would put the safety of participants at risk?

The experience of CHOP illustrates it is not enough to kick out the existing police or abolish them. The task facing the movement was to get organized, to become strong enough to defend the principles of solidarity on the ground at CHOP. In effect, the movement would need to successfully replace the police, but with completely different intentions, methods, and tools. CHOP needed to elect a democratically accountable peacekeeping (or stewarding) force to deal with all the questions arising from both external threats and internal challenges.

One of many inspiring developments in the Seattle uprising was the bike brigades that protesters spontaneously organized to protect protests and marches. Dozens of bikers, and sometimes car caravans, collectively shut down traffic and blocked police and other potential disturbances to peaceful protesters. This is a glimpse of the kind of force needed to collectively protect our movements in the future.

Could the bike brigades be expanded to overcome the challenges CHOP was facing? That would have been great, but at the end of the day, the question is how to keep these new stewards accountable. How could democratic control over such forces be exercised and sustained?

Many argue today for “community control of the police.” That sounds much better — and in many ways might be better — than keeping such forces under the control of the present mechanisms of repression. But any attempt to implement local community control of the police could also easily pit different working-class communities against each other, and more middle-class neighborhoods against poorer people. The challenge is instead to unite the multiracial working class — not some notion of a classless "community" — in the struggle against inequality, oppression, and poverty in general.

A united movement of the multiracial working class could overcome those divisions and create a force that radically contrasts with the present tools of oppression and repression. It could aim to reorganize society, using its wealth and resources to overcome class, racial, and gender oppression. This is how capitalism and the capitalist police can be abolished once and for all — by establishing a democratic socialist society with an alternative public safety force, which would be accountable to, and run in the interests of, the multiracial masses.

Stephan Kimmerle is a Seattle DSA activist and a member of DSA’s Reform & Revolution caucus.