Free Capitol Hill


If you were to have happened to be travelling along Seattle’s East Pine Street sometime last week, it might have appeared much like many other American cities at the time. An aggressive police force unleashing chemical weaponry upon peaceful protesters, serving as a constant reminder of the urgent struggle of people of colour. But as of this new week, from Broadway to 13th, you will see something very different. Because in the roughly six blocks or so surrounding the former East Precinct, you can find signs displayed along the newly painted Black Lives Matter Way: offering free vegan food, medical care and books – and a sign proclaiming “You’re Now Leaving the USA”.

Welcome to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone! You can visit the park around the corner, where you can contribute to the communal garden, you can go view the mural whilst enjoying a hot dog, or you can return to the intersection, where activists from across the commune might be screening a movie, holding a people’s congress, or engaging in cultural exchange with members of the indigenous community. Most notably, there is also something else distinctive about CHAZ – absolutely no cops allowed.

The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer may have been one of many similar preceding fatalities resulting from police brutality, with many of these past crimes going unconvicted or even uncharged. But this time, it happened to be a catalyst, reinvigorating a global conversation about racial inequality and injustice – a conversation paired with a mainly non-violent protest movement united under the slogan of “Black Lives Matter”.

To note quickly: this is an issue institutional not only in the sense of its regularity and lack of justice, but in the very purpose of the racist narrative: to divide and conquer, to delegitimize any alternative egalitarian social structure, and to expand exploitation to increase the profits of the capitalist class. Hence the racist false consciousness reaches us through their media, their hegemonically imposed elements of culture, their neocolonial foreign policies. When the preconceptions and microaggressions this narratives stimulate is embraced by someone in desperation and precarity, the microaggressions become intentional macroaggressions. The impact of subconscious prejudice in the split second decision of an officer is also woven into a system which the entire police force is in place to defend. 

There have also been, in the midst of protest, incidences of violence and looting from some protesters, and it’s not surprising to see why. Mass peaceful protest had been occurring before Floyd’s death everywhere from the streets to the football fields, and yet the institution didn’t change. When the police box peaceful protesters into increasing confined crowds as a means of containing protest, would the usual methods of protest really seem to be working on their own? Arguably, the threat of increased violence has historically played a key role in encouraging governments to negotiate with peaceful protesters while they still can – the approachability of MLK over Malcolm X springing to mind.

However, incumbent US president Donald Trump has appeared throughout this period to lack the intelligence and foresight to cooperate with the protests while still predominantly peaceful, so the protesters of CHAZ have taken it to another level. If people are not given the chance to inspire change, they must demonstrate it themselves. After the Seattle PD was forced to evacuate the East Precinct, this is what happened: the people of Capitol Hill began to demonstrably show all of us how we can live without the police force in its current form. An experiment which appears to the residents living there to be working, to be “exceedingly chill”, even.

So confident are the protesters with their new arrangement that they demand the eventual abolition of Seattle PD (following in the footsteps of Minneapolis PD), and immediate disarmament. They determine the funds would be better allocated into socialised healthcare and mental healthcare, public housing, arts and culture, education and anti-bias training, and reparations. Furthermore, their list of demands include city-wide democratic decentralisation, federal investigation into all incidents of police brutality, and retrial for incarcerated African American prisoners, who would also regain the right to vote.

When the police box peaceful protesters into increasing confined crowds as a means of containing protest, would the usual methods of protest really seem to be working on their own?

Within the proposed criminal justice reform, CHAZ also demands prison reform, including the end of youth prison – identifying the prison system as yet another cog in the machine of systemic racism. In a country where prisons have been privatised, capitalist profits are expanded further through prison labour, and overcrowding has become commonplace. Overcrowded prisons lead to heightened tension, and subsequently increased influence of prison gangs fuelled on the premise of the racial false consciousness. The ingraining of racism within an underworld culture is not confined to prisons either, influencing criminal gangs across the country, all whilst giving the capitalist class an opportunity to offload their system’s perpetuation onto the lumpenproletariat, and brush up on their own optics. One former member of one of these “white power” biker gangs was Bob Kroll – a Minneapolis police leader who would go on to defend Floyd’s killers.

As CHAZ shows us what improvements await us, outside of the current system of profiteering racism in the USA, is it any surprise that the capitalist class have responded? Fox News and @realDonaldTrump have gone straight to work in attempting to paint the Zone as a lawless hotbed of destruction, not cooperation – a portrayal that has been repeatedly debunked by the inhabitants themselves. The demonisation of a resident rapper, Raz Simone, as some kind of “warlord” is a baseless and presumably racist assumption which he himself and other eyewitnesses have clearly denied. Trump’s seemingly conspiratorial portrayal of the commune as under the centralised control of one unified terror group is a blatant misrepresentation of the diverse, decentralised AntiFa movement, one that simply doesn’t exist in the manner Trump suggests.

If Free Capitol Hill does indeed fall in the coming days, make no mistake – it will not be due to internal collapse.

Image: Prachatai via Flickr

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