Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone: Occupy Wall Street revisited?

Anti-Racism Protests Continue In Seattle
Barricade at an entrance to Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. The zone includes blocks surrounding the East Precinct of the Seattle police department—site of cop attacks on people protesting the murder of George Floyd. (David Ryder / Getty Images)


In his “law-and-order” frenzy, Trump is threatening to intervene in the six-block area of Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). Calling the peaceful protesters in the enclave “domestic terrorists” and “ugly anarchists,” Trump is threatening to use federal force to retake this enclave. Socialist Resurgence condemns any attempt to remove the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. We oppose the deployment of National Guard or active-duty troops anywhere in the U.S. or overseas. Trump’s threats of violence must be rejected. This means actively mobilizing unions and organizations that support civil liberties and Black Lives Matter to block any incursion into the CHAZ.

The author of the following article, Steve Leigh, is a member of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.

“THIS SPACE IS NOW PROPERTY OF THE SEATTLE PEOPLE.” — Sign on the former Seattle East Police Precinct

On Monday, June 8, activists took control of streets around the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct at 12th and Pine. It includes an area of six blocks in which the police have virtually disappeared. Police even “temporarily “ moved equipment out of the building and boarded up its windows. Occupiers have set up free food and medical stations, with checkpoints on the perimeters for defense. Echoing Washington, D.C., and other places, they painted “ Black Lives Matter” in gigantic block letters on E. Pine St. How did this come about and what do the activists want?

Seattle is one of 750 cities in the U.S. that rose up against the murder of George Floyd by ex-cop Chauvin and his accomplices in Minneapolis on May 25. Seattle picked up the mantle from Minneapolis and other cities on Friday, May 29, with a rally outside downtown police headquarters. The heaviest action took place on Saturday, May 30, as thousands gathered in downtown Seattle for a peaceful protest. Police attacked the edges of the protest with tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and pepper spray. In reaction to police repression, some people looted downtown stores and torched several police cars.

The rallies and marches have continued every day since then. Very early on, one of the targets was the East Precinct in Capitol Hill, in a somewhat racially integrated neighborhood known as the center of Seattle’s LGBTQ community and progressive politics. To “protect” the precinct building, the police set up barricades across Pine Street at 11th and 13th. They claimed to fear physical attacks on the buildings. Yet , from Sunday, May 31, none of the protests had significant violence from the protesters side. This did not stop the police from violently attacking the protesters with pepper spray, tear gas and clubs. They were determined to maintain the blockades around the East Precinct at all costs. They reacted violently to the mild pushing and shoving at the barricades with volleys of chemicals and grenades.

It was not only the police that inflicted violence. The brother of a police employee plowed his car into the demonstrators on June 7, shot one protester in the shoulder and threatened others. It became clear that the protest needed to provide more security for participants.

Besides the protests at the precinct, rallies and marches took place all over the city and indeed the whole region, in large cities and small towns alike. Health-care workers led by SEIU rallied thousands on Saturday, June 6 for a march on City Hall. Residents of Seattle’s most integrated area, South East Seattle, rallied yet other thousands on Sunday, June 7. Leaflets calling for abolition of the police were well received.

Activists called for defunding the police. The petition received tens of thousands of signatures. Over 12,000 marched on City Hall with this demand on June 3. Even city council members demanded the removal of Mayor Jenny Durkan over the police violence and suppression of rights. Local TV stations and news outlets were forced to report on the demands of demonstrators. “Defund the Police” went from a whisper among a small group to a roar among thousands within less than a week.

In response to mass pressure, the mayor banned the use of tear gas for 30 days on Friday, June 5, though this demand was violated on June 7. She ordered cops to openly display badge numbers. The City Attorney dropped the attempt to free the police department from Justice Dept. supervision. The mayor and police chief agreed to meet with more moderate reform-oriented “leaders” of the movement though this effort seems to have stalled. The Seattle Public Schools is considering suspending its use of school “resource officers” in its buildings.

Perhaps the biggest victory of the movement in Seattle so far, was the virtual abandonment of the East Precinct by the Seattle Police on June 7. The citywide and regional pressure had mounted to the point that the city government decided that an abandonment was necessary. Cops had been working 12-hour shifts defending the building and were worn out. Costs were mounting in a time of austerity due to the COVID crisis and the economic crisis. The police and city government were losing legitimacy among not just the thousands and thousands of demonstrators but the public at large. The narrative in the news of violent looters on May 30 had been replaced by the narrative of violent cops by June 7. The truth of continued police violence could not be hidden from people who had been on demonstrations or knew others who had. Mass action got the goods.

The occupation of the area around the precinct was solidified when Socialist Alternative city council member Kshama Sawant led a march of a thousand from Cal Anderson Park near the precinct to City Hall on June 9. Demonstrators occupied the ground floor of City Hall for a mass meeting about next steps. They then marched back to the East Precinct to reinforce the occupation of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.

This is an important victory! People in the area report that they feel safer now that the police are gone. This victory for the movement can spur further organizing and further victories.

However, the police have not given up. Police Chief Best lamented on June 11 that police response times in the area will increase. She said that the police department has every intention of returning to the building and turning it back into an operational center.

According to the Seattle Times, Chief Best sent this message to the rest of the Department: “The decision to board up the precinct, our precinct, our home, the first precinct I worked in … was not my decision,” she said.

“You fought for days to protect it. I asked you to stand on that line, day in and day out, to be pelted with projectiles, to be screamed at, threatened and in some cases hurt .. and then to have a change of course nearly two weeks in, it seems like an insult to you and our community.

“Ultimately, the city had other plans for the building and relented to severe public pressure … I’m angry about how this all came about.”

Obviously, Trump was more rabid. According to the Washington Post, he tweeted: “Take back your city NOW. If you don’t do it, I will. This is not a game. These ugly Anarchists must be stooped [sic] IMMEDIATELY. MOVE FAST!”

State and local politicians denounced Trump’s militarism: “A man who is totally incapable of governing should stay out of Washington state’s business,” wrote Gov. Inslee. Mayor Durkan tweeted: “Make us all safe. Go back to your bunker.”

This highlights an important issue: the struggle is never over as long as the state that is devoted to capitalism exists. The police have suffered a setback. They will lick their wounds for now but be prepared to re-take the building whenever they feel strong enough. When the movement recedes, they will try to re-establish their authority in the area. Even a partial defunding of police, though a good step, will still leave the police as thugs for the rich. There are no permanent victories under capitalism.

To maintain the victories as much as possible, the movement needs to keep up the pressure. It needs to press forward and win further gains, or see the current gains rolled back.

Can occupations bring final victory?

Though it is clear that the rollback of police is a victory to be celebrated, is it a model? There are different opinions about this among activists in CHAZ. The press has called the occupiers “anarchists.” Among self-identified anarchists, some see spreading occupations as a way to fundamentally change society. The idea is that more and more autonomous zones will undermine the capitalist system. Further, they feel that autonomous zones can pre-figure a new post-capitalist society and show people what is possible. Others see CHAZ as simply a base for further movement organizing.

This echoes attitudes of occupiers during Occupy Wall Street in 2011-12. One activist then said that in the Occupied park in Seattle, “capitalism no longer exists here.” Ultimately, the police came in and destroyed the occupations, showing that capitalism and its state very much continued to exist even in the occupation zones. One weakness of OWS was that it was based on “communism” of consumption, not communism of production. Goods and services were donated and freely distributed. However, the fundamental productive system of capitalism, based on exploitation, was never challenged.

In order to bring about a real revolution that overthrows capitalism, and thus racism, workers must use their power to reorganize production for human needs, not profit. Occupy was actually a political movement raising issues and ideas, but not fundamentally a movement that could show the example of a new society.

However, though it was a movement pushing political ideas, the predominantly anarchist attitude in the Occupy Wall Street movement made the idea of making demands on the state unpopular. Demands were supposedly not truly revolutionary. Instead of making demands that could improve conditions for the majority, many anarchists felt that we should ignore or refuse to admit the power of the state. The Marxist strategy of using reform demands to mobilize struggle that can win gains now but also lay the basis for actual revolutionary struggle down the road was rejected.

So far, CHAZ has not taken this dogmatic stand. It has issued 30 important demands. This shows that it is generally trying to build the movement for further reform and for transformation of society on a broad scale. The demands include abolition of police and judicial reform but also economic and health demands:

The abandonment of the East Precinct, even if temporary, shows the potential power of this movement! To finally end the scourge of police brutality and racism, we’ll have to end the system that causes them.





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