Inside Seattle's cop-free "Autonomous Zone"

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As protests continue for a third week in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder, calls for racial justice have come to include another, less-understood demand: defund the police. And it's already working — in Minneapolis, a veto-proof majority of the city council voted to disband the police, following the city school board's move to pull all officers out of its educational institutions. Los Angeles soon followed and vowed to reduce the city's multi-billion dollar budget by $150 million, and New York City is also considering cuts to its massive police budget.

But is it possible to live in a world without police? Skeptics wonder who would keep the pace and ensure public safety if there are no officers to deploy. But in Seattle, a movement called Free Capitol Hill is in the early days of demonstrating what it looks like to live in an interdependent, police-free society.

The region, known as Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (named Capitol Hill for the Seattle neighborhood it's located in), has been functional since late Monday evening, when Seattle's police chief Carmen Best ordered that officers vacate Seattle's East Precinct building and board it up. Protesters spray-painted over the precinct's sign, changing it to read "PEOPLE DEPARTMENT" — an announcement of the region's new stewards. Instead of heading home, protesters just stayed, building out the perimeter of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone from the precinct using former police barricades.

As you enter the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, a sign greets you saying, "You are now leaving the USA." For Oliver Miska, a teacher in the area, the Autonomous Zone represents "the most beautiful forms of peace and love and mutual aid, art, expression, [and] public discourse."

The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ for short) is an evolving practice of independence and interdependence, says JJ (who declined to provide her last name), a member of Salish Black Flag, an antifascist anarchist collective based in the area. There's no formal assignment of responsibilities or election process to determine leadership roles, which right now are mostly filled by Black and brown folks. Instead, people just step in where they're needed, based on the skills they already have. For instance, a mental health station located near Cal Anderson Park is staffed by social workers, practicing therapists, and those with degrees in psychology, providing what JJ says would usually be a "fee-based service" for free.

JJ says that incidences of violence or disruption have been minimal, and anyway CHAZ practices what it preaches in that police are not called upon to preserve safety and peace. One evening this past week, a belligerently drunk man was yelling sexist and racist slurs to those around him. Quickly, CHAZ's security team — veterans, lawyers, social workers, and emergency medical technicians — surrounded the man, walked him home, and took down his contact information so they could check on him the next day.

A lot of the care for each other and for the broader community was born out of the protests. Salish Black Flag and other organizations, movements, and collectives were on the ground during the past two weeks feeding protesters and providing other resources they needed. Solely through donations of supplies and funds, volunteers are able to offer 300-400 hot meals a day, complete with vegan and halal options. There's also a stage at the corner of 12th Avenue and East Pine Street, the intersection right in front of the East Precinct, where individuals are free to grab the mic to tell their stories, Miska tells Mic.

JJ says that CHAZ's loose structure came naturally. Residents and business owners of the Capitol Hill neighborhood where CHAZ was formed are supportive of their efforts, JJ says, noting that police violence and use of flashbangs, tear gas, and rubber bullets were bad for business. To JJ and Salish Black Flag, defunding the police requires a shift in thinking as well as a shift of resources; the desire to demonstrate a world without police is both a call for conceptual change within the broader community, as well as for immediate policy change within the city.

"Some or all of these [demands] are gonna have to be met before we get up and walk away."

On Tuesday, Free Capitol Hill also released a list of demands to the city council and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan (D), ranging from issues related to the justice system, economic inequality, and education. "This is no simple request to end police brutality," the document begins, "This document is to represent the Black voices who spoke in victory at the top of 12th and Pine after nine days of peaceful protest while under constant nightly attack from the Seattle Police Department." It's a wide-ranging document that addresses the intersecting ways systems disenfranchise and silence people attempting to protest their government, JJ explains.

How long CHAZ will last remains to be seen. According to a local blog, Durkan has pledged that Seattle Public Utilities will continue to clean the area and maintain chemical toilets for those living within the zone. JJ says that while they don't know how long they'll be able to maintain CHAZ, the goal is to ultimately use it as a "bargaining chip." "In order to remove us," she says, "some or all of these [demands] are gonna have to be met before we get up and walk away."

Otherwise, JJ predicts that police and National Guardsmen will need to use force to remove the group, which would "prove us right — how we view the militarized police response is correct. All they know how to do is escalate force."

Miska says that any discussion of liberation also has to include collaboration with the indigenous peoples of the Seattle area and members of the Duwamish tribe. "If we're talking about true liberation we need to speak to indigenous populations," Miska says. "[We're] trying to create a space to model what a future could look like when people just care about each other, when people can have discussions and debate and discourse without violence."

In many ways, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone was a long time coming — the result not just of what Free Capitol Hill and Salish Black Flag believe is a racist and classist economic system, but of the inner workings of Seattle itself. There's been a long-standing rift between Durkan and other city representatives, and it's come to a head now with the protests against police brutality. Throughout these weeks of uprising, Durkan has sided with police and their use of force and has further suggested that in light of a $300 million budget deficit due to coronavirus, social services and other city programs will be cut to absorb the budgetary shock. Other council members, like Tammy Morales and Teresa Mosqueda, want increased financial support for social programs to come instead from the police budget — which at $407 million, comprises just over a third of overall public spending.

Council member Kshama Sawant has suggested a 50% cut to the police budget, which for many protesters at CHAZ still isn't good enough. On Tuesday, Sawant introduced her plan to the crowd and was booed off of the platform by protesters who viewed her, a member of the Socialist Alternative party, as pandering to establishment values.

Seattle's police budget hasn't been cut once in two decades. Amidst a growing national outrage at both use of police force against Black people and the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, Sawant has said she feels like it's time for a change in leadership. She told Mother Jones that she plans to introduce articles of impeachment for the mayor, a reaction to the public demands that Durkan resign over the way she's handled the protests and use of police force.

Durkan, meanwhile, has referred to the calls for her resignation as a "distraction." For the activists at CHAZ, though, radical change is familiar — and may be just what Seattle and the rest of the country need.