Seattle’s police-free zone: a failed experiment

What is going on in Seattle? If rightwing pundits are to be believed, my home city has undergone a “totalitarian takeover”, said Eric Scigliano on Politico. They’ve dubbed it “Crazy Town” and portrayed it as a lawless hellscape patrolled by “domestic terrorists”. The less scary truth, however, is that a Seattle neighbourhood has conducted an experiment in cop-free governance. Earlier this month, after days of clashes with anti-racism protesters, the police shut down a precinct and ceded a six-block zone to demonstrators. Thus was born the Chaz (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone), later renamed the Chop (Capitol Hill Organised Protest). Part commune, part street party, it was “at once silly and serious”. Walking through it, I saw lots of earnest conversations about racism, street murals, new community vegetable beds and – because it’s still America – people selling “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts for $30 each.

You didn’t get attacked the moment you set foot in the Chop, said Jason Rantz in the National Review, but nor was it ever the “peaceful, social justice utopia” that some were keen to portray it as. From the start, fights were commonplace, and you risked a beating if you got on the wrong side of the heavily armed vigilantes in charge of security; businesses had no real protection. A series of nighttime shootings this week radically changed the mood, said Brendan Kiley in The Seattle Times, leaving the streets almost deserted and prompting moves finally to dismantle the Chop. But while the physical structures may go, the influence of this protest will live on. “A community has formed around black lives, ending police violence and dismantling systemic racism.”

The Chop is just the latest iteration of America’s long history of communal experimentation, said Ashley Garcia in The Washington Post. Inspired by early settlers such as the Quakers and the Shakers, numerous groups have sought to pioneer new ways of living over the years. From the 19th century utopiansocialists to the former slaves who moved into autonomous communities after the Civil War, to the Black Panthers, communalism has always been a strong influence in US politics. Most of these failed, but they trialled new ideas. The Chop may model “alternative practices that reformers later bring into the mainstream as they work to reshape American institutions”.