CHOP Seattle: Imagining the police-free future

By Joshua Hanks
June 16, 2020

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police May 25, demonstrations, protests, marches, rallies and rebellions have spread across the U.S. This is now the largest display of civil unrest in decades, a true revolt against the racist police state that has occupied this stolen land for centuries. In every large city and innumerable small towns, antiracist activists have organized a myriad of actions, night after night, with tens of thousands coming out onto the streets after months of pandemic lockdowns.

In Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, a gentrified artistic and cultural hub and the historic center of Seattle’s LGBTQ2S+ community, various groups and individuals have created a powerful response to racist police violence: an autonomous zone spread over six blocks and a city park, Cal Anderson Park at the zone’s north end.

Protests in Capitol Hill began immediately after George Floyd’s murder and have been ongoing. Police, unsurprisingly, responded with heavy-handed, violent tactics. A citywide curfew was declared, with anyone outside after curfew subject to arrest. Images emerged of a young child maced by Seattle police.

Residents in the neighborhood endured clouds of tear gas invading their apartments as the police deployed copious amounts in the streets of this densely populated area. (This writer, living in downtown Portland, Ore., also had the unfortunate experience of tear gas getting inside his apartment.) Constant noise from police loudspeakers, grenades and helicopters made life difficult for the residents, as well as police barricades and checkpoints that severely disrupted travel within, into and out of the area.

But on June 8, something changed. The police abandoned their East Police Precinct building located in Capitol Hill (some say they ran out of tear gas and other weapons), and activists and organizers, from communists and socialists to anarchists and other leftists, quickly secured the area to prevent police from regaining control. The East Police Precinct building is now under control of what is being called the “Capitol Hill Organizing Project (CHOP)” or “Free Capitol Hill.” The sign above the entrance to the former police building now reads “Seattle People Department.”

Police-free living

Organized by a loose, unofficial, decentralized collective of activists and organizers, CHOP does not have a defined leadership or hard borders, but rather a system of collective responsibility and accountability, centered around the concepts of mutual aid and direct democracy. The organizers quickly erected tents where donated food and supplies are collected and distributed free based on need, not ability to pay. Dozens of tents provide everything from medical care to legal advice to literature, all for no charge.

A garden in homage to Indigenous agricultural practices.

Gardens were quickly planted, some reviving Indigenous agricultural practices such as “the three sisters” consisting of an ingenious, synergistic combination of corn, beans that grow up corn stalks, and squash that provide ground cover to suppress weeds. There’s an area with a sound system set up for speakers and musicians. Outdoor film screenings take place nightly, featuring films with themes of antiracism and social justice.

Corporate media has seized on the events in Capitol Hill, spinning wild tales that resemble nothing about the reality on the ground. Fox News used digitally altered photos of the autonomous zone that even the Seattle Times, a business-friendly newspaper, called out as fake. False stories of violence perpetrated by activists against residents, so-called “warlords” running the area, and extortion of local businesses have all made their way into the corporate media.

Trump called the activists and organizers of CHOP “domestic terrorists” and excoriated Seattle’s Democratic Mayor Jenny Durkan and Washington’s Democratic Governor Jay Inslee for not doing enough to crush the zone.

Yet when this writer visited CHOP on June 13 with a delegation of Workers World Party members and friends from Portland, Ore., it quickly became very clear that this was not the bloody, terrorist dystopia concocted by the propagandists at Fox News. Far from it.

In reality the area was much more calm with the police gone, with no more noxious clouds of tear gas drifting through the streets and into people’s homes. Gone were the constant grenade explosions and police loudspeakers barking threats. Pictures of Capitol Hill under heavy police repression resembled a dystopia, while CHOP has the air of a summer block party with a social justice focus. A speaker who gave his name as “Richard” described it as “a party with a purpose.”

People from all walks of life freely stroll about with their dogs and children in the now car-free streets, marvelling at the spectacular art that adorns the streets and facades of buildings, memorializing those murdered at the hands of police and listing demands for justice. Locally owned restaurants in the CHOP, previously shuttered when the police occupied the neighborhood, were up, running and doing a brisk business. Tear gas has been replaced with soap bubbles floating through the air.

‘More peaceful for a person of color’

In a June 1 article in The Stranger, a local Seattle paper, some of the zone’s 200 permanent residents voiced their support for what’s happening. A resident who preferred to remain anonymous had this to say: “Coming from a Latin American country where there’s a lot of police brutality, we thought moving here would be different. Having the police turn our neighborhood into a violent zone and seeing Black and Brown neighbors being attacked by the police was retraumatizing.

“Once the police left, things changed dramatically. We were not asked to stay home. Not asked to show our IDs to get into our apartment. We can approach protesters and ask questions about what’s going on and get information. We’ve witnessed protesters going to businesses and making sure they’re okay, communicating with them. As of right now, this seems more peaceful for a person of color living in Capitol Hill.”

Another resident said, “There is more compassion and willingness to build better futures together than anything I’ve seen out of leadership in the White House in the last few years, and specifically out of Seattle’s City Hall in the last two weeks.”

There are barricades with volunteers standing guard on the streets along the zone’s perimeter. (Cal Anderson Park does not have any barricades, though, and looks like a normal park.) Some conservatives say this shows the hypocrisy of leftists who denounce Trump’s racist border wall, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Yet the nature and purpose of the barricades at CHOP are far different from those on U.S. borders. Police and far-right individuals have a sordid record of intentionally plowing cars and trucks through crowds of antiracist protesters, killing and injuring people, and the barricades help prevent that. They also allow volunteers to monitor who enters the zone in case police and white supremacists attempt to violently retake the area or cause harm.

The corporate media’s biased, fact-challenged reporting on CHOP should raise eyebrows for everyone who values truth and accuracy in journalism. It also raises questions about the quality and accuracy of reporting on countries the U.S. considers enemies, such as Cuba, Venezuela, China and the Democratic People’s Republic Korea. Most people here have never visited those countries, and their views are shaped almost entirely by the corporate media, the CIA and the U.S. State Department, among others.

If these entities shamelessly lie about what’s going on at home, at a place someone can visit for themselves, can the public really trust what they have to say about countries thousands of miles away that have resisted U.S. imperialism for decades?

It’s impossible to know how long CHOP will last. Police and the National Guard could swiftly and violently retake the area at any moment, although they will meet stiff opposition. But this spectacular experiment in autonomy and a police-free environment shows what is possible, and the lessons learned from it won’t soon be forgotten. It has already inspired revolutionaries, workers and oppressed peoples around the world.

The torching of the police precinct building in Minneapolis just a few weeks ago showed the ruling class that the people are capable of destroying their institutions of repression, while CHOP shows that the people are capable of constructing something entirely new. These two events represent a dialectical dance of revolutionary destruction and construction — of destroying the old system of racism and inequality and constructing a new society of justice and fairness.