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What’s Going On in CHAZ, the Seattle Autonomous Zone?

Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images

What is CHAZ? Your ex? Some sort of masked EDM DJ? One of the trolls in Trolls 2: Trolls World Tour?

CHAZ may be all of these, but it is also the acronym for the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” an area of about six blocks in Seattle ceded to protesters demanding justice for George Floyd after several tense nights of standoffs with police. In the absence of law enforcement, a kind of commune has sprung up — which has now become a nightmare bogeyman for conservatives, including the president. They seem to think CHAZ is the first “territory” “claimed” by antifa radicals (antifa, which is not a formal organization, has not claimed any responsibility for CHAZ), “Mad Max movie mayhem come to life” (it has actually been described as “extremely chill”), and run by a group of “domestic terrorists” whose “warlord” is a SoundCloud rapper (also false).

So what is really happening in this rainy place filled with signs like “You are now leaving the USA” and free LaCroix? What do the citizens of CHAZ want? Here is what we know about the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone:

Who created the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone?

After protests began in Seattle at the end of May, standoffs between protesters and police became intense almost nightly, so much so that lawyers with the Seattle firm Perkins Coie, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Seattle University School of Law filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of Black Lives Matter Seattle–King County and others. “On an almost nightly basis, the SPD has indiscriminately used excessive force against protesters, legal observers, journalists, and medical personnel,” the lawsuit says. It alleges that as late as Monday, June 8, police officers deployed tear gas despite a pledged 30-day moratorium.

A day later, on June 9, Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best announced a “decreasing footprint” around the East Precinct at 11th Avenue and East Pine Street, which had become a “flash point” of clashes between protesters and police. “Protesters have requested it, they want the streets open for peaceful marches, and we’re going to facilitate that opportunity for them,” Best said. “This is an exercise in trust and deescalation.” Law enforcement boarded up windows in the precinct and were seen removing items from the building. Once they were gone, protesters moved in on Pine and set up camp, reversing barricades in order to create a protected zone of about six blocks.

What’s happening there?

Reports from CHAZ, described by The Stranger as “exceedingly chill,” make it sound like a mix of Occupy Wall Street and a college independent cooperative dorm. The cordoned-off area includes apartments, businesses, and the precinct, with protesters free to gather away from any police. According to news reports and accounts from observers, there is a “No Cop Co-Op” with free food, vegan pizza, LaCroix (and White Claw), a hot dog stand (not free), a medical center, a Mutual Aid Books table, a garden, and a giant Black Lives Matter mural.

Protesters reportedly have screened Ava DuVernay’s 13th and Paris Is Burning in the intersection, and some have hosted people’s assemblies to discuss demands. One night, members of the Lakota and Yakama tribes performed. A protester told the New York Times that CHAZ residents “are trying to prove through action and practice that we don’t need [the police] and we can fulfill the community’s needs without them.” There is now a CHAZ website with volunteer and donation resources as well as a timeline of events, though a disclaimer reads that it is “not associated with any ‘organizers,’ ‘members,’ ‘residents,’ or other people involved with either the coordination of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, nor with the City of Seattle,” and is “intended to document and culturally preserve” the creation of CHAZ.

What are the CHAZ demands?

Unsurprisingly, the future of CHAZ and its plans for the East Precinct seem to be somewhat up in the air. Some protesters released a list of 30 demands on Medium; they say that the documented is intended “to represent the black voices who spoke in victory at the top of 12th & Pine after 9 days of peaceful protest while under constant nightly attack from the Seattle Police Department.” They include that the city of Seattle defund and abolish the Seattle Police Department, ban the use of armed force, and provide reparations for victims of police brutality. On Wednesday, June 10, Kshama Sawant, a City Council member affiliated with the Socialist Alternative Party, led protesters from CHAZ to City Hall, during which she called for the resignation of Mayor Jenny Durkan and promoted her plan to tax Amazon. Sawant wrote on Twitter the following day that she wants to convert the East Precinct to a “community center for restorative justice.”

But some people involved are clearly wary of the involvement of politicians at all and of distracting participants from the focus on racist police brutality: Moe’Neyah Dene Holland, a Black Lives Matter activist, told the Times that CHAZ “should focus on just this one thing first … The other things can follow suit. Because honestly, black men are dying and this is the thing we should be focusing on.”

At a briefing, Assistant Seattle Police Chief Deanna Nollette said that law enforcement intends to reopen the precinct in dialogue with protesters. “It’s just a matter of establishing a dialogue so we can take down the plywood and welcome people back into the lobby.”

No, a SoundCloud rapper is not its “warlord.”

Misinformation abounds from the right wing regarding CHAZ, attempting to portray it as both dangerous and violent as well as silly “woke-ness” gone mad. One pernicious Twitter post claimed, “A SoundCloud rapper becoming the warlord in an Antifa insurgency-controlled autonomous zone in Seattle is proof we live in a simulation,” referring to Seattle rapper Raz Simone, who, yes, has a SoundClound and is a protester involved in creating CHAZ but has not declared himself a “warlord.” The American Conservativethe New York Post and other outlets, and pundits like Tucker Carlson repeated the claim. Simone responded by posting a screenshot of a tweet claiming he was the leader of Seattle antifa on his Instagram story with the caption “yo y’all are stupid.”

The hysteria traveled all the way up to Donald Trump, who tweeted on June 10 that “Domestic Terrorists have taken over Seattle, run by Radical Left Democrats, of course,” and that “Radical Left” Governor Jay Inslee and Mayor Durkan “are being taunted and played at a level that our great Country has never seen before. Take back your city NOW. If you don’t do it, I will. This is not a game. These ugly Anarchists must be stooped IMMEDIATELY. MOVE FAST!” Durkan responded that Trump should go back into his bunker.

Local reporters confirm that there are some CHAZ residents walking around with firearms (Washington is an open-carry state) but that they claim they are providing safety for CHAZ and other protesters accept their presence in the area. Seattle police walked back a previous claim that some businesses were being extorted to be able to operate in the area, with Best clarifying that they have not actually had any formal reports of extortion occurring.

What’s Going On in CHAZ, the Seattle Autonomous Zone?