What is Chaz? Depends on who you ask.
Technically Chaz is the "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone," an area of Seattle that has become a quasi-experiment in what a completely police-free state might look like. After nine days of standoffs between Seattle Black Lives Matter protesters and the police, at last the cops ceded the area to the revolution.
"On an almost nightly basis, the SPD has indiscriminately used excessive force against protesters, legal observers, journalists, and medical personnel," read an ACLU lawsuit that played a role in finally pushing the police out of the precinct, opening space for a new experiment in government (or a lack thereof).
Now Chaz is the subject of ire, suspicion, rage, and hope. Its origins happened rapidly. After the police ceded the area, protestors set up boundaries and barricades to create a protected zone of about six square blocks.
Currently the area sounds like a utopian dreamscape, a commune slash co-op that comes complete with film screenings, free food, and a growing People's Garden. There's a medical tent and a makeshift Mutual Aid library. There's a medic station, a "No Cop Co-op" where people can get free supplies, a shrine made up of candles, flowers, and pictures of George Floyd and the countless others who have been killed by police. Protestors have screened films including 13th and Paris Is Burning. Murals and paintings fill the street.
Who's behind the #CHAZ vegetable gardens? Someone with an Energy Resources Engineering degree from Stanford Univers… https://t.co/dQfBI6IEu2— Christopher Frizzelle (@Christopher Frizzelle) 1591982727.0
A masterpiece was created in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone today #BlackLivesMatter #CHAZ https://t.co/augbcA6Cqg— Kyle Kotajarvi (@Kyle Kotajarvi) 1591940567.0
What Is Chaz: A Block Party, an Antifa Hub, or a Revolution Waystation?
Conservatives, of course, are absolutely losing it. Trump described the protestors as "Domestic Terrorists" who "have taken over Seattle, run by Radical Left Democrats, of course. LAW & ORDER!"
Twitter has become completely overrun with conspiracy theories about the town and what it means. One Twitter user started a rumor that a SoundCloud rapper named Raz was becoming the zone's "Warlord," which was simply false.
Others are horrified, calling the town an Antifa stronghold, or an anarchist establishment that's threatening American democracy.
Reports from people on the ground beg to differ. "The CHAZ is not communist. It's not socialist or anarchist either. Most people here might subscribe to one of those ideologies, but mostly it's just an extended BLM block party," wrote one Reddit user.
Spent some time in the CHAZ tonight. It’s seriously so funny how people not in Seattle have characterized it. It’s… https://t.co/a181hL7xrj— soma🌸 (@soma🌸) 1591942109.0
The Future of Chaz
No one is exactly sure what Chaz will become. Some believe that the police will eventually retake the autonomous zone; but for now, the town will stand as a testament to the power of protest and possibility.
Seattle PD made (then walked back) a claim about extortion in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. Actual businesses a… https://t.co/CXOTB1Gmmm— Kelly Weill (@Kelly Weill) 1591989074.0
Others want Chaz to become the beginning of a momentous change. Some of the zone's inhabitants have drafted a list of 30 demands, which include abolishing the police, banning the police's use of arms in between now and when they are abolished, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, providing reparations for victims of police brutality, decriminalizing protest, providing a retrial for all people of color convicted of violent crimes, demanding release for anyone incarcerated on charges relating to marijuana, and much more.
Organizers are beginning to shape a makeshift government in order to actualize these goals. At Chaz's first Town Hall. "The goal was to hear speeches from local Black and Indigenous leaders, and then to break up into small groups to brainstorm ways to address concerns about trash, traffic, helping small businesses, establishing accountability structures within a non-hierarchical social arrangement, and whatever else came up," writes Rich Smith in The Stranger.
The main question the organizers grappled with at the meeting was what to do with the empty East precinct, but certainly bigger questions will come up. Some want to see the zone establish its own council. "It's very important that we get a council going of elected representatives of the CHAZ zone," said a protestor and Chaz resident named Malcolm, who works with Black Lives Matter Seattle. "Since you guys are going to be our sovereign state, you guys have to get that going immediately."
But some members want to avoid picking organizers, preferring to stay away from the fragility and corruptibility of leadership. Some approve of more anarchist models of organizing, others focus on anticapitalist ideals, and others keep returning to the movement that launched Chaz in the first place—the anti-police-brutality Black Lives Matter protests launched by the killing of George Floyd and 400 years of oppression.
Most organizers emphasized prioritizing Black and brown voices, but still, the town is certainly not free of the racial tensions that inspired the movement that created it. Some already fear that Chaz and its white occupants, in particular, are distracting from the Black Lives Matter movement, applying their own agendas or even treating the commune like the dreaded Coachella.
"As the protests continue across the United States, we risk finding ourselves lost in the same pattern of unproductive behaviors that have long plagued the country. An obsession with modes of racial protests rather than with the meaning of them belies an unwillingness to face the flaws they expose in the nation's ability to live up to its ideals and fulfill its obligations to the citizenry," writes Theodore R. Johnson in The National Review.
Similar problems plagued another memorable movement-inspired village: the outpost that cropped up during the Standing Rock protests in 2016. In those years, Standing Rock turned from a place where Indigenous tribes could reunite to a sort of gentrified Burning Man, forcing leaders to request that the encampment's white occupants learn to listen more and request fluoride-free water less.
At marches across the nation, Black Lives Matter organizers are reminding the thousands of people who have shown up for the cause that this movement cannot be an Instagram trend or another hashtag. Racism isn't something that can be shut off after a few weeks—it's lifelong and pervasive—and hopefully everyone showing up will stay in the fight long after the initial whirlwind has slowed.
The same fate could befall Chaz if things go south. On the other hand, perhaps this new settlement will fare better. Perhaps it will be the start of a new world—a new America where the police are replaced by mental health counselors and free food. Most likely the result will be a combination of both, but for all intents and purposes that seems to be Chaz's goal: to see what might happen in a world free from police violence, where people keep each other safe as long as they can.