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Wealth & Poverty Review The End of Chaz

In Seattle’s “autonomous zone,” lives are destroyed under the banner of social justice. City Journal

Early this morning, a phalanx of Seattle police officers, armed with long batons and semiautomatic rifles, cleared out the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), also known as the Capitol Hill Occupation Protest (CHOP). Unless Antifa militants stage an unexpected counterattack, this marks the end of the 24-day occupation of the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Seattle can now begin to reckon with the damage.

The CHAZ saga began on June 8, under the premise that capitalism, police brutality, and the “fascist regime” of Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan were upholding a social order that systemically oppressed African-Americans. Black Lives Matter and Antifa-affiliated activists hoped to create a new regime based on familiar social-justice principles of recent years: they established a social order based on a “reverse hierarchy of oppression,” implemented race-based segregation in public spaces, and maintained a “police-free zone” that they believed would protect “people of color” from the depredations of the state.

As it turns out, however, maintaining public order is a complex undertaking and can’t be replaced by academic symbolism. BLM activists might despise George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, but a regime based on the principles of Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ibram X. Kendi, and Robin DiAngelo doesn’t work too well. As CHAZ’s experience demonstrates, when left-wing radicals shift from protest to governance, things fall apart.

Ultimately, the problem of violence—and a dangerously naive understanding of policing—doomed the CHAZ. Over its 24-day history, the autonomous zone saw two gun homicides and four additional shooting victims. All the identified victims were black men—precisely the demographic for whom the CHAZ had claimed to offer protection. In the absence of a legitimate police force, armed criminal gangs and untrained anarchist paramilitaries filled the void. Almost every night, gunshots rang through the streets. The first homicide victim was killed in an outburst of gang violence; the second, reportedly unarmed and joyriding in a stolen car, was gunned down by the “CHAZ security force.”

In the end, the homicide rate in the CHAZ turned out to be 1,216 per 100,000—nearly 50 times greater than Chicago’s. Though that’s obviously not a strict apples-to-apples comparison—the small sample size of the CHAZ creates an exaggerated statistical effect—it’s instructive nonetheless, as it invalidates the entire premise of the autonomous zone. By instituting a “police-free zone,” the CHAZ didn’t become peaceable; it became lawless, brutish, and violent.

As the national media conducts its autopsy of the CHAZ, one tragic detail has escaped notice: the police department’s East Precinct building, which radicals saw as a symbol of “white supremacy,” was originally constructed under the leadership of Seattle’s first African-American city councilman, Sam Smith, who wanted to provide faster response times to the city’s Central District, where black residents had demanded greater police protection. The irony is cutting: Smith, who grew up in the Deep South during Jim Crow, saw policing as a public service; today, college-educated, white radicals see policing as an evil that must be abolished, whatever the consequences for African-Americans.

What are the ultimate lessons of the CHAZ? Don’t be fooled by rhetorical premises of radicals and don’t cave to mobs. For more than three weeks, Durkan insisted that the CHAZ was a “block party” or a “Summer of Love,” and entered negotiations with activists and armed gangsters attempting to capitalize on the cultural cachet of BLM. In the coming weeks, when the barricades are cleared and the graffiti is washed away, the true legacy of the CHAZ will be the memory of two black men who died under the false promise of utopia: Lorenzo Anderson Jr., 19, and Antonio Mays Jr., 16. When the television cameras disappear and the bourgeois-radicals go home, who will remember them? Who will say their names?

Christopher Rufo

Director, Center on Wealth, Poverty & Morality
Christopher Rufo is the director of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Wealth & Poverty. He has directed four documentaries for PBS, Netflix, and international television, including his latest film, America Lost, that tells the story of three "forgotten American cities.” Christopher is currently a contributing editor of City Journal, where he covers poverty, homelessness, addiction, crime, and other afflictions. Christopher is a magna cum laude graduate of Georgetown University, Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow, and has appeared on NPR, CNN, ABC, CBS, HLN, and FOX News.