It wasn’t the presence of guns that doomed the ‘CHOP’ — it was postmodern ideas of horizontalism and intersectionality, writes Robert Daw.
As a result of the police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent burning of the 3rd precinct police station in Minneapolis, the East Precinct Police Station in Seattle has become the site of an as-yet unprecedented level of struggle during the series of events that will be remembered as the 2020 US uprising — a wave of protests and militancy that swept 350 American cities.
The Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) was a unique attempt to break away from the system that has created the problems of police brutality just as the 2011 Occupy movement attempted to break away from a system that created widespread economic inequality. The Seattle area has a long legacy of civil disobedience and innovative protests, including heavy involvement in 2011, where several Occupy camps around Downtown Seattle lasted for over 3 months, and most famously the World Trade Organisation protests in 1999.
After a week of intense street battles beginning on June 1 culminating in the city council deciding to ban the use of tear gas and joining the front lines of the protests themselves, the police boarded-up the station and evacuated in an apparent attempt to de-escalate the situation.
Although apparently nobody knows who authorised this, it was surrendered to the crowds on the morning of June 8. Fearing some kind of trap, the crowds repositioned police barricades roughly in a one block radius surrounding the now empty building and when it became evident that the police were not about to return, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone — later renamed the CHOP — began.
Since its inception the protest zone has organised local residents and left-wing activists together to collaborate any projects they choose — from an armed community defence force that patrols the area to monitor police activity and keep the peace, to extensive protest artwork all over the area, most notably a mural that takes up the entire length of the road through the centre of the zone that reads Black Lives Matter, a large attempt at community farming on the fields (previously a park) on the edge of the protest, as well as other various smaller projects like a zine library and a “free shop” and cafe — each of with varying levels of success.
The zone immediately faced serious challenges, with a total of four shootings leaving at least one dead since the protest began. In the most recent incident on the night of June 29 two black teenagers were shot in an apparent exchange of fire with the CHOP security force at one of the checkpoints surrounding the area. Photos show a white jeep riddled with bullets; a 14 year old remains in a critical condition and a 16 year old was killed outright.
The shootings, though their motives are clouded by a constant stream of misinformation from both conservative talking heads and the online based alt right, have led conservatives critics to argue the community defence has proven the police right — that you cannot have a security force that doesn’t end up killing black youth in the US; as soon as you are put into a position of authority you will face the same problems as the police do and act as they do.
This misunderstands the problems that the 2020 rebellion is reacting to: it is not calling for the abolition of authority — the problem is not the need for an armed force to keep the peace in a country with so many guns, the problem is who that armed force is made up and what the peace they are keeping is for.
There are other countries with the same number of guns per person and the same access to guns (with neighbouring Canada being another world leader in civilian firearm ownership); the problem in the US is vicious, punishing poverty, which forces criminality onto the the poorest. That is what also drives the racism of the police, who profile black suspects as being more dangerous than white suspects, being more likely to be desperately poor.
They take skin colour as a visual indicator of the class background of the person they are dealing with — and as black people are statistically poorer their lives become quite literally “worth less” than those of other races. The peace that the US police keep is one that keeps black people in poverty — and in the last 40 years of deindustrialisation, is making them increasingly poorer.
An armed volunteer force that is standing for a different economic and political system, where black lives do matter and where lives are not worth less on account of poverty or race is different to just a carbon copy of the existing police force. Although it will still face the problems of poverty and criminality that exist now and it may deal with them badly or seem to be reacting in the same way the police do already, it will be doing so on the basis of being part of an effort to remove these problems from society — so with this in mind, it is not a bad thing that the CHOP has armed guards per se.
The problem was that the zone itself did not state enough of a purpose to justify the implementation of an armed system of guards and now looks like it was hideously inappropriate that it should arm itself as just an occupation protest zone: do “zine libraries” and “free shops” require deadly force? If they had begun the occupation with more of an explicit purpose — to address inequality in US society more concretely, with more of a coherent and accountable structure, the presence of the guards would be understood as the armed wing of a defined and robust movement and an example of one way of moving past protest to real change.
Unfortunately, as long as postmodern ideas of “anti-authoritarianism” and “horizontal organisation” prevail It becomes impossible to achieve this coherence. Not only is the CHOP run by mass meetings of whoever is present at the time — rather than an elected body who are put into place for a specific purpose for a set period — but these meetings and the actions they decide on can be derailed and even reversed at any time by appeals to a competing set of grievance and “privileges” — this is the modern reality of “intersectionality.”
Even the decisions of the already dysfunctional mass-meeting system, where anyone could come in quite literally from an asylum to their first ever meeting and make compelling proposals no one would have time to research, are not sovereign. At any time a speaker can be challenged to give way to an oppressed or marginalised group and a decision can be rejected on this basis; crucially, no one oppressed group is the most oppressed, so all decisions are a musing on which group is affected the most at this time.
This is not to suggest that things then go to a simple majority vote, either. The prevailing “anti-authoritarianism,” which is uniquely tenacious in an atmosphere of guilt, where so many actors are trying to “give up their privileges,” means that no one is particularly compelled to adhere to any loose decisions reached anyway.
In a situation where small groupings of people with different interests try and create endless compromises with the local community as they go along, rather than starting out with a single goal and a clear programme, it will be impossible for working people to take back control of their own destiny in a way that will be viewed as legitimate by the rest of the proletariat.
The tragedy of the CHOP is that, because of a lack of centralised organisation, the project and its methods are seen as a failed experiment which will discourage others from emulating the basic premise of seizing land and running it for the people.
The adoption of centralised discipline and concrete programmes, not ad-hoc lists of demands made the night after a lucky victory by unaccountable influential individuals should be a lesson learned by the left in the US going forward as this crisis deepens. All the evidence points towards a deepening crisis in the nation: jobs are not returning, neither is social welfare — even before the COVID-19 crisis, the USA was in a rapid downward spiral, with 40 million people now signing on for unemployment benefits, a number not seen since the Great Depression — and the climate crisis well under way.
Separatist projects and “autonomous zones” will become more and more common, if only for the poor and unemployed to survive and practice social solidarity in chaotic, jobless times. It is the role of the left to politicise these events through class-based organisation, using the same clear models of decision making our working-class political parties and trade unions have used since time immemorial. Attempts to undermine that clarity must be openly and unapologetically rejected.