Recently I talked to a young man who lived through the occupation of his Seattle neighborhood one year ago by Black Lives Matter protesters. This was the six blocks in the Pike-Pine neighborhood originally called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). The protesters kept that name for a while, but it implied a political claim that was not believable, and they changed it to the Capitol Hill Organized Protest. I’ll call it the CHAZ. The occupiers controlled it from June 8 to July 1, 2020.
The man I talked to is white, a college graduate, and a bachelor. “I was a Bernie bro,” he said. “I’m very progressive, definitely on the left. I was on the side of the protesters at first.” But not after police withdrew. “It was way, way worse with no cops in the area,” he said. “Sometimes I couldn’t get to my apartment.”
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan compared the CHAZ to a block party, and many of the images on TV did look like that. But it was not an example of celebration, or of freedom of speech. “There was no dissent,” my informant said. “It was very tense all the time”: anger, chaos, people yelling “All cops are bastards,” and other things, a racket all night. “People were on edge . . . There was a guy they called the warlord. He had a group of his friends that became the ‘security.’”
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan compared the CHAZ to a block party. But it was not an example of celebration, or of freedom of speech.
The guards were armed. With the police gone, there were shootings in and around the CHAZ on June 20, 21, 23, and 29. Two men were killed and several wounded. One of the men killed, a teenager, was reported to have stolen a car and was said to be attempting to enter the CHAZ to avoid police.
“I heard multiple shots,” my informant said. “It’s very surreal to live through that.” There were property crimes: windows broken, walls defaced.
I asked him what was the point of it. It was not to negotiate any real changes, he said. The protesters had their list of demands, which began with the insistence that the Seattle Police be abolished, the cops fired, and their pensions taken away. The demands were unreal. “The protesters said they were taking power back by any means necessary,” my informant said. Really, he said, “They were venting their anger. They were saying, ‘We’re just going to be here until you force us out.’” Which the police eventually did.
I asked him if he thought the CHAZ had done any good. He couldn’t think of any. “I’m heavily biased against it because I lived through it,” he said.
Both protests involved mayhem, chaos, and the invasions of a seat of public authority. In both cases the crowd was mostly but not entirely unarmed. In both, a couple of people died.
Thinking about what he’d said, I began to draw a parallel with the pro-Trump mob’s storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Obviously, there are differences in purpose and scale. The Seattle East Precinct Police Station is not the US Capitol, and dispossessing the cops is not the same as chasing out members of Congress. The underlying political complaints, one from the Left and the other from the Right, are different and, in my view, not equally valid.
Admit all that, but consider the similarities. Both involved mayhem, chaos, and the invasions of a seat of public authority. In both cases the crowd was mostly but not entirely unarmed. In both, a couple of people died. Both approached the dictionary definition of an insurrection — “a rising in open resistance to established authority” — but neither was, in fact, a genuine threat to that authority.
There never was any possibility that the mob of January 6 was going to prevent Joe Biden from becoming president of the United States. Likewise, there never was any possibility that the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone would bring about the complete defunding of the Seattle Police Department, the removal of Immigration and Customs Enforcement from Seattle, or the provision of free food, medical care, college, and housing, all of which the protesters demanded.
Neither protest was really about demands. They were about venting anger, and in that, they were successful.