I like quirky places. So when I heard that a ragtag group of left-wingers, anarchists, and street people had taken over a six-block-by-six block section of downtown Seattle, I was intrigued.
Secession is considered treason by mobs hauling down Confederate statues in other cities, but it’s the very basis of CHAZ, Seattle’s separate “autonomous zone.” Signs at the barricades read “Property of the People” and “Leaving USA.” But from a video tour of the new country, it doesn’t look promising so far.
Solomon Simone, a 30-year-old dreadlocked artist whose nom de guerre is Raz, is the self-styled leader of the 300 or 400 CHAZians. Critics call him a “warlord.” But it’s been discovered that he sent out ugly homophobic tweets several years ago, so he could be deposed. Raz claims “someone is creating fake tweets from my page somehow.”
Many sympathizers make excuses for CHAZ. In a New York Times news story it was described as “a homeland for racial justice.” Liberal blogger Steve Leslie says of CHAZ: “As far as internal governance goes, there is none of course. . . . It’s probably most similar to Freetown Christiania which is an intentional commune in the borough of Christianshavn in the city of Copenhagen, Denmark.”
Christiania was formed in 1971, when hippie squatters took over a vacant 19-acre military base in Copenhagen and declared independence. While it’s seen changes, Christiania still exists and will mark its 50th anniversary next year.
It was — and is — an interesting experiment. But let’s hit the pause button before anyone thinks CHAZ is going to adopt what Christiania’s advocates call its “tenets of individual responsibility and communal harmony.” I have been to Christiania and gotten the full tour from one of its leading “citizens.” Here are the major differences I see:
One. Christiania’s squatters occupied vacant land that the Danish military should have sold off years before. No businesses were cut off from the rest of the city or extorted into making “donations” to the squatters.
CHAZ was created after a ten-day standoff between police and angry protesters ended with the police abandoning their precinct house and seeing it taken over by the mob. “This is an exercise in trust and deescalation” was how Seattle police chief Carmen Best explained the situation.
John Carlson, a talk-show host on Seattle’s KVI radio, says that CHAZ is only the latest capitulation by city leaders: “They’ve allowed homeless encampments and petty crime to overrun the city. The people taking over CHAZ knew no one would push back no matter what they did.” Indeed, a report by a former official in the Seattle mayor’s office found that a mere 100 “prolific offenders” among the homeless were responsible for more than 3,500 criminal cases. Often they were released from jail the same day they were taken in.
Two. The Christiania squatters had relatively reasonable demands, including affordable housing, a large meditation and yoga center, and opportunity for people to buy marijuana without fear of the cops. The occupiers of CHAZ have a list of 30 demands that they insist apply to all of Seattle. Among them are:
“The Seattle Police Department and attached court system are beyond reform. We do not request reform, we demand abolition.”
“We demand a retrial of all People in Color currently serving a prison sentence for violent crime.”
“Only black doctors and nurses should be employed specifically to care for black patients.” In other words, the return of segregation.
Three. Christiania was all about tolerance. Over time, it proved to be too tolerant, and there were some hard-drug sales (later banned). In 2016, a 25-year-old man with ties to the hash market shot and injured three people, including two police officers. After the shooting, residents decided to tear down all the drug stalls on Pusher Street.
It’s unclear how tolerant CHAZ will be. Seattle’s mayor Jenny Durkan has brought in portable toilets and other amenities. She’s in no hurry to retake CHAZ, equating the occupation to a “block party” and saying the city could have “a summer of love.”
But the heavily armed CHAZ defense forces have blocked all vehicles and police from the area, and protesters have already participated in one case of “police” brutality against someone spraying the wrong graffiti. Someone else has already been deported — apparently a pro-lifer who obviously didn’t meet community standards.
Christiana eventually morphed into an enclave of middle-class nonconformists. In 2012, the government offered loans so residents could buy their land at discounted prices. They now pay a monthly rent to pay off the loans as well as fees for water, electricity, and sewage. “Many members of this socialist utopia are uncomfortable with the idea that they now own property, albeit collectively,” notes the popular travel writer Rick Steves. “But on the flip side, this is the greatest degree of security Christiania has ever experienced in its four-plus decades of existence.”
But some idealists hate this “gentrification,” as they call it. “The untouchable Freetown where hippies and anarchists lived outside the framework of mainstream society is no more,” Siddharth Ganguli of Outlook Traveller magazine mournfully reports.
No one knows where CHAZ is heading. It’s doubtful that under the glare of media cameras the Seattle police will ever emulate their New York City counterparts. In 2011, the NYPD cleared out Zuccotti Park after it had been seized for two months by Occupy Wall Street protesters. Some 200 people were arrested.
For now, the city should curtail diplomatic relations with CHAZ and stop subsidizing it. Over time, as local businesses give up and leave, most of its street people will probably drift away.
Then there’s always the chance that CHAZ will somehow make a go of it and become established. Christiania is now the second-most popular tourist attraction in Copenhagen. But few linger more than a couple hours. The late irreverent CNN host Anthony Bourdain visited it back in 2013. Although a liberal, he came away unimpressed. He called it “the well-established enclave of hippie anarchist squatters. Sounds about as attractive as being sentenced to life at a Phish concert.”