2020 has been a year to forget – or remember – depending on your point of view. Between a debilitating pandemic, record unemployment, murder hornets and mass protests, this is a heck of a time to live. But now we can add a form of secession to 2020’s long list of unique events. That’s because a group of activists have formed the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ)  in Seattle.
The CHAZ encompasses a cordoned-off, six-block area. It’s inhabitants allegedly do not recognize currency, and law enforcement, as we know it, is banned. In short, organizers have attempted to make the region sovereign soil – at least for the time being – while they make different demands.
These occupants likely feel that they’ve achieved a striking amount of success, given that they enjoy free reign within the CHAZ. However, before any Georgia activists consider replicating these efforts, CHAZ’s success is only temporary. Indeed, many of the CHAZ-ites’ (my term, not theirs) endeavors are mostly doomed to fail because they are repeating others’ mistakes.
Late in 1969, in response to years of injustices, a band of American Indians from various tribes boarded three boats and set sail for Alcatraz Island . While once a federal penitentiary, the federal government had abandoned the island. As such, the group of Native Americans intended to claim the island, partially in accordance with the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which “said that unused federal lands could be open to claims by certain Native Americans,” according to the New York Times.
At first, the government attempted to negotiate with the Native Americans. But in retrospect, the American Indians’ efforts were futile. Shortly after taking the island, different factions began to clash. There were accusations of fraud, and it was clear they hadn’t made the proper logistical or administrative preparations. Indeed, the Native Americans bought a boat but hired no captain; they received food donations but couldn’t deal with the high volume; there was no natural fresh water source ; and they largely depended on the outside world for electricity.
Many of the original colonizers gradually returned to the mainland, while the rest continued to squabble. The situation spiraled, and after about 18 months, the government stormed the island and removed the remaining settlers. It’s unsurprising that they failed to retain Alcatraz. Without clear authority, cooperation, competent administration and true autonomy, their efforts – right or wrong – were doomed.
Those within the CHAZ should heed this story, because they share many similarities with the Native American Alcatraz experiment. Like the American Indians, there seems to be a lack of defined leadership  and objectives. They can’t even settle on a name: Some are now calling the six-block area the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest  (CHOP), and their demands vary depending who you talk to. One notice displays a set of three demands, a second one makes five and one online comprises 30.
Beyond this, the CHAZ is anything but autonomous. Their inhabitants have been asking for donations of various kinds and even depend on the government to provide portable toilets. Given this and many Americans’ short attention spans, it remains to be seen how strong the CHAZ-ites’ resolve is.
Some will certainly respond by stating that those within the CHAZ aren’t seceding. Rather, they are holding the land hostage until the government acquiesces to their demands. That might be true, but considering that they’re planting vegetable gardens, they must have unrealistic visions of a long stay.
However, unlike the native American experiment on Alcatraz, those within the CHAZ have no legal claim – however specious – to the land as they are using it, and their hold on it is tenuous at best. The local police chief has already vowed to retake the area , and considering the government’s armory, it will happen whenever officials feel like it. Like in the Alcatraz occupation, the government indulged them at first, but when they tire of their antics, officials may clear the CHAZ with overwhelming force.
While it isn’t easy to glean exactly what the CHAZ-ites are seeking, the impetus seems partially rooted in combating police brutality and ensuring that African Americans’ lives are equally valued with other races. These are noble causes, but the tactics that CHAZ-ites are using probably aren’t the most effective. If history can teach them anything, it is that they likely won’t hold onto the CHAZ and their approach won’t prove particularly fruitful.
Opportunities for criminal justice reforms and achieving racial equality are too critically important to waste with such antics.
- “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ)”: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/11/us/seattle-autonomous-zone.html
- “set sail for Alcatraz Island”: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/20/us/native-american-occupation-alcatraz.html
- “natural fresh water source”: https://www.nps.gov/alca/learn/historyculture/we-hold-the-rock.htm
- “lack of defined leadership”: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/11/us/seattle-autonomous-zone.html
- “Capitol Hill Occupied Protest”: https://www.thecut.com/2020/06/whats-going-on-in-chaz-the-seattle-autonomous-zone.html
- “vowed to retake the area”: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8419397/Seattle-police-chief-mayor-clash-CHAZ-cop-vows-retake-precinct-soon-possible.html