All Power to the Imagination: CHAZ/CHOP and Revolutionary Consciousness

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Six blocks is a good start; let’s take the world. 

Photo: K5 News, Seattle

The outcry over the killing of George Floyd has reached every corner of the country and protests have sprung up in all 50 states. Apart from Minneapolis, another city, Seattle has become a center of struggle and is now in the national spotlight. The city has a long history of working class struggle and radicalism, from the general strike in 1919 that lasted 6 days and involved 65,000 workers to the anti-globalization protests of 1999 against the World Trade Organization. More recently, there was the “Night of 500 tents” during Occupy Wall Street in 2011. Now, the people of Seattle might be writing a new chapter in their history of class struggle. In the midst of the pandemic, the economic crisis, and a nationwide wave of uprisings, they have shown the world the possibility and potential of a world without cops.

From Protest to the Take Over of Capitol Hill

Protests started on May 29 and like other cities faced intense repression at the orders of their elected officials in the Democratic Party. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a city-wide curfew from 5:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m for May 30 and May 31. Protesters out past curfew were met with police in riot gear shooting tear gas. Once more, protests against police brutality were answered with even more brutality from the state. But protesters came to each protest more and more prepared, equipped with umbrellas to repel pepper spray and organizing  street medics to treat injured protesters. 

The defenses protesters built to resist police repression — like barricades and medic tents — slowly transformed into the basic infrastructure that would later become an autonomous zone with shelter, food, and water supply stations. On the night of June 7, after several hard days of confrontations with the police and increasing support from the community, protesters held their ground in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, defying curfew and repression. The next day, as a result of public pressure both from the mobilizations themselves and public outrage at the blatant brutality shown in countless videos of the police at protests, Mayor Durkan ordered the police and national guard to abandon the area, including the East Precinct. Protesters quickly took over the area, using police barriers to create a parameter around 6 blocks of the neighborhood. Over the abandoned police precinct, someone wrote: Seattle People’s Department, claiming the space for themselves. 

Having conquered a new platform from which to speak, protesters immediately released a list of 30 demands ranging from abolition of the police and prisons to reducing racial disparities in education and healthcare. The space was initially named CHAZ, the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” but now in an attempt to redirect the message it has been changed to CHOP, the “Capitol Hill Organized Protest.” 

The name change has coincided with a debate among protesters over what to do with the occupied space and the future of CHOP. Some protesters want CHOP to continue indefinitely, creating a permanent space within Seattle without police; others want to use the protest to fight for broad social and economic demands that go beyond short term demands to slash police budgets. And there is another  sector that wants to negotiate with the state and has already conceded some terrain and agreed to open certain streets to traffic. The next day, however, protesters blocked the street again. 

While Trump continues to threaten sending in the military to retake the area, the Democratic leaders of Seattle have chosen to appeal to this sector and co-opt and water down the demands of the protest, sowing division amongst protesters by offering some concessions.  While only a week ago these officials didn’t hesitate to use deadly force against demonstrators, now they are attempting to establish a “peaceful” dialogue between the protesters, city government, and the police department.

Be Realistic, but Demand the Impossible

“Will the area wind up as the headquarters for a revolution? The overblown aftermath of a local scuffle? A weekslong municipal headache? A party disguised as a protest?” are some of the questions made in a recent article published by the Rolling Stones.

It is difficult to know how long CHOP will last, especially because of these latest attempts to co-opt the movement. CHOP’s future is attached to development of class struggle across the U.S. and the world. But despite its actual limits, it is undeniable that in the midst of the police abolition debate the experience of CHOP is an inspiring promise of what we could achieve. We are learning that another world is possible.

This global crisis and the wave of protests against police terror and structural racism shows us that nothing is untouchable — every creation of the ruling class and its state can and must be challenged. Capitalist expansion was based on slavery and explotaition, we don’t owe anything to this system, its structures, or its law and order.

In a socialist society, police stations would be transformed into community centers in a matter of days. Prisons would be destroyed. The ruling class’s capitol, congress, and White House could be used for massive, open meetings of the working class. Their factories, no longer run for profit, would be under the control of workers who would decide what to produce and where to send its products on the basis of social need. Art and recreation could be part of our daily life. Streets could be filled with music. Supermarkets could become distribution centers. Banks would be reduced to ashes. The rich’s mansions and empty apartments could be immediately occupied so that everyone has a safe place to stay. We could act immediately to fight back the environmental crisis. Schools and hospitals could be free and public. Instead of working 8 or 12 or 16 hour shifts, the working day would be split up amongst available hands; there would be no more unemployment, and no need for the ruling class to use racism to divide and exploit workers. 

But to achieve the possibility of a new society, as this movement has shown, we need to confront the repressive forces of the state that prevent us from taking over the existing infrastructure for our own use. The police is just one manifestation of these forces. To abolish the police and other repressive forces, we have to aim at the capitalist system. To fight capitalism, we need an independent political working-class party that fights for socialism, a party that is able to coordinate these efforts nationally and internationally.

The Importance of Self-Organization

CHOP is another example of an independent organization that has pushed our revolutionary imagination forward. There are many examples in the history of the working class of communities that broke away from bourgeois cities in the middle of a struggle, from the Paris Commune in 1871 to the Oaxaca Commune in Mexico 2006. 

The Paris Commune was the first uprising that saw the working class challenge capitalist power. For three months the proletariat held the city of Paris, instituting its own government. The first decree suppressed the bourgeois army and instead established “the people in arms.” This was the consecration of a new state over the destruction of the previous one. The antithesis of the French empire, the Paris Commune was based on democracy of the masses by direct voting by districts. An effort was made to eliminate bureaucracy through rotation and revocability. Each public office offered no more than a regular worker’s salary to eliminate all privileged castes. Workers’ democracy put an end to bourgeois democracy where the masses could only vote every four years for their own exploiters.

The Oaxaca Commune in Mexico is a more recent example of workers and oppressed groups taking power for themselves against the capitalist state. In 2006, the people of Oaxaca were fed up with their living conditions. The spark that ignited a massive rebellion was the repression against teachers who organized a national strike for better wages. For five months teachers fought with strikes and the people organized barricades on the streets, put up armed mass self-defense bodies  and took control over many parts of the city. The police were totally kicked out from the city. The main means of communication were occupied by workers and students. The state later recovered the city and heavily repressed the protesters.

Other examples  went further and established bodies of self-organization of workers that would challenge the capitalist power at national level like the Chilean “cordones industriales” in 1973. A chain of more than 500 factories controlled by workers emerged as a response to the counterrevolution in Chile. The cordones inustriales ensured the production and distribution of goods in a context of high unemployment. They coordinated their work with the Committees of Supply and Prices (JAP) to ensure that people’s neighborhood will receive provisions. Another example, but armed, was the Bolivian revolution in 1952 with the COB (Bolivian Workers Central) workers, peasants and militias would give birth to the advanced Pulacayo Thesis

These examples and others show the importance of such experiences for the working class. On a small scale, these movements seized political power from the capitalist state and showed workers that they can run society for themselves. Such instances of self-organization can rapidly push forward revolutionary consciousness like the Shoras (councils) that were formed by the working class during the Iranian Revolution of 1979-80, other councils-like structures that were formed in the 1956 Hungarian revolution and the 1968 Prague Spring to fight against Stalinist oppression. The main example of these councils, were the Soviets developed through the Russian revolution in 1905 and 1917. The latter, was the first successful revolution that would expropriate the bourgeoisie and use the soviets as a massive and democratic institution created by the working class. Lenin, one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, wrote in “State and Revolution”

from the moment all members of society, or at least the vast majority, have learned to administer the state themselves, have taken this work into their own hands, have organized control over the insignificant capitalist minority, over the gentry who wish to preserve their capitalist habits and over the workers who have been thoroughly corrupted by capitalism—from this moment the need for government of any kind begins to disappear altogether. The more complete the democracy, the nearer the moment when it becomes unnecessary. The more democratic the “state” which consists of the armed workers, and which is “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word,” the more rapidly every form of state begins to wither away.

You might be interested in: Soviet Strategy: A Primer

All Power to the Imagination

The liberated society we dream of has to take into account how we got there, and  the lessons of past experiences — their achievements, but also their limits and contradictions. Seattle’s Mayor knows that she is on the spot, receiving pressure from Trump and other conservative sectors (reps and dems) to take over CHOP but at the same time she is under pressure by large sectors of the society, not only in Seattle but across the country that is tired of racism and police violence. This leverage in our favor won’t last forever and we must be ready to support, surround in solidarity and ready to mobilize in every city to defend the Free Capitol Hill if it comes under attack. 

Challenging the racist police is a major step but falls short if we don’t question the whole repressive apparatus of the imperialist U.S. state. In order to advance our demands and unify the movements on the streets with other movements within the working class, the creation of self organization and democratic spaces around the country is a must.

Though examples such as CHOP in Seattle can spread and challenge the capitalist world order, the capitalist state can’t be defeated without a conscious effort from the working class and the central role of workers and their organizations. Those organizations should be rooted in the oppressed and the working class to be able to fight in the strategic sectors of society with an anti-capitalist and socialist perspective. If six blocks can be inspiring, imagine the whole city or a country run by the working class and the oppressed in rupture with capitalism. We have a whole world to win.  

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Luigi Morris

Luigi is a freelance photographer, socialist journalist and videographer. He is an activist for immigrants' rights.