The politics of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest

On the Police abandonment of six city blocks in Seattle during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, the now infamous Capitol Hill Organized Protest emerged. Humphrey Jordan argues for the positive political importance of this event, and considers the validity of dubbing it a ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’.

H. Jordan
29th December 2020
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Capitol Hill Organized Protest Zone (CHOP), established June 8th 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, was cleared July 1st on executive order of Seattle’s Mayor. Four shootings that occurred in the area— more precisely areas adjacent to CHOP — served as the justification of this order.

A statement from Seattle Black Collective Voice (SBCV) on the clearing can be read here

As noted in the hyperlinked statement above, the majority of those persons who remained in CHOP (itself comprised of six city blocks and Cal Anderson Park) were unhoused and housing-insecure people who came to CHOP as a refuge from the police sweeps across the city— a concern voiced as early as June 9th, when the protestors published their list of demands.

A map of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone on the 10th of June, 2020.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

As the protestor population began to disseminate across the city, CHOP provided essential support to such residents in the face of the imminent demands of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

It’s natural then that, in the wake of the CHOP’s clearing, Cal Anderson Park became the site of a homeless encampment and the new centre of protestor activity.  After resisting multiple attempts at removal by the police, this camp was cleared on December 18th

What's in a name?

When the zone was first established, an important question fell to those within, and those observing, the community: just what is this?

The first given name of CHOP was Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), some citing June 13th as when the ‘CHOP’ moniker was later adopted.

‘CHAZ’ reportedly began as a meme amongst the protestors after police vacated the zone, a clear reference to the anarchist concept of the ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’, or 'TAZ'. This term was first coined in the 1991 text of the same name by American author Hakim Bey (given name Peter Lamborn Wilson)— an association highlighted in both good and bad faith by various early articles.

Bey offers the following description of the TAZ as a space in his Preface to the Second Edition

The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.

Hakim Bey, Temporary Autonomous Zone, p. xii

This emphasis on the liberation of terrain and imagination is often compared to the image of plant-life breaking through concrete: the repressive order may be pervasive, yet spontaneity may still emerge in the cracks.

Due to Wilson’s open affiliation with the paedophilia and pederasty advocacy organization NAMBLA, and many of his anarchist texts debuting in the organization’s off-shoot magazines— the standout example being the ‘Pirate Utopias’ component of the Temporary Autonomous Zone monograph first appearing in Gayme magazine —this conceptual resonance isn’t necessarily a positive one.

Various early articles chose to directly associate CHOP and Wilson (both in good and bad faith, as stated above), but it’s worth stressing that the concept of TAZ has long since outgrown its source, the origin of the term remaining relatively obscure in anarchist discourse.  
Yet, uncritical praise of Wilson, or simply thumbnailing the above as him being both “an amazingly problematic and amazingly creative person”, errs firmly on the side of irresponsibility.

Whether or not the concept of ‘Temporary Autonomous Zones’ can be purged of Wilson’s shadow remains worthy of consideration (less dubious figures have deployed the concept: Francis ‘Bifo’ Beradi's invocation of 'Non-Temporary Autonomous Zones' in After the Future stands out as a prime example), yet the change of names— first to Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, then Capitol Hill Organized Protest —reflects a contestation beyond questions of genealogy. 
As the organizer’s themselves stressed, CHOP was not an attempt at secession from the United States, as many right-wing news outlets attempted to suggest (Fox News infamously running live coverage from the “U.S./ CHAZ Border”): CHOP remains a protest, and one that does, infact, “directly engage with the State”. 

The TAZ is conceived as a site of “suspension”, the pursuit of “ongoing temporary revolution” in a series of “rolling suspensive zones” as opposed to pursuit of the ideal of permanent revolution.

If CHOP can be said to have pursued a vision of “autonomy”, this elided the vapid invocations of spontaneity and festivity that found expression in the various events rooted in the TAZ concept (Burning Man festival being the paragon example of this). As Simon Sellars states in his treatment of Wilson’s seminal work, the TAZ is conceived as a site of “suspension”, the pursuit of “ongoing temporary revolution” in a series of “rolling suspensive zones” as opposed to pursuit of the ideal of permanent revolution.

The autonomy at stake in CHOP was rather that of galvanizing those subject to institutional violence— in particular the police brutality directed towards the black community and Seattle’s unhoused population —into a political body. 

It is this very conjunction of the struggles of those dispossessed (to be explicit: by the injunctions of State and Capital) that remains the fundamental achievement of CHOP, establishing it as a key example for contemporary discussions of political emancipation.  

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AUTHOR: H. Jordan
Second Year Philosophy student with an interest in aesthetics, politics, ethics and their intersections.

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