In response to CHAZ/CHOP community protest by Ashley Chapman

The Washington DC, CHAZ / CHOP, ‘autonomous’ experiment in community protest has ended in what can only be described as tragedy with the death by gunshot wound of a sixteen-year-old boy and another 14-year-old in critical condition.

What had begun with the local police evacuating their precinct, after local residents had surrounded them demanding justice for for alleged brutality and racism, was soon surprisingly described by  Seattle Mayor, Jenny Durkan – live on television – as the CHAZ /CHOP ‘summer of love’. This despite the fact that the area was cordoned off into a six-block zone with a border and check-points and declared the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ).

CHAZ then quickly morphed into CHOP, the Capitol Hill Protest Zone. This name-migration from CHAZ to the less loaded CHOP, allowed the neighbouring administration, the State of Washington DC, to facilitate CHOP with basics, including food supplies; free utilities like water and electricity; and (at the end of a 991 call) access to local medical and fire support.

But it did not stop there, toilet porta-cabins as well as a laundry services were also supplied. Thus, establishing good-will between the state and the self-declared ‘protest’ zone. As the inference of a land-grab in the original title had been dropped, direct confrontation, or possibly even military intervention, had been avoided. So the street party could really rock.

Unfortunately, the initial carnival and peace-loving atmosphere, quickly descended into mob rule. With those citizens who did not follow the new zone’s ideology told to leave ‘or worse’.

Raz Simone, a rapper and wealthy local businessman, possibly operating from behind the cover of ‘others’ with undeclared interests, then became a de-facto ‘War Lord’, creating his own  armed militia. In fact, he is captured on film in the highly ironic film, The Economics of CHAZ / CHOP: Anarchy at its Finest by YouTuber Jake Tran, handing out military-grade hardware to his ‘security force’. 

The economy of CHOP, the largely still local ‘autonomous’ zone, depended on drugs being supplied to keep the serial party going as well as an exclusively ‘black only’ garden, which some have criticized as inherently racist, but which successfully produced agricultural produce for the local community. Cash was also extorted from local businessmen who were approached by armed thugs. Beyond this, many shops and businesses were simply looted and set on fire.

What had started as a protest against police racism, and other demands, soon escalated into the wrong kind of anarchy. In other words, the often violent and chaotic disorder of mob rule. One local resident interviewed on camera says there were gunshot sounds every night. While a preacher, also on film, is seen being held down in a choke-hold, protesting that he cannot breathe. In another  instance, after a spate of gun fire exchanges, a man bled to death after paramedics could not get through the ensuing chaos in time to save him.

This seems a far cry from the ideals of a free-loving autonomous zone as  envisioned  by anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin, or more apropos perhaps, the poet and writer Hakim Bey’s idea of Autonomous Zones to create spaces for non-hierarchical social relationships to grow; or indeed in education, the brilliant Russian educationalist Lev Vygotsky’s pragmatic Zones of Proximal Development, in which a secure zone is created in which to learn and flourish. 

But what does this say about change and equality, central to the Black Lives Matter issue, which it is clear, given protest in both the US and the UK, society needs to address? Can the CHAZ / CHOP descent into violence and dissolution tell us anything about how to improve our lot in an already established, but inherently racist society as its detractors would have it, or should it simply be dismissed?

I remember the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by Bush, Blair and co. Overnight the old regime were told by the US and British forces not to turn up for work. The chaos that ensued has lasted to this day. Eventually, of course, they realised that the skills that had been in place, used for good or ill, simply could not be replaced, including security and the civil authorities. Did the US or Britain learn from their mistakes in Iraq? Not to judge by what they subsequently went on to accomplish in Afghanistan and more recently in Libya.

Clearly, you can’t simply overthrow everything, especially if you don’t have a plan as they clearly didn’t; in the same way that the CHAZ / CHOP autonomous zone failed. Fire is not enough. And the aftermath is always more terrifying than whatever happened before. So what’s the solution? You need a plan, that’s for sure, and you need to reform and you certainly need to be able to respond to criticism and have proper procedure and a judicial system and framework in place that is separate from the main authority or governing body.

The UK’s biggest problem at the moment is simply that the first past the post electoral system does not deliver representative democracy. That its institutions are not held to account by a truly free press. That power is concentrated in the hands of those who abuse their authority to serve their own desires and aspirations. What is needed is more grassroots and community-led work. People need to be empowered to make decisions. Capitalism fails because it is singularly based on the exchange of labour for value and fundamentally undervalues human resources as a commodity.

In these times, the big issues surrounding a better fairer society need to be debated, but they also need to be thought through. The biggest single issue being the environment. We need to look far more carefully at what we produce, and do we need to produce as much, in exchange for profits that become isolated from the overall economy, usually ending up somewhere in the Cayman Islands – offshore.

The resort to violence and killings in the CHOP zone were appalling, but there are also examples of communities where things were significantly improved on the basis of an exchange of skills, services and yes, passion and talent.

Frestonia in London’s Latimer Road, not far from the busy Westway in Notting Hill, emerged in the early 80s from squats in derelict housing. When I got involved in the late 80s, it had already been set up by a strong local independent community who had formed into a franchise. This was a creative period. The Independent State of Frestonia as it was jokingly called, grew to have its own bakery and post office. It had a written constitution and regular meetings. Faced with the threat of mass evictions those who were affected learnt the value of self-determination, becoming legally savvy, and responsible for their own lives; less dependent on the whims of local bureaucrats, manipulating the system to suit their one-size-fits all, hand-over-ears, management of the local housing stock. The free citizens of Frestonia learnt to speak legalese in much the way that those who run their own businesses learn how to deal with contractual law.

These Frestonians, another self-pinned moniker, were empowered by their positive action, taking their structure from the cooperative movement in the UK, which has laws and a legal framework, and from out of which the labour movement grew. Eventually, Frestonia became the Frestonia Estate and its community was settled with permanent housing, built by the local council, to house couples and those with young families. There was no violence, though the community had been very politically and socially active at its inception; was relatively well-organised, and had been threatened with eviction, and been aggressively faced-off. However, they knew their rights and were a strong collective.

To me, it’s all too easy to pick out the Seattle experiment and judge it purely on its failures, but to paraphrase a cliché, no society is built in a single day. The challenge seems to be to create communities that grow and prosper based on their own potential, not on corporate greed.

The single biggest problem with the Seattle CHAZ / CHOP autonomy experiment was the prevalence of weapons, a part of US ‘gun-culture’, which led to an escalation of violence and tragically homicide. Violence is a tricky issue and always has been. Psychopaths come in many guises. You can’t fight psychopathy with psychopathy, but there’s a clear disadvantage to rolling over meekly, as you might get squashed! Perhaps,  best to get out the way if you can. Fear works wonders for those who hold the upper hand. War Lords have conquered the world and re-written its history in their own guise. The Barbarians eventually become civilization. That’s the story of civilization itself – the world over – since at least 4000 BC. That’s six thousand years leading to where we now find ourselves, possible facing cataclysmic environmental failure.

When society becomes too corrupt or inclusive, it has always been replaced by a new regime. And not always when it is corrupt, take Tibet. But we must have learnt something? The problem is that Colonialism and Capitalism obscure each other perfectly, working  hand-in-hand, exploiting the lowest common denominator, either racial division or whatever price the market will accept for a bag of popcorn. And in some ways Capitalism’s great success is that it does not exclude as much as other systems have, which have disastrously intensified the ‘barbarians” single-minded overthrow of a walled-in civilization. At any rate, Capitalism’s exponential growth in search for profit hide its inherent failures as its gains are concentrated in the hands of few overall beneficiaries in global terms. So, beyond Capitalism’s failures, what’s the answer? One hears so much critique, but never many answers. And for every example given, there is always another wheeled out to oppose it.

Now is the time (there never is a better) to discuss who we are and in what kind of society we really want to live and how we want that society policed? Not by thugs, that’s for sure, protecting the billionaires and other media-manipulators for their own ends; psychopaths at the end of a gun, offering a few choice platitudes on either side of a tensely polarised debate.

I, for instance won’t deny, that I welcome the police on my estate because the youth here are still learning what it means to be a real person (- there are no rites-of-passage to bond them to our community, so they make up their own rules -),  but need to learn to serve the wider community, which has nurtured them through its education system, wider-culture and the internet. Rampant egotism is always pretty ugly. A better, non-violent way, a reasoned way, has to be found or violence will always ensue.

Stability, since the World War I and II, seems largely to have been based on the post-war settlement across Europe – and oil revenues. So as fossil fuels end, what? A return to what? Coal, slavery or forward to increased automation and surveillance? Technology can only help us so far. I think we need to look at this problem by balancing, power, materiality and philosophy. That these need to be better equaled, if we’re ever to evolve beyond violence and dissolution or total collapse as has happened historically time and again. The Sumerians, Babylonians and later-day Assyrians, who gave as so much in the way of mathematics and astronomy, the agricultural plough – the wheel itself –  advanced war, of course, and so forth, have long since disappeared because they could never find peace without making war on their neighbours, who eventually overcame them, so that the city of Nineveh and all the others, including the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, were sacked and reduced to ash.

Capitalism seems to hold onto materialism above all else. The result is that in less than 200 years Gaia is gutted. I think part of the problem is philosophical. It has to do with how we use our brains. Untempered cerebral power enslaves because we are not sufficiently evolved to see beyond the dichotomy of subject and object, leading to endless divisiveness. Here the mystics have the right idea: samadhi. I will always argue that until we re-program the way we take-on or respond to reality, the world around us, more philosophically, we will not evolve, and continue to go around in ever diminishing circles, because wonderful as the material advances of science have been, Capitalism’s reliance on over-production, is no longer sustainable.

4 thoughts on “In response to CHAZ/CHOP community protest by Ashley Chapman

  1. Thank you for this analysis. I think you are on to something by pointing out the importance of rites of passage. When the old rigid institutions, and the rituals that define them, fail, we must establish modern rituals based on new ideologies. Have you read Charisma and Institution Building by Max Weber? His analysis shows how charismatic authority transforms societies.

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    1. My interest in rites-of-pasaage is more about Native American rituals in which youths have their pectoral muscles hooked and are then pulled up over a cross-beam. This leaves them hanging with only their toes reaching the ground. I had this image in a book that my parents gave me as a child (I think the idea was to wean me off westerns on TV, which I idolised). I was actually quite scared by this image, which is why it stuck. Then, about twenty years ago, I found out that a mystic who was really into piercings and other tribal stuff, had carried out this ritual in the US. The results were amazing. He had an outer body experience and literally floated above his body. He got several people to do it. They all experienced the same phenomena. This ritual he concluded had tied the Native youth to their tribe. It made them conscious of their relation to their community. After of which they were men and served their with utter devotion to the end of their days, easily able to die for that community. Yes, will have a look at Max Webber. Only did so briefly at uni. Strangely, even in teaching he has not come up that often. Thanks for reading my piece.

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