A new autonomous zone set up in Seattle by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement bears striking similarities to the Paris Commune of 1871. Despite its abrupt end, the founding event in the French capital 150 years ago set the agenda for progressive urban politics and broader social justice movements ever since. But while what’s happening in Seattle shares some of the commune’s political visions, it faces an altogether different and more sophisticated threat – of being co-opted by creative capitalists.
Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone — or Chaz as it’s now known — was established on June 8 in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. He was born as a result of BLM protesters move after Seattle police abandoned the compound due to clashes with protesters.
Since then, protesters have barricaded the perimeter and set up a “no cop co-opoffering free water, hand sanitizer, face masks, food and other supplies. There are classes, street art installations and other activities often associated with anarchist urban protest camps.
Cities have been at the center of protest movements for centuries, because as an urban sociologist Saskia Sassen argued, the city has always been a place where the helpless can write history. As such, Chaz’s creation has the potential to firmly cement the movement in the pantheon of urban revolutionary stories. And given the request list that he has produced, which includes abolishing the police, retrials, amnesties for convicted protesters and rent control, there is a deeply radical politics at its heart.
So there are obvious comparisons to be made between Chaz and the Paris Commune. In Paris, the proletariat was reacting to its long economic oppression by the French elite. In response to the advance of the French army seeking to disarm them, they barricade themselves in the capital.
The 2015 book Community luxury by French culture and literature expert Kristin Ross paints a vivid picture of the Paris Commune as an important revolutionary moment. But more than just explaining the commune’s failure, she argued that her vision for a radically different world was more important than ever after the financial crash of 2007-09.
Within three months of the commune’s existence, the communards pulled down imperialist statues like the Vendôme column, changed the education system so that it empowered the working class and abolished the police. The debt was canceled and the rent suspended. There were street festivals and migrants, refugees and women were empowered. The commune, Ross explains so eloquently in his book, is more than a historical event; it is a living resource that can also help us build a better world today.
Danger of cooptation
Chaz creates a space for the gestation of these radical policies, as a veritable urban laboratory of revolutionary thought.
But while there are certainly similarities to the commune’s progressive ideals, there are also dangers. The French capitalist state quickly and violently massacre the inhabitants of the municipality. While the Trump administration could potentially respond with violence in Seattle, there is also the danger that the cooperative power of urban “creative” capitalism could soften — and ultimately blunt — Chaz’s progressive ideals.
Similar autonomous areas have existed around the world for decades, such as Christianity in Copenhagen, Denmark and Užupis in Vilnius, Lithuania. But these and many others have become a kind of pastiche of their anarchist and anti-capitalist ideals. There may still be fundamental principles of solidarity, collective ownership and anti-capitalism in these places. However, they have become cocooned under a veneer of branding, advertising and commercialized, gentrified versions of the “creative city”. This severely restricts and dilutes the dissipation of their ideologies.
With Chaz too, the appeal of “classy protest” is perhaps too hard to resist – it is after all in Seattle, one of the United States the most advertised creative cities. For Chaz to stand up to this, he must resolutely be a space for the oppressed and the black voices of the movement. Essentially, white people can help establish and nurture it, but they must remain silent within and let the oppressed use the space to strategize and mobilize.
The Paris Commune did not end too well, and the whispers of president donald trump are that the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone may not last too long either. But the fact that the municipality is still taught and discussed today testifies to its lasting positive effect within urban policy. It may have been brutally suppressed, but its anti-capitalist spirit served as an example for nearly 150 years of subsequent urban struggles around the world.
Cities have always been where the voiceless find their voice and articulate their grievances most vehemently. For those deeply involved in the BLM movement (which should be all of us), let’s hope this is still true.