A new autonomous zone created in Seattle by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has striking similarities with the Paris Commune of 1871. Despite its abrupt end, the founding event of the French capital 150 years ago set the agenda for progressive urban policy and broader social justice movements since. But while what’s happening in Seattle shares some of the township’s political visions, it faces an entirely 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 the Capitol Hill area of Seattle. This is the result of BLM demonstrators settle down after Seattle police abandoned the compound due to clashes with protesters.
Since then, the demonstrators have barricaded the perimeter and set up a “no cop co-op”Offering free water, hand sanitizer, face masks, food and other supplies. There are classes, street art installations, and other activities often associated with urban anarchist 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 make history. As such, Chaz’s creation has the potential to firmly cement the movement into the pantheon of revolutionary urban stories. And given the list of demands which he produced, which includes abolishing the police, retrials, amnesties for convicted protesters and rent controls, there is a deeply radical policy at its heart.
There are therefore 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 barricaded themselves in the capital.
The 2015 book Communal luxury by the expert in French culture and literature Kristin Ross paints a living picture of the Paris Commune as an important revolutionary moment. But more than just explaining the commune’s failure, she argued that her vision of a radically different world was more important than ever after the 2007-09 financial crash.
During the three months of the commune’s existence, the communards demolish imperialist statues like the Vendôme column, modify the education system so that it empower the working class and abolished the police. The debt has been canceled and the rent suspended. There were street festivals and migrants, refugees and women have been empowered. The town, Ross eloquently argues in his book, is more than an historic event; it is a living resource that can also help us build a better world today.
Danger of co-optation
Chaz creates a space for the gestation of these radical policies, as a real urban laboratory of revolutionary thought.
But while there are certainly similarities to the progressive ideals of the commune, 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 co-opting power of “creative” urban capitalism could soften – and ultimately blunt – Chaz’s progressive ideals.
Similar autonomous zones have existed around the world for decades, such as Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark and Užupis in Vilnius, Lithuania. But these and many others have become a sort of pastiche of their anarchist and anti-capitalist ideals. There may still be fundamental principles of solidarity, collective property and anti-capitalism within these places. However, they have become a cocoon in a veneer of branding, advertising, and commercialized and gentrified versions of the “Creative City”. This severely restricts and dilutes the dissipation of their ideologies.
With Chaz too, the bait of “protest chic”Perhaps too much to resist – it is after all in Seattle, one of the the most acclaimed creative cities. In order for Chaz to resist this, he must resolutely be a space for the oppressed and the dark voices of the movement. In essence, whites can help set it up and keep it going, but they need to stay quiet inside 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 free-standing area may not last too long, either. But that the municipality is still taught and spoken today testifies to its lasting positive effect within urban policy. He may have been brutally suppressed, but his anti-capitalist spirit served as an example for nearly 150 years of subsequent urban struggles around the world.
Cities have always been the place where the voiceless find their voice and express their demands most vehemently. For those who are deeply involved in the BLM movement (which should be all of us), hope this is still true.