The bluest skies you’ve ever seen in Seattle
And the hills the greenest green in Seattle
Like a beautiful child growing up free and wild
Full of hopes and full of fears
Full of laughter full of tears
Full of dreams to last the years in Seattle
So Perry Como sang in the late ’60s. Now it seems the days of beautiful children growing up free and wild are returning to Seattle. Like other American cities over the last three weeks, Seattle saw protests rapidly become violent clashes with police. This ugliness waxed and waned for a fortnight until police withdrew from their East Precinct Building, effectively ceding the surrounding area to the protestors. Barriers were erected around it by activists who initially christened the new territory the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), and later renamed it the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP). As their quasi-manifesto of June 9th put it, they had “liberated Free Capitol Hill in the name of the people of Seattle.”
Now a tense and potentially dangerous stand-off has developed. What does the city administration intend to do? On June 11th, the Democratic mayor of the city, Jennifer Durkan, was interviewed on CNN by a sympathetic Chris Cuomo. Cuomo began by asking if Durkan had lost control of her own city’s streets.
Durkan: We’ve got four blocks in Seattle that you just saw pictures of that is more like a block party atmosphere. It’s not an armed takeover, it’s not a military junta. We will make sure that we can restore this. But we have block parties and the like in this part of Seattle all the time… There is no threat right now to the public and we’re looking, we’re taking that very seriously, we’re meeting with businesses and residents…
Cuomo: The counter will be block parties don’t take over a municipal building, let alone a police station and destroy it, basically thumbing their nose at any sense of civic control. Do you believe that you have control of your city, and that you would be able to clear those streets? Because you haven’t.
Durkan: We do and the chief of police was in that precinct today with her command staff looking and assessing on operational plans. But we saw that it was a point of conflict night after night between the police department and protestors and we wanted to de-escalate that and what we decided was the best way to do that was to re-open the streets, and that in itself ended up with some ramifications for the precinct, to remove anything that was valuable out of that building. But we will make sure that all of Seattle is safe. We take public safety seriously… We have to acknowledge and know that we have a system that is built on systemic racism and we have to dismantle that system piece by piece.
Durkan went on to add:
During this time a number one priority every American city has is to protect the First Amendment right. Our country was born out of protest. The right to gather, the right to protest, the right to challenge government when it is wrong, is our most fundamental constitutional right. It’s a reason it’s the First Amendment. And as a mayor of this city I will do everything to protect that right and balance the public safety. I think not only can we do both, I think we have to do both.
With those words, Durkan, who is an experienced lawyer, endorsed an unusual school of American constitutional jurisprudence. The First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law that abridges “the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” There is no mention of the right to fight street battles with police, to annex and occupy city blocks, and to vandalize buildings including a police station, effectively suspending law enforcement. This is not protecting free speech, still less “balancing” the public safety. And, apropos the signs on the barricades that surround the CHAZ which declare “you are now leaving the United States,” the First Amendment also does not protect secession from the union. Last time that was attempted things did not go too well.
Durkan did say that she will “restore” the status quo ante, but her description of the occupation as a block party rather undermined any intended resolve. Asked how long the CHAZ might last, she blithely replied, “I don’t know. We could have a summer of love.” The American citizens who reside or work there may not share their mayor’s breezy insouciance, and might be rather less willing to share the love—especially given summer hasn’t even begun yet and doesn’t end until late September. Even if they are able to enter and leave the autonomous zone unmolested, it remains an affront to their citizenship that they do so only at the sufferance of a regime imposed without their consent.
If the occupiers dig in and have to be forced out, things could get out of hand. It need not take some rash and belligerent action from President Trump. There is a risk that residents and workers may decide to recover the public and private property taken from them. This would be a very bad idea, and hopefully they will, unlike the occupiers, heed police instructions and hold back. The best—and I hope most likely—outcome is that most of the rank-and-file occupiers will weary of the block party, there will be negotiations, and the authorities will at least pretend to capitulate to the demands or a watered down version of them. (There have been reports that talks of some sort are already happening although they don’t appear to be making much progress.) Alternatively, the tiring of the protestors will diminish resistance to the point where police can re-take the area without serious violence. In any event, this situation cannot be allowed to drag on—the Seattle police chief Carmen Best (a black woman, by the way) has already reported a significant increase in violent crimes in the occupied precinct to which her officers are not able to respond.
Although I am not in a position to prove it, I suspect that this situation has come about because of a years-long history of leniency to far-left protestors in cities like Seattle, where mayors often share the protestors’ ideology, or are duped into thinking the protestors are moderate. Public speech and assembly can sometimes be legitimately angry and rowdy, and it can be best, and indeed in conformity with the spirit of the First Amendment, for policing to avoid being too high-handed and officious. But what we see in Seattle goes well beyond that reasonable liberality. It is the difference between the occasional symbolic act of civil disobedience and the lawless rule of a Jacobin mob. The incendiary situation that now exists might well have been avoided had the city administration—like others across the country—enforced the law consistently before now. It is perhaps pertinent here to note that Best has said it was not her decision to withdraw from the precinct, adding “ultimately the city had other plans for the building and relented to severe public pressure.” She bluntly called the decision an insult to her officers and the community.
In the meantime, the occupiers have issued a series of demands (they always demand, a red flag for the authoritarian nature of their politics). These include things one can warmly support such as increased resources for public education and public health, especially for the poor. Others, however, betray childishly utopian thinking:
- Abolition of the Seattle police force (including, just to add a sting of malice, existing police pensions) and the “attached court system.”
- Abolition of imprisonment. (The authors are at pains to make clear that “abolition” in these demands really does mean “100 percent of funding.”)
- Retrials for people of colour (no mention of others) currently serving a prison sentence for violent crime.
- Replacement (presumably wholesale) of the current criminal justice system by restorative/transformative accountability programs.
Nothing here has been thought through. A measure of the activists’ recklessness is that the first and fourth demands I’ve quoted above from their list would appear to annihilate the entirety of the criminal law, an institution that can be traced through its English origins as far back as the Norman conquest. There is not any detailed analysis of the sources of police misbehaviour and of how it might be reduced. There is no detailed examination of the actual results of actual policies to try and find out what works and what does not. It’s as if a builder were to set about erecting a house by bellowing “I demand a house,” but without bothering to design a floor plan, or to work out where the walls should go, how the bricks and the beams will hold up the ceiling, where the electrical wires and sewage pipes will be laid, and so on.
I suspect that the bad actors who are inevitably attracted to leadership roles in such movements—which officially have no leaders, but of course always do—are perfectly aware of the unrealistic nature of their demands. They are not serious and are not intended to be. By confronting authorities with ultimatums which cannot possibly be met, they entrench the revolutionary posture indefinitely. At the same time, by maintaining that the demands are the only way of correcting pervasive and systemic racism, they assume an air of high and urgent idealism. This attracts the support of the young and the liberal-minded, and makes the authorities, even those most sympathetic to the cause, appear to be the intransigent representatives of a corrupt and racist establishment. By contrast, the appeal for careful analysis and policy-making can be painted, at best, as cavilling or delay, or worse.
The causes of police and prison reform are noble ones. Most of the Black Lives Matter protestors are well-meaning and decent people. They are caught up in the visceral anger felt by African Americans at the aggressive and sometimes brutal over-policing which is felt particularly in impoverished communities by people of colour. But as with most political movements, the leadership is more radical—often substantially so—than the troops. At the leadership level the ideology (and perhaps personnel) of BLM starts to blur into that of groups like Antifa, whose extremism can only put the cause of racial justice backwards. If their demands seem to say, in effect, that society should be torn down—well, that is indeed the stated aim of movements like these. Their goals are not reformist, they are revolutionary—they seek conflict not peace, and they have given scant thought about what they wish to build from the rubble of what they destroy. Since they are quite open and vehement about all this, we should probably take them at their word. Summer in Seattle this year may not be so loving.
Andrew Gleeson is a writer who lives in Australia.
Feature image: A person walks past an inverted American flag inside the ‘Capitol Hill Organized Protest’ formerly known as the ‘Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone’ in Seattle, Washington on June 14, 2020. (Photo by Noah Riffe/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)