Christopher Rufo joins Brian Anderson to discuss Seattle’s activist-controlled “autonomous zone” in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of the city, established after police evacuated the local precinct building.
In the aftermath of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis, activists and police in Seattle clashed until the city decided to abandon the East Precinct and surrender the neighborhood to protesters, who declared it the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). More than a week later, the future of CHAZ—now increasingly called CHOP, for Capitol Hill Organized Protest—remains unclear.
Brian Anderson: Hello again, everyone. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Christopher Rufo. Chris is a documentary filmmaker who's based in Seattle. He's the director of the Discovery Institute Center on Wealth and Poverty, and he's a City Journal contributing editor. You can follow him on Twitter @realchrisrufo. As I imagine, many of our listeners have heard about by now activists in Seattle protesting the police following the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis have occupied a six block area in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle.
After the city's police made the decision to abandon the local precinct building and evacuate the area, activists took over the barricades and declared it the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone or CHAZ for short. So in recent days, it seems it's perhaps been renamed the Capitol Hill Organized Protest or CHOP, but we'll get back to that a little later. Chris has written extensively for City Journal about politics and radical activism, especially in his hometown of Seattle. His two most recent pieces for us on the website are about the situation in CHAZ. And it's the reason we asked him to come on the show today to talk about it. Chris, thanks a lot for joining us.
Chris Rufo: It's great to be with you.
Brian Anderson: First of all, Chris, I was hoping you could give us a timeline of the events that led up to the declaration of CHAZ. And really explain, what led the Seattle police to abandon the East Precinct and the Seattle city government to allow what is actually a significant chunk of the city to be taken over in this fashion.
Chris Rufo: Well, all of this really originated with the George Floyd protests and over the course of time, after some kind of rioting and looting and the central core of downtown Seattle, the protests really took focus around the East Precinct building and Capitol Hill. And it's important to keep in mind that Capitol Hill is the most progressive neighborhood in Seattle. It elected a city council member from the Socialist Alternative Political Party, and it's been really a hub of activism in the LGBTQ community for a long time.
But what really set activists off was that they were trying to create a confrontation with police around the East Precinct building, which is in the heart of this neighborhood. And over the course of about one week, they were battling at the barricades every night. And what I think protestors were attempting to do strategically was to bait the police officers who were defending the East Precinct building into a reaction and they got it. They had tear gas, they had some projectiles. And on the other side, the police were pelted with rocks and bottles and improvised explosive devices.
According to officers, they had about 45 officers out on leave because of injuries at this location and others. So it was a pitched kind of street battle, but what changed was the political narrative. Protestors were able to really take videos of the kind of aggressive anti-riot techniques from police, able to put that through social media and then the mainstream media, and the political dynamic changed very quickly. And the narrative of police brutality was established. And although officers were defending successfully from a tactical point of view this East Precinct building, the mayor ended up making the political decision to abandon it because she was rapidly losing support.
City council members were calling for her resignation, protestors were demanding that she stepped down, and she really had such little political support and capital. She made the decision to essentially abandon the East Precinct building and hand it over to the protestors.
Brian Anderson: iece you've just published for us, which came out Monday, you describe what you might call the developing political authority in CHAZ or CHOP as an experiment in social justice as governance as you put it. So maybe elaborate on that a little bit and also say a bit about who are the leaders of the autonomous zone and what different groups are in play there.
Chris Rufo: Well, you have to think of this kind of autonomous zone, this occupied territory, this protest in two levels. On one level, if you go there during the daytime, you'll find what resembles a street fair. So Mayor Jenny Durkan was widely ridiculed on the right of center media for saying it's a kind of summer of love or a street fair. But in a sense, she's right. If you go there, you see vendors and musicians and artists, and it's a very relaxed atmosphere. That's on the kind of top level, but on the deeper level, what you're seeing is a struggle between three main factions of activists and organizers to establish a political power, a political authority within the autonomous zone.
First, you have the, you might call them more mainstream left-wing activists who have been around for a long time that lead the black lives matter protests, that have been heavily involved in criminal justice reform, predominantly African American constituency. And they're really trying to take leadership of the autonomous zone as really an extension of the black lives matter protests and their criminal justice activism, which involves defunding the police, releasing protesters from jail without charges, and getting new political leadership to implement more widespread criminal justice reforms.
Then you have the more radical elements, and this would be the kind of black clad antifa activists. And they're affiliated, a group that John Brown Gun Club, which are armed, almost paramilitary wing of antifa that have provided the kind of perimeter security at times with armed guards at the barricades. And then you have the other faction representing the kind of summer of love component where it's predominantly upper income, younger, white, you might describe them as bourgeois people who have tried to, I think in the perspective of some of the more radical activists, have tried to commercialize the autonomous zone and turn it into a kind of Coachella music festival environment.
But what I think the really interesting thing that you see is, is that you're seeing this all play out and you're seeing this play out in live streams and organized events and meetings. They're trying to figure how to move from a protest, which is against something into really the phase of conquest. They've now taken over this territory and they have the responsibility to govern it in the absence of the police force and the traditional kind of mechanisms of legitimate government. So you've seen what I think of as all of those social justice slogans that we've covered in City Journal over the past few years.
Check your privilege, center the voices of indigenous and black women, all of those kind of, those social justice slogans, you're seeing them attempt to implement those into a form of governance through these kinds of messy people's councils and assemblies and community meetings. And it's really quite astonishing to see, and I think it's deeply instructive to get a sense of how would it look if the kind of extreme social justice wing of the Democratic Party took over control of the kind of institutional apparatus, what kind of ideas and policies would they put in place?
And we're seeing that unfold in real time in writ small in this six block autonomous zone of Capitol Hill, Seattle.
Brian Anderson: Well, one of the things you mentioned in the piece is that some of the leaders are adopting policies of explicit segregation, perhaps elaborate a little bit on that and how that's being received.
Chris Rufo: This autonomous zone is, if you boil it down, is really being organized along the lines of identity politics. And you see a kind of hierarchy that's been established in everything and how they organize the space, and how they organize the list of speakers and how they run the people's assembly meetings. And it really is a kind of reverse hierarchy of oppression. So activists are very careful to put black, indigenous, and transgender women in the positions of authority and leadership. And then you have the reverse hierarchy going all the way down.
And as it plays out, it's really shocking because you've seen, for example, the establishment by a gentlemen named Marcus Henderson of a gardening space, a community gardening space specifically for black and indigenous people. So it really segregated even in the kind of gardens that they've established. And Putting up a sign and you get the sense that they have bought so hard into the ideology of safe spaces and specific spaces for members of the disenfranchise that they're setting up almost a defacto in some cases, defacto kind of segregated spaces, which I think to most Americans, strikes them as disconcerting and odd and wrong.
And you've also seen instances and small cases around the edges of kind of crude and basic small-scale reparations. One native American activist who spoke at one of the large gatherings on the baseball field in the autonomous zone just very bluntly said, "It's time for every white person in the audience to find an African American and give them $10, and we're going to be monitoring you. We see you." So you see the kind of really theoretical ideas of social justice and critical race theory. You see activists now trying to implement them in practical form. And it's crude, it's almost comical.
It's really darkly ironic, but I think it gives you a sense of what's to come in the kind of mainstream political platforms as the liberal left in the United States really doubles down on the posturing and the politics of identity, of race, of this kind of mainstreaming and platforming of academic postmodernism. You're seeing it play out in really kind of a basic form, but I think it's instructive. And I think we have to pay attention even if it can be dismissed as ridiculous or the work of only a very few people, fringe activists. What we've seen is that those fringe ideas can hit the mainstream very quickly and work their way up the chain.
So I think that we would be mistaken to not observe this with the kind of critical eye.
Brian Anderson: Well, [crosstalk] for sure, but what's striking to me, Chris is that all of this is dependent on the continuing provision of services presumably from Seattle, electricity, water, where is the food coming from? All of that, even if certain services like policing may be now cut off in this autonomous zone, how are the people feeding themselves there, for example?
Chris Rufo: Yeah, that's absolutely right. I mean, all of the services are really provided externally. There are food deliveries that are allowed to enter into the autonomous zone through the barricades. So it's pretty much a food import from outside through the normal kind of commercial channels. Obviously the utilities are provided by the city still, and there's no sense that the city will cut those off. But you've actually also had in recent days, city workers from the department of parks, from the department of neighborhoods, from the department of transportation providing port-a-potties, providing trash services, providing all of those basic municipal functions,
Brian Anderson: So basically enabling the continuing party in other words.
Chris Rufo: Exactly. And I think it's really all under the rubric of harm reduction. They're saying, well, the people are occupying the zone. They're going to keep occupying it. We should at least provide those basic sanitation and other services. But I think it's mistaken to think that the end goal is autonomy or separate nation. That's really a political posture. And what they're trying to do in reality is just what you're saying. They're trying to extract more resources from the city government. And over the past few days, the mayor has signaled her willingness to provide up to a hundred million dollars in funding for what she's determining as communities of color, which is I think a euphemism for local activist organizations.
There's also some discussion internally from what I'm hearing about turning over the East Precinct building to local community organizations and activist organizations. So the end game that I think is most likely is that the protestors will use this experience of the CHAZ that's kind of humiliating, the political powers to extract massive concessions and win large scale and continued funding for their movements. So in the end, what you're going to get is the taxpayer money is publicly subsidizing a private political activism and it's only going to make this cycle devolve deeper and deeper into this [crosstalk 00:16:56] control.
Brian Anderson: Well, we certainly see copycat movements in other cities trying to do the same thing, especially if it becomes a kind of shakedown apparatus in this way. What-
Chris Rufo: Yeah. And it really comes straight from the pages of the novelist, Tom Wolf. I mean, he was documenting these shakedown strategies for many years ago in books like Bonfire of the Vanities. And this is really just an update on this theme. It's the kind of civil unrest and protest in urban metropolises and using the kind of rhetoric of radical activism to win concessions. It's something that we're seeing that isn't new, but has certainly a new face.
Brian Anderson: You pay close attention, I'm sure to the press in the Seattle area and the media, what's the coverage been like there and has any of it been critical? I'm struck by the reception to your two pieces on the situation in Seattle for us, both of which have had tremendous amount of attention. So I feel like people, including in Seattle might be a little starved for on the ground information about this.
Chris Rufo: They are. And I think the Seattle press has largely framed this in the same kind of language as the mayor, which is, this is a peaceful protest. It's a summer of love. This is a kind of street fair environment. Which is certainly true. I mean, for the majority of the time, it absolutely is that. That's the dominant energy. But what they've refused to see is that there is this kind of subterranean element, especially at night, when you have armed mobs that are roaming the streets and implementing street justice. This has been documented by a lot of journalists on the ground.
There's videos that show this very clearly. But the press in Seattle, there're some good reporters out here. One of them, Brandy Cruz, a local TV reporter was exposing this kind of dark side of the CHAZ. And she was surrounded, harassed, mobbed and physically thrown out of the area and then relentlessly attacked by left wing activists on social media who attempted to really discredit her and really ruin her reputation. So frankly, there's a lot of fear. Mainstream journalists and reporters don't want their reputation wrecked. They don't want to face the blow back. And I think they've really treated this story with kid gloves and refused to cover the full complex reality of the CHAZ.
Brian Anderson: Really remarkable. What's behind this battle over renaming the area or conflict over, what's the difference between CHAZ and CHOP?
Chris Rufo: Well, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, CHAZ, implies that the protestors must take responsibility for governance and leadership of the area. If they want it to be an autonomous zone, they have to govern it under the conditions of an autonomous zone. And as we saw through the various people's assemblies and meetings, they were really unable to arrive at a consensus, unable to arrive at a structure of legitimate leadership. And instead of trying to go down that road and bridge the divide between the various factions, they really said, "We don't want to take responsibility for this area. We don't want to have the burden of governance. We want this to be a Capitol Hill organized protest."
Which basically is a posture of a terminal opposition because they're much more comfortable opposing rather than governing. And the kind of unimodal pia of CHOP is absolutely deliberate. You've seen a video of the protesters celebrating the French revolutionary spirit of CHOP and then-
Brian Anderson: Referring to the [crosstalk]
Chris Rufo: ... making the motion with their hands of the guillotine falling down on their opponents.
Brian Anderson: Wow. Well, speaking of that, how do you see this situation ending in Seattle? Now, is the local government eventually going to intervene? Is the state going to intervene? Is the federal government going to intervene or is this just going to be allowed to continue indefinitely? I assume not because at a certain point, some people are going to start getting hurt.
Chris Rufo: I think those are really the two plausible end points for the autonomous zone. One is that the mayor will make large concessions. She's already negotiating behind the scenes with some of the black lives matter protesters. And if they provide a massive amount of funding, they can appear together, they can deescalate the situation. And eventually the protesters will kind of, the stakes will be lowered enough that they get bored and leave. I think that's probably the most likely resolution. Certainly the council is considering legislation currently to cut the police budget by 50%. They think they have a majority.
The mayor can provide a hundred million dollars in payout to the activists, but there's also, if something goes horribly wrong, if there is a series of serious crimes, if there is a kind of mob that goes out of control, if there are structural fires, this could also end very messily, could end violently. It can end very dramatically. So we'll see what happens first. Will the council and the mayor essentially pay out enough to send the protestors home or will the mob get so far out of control that law enforcement has to reenter the zone and reestablish their authority by force?
Brian Anderson: Well, we'll keep watching things very closely, Chris, and really I appreciate your work for City Journal on this evolving situation. Don't forget to check out Christopher Rufo's work on the City Journal website. That's www.city-journal.org. His latest piece is called The State of CHAZ. It came out this past Monday. We'll link to his author page in the description, and you can follow him on Twitter @realchrisrufo.. You can follow City Journal on Twitter as well @CityJournal, and on Instagram at @cityjournal_m. And always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a good rating on iTunes. Thanks for listening. And thanks very much, Chris, for joining us.
Chris Rufo: Thank you.
Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images