Summary: Discusses the demands for abolition of police and community governance raised by the six-block Capitol Hill “autonomous zone” in Seattle — Editors
Police, Autonomy, and Lawlessness
Much fascination was entertained over the six blocks of Seattle in Capitol Hill surrounding the 5th precinct as an “autonomous zone.” Implications of lawlessness and chaos ensued. The “organized protest” identity which followed did not easily fit the media narrative that assembled masses in protest were more disruptive to daily life than the police. It took a series of shootings to restore this false narrative, ignoring the police role in criminalizing poverty and escalating violence across entire cities.
An entity is autonomous when it acts independently and governs itself. There is perhaps no institution for which this is a starker reality than policing. The U.S. and many parts of the world are effectively autonomous zones for police.
Lawlessness of police is an acute sensitivity of the U.S. masses, as the fury over the Rodney King verdict in 1992 and so many others since has shown. A common question workers confront about police is: what would happen if I were caught breaking the law at my job? The rhetorical implication is that police can, in fact, get away with murder. This casual observation underscores the fact that police are not workers (nor are they capitalists as they do not own means of production).
Chaos is clearly a prime directive of police forces dispersing peaceful protest. Seattle Police Department used tear gas in contradiction to public statements they would not. The state violence now occurring is sharpening the living memory of attacks on the historical civil rights, anti-war, environmental and anti-poverty movements. The rallying cry of “organize!” is waged to combat the disorganizing oppression of unequal law enforcement. However, anti-capitalists are not alone in organizing for power.
Police guilds are the primary means by which police protect their own. Extralegal contracts are negotiated which disallow external investigations, preemptively absolves officers and pay out misconduct claims from taxpayer money. While other social institutions augment its power, perhaps the police forces’ greatest asset is its legal immunity (as a result of internal solidarity). These contracts represent a legal “othering” of police from the community it is purported to serve.
Legal immunity serves not only individual officers, but also capitalists by emboldening their protected class of enforcers. The fight to hold police accountable within capitalism is itself a contradiction which limits the capacity to reform police. To eliminate police immunity would require the community to wrangle power not just from police guilds, but from the capitalist political class as well.
The first demand of the Capitol Hill Organizing Project (CHOP) was for the city council and mayor to abolish the police and ICE. However, Seattle has already attempted police reform at the hands of the city bureaucracy. The effort was so unsuccessful that remaining among the current demands is merely that “the City of Seattle make the names of officers involved in police brutality a matter of public record.”
The state will not surrender the power necessary for the working class to subpoena, discipline, fire and make systemic changes to police forces. Ending the autonomy of the police will require organizations independent of both the police and capitalist political class. In this light, protests in the streets pose a challenge not just to the capitalist system but also those seeking its alternative.
The simple existence of CHOP implies “the demands have not been met.” No particular organizations were elevated by the movement as socially agreed to be trustworthy or capable of policing the police. Yet beneath this cynical analysis there appeared to me a number of tendencies toward the development of alternatives to policing.
Seattle Actions on the Ground Pose Questions in the Negative
The burning of the third precinct in Minneapolis and abandonment of the fifth precinct in Seattle drew international attention. Activists’ demands to abolish the police eclipsed former calls for police reform. A mere two absconded precincts fueled a collective reimagination of societies without police.
The motivation for this attention is not for mere spectacle. Communities everywhere have experienced tragedy. Their motivation is born of an urgent practical necessity to imagine alternatives to existing reality.
Horrific as Floyd’s murder was, his loss of life over a $20 bill adds insult to injury for Black and Indigenous communities reliving centuries of dehumanizing trauma around every corner. Alongside media exposure to Black death at the hands of racist police, activists have worked hard to bring attention to the daily incursions against individuals’ freedoms by police ranging from stop-and-frisk to private-prison labor.
It is in this context I believe Seattle led a unique moment by occupying the land surrounding a vacated police station without burning it down. In its brief prominence, CHOP’s maintaining of a mostly empty building relabeled “Seattle People’s Department” posed a question: In the absence of police, what should be done?
Tension between the protest and the neighborhood also highlighted social dependence on delegating violence in the context of a gentrified community, Capitol Hill itself being a product of racist policing despite its proud LGBTQ history. Here CHOP’s existence poses another question: How can we abolish police without abolishing society as it exists?
At the Juneteenth ILWU west coast port shutdown, I received a flyer calling for an “independent elected civilian review board.” It cites the failure of the Seattle Community Police Commission and the need for a working-class body independent of the city council or district attorney’s office. Critically the document asserts the need to “override the control held by the super-wealthy.” Here we arrive at another question: In the absence of an overthrow of capitalism, does a class perspective of an “independent elected civilian review board” offer novel ground for police reform?
All day Juneteenth, allies lined the field to articulate the presence of a public healing space for Black people. In its small scale, it evoked notions of self-determination which so many activists have mistaken. In this instance, the question of what to do with negative space was both posed and answered. It would be maintained as empty space for Black people to achieve what they could not in current society: distance from likely oppressors to positively self-relate.
The questions above reminded me of the empty fifth precinct. Calls to transform it into a community center or center for redistributive justice appear to miss the revolutionary and anti-capitalist potential of the moment. Despite this, the overwhelming focus on the locality itself posed yet another question: how can justice be achieved apart from the communities seeking it?
Imagining the Precinct as a Civilian Review Center
The masses have a history of ascribing places of protest to honor and mourn their fallen. Here the precinct could play an important role as a rallying point to stare down collective pain in public. It is in this spirit that I offer a conception of a future “Seattle People’s Department” as a civilian review center.
What is the point of this line of thought? Obviously if working classes amass the power to subpoena and discipline police, they could summon the capability to appropriate buildings toward such a purpose. However, this does not seem to preclude the potential symbolic nature of offensively occupying a precinct in the midst of struggle and repurposing it for the whole world to see.
On its face, the precinct would make for a terrible community center. It is visually imposing and unwelcoming. It’s no glass-adorned city hall. Perhaps where it shines is as a testament to the poverty of policing. It appears as much a black box as how its occupants function in society.
However, if successful, the center would become a new hotbed of activity for those seeking justice from the system. Surely the fifth precinct is in a more accessible location for communities and organized protest against police brutality than a floor in an obscure downtown skyscraper. Meanwhile, its new civilian staff might invert the building’s militant aesthetic to create a heightened sense of empowerment as they use growing strength to pry open the secrets of the buildings’ original creators.
It remains that we know little about our daily interactions with police. Sociological evidence against police practices is overwhelming but arguably cannot replace the knowledge gained from self-involvement of a community in its own affairs. No amount of anti-fascist protest can overcome the deficit of not knowing the names of armed officers employing fascist violence on routine dispatch in your own community.
Abstract calls to replace police response with corresponding social services follow a reformist, redistributive conception of police abolition which ignores the tendency of capital to dissolve human relationships. If a civilian review board is constrained to policy changes regarding police, a civilian review center might need to operate 24/7 overseeing transitions to social services and reimagining social relationships more broadly.
My brief impressions in Seattle stoked my imagination that masses united toward transforming local properties into working-class civilian review centers could help bring us closer to facing what so clearly needs to be changed.
All photos in this article are from Seattle, and are taken by the author himself — Editors.