Occupying Police-Free Space: Why Protesters Continue To Set Up Autonomous Zones

Photo: Noah Riffe/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Autonomous zones have been popping up all over the country since Black Lives Matter protests for justice and against police violence have been ongoing for nearly a month. However, after only a few weeks, officials are trying to shut them down


The zones, which are occupied by protesters and free of police, are set up by demonstrators who wish to organize without the threat or presence of law enforcement or members of the state. The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), also known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) was set up in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle on June 8 amidst protests. In an article detailing what it’s like for protesters occupying the zone, the space is described as property of the Seattle people where artists have created memorials for Black lives, and developed a garden at the nearby park, which is full of tents where demonstrators are living. 

In Washington D.C., protestors inspired by other autonomous zones built out the Black House Autonomous Zone (BHAZ) outside of the White House during the weekend of June 20. Demonstrators set up tents around H Street and Vermont Avenue, and spray-painted BHAZ on St. John’s Church.

But the concept of autonomous zones isn't relegated to the recent Black Lives Matter protests. It was created in 1990, derived from anarchist philosopher Hakim Bey when temporary Autonomous Zones were proposed as areas outside of formal state control. In autonomous zones, there are no hierarchies or leaders — local governance is decentralized, and the main goal is creating a neighborhood without police. 

Protesters who set up camp and created the CHAZ have demanded rent control, the reversal of gentrification, the defunding and abolition of police, and suggested ways the government could better allocate funds in the community. Following the occupied zone in Seattle, protesters in other cities tried to replicate the autonomous zone in their own communities in Portland, Oregon and in Asheville, North Carolina before they were stopped by the police. 

Concerns about violence within autonomous zones have been brought up consistently, with officers responding to a report of shots fired at Cal Anderson Park inside the CHAZ area on Saturday, June 20. On Sunday, another shooting occurred within the CHAZ area, and early this morning, a third shooting occurred. But, it hasn't been confirmed whether the shootings involved demonstrators tied to the autonomous zone. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Chief of Police stated in a press conference that the police plan to reoccupy the East Precinct and that the zone will be dismantled following the weekend of multiple shootings that protestors maintain they were not involved in. “It’s time for people to go home," Mayor Durkan said in response. 


This comes after back and forth between those occupying the zone and police and local officials, when a deal was made on June 16 between occupation representatives and the city to "rezone" the occupied area to allow better street access. The zone was then reduced to three square blocks, but state and national leaders continue to seek out ways to dismantle this occupy operations at large.

On Tuesday, January 23, President Donald Trump also denounced the BHAZ in a now deleted tweet, saying, "There will never be an 'Autonomous Zone' in Washington, D.C., as long as I’m your President. If they try they will be met with serious force!"

Despite this, the effort to occupy space as a means to push an alternative agenda to policing and, as a result, police brutality, remains unwavering. "What the people in power FAIL to realize is this, we aren’t going anywhere, until there is justice EVERYWHERE. No justice, no peace, defund the police. Welcome to the Black House Autonomous Zone," tweeted activist Johnathon Williams, shortly after BHAZ had been set up.

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