Why Was Seattle’s Autonomous Zone a Disaster?

Democracy Examined

The Police Clear CHOP as Violence Escalates 

On July 1st, the Seattle Police were ordered to clear the Capital Hill Organized Protest zone, also known as CHOP. This action came after chaos rapidly escalated in the zone; multiple gang shootings led to two deaths, increasing numbers of people experiencing homelessness resulted in riots, and a lack of accessibility to outside resources left the injured or mentally unstable without proper medical care.  

CHOP began when protestors called for a 50% reduction in funding to the Seattle Police Department as part of nationwide Black Lives Matter protest efforts. Protestors and activists argued that officers shouldn’t be called to deal with issues of mental health, homelessness, or poverty, and that those funds could be reallocated to other civil servants. However, demands for policy reform quickly became demands for abolition; police left the precinct in hopes of de-escalating protests in the area, and CHOP was spontaneously formed in the power vacuum. 

While CHOP was initially described as having a celebratory atmosphere that brought people across demographics together for a common cause – ending police brutality – the situation quickly deteriorated. Police were originally told by Seattle’s Mayor Jenny Durkan not to enter CHOP unless responding to a mass casualty event both for their own safety and to prevent a further escalation of violence. However, the police’s inability to enter the zone meant that paramedics weren’t able to enter either; CHOP’s volunteer medics weren’t prepared to give treatment to a teenager who was shot, and later died in the zone. CHOP’s security force known as the Sentinels were equally unprepared to deal with multiple drug overdoses, gang violence, and threats of vehicular homicide. In her statement on the need to clear the zone, Durkan emphasized the growing issue of physical violence, but conceded that the problems of homelessness, drug abuse, and mental health pre-dated the zone.  

  1. Why are movements like CHOP a problem?

State sovereignty in a democracy, or any other system of government for that matter, means having control over territory and a monopoly on violence. Autonomous zones like CHOP, the Occupy Movement of 2011, and the militant occupation of Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 2016 violate these basic principles of sovereignty at the core of a functioning polity. They also degrade people’s trust in the Rule of Law because lawlessness is often allowed to go unchecked by state authority. And as we saw in CHOP, losing the deterrent powers of the state against bad actions and actors ultimately leads to more violence and mob rule rather than the originally envisioned utopia. CHOP was a powerful reminder to those who initiated it that despite the many flaws of governments at the state, local, and federal level, they provide the essential services necessary for health, safety, and stability in our society.

Furthermore, when impractical and dangerous ideas like CHOP meet reality, they frequently serve to delegitimize and distract from their underlying ideals, which may, in fact, have merit. For example, many people in recent weeks have called to reallocate some police funds to other civil servants–like social workers–who are more suited to dealing with certain crises requiring de-escalation or mental health expertise. However, many of these reformers have packaged these ideas under a movement to “defund the police,” a phrase that is ambiguous, at best, and has been co-opted by some, to mean something far more extreme, namely abolishing the police as opposed to reforming them. This is what happened with CHOP, and then some. This kind of extreme behavior shuts down reasoned debate and ignores the fact that any society needs a means of enforcing its citizens’ safety. Indeed, by treating the issue as a zero-sum game where there was either funding for police or funding for civil servants, and by supporting the most extreme position, the movement behind CHOP further polarizes, alienating many who would have otherwise been open to important policing reforms.


U.S. Senator for Florida, Marco Rubio
Source: Getty Images

Senate Removes Election Security Provision from Intelligence Legislation

Last week, Senate Republicans stripped an amendment from annual intelligence policy legislation that would require presidential campaigns to report offers of assistance from foreign agents to the FBI. While the broader legislation was approved 14-1 in the Senate Intelligence Committee in early June, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia passed the campaign reporting amendment by a slim 8-7 margin with Sen. Susan Collins from Maine joining the Democrats. This provision met sharp criticism from Republicans on the committee, including Chairman Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who insisted that the amendment would be stripped from the legislation before it was incorporated into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in the full Senate. These types of election security measures have been consistently knocked down by Senate Republicans despite expert consensus that foreign interference in the upcoming election is a graver threat than ever before.

  1. Why do Senate Republicans want to discard the provision?

Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Marco Rubio told CNN that he believed presidential campaigns should have an “obligation to disclose” such contacts, but believes the Intelligence Committee does not have the jurisdiction to take up the issue. Repeating criticisms made by Sen. Blunt in early June, Sen. Rubio maintains that the matter should instead be taken up by the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, chaired by Sen. Blunt himself. 

However, legislation dealing with election security has frequently met Republican rejection and silence in the Senate. The SHIELD Act, a resolution passed in the House and delivered to Sen. Blunt’s Rules and Administration Committee in October of 2019, would explicitly require presidential campaigns to report foreign contacts who offer election assistance to the FBI. For nearly a year, Sen. Blunt has failed to take up the legislation in his own committee, despite insistence that the issue is within his jurisdiction. Moreover, Sen. Blunt has repeatedly expressed that such election security measures are unnecessary. 

The more likely interpretation is that Republicans believe that such legislation is part of a Democratic attempt to rehash investigations into the President and his ties with Russia in the 2016 election. Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee blocked Sen. Warner’s FIRE Act in June 2019 which would have required similar campaign reporting requirements, calling it a “blatant political stunt.” President Trump thanked her for her loyalty, tweeting that “Democrats continue to look for a do-over on the Mueller Report.” Importantly, if the new legislation were to be passed in its present form, the Trump campaign would be required to report foreign agents to the FBI who offer election assistance in the manner that Russia did in 2016. Recent reporting on the President’s habitual calls for foreign assistance in the upcoming election suggests that a failure to abide by these reporting requirements would implicate the President in yet another legal scandal. 

  1. Why does this matter?

Reports indicate that multiple foreign adversaries have taken cues from the Russian 2016 playbook and bolstered strategies to interfere in the upcoming 2020 election. According to a joint statement from seven intelligence agencies, Russia, China, and Iran are all expected to mount an unprecedented attack on our democratic institutions, using social media disinformation campaigns as well as cyberattacks to influence the outcome of the upcoming election. This threat is only magnified when campaigns that welcome such interference are not required to make that information public.

While campaign reporting requirements are just one piece of broader election security measures, this type of political maneuvering in the Senate amounts to a passive acceptance of foreign interference in our democracy. Legislators in the Senate should ask themselves how America will purport to lead the world in the pursuit of democratic values when it is unable to protect those very values here at home.



Jair Bolsonaro
Source: Associated Press

Top Newspaper in Brazil Stands Up for Democracy

A leading Brazilian paper has announced a major pro-democracy campaign as the controversy around the increasingly authoritarian actions of Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters mounts. The Folha de São Paulo, Brazil’s most read newspaper, vowed to change the motto on its masthead from “a newspaper at the service of Brazil” to “a newspaper at the service of democracy” until the next presidential elections, and urged its readers to “wear yellow for democracy.” The paper will also offer a free online course aimed at teaching its younger readers about the social, economic, cultural, and political impact of Brazil’s military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1985. Revealing its initiative, the Folha de São Paulo claimed that pro-Bolsonaro extremists were putting the greatest “stress test” on Brazilian democracy since the days of the dictatorship, when freedom of speech was repressed, elections were non-existent, and hundreds of political rivals were killed.

Many of Bolsonaro’s recent actions are drawing worrying comparisons with the old regime. As well as filling his cabinet with military figures, he has actively undermined democratic institutions throughout his tenure, repeatedly attacking the press’s legitimacy and even actively encouraging police brutality. Bolsonaro has gone so far as praising the brutal military regime’s past atrocities. Folha de São Paulo’s campaign is driven by the realization that over half of Brazil’s population is too young to remember the realities of life under the old military regime, and that in order to defend democracy, they need to remember what it was like to live without it. In addition to Folha’s efforts, a number of other organizations in Brazil have launched pro-democracy movements. This includes the bipartisan Movimento Estamos Juntos (We’re In This Together Movement) launched in May, which published a manifesto urging Brazilians to unite to defend “life, freedom and democracy.”

  1. What lessons can America learn from Brazil?

When democracy is under threat, the press must be extra vigilant, serving as a watchdog of government actions and helping to preserve the democratic institutions that allow it to exist. In America, however, the free press has balked at assuming this role during our current political crisis. There’s a sense that to do so would be to abdicate “neutrality” or even-handedness at the core of the journalistic enterprise. But being a press outlet in a free country means having a bias toward democracy. There have been far too many instances of publications refusing to call out false statements as lies, and otherwise finding safe ground in supposedly balanced coverage. Although real balance does require hearing all sides, it does not require offering equal time to both lies and truth. These outlets must take a page from Folha de São Paulo’s playbook and do far more to fulfill their duties as part of the Fourth Estate.