The revolutionary ideals of the Paris Commune endure in the Black Lives Matter autonomous zone in Seattle



A new autonomous zone created in Seattle by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has striking similarities with the Paris Commune of 1871. Despite its abrupt end, the founding event in the French capital 150 years ago set the agenda of a progressive urban policy. and broader social justice movements since then. But while what’s happening in Seattle shares some of the township’s political visions, it faces an entirely different and more sophisticated threat – of being co-opted by creative capitalists.

Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone – or Chaz as it’s now known – premiered on June 8 in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. This came in the wake of BLM protesters moving in after Seattle police abandoned the compound due to clashes with protesters.

Since then, protesters have barricaded the perimeter and set up a “cop-free cooperative” offering free water, hand sanitizer, face masks, food and other supplies. There are classes, street art installations, and other activities often associated with urban anarchist protest camps.

Protest centers

Cities have been at the center of protest movements for centuries, because as urban sociologist Saskia Sassen argued, the city has always been a place where the powerless can make history. As such, Chaz’s creation has the potential to firmly cement the movement into the pantheon of revolutionary urban stories. And given the list of demands he has produced, which includes abolishing the police, retrials, amnesties for convicted protesters and rent controls, there is a deeply radical policy at its heart.

There are therefore obvious comparisons to be made between Chaz and the Paris Commune. In Paris, the proletariat was reacting to its long economic oppression by the French elite. In response to the advance of the French army seeking to disarm them, they barricaded themselves in the capital.

The 2015 Communal Luxury book by French culture and literature expert Kristin Ross paints a living picture of the Paris Commune as an important revolutionary moment. But more than just explaining the commune’s failure, she argued that her vision of a radically different world was more important than ever after the 2007-09 financial crash.

Communards with the Vendôme column in 1871.
André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri via Wikimedia Commons

During the commune’s three months of existence, the Communards demolished imperialist statues such as the Vendôme Column, altered the education system to strengthen the working class and abolish the police. The debt was canceled and the rent suspended. There were street festivals and migrants, refugees and women were empowered. The town, Ross eloquently argues in his book, is more than an historic event; it is a living resource that can also help us build a better world today.

Danger of co-optation

Chaz creates a space for the gestation of these radical policies, as a real urban laboratory of revolutionary thought.

But while there are certainly similarities to the progressive ideals of the commune, there are also dangers. The French capitalist state rapidly and violently massacres the inhabitants of the town. While the Trump administration could potentially respond with violence in Seattle, there is also the danger that the co-opting power of “creative” urban capitalism could soften – and possibly blunt – Chaz’s progressive ideals.

Similar autonomous areas have existed around the world for decades, such as Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark and Užupis in Vilnius, Lithuania. But these and many others have become a sort of pastiche of their anarchist and anti-capitalist ideals. There may still be fundamental principles of solidarity, collective property and anti-capitalism within these places. However, they have become cocooned in a veneer of branding, advertising, and commercialized and gentrified versions of the “creative city”. This severely restricts and dilutes the dissipation of their ideologies.

An activist outside the abandoned police station in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Stephen Brashear / EPA

With Chaz, too, the appeal of “protest chic” may be too hard to resist – it’s Seattle, after all, one of America’s most acclaimed creative cities. In order for Chaz to resist this, he must resolutely be a space for the oppressed and the dark voices of the movement. In essence, whites can help set it up and keep it going, but they need to stay quiet inside and let the oppressed use the space to strategize and mobilize.

The Paris Commune did not end too well, and the whispers of President Donald Trump are that the Capitol Hill free-standing area may not last too long, either. But that the municipality is still taught and spoken today testifies to its lasting positive effect within urban policy. He may have been brutally suppressed, but his anti-capitalist spirit served as an example for nearly 150 years of subsequent urban struggles around the world.

Cities have always been the place where the voiceless find their voice and express their demands most vehemently. For those who are deeply involved in the BLM movement (which should be all of us), hope this is still true.


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