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Seattle’s protest is the latest in a long history of experimental living

The CHAZ, or CHOP, presents an alternative vision for American life.

A person walks past fences in Seattle on June 14 set up with a new sign proclaiming the area as the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest near the Seattle Police Department's East Precinct during continued protests against racial inequality and for defunding of police in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd. (Lindsey Wasson//Reuters)

After a week of clashes between Seattle police and Black Lives Matter and antiracism protesters, police abandoned the East Precinct and protesters moved in, establishing what they’ve called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) or the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP). For weeks, protesters have occupied the six-block area and turned the space into their own cop-free activist commune, complete with a “No Cop Co-op,” two medical stations, bathrooms and even community vegetable gardens.

Some media outlets have deemed the CHAZ/CHOP a “Mad Max” film come alive, or an “ugly anarchist hell.” However, Seattle’s experiment in cop-free cooperative living is actually the latest iteration of America’s long history of communal experimentation. Since the 19th century, groups have periodically turned to communalism when they have lost faith in America’s institutions. When it appears that incremental policy reform and elections are incapable of solving society’s needs, Americans have participated in alternative institution building to achieve immediate and comprehensive change.

While most of America’s communal experiments failed to last more than a few years, they introduced people to the possibility of a better future. They displayed the efficacy of alternative modes of governance, labor systems and public safety — even if they were short-lived.

In 1630, Puritan leader John Winthrop led a wave of followers across the Atlantic to settle and colonize their own “city upon a hill” that would restore order to society and craft a community that abided by God’s law — the beginning of America’s deep-seated tradition of communal experimentation. The Puritan colonists attempted to forge a Godly model community for their fellow English Protestants in what they deemed the “new world.”

Over the 17th and 18th centuries, continued waves of European Protestant dissenters followed in the footsteps of their Puritan forebears. The American Colonies’ heightened sense of religious freedom encouraged groups such as the Quakers, Shakers, Moravians and Labadists to settle and colonize areas of New England, New York, Pennsylvania and the old Northwest. These religious outsiders transplanted their communal tendencies to the Colonies and provided a successful example of small-scale communal experimentation that would inspire reformers in the 1800s.

The high point of American communal experimentation was the 1840s, when groups of secular reformers transformed the previously pious act of building such communities into a viable political reform strategy for enacting comprehensive societal change in the face of industrialization. These utopians argued that America’s institutions had failed them and were incapable of further reform because of capitalists’ control over the nation’s political system and monopoly over the means of production. The only solution to counter the evils of industrialization and rampant individualism was to build alternative institutions that were free of capitalism’s inherent evils.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry was one early multiracial communitarian and abolitionist commune established in 1842 by reformers who sought to create a society with equal rights. The Northampton communalists were not only brought together by their shared interest in abolition, but their awareness that economic issues of poverty and labor exploitation were inherently connected to slavery, gender inequality and disenfranchisement.

Antebellum communalists failed to initiate a revolution across the nation. But that didn’t make them failures. Their activities eventually led to the creation of urban, rural and labor cooperatives, introduced many Americans to socialist thought and led to the adoption of land-reform policies by the federal government.

The communal impulse continued into the late 19th and 20th centuries. It resonated among a diverse swath of Americans who took up their own communal causes to address the needs of the marginalized, exploited and oppressed. This was especially true of formerly enslaved peoples in the wake of the Civil War, who adopted alternative labor systems, created their own mutual aid services and moved into autonomous communities as acts of defiance against racist Southerners desperate to retain their black labor force, and violent “redeemers” who worked to reestablish white supremacy.

In 1866, for example, Benjamin Montgomery, formerly enslaved by Confederate Joseph Davis, purchased Davis’s Mississippi plantations for $18,000. He transformed the plantation into a utopian community based on associational work and cooperation.

After Montgomery’s death, his son Isaiah adapted and sustained his father’s utopian dream in Mound Bayou, Miss. There, Isaiah established a relatively successful community based on a politics of consensus and communal governance. Mound Bayou was known by contemporaries as a symbol of black achievement and a community of refuge for beleaguered black people.

In the 1930s, in reaction to more radical schemes to alleviate poverty by Sen. Huey Long and Francis Townsend, the U.S. government got in on the spirit of communalism. President Franklin D. Roosevelt greenlighted the construction of more than 100 rural homesteads, greenbelt towns and garden communities, aiming to provide economic security to farmers and unemployed workers — albeit primarily white ones in segregated communities — in the spirit of cooperation.

Once the Depression receded and the United States entered World War II, support for government-sponsored communalism dwindled and Roosevelt’s communal project was abandoned. Nonetheless, some private interracial communes and cooperatives launched in the 1930s and 1940s in response to the government’s failure to address the needs of poor Southern agricultural laborers. Sherwood Farm, founded in Mississippi in 1936, aimed to create an example of “interracial Christian harmony” and forge a collective agricultural labor system that would replace the oppressive and racist sharecropping and tenant farming system. The Kiononia farm was another interracial Christian commune that built housing for low-income people in Sumter County, Ga., and inspired the creation of Habitat for Humanity.

The back-to-the-land movement and countercultural fever of the 1960s and 1970s sparked a resurgence of communal experimentation unseen since the 1840s. While the hippie commune with its lax sexual mores and free-wheeling drug use is what is most often remembered, there was actually a diverse range of religious and spontaneous open-door communal houses.

The Black Panther Party embraced communalism as a means to improve the condition of African Americans. The Black Panthers initiated community service “survival programs” that provided food, clothing, legal aid and health clinics to African Americans in low-income neighborhoods. If white landlords refused to provide adequate housing to the black renters, the party recommended that housing and land be turned into cooperatives. Although it didn’t prevail, the party’s goal was comprehensive societal reform and to fuel the people’s revolution and establish a communal society organized around the equal distribution of wealth.

Seattle’s activist commune fits into this history. Like America’s older communal experiments, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone/Capitol Hill Organized Protest aims to create alternative institutions to replace Seattle’s criminal justice, educational and health and human services institutions that CHAZ/CHOP organizers believe are beyond repair. Echoing the actions of older communal reformers, from 19th century utopian-socialists to the Black Panther Party, many of Seattle’s Black Lives Matter protesters have turned to alternative institution building to bypass a stagnant Congress and a belligerent president.

Communal reform activity has been part of the American political experience for centuries and often appears when incremental policy reform and party politics have failed to address the plight of America’s oppressed, exploited and working classes. The CHAZ/CHOP activists are attempting to show Americans what an alternative police-free community looks like. Even if their commune fails to last more than a few weeks, it may model alternative institutions and practices that reformers later bring into the mainstream as they work to reshape American institutions.