Following 12 consecutive nights of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s police-involved death in Minneapolis, the demonstrators in Seattle, Washington, did something similar to what the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protesters did at the Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi early this year.
Just as the Shaheen Bagh protesters blocked a sizable section of the road linking Delhi to NOIDA and kept it as a free zone for almost three and a half months (14 Dec 2019 to 24 Mar 2020), the protesters at downtown Seattle seized control of full six blocks adjacent to the City Municipal and Police Buildings and declared the area as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ.
The Seattle Police Department (SPD) signboard was painted over by the protesters as the Seattle People’s Department, the office building was boarded and the cops retreated following the mayor’s orders. For their communication purposes, the police named this “liberated” space as the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) Zone.
The CHOP zone quickly came under the “administration” of the protesters who threw up barriers, dubbed the area and declared it cop-free. The radicals among them started acting as police themselves and began checking IDs at the CHOP borders. They had neither the authority nor the training to do so.
The contradiction was obvious: the entire Black Lives Matter agitation was against the unprofessional and untrained (brutal) behavior of the police, and now the agitators, who later on became violent and extortionist too, were supporting and indulging in the same mis-conduct.
There’s a history of such “occupy” movements. In recent memory, as a fallout of the 2008 economic meltdown, many frustrated youths of America had taken to the grass-roots protest in 2011 and staged at Zuccotti Park, New York, what came to be known as the “Occupy Wall Street” agitation. Many cities and university campuses in North America later mimicked Occupy Wall Street by sitting-in the parts of public property without authorization -- the city or university authorities didn’t resist and continued to provide services until they thinned and fizzled out.
Like Shaheen Bagh, and many occupied protest sites before, the CHOP also wore a festive look -- street shows, fiery speeches, drum circles, music and chants. A “Decolonization Conversation Cafe” and even a medic station had come up.
However, as the days and nights of protest progressed, the CHOP zone began to show up the same absurdities as the Occupied Wall Street or the Shaheen Bagh protests did. Elements with their own agenda -- including gangs and criminals -- infiltrated and deflected the focus of the agitation.
As expected, after enduring lawlessness for nearly a month, the mayor of Seattle signed an executive order on 30 June 2020 and the following day, the SPD cleared up the area. The range of protesters’ mischief listed by the mayor included firearms violence, homicide and obstruction of emergency access.
The SPD had received numerous reports of narcotics use and violent crime, including rape, robbery, assault, and gang activity. There were at least four shootings claiming the life of a teenager and seriously injuring his friend -- all in a period of one month and at a busy venue.
The experience at the Shaheen Bagh and the CHOP Zone suggested that in a chaotic and stampede-like situation, both the leadership and the message were nearly lost under the cover of slogan-shouting and radical rhetoric. The authorities found it hard to figure out who was in charge. Activists spoke in diverse or often contradictory tones.
At the Shaheen Bagh, the protesters couldn’t form a team that could reason with the Law or Home Ministry of the Indian federal government. They imagined the government would come down and negotiate with them. The assembly of protesters, mainly Muslims, was taken over by the hardline Islamists. It was reflected in the speeches from the dais. The situation deteriorated to the point where the protest site reportedly invited clandestine involvement of the Pakistani Intelligence and forces hostile to the Indian interest.
At the CHOP zone also, demands varied from “defunding the police department” to “de-gentrifying” Seattle (that is, renovating the city to the middle-class modest taste) to the mayor’s resignation. Others focused on broader issues such as economic inequality. There was no integrated leadership because there were different factions.
[Through my research for this article, I came across the roles of two women leaders of Indian origin in the two very different places under discussion. I propose to write a separate column on them.]
As it was clear, no result of any positive significance came out of these occupations; there was, on the contrary, enormous loss to the city revenue, local business and civic order. The city officials, who were reconciliatory in the beginning, came around the view that freedom of expression and the right to assemble didn’t require the authorities to provide limitless sanctuary to the protesters where they would damage city and private property, obstruct the right of way, or foster dangerous conditions.
The deleterious impact of such occupations were seen in other parts of the country: The Shaheen Bagh was replicated in many places including North-East Delhi where unauthorized sealing off of a road led to destructive riots between the Muslims and the Hindus; taking a cue from Seattle, demonstrators tried to set up protest sites in Portland, Philadelphia, Virginia and elsewhere.
To sum up, whereas the constitutional rights to peacefully protest couldn’t be denied in a democratic system, the rights and privileges of the average citizens must also be protected by the government authorities. Everyday tax paying citizens didn’t have to agitate for their rights. At Shaheen Bagh, the plight of the neighborhood people was ignored for the entire period of occupation; in Seattle, the citizens documented incidents of harassment, graffiti, noise disturbances, and obstruction of vehicular traffic and then sued the municipal administration for not protecting their lives and businesses against the “law breakers.”
The experience and lessons of such protest sites were clear: Don’t let such an area get established without proper permit, in the first place, and let the city officials and the police do their job without interference -- their first responsibility was to enforce civil order for all its residents and the tax-payers. If the authorities-incharge were unable or unwilling to do so, they must resign or be held legally accountable.
Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad hails from Darbhanga and currently resides with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). A former UGC teacher fellow (at JNU) in India and Fulbright scholar in the USA, he has taught politics and authored conference papers, articles and chapters on Bihar in previously published books in the United States, India, and Canada.
Dr. Prasad administers a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari and has sponsored “Aware Citizenship Campaign” at a micro-level in his home-town.