CHAZ, Christiania, and the Autonomous Zones We Really Need


The dream that was CHAZ, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, in Seattle has evaporated nearly as quickly as it originated. After three shootings leaving one man dead and three wounded, the experiment in police-free self-governance is ending. CHAZ, which renamed itself CHOP (Capitol Hill Occupied Protest), never quite figured out what autonomy requires of an autonomous zone.

But what if it had? What was the point anyway? CHAZ’s external critics and advocates both focused from the outset on its police-free, protest-based raison d’etre, but the zone’s de facto leader and its most vocal occupants envisioned a future of pure equality, peace, and perpetual celebration. They sounded more like aspiring founders of a US version of Christiania, the half century old (in)famous squatter-turned-anarchist enclave in Copenhagen, Denmark that is basically a rules-based commune wholly dependent on services from the city from which it pretends to be independent and largely ineffectual as source of meaningful reform.

When I visited Christiania two years ago, I was struck both by its colorful peacefulness and its general dinginess. It is orderly, owing to the rules that are adopted by the full assembly of its roughly 900 residents. Its centerpiece, Pusher Street, is famous for its open-air drug market that bans the hard stuff but offers a wide array of cannabis products, largely – though not always – without violence and theft. Its residences, mostly converted military buildings, have the look and smell of a budget summer camp. There are no signs of any real economic progress or dynamism during its 50 years, because that really isn’t the point. It exists as an alternative to the governing status quo, a communal destination for dropouts, hippies, and nonconformists.

Christiania originated in 1971 in less volatile conditions than CHAZ, as squatters peaceably moved into an empty army base and declared it an autonomous zone. The original, inchoate aspirations of CHAZ occupants sounded similar to what Christiania is today though: a non-violent haven of equality, more artist commune than commercial district, that provides an alternative to the police-backed governance of the prevailing city.

What this really means is CHAZ would have become a rules-dominated community unable to exist without its host city. Immediately upon declaring independence, CHAZ residents got busy making rules, as all anarchists do when they finally get control over something. Christiania may be a pure democracy, but its rules governing daily life are arguably stricter than those imposed on the average Copenhagen resident. And yet a sizeable part of Christiania’s population works in the city of Copenhagen, as CHAZ’s residents would have continued working in greater Seattle, because rules-based communes are not typically as economically self-sufficient. Finally, as the recent tragedies in CHAZ demonstrate, when violence or fires break out, an “autonomous” zone’s dependence on its host city’s first responders becomes all too apparent.

Despite its obvious limitations, there was a meritorious nugget buried in CHAZ’s fluid, confused beginning. Cities have grown dysfunctional, and in some cases unjust, because of how powerful interests, including the police in some places, control the conditions under which ordinary people must live. The idea that some or all residents should be exempted from those rules is not inherently bad, and at times may be inherently good. The media was immediately obsessed with CHAZ but have failed to give much attention to the converse of CHAZ – namely, low-income and alienated urban residents sidelined by myriad rules over which they have no control and which they cannot influence.

Cities, especially progressive ones, have been allowed with impunity to impose new forms of redlining on low-income and minority residents through NIMBY-based zoning and land-use policies. Combined with lousy schools (where the qualified immunity everyone is now talking about with police can also be seen on full display) and unjust policing, the promise of urban life for low-income residents is too often out of reach.

CHAZ and Christiania are interesting, maybe illegal, sideshows in this story. What urban reformers should be doing is legalizing freedom from current rules, starting with housing and then quickly moving to police and schools. This could be done by designating districts, perhaps in cooperation with currently designated Opportunity Zones, as exempt from a range of land-use, schooling, policing, and related policies. Importing ideas from the charter city concept, which is typically formulated in the context of developing countries, could be useful in creating “free zones.” Such zones should have clear, enforceable laws, but let people build and live how they want within standard health and safety requirements, let them educate their children how they want, let them live amidst a reformed community-policing environment, and improve their access to good training and jobs wherever they are in the city. And then study what happens, replicate success, and amend what fails.

The federal government should support this kind of urban innovation. One idea is for lawmakers to designate a range of federal programs from housing to welfare and human services, from which mayors can request waivers from federal requirements in order to provide an environment for reforms. Even better, the federal government should start conditioning federal resources on how well cities are implementing a relaxation of rules that inhibit mobility and opportunity.

Revisions to HUD’s rule on fair housing are a start, but success will require more policy entrepreneurship and imagination. Utilizing a third-party rating system, while not perfect, may provide a way for the federal government to tie a wide range of federal resources to how well municipalities match proven zoning templates for keeping up housing supply. This may run counter to federalist sensibilities many of us share, but in reality, the federal government has been footing the bill directly and indirectly for many costs generated by local decisions and needs a reboot accordingly.

America’s cities do not need police-free zones with movie nights and poetry readings. They need free zones in which residents can experience the progress cities were originally designed for, which is the real recipe for overcoming the injustices that too many within their borders have endured for too long.

Ryan Streeter is the director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Photo credit: Christiania, Denmark by the author.