CHAZ/CHOP & Jefferson's Ward Republic

The acronymic confusion over whether protestors’ occupation of Seattle’s Capitol Hill should be called CHAZ or CHOP was, it seems, emblematic of greater conflicts within the movement.

The success of government, be it the executive branch of a nation or the executive committee of a local civic group, hinges on a clear set of organizing principles that inform and direct its actions. And that is precisely what the CHAZ protestors lacked.

They couldn’t agree on the foundation of their movement: whether they were simply occupying Capitol Hill or whether they had seized the land and declared it autonomous.

They couldn’t agree on the end of their movement: whether the occupation’s focus should be “police brutality against black residents, or include wider protests of systemic inequality regarding housing, healthcare and education that have beset Seattle for years.”

Unsurprisingly, all this uncertainty produced undesirable outcomes: the movement was roundly mocked for its pleas for basic supplies; a series of shootings left two people dead; and businesses in the occupied zone whose livelihood was jeopardized by the restriction of people in the neighborhood filed a class action lawsuit.

Thus, CHAZ/CHOP is no more.

There’s much to dislike about this particular movement, particularly the violence and the force implicit in forcing residents and businesses to contend with a movement in which they were not necessarily involved in or supportive of. None of these things preserve or promote freedom.

Yet, the movement is still interesting. The idea that low political efficacy could drive a group of citizens to band together, declare themselves autonomous and dissolve the political ties that connect them to the government whose dysfunction is the source of their ills is hardly unprecedented. No American who values freedom should dismiss such an idea out of hand.

Chief among the roadblocks to serious political reform is the inescapable fact that most actions require the participation and assent of the same government bodies whose dysfunction catalyzes the need for change.

In America, it is increasingly difficult to do anything absent the paternalistic eye of the federal government over one’s shoulder. The most substantive reforms the nation can undertake all involve the federal government. Constitutional change requires the assent of two-thirds of the members of both houses of the legislature, or a convention called for by three-fourth of the states, with changes to be approved by three-fourths of the states.

But state sovereignty is vanishingly rare. The federal government’s expansive definition of the commerce clause, frequently upheld by the Supreme Court, often mean states don’t ultimately have control over their own affairs. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is found in the case Gonzales v. Raich. In 1996, California legalized medical marijuana by passing the Compassionate Care Act. However, this did not stop agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency from arresting Angel Raich and Diane Monson and destroying Monson’s cannabis plants, which she was legally growing under California law.

The Supreme Court ruled that even this implicitly intrastate action was interstate commerce and a violation of the Controlled Substances Act. The Court decided, “the regulation is squarely within Congress’ commerce power because production of the commodity meant for home consumption, be it wheat or marijuana, has a substantial effect on supply and demand in the national market for that commodity.”

With decisions like this, one has to wonder, how effective would a state-driven political reform movement truly be? How easily could it be gainsaid by central authorities, eager to retain their hold on power?

And this is on top of the other difficulties associated with Constitutional reform, namely that it is slow and difficult, none of which is a balm to those for whom the failures of political systems engender exigent crises.

Among the reasons spontaneous grassroots autarky is interesting is that it sidesteps some of these issues, or at least attempts to. CHAZ, after all, existed at the tolerance of the Seattle authorities; the moment it became too much of a liability, mayor Jenny Durkan moved swiftly to dismantle it. The slow-moving machinations of government institutions are also a way of checking intrusions on the rights held by individuals: fomenting the emotion of the masses may create a powerful show of democratic sentiment but it rarely translates to sensible political reforms, which actually resolve real issues and respect the rights of all touched by them. The staid process of legislating gives those with concerns time to let their voice be heard and duly considered.

Government should not be changed for light and transient reasons, in no small part because sudden change, catalyzed by fervent feelings, run the risk of trampling the rights of the minority. But neither should the voices of those calling for change—particularly those in communities who bail the brunt of systemic failure—be stymied.

This, then, is the Catch-22 of political reform. Democratic politics is about finding an equilibrium between interests and influence. All are invited to give their two cents, but, ultimately, only one viewpoint can win the day. This does not delegitimize other dissenting opinions, but it does increase the likelihood they will not be satisfied with the chosen course of action or feel it adequately resolves the problems they see as most dire.

The best way to solve this problem is localism, putting people who live in the jurisdictions where change is needed in charge of finding a solution.

This, at least, theoretically, increases the accountability of those in control: they are more likely to work out a fair solution for all if they have to live under the changes enacted and if they have to live alongside those who were clamoring for change.

Leave aside some of the more radical designs of those associated with CHAZ and this is effectively what they were trying to do: find local solutions to problems that people outside their community were not adequately addressing because they did not understand the unique challenges and viewpoints of their people.

Philosophically, at least, the aspirations of CHAZ were not so radical, for some of them are very like the ward system proposed by Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson proposed a system of small self-sustaining communities, like the cities and towns familiar today but even more autonomous, here described in a letter to fellow Virginian Samuel Kercheval:

“Divide the counties into wards of such size as that every citizen can attend, when called on, and act in person. Ascribe to them the government of their wards in all things relating to themselves exclusively. A justice, chosen by themselves, in each, a constable, a military company, a patrol, a school, the care of their own poor, their portion of the public roads, the choice of one or more jurors to serve in some court, and the delivery, within their own wards, of their own votes for all elective officers of higher sphere, will relieve the county administration of nearly all its business, will have it better don, and in the offices nearest and most interesting to him, will attach him by his strongest feelings to the independence of his country, and its republican constitution.”

Certain elements of his idea are not that far afield from CHAZ’s goal. Specifically, the idea that judicial and law enforcement powers should not be external to the community resonates with the grievances of the CHAZ-affiliated protestors.

It seems radical today because of how far afield, thanks to the prevalence of vertical federalism, notions of justice have drifted. In Magna Carta—the charter upon which so much of Western ideas of liberality, particularly in the justice system—local justice was a novel and radical idea. Justice became more than just the whim of the king when assizes were held at fixed times and places in county courts, adjudicated not just by representatives of the king but representatives of the county, elected by members of the county.

Modern society has abandoned this once-revolutionary concept because common wisdom holds that personal involvement in matters of justice renders objectivity null. But personal involvement is what helps render verdicts of complicated matters fair: when one’s livelihood is affected by a judgment, one cares very much about the particulars of the decision made.

Jefferson’s ward system attempts to keep matters within the community, utilizing horizontal, rather than vertical federalism to achieve this end. Like the federal government, horizontal federalism shares power among coequal entities. Though they may not be coequal in terms of the proportion of power they wield, each is sovereign over an area delegated to them. Vertical federalism is more common and likely more familiar: the political powers of towns is ultimately abridged by the state, which is ultimately abridged by the federal government. Horizontal federalism would not completely eradicate the tiered flow of power in the federalistic system, but it would give more freedom to actors at the local level, empowering them to have more control over affairs internal to their own communities.

While the force implicit in CHAZ’s action—in seizing land to which they had no ownership, disregarding the rights and opinions of those who did own the land—is a step away from justice, their desire to be ultimate arbiter of their community is not. A ward system, such as Jefferson described, would admit more nuanced definitions of justice, one still respectful of the rights protected by government but more attuned to the needs of particular communities.