The recent Portland-area “Autonomous Zone” has come to an end as Ted Wheeler announced on Twitter that he had authorized all lawful means to disband the protestors on Mississippi Avenue.
The news is not surprising given the apparent rise in crime and concern from residents that arose in the immediate aftermath of its creation. According to the New York Times, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office reported over 80 calls in the vicinity for fights, disturbances, shots fired, burglary, theft, vandalism, noise, trespassing, and threats by armed individuals.
Although the “autonomous zone” in Portland was an immediate response to the controversial eviction of a black family who claimed they were misled by a mortgage company, it followed the rise and fall of another “autonomous zone” in Seattle this past summer, and its creation forced Portland authorities to act quickly.
Conceived as an island of freedom and sanctuary from police violence and societal limitations, the Seattle autonomous zone, or CHAZ, as it was known, quickly devolved into a nightmarish free-for-all as human nature ran its inevitable course. Residents were kept up at night by loud music and noise while businesses were damaged, vandalized and abandoned. The area was rumored at one point to be policed by local “warlords” including hip-hop artist Raz Simone, though these rumors were later shown as not entirely accurate.
At one point, fear of outside threats from the Proud Boys led to locals openly carrying rifles in the streets, an ironic twist to liberal complaints about lax guns laws. Finally, after multiple shootings in the area that ended with the death of a teenage boy, the area was re-occupied by police to the relief of many residents.
CHAZ was the subject of much misinformation from both right-wing and left-wing media. Right-wingers from Fox News digitally altered photographs and spread rumors about anarchism and violence while amplifying rare events to make them seem common. However, left-wing media declined to adequately report the raw reality of a lack of police, including the loss of local businesses, serious disruption to peoples’ lives, and fear of local residents.
Ultimately the failure of Seattle’s CHAZ to accomplish anything other than alarming local residents illustrates the gulf between fantasy and reality when it comes to cutting police budgets and reducing police presence. In fact, the Seattle CHAZ outcome may have spurred Portland authorities to act aggressively.
The simple fact is that any good and free society in the world is going to have a police force. In countries with no police, individuals are forced to either align with warlords or security partners, or to take defense matters into their own hands.
However, self-policing can be a dangerous endeavor, with the potential to seriously harm or kill other people who are not actually threats. Where self-policing is the norm, such as in unstable countries, people tend to retreat to tribal and “gut” instincts when dealing with unfamiliar people, creating a larger potential for conflict.
Furthermore, individuals who are forced to engage in their own self-defense will have less time to develop other skills necessary for success. They will assuredly be more paranoid and will have a more difficult time building up a society where trust is essential to collective gain.
The motivations for the creation of the “autonomous zones” have not been without cause. The shocking murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer earlier this year was a stark reminder of the brutal racism that has cast a shadow over America for hundreds of years and still sometimes rears its ugly head in police forces. The previous killings of people like Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, and Breonna Taylor contributed to the eruption of anger after Floyd’s brutal slaying in broad daylight over an apparent $20 counterfeit bill.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that defunding the police and removing police presence is not the answer to police brutality. A better strategy would be to conduct a national audit of police forces for white supremacy and hate group members, and to fire or remove those people from policing.
On a local level a more appropriate use of resources would be to create community intervention or community assistance groups of social workers to answer calls about homeless people and nonviolent crimes such as drug abuse. But removing or defunding police invites chaos. It benefits real criminals, enables local militias, and does not improve the lives of residents.