The mayor and civil authorities took no action as protesters claimed a six-block section of downtown Seattle as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. By their indifference and complicity, political leaders have failed into carry out the most primary functions and duties for which government is established.
City officials ordered police to abandon their position and cede the territory to protesters. This Tuesday CHAZ, since rebranded the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, struck an agreement with the city to reduce its footprint to three blocks while police installed concrete barriers to prevent cars from driving into crowds of protesters. Safely ensconced behind these publicly funded barriers, CHOP protesters immediately reneged on the deal and blocked the street they had agreed to open.
Seattle’s inability to enforce the bargain they struck with an “autonomous” power is the least of its failures. By allowing the establishment of a “cop-free” zone, Seattle has engaged in numerous acts of malfeasance and nonfeasance. They include:
Not protecting residents’ safety. Shortly after the establishment of CHAZ/CHOP, Seattle Police Department Chief Carmen Best said that 911 “calls for service have more than tripled.” This included “emergency calls — rapes, robberies, and all sorts of violent acts that have been occurring in the area that we’re not able to get to.”
The mayor’s office issued a statement meant to calm fears, which essentially confirmed the state of anarchy. City police will respond only to “significant life-safety issues within the CHAZ/CHOP,” such as “an active shooter incident, an assault, a structure fire, significant medical emergency (i.e. heart attack, stroke, trauma) and other incidents that threaten a person’s life safety.” Otherwise, SPD promises only that it “will attempt to coordinate officer contact outside of these boundaries when safe and feasible.” Meanwhile, the city’s fire department has helpfully “advised businesses in the area on how to proactively remove combustibles, such as removing garbage and recycling on a daily basis to minimize the risk of intentionally set fires spreading.”
Not exercising exclusive sovereignty. A defining characteristic of governments is that they maintain the exclusive right to the use of force and sovereignty over a given territory. Yet armed guards loyal to rapper Raz Simone have patrolled the streets and allegedly assaulted a journalist.
Not maintaining public order. Residents are turning to private security firms to fill the void. “There was a small group of armed vigilantes that were attempting to police the autonomous zone themselves, and I think that put a lot of scare into a lot of people,” said Chris La Due, co-owner of the Homeland Patrol Division Security, which some residents have hired to protect their lives and property. “Knowing that the police have not been responding to a non-priority 1 calls, that also caused a lot of concern.” When private militias enforce the rights of some but not others, the nation is on the road to becoming Lebanon.
Failing public health. These protests occur when the city’s law-abiding population has observed social distancing. Not only are protesters frequently shoulder-to-shoulder, but they flaut other safety and health precautions. “I’ve eaten beef patties out of people’s backpacks,” local bartender Erik Kalligraphy says. “There’s a little bit of a health risk — because you don’t know where some of the food is coming from.”
Much of the hands-off approach, in Seattle and nationwide, has been out of an indifference to crimes that “only” involve property damage. But preserving our unalienable rights is the reason individuals establish and ordain governments in the first place.
John Locke wrote in the Second Treatise of Government that, in a state of anarchy, people’s ability to enjoy their rights remains “very uncertain” due to invasions from without and crime from within. This makes individuals “willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.”
“The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into common-wealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property,” Locke wrote. “The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community, for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it.”
The newly established authority, known as a government, first creates “an established, settled, known law, received and allowed by common consent to be the standard of right and wrong” for everyone and which will “decide all controversies between” citizens. The government will also possess the “power to back and support the sentence when right, and to give it due execution.”
When it fails to do this, it fails its core functions.
The state has a strikingly similar raison d’etre according to Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum.
“Rights must be religiously respected wherever they exist, and it is the duty of the public authority to prevent and to punish injury, and to protect every one in the possession of his own,” he wrote. “First of all, there is the duty of safeguarding private property by legal enactment and protection.”
The government must also specifically discourage acts of vandalism, theft, and private property destruction:
[N]either justice nor the common good allows any individual to seize upon that which belongs to another, or, under the futile and shallow pretext of equality, to lay violent hands on other people's possessions. Most true it is that by far the larger part of the workers prefer to better themselves by honest labor rather than by doing any wrong to others. But there are not a few who are imbued with evil principles and eager for revolutionary change, whose main purpose is to stir up disorder and incite their fellows to acts of violence. The authority of the law should intervene to put restraint upon such firebrands, to save the working classes from being led astray by their maneuvers, and to protect lawful owners from spoliation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifies the punishment to be applied when the government cannot prevent acts of vandalism. Under its discussion of the Seventh Commandment, it states, “Willfully damaging private or public property is contrary to the moral law and requires reparation.”
According to Catholic theology, the government should demand reparations from the looters rather than vice-versa.
If the police refuse to protect private property, and Seattle allows an alternate source of authority to spray-paint its insignia on public buildings, taxpayers should demand a refund of their own.
(Photo credit: Derek Simeone. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)