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IPFS News Link • Revolutions, Rebellions & Uprisings

Seattle's CHAZ: Homesteaders or Illegal Squatters?

• - Jeff Deist

Protestors in Seattle have taken over whole city blocks in a neighborhood known as Capitol Hill, just a bit north of downtown. They occupy city streets and parks, as well as (apparently) a police precinct building. This enclave, dubbed the "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone" or CHAZ, is now making headlines around the world. Its newly assembled residents have declared CHAZ an independent nation apart from both Seattle and America, and thus exempt from laws and local police jurisdiction. They have set up fences and checkpoints around the area (so much for open borders), and already urban legends are proliferating about warlords taking over, extortion and shakedowns replacing taxes, and new forms of quasi-private security taking hold. Nobody knows how long the situation will persist, but recall how 2011's Occupy Wall Street demonstrations lasted many months.

Of course Capitol Hill, like all urban neighborhoods, is a mix of "public" and private property. Ingress and egress for residents and businesses take place via public streets, which are severely impaired at the moment. Property values, the viability of retail stores, and the general quietude and livability of this gentrified neighborhood are very much in flux. Anyone who owns a condo, shop, or restaurant in the area has a right to be angry and an argument for monetary compensation from both the protestors themselves and the city government that has so badly failed them.

Good luck with that in a Seattle courtroom.

But what about the purely "public" (i.e., government owned) land and buildings around Capitol Hill? To the extent that the occupied buildings and streets "belong" to the city of Seattle, are the protestors legitimately occupying them? Can anyone, Seattleite or not, make a valid claim to such property? Are they illegal squatters or legitimate homesteaders?

It seems like an absurd question on its face, and it is: surely the forceful takeover of a long-established area cannot be legitimate, even if a few government-owned roads and buildings muck up the principles involved. But no less than Professor Walter Block likens government-owned property to virgin territory, albeit stolen, available to any claimant for homesteading. In Block's conception, anything owned by the city of Seattle—libraries, buildings, equipment, roads, you name it—is as wide open to anyone as a virgin tract of land in deepest Alaska never touched by humans.

I do not at all claim that property such as government roads or libraries is "unowned." Rather, I claim these holdings were stolen. I agree that the state now possesses them; I argue, only, that this is unjustified. And, yes, I insist, the same libertarian analysis can be applied, in this context, to virgin and stolen land. Why? This is because for the libertarian, at least as I construe him, stolen land is de jure virgin land, ready for the next homesteader to seize it (on the assumption that the rightful original owner cannot be located, or he acquiesces in the state's seizure, or that, arguendo, we can ignore this rightful owner.)