The cop-free zone is not the particular block or traffic circle or park. It is the shared commitment to defending a space and eliminating the dynamics of policing and white supremacy. In the following collection, we explore some people’s experiences attempting to create police-free autonomous zones in different parts of the United States.
Yesterday, Seattle police evicted the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), also known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), ending an experiment in autonomy that had extended over three weeks of inspiring creativity and heartbreaking tragedies. Yet the legend of this space has spread around the world, inspiring solidarity actions as far away as Tokyo and attempts to emulate it from Portland to New York City and Washington, DC. For an overview of the story of the occupation in Seattle, you could start here.
Introduction: Questions about Autonomy
To establish a cop-free zone is a show of strength, whether it lasts for a single evening or a period of years. It can dramatically expand the popular imagination: just as police abolition was unthinkable until the uprising in Minneapolis demonstrated that rioters could defeat police in open confrontation, even the most temporary autonomous zone can enable people to rethink their assumptions about policing.
Above all, a liberated zone provides a space in which to remember and mourn. Just as Occupy Oakland renamed the plaza they occupied in honor of Oscar Grant in 2011, contemporary cop-free zones have served as memorials to those whose lives have been taken by police violence, hosting breathtaking participatory art installations. The most important artistic endeavors and community gatherings in the US right now are taking place in these spaces.
At the same time, when the police are still so powerful and the ruling class that they serve is scrambling to legitimize them in the public eye, establishing a cop-free zone involves challenges and risks. In response to the sudden popularity of police abolition, the state urgently needs to create spectacles that create the impression that the abolition of policing is even more gruesome than the ongoing violence of police.
Trying to control fixed territory puts us on the defensive, making us a stationary target for white supremacists and others to attack us. These attacks can range from actual shootings, such as the one DeJuan Young described experiencing in Seattle, to the blatantly dishonest smear campaign that Fox News perpetrated against the occupation there. At the same time, police and other state actors seek to drive violence and anti-social activity into areas they don’t control in order to discredit those who inhabit them. In Greece, police have long used this tactic against ungovernable neighborhoods like Exarchia as well as autonomous zones in Greek universities.
Controlling a particular space doesn’t necessarily equip us to interrupt the processes that cause the anti-social violence that the authorities use to justify policing. The proposal to abolish the police is not a proposal to defund a particular institution, but to overhaul our entire society, abolishing the disparities that make police necessary to maintain the prevailing order. Inside an autonomous zone, we can demonstrate gift economics and other models of mutual aid, but that won’t suffice to protect the participants from the pressures of capitalism and white supremacy, which are bound to continue destabilizing our relationships until we can bring about wider social change.
This doesn’t mean we should abandon the language of “autonomy” in favor of “occupation” or “organization,” as some have argued. Rather, we need to popularize a different understanding of what autonomy is. As we understand the concept, to be autonomous is not to administer an independent juridical zone the way the state does; rather, autonomy is a question of how much leverage all the participants in an environment have over what they are able to do and experience in it. In this sense, autonomy is not a property of a defined physical space, but rather a quality of a network of relations.
“Autonomy… needn’t mean meeting all your needs independently; it could also mean the kind of interdependence that gives you leverage on the people you depend on. No single institution should be able to monopolize access to resources or social relations. A society that promotes autonomy requires what an engineer would call redundancy: a wide range of options and possibilities in every aspect of life.”
Concentrating power over an autonomous zone in a single leadership or decision-making structure is a liability, not an advantage. Monopolies on power usually benefit the comparatively privileged, who are best equipped to employ frameworks of legitimacy to position themselves favorably, whereas those who are on the receiving end of racial and class disparities are often excluded even when these frameworks are supposed to empower them. If our goal is to abolish white supremacy, our top priority should be to support the voices and actions of the most disenfranchised Black, brown, and queer people, not to follow the leadership of those who already benefit from status of some kind. Likewise, too much emphasis on unity tends to restrict both tactics and long-term goals to a lowest common denominator, undercutting the diversity and unpredictability that enable movements to establish autonomous zones in the first place.
All these considerations suggest that, even if our goal is simply to hold a particular physical space, we have to prioritize carrying out offensive activities throughout society at large that can keep our adversaries on the defensive, while investing energy in the activities that nourish movements and spaces rather than focusing on defending particular boundaries. We should understand occupied spaces as an effect of our efforts, rather than as the central cause we rally around.
Other movements have already grappled with these questions in the past. We can learn a lot from the squatting movement in Europe, the Movimento sem Terra (MST) in Brazil, the Occupy movement in the US, and other examples worldwide. In the worst case, misunderstanding autonomous space as a physical territory rather than as the relationships and courage that maintain it can lead to some participants making disastrous compromises with the authorities in hopes of being permitted to retain that territory.
Finally, establishing and defending police-free zones compels us to develop a robust analysis of what policing is in order to make sure that we don’t replicate it. The extent to which we can resolve conflict ourselves in these spaces will be one of the most important factors in determining whether we can hold on to them and demonstrate a model of autonomy that deserves to become contagious. We should not confuse our ability to defend cop-free zones with being able to employ lethal force the same way that the police do. If we make this mistake, we risk reproducing the dynamics of existing systems of policing, and the ones who suffer the worst consequences will likely be young Black men.
“We must find mutually satisfying resolutions or else suffer the consequences of ongoing strife. This is an incentive to take all parties’ needs and perceptions seriously, to develop skills with which to defuse tensions and reconcile rivals. It isn’t necessary to get everyone to agree, but we have to find ways to differ that do not produce hierarchies, oppression, or pointless antagonism.
In this regard, the first line of defense of the cop-free zone is not the violent force with which it is defended, but the ways that the participants turn care into a transformative force.
Accounts from Cop-Free Zones
In the following accounts from New York City, Portland, and elsewhere around the United States, participants in autonomous zones reflect on their experiences.
New York City: The City Hall Autonomous Zone
I headed to the occupation at City Hall on Monday evening [June 29], expecting an eviction. I planned to stay the night. I knew that might mean not sleeping.
Several marches were converging on the plaza at once. The section of park that was surrounded by police barricades and filled with protesters was much bigger than Zuccotti Park, the site of Occupy Wall Street. Still, the quickly growing crowd could not fit in that space. We had to expand.
At first, it seemed like a better plan to expand deeper into the park. The south end of the park was only guarded by a few cops milling about on the outskirts. Expanding in that direction would involve a small confrontation, but one we could definitely win. However, the people holding the barricades to the south were hesitant to move the line. Rather than arguing, the crowd took the path of least resistance and poured into the streets at the northeast corner. Taking Centre Street meant blocking car access to the Brooklyn Bridge. Holding Chambers Street gave protesters the opportunity to adorn the courthouse with graffiti. Expanding outward into the streets ensured a conflict, for better or worse. With our numbers we could easily hold the space—at least until early morning. By then, most people would be gone and the police could confidently storm in. This outcome was painfully obvious.
Still, it was happening regardless. I quickly set to work trying to help the expansion of the occupation succeed however I could.
Occupiers congregated on Chambers for an impromptu teach-in in the street. At any given moment, there were several collective discussions, presentations, and assemblies happening at once. People brought tables into the intersection and loaded them down with free pizza. After months of unrest, most of lower Manhattan was full of crowd control barricades. These were quickly repurposed along with nearby construction materials to reinforce our presence in the area.
Throughout the park, people were sharing food, clothes, personal protective gear, bedding, and other essentials. There were drink coolers sorted and labeled: Water, Sparkling water, Juice, Gatorade. A generator-powered phone-charging station enabled people to stay longer while staying in communication with the outside world. A free library—with no late fees!—was established early on and stocked with the words of Black revolutionaries and poets. By July 1, the occupation was offering free COVID-19 testing, too. I was taken aback by how swiftly and proficiently people came together to build meaningful infrastructure. At one point, I overheard someone asking how they could help with food distribution. A volunteer answered that they could come behind the table to help pass out pizza, and they did.
When tensions with police escalated around 2:30 am, I asked people at the supply table for every umbrella they had. I intended to distribute them along the front lines to defend against pepper spray. The people distributing supplies were so calm and collected. I remember wishing we had their levelheadedness on the barricades.
As the night drew on, the crowd began to turn in on itself. Despite barriers having surrounded the encampment for days and nights, a couple people suddenly decided that rather than deterring police from charging, the barricades were trapping us in. They would say things like “We need to make an escape route,” or “The barricades give the police an excuse to raid the park.” In reality, the police had every excuse they needed to evict the park, barricades or not, and NYPD has never waited for excuses to attack us. Barricades keep the police from rushing in to make random arrests. Barricades do not feel pain when they are hit with batons. Barricades do not need to be bailed out of jail.
Regarding the question of escape routes, remember, every exit is also an entrance. Because the intended goal of the occupation is to hold space rather than to be mobile, it makes sense to have a strong perimeter on all sides. Yes, perimeters will be the points of conflict. That will always be the case, no matter how big or small the space. Geometry shows us that the larger the area occupied, the more police it will take to surround it. The sheer size of the City Hall Autonomous Zone is what enables a small group of people to defend overnight. It took police two hours to dismantle the unguarded barricades early Wednesday morning. Had the crowd chosen to leave the park while police were attacking, this would have been plenty of time to get everyone out through the other end.
We saw this play out on Monday night (Tuesday morning). As some people were dismantling the barricades on the Northeast side of the park, protesters reinforced the ones in the Northwest side. Lines of barriers were strewn throughout the street and connected one to the next in a tight blockade. Despite numerous attempts, police were unable to get through the Northwest side as long as protesters were guarding it. Yet while people were painting the now iconic face of the surrogate courthouse, police entered through the gap in the northeast and were able to make arrests. Fortunately, they were quickly pushed back to the outskirts, where they waited until early morning for our numbers to dwindle. In the early morning, they flooded in through the Northeast and pushed everyone back into the park. This shows how important the barricades are to holding the space and keeping us safe.
To be clear: the City Hall Autonomous Zone is nothing if not messy. Since day one there have been heated megaphone arguments between organizers, not to mention the arguments everyone else is engaging in. This is to be expected with such a wildly diverse set of goals and ideologies. Some anarchists dismiss the occupation as a product of the nonprofit-industrial complex. It has even been said that some of the original organizers established a verbal agreement with police that they could stay until July 1 if they remained orderly and left afterwords. Needless to say, we are past that point.
The truth is that the New York City Hall Autonomous Zone—NYCHAZ—is by far the most conflictual thing taking place in New York right now. If it were solely an encampment of fringe radicals with years of experience and impeccable politics, it would be much smaller and far less interesting. The beauty is the process, not the occupation. Though the police have successfully cleared the streets of barricades after multiple nights of confrontation, they cannot clear them from memory of everyone who has participated. What’s taking place now will produce a new generation of radicals, just as Occupy did a decade ago. Entire crowds of people can learn so much in only a few nights. Some of it can be communicated online; most of it, you’ve just got to be there.
While I strongly disagreed with proposal to clear the barricades, I felt it best not to fight over the matter. It’s both a blessing and a curse that no one contingent reigns over the occupation. The atmosphere at the NYCHAZ is such that some protesters can sit around a zoom channel, cheering politicians, while others paint ACAB on the downtown courthouses and pile construction materials in the streets. Everything has its time and place. If some tactics or ideas don’t catch on at one end of the park, there’s a good chance they will still work at the other end. The crowd dynamics are always changing. If you try something and it doesn’t get the reaction you were hoping, try something else—or just wait a bit and try it again. Monday night, people were bickering about barricades. By Tuesday, people were reinforcing them with 20 foot pieces of rebar and building shields in the park.
Wednesday morning. My second consecutive night of barricading and forgoing sleep. I’m standing with friends and strangers holding each other as we push against police shields. It’s the second night in a row that I’m nearly certain we’re all going to be arrested. Just the same, there’s really no other option but to stand our ground and endure. After hours of confrontation, pepper spray, and beatings, the police finally get the order to retreat. I’m overcome with relief and adoration for everyone who chose to stick out the night.
We take a moment to embrace in celebration, a moment to drink water. It’s around 9 am. I change and leave the park with a couple friends, hoping to get a little sleep before returning.
One of them texts me a few hours later: “It feels good to be alive.”
Report from Area X
The following is a first-person account of what we’ll call Area X. Area X is a made-up name for a real place that has no name; to respect the opacity of this space, key details will be blurred. Area X is a police-free zone somewhere in the USA. The zone is located at a site where a building burned down after a Black man was murdered. Area X serves as both a memorial to the fallen and a gathering place—a stretch of the city in which the police cannot enforce law and order and with which they cannot negotiate.
For me, it started like this. We arrived at the site less than an hour after the murder. Our comrade had witnessed the whole thing and made us aware of exactly what had happened. Luckily, our comrade had gotten out of the situation safely.
When we arrived, we found a small but angry crowd facing off with a police line. The crowd was mostly Black, reflecting the neighborhood where the killing took place. People screamed at the cops and the District Attorney who came out to calm people down, talked among themselves about what had happened, and held the streets until late. The next day, the site was packed with people for most of the day; by sundown, the cops had been forced out of the area by people throwing bottles and attacking their cars. The cops shot tear gas and flash grenades and then withdrew behind a cloud of smoke. Though they left the scene, police remained posted along a nearby highway with bearcats, swat vehicles, you name it.
Shortly after police fled the scene, a march formed that took the highway and blocked traffic. In hindsight, this was a decisive moment. People shut down the freeway and blocked traffic—and then sure enough, 30 minutes later, activists were on their bullhorns telling people to “link arms,” “prepare to be arrested,” everything I know means “this is not where it’s at.” My crew exited the freeway. The flow of traffic was stopped for a moment as people on the highway paid their respects—but staying too long on the highway is just being traffic, and we have to be water. As we exited the freeway, we passed more pacifiers with bullhorns, leaving them to stick to their corner on another highway on-ramp.
We walked down to where the shooting had taken place the night before. That was where the fight was at. There was nobody there trying to pacify or neutralize, only a mixed crowd that all wanted one thing: to burn that building to the ground. It’s interesting to note that the only reason the crowd was able to attack the building in peace is because all the activists and NGO people were focused on the freeway, at a distance from what was to become Area X.
The first step in the creation of Area X was the destruction of the building. Media teams were forced to withdraw from the area as the building caught fire. The crowd stopped an outsider medic who tried to put out the fire. As the building went up, a cop tried to clear the streets in front of Area X by driving erratically through the street where dozens of people had been gathered. His objective was to open a route for fire trucks, but this failed as the police vehicle was repeatedly attacked with bricks. After a few laps in the street, he was forced to retreat. As he left the scene, the fire trucks appeared; they, too, were blocked by a small force of people linking arms and refusing to move. The drivers were forced to turn their trucks around.
At this point, a large rowdy crowd split off to join a militant Black-led march headed to a nearby police precinct. The police had been tied up on the highway and elsewhere in the city that day, and now a new formation was headed to a nearby neighborhood, further dividing their attention. By this time, it was well after dark, but that didn’t stop some folks from marching with their children all the way up at the front. The march was guarded by barricaders and rock slingers who attacked police when they tried to drive by the crowd. As the crowd arrived at the police precinct, divisions emerged regarding whether to “file a collective police report” or to “fuck this shit up” as megaphone holders peace-policed the crowd about “agitators.” This didn’t work, either, since police began firing tear gas and flash-bang grenades at the crowd and people responded with bottles, rocks, fireworks, and lasers.
This march from Area X to the precinct set the geographic coordinates of the revolt over the next two days, with a series of marches going to different locations in the area.
Area X is an armed demonstration held down almost entirely by Black people. Because it is armed, liberals and NGOs, formal BLM organizers, politicians, campaigners, and other activists largely avoid the space. News agencies have been almost unanimously barred from entering Area X. This is not to say that there’s no order or organization to the way the space is maintained. It is thoroughly intergenerational—elders are out there as well as children, teenagers, and young adults. Many people in Area X have a very clear vision and they share that vision with those who ask. One of the first things we had to figure out as organized comrades was how to fight alongside the force that already exists here.
We’ve come down to Area X every day since the shooting, meeting people, talking, blocking the streets with cars, watching sideshows, and so on. At one point, for good reason, Area X did not allow any white people to enter the space. As a group of comrades that is not white only but does include several white people, this presented a hurdle for us. It points to a common problem concerning the limits of ally politics.
We organized to offer material support of various kinds: plates of food, expropriated construction barricades to help secure the space, benches, tons of supplies. One of the challenges in organizing with others there was that as anarchists, we are organized “informally,” which is to say, in a way that is chaotic and intentionally opaque. This can make formal communication between groups complicated. Of course, we built affinity on a personal level with some people, but with others, the process has been challenging.
As one comrade put it, the dilemma is less a matter of friction between formal and informal organizing and more about the difference between memetic and synthetic modes of organizing. In the memetic framework, the question is how a rebellion can reproduce groups and networks based in affinity so they divide and multiply, enabling the antagonism to spread across social and political divides. In the synthetic framework, the question is how these efforts can be brought into harmony and potentially made more coherent.
In our experience, the memetic form of organizing reached its limits when it failed to sustain momentum alongside the occupation at Area X. While rowdy marches of young front-liners and people from Area X battled with police at the nearby precinct on the first several nights, these eventually fizzled out. Could we create something more synthetic that goes beyond the stale models of formal organization we’re already familiar with? We have been moving in synthetic direction by adopting the custom of always bringing supplies or material support. We want people to know that we’re powerful, that we’re capable of fighting, but we don’t do that only through conflict and militancy. A large part of utilizing our power is demonstrating our power to give, to share, to care. Anarchists facing the limits of ally politics might consider specializing in these areas. In many ways, many of us already do.
We expanded our personal affinities with several individuals from Area X when we invited them to participate in a squatted rave just around the corner from the occupation. This change of setting, expanding the uncontrollable areas near Area X, also added a new dimension to our friendships.
It’s still too early to say what’s happening here in Area X, but it’s something powerful, something nobody could have imagined two months ago. We still have so many questions. How can we build something like the Red Warrior camp? How can we open up new fronts in order to prevent the police from restoring the old status quo? How do we negotiate political and strategic disagreements with other participants?
Three accounts from different participants in three attempts to create autonomous zones in Portland.
People had been gathering at the Justice Center for several days when word spread to “Bring overnight gear” that night. It was only word of mouth and Signal groups at first. Then, as it got later in the evening, it appeared on social media and spread. A makeshift barricade went up, but the crowd was almost immediately dispersed via gas and munitions from police. Word then spread to “call it off” via word of mouth and text messages. No further attempt was made that night to create an autonomous zone.
Second and Third Attempts
There were numerous rumors about attempts to create autonomous zones in Portland that didn’t come to fruition before the actual attempts I participated in.
The first took place outside Mayor Ted Wheeler’s fancy apartment in one of the most upscale parts of our city. Earlier in the day, a local abolitionist chapter of Care Not Cops, a subset of Critical Resistance, had organized a protest in the same location to put pressure on the mayor and city council to vote against the proposed budget cut for the Portland Police Bureau, arguing it was not enough of a reduction—it was only a 3% reduction in what was actually an increase in their budget. That evening’s attempted occupation was intended to keep the pressure on elected officials.
Upon arriving, I joined a group of a few hundred folks chanting and banging on light poles. We had about a half block to ourselves, with people building elaborate blockades all night. The vibe was joyous, decentralized, at times chaotic. We called this the Patrick Kimmons Autonomous Zone (PKAZ) to honor a Black man killed by police in 2018. The name was spontaneously chosen after a vigil for him was set up. For most of the night, there were a few tents but not enough to provide a feeling of security to those of us in them.
We wondered when the cops would show up. There were a few false alarms. The crowd thinned out around 2 am, making us vulnerable to attack. The police waited until 5:30 am, when we heard our comrades shouting and, over the loud speakers, “This is the Portland Police Bureau.”
I believe they allowed us to stay overnight because we had large numbers at the beginning, when liberals joined from other marches. This initial group was high energy and defiant, reinforcing our position with barricades. The police waited to attack until our numbers dwindled to under 100.
The second attempt occurred a week later, although it may not initially have been intended to create an autonomous zone. A march ended at the north police precinct, located in one of our historically Black but now heavily gentrified neighborhoods. I joined after people had taken over a full block; the police had retreated from defending the front of the precinct to take up position at the back and on the roof. This time, there seemed to be more organized affinity groups, including many medics, teams building barricades, and people pointing lasers at the cops on the roof to hinder their efforts to film us. At one point, a car that got through our barricade drove at the crowd, hitting no one but ramming several other cars.
As the night wore on, some Black organizers advised us to take shifts so we could hold the position overnight. Yet no tents were erected. My own companions were debating: on one side, we were being called to stay there beside the Black organizers and community members; on the other, we were being asked to leave by Black comrades watching from home expressing concern that the occupation would provoke more police violence in this historically Black neighborhood.
A few hours later, police charged the crowd using impact munitions. I left at that point, but others continued to resist, using barricades as they retreated and holding the line for many hours into the night.
Again, the police were able to thwart this attempt as a consequence of low numbers and division. They aim to strike us when we are at our weakest before we can establish a real foothold. For new people joining the movement, it can be hard to decide where to go or who to follow. Both of these occupations were organized in solidarity with the George Floyd uprising and anti-police protests. If you don’t have a nuanced analysis about how to resist the state, it’s easy to fall in lockstep behind liberal protest police who respond to direct confrontation with police with reactionary denunciations. Without community relationships and trust, it can be hard to know how best to show solidarity with those harmed during these actions. Still, the true cause of harm is the police, who terrorize people every night of the year, not just when there are occupations.
As Portlanders come out night after night, some of us are learning to trust each other. We are learning how to de-arrest people when the police attempt to snatch them, how to endure their attacks and chemical weapons. This is where the autonomous zone is being built—every night we are out here learning how to be together and trust each and hold each other accountable as we build a world without police.
It began with a march. I knew we were heading to the precinct and that there was a tentative goal to “occupy the space until it was shut down,” but that this was only going to take place if we had the numbers to do so. Our numbers were too low for that. At some point, the word spread amongst the crowd that we would only go there, occupy the space and “make our voices heard,” then leave.
On arriving, we gathered in front of the precinct and listened to speakers in the back of a truck. It quickly became confusing. All of the speakers seemed to be giving conflicting messages; we saw them arguing among themselves off to one side. The police had come out and lined up near us by this point.
One speaker would say we needed to make the police understand Black stories, while scolding us for trolling the police because it unnecessarily put us all in danger. Another speaker would get up and say we were “taking back what’s ours” and that we were staying there for the night and not to destroy any building in the area besides the precinct—a message that could easily be misheard or misunderstood as it traveled through the crowd. One speaker would say “there are no bad protesters!” and affirm diversity of tactics while the next one would scream that “unless a Black person is doing it next to you, you are doing it wrong” and that “ACAB is not the priority, BLM is”—also a confusing message that could easily be misinterpreted under the circumstances.
While this was happening, people were carrying in palettes and makeshift barricade supplies, taking them over to the side facing the precinct. A small campfire was made in the lot beside the precinct—this is a federally recognized form of Native protest/gathering, as a sign displayed by the fire explained. People were also tagging the precinct building. Some speakers were yelling at the taggers to stop while others encouraged them.
After a tense and confusing hour, a speaker announced that those speakers were leaving and that anyone who would like to leave peacefully could follow them, while anyone who wanted to “stay of their own accord” could do so. Some speakers left while some remained.
My group decided to head home because the messages and direction were mixed and the group did not feel confident as a whole, and the numbers were way too low to make it safe for us to stay—there were maybe 50 people there.
A general problem with all three of the attempts to create autonomous zones in Portland was that they were not announced until the day before at the earliest, and then the plans were spread far and wide on social media, ruining both the element of surprise and the advantage of drawing large numbers. To succeed, an autonomous zone has to emerge in an opportune time and place. That moment has not yet occurred in Portland and we cannot create it by force.
A Night of Freedom
ATTORNEY WEINGLASS: Where do you reside?
ABBIE HOFFMAN: I live in Woodstock Nation.
ATTORNEY WEINGLASS: Will you tell the Court and jury where it is?
ABBIE HOFFMAN: Yes. It is a nation of alienated young people. We carry it around with us as a state of mind in the same way as the Sioux Indians carried [sic] the Sioux nation around with them. It is a nation dedicated to cooperation versus competition, to the idea that people should have better means of exchange than property or money, that there should be some other basis for human interaction. It is a nation dedicated to—
THE COURT: Just where it is, that is all.
THE WITNESS: It is in my mind and in the minds of my brothers and sisters. It does not consist of property or material but, rather, of ideas and certain values. We believe in a society—
THE COURT: No, we want the place of residence, if he has one, place of doing business, if you have a business. Nothing about philosophy or India, sir. Just where you live, if you have a place to live. Now you said Woodstock. In what state is Woodstock?
THE WITNESS: It is in the state of mind, in the mind of myself and my brothers and sisters. It is a conspiracy. Presently, the nation is held captive, in the penitentiaries of the institutions of a decaying system.
Our state capitol isn’t known for its activist scene. Traditionally, the nearby college town and its smaller sister city are where people move to get politically active, or even to experience the occasional small riot. Whenever we need to mobilize at the capitol—say, if white nationalists are coming to town—the classic groan on our area’s Signal loop is, “So, is there anyone there who can bottomline?” Usually, it remains a question without an answer, but four nights after the murder of George Floyd I realized we had been asking the wrong question all along.
Without much of an activist or protest tradition there, the crowd that night didn’t have a rubric to follow. Anything was possible, and it was messy as hell. You could tell people were there with all kinds of conflicting expectations about what would go down. There were people who thought that the apex of meaningful protest was to find the police line and just sit in front of it. There were peace police who shut down anyone who so much as flew a paper airplane toward the cops—that actually happened. But there was also a crew of kids that showed up with baseball bats in hand. About half of the crowd was Black, and it was overwhelmingly young. Two white patriot types walked around freely, scoping people out; curiously, they were met with less suspicion than white protesters in black bloc gear. Just the day before, conspiracy theories had started circulating on social media about white anarchist “outside agitators” hijacking the demonstrations.
My buddy and I definitely fit the profile. Even before the “outside agitator” scapegoating in the media, we had decided to play a defense-oriented support role rather than anything antagonistic—or, better put, protagonistic. I came prepared to try out a method for extinguishing tear gas that I had only seen in videos of foreign uprisings. When I arrived, though, it seemed unlikely that I would get the chance to put my tools to the test. Sure, there were the kids with bats, but the crowd itself wasn’t doing much, just endlessly chanting on the capitol grounds. I didn’t think anything would happen. As it turned out, the outside agitator narrative had even gotten to me—I’d made the mistake of thinking that the police needed an excuse to come at us. On the contrary, without any provocation, the canisters started to rain from the sky.
I rushed over to pick up a smoking round with my leather glove and dunked it in my bucket of water and baking soda. Eyes up. Scanning again.
“Are they moving forward?”
“There’s another one!” My buddy shouted.
I was there in the teary blink of an eye to dunk another in. That felt good! It was like being a left fielder again. As I knelt over my bucket, shaking it and holding the top on gently so just a little smoke could exit the edge of the lid, a group of young Black women started yelling at me, “What is that? Hey! Who is he? What are you doing?!” I don’t know for a fact that the outside agitator narrative had reached them, but I don’t know what else would explain scrutinizing the behavior of a single person in the streets while an army of police were advancing and shooting projectiles.
I turned, hand still on my bucket, to explain that I was putting out tear gas, but behind my COVID mask, my voice didn’t go very far. I pulled off the mask and they came closer. Their demeanor changed when I finally succeeded at explaining what I was doing. They got right in my face: “Hell yeah! That’s what’s up.” So much for social distancing! At least I had contributed to a little more mutual trust in the crowd, I hoped.
The initial tear gas burst happened while the sun was still high, and the scene basically remained the same for hours. All we were doing was chanting and standing around. Finally, the sun began to set. We had made it to the golden hour before night. In my experience, this is when the magic happens. No matter what happens during the day, if you can maintain the people and the energy until sunset, something good can happen.
As darkness fell, my buddy turned on the portable boom box we’d brought and started blasting some Boosie. The tenor of the demonstration hadn’t felt right for it before, and we hadn’t wanted to set the tone for everyone else, but after hours of chanting, the crowd was quieting down and something was needed to keep the energy up. People loved it. Signs were bouncing and everyone started getting down in the street. The cops retreated and that got everyone even more hyped. People started making requests, mostly for NWA’s “Fuck The Police.” I was surprised. Like, wasn’t that song a hit when their parents were kids? But then again, what has changed about cops over the last 30 years?
Eventually, the police reappeared with reinforcements. Time to deploy our third defensive tool of the night, the laser. My buddy shined it at the cops; as he scanned them with it, I remembering seeing one officer grab a second cop with a big firearm and point directly down the laser’s line at us. Oh shit.1 This time, the tear gas didn’t rain from the sky—it came right at us. Wear goggles and helmets y’all. The crowd ran. People were scared. We all ran to an intersection on the other corner of the capitol grounds, a few blocks from the advancing police line.
The mood changed again. We turned off the boom box; it felt glib to have music on while people were trying to get their bearings. The police took the grounds around the capitol building and let us have the streets about 100 yards from them. The scattered crowd started to gather again, their fear giving way to anger, and someone made another request for NWA. Hell yeah. We blasted it, singing along with everyone else: “Fuck the police! Fuck the police!” We were solid now. It was apparent that the cops were going to stick to the capitol and the other government buildings first and foremost, leaving the intersection to us. A good beat can go a long way to give a crowd a sense of ownership over a space. We kept the tunes rolling.
I was searching my iPod for songs when this white, DSA-looking, university-type activist came up to my buddy and said, “Hey, can we talk?”
“Yeah man, sure.”
“People were saying that your laser is why the cops fired teargas on us and dispersed everybody.”
My buddy and I exchanged an “Is this person fucking serious?” look.
“No, I know. We can’t control them, but people are feeling pretty uncomfortable with the laser.” He then pointed to the boom box, “This is great though! I just wanted to pass that along because I don’t know if anyone would have come up to y’all all dressed in black—which is also cool with me. I get it!” It was hard not to find the kid charming. He was trying his best to reconcile good ally politics with an apparent belief in going beyond peaceful protest, but, like, strategically. My buddy said he’d chill with the laser and I told the kid I appreciated him coming up and talking to us and not getting aggro.
More tear gas. More scattering—but this time, it didn’t take long for people to come back together. At the intersection by the capitol, we had still stayed in eyesight of the cops, a holdover from that day’s earlier strategy of just going wherever the cops were and demonstrating at them. This time, though, we had regrouped in the downtown shopping area and the cops were nowhere to be seen.
We were free. Not capital F free, but it was a kind of freedom nonetheless. For as brief a time and as limited of an area as it was, we were free from police. Everyone could sense they weren’t coming for us at that moment. And all the anger, the frustrated emotions held back when the police were pushing us around earlier that day, earlier in our lives—for the last few centuries, really—all of that exploded… and with it the windows of every nearby business.
At first, there were a few cries of, “Look at these white motherfuckers out here breaking shit!” But it only took a quick scan of the area to see that it was hardly just white people inciting and participating in the destruction. In that space, the currency of society was turned upside down—it didn’t matter if a store was a corporate chain like Target or Subway,2 if it had shiny plate glass windows, fancy decor, intricate and interesting signage—it was going to get it. On the other hand, anywhere that looked kind of run down, or had a tired, Black security guard working detail, got a pass. “The man’s just working,” folks shouted as the security guard smiled at the mob and waved back in appreciation.
The cops still weren’t coming. My buddy and I hung back as the destructive march passed the courthouse up ahead. National Guard and police surrounded the courthouse, but like video game villains whose programming only allows them to move a certain distance from a given point, the police were not budging from their posts. As we took a break, we watched a second wave of looters pass through. We saw a family step inside one restaurant and come out with a scale. “Oh shit,” my friend said, “that’s capital!” I saw two houseless guys nonchalantly enter another restaurant whose windows had been smashed. I remembered them from earlier because as we were being dispersed, they were on the sidewalk, taking in the show, commenting to each other about how the police had the whole situation on lockdown and that you can’t mess with the cops. The dogmatic Marxist part of my brain chastised them for valorizing the police: “Don’t you know that’s against your material interests?” But now, they were carefully stepping back out of the restaurant’s broken windows with a big TV that required both of them to carry it. Godspeed. “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”
We wandered around, admiring the graffiti and destruction that decorated our city. “Our city!” It had never really felt like that before. At one point, we wandered into a parking lot where a loud, laser-ridden rave was thumping. Fuck! If only we hadn’t ditched our laser! After months of quarantine, vibing in rhythm alongside hundreds of other people felt like medicine for my mind and heart. For a few minutes, I simply closed my eyes and lost myself in the music. Was this real? How long ago had it been that the police were dispersing us with poison and pain? Hours, right? Ages. Was this freedom? I had known the word, but few times had I felt the feeling. What is freedom anyway? Is my freedom different than what everyone else here thinks of as freedom? My mind raced and wondered and wandered as the beat drove my feet one after another. I had been getting worn out before, but now I couldn’t miss a beat. “Dude, I am HIGH,” I exclaimed to my friend, but I hadn’t hit any pipe or popped any pill. The music came to a halt as a young Black woman climbed on the subwoofer and shouted, “This isn’t what you’re here for! It’s time to do what you came here to do!”
She was right, and the crowd filtered back out towards the capitol to confront the police. Honestly, looking back, if the evening had ended in simply partying the night away in a parking garage, I don’t know if it would have felt as free. One of the few ways we can know freedom, a vulgar freedom you might call it, is when the authorities want to stop you but can’t. If we had just gone on dancing, and they let us have it as a way to stop the destruction, it wouldn’t have felt as good. But as an intermission in the middle of a full night of rioting against the police, against the whole world, it was exactly what I needed, and it transformed the vibe for the rest of the night. We weren’t just against the police, we were there together.
At the capitol, the cops dispersed us again. More tear gas—and they kept their posts as we scattered. My friend and I found yet another crowd of about 50 people, a different group than the crowd we had been with at the rave earlier. “How many groups like this are there downtown?”
This group was the least legibly “political” I had seen all night. Like, people weren’t carrying many signs, for example. It was the first time that night that my friend and I were the only white people there. The vibe was lit. People were joking around while throwing trashcans into the street, setting them on fire, then lighting their cigarettes on the barricades. Without the police to impose their control over our small zone, a new kind of order emerged. Private cars were off limits, no matter how valuable they looked—everyone knew the value of a ride, and plenty of nice looking cars rolled through blasting tunes and throwing up signs in solidarity. When someone wanted to break a window, their friends took the time to clear the area so that no one would get hurt by shattering glass or a ricocheting stone. If someone came up with an argument about why that business shouldn’t get it—it was Black-owned, or supported the movement, or whatever—it got a pass. In the looting I saw, no one quarreled over any of the goods, and I saw plenty of hand-offs as well. Traffic was mostly blocked, but protesters guided through the cars with children.
The territory we controlled wasn’t fixed. It expanded and contracted as the night went on. It didn’t have anything that Fox News could describe as a “border,” the way they did when they maligned the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. But that was fine with me. The responsibilities of maintaining fixed territory, especially in the face of constant threat from the authorities, can become a burden that shuts down opportunities to experiment rather than opening them up. As an anarchist, I don’t seek to control territory. I seek to liberate it.
Not that anyone there needed my help! Everyone was just casually tagging, burning trash, another speaker mage showed up and finally it was his turn to play NWA and Lil Boosie for the fiftieth time that night. Someone realized that the lampposts had American flags on them and, without any debate or discussion, everyone worked together to bring one down and burn it. “We are not a part of this so-called nation.” At that moment, Law, as we knew it, wasn’t present. The only people making decisions about how and who got what was ourselves. Still, to my discredit, I was a little nervous when the tough-looking guy with the speaker walked up to my buddy, lowered the volume, drawing all eyes towards us, and said, “Yo, you’re the guy who had that laser, right?”
Oh shit, is this one of the people who had serious disagreements with the laser earlier, feeling that he can express them now that we’re away from the police? Whatever the consequences, I wasn’t going to lie. That space was freedom, and while it’s hard to define freedom, the closest definition that has guided my struggle towards it—through different political labels like socialist or anarchist—is the ability to live your life honestly: not to have to lie. “Yeah, that was us,” I responded.
If he already mistrusted us because of what the media was saying about white anarchists or because my friend had been sorely mistaken to think a laser was an innocent tool in this context, I wasn’t going to give him any more reason to mistrust us by lying about it. Whatever came next—and it might be an altercation—would at least take place in freedom. Freedom isn’t always pretty, but it’s dignified. However this guy felt about the laser, we were going to work it out without the fucking pigs.
“Bro, you’re the whole reason they shot tear gas at us.”
“I know, someone else told me people felt that way. Listen, I’m sorry, I didn’t know they would—“
“What? The fuck you sorry for? This shit is FUN. Thank you, man.”
“Uh, you’re welcome…” But we were the ones who were thankful and welcome.
That was the freest I’ve ever felt in “America.” But the state cannot allow examples of what it is like to live under a different kind of order to flourish. Out of nowhere, a bearcat full of storm troopers peeled around the corner. Waco. The harmonious fire we had kindled together burst into escaping comets down every alley and side street. MOVE!
But I couldn’t move. I knew it was a mistake to conflate the relationships in that space with the space itself, but the ground we were on had become sacred to me. The Free State of Jones.
Once they had me in cuffs, the police stopped shouting orders and started asking questions. Discussion can only take place on their terms. Why was I such a pussy? Why did I come to a city I wasn’t from to protest? Did I ever think about what would happen? But I had enough questions of my own running in my head. What would the charges be? Was I about to lose my job? I need that fucking job. Was I going to get doxxed? My family said they supported the movement, but what would happen if they started getting death threats because of insane conspiracy theories about my arrest? Would my arrest be used as further “evidence” of white anarchist outside agitators, despite the fact I had been literally just standing there? The Future.
It wasn’t my first arrest. I’ve spent years of my life on probation or facing felony charges. The Past. In my experience, the first night dealing with jail and booking is the worst part of a criminal case. That’s the sprint. The endless, oft-continued court appearances and twists and turns in the litigation are the marathon. If you can make it through the sprint, you’ll have time to find your stride later on.
Back in The Now, I took a deep, deep breath, and as I exhaled, I vowed to myself that regardless of their threats, no matter how things turned out, I wasn’t going to make things harder on myself by worrying about what would come. I knew who I was and I knew that there was no way that I would ever miss the chance to be at ground zero in a rebellion like this. And I was happy with that part of me.
Recognition isn’t worth much on it’s own, but even at that moment I recognized the degree of privilege that enabled me to go full zen—I’ve thankfully never done prison time, for example. Still, more than one of the prisoners I’ve corresponded with have emphasized a refrain that really hit home for me that night: you may not always be able to defend your body, but you must always defend your mind.
Now grounded in my Self, I looked outward at the police who held me. Their faces were long and tired. I had to be there that day because of who I was; they had to be there because of their boss. I almost felt sorry for them. Almost. They weren’t upset exactly. I recognized the same biological adrenaline rush in them that I had been running off of all night long, but it came from a different place. I enjoyed finding ways to come together with everyone else there, I enjoyed taking risks, even if it meant the occasional difficult conversation. The joy the police experienced came from belittling me or belittling others in front of me. They drew no joy from the risks they chose to take. Whereas I had been interrogating my motives, my emotions, and my Self all night long, they let their Selves be determined by petty backslapping over who could best intimidate others.
For the police, freedom means impunity, freedom from having to deal with the consequences of the ways they treat others—precisely the opposite of the accountability that we aspire to. I thought about the dark places that must lead them to in their personal lives, and I was suddenly overcome with sorrow for all of their victims, whether on the job or in their personal lives. No, I couldn’t feel sorry for them. They’ll deserve everything they get when the chickens finally come home to roost. But I knew that if they could experience what I felt that night, they would never again be able to trade their dignity for a gun and a paycheck.
Your heart can be a police free zone. Defend it.
Coda: The Birth of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, June 7
At the close of the first chapter of this cycle, we remember the victories that gave rise to the cop-free zone in Seattle.
Last night on Capitol Hill in Seattle was a wonderful demonstration of diversity of tactics. There was a candlelight vigil to honor those killed by police and vigilantes since this uprising started. So many flowers and heartbreaking, heartwarming art. The vigil took place in two different places, one on the street and one on a sidewalk. A live band was playing on a nearby street and people were dancing. Others were giving out tons of free food—a hot meal as well as snacks, water, juice, and medical supplies. There was an entire medic station in the outdoor patio of a restaurant. Art and murals covered everything, people freely spray painting out in the open on the street and walls. Thousands of people out, lots of folks just hanging out at Cal Anderson park right next to everything. Signs saying “Emotional Support—> this way.”
On another block, cops and National Guard were blocked in on all four sides near the precinct. They were kettled, basically. Over the course of a few hours, the barricade they put up was slowly pushed almost a full block, nearly all the way to the precinct. The cops ended up tear gassing those folks and shooting loads of pepper balls and flash-bang grenades into the crowd later in the night. People kept regrouping and coming back with their umbrellas and dumpsters and plastic crates and whatever else they could find to protect themselves, throwing things back at the cops each time they attacked. Meanwhile, a dumpster fire of epic proportions was happening at another intersection, with Black people around it telling everyone to enjoy themselves and not to put the fire out—to go somewhere else if it wasn’t their thing, reminding people that Minneapolis has just decided to defund their police force after many fires and refusing to protest the “right, legal way.” I ended up staying until 2 am. It was so hard to want to leave! So inspiring and energizing.
In retrospect, the laser and the loud music basically painted an audio-visual target for the police. Like most crowd tactics to resist police, lasers can provide increased safety if many people are using them, but if it’s only a few, they can increase the risk, especially to those employing them. ↩
Author’s note: Days after this, I was back at the state capitol on the first night of protests without riots. A middle-class, white couple in their thirties was handing out a flyer that said, “Fuck Trump! From Emmit (sic) Till to George Floyd, STOP THE DESTRUCTION. If you see someone breaking windows or looting local businesses STOP THEM. STAY peaceful, STAY vigilant. It’s time for history to stop repeating itself. Your kids and your grandkids don’t have to be out here in the future.” Normally, I would just grab the stack of flyers and tell the couple to fuck off with their condescending, paternalistic bullshit, but there was such an emphasis on remaining peaceful in the crowd that I feared I would get jumped if I started something. So I explained, patiently and painstakingly, that no one would even know George Floyd’s name if it weren’t for the looting and burning in Minneapolis. I was surprised at the response I got: “Well, yeah, but that was a Target, I’m just saying people shouldn’t loot local businesses. Like the pawn shop that got hit last night, that’s owned by two Muslim guys and I used to live in this neighborhood, I know those guys.” Obviously, I wasn’t speaking with someone who had ever had to pawn anything for survival. One of the shifts I’ve noticed in the politics of this revolt is that it is almost popular consensus now that we don’t need to cry over the looting of corporate chain stores. There are disagreements over whether looting itself is strategic, but almost everyone accepts the argument that no tears need be shed for corporate box stores because their insurance will cover them. Really, this is a counterrevolutionary argument, almost a perverse remix of corporate philanthropy. If our response to riots is a militaristic assessment of “targets,” we miss the fundamental relationship between wealth and power that is at the root of oppression in our society. As exemplified by the white, do-gooder couple that described the luxury downtown apartment complexes as their “community,” even the most well-meaning of white people will fall back on some form of anti-Blackness, racism, white supremacy—whatever you want to call it—if their priority is social peace and preserving the legitimacy of private property. ↩