RW188 - The Autonomous Zone

This week, Dan and John talk about:

The show title refers to

In Texas more and more people are sick after they opened up. Dan is all right, but he tries not to get anything anyway. In Seattle they had a complete overthrow of the local government and the institution of a new people's republic, which is exciting, and coronavirus is small potatoes compared to what they are doing out there.

Raw notes
The segments below are raw notes that have not been edited for language, structure, references, or readability. Please do not quote these texts directly without applying your own editing first! These notes were not planned to be released in this form, but time constraints have caused a shift in priorities and have delayed editing draft-quality versions to a later point.

The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (RW188)

There is a medium post called ”The Demands of the Collective Black Voices at Free Capital Hill to the Government of Seattle, Washington”, talking about free Capitol Hill and CHAZ, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. All of that is happening on the block where John lived for many years. He lived on 11th Avenue between Pike and Pine and the police barricade where cops and protesters were clashing night after night was 11th and Pine.

John’s apartment between Pike and Pine

If you walked out the door of John’s apartment and turned to the right you would see that intersection, and on the other side of that intersection one block further was the Western State Hurricanes band practice space. If you looked across the street you would see the building where The Stranger newspaper was published and there used to be a Value Village right next to it. If you turned left and went further the same block in the left direction you came to the place where The President of the United States of America practiced. That was John’s whole universe! There was an REI, the venue Neumos is around the corner, and one block down is the Comet Tavern, the bar where he drank at before he stopped drinking.

That little place is now considered the heart of Capital Hill, but at the time it was a wasteland on Friday nights, and now it is the center of the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone. The cops got themselves into a situation where they did what cops do, which is try to suppress the mob and make the protesters scared and very uncomfortable, both of which are designed to get them to disperse. The cops don't want to change your mind or convince you that your political beliefs are unfounded, they don't make speeches in situations like that, they just want you to disperse and the only methods they have at their disposal are fear and discomfort.

The WTO protests from 1999

They teargas you and after you have been teargassed all you want is to go home, which happened to John at that very intersection during the WTO protests night after night. The cops had put their tanks way more visibly forward back then, but it was the same cops, the same uniforms, the same billy clubs, just 20 years earlier. They fired those same bean bags and the same flash bang grenades, and John can’t see evidence that technology had changed at all. The difference was that the WTO conference was only a week long and the initial protests were Downtown, trying to physically impede the delegates from moving from their hotels to the conference center and back.

It was a big conference, delegates had come from all over the world, and the city had planned it to be the ultimate international economic con where they had delegates staying in really nice hotels, they had maps published where they were going to waltz from ballroom to ballroom, deciding opening up free trade between places and the nature of the protests was that globalization was uniformly bad for working people and these decisions were being made by people that they had not elected, Bill Clinton had put them into this world. Some of it is a libertarian argument, the argument from right and left, where: ”Wait a minute! Why are all of a sudden our workplace rules subject to an international governing body and who decided that? At what point are we no longer able to enforce labor laws because this treaty stipulates that that would be unfair competition to workers in India, Japan or China.”

There were a lot of people at WTO, it was like those French milk and butter protests where there are a lot of people with a lot of different goals in mind and they all came together and formed a week-long coalition of people that normally some of them wouldn't even get along, but they all agreed that WTO was not for them. The difference is that at the end of that week they had successfully disrupted the conference and it was an example of: ”Couldn't this have just been an email?” The WTO did not stop, bu it just went on email, but at the end of the week the protests were over because there wasn't anything left to protest.

The reason they were protesting at the East Precinct was that the cops teargassed then and brutalized them Downtown and then the protesters, after the conference was over for the day, nothing left downtown to protest, and everybody marched on the cops marched up to each precinct and they formed their barricade there and that was where the battles were.

The protests this time are targeted at the police

The difference this time is that there wasn't a conference to protest, it didn't end, and no one at the level of the city anticipated how tenacious the protesters would be. It is unprecedented! Back when the war in Vietnam happened and protests sparked all around the country and around the world, they didn't go away either, the boomers were very tenacious in protesting the war, and it turns out the Millenniums are extremely tenacious, too, maybe not coincidentally. The difference is that Generation X is almost defined by a lack of tenacity. They protested for a while and then they said: "Oh, man! Well, good job, everybody! Let's get out of here! It is cold!”

The cops spent the last two weeks trying to break the spirit of the protesters, tried to make them uncomfortable and scared and demoralized, but all it did was piss the protesters off more and at a certain point, probably not that far into it, the police and the mayor's office and the powers that be (?) all were sitting in a room wondering what their end game was if they couldn’t make them uncomfortable and scared enough that they would go away. There isn’t a plan other than to stop the protests and then go back to business as usual, or bring the protesters to the table and negotiate some kind of half-assed settlement with them.

That never takes the steam out of the 10% of protesters that are super-angry and super-energized, but the mayor's office wants to take the steam out of the 50% of the protesters that are just there for the weekend, the moms in tennis shoes and the Amazon dudes and people that are like: ”Ay, let's go protest! This is bullshit!”, but as soon as somebody is like: ”Well, tell you what: From now on we are going to paint rainbows on the sidewalks!”, that 50% of the people go: ”Oh, all right, we really did something today!”because they don't want to be there.

There was no plan B

That didn't work here, partly because the tenacity of the protesters was such that their demands were not easily mollified by an olive branch. The cops didn't really offer much of an olive branch. The protests were from the very beginning not against some WTO delegates or against the patriarchy, but it was literally directed against the cops, so what could the cops do? They can't give you any concession if your stated goal is eliminating the cops. They didn't have a fallback position, they just hadn't thought it all the way through, and it went into week three of the center of Capitol Hill being straight up shut down because there was a never-ending supply of people surrounding the police station.

The cops could not step back from those barricades because if they would be taking those barricades down, going into the police station, taking their helmets off, putting on their regular uniforms and trying to do business, all those protesters were picketing the police station, crowding around outside, banging trash can lids while the cops were in there, trying to right traffic tickets and bust shoplifters or whatever it is the cops do, investigate crimes. They couldn't do that and they couldn't chase the protesters away, so some genius came up with the idea that they were going to abandon the East Precinct and there was a lot of conspiracy happening that night, suggesting to let the protesters burn the East Precinct.

This is super-Machiavellian, but if that had happened, the police would have had no trouble doubling their budget for riot gear the following year, and none of the middle class people in the Seattle suburbs would let a bunch of hippies burn the police station down. The self-image of the police is that they are the victims here, and it would have really validated that they were the victims and the only thing that stands between this crazed mob and you middle class Seattle homeowner. They stepped away from the East Precinct, but it didn't burn down and now they can't go back and a very interesting thing happened.

Just like during the WTO, the people there on the barricades represented a coalition of different groups. The protests around the death of George Floyd started as a Black Lives Matter protest. The point of this in Minneapolis and as it spread around the country was that this was another death of a black man at the hands of the police department that was caught on videotape and it was so egregious that even people who up to this point at every one of these egregious deaths could have plausibly said: ”Well, if that guy didn't want to die at the hands of a police chokehold, he shouldn't have been stealing $0.10 cigarettes, or he shouldn’t have been wearing a hoodie or he shouldn't have been out at night or whatever!”, the apologists for police violence who want it to be a problem of black people not behaving well, could not deny that this guy had his knee on his neck for nine minutes. It was not even a question if that was appropriate to the crime. If George Floyd had been accused of of murdering his wife, to kneel on his neck for nine minutes is to kill a man, that is just not debatable.

Other groups trying to collect around Black Lives Matter

The protests started as Black Lives Matter protest and as it expanded out and went into week two, a thing that is very familiar to black people and black protesters and black intellectuals started to happen: The movement started to attract a lot of allies, who in fact had their own agendas that really don't have anything to do with Black Lives Matter. Those agendas of the other groups are their own, and those groups are sympathetic to Black Lives Matter, they want to make a coalition with them, but their goals are different.

Black Lives Matter is not an organized group, but a philosophy, a movement around an idea, and if you think of Antifa, which again is not an organized group so much as it is an organization around an idea, and then you think of the Democratic Socialists, which is a political party, and if you think about the other socialist factions that think that the Democratic Socialist Party is is too mainstream, they are political parties, and in a situation like this we come to see them as being, if not synonymous with one another, then all pursuing a common cause, but they don't have a common cause.

Black Lives Matter, if it had a five point plan or a set of demands, is not trying to start a Socialist revolution. The premise of that relationship from the Socialists perspective is that if there is a Socialist revolution, then Black Lives will matter and they are just going to hope that those guys take it on faith that the Socialist revolution is going to produce conditions in which Black Lives Matter, which seems super-obvious to socialists, and so they feel this common cause because they do believe Black Lives Matter and they want to be active in that space, but they also want to harness the power of Black Lives Matter anger to try to accomplish their own goals.

If someone whose primary political concern is Black Lives Matter could accomplish their goals within a capitalist system, they absolutely would, which is the point to a certain extent: More opportunity for black people in America, less political violence, less estrangements, less institutionalized racism, more economic opportunity. Black Lives Matter doesn't say: ”Let the workers gain control over the means of production!” The perspective of the Socialists is to make a world where police violence is eliminated, where institutional racism is rooted out and they see all that as a fait accompli once the Socialist revolution happens, but the primary goal is the Socialist revolution and black people are going to get their justice later after the revolution like everyone else will get justice like poor whites. The premise of the socialist revolution is that everyone's justice is coming.

These are strange bedfellows and what black intellectuals see a lot is that the anger and momentum of their movement is joined by a bunch of white people in the form of socialists, environmentalists, or liberal intellectuals, but then the demands of the movement become much more diffuse and they get diluted by the introduction of all these other demands.

The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone that started out as a protest about police brutality against black Americans became a protest about police brutality, became a protest about police control, became a protest against police as agents of capitalism, agents of enforcing the inequality, the intrinsic inequity of capitalism, and then became a protest against the police state. Now you have a neighborhood where the police got out of there because there wasn't a good outcome for them, but Black Lives Matter does not have a political apparatus that is interested in taking over the administration of a city.

Defunding the police

The idea of defunding the police is a tremendous idea. There has been a lot of writing about it, there is a lot of theory about it, there is a lot of experience at it, and it is a tremendous policy position with the right amount of momentum behind it. It is not about dissolving the police, but if you look at the typical city budget, compared to the amount of money that the city puts into daycare, mental health, food stamps and whatever else the budget that the cops get to buy tanks, helicopters, and machine guns is ludicrous relative to what their job should be, which is community policing, walking around, keeping people from breaking windows, responding when somebody’s cat gets stuck in a tree.

The Seattle Police Department should not be in a position to repel an invasion or to fight a five day long battle against insurgents. It is not what police are there for! They have all that equipment and they are going to use it. The cops in Seattle used to drive blue and white cars, and as time went on, those cars got less blue, a lot less white, more and more black, until now all Seattle cop cars are jet black with tinted black windows and black rims and murdered out. That has just happened in the last 20 years, and it is the face of the cops thinking of themselves as an elite unit of counter-insurgence, terrorists stoppers, instead of cops walking down the street, stepping in storefronts and going: ”Hey there, Jim! How's it going today?”, like regular part of the community people that are keeping people from littering.

Declaring an independent nation

The Capital Hill Autonomous Zone has zero to do with black lives, zero to do with black lives mattering, and if you read their signs and their manifestos, they are very careful to continue to use language of Black Lives Matter because they are savvy and recognize that if they publicly forget to mention that this all originated in a protest about a thing, not just George Floyd, but a national calamity, now you got Anarchists and Communists who are kids and who have roped off central Capitol Hill and declared it an independent nation. It is wonderful! There are free vegan tortas, people have set up tables where you can buy macrame plant holders and you can buy a copy of The Socialist Worker. John is headed down there today because he wants to walk around and see.

For a while it is going to be like Cristiana in Copenhagen, it even could last and be a kind of red light district or free zone. There is a neighborhood in Seattle called Fremont and in the 1970s, maybe the early 1980s, Fremont declared itself a nuclear freezone. No-one was going to build any nuclear weapons in Fremont, but they did it as a political statement, an act of resistance: ”Fremont is a nuclear freezone. You can't bring any nukes into Fremont!” and now it sounds totally ludicrous, but it seemed like an act of agitation at the time. It wasn't a punch line, but an art statement. There is a ship canal through Fremont and it is plausible that the Navy at some point brought a ship through there that had a nuke in it, and even though the town of Fremont was powerless to stop the Navy from doing that, it felt clever and the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone is maybe going to be that for this summer.

The people there in the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone are not capable of administering that neighborhood. They are not going to organize garbage collection, they are not going to fix the water pipe when it breaks, they can't run a city. but they are counting on the city continuing to exist and continuing to run. What they want to do is control the streets and it is probably not going to hurt anything. A group of impassioned people like that can do a good job of creating a tone on the streets where people help each other and where there is not mob rule. John doesn’t know what they are going to do the first time a group of five wilding teenagers come in there from the suburbs and start running through, tagging the storefronts and stuff, that is one of the interesting experiments about this kind of thing. In Cristiana what it ended up was that the whole neighborhood was was buried under 50 layers of tags.

Someone giving a speech to the Seattle Music Commission

When John was on the Seattle Music Commission, they had a meeting one time where the public came to give comments, and there were a couple of late middle-aged black ladies who had dressed well to come present in front of the city commission, and that wasn't always the case. People would come, give a little speech in front of the commission, and they intentionally were dressed down because they weren't gonna show respect to people at the city, but most people that came to give presentations, you could just see in their dress and their manner that they had come correct. They had come downtown, they were speaking to a city board, and they were paying respect, and these ladies clearly were showing that kind of respect.

The main lady got up and it is unclear why she decided that the Seattle Music Commission was where she was going to give this speech and she may have given it other places, too because the commission didn't have any authority or power to act on any of the things that she said, but what she said was: Black people achieved a lot during the Civil Rights Movement, but in the aftermath the idea of black people got turned into the idea of minorities that included everybody: Asians, Mexicans, people from India, Native Americans, and there are not black people anymore, but minorities, and that took all of the power that they had accrued during the Civil Rights Movement away from them.

Now you can hire an Asian person and that fulfills your quota for a minority, but when that legislation was passed they weren’t talking about minorities, but about black people. Then hey would achieve another victory for black people, but then it got turned into diversity, which means that you want someone from column A and someone from column B, but when they pass that legislation and fought for those rights, it was for black people because up until that point Asian people face their own discrimination, Mexican people face their own discrimination, gay people face their own discrimination, and those are legitimate discriminations and authentic and their own, but it is not the same as the discrimination faced by black people.

Every time they tried to address directly discrimination against black people specifically, what ends up happening is that that then gets applied to this general category of everyone that isn't white, and all that does from the perspective of black activists is once again steal their accomplishment and spread it around a bunch of people that weren't fighting for it, and that aren't suffering as badly as they are. At one level it was politically incorrect to give that speech in front of the Music Commission, but she was a veteran, she had been in the trenches, and it was fascinating to hear her perspective, which like a lot of perspectives that are very focused she didn't really want to hear about the problems that Asian people have in the workplace. Those guys have problems, so get a group of activists together and fight for your rights, but when they were fighting for their rights, in a situation where there should be more black people working there, hiring a bunch of Asian people doesn't solve that problem.

John thought about her ever since: Time and again protests on behalf of African-Americans, specifically protests where African-Americans stand up and fight for their own rights, the broader the coalition that jumps on board in the end, the less the black people get out of it because everybody gets a piece of it once they are in there and says: ”Yeah, also for us! While we are at it, we are also mad!”

John’s stance of when it is time to punch Nazis and when to tear the cops apart

The environmental movement and Black Lives Matter are not incompatible with each other. John believes that the future world will have less discrimination and also less pollution, but he is not as convinced as some that the socialist revolution is the thing that is going to come in and solve everybody's problems once we accomplish it, in the same way that he is not convinced that the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone is going to do a very good job of garbage collection. We are in this middle zone now where the tenacity impresses John the most.

A couple of weeks ago John said on Twitter that up until this point he had been pretty resolutely in the camp that punching Nazis was a bad plan, which was a shorthand for saying that his overall strategy to pursue politics is by non-violent means, that you are negotiating with people of similarly good faith, that the American legal system is flexible by design and that ultimately the real heroes of all of these fights end up being young lawyers who work 80 hour weeks to file injunctions. It is not a question of work within the system or work outside the system, but it is a strategy question.

When John said he is no longer against punching Nazis and he longer believes that the people on the other side are negotiating in goodwill, so this is a time to fight the cops, he got a strange number of weirdly condescending, gloating tweets from people who are obviously fans and who obviously are Millennials, the tone of which was that John had changed his mind or that he had finally gotten on board, that he had finally seen the wisdom of their ways and abandoned his Boomer reticence.

It is important to make it clear that John’s beliefs have not changed! When he was espousing non-violence and espousing an understanding of how lasting change gets built and maintained, it was not that he was in love with the cops or had a fear of violence or wasn't prepared to take it to the end zone or wasn't ready for the system to collapse, but that was bad strategy and it is still bad strategy now. It is just that there are times and moments where you have to hit the anvil with a hammer and that has always been true.

This is one of those moments where you tear the cops apart. This is a moment where the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone exists for three to seven months, maybe seven years, maybe three more days. John supports it, though, not because he thinks it is the future or because in cities around the world Antifa is going to run the government, but he supports it because it is a good strategy right now to move the crate of goods and services, the crate of plans, and move it further down the street and put it down again somewhere closer to where you want it to be.

The idea that through the murder of George Floyd somehow the scales fell from John’s eyes and all of a sudden he believed in rioting or believed in punching Nazis or cops or whatever and before I didn't, it is such a bad read because his convictions are exactly the same. He just recognizes that there are times to punch Nazis and there are times to not punch Nazis and he didn't think it was the time to punch them then and now he recognizes that this is a good time for punching Nazis. It doesn't represent that he suddenly saw the wisdom of free healthcare. The wisdom of free health care is not that complicated, it is just a question of how you do it, how do you get there, How do you move that crate down the street. You don't just stand in the street punching Nazis and screaming ”Free Healthcare!” and accomplish it.

We have not landed yet, we are just on the way of moving the crate further down the street

Right now the Democratic Party leaders put on Kunta Kinte cloth and John didn't read deeply enough into that article to even know what they were doing, but they are out there trying to do that. Joe Biden has his sunglasses on, but the world is still moving whether there is a Capital Hill Autonomous Zone or not. This is a time to punch Nazis and there will come a day when it is not time to punch Nazis anymore and punching Nazis is not in and of itself an ideology. It is a weird tone, saying the Bernie bro attitudes of two years ago have been vindicated in all this.

Maybe the full reflection and its accounting won't happen until two years from now when people who have lived through this will be able to see it as part of a continuum. There was the world as it was in 2014, there was the world as it was in 2018, there was the world in 2020, and then there is the world in 2024, and it is not until you see all of them laid out together that you see how all those pieces and parts work together and you find out where you land.

Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone and the defunding of the Minneapolis Police Department are not the end, it is not where we land, but it is where we are. We just hope that where we land further up the street than where we started and it is not necessarily so. The cops can still push back harder. The cops didn't go to sleep, they are somewhere right now super pissed, humiliated, licking their wounds, and cleaning their rifles. Bad things can still happen.

John is sitting here in Seattle and he is excited that that we are living through another period of tenacious action because good things do come as a result of this kind of moment. But what has happened right now has not vindicated anybody and we are not sure where we are going to land. What happens if the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone becomes a hotbed of COVID-19? Hopefully that is not what happens, but hopefully the climate change denying anti-gay megachurches of the Deep South are the ones that become coronavirus hotbeds if we have to pick one place, and not John’s beloved revolutionary enclave of CHAZ.

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