Seattle’s Autonomism – NOT Interview

The following is an unpublished interview I did for Nero Editions concerning the events of the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.” Worth noting that my perspectives have shifted quite substantially since then, but I thought I might as well post it here for post-erity.


1) Let me start with the most pressing question: how are you?  

 

What a wonderful question to open with. I’m exhausted, physically but especially mentally, and I must admit that for me participation in these events has only made that virulent “leftist” fatalism so many of us are familiar with all the more present. It’s all quite overwhelming. But it’s also invigorating, it’s easy to get bogged down in the sense of one’s own naiveté, but there is existential satisfaction to be had here for those with so-called radical politics. Given the chaos of current events it is also just something to do, something worthwhile, certainly personally and, perhaps, politically. I suppose this is mostly me trying to put a good face on it. It’s a bit of a tangled nightmare in the recesses of my cranium right now, I’m fortunate that the situation involves plenty of distraction. Honestly this conversation is a nice opportunity for me, because I’ve been running into an implacable wall trying to write about it or even articulate my thoughts at all really, and not for lack of trying.

 

2) Saying that there’s a riot in Seattle feels like a truism. It surely has something to do with the cultural imprint people born in the mid-90s like me have received from what we could call mainstream counter-cultural. The Seattle riots in 1999 are, for an emo teen who grew up listening to (in retrospect, extremely politically questionable) songs about how the WTO killed farmers and reading how we reclaimed the streets, almost a mythical event – one of the first encounters with the duplicitous eroticism of riot-porn. When the news broke of the appearance of an autonomous zone in the heart of Seattle, these mythical tales of fire and destitution came back to me. They were, I believe, a faithful testimony of our collective relationship with revolt and political autonomy: on one hand, we hallucinate a more-than-historical past of wars, victories and defeats, but, on the other, we recapitulate the deep roots of our present unrests. What is the actual history of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (from now on, CHAZ)? How did it come about and, why? How does it relate to Seattle, the Black Lives Matter movement and, more generally, if you want to widen the scope, other movements of collective autonomy like the Gillet Jaunes, rave culture’s T.A.Z.s or the Italian Autonomia

 

This is quite validating honestly because living here all you can see or feel or taste–except in the unworked natural landscape itself–is the weight of neoliberal capital, in perhaps its most rarefied form. Insofar as silicon valley is an emergent empire rather than a region in California, this is one of the first colonies. But it’s true that there has always been a core of uniquely disaffected people out here, it’s interesting that you bring up rave culture because that is very much the context I sit in, and while I tend towards negativity about the explicitly political aspect of all that, our community–a word that a few weeks ago I might have said was a bit generous–has really been showing its spirit. After being split apart for a time by the pandemic, we appear to have spontaneously become a (relatively) organized direct action collective, in spite of the fact that many of us–with a few notable exceptions–have minimal political experience outside of your run of the mill protest or march. While I do not like to pretend that dancing in sweaty warehouses to cruelly minimalist techno and all the rest has any intrinsic political value in and of itself, it is no coincidence that my community, conscious of where this music came from, has been so thoroughly galvanized by these latest developments in the history of black liberation. I think this is more relevant to our politics, and the politics of the “autonomous zone”, than for example Hakim Bey; indeed the history of radical politics in America is largely integrated into the history of the civil rights movement, in ways that I suspect are not entirely obvious to non-Americans. I don’t want to go too crazy getting into this in the grand and theoretical sense (not least because my self-confidence is not exactly thriving), but here is my take on what brought me and mine to this point in the short term.

 

Needless to say western Washington leans left, and the recent history of the USA (and indeed the rest of the world) has obviously been quite troubling, not just for the ruthless idealists like myself but also for the massive majority of broadly apathetic liberals that call this place their home. There has been a constant process of at least marginal “radicalization” that reached a fever pitch these last weeks. Liberals moving left, and leftists moving in. After George Floyd’s murder there was a relatively bombastic riot here (as in many cities across this damaged country, and now in many countries beyond) and the protests that began in the days following got very big very quickly, in spite of almost no centralized large-scale organization, as is the way of things these days. The physical focus of the marches and protesting became the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) East Precinct, which sits in Capitol Hill, a highly gentrified, but historically countercultural area. Things basically gathered steam from there, and I think it is clear that escalating measures on the part of the SPD, including excessive use of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, flashbangs etc. simply kept the moment surging. As mentioned, it has all been extremely disorganized on the ground. It is mostly assumed that the police withdrawal was a tactic to incite violence and destruction from the protestors. There are a great many people of largely liberal persuasion making up the core body particularly of the very much ongoing protest movement around the city, as well as plenty of more niche far-left types that have been coming out of the woodwork as things have developed. The political sentiment among the average protestor is by-and-large entirely in line with the goals of black liberation as represented ideologically by the “black lives matter” movement, if not always by the Black Lives Matter organization. It’s also important to note that the SPD has been under federal investigation for police brutality, racial profiling, and corruption for almost a decade. Somewhat counterintuitively (Seattle is a very white and a prosperous and increasingly affluent city) we are home to one of the most undisciplined and excessive policing organizations in a country infamous for its undisciplined and excessive policing. One crucial moment during the protests that precipitated the CHAZ was when the city announced a thirty day ban on the use of teargas. The police department teargassed us just two days later.

 

I think you’re hitting the nail on the head with the hallucinatory nature of this symbolic historicity, especially for critical (theory) people. It’s not a transcendental circle anymore, it’s a spiral, moving outwards, and we still don’t know quite what to do with it. Currently it is honestly a bit too depressing trying to connect things up with the rich history of 20th century (and earlier) radical political history. In a sense the ideas of Italian Autonomy or perhaps the Situationist International are very much in play, but I think it does those historical movements a disservice to draw positive comparison. Perhaps that is the hallucination speaking. I don’t know quite enough of the dynamics surrounding the gilets jaunes, but the 2020 Seattle protests strike me as a similar movement in a place that, as you point out, shares a history of general unrest, often disorganized and belligerent. One of the unambiguous themes of the 21st century so far has been the seemingly inexorable deterioration of any particularly tangible or functional practices of radical political organization, as exemplified in the Occupy movement, and that malaise certainly hangs over all of this. Still it is nice to see so many fellow travelers of such a diversity of persuasions, political and otherwise, hanging out in the sun and rain and trying to help each other (and everyone else). Make no mistake–this neighborhood in the middle of the city is currently lawless (and overwhelmingly peaceful so far) in a non-trivial sense. It won’t last, it isn’t freedom, but it’s a rare thing to many. This era of unrest isn’t going away, we might as well settle in.

 

3) Still talking about how we hallucinate and recapitulate revolts, let me ask you your thoughts about our Extremely Online more-or-less-Comrades phase analyses. As you surely know, a lot of people have had a lot of opinions about the CHAZ. As far as I can see, the debates tend to polarize into two main schools of thought, with various, and, frankly, more and more insignificant, offshoots.  On one hand, many people rehashed the infamous Zizekian question, which has haunted the left at least since the Occupy movement: “what happens after the revolution?” or, in this case, “what happens after the autonomous zone?”. The axiom beneath this position being: “what are we going to do without a strong vanguard Party guiding us forward?”. The implicit answer is, of course, bitter failure. On the other hand, we find, as the dialectical opposite of this position, an absolute, nihilist refusal of all future project, collapsing onto an almost theological fervour which considers the, possibly fleeting, present autonomy as the only viable or possible goal of the CHAZ. It doesn’t matter if the autonomous zone gets dismantled, if it had destitute State authority for a while it was the best we could hope for all along. Setting aside the sterile debate about which strawman of mine is right, it feels like this sort of discourse falls flat onto the all-too-familiar leftist melancholia: the question which we find ourselves confronted by from the very beginning is not whether we’ll “win” or not, but when and how we’ll fail. It looks a lot like what a dear friend of mine called the Oedipo-communist complex, a psychological deadlock which makes us either yearn for the paternal guidance of the Party or kick and scream in an angsty refusal of it. What is, in your opinion, the future of the CHAZ? What should we do with our chronic pessimism? What is its relation to the State and, more generally, our present predicament? Will it be dismantled? Will it become an institutionalized, anaemic “summer of love”, fulfilling our melancholic tendencies? Or is it going to remain a site of political resistance? 

 

I believe you’re referencing a tweet from our loathsome mayor with the “summer of love” bit, and she does seem to be increasingly taking a stance (her position in office is after all currently directly threatened due to the excesses of our police department) that seems to imply she will deal with it by leaving it alone and waiting for it to fall to one “problematic” narrative or another. This could be a tragedy that instantly gives the authorities justification to suppress the area, or it could be the rapid collapse of the politicized protest momentum into a sordid block party type of affair that has shown itself to be a cheap game for middle class liberals, thoroughly and entirely recuperated in short order. Funnily enough, this same general area hosts a highly mediocre annual music festival literally called Capitol Hill Block Party, so the assimilation of the concept of the CHAZ (terrible name by the way, imagine how different the Extremely Online narrative would be had it been called the Capitol Hill Autonomous District) by the concept of the CHBP is already very much a threat. Either of these would be devastating and I expect one of these things to happen, probably the latter. It is hard to dwell on. I am glad you’ve already referenced the chronic pessimism for me, because I could fill a dozen pages with it for every day of the last few weeks. But I actually can talk about what we can do with it, in light of my being involved in all of this. That the current condition of the CHAZ is very much transient is clear and was totally inevitable. However, what is sweeping the US now has already shown signs of significant political activity at the policy and legislative level. It remains to be seen what could substantively come out of that, I have my doubts given the utter agential devastation that is the US political establishment. Things are very up in the air. There are as many theories and desires for what happens next–and what concrete victories can be drawn from this moment–as there are individuals involved.

 

But let’s move off this tonal posture. Frankly, I think that anything I might say at this point is simply fodder to be ripped apart by the armchair nihilists, so I’m going to say it anyway. The chronic pessimism is often the only thing stopping people from getting “politically” engaged in direct ways, indeed it is the very excuse that many people give themselves so that they can simply capitulate to what is really just a basic lack of motivation and agency that is well known to be a feature of the affective and ideological character of advanced capitalism. This has been true of me, it has been true of many, many of my dear friends and colleagues, it is a pervasive and endemic feature of the social environment of this modern world. While this eruption in Seattle has not washed it away it has very much suspended it for those involved, and the view from here is now quite different. I think these events involve a disruption in the normal order of people’s lives to such a degree that, at least here, the intensity of open political conflict is not going to dissipate soon. Given that the extreme disorganization of this movement so far is on display for all to see, both on the ground and behind the keyboards, I think the question of collectivized political agency–whether that means vanguardism, or any of a million other subtypes of what revolutionary politics is “supposed” to look like in practice–is being waved very urgently and tangibly in everyone’s face for the first time in a very long time. Not only that, but the reality of what material events give rise to this shared apprehension of disorganization and potential–in this case, large-scale extended protests that evolve (or devolve, depending on your point of view) into provisional occupations. Personally I think these events are evidence that autonomism and situationism are still very much relevant and practiceable forms of radical political activity, and through those ideas lies the channel back to whatever mythical kind of anti-liberal vanguard party politics the staunchest orthodox commie conceives. I like very much how you characterize the two basic positions here, our familiar straw men. I would say to the anarchist that failure to refine immanent forms of organization (that will necessarily have some significant loci of centralization) is a betrayal of the ideals of any given movement in and of itself. I would say to the communist that the party is not going to materialize to save you, you have to make it, and perhaps, given the lack of workable options, the first step is to buy a gas mask, get basic first aid training, and go find a loose-knit group of people you respect to stand with in the streets. I guarantee you the discourse is better than on twitter. Perhaps not as entertaining, but better. The problem with anarchism is that political activity cannot remain reactive forever and achieve lasting victories, the problem with communism is that no one knows how to actualize it here in the crucible of advanced Spectacular capitalism.

 

Ultimately, given the situation in America, I think this eruption is a minor prelude to November (our federal election) and who knows what beyond that. For me and many of the people I am around right now, manning the barricades or picking up trash or cooking food or passing out hand sanitizer–people who were just days ago being shot at with rubber bullets and teargas canisters–this is above all something that must be normalized. Seattle is in an odd socioeconomic situation because it is full of a very large class of wealthy tech workers whose jobs can easily be done remotely, and who have no real conception of the extreme economic catastrophe impacting so many people’s lives in the wake of the immunological crisis we are all swept up in. Seattle has an extreme homelessness crisis that has been deepening for decades, following in the footsteps of San Francisco. Many of those occupying the CHAZ are jobless, many believe there is no meaningful political agency to be had beyond the immediate relations and authorities, police, landlords, councilmembers and so forth. Part of that chronic pessimism is the awareness that things are deteriorating, that, in the words of Phil Neel, “something is rolling towards us in the darkness, and the world can end in more ways than one.” The operation of the pessimism is to defuse the need to react to this deepening sense of fear and uncertainty, to cast it away as naïve sensationalism, to barricade oneself and keep it at a distance, usually with a criminally boring mixture of post-post-post-irony and winking narcissism.

 

But all that aloofness is going to evaporate when this comes knocking. It is patently incoherent to believe that technological acceleration is catapulting us towards collapse (or untheorizable transformation) while continuously telling ourselves that the structure of the current model is totally impermeable. Remember when “acceleration” was an opportunity, not just an excuse? That’s the difference, whether or not you want to be active in your own political life, in whatever way you can, in spite of all this disorientation, alienation, and disenfranchisement. I can tell you, as someone who is wrapped up in a spontaneous faux-anarchist uprising that was incubated in a pandemic and catalyzed by televised injustice, an emergent collection of actors that reacted by further upturning the already massively disrupted operations of this large, wealthy city–a city that is at the tip of the spear of the neoliberal and technocapitalist project–that this kind of mess is coming your way too, in some form, at some time not too distant. Just because try as you might you cannot conceive of what an alternative model might look like, what egress might look like, doesn’t mean you can’t take an active stance trying to bring it about, at whatever scale is available for you to operate at.

 

4) The relationship between the CHAZ and the internet does not end with these sterile debates, though. In what feels like a fever dream stream of consciousness, a lot of scattered factoids started to trickle down towards us, the on-lookers and the critique, about what was happening there, and it was a baffling stream. First, we heard that the debates within the CHAZ were verging solely on its flag, or something along that line. Then, we started receiving news about a Soundcloud rapper-turned-warlord, armed and ready to strike. Lastly, we found out that the CHAZ was extorting and harassing local businesses. Could you talk a little about this online folklore? What happened? Are there some kernel of truth to any of these stories? 

 

I can elaborate on all of this fairly substantially. Not sure what’s going on with the flag, as I understand it that is coming out of the subreddit, and from what I’ve heard the admins of the subreddit are (somewhat predictably) residents who are not directly participating in the events in the zone. Frankly I don’t particularly care. Raz, the “warlord” was “deposed” by the time all that even hit the internet. By deposed I mean some people had a chat with him and he took a backseat. I haven’t seen him since. It is impressive that one fairly minor altercation on the first night turned into this warlord story, but then many of these extreme narratives have originated from very questionable accounts and sources, from what I’ve seen, before they’ve blossomed far and wide. From where I’m standing, it’s a staggering example of what spectacle can accomplish with just a little nudging. It seems that the warlord narrative, which is comically over the top, relied on the idea that Raz was the only individual with a firearm in the area. This is extremely untrue, this is America after all, and America has a rich contingent of gun-loving socialists and leftists. This story in particular is so at odds with the reality that I can’t help but find some humor in it. This leads us nicely into the extorting thing. I can’t tell you exactly what the chicken or egg is here, but those rumors have been debunked by the Seattle Times (a publication that leans neoliberal to the point of being openly conservative). Incidentally that is not to say that every resident and business has spontaneously become a subject of the revolution, there are undoubtedly those who feel highly inconvenienced and critical of the situation on the basis of very valid pragmatic concerns. Nevertheless the SPD was the originator of the rumor, and the SPD released a statement retracting their accusation, saying that their source was unvetted news media, because it was simply so falsifiable. There was another related rumor, also boosted by the SPD, claiming there were armed checkpoints at the barricades and that people were being charged money to enter the CHAZ. Both of these, especially the latter, are ridiculously easy to falsify as there is now a great deal of coverage and footage of the area floating around online, and both are quite clearly at odds with the way things are actually being run. So far local businesses have been surprisingly supportive, given the situation. Another rumor that went around quite a bit has actually been proven to be a photoshop job (carried out by certain bad actors of a froggy complexion) which is that homeless people “stole” all the food. Of course, feeding the city’s large homeless population is part of the point, and that operation has been productive so far. But such an event never occurred. It feels a bit futile fighting all this utterly bad faith misinformation, but here is some further anecdotal counterpropaganda, if this is the game we’re playing.

 

We have had a steady stream of free food and water going since inception, much of which is going to underprivileged people. Some of us have started planting crops in the park, which is a cute if probably symbolic gesture. Tents and cots are popping up, many for transient and homeless people. Seattle, incidentally, has a homelessness crisis that would likely seem absolutely staggering to most Europeans. There are a lot of medical professionals on site (really a lot–the University of Washington is a national hub for medical research and education) not to mention many less skilled people like myself carrying medical supplies on their person just because it became fairly standard practice during the violent stages of the protest. The atmosphere is peaceful and generally calm. There are people at the barricades 24/7 and that operation is becoming increasingly organized. Aside from a photo op and press release from the police chief the morning of the 11th at the abandoned east precinct, there has been no police presence whatsoever. We have been working with the fire department as well as establishment medical dispatches to make sure they can come and go easily if necessary. It is far from perfect, but the imperfections currently lie at the political, organizational, and agential level. So far black voices, demands, and causes, along with the related goal of police demilitarization and abolition, remain centered in the realm of political activity, contrary to claims of co-option by opportunistic white anarchists and indulgent block parties (although the latter is certainly a threat to both what we’re trying to accomplish here and the narrative the world latches onto). To be blunt, the reactions I’ve witnessed to this explosion of misinformation, among such a large variety of commentators across the entire spectrum of the digital spaces and mediums I inhabit, have thoroughly disabused me of the value and credibility of many intellects and accounts in my purview.

 

5) It would be impossible to talk about any social gathering in 2020 without talking about the ongoing pandemic. The riots, after all, have started within the long shadow of a possible second wave of Covid-19 infections. How has this affected the CHAZ? Are you worried that the viral ghost could come back to haunt this political project, especially in the light of the coming economic disruption? 

 

I am massively worried. This has been top of mind for all of us, in the most immediate terms my worries are unsurprisingly for the health of my friends and others involved. But of course it is so much larger than that. It is also not lost on us that continued occupation of this space is important and many of those who have been most active these last couple weeks may be suffering and quarantined in the near future. My specific community of people took social distancing quite seriously before this all broke, and the extremely conflicting logic and dissonance of these decisions, social and then political, is not lost on us. It’s something we have actually strategized around, as there are plenty of support tasks to be done from home, so hopefully our group at least will be able to rotate underexposed people in should some of us fall sick. Given that Seattle in general has also been quite keen to adhere to social distancing practices, things are really being handled as well as possible in the CHAZ. People take shifts going around doling out hand sanitizer to folks in the area, there is an enormous surplus of free masks, and those same people make efforts to encourage everyone around them to wear one. There are very, very few unmasked faces, and people seem to almost instinctively try to maintain as much distance as possible from one another.

 

As for the economic disruption, I have to be honest, it doesn’t seem to carry much import compared to these other things, especially because it is just the steepening of a trendline we have been on for over half a century. That’s a blasé commie take I know, of course many of my friends and peers being unemployed is frustrating, of course the deteriorating economy has material impacts on our lives, of course this is not and can never be about economic collapse theorized as some liberating force. But like these uncoordinated, wildfire protests, the instability of the economy is simply the consequence of a failing system. I hope that the pandemic will at least make the conflict of interest between human welfare and the current economic model so obvious, even to the most disinterested observer, that we will have more voices of dissent to work with. Frankly I don’t see any world on the other side of Covid-19 that has not been substantially altered, across many registers, to the sole benefit of capital, as quietly and efficiently as ever. The burning questions in my mind are how many people notice, and how many people take action. How many people have little to lose, or how many people will give themselves to the abstract idea that things could be better, if we finally chose to make them so. A lot of norms that protect the integrity of a healthy spectacle are changing or disappearing, at the same time that economic disparity is accelerating. All of this relies on a sufficiently large majority of people who simply do not notice because it does not significantly impact their at least modestly affluent lives. It is unsettlingly likely that the pandemic will be used to disguise many severe concessions that capital might force us to make in the coming years, swallowed up and accepted by that listless majority, but there is also the potential that all of these intensities blooming at once may erode some of the hypnotic power the spectacle exerts on all of us, activating, in the service of insurrection, as large a proportion of the population as we have seen this side of the millennium.

 

6) Are there any other things you would like to tell us about this event?  

 

This is Seattle circa 2020. Gentrification was baked into this “autonomous zone” before it even existed, co-option and recuperation were immanent to every moment of its event. I guarantee you these will be core themes of the criticisms we see going forward, and as ever there is a kernel of truth to them. This is to invoke, again, that chronic pessimism. But the topics and conclusions of the various critiques of commentators on twitter and elsewhere are distant memories in the discursive swell of my particular group of beloved weirdos who are actually here, wrapped up in this, these conceptual and ideological problems rose and began to untangle themselves promptly as things evolved. For those of us here, in realtime, even if the moment of true alterity is passed, all that has really changed are the narratives. The Zone is still here, and for us, co-option didn’t actually happen until day two. At the moment of its inception, and indeed in the most violent, intensifying moments of the sustained protests leading up to that point, it was a view from somewhere else. What this event has already accomplished is the non-trivial activation of civilian agents–subjects if you prefer, identities, actants, whatever framework you like–in various degrees and in various manifestations, but in all cases as intensification. To a more minor extent this involves the spectators as well, but of course in that case we are talking about the spectacle, and then nothing I say can transcend that chronic pessimism. But the pessimism is itself predicated on the idea that deterioration is going to find its way into the materiality of your life sooner or later. When it does, ideology will not be a jigsaw puzzle you tinker with for the satisfaction of your online identity. Whatever your political leanings, when real alterity reaches you, you will need it to act accordingly. I cast my lot, at least for this fleeting moment now passed, and that moment felt like triumph, so I am going to act accordingly. The substance of the moment, in the form of mutual aid, lawlessness, political pressure, and, unfortunately, fame, is still here, for now, however transient. The afterimage of the view from somewhere else remains, and there is much to be done.

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