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All We Want Is a Space to Live

Seattle's autonomous zone shows us what truly public spaces could be.

For the past two weeks, Seattle demonstrators protesting widespread police brutality have waged, and won, a war of attrition against the Seattle Police Department, returning night after night to a dense area of streets around the SPD’s East Precinct in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

The police responded with overwhelming violence, drilling protesters in the chest with flash bang grenades, flooding streets with tear gas even after city officials tried to ban it, and charging crowds with batons and shields over and over again. At one point, a man drove a car into a crowd of protesters and then shot one of them when they attempted to stop him, before fleeing to police lines and surrendering peacefully. The protesters absorbed all of this pain and came back stronger, and on Monday, they won: the SPD abandoned the East Precinct, boarding up the windows and removing their equipment and files from inside.

The victory gave birth to something surprising, strange, and beautiful: as the police left, protesters moved in, turning the barricades that had denied them access to the city’s streets around to create a loose border around the precinct and surrounding streets. From the New York Times’ description of the space:

“This space is now property of the Seattle people,” read a banner on the front entrance of the now-empty police station. The entire area was now a homeland for racial justice — and, depending on the protester one talked to, perhaps something more.

What has emerged is an experiment in life without the police — part street festival, part commune. Hundreds have gathered to hear speeches, poetry and music. On Tuesday night, dozens of people sat in the middle of an intersection to watch “13th,” the Ava DuVernay film about the criminal justice system’s impact on African-Americans. On Wednesday, children made chalk drawings in the middle of the street.

Conservatives are, predictably, losing their minds. Donald Trump screamed at Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to “Take back your city NOW. If you don’t do it, I will,” calling the occupying protesters “ugly anarchists.” But in the zone itself, there is only peace. From the Seattle Times:

Neighbors living on Capitol Hill said Tuesday’s relative calm was a welcome reprieve.

“It has been a constant of sirens and helicopter noises,” said Sophia Lee, who lives about a block from the East Precinct, adding that it was a “relief” that violence subsided and she could walk home without fear of retaliation from the police for protesting.

Tear gas had leaked into neighbors’ apartment units, Lee said, and one night, “my entire face was burning” on a walk.

It’s unclear how long this will last. As the Seattle Times reported, past occupations of public space in Seattle have usually ended in arrests. Everyone in this new Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone knows their days there are numbered: it seems far too optimistic to believe this strange experiment will be allowed to remain. But as it stands, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone is the purest distillation of one of the largely unsung goals of the current uprisings: to reclaim physical space from the occupying force that disproportionately kills, maims, and oppresses black and brown Americans.

A protest in itself is a show of force. The success or failure of any given protest is always tied to how much space it can take up, usually through the sheer mass of bodies, but sometimes through tactics or behavior that extends the will of a group of people upon their surroundings. Looting, rioting — all of these things are reactions to a society that has imprisoned some of its members in certain parts of cities, kept them siloed and segregated in a cycle of poverty that pushes the fruit of their labor upwards to people who have more money and fairer skin. As author Kimberly Jones put it in a viral video about the protests: “So when they say, ‘why do you burn down the community, why do you burn down your own neighborhood?’ It’s not ours. We don’t own anything.”

If you want to understand how this system works, I think it’s helpful to look at how different groups of people occupy physical space. Every city and town in America has some sort of “public space.” This space — be it a small park or the National Mall — is administered by the government and considered public, in the sense that the government is a representation of the people. But the theory that these spaces are “public” only really works if the government that administers them actually represents you. Because I am a white person and white people control the government, I feel pretty confident going just about anywhere in New York City’s many public spaces at any time of day or night without consequences. But I can’t stop thinking about a video I saw a few months ago, where a young black man is detained, tackled, beaten, and arrested because an undercover police officer spotted him in a public park close to its closing hours.

White Americans got the mildest taste of this reality over the past few months, as the government leveled restrictions on how they could inhabit space due to the coronavirus pandemic. Almost immediately, the dumbest elements staged a small-scale national uprising, unable to suffer even a few months of the kind of physical restrictions that black and brown communities have faced on a societal level for hundreds of years. Their demands, it’s worth mentioning, were wildly different than those of the current protests: the reopen chuds, as Paul Blest put it for this blog a few weeks back, wanted back their gyms and hair salons and diners. Black and brown Americans lost all of those things as well in the pandemic, but didn’t take to the streets because of it, even though their communities were hit much harder by the disease than the angry suburbanites who brought guns to city halls because the Chili’s wasn’t open. The protesters now are not denying the risk of COVID-19— almost every single person I have seen on the street is wearing a mask, and groups often try to socially distance as much as possible given the circumstances. They’re accepting this risk not because the government has told them they cannot do CrossFit, but because the government has been shooting them in the street for centuries.

And yet, like the Occupy movement in the early 2010s, the protests are already being criticized for not having a clear goal. You can see this condescending attitude in the Times’ coverage of the Autonomous Zone:

The demonstrators have also been trying to figure it out, with various factions voicing different priorities. A list of three demands was posted prominently on a wall: One, defund the police department; two, fund community health; and three, drop all criminal charges against protesters.

But on a nearby fence, there was a list of five demands. Online was a list of 30.

This is a misreading of the situation. The movement ignited by the police murder of George Floyd has a very simple demand: for black and brown Americans to live in a world where they are not routinely killed or subjugated by the state. The fact that there’s no easy roadmap to making this change is not an indictment of the movement, but rather a damning critique of how the existing system is explicitly designed to keep this unjust arrangement in place.

Seattle’s Autonomous Zone, then, is useful as a small look at what that new world could be. In a tiny area of the country, all of that red tape no longer seems to apply. Free from police, the people there have created what appears to be a true public space, one not constrained by curfews or cops. They pass out free food and share medical supplies. On Tuesday, protesters even took the Seattle City Hall building, marching into the local seat of government and making it an actual public space for the first time in years.

Unlike the smaller groups of protesters who stormed government buildings during reopen protests, the Black Lives Matter crowd was unarmed and nonviolent. They kept each other safe through their collective will and their numbers. There’s no reason that enough of us can’t do the same thing with the whole country.

Picture via Twitter.