Geopolitical strife has been on the rise on the Puget Sound landscape. Seattle’s unfixable housing crisis displaces low-income folk and people of color farther away from their homes; the cohorts of Amazon, Google, and Microsoft swoop in with placeless high-rises. Completely dispossessed residents face the street, tents, and the Seattle Police Department’s sweeps and seizures. In Tacoma, Puyallup Tribe members and environmental affinity groups demonstrate against the looming natural disaster of Puget Sound Energy’s liquid natural gas plant. In Olympia, a blockade stood for two weeks on the city’s rail to defy the transport of fracking proppants through the city’s port.
Before my involvement in the geopolitical, I acquainted myself with groups who organized themselves around identity or political ideology; the more time I spent with these groups, the more I became alienated from my place in my own anti-capitalist struggle. Folks seemed set on liberating POCness instead of dissembling race as a tool used to dehumanize and oppress; some groups liberate womanhood, queerness, and transness instead of deleting the reified abstractions of gender and sexuality altogether. Dem-socialists, commies, and anarchists corral folks under a flag, as if a religion, fighting for socialism, communism, anarchism, the Left, fighting as if ideology were an end and not merely one of many means towards a better world.
As someone who identifies as second-gen Southeast Asian, queer, of financial privilege, as an anarchist, I don’t see my identity as important – it’s not real. It hardly tells anyone who I am or what my unique relationship to capitalism is. Maybe it’s my privilege talking, maybe I’m pretentious, maybe I’m just jaded.
Yet I’ve found a certain arousing magic to the geopolitical struggles up here in the Sound. When I first entered the Olympia blockade back in November, I was taken aback by the constructed sense of place – fairy lights and tea candles, a well-stocked kitchen, a blaze-it space, reading material, and sleeping spaces (its facade was a precarious mishmash of tarps and political slogans, but that’s besides the point). The blockade attracted local punks, college kids, homeless folk; a travelling kid from the East Coast found his way into the blockade. Gradually the blockade’s overarching politics (however so individually defined) ebbed, uncovering the fun of everyday occupation life. A tiny kid and I jumped around into the sunset; a bunch of us roasted marshmallows on the barrel fire; a group discussion on blockade needs yielded “laundry, dish soap, sleeping bags” and “musical instruments and an end to capitalism.” The anxiety of an always-tonight raid by Olympia and state police loomed, but the blockade never stopped being fun.
Tangible direct action is one secret to the magic. Occupations, even if only ephemeral, seize back tangible spaces and lands appropriated by capitalist forces, in this case the Port of Olympia, and return it to the sovereignty of the land’s most important stakeholders: us and the people and lands we value.
But why such a fixation upon land?
Capitalism finds its power in the geopolitical. Capitalism needs land bases, property lines drawn and enforced by law and police – it needs entire mountainsides of pines to destroy for the timber market, it needs a chemical-pumping factory to process its raw materials, it needs a warehouse from which to trade. Capitalism destroys even the common lands, eroding ecosystems and health worldwide with pesticides, industrial reagents, and sulfurous oxides. States need borders to manage the flux of bodies, so that security industries can profit off detention centers and border militarization, so that “illegal” immigrants work lower wages to earn their employer’s fingers-crossed promise of no-tell, so that the brown undesirables stay out of the country… the list doesn’t end.
But just like capitalism, we and our radical movements find strength in the geopolitical, in the construction and fostering of defiantly autonomous spaces. We need spaces to grow our food, spaces to live and relax, spaces to congregate. Yet as much as capitalism leads one to believe, land is not just a resource to be fashioned into structures: land forms the base of the resilient relationships and friendships implicated in the word “community”. Here too is the magic of occupations. In less noteworthy circumstances, the first blip of a relationship begins with conversations about the weather, traffic, and other local geographical particularities. As a kid, my few friendships blossomed because we shared not only neighborhoods, classrooms, and parks, but because we shared them over time. Now 20 and anxiety-ridden, it still comes relatively easily to converse with folk in the space of a blockade or occupation; it yet comes easy when we’re partaking in the same occupation, the same community potluck, the same garden. It’s no surprise that the etymology of the word “comrade” (according to Wiktionary) is the Latinate camarata, meaning room or chamber mate.
The autonomous spaces we build take many different forms, but what matters is that they are the unique invention of us and our friends. In a time when capitalism homogenizes places and localities into placeless industries like ports, fast food franchises, prisons, and eerily similar “modern” microstudio complexes, we will find strength in the construction of the place, a hyperlocal, highly personal, convergence of people and land. For those who prefer the pastoral, I imagine picturesque, rural, self-sustaining communes built on gently sloping mountainsides blanketed with deciduous broadleafs. In urban areas, I imagine democratic co-ops and group houses, obscure congregation spaces for anarchists and other radicals; even Left Bank Books in Downtown Seattle serves as an infoshop for the radical scene here. Graffiti reclaims spaces for art and performance; both leftists and rightists poster, sticker, and tag public spaces to symbolize reclamation. Your favorite bank-under-the-bridge to blaze up at is just as autonomous as the Olympia blockade.
Radicals must prioritize holding these spaces dear, especially in places like Seattle where rising rent and gentrification threaten to dehouse entire movements. In sharing these spaces and their experiences, relationships among people and land, and eventually movements, gather momentum and build resiliency.
While taking back land from the capitalistic forces that strip history, place, and context, even for the ephemeral occupation, is satisfying as hell, the geopolitical remains the personal, the local – the search for one’s land is just as crucial as its defense. Finding one’s home, a place not only autonomous for everyone but for oneself, is always a journey. Even to understand what makes one’s home a home is a journey, one that I undertake day-to-day.
I used to think that home lay in the things of a place, its trees, its animals, maybe a favorite lake, but when I visit my rural Central Florida hometown, I am reminded this is far from the case. In terms of environment my hometown ranks as top in the country; the region is home to beautiful, largely endangered Florida scrub ecosystem. The palmettos resound like shaken poster-paper upon the scurry of a gopher tortoise; bald-cypresses buttress a swampy cathedral; in autumn pine cones release their samaras and they come twirling golden to Earth… yet while an extraordinarily comfy region, I cannot participate in a dialogue with a tree. I am only a passive observer to an art here.
Then I thought home lay in the people of the place, and while closer to my truth, it wasn’t quite there. When I visited Chicago last summer, every night I was reconnecting with an old friend or attending an obscure DIY show whose address was buried deep in Facebook friends-of-friends-of-friends; my favorite was a city folk punk show, kids strumming guitars and playing cellos, chanting about self-deprecation and big tobacco and “getting out of this city.” Chicago’s DIY scene was a geographical particularity like the Florida scrub, a stochastic occurrence of individuals, buildings, and time. Yet I was a passive observer to the DIY scene as I was to the Florida scrub; I reified “the scene” into an object of entertainment, a Chicago-specific amenity. I chatted a conversation easy enough with folks there, but it’s not like I was collaborating or performing with any individual there.
In the same summer I visited Detroit and realized that the true home was an ecology, a web of relationships with people and things. My first day in Detroit I relied on Slingshot’s Radical Contact List to find the radical scene – with it I found the institutions of the Trumbullplex, Back Alley Bikes, and the Universe Intentional Organization, attended a few shows and parties, and that was that. But I also happened to stumble upon a block of run-down burnt-out colorfully painted houses one afternoon; a sign proclaimed the block the Fireweed Universe-City, a squatting community. I lost my manners and wandered into a house asking if I could chill the night – the folks I talked to were so nice I stayed around for three weeks!
Much like protest-occupations, squatting’s lifestyle geopolitical re-appropriation was enticing, but like the Olympia blockade, the politics faded as I started to form relationships with the area and the people. I took a very mutual affinity with two of the neighborhood kids, biking them around the area and carrying them on my shoulders into their home when they fell asleep on the ride back. Days I read or worked in gardens and urban farms around Detroit, nights I blazed, snacked, and chatted around bonfires. While not a perfect ideal – drama abounded and Midwest winters were brutal – it was very much a resilient ecological web that, if I stayed longer, I could probably call home myself.
Spinning your own ecological web is what makes a space your place. Fostering a relationship with the land and with its people makes a place so much more dearer to defend – you can lose things, you can lose people you hardly know, but when you’ve formed an art and a friendship, fuck, what do you do if you do lose it? Find your own land, root and enter the ecology and seize it back from an exploitative, homogenizing capitalism and all its devices however you know how, squats, occupations, co-ops, communes, communities. We find strength in the geopolitical, because the geopolitical is the personal.