Why is this interesting? - The Autonomous Zone Edition

On Amsterdam, CHAZ, and anarchists

Anita Schillhorn van Veen (ASVV) is a friend of WITI and has a few other WITIs under her belt (Climate Tourism & Utopias). She’s an independent strategy consultant with Frame Strategy, based in LA and New York, and writes her own newsletter, which you can read here.

Anita here. In the early 2000s, I lived in Amsterdam, a city with a history of embracing counter-culture and bucking the status quo. While there, I fell in love with squatter culture. In the US this might conjure a vision of down-and-out punks squatting abandoned buildings, like in Penelope Spheeris’s 1983 film Suburbia. But in Amsterdam, it meant something wholly different.

The laws were so protective of tenants that if you kept a piece of furniture in a building for a certain amount of time, it was enough to prove occupancy and stay there, rent-free. So, fueled by a philosophy of anarchy, anti-government rule, and pro-communal rule, Amsterdam’s squat movement was born. In uninhabited schools, hospitals, and apartment buildings, squatters built a culture antithetical to what they saw as the capitalist system. Squats offered free or low-cost housing and community for teachers, artists, refugees, and others. There were restaurants that served low-cost meals to everyone from food critics to the homeless. There were film theaters that showed radical documentaries and old movies. There were venues where bands played, DJs spun, and people like me ran literary events. There were radio stations and television studios, and there was even a squatted sauna, which was a clean, cheap, warm escape from the rainy Amsterdam winters. 

As Amsterdam has become absorbed into the European Union, some of its edge has been sanded away by regulations, with squatting named as a criminal offense in 2010. And as it’s become wealthier, the punk ethic that was the lifeblood of the squat movement has faded.

The Snake building in the center of Amsterdam, squatted since 1983, was converted into luxury apartments in 2016. Photo Credit: What’s Up with Amsterdam

Why is this interesting?

Many squatters revered the controversial Hakim Bey, an anarchist philosopher/poet, and an early acolyte of Timothy Leary and Sufi Islam. He defines these spaces as temporary autonomous zones, or TAZ: 

Must we wait until the entire world is freed of political control before even one of us can claim to know freedom? ….The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination).

The idea of an autonomous zone has regained attention because of Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), otherwise known as Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP). Since early June, protesters have built a community over 6 blocks of Seattle’s central Capitol Hill neighborhood. Police abandoned a station in the midst of Black Lives Matters protests, and protesters converted the station to a community center. Hundreds of protesters have been staying in the zone, with stalls and businesses offering food and aid to protesters. There are medics, film screenings, and bands. There’s even an Eater review. 

Protesters in Capitol Hill shifted the name from calling the area an Autonomous Zone to calling it the Capitol HIll Organized Protest (CHOP). This shift is an intentional move away from the TAZ concept, which implies an area outside of existing power structures, and towards the concept of protest in order to change the existing power structures. Organizers called out the “block-party” atmosphere as antithetical to their goals as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. And more recently, there have been several shootings in the area, with little detail about what transpired. With violence detracting from the intent of the protest, the zone’s status is uncertain.

Entrance to CHAZ, an autonomous zone in Seattle, by CNN

While CHOP/CHAZ is the most recent example, we’ve seen TAZ-inspired spaces pop up throughout America and the world over. One of the early founders of Burning Man, Kevin Evans, was deeply influenced by Hakim Bey’s TAZ theory to create temporary spaces with communal rule. The Occupy movement created makeshift towns to house, feed, and support protest against Wall Street. Outside the US you have spaces like Exarcheia, the Athens autonomous zone born after the 2008 riots in Greece, and the older and probably most well known Christiania, Copenhagen’s 40+-year-old city-state within a city where European laws don’t apply. Christiania has even gone so far as to experiment with its own currency.

The desire for autonomous zones predates Hakim Bey’s anarchist vision, and expands beyond the idea of a stateless world. In the Seattle area alone, Jeva Lange uncovers a history of exercises in autonomy stretching back to the late 1800s. I’ve written before about utopic societies built on the dream of a freer culture that always seems to disintegrate due to internal strife or rule-making.

Perhaps the temporary part is intrinsic. Gibran Rivera, an organizer, says it this way: 

We can only fight for freedom if we’ve had a taste of it. A TAZ generates the experience of liberation. We feel a freedom that is but a temporary state, it is not permanent, but it grounds us in the very future that we are working to create.


Podcast of the Day:

Planet Money interviews Dr. Lisa Cook, who researched innovation and safety by examining violence towards African Americans in relation to African American patent filings. She discovers that segregation, starting in 1896, and the bombing of Black Wall Street in 1921 have had long-lasting chilling effects on innovation. (ASVV)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Anita (ASVV)

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