From 18th century pirates to Occupy City Hall, the secret history of autonomous zones can help us envision what a cop-free world looks like

In his 1981 novel Cities of the Red Night, William S. Burroughs imagines an alternate history where the free pirate colony Libertatia lives on. According to legend, Libertatia was formed in late 17th century Madagascar under the leadership of Captain James Misson, a French-born pirate known for freeing slaves from captured ships. Opposed to the authoritarian social constructs of the day, Mission endeavored to create a utopian society where all colors, creeds, and beliefs could live freely; under his guidance, the pirates of Libertatia advocated against all monarchies, slavery and capital. While most modern scholars now agree that this version of Libertatia is probably fictionalized, secret islands once used for supply purposes did become home to pirate settlements in the 18th century where buccaneers, renegades, and freed slaves were thought to have established their own proto-anarchist society outside of government control.

The temporary autonomous zone, or TAZ, developed out of a historical review of these pirate utopias and went on to become a cornerstone of 19th century anarchist philosophy. Recently, autonomous zones have consumed the public imagination as police violently crack down on Black Lives Matter protests in major cities across America. In Seattle, protestors established a Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHOP) that’s still affectionately—or dismissively, depending on who you’re talking to—called The CHAZ; a cop-free, self-governing stretch of pavement mere feet from a police precinct. In nearby Portland, Oregon, a TAZ was set up across the street from federal Pioneer Courthouse, and was just as quickly shut down by authorities. New York’s Occupy City Hall was originally intended as a call for defunding the NYPD by applying pressure to the City Council Budget—in the days leading up to the vote, hundreds of volunteers could be seen creating protest signs, making public art, dancing, and playing music in the crowded plaza. Protesters in Washington D.C. set up camp about a block north of the White House, erecting barricades tagged “The Black House.”

History is peppered with experiments in autonomous living—but unlike the intentional communities seeking freedom at society’s fringes, the TAZ often takes root at the heart of the dominant power structure and becomes a site of collective political response. As calls to abolish the police amplify and protest zones evolve into self-governing communities, it’s clear that Americans are fed up with the current system. The autonomous zones springing to life in major cities across the US are not experiments in perfecting a new way of living, but in showing us that an alternative way is possible.

Coined in 1990 by anarchist intellectual Hakim Bey (real name: Peter Lamborn Wilson), the term ‘temporary autonomous zone’ refers broadly to the practice of eluding formal power structures using a combination of psychological liberation and socio-political tactics. As Bey explains in his radical manifesto of the same name, the purpose of the TAZ is to allow a group to experience a temporary utopian situation where individuals can operate outside the hierarchy of the governing body and achieve a level of absolute autonomy which can then be aspired to in day-to-day life. To this end, Bey’s definition of a TAZ is intentionally porous: it can be an art commune or a squat, a religious sect or a rave, as long as the principles conducive of the TAZ are embodied in the experience of free, unmediated human interaction outside the structures of State power. While the psychological autonomy and drive to ‘mutual aid’ associated with TAZ could be considered an ‘psycho-spiritual state’ or even an ‘existential condition,’ Bey also emphasizes the need for it to manifest as a physical, geographic event—even if only for a matter of hours, minutes, or days.

Protestors covered the plaza in art and protest signs, established a communal library, set up food services and meditation zones, and provided meals for the homeless.

For autonomous zones arising out of direct action, this limited lifespan is often the consequence of the physical proximity to the power structure they’re protesting. Perhaps the most well-known example of the protest-turned-TAZ is Occupy Wall Street, a movement which began in 2011 when protestors occupied New York’s Zuccotti Park, located in the Financial District, in protest of economic inequality. The Occupy movement soon gained nationwide traction, with protestors setting up camp outside powerful political institutions to make their demands heard. Such is the case with New York’s Occupy City Hall (later renamed Abolition Park), a 24/7 encampment established in downtown Manhattan with the goal of drawing national attention to the city’s police budget. The movement soon took on a life of its own, with the encampment becoming a something of the de facto ground zero for Black Lives Matter protests in New York. At its peak, thousands of people crowded the plaza to watch the City Council vote; in the week prior, protestors covered the plaza in art and protest signs, established a communal library, set up food services and meditation zones, and provided meals for the homeless.

After the vote was released, life at the camp persisted, albeit with much smaller numbers. Protestors who remained expressed disappointment with the City Council’s decision to shift only $1 billion from the police budget, viewing it as a smoke-and-mirrors trick that didn’t reflect a meaningful shift in the nature of policing. Vocal-NY, the grass-roots group that had spearheaded the initial occupation, stepped back in the days following the vote, passing off food operations to another grass-roots organization, NYC Marchers.

“I stayed on [at Occupy] because I don’t feel we have accomplished our goal,” said Randy Williams, a 38-year-old organizer with NYC Marchers who was among the hundred or so people still living at the space. “I think the original objective of Occupy was too limited. The real goal is to tear down the system as a whole and restructure it from the ground up. There is no reforming the police, because the foundation will always be there.”

What was successful about Occupy City Hall, Randy said, was the sense of community created at the encampment. “It turned into one giant family where all races, all genders, all people from all different sorts of sexual orientations came together. Everyone helped each other. Everyone looked out for each other.”

Frantzy Luzincourt, a 21-year-old organizer with Strategy for Black Lives, echoed this sentiment. “It was almost a utopia; everything that was needed was available to everyone despite their socioeconomic status or background,” he said in an email to Document. “And all of the necessities were provided by the public. It demonstrated the potential we have as a society.”

“I think the original objective of Occupy was too limited. The real goal is to tear down the system as a whole and restructure it from the ground up. There is no reforming the police, because the foundation will always be there.”

This ability to access a different mode of existence outside of the imposed power structure is one of the chief benefits autonomous zones can provide. “The Temporary Autonomous Zone is not an exclusive end in itself, replacing all other forms of organization, tactics, and goals,” Bey writes. Instead, he sees the TAZ as an opportunity to experience the enhanced quality of life associated with an uprising: a brief glimpse at the post-revolution utopia, without the violent backlash that often follows direct confrontation with the State.

But it’s hardly revolutionary cosplay; autonomous zones can play a concrete role in resisting authoritarianism, both by educating the uninformed and by providing a physical space for like-minded individuals to gather for direct actions. The public performance of a TAZ and the media attention that often accompanies it can serve to amplify the group’s demands, launching the cause it sprang from into the spotlight.

In Guy Debord’s treatise The Society of the Spectacle, he describes the process by which rebellion is transformed into a product. “Modern conditions of production prevail, all of life [presenting] itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

This phenomenon is evident in the sudden uptick of brand activism in the US. As protests continue to sweep our nation, US civil rights groups have received a surge of pledges from corporations such as Walmart, Nike, and Sony Music totaling more than $450 million. This introduction of corporate wealth introduces concerns about the co-opting of radical movements by the establishment, which can then limit the group’s ambition and maintain the status quo by channeling their demands for structural reform into more incremental change.

If all revolutions are bound to be absorbed back into the dominant power structure, the momentary nature of the TAZ is its best defense: it is an uprising that exists only in infancy, a poetic dream that evades the mechanism of State power through the tactic of disappearance. Bey views this quality of ‘invisibility’ as a strength, asserting that the TAZ “exists not only beyond control but also beyond definition, beyond gazing and naming as acts of enslaving, beyond the understanding of the State, beyond the State’s ability to see… The State cannot recognize [the TAZ] because history has no definition of it… the TAZ is a perfect tactic for an era in which the State is omnipresent and all-powerful.”

In spite of this, some autonomous zones do crystallize into something more long-term, necessitating the advent of a new term, PAZ. One such example is Dial House, a self-sustaining anarchist-pacifist community located in rural Essex. Since the bohemian enclave was established in 1967 by artist, writer, and philosopher Penny Rimbaud, it has come to function as the base for cultural, artistic, and political projects ranging from avant-garde jazz events to Rimbaud’s anarcho-punk band Crass. The longevity of the creative community can, in part, be attributed to its more abstract relationship with protest; though Crass and Dial House both stand in broad opposition to war, religion, consumerism, and other negative aspects of mainstream culture, there is little that would provoke direct confrontation with the State. With this stability comes a note of compromise: though its impact may be felt, the permanent autonomous community must inevitably compromise some freedom to operate within the dominant power structure.

New York City’s autonomous zone came to an abrupt end on July 22, when cops showed up in riot gear and shut down the encampment without any warning. Abolition Park had been experiencing growing pains in the weeks prior, with residents seeking to square their differing motives for staying on after the vote. The remaining protesters aimed to refocus the conversation on abolition instead of police reform, but didn’t have a concrete demand in sight; at the same time, many felt a duty to care for homeless individuals, who had come to rely on the encampment as a source of food, safety, and makeshift social services. The organizers remained optimistic about the camp’s potential, despite reports of squabbles and infighting among its residents; in its final days, they were making plans to revitalize the space with more sustainable infrastructure and cultural programming in the hopes that it would become a space for protestors to rest and recalibrate before getting back to the street, as journalist Michelle Lhooq observed in Rave New World, her newsletter on the intersection of politics, drugs and nightlife.

Before the encampment was shut down, Lhooq had been making plans to organize a protest-rave at Abolition Park to promote community healing and combat burnout. “New York has been simmering in the summer heat like a pressure cooker,” writes Lhooq. “Communities have been splintered by tribalist feuds and social media warfare, crime rates are soaring, and after months of lockdown surrounded by a suffocating fog of darkness and death, New Yorkers are more on edge than ever. When that zone got abruptly shut down by NYPD, the idea shifted towards a community healing action… Something to help us to recharge, and keep up the fight.”

After careful deliberation, Lhooq teamed up with a group of activists, DJs, and rave crews to establish a therapeutic TAZ in a park in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. “My experiences at no-cop autonomous zones showed me how these healing safe spaces are where trauma from social oppression can be purged without fear. At the same time, I knew that this concept had to be approached cautiously: it had to be politically engaged and purposeful, rather than an excuse for druggie hedonism,” she told Document over email.

On August 8, activists gathered at Herbert Von King park to share knowledge, engage in healing rituals, and dance to live music; masks and social distancing were respectfully enforced, and people were asked to leave all non plant-based substances at home. It was, in other words, more harmless than the average house party—but that’s not always enough to prevent a disproportionate crackdown from the State.

Nonviolent resistance has long been a feature of revolutionary social movements, from Mahatma Gandhi’s Indian Independence Movement to the clapping protests organized in Belarus. Anti-authoritarian groups like the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army explicitly leverage comically non-violent tactics to challenge the preconceptions of radical activists. But even this isn’t always enough to prevent the use of excessive force against peaceful demonstrators; in 2011, cops were seen body-slamming protestors for dancing inside the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in D.C. after a federal court decision declared it illegal.

“Autonomous zones are accelerants to the causes they spring from…They function as microcosms of a radical future that many are currently debating.”

“Because of their inherent subversion [of] the status quo, TAZs are seen as major threats to the power of the State, which is why they are shut down with such a disproportionate show of force every time,” Lhooq told Document. “Autonomous zones are accelerants to the causes they spring from. People who enter these spaces are quickly radicalized, and are able to both envision and literally embody a new vision of a cop-free society. The intense media scrutiny on these zones hijacks the attention economy and brings these questions and complications to the foreground… They function as microcosms of a radical future that many are currently debating.”

The sudden death of an autonomous zone doesn’t indicate its failure, but its scope: the TAZ, as Bey describes it, is almost impossibly ambitious. To defy the state in its own backyard is a larger-than-life gesture of protest against a system that isn’t working, not a perfect blueprint for its replacement. Instead of expecting the temporary autonomous zone to enact a utopian ideal of self-governance, we should embrace the function they provide: a chance for everyday Americans to visualize a better system, while fighting to improve the current one. As Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of utopias.”

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