Field Notes on a Crumbling Empire: Seattle’s Autonomous Zone

Sleep deprivation is an incredibly powerful drug when leveraged correctly.

12 hours awake is easily done. Wake up at 10am, asleep by 10pm, that’s a lovely, generally respectable day. 15 hours awake is a good night out, never killing anybody. At 20 hours you start getting into bender territory and the mania begins to creep up on you. A bleary eyed fervor. At that point we were watching the sun rise in Shasta. Having left LA at 7pm, we had been on the road for 12 hours on our way to Seattle. 

 Southern Oregon is a barren stretch of country. Long gone are the rugged and beautiful landscapes of California’s northern most regions, replaced by straight road that stretches into eternity. Love’s gas stations and 2nd amendment T-shirts populate the landscape. This is not the granola Oregon that we so often hear of in the South. A massive billboard loomed in my tunnel vision behind the wheel of my Nissan van.


Not THE Adult Superstore, but an Adult Superstore

It was hardly a superstore, more a shop than anything. A one story rectangular building set in the middle of a flat asphalt swath equipped with truck parking. I swung across four lanes of traffic and exited. 

A supersized “Don’t Tread on Me” flag flapped lazily in the breeze, flying over a white easy up in the parking lot. Blue Trump flags sat next to the bright red of the Hammer and Sickle on a white folding table. 

We walked into the shop and were greeted by a very old woman working the register. 

“We’re looking for poppers,” Gabe said, wasting no time. She appeared confused, “Poppers?” she echoed. 

“Yeah, you know…” He curled his index finger tightly into the thumb, forming a tight ‘OK’, put it to his nose and violently sniffed. Then, retracting his hand and fingers from his nose he loosed his index finger, uncurling it so the pads of his thumb and finger now resembled a wider circle. The woman’s eyes widened. 

“Are you looking for inhalants?” Now she got the picture. “Yes, Exactly” I chimed in from behind him, certain we were right on the money now, “Inhalants!”. 

She informed us that such things were illegal in the state of Oregon and she could not condone their usage OR the lifestyle they promoted. We were shown the door and walked out empty handed, back by the flag table and under the supersized Don’t Tread on Me. 

Don’t Tread on Me

At 30 hours your body vibrates at a particular frequency known only to those who have the moral fiber to go to war with the circadian rhythm. Subtle hallucinations begin to creep in and your eyes sting. A sense of impending doom starts creeping up from the back of your head and seeps down into your chest. The northbound I-5 is a scary place to be under the specified circumstances.

Northbound I-5

We jumped in a river in Portland and pushed the last four hours into Seattle. We reached anarchist shangri-la at 7pm, 24 hours after departing LA and now 36 hours without sleep. Seattle’s Autonomous Zone, or Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) or Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) did not turn out to be the leftist coachella we had dreamt of in LA. When you’re occupying a massive metropolitan police precinct with an army of anarchists, communists, democrats, shamans, addicts and crust punks things can become complicated.

We arrived with a vague goal of writing an article and pitching it to Rolling Stone. Neither of us having experience in that kind of journalism, my partner being a data analyst on the Bernie Campaign and myself being a music writer. 

Gabe cooling off in Seattle

 A gasoline soaked umbrella was lit on fire and a truck without plates dragged cement barriers, originally placed by police to stop the initial protests after George Floyd’s murder, to further block the for the protestors purposes. A couple people got knocked out and a brass band played.

CHOP’s Main Street

At 40 hours without sleep the dread gives way to paranoia and you start to become hyper aware. You feel like you’re floating inside of your body, a lightness of the limbs and a grim euphoria. Mixing with armed anarchists in this condition is inadvisable, but paranoia goes a long way in this kind of situation. 

Eventually you have to sleep. Unfortunately, there’s no two ways about it. Everybody sleeps, some people make it weeks without it, but it always finds you eventually. We made it 48 hours until we rested our heads on the metal floor of the van. 

A quick bath

We stayed in Seattle, occupying the city blocks surrounding the abandoned precinct, for a week. Driving to the lake every day to bathe and sleeping where we could. We were having trouble making social connections with the people around camp. Gabe noted that my shaved head made me look like a cop, so on the fourth day in an effort to prove we weren’t narcs we headed to the shop and picked up 30 beers, a couple packs of smokes and a bit of weed. We met Charles on our way back from the shop.

Charles intercepted us before we could reach our destination. He was a big man with an immaculate eight pack, truly incredible abs. He wore a completely unbuttoned shirt and a back back with a Bernie pin. He greeted us with a big smile and asked us for a smoke. Then we offered him a beer. We became fast friends and he invited us to see his home, our plan had worked a bit too well. He said he had an amazing set up that we had to see for ourselves. 

Being that we were at an occupy style protest, we figured Charles’s home was a tent set up somewhere in the park or on the sidewalk outside the precinct. There were probably some Christmas string lights or something set up in there. But Charles took us up the street and into a beautiful apartment building on the outer edge of the occupied zone.

Capitol Hill is an expensive area in an expensive city, and this was an expensive apartment. As we rode the elevator up to the top floor I began to feel bad for judging Charles to be a homeless man. He was obviously drunk, and looked as though he had been camping for at least a few days. But he was a computer programmer he explained through fits of laughter. He lit a cigarette in the hallway. We just had to see his set up. 

A somber warning

We entered a luxury one bedroom apartment that was obviously pre decorated. Stock images of landscapes and a hotel painting hung on the walls. There were no personal effects of Charles’ at all aside from the clothes that were soaking in the sinks and the bathtub, and a large manual on orthopedic surgery. Gabe picked up the book and thumbed through it. “That’s my book,” Charles said with a giggle. “It’s all up here.” He tapped his head with a long fingernail. 

 We sat down in the living room in front of four QSC speakers hooked up to an Acer laptop. An unplugged projector shone NO SIGNAL dimly on the next wall. This was Charles’ set up. He told us to watch as he queued up some bass heavy trap on the computer and blasted it out of the speakers at a violent volume. Charles’ speakers could have rocked an entire club, let alone a 150sq foot living room. The bass rattled the floors and the windows, squeezing the breath from our chests. It was too loud for anyone to hear anything else coming from inside that apartment.

He started dancing, ashing his cigarette onto the floor. It was subtle at first, a slight groove, then he closed his eyes and really started in. We sat on the couch mesmerized as he pulled off his shirt and convulsed rhythmically in the living room. He faced a full body mirror on the opposite wall and then us on the couch in succession, violently crunching his abs then bending his back and flexing his arms in some unintelligible pattern. 

He continued dancing for half an hour. When he would finish a cigarette and drop it on the floor, hold his hand out and we’d feed him another. Beers too. One would go down, a hand would go out. We worried what might happen if we stopped this cycle. Better to let things like this run their course naturally. As he danced for us he would occasionally ask if we liked it, unsure if he was referring to his speaker system or his dancing. We assured him that this was great. 

When Gabe asked to use the bathroom Charles grew irritated. He stopped the music and as Gabe exited the room Charles told me that we should get out of here. He didn’t like that Gabe was in the bathroom. I stood up and Charles paced around touching his manual on orthopedic surgery and then going back to his speaker system, then back to the manual. 

Charles had me pack up all the beer cans and we started out the door as Gabe walked out of the bathroom. We split down the elevator and out the front past the door man, but as soon as we were outside, Charles had changed his mind and wanted us to go back upstairs and hangout in his apartment. We had made up our minds and had no intention of locking ourselves back in that place so we convinced him to come check the information board, we needed to make it to the meeting that evening. 

Charles followed us back onto the street and into the occupied zone, trying to sweet talk us into going back inside. We got to the board and met an older woman with at least 3 very large bearded dragon’s. The giant lizards rested on her shoulders and head. We started chatting as Charles busied himself with another cigarette and grumbled about a beer. The woman let us hold the lizards and Gabe turned around so Charles could check it out. Charles shrieked and backed away slowly. The Bearded dragon bared its teeth silently. He was gone just as quickly as he appeared, scared off by the large reptile. It squirmed in Gabe’s hands toward its mother and she took it back. “They ward off evil spirits.” she said as she walked away. 

alt="CHOP CHAZ Seattle Autonomous Zone Lizard
The bearded dragon at the info board

A few days earlier Tik Tok teens had found a number of body parts in trash bags floating in one of Seattle’s many waterways. When dismembering a body you have to know where to cut. Otherwise you’ll spend hours hacking unsuccessfully, it’s the kind of thing you need to learn about in a book or manual.

There had been a warning issued at a march the night before. “Be careful y’all. There’s a new serial killer in Seattle.”

The next day we completed the task of delivering the beers and smokes to protestors and joined them for the next two days. We drank and told jokes, one guy flew out from the midwest to be there, another named Dragon grew mushrooms that ate plastic. There was a juggalo and some communists and we all discussed Call of Duty Zombies strategy.

Rolling Stone never got back to us about the article.

Read the original article on Seattle’s Autonomous Zone by Editor Sean Edwards and Gabe Fuente, A Road Trip to Powder Keg City, on Salon.com. For more check out Gas Me Daddy: Inside the Battle for Portland right here on the Kollection.