Listen to the Episode — 74 min
Alanis: The Ex Worker: Clara: An audio strike against a monotone world; Alanis: A podcast of anarchist ideas and action; Clara: For everyone who dreams of a life off the clock. Clara: Welcome back to the Ex-Worker! In this episode, we’re taking an in-depth look at one of the major success stories of 2017: The blockade in Olympia, Washington that stopped a train carrying fracking supplies for twelve days—making it the second longest train blockade in US history.
Alanis: People went hard in early 2017 during the inauguration and the airport shutdowns, but most of the year felt like we weren’t gaining momentum. That’s all the more reason why this action was so inspiring—it renewed hope and forged new relationships at a time when many weren’t expecting that.
Clara: But nothing ever happens in a vacuum. We’ll take a closer look at what made this action a success, what it looked and felt like on the ground, and what lessons we can learn from it—but first, let’s take a look at what led to this blockade. For more resources and information on the ideas we talk about today, check out our show notes for links!
Alanis: Olympia, Washington has a long history of environmental activism, with a focus on fracking since 2013, when the port of Olympia began to ship fracking equipment as cargo. That year saw many protests at the port, some of which included anarchists and others forming a soft blockade of human bodies in front of logging trucks, and generally trying to hinder port operations as much as possible. These smaller actions eventually lost momentum though. In the summer of 2016, the port of Olympia opened negotiations with the US military to start shipping military cargo through the port again. This galvanized a new resistance, with anarchists and other activists forming a Port Militarization Resistance network similar to one that had existed a decade before. The port eventually backed down from the contract, perhaps because of the resistance already mounting against it, but the new relationships built through organizing against it stayed strong. More and more people started paying attention to the port, and people began to gather information that helped them track shipments of ceramic proppants.
Clara: Manufactured by Rainbow Ceramics and shipped by war profiteers Halliburton (who have ties to the Bush family and former Vice President Dick Cheney), these proppants are small ceramic balls used during fracking to prop up the wells and prevent collapse when the natural gas is removed. They don’t always work as promised, as is evidenced by the frequent earthquakes and other disasters that accompany natural gas extraction. The proppants moving through the port of Olympia travel on ships from China, and then trains that leave from the port and head south to the Columbia Gorge, and then east towards the fracking wells of North Dakota, and more recently Wyoming.
It was right below the point where two train tracks merge—one leading from the Pepsi bottling plant, the other from the Port of Olympia—that people built the first train blockade in 2016.
Alanis: In November of 2016, at the height of the months-long struggle on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, people who had been steadily tracking the schedules of proppant shipments gathered to disrupt their delivery to the fracking wells. While the shipments had been moving through the Port of Olympia for a few years, it may have taken the actions at Standing Rock to galvanize a larger number of people to react with means that could actually have an effect on the shipments. Between November 11th and 18th, some of these rebels set up a blockade on the rail line leading out of the Port. This week-long blockade led Halliburton, the corporation responsible for shipping the proppants, to declare that they would never do business with the Port of Olympia again. This blockade was ultimately attacked and cleared by the Olympia Police Department in the middle of the night. At the time, the Olympia Chief of Police declared that he had sympathy for the blockaders’ cause, and didn’t want to do his job. His actions showed that his feelings didn’t matter as much as the flow of commerce and the role that extractive industries play in it. Ultimately, those proppants made their way to the Dakotas, just as the Dakota Access Pipeline was fully constructed, despite massive opposition by members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters.
Clara: Fast forward to November 2017: word spread once again that a shipment of proppants was scheduled to move through the Port of Olympia. So in the wee hours of November 17th, folks braved the wet Pacific Northwest night to set up a blockade at the same site as last year, just below the junction of two tracks, several blocks from the entrance to the Port.
Alanis: Though disrupting fracking was a primary goal for many of these folks, not all blockaders had the same concerns, and fracking wasn’t the only target. When the Port of Olympia tried to garner sympathy by claiming that they had no plans to ship proppants, but rather that the blockade had halted a train carrying high-fructose corn syrup to the Pepsi bottling plant, many felt this was icing on the cake. Not all blockaders had a unified sense of purpose, message, or tactics, either. While plenty of folks went to meetings with the Port and City Council to try to convince them to change their behavior, others chose to let the blockade speak for itself, refusing to negotiate with the authorities in any way. While the Port tried to deny what was being shipped through its gates, others scouted out and documented firsthand what was in the port, noting the bags of proppants clearly marked with the name of their manufacturer, and the Halliburton rail cars clearly marked with their call sign: HWCX.
Clara: The blockade itself was built from pallets scavenged from capitalism’s detritus, barrel fires, tires, hay bales, and other objects that continued to grow as the days passed. Countless passionate souls spent innumerable hours maintaining this encampment and making sure the Port’s cargo couldn’t make it through. Over the course of twelve days, these rebels would share meals, hold meetings, organize movie nights, lead skillshares, play music, write communiqués, eat and sleep together, and disrupt the flow of commerce, if only for a little while.
Alanis: Twelve days after this blockade began, the camp was raided by the Olympia Police Department, backed up by Union Pacific’s Railroad Police, armed with riot gear and armored vehicles—but nobody was there. The rebels had vanished into the night, evading the police in favor of fighting another day.
Clara: We don’t claim many easy victories in revolutionary struggle—we’re usually painfully aware of what we haven’t won, what we still need to change. By most standards, though, this blockade was a big win. The blockade cost the city, the port, and corporations a large amount of money, while losing us nothing except the garbage left behind at the camp. There were no arrests, no bail money or legal fees needed, no time lost to jail support or court solidarity. Even more surprising, the Olympia blockade saw the beginning of new relationships of solidarity between people who ordinarily wouldn’t have found much common ground.
Clara: We were able to talk to some of these comrades on the ground, and the stories we share with you today are from a handful of people who helped to make this extraordinary space possible.
Alanis: On the last day of camp, the blockade in downtown Olympia had grown into a temporary autonomous zone. Seen from the hill above, its network of colorful tarps looked like a city in miniature, with the edges surrounded by pallets and plywood and other objects that seemed about ready to become something new the moment you looked away. Even on the last night, blockaders were making plans for expansion. The entrance to camp, at that point, was surrounded by a circle of hay bales and enclosed with pallets and one giant circus tent that stretched 20 by 60 feet. Its tarp had been branded by Red Bull but was quickly beautified and profaned with other messages. A black flag flew above the many intersecting tarps and tents and open spaces, including the open square where a 55-gallon barrel held a fire where blockaders could warm themselves at any time, day or night. The sprawling hive of tarp structures had walls made of pallets and metal road signs, and held couches where people often slept. A kitchen area always had pastries and often hot food, as well as carafes full of hot coffee and herbal tea that supporters regularly refilled. Smaller structures built of PVC pipes and tarps became designated for specific purposes: one was a free school and quiet study area; another became a safer space for women, trans, and femmes to meet, sleep, and socialize. A medical cabinet included first aid supplies, tinctures, and fire cider. One wall was itself a barricade, made of an impressive array of junk that stretched onto the tracks leading toward the port—including, amongst other things, a piano.
And at the entrance of the blockade a banner stretched, reading “this is Squaxin Nisqually land” Within this liberated space, which grew more ambitious and stranger each day it existed, countless people came together to create a different kind of world.
Clara: The first question we asked blockaders was how this happened—what made this year’s blockade different than last year?
Blockader 1: A bunch of people showed up Friday, November 17 with one huge banner and a bunch of other signs. There was probably like 20–30 people there. There were a few pallets just randomly thrown over the tracks. The cops showed up, messed around, maybe they said something or, I don’t know, and then overnight, a barricade and an encampment were set up, about the same size as last year’s. And immediately donations started flooding in, especially in context of 2016. The community already knew what to expect a little bit—“Oh, they’re doing another encampment, remember what happened last time?”—So immediately, all the people who had supported last time came down. And tables and pop-ups and cooking gear and extra food all started showing up, pallets started showing up en masse. So many couches and mattresses started showing up, we didn’t know what to do with them for a while and eventually, when people were asking “what can we do?” we were more asking them for free hands than for more stuff because we had so much stuff. We physically shut down the port of Olympia so fracking proppants weren’t able to move and also a local Pepsi bottling plant wasn’t able to bottle their Pepsi, which is totally fine in my book.
Blockader 2: And this could be seen from the outside as doing something again and making it this symbolic annual thing, but I think that this year is built a lot upon what happened last year. Even though it was obviously the same tactic of blocking a train, and the same type of train, I see it as an escalation of what the blockade was last year, and of having learned a lot from the blockade last year. That’s really exciting; it wasn’t just the same thing twice. Last year, the train was stopped with essentially a demonstration, with people, and then no one actually planned for there to be a barricade or blockade that people would stay set up. People just didn’t want to leave and it happened organically, and that was really beautiful, but it also meant that it was like 24 hours before people were like, “Whoa, I guess we’re not going anywhere. We should build a tent.” And stuff like that, and this year, after the barricade had been up twelve hours, it was already as strong as it was on the seventh day last year. There was never any stagnation. From the moment the train was stopped, all the way to the night, even when people thought the cops were gonna come in a couple of hours, people were continuing to build and expand, to make more space for people to sleep in and live in and also to make the barricades on the tracks stronger and more complicated, harder to see, which would make the raid more complicated and harder to take apart. Yeah, it was like, it was bigger and better and longer than last year for sure, and that was really exciting.
Blockader 3: I think there were two major lessons and some several minor lessons that informed this year. One of them was a willingness to immediately begin expanding and growing the occupation and to assume that we were going to be around for a while. Last year, there was a lot of hesitancy. People thought we were going to get raided right away and weren’t willing to commit resources. And this year, we just decided to turn it into something really big and beautiful as quickly as possible, which in turn affected the ability of the space to hold people comfortably. And I think the second was a more strategic orientation towards the police, so a combination of tracking their movements, of trying explicitly to avoid symbolic arrests, and in creating a lot of opaque space with the use of tarps and different chambers and different corridors which made it difficult for them to surveil us and to accurately judge our numbers. I think those things are responsible in large part for how long and how successful this occupation was, and for us getting out at the end with zero arrests, no drawn out court cases and no bail money drain, which means ending strong instead of burning out. I think there’s a lot more energy now than there was after the end of last year’s blockade. I think last year felt really inflected by the presidential election; there was a lot of tumult around the country, and it also felt really inflected by the level of struggle at Standing Rock, while this year things, especially in this corner of the country felt kind of low, at a low level of struggle and I felt pretty excited that we were able to pull this off. I think it’s possible anywhere. I think we’re seeing these types of activities happen more and more especially related to oil extraction, and oil transportation industries but you know we’ve been seeing people using this strategy of blockades and occupations targeted towards logistics and infrastructure of capital a lot in the last ten years and I think we’ll see more of that. So I think there’s a couple of things that felt really unique to Olympia in this occupation. One of that is just the history of blockading the port. So, back in 2006, 2007, 2008, people were blockading military equipment being shipped through the port of Olympia. I actually was around in 2007 for some of those struggles and I think that history and the victories won back then kind of affected the imagination in the present. It meant that people knew it was possible. It put it on the table. I will also say that this shit was way cooler, way more effective, and way longer lasting than anything that got pulled off ten years ago so that’s pretty awesome. I think another thing that felt unique to Olympia was the good relations and the level of connections between houseless folks who were participating in the blockade. And I think those just—there’s a big street community in Olympia, and there’s a lot of crossover in the radical community here between those two milieus and I think that that allowed people to take a more nuanced and productive approach than I saw in things like Occupy where there was a lot of conflict between the so-called political people and the houseless people who would show up. That felt present here, but much more nuanced and complicated and much more productive. I think the main thing I want people to know in other places about it is that it is entirely possible to pull it off, and that the more that you assume success from the start, the more interesting and lively it will be instead of planning for failure.
Blockader 4: We were on public property and we were on railroad property. So there’s kind of this chain of command that has to happen, where the railroad has to ask for the state sheriffs’ assistance, and then the sheriffs have to ask the local Olympia police department for assistance. And actually, ironically enough, they call these agreements mutual aid. What we found out last year is that we put ourselves in this jurisdictional no man’s land being on the tracks, but also on public property, and our Olympia police department basically just didn’t want to touch it, and I think that might be because of the history of the fierce resistance that has always been put up to the police here in Olympia. Not always, but quite a bit. There was a lot of people talking in year one about how, where did all the skills that people supposedly learned during Occupy, where did those go? It felt like that there was a really big gap in knowledge and skills, in the crews and in the people who showed up. And that was definitely not a topic of discussion this year. It was very clear from day one that people had the skills, had the knowledge, and had the vision of what we were doing. At the port meeting there was a very impassioned, you know, grey haired, liberals and other kinds of folks who were saying “you need to take these people seriously, what they’re doing is right.” And so we do have a swath of support from outside of our normal political channels, as far as when it comes to like the stopping of shipping of fracking sands, you know?
Blockader 2: So, the blockade started on a Friday, and then when we got to the next Friday—cause trains normally leave the port on Tuesdays and Fridays at like two or three in the morning—I was like “they’re definitely gonna come; Friday’s the day that the train normally goes by. It’ll be the week mark; they can’t let it last longer than a week.” I really was in that mindset, and at 4:17, which is the time that we got the dispersal order last year, people put on music really loud and everyone cracked a beer and everyone was—we counted down from ten and it was a huge celebration of making it longer than the year before. It just felt incredible; everyone was so happy, and also that celebration was happening in the street, in the front of the blockade, in the intersection. So this year’s blockade lasted twelve days which was much longer than last years which was raided on the seventh day, and on Wednesday morning it was raided by a combination of Olympia police, state police, county police and rail police. There was no arrests and they came at about five. When the police arrived, everyone who was in camp left, which was a difference from last year and was what allowed it to happen without any arrests, which I think is a really positive thing because the arrests from last year’s blockade, their court proceedings just got finalized and they got a plea two weeks ago, so they are in court and dealing with that for an entire year which is a huge strain on people’s time and money and ability to do other things.
Alanis: So there was a coordinated effort to alert people before the raid?
Blockader 2: Mm-hmm. Last year people were alerted before the raid. People knew that the police were coming. They were tipped off by an employee somewhere downtown and then also saw police amassing in riot gear. However, last year many people were less sure how the police would act and made the decision not to disperse when the police came and to stay and see how long they could keep the camp. And I think that that was a decision that made sense for that time and people hadn’t discussed all their options but this year, people were trying to do it with at least no “purposeful” arrests. Police are going to do what they’re going to do, but no arrest that’s like you doing something that is like 100% you’re definitely going to get arrested. The morning the raid came there was a little bit of notice, although less than last year. Because police actually staged somewhere else and came off of the freeway, already with their lights on. So they were able to surround the camp really quickly. Last year, they staged by the capital so people just saw them putting on their riot gear a long time before they came. But there was some inkling that they were coming from various sources. So people thought that that might happen but it was less confirmed and there was less time period of actually seeing them getting ready. But people were able to all make it out of the camp by the time that the police got there. There are really funny videos of them. You can’t see into the blockade, the way it was set up, and so they issued four dispersal orders to an empty camp and then brought a swat team to go and clear every single tent, because they seemed really, really afraid that there was no one coming out and thinking that people were in there still.
Blockader 4: I was shocked at the amount of police that came to evict the camp. I mean, with the MRAP that was there, with the—you know, up in the sky, there was like three or possibly four different airplanes, helicopters, things like that. Now, one of them was actually a news helicopter, which later I went and looked at footage of.
Blockader 3: They were certainly prepared to raid the camp, [that is] when they raided it, although it took them ten days to get organized for it. But we were also prepared for that raid; we had preempted it. We had scouts and people were able to leave the camp. They spent a huge amount of time and money on an operation which cost us mostly some garbage, that we left in camp. I think that we certainly pushed things further this year. And learned that lesson from last year, and that was super important. And the other thing that I wanna say is that an eviction or an end of the blockade isn’t necessarily a failure. I think it’s a piece of information that lets us judge our capacity accurately. The police are always going to raid us at some point. They are always going to stop what we’re doing. In a certain sense, they’re a hard limit that we’re going to push up against. So it’s not a failure when we lose to them; it’s just a way for us to judge our capacity. It means that next time, if we want this to last, we need more support, we need more material, more resources, and more capacity to defend ourselves and to keep living together.
Alanis: Everyone we interviewed stressed one thing in particular about the camp:
Blockader 2: That it was fun! And I feel like people feel like that’s a silly thing but I think that a lot of people who are interested in taking some sort of direct action and are angry about fossil fuels or just about the entire world can see things and think that they are difficult and grueling and something that is not something they can do. And of course there’s nights that you are standing in the cold rain from 7pm to 7am drinking coffee. That’s not easy. But also really want to convey to people that that never felt like work. That always felt like something that I was not just okay with doing but happy to be doing, and it gave me joy and energy. People talk about burnout, and that can be a real thing, but also thinking about—what we think makes us tired is not what actually makes us tired. It’s the whole rest of the world that makes us really tired. In moments where we can resist that, together, whether it’s for twenty minutes in a riot, or for twelve days in a blockade, or for hopefully much longer that that, that is fun and energizing and, it’s not like “the struggle” in the negative sense that people might think it is.
Blockader 4: I mean the camp, the actual physical infrastructure of the camp this year was three times as big as the infrastructure last year. You know, we actually—during all this we found some notes that were taken from last year’s debrief and what types of things that we wanted to do. And basically every single thing that was listed—well, not every single thing—but a lot of the things that were listed happened this year. Last year, we listed that we wanted to do workshops. This year, we did workshops. Last year, we listed that we wanted to have music. This year, we had three concerts. We had two kind of folky concerts and then one all night punk show. We had a skillshare day. We had much more fortified barricades. We had a look out post that was positioned out back of the camp. It’s always just really incredible, because a lot of times these types of occupations, at least in the US, are more rural occupations of logging roads and stuff like that, and I think it’s really powerful to see this kind of rip open of occupation in the middle of the city. And that was just in and of itself really inspiring. And just the fact that we’re creating the space that we want to see in the middle of this shit.
Blockader 1: And I think people have really just gotten to the point where they understand the realities of structural violence, and the reality that actions that include a stop to capitalism and economic trade and a potential destruction of property in response to structural violence isn’t the same thing and isn’t violence. So I didn’t really see anybody needing to have that discussion this time around, which was refreshing.
Blockader 2: Yeah, I think that a multiplicity of relations was opened and that’s part of what makes it so exciting. Not to say that there weren’t problems and that it wasn’t difficult, but for 12 days I really think that we got to experience a life that’s worth living; that was incredible. And there was what I feel was an incredible opening of relations made possible by that space in a lot of different ways. One of which being that by making the barricade that necessitated people being there all the time which necessitated making a dry and warm sleeping space, you automatically have created a space that has been needed by so many and is needed by so many in town, and ten to twenty unhoused people had a drier and warmer and more comfortable place to sleep every single night while the blockade was happening. Which was incredible, and then also created a lot of relationships that wouldn’t have been forged otherwise because it’s often difficult to make connections between housed and unhoused people and also a lot of the ways that that’s often gone about can be really condescending.
Blockader 1: What do I most want people to know? That it was and is a movement for everyone. That we want people to get involved, that it’s kid-friendly. We had a kid space, we had paint going on. We had people hanging out all day. And so I was really really happy with the tone of friendliness and community and family. I really felt at home down at the barricade, more than I do in my own house, and I think a lot of people share that sentiment as well. And that made me super proud.
Blockader 3: You know, the buildings nearby slowly got covered with more and more beautiful graffiti. It felt like this funny, weird safe-zone that people could go into and come out dressed as a different person and commit whatever things they wanted to do and return to camp. It felt like a little home base in an interesting way. And it think that it was a really interesting example of a successful diversity of tactics, in a really true way, in that people were, you know, doing whatever they were doing to the train tracks. People were cooking food, they were tagging buildings with anti-fracking, anti-capitalist graffiti. People were talking to interlopers and talking to passersby. All of these different things were going on. No one was trying to hamper most of those things. So it felt like a really interesting and productive combination of clandestine and public disobedience.
Lots of people were going in and out pretty casually. Certainly many people didn’t cover their faces in camp, but it was also pretty normal for people to walk around fully masked-up.
Blockader 1: We also opened up a space for houseless people to stay in, which was a huge part of this blockade. It wasn’t only about fossil fuel extraction. It was also about creating autonomous community. And I think we opened up a space for the community at large in this area to start having bigger discussions.
Alanis: What did you personally find most inspiring?
Blockader 2: I would say how joyous it was. I feel like it’s one of the few places and actions that I’ve been a part of that no matter what frustrations there were, I didn’t lose sight of the joy in it. And I think that a lot of people did a good job of fostering that and that was incredibly beautiful and I think that that’s related to it always expanding and people experimenting and not letting it stay stagnant. Because there was a point where there was a very strong barricade on the tracks and there’s not necessarily a need to keep building. But people chose to be like, “Ok, what would it look like if we closed the intersection with hay bales so that we could have games and play shows?” That kind of experimentation helped foster this sense of joy, constantly changing and reigniting joy, so I wasn’t just like, “Uhh last night more of my friends were here than tonight, this sucks.” Instead, I was like, “Oh my God, there is a huge new structure that has some weird new activity going on in it that wasn’t here yesterday.”
Clara: We were also curious about what led to the action’s success—and if there was something particular about Olympia and this current moment that made this possible, or if blockades like this could proliferate?
Blockader 2: I think this action is incredibly repeatable and should be repeated everywhere, as soon as possible. The very crude first barricade on the tracks was by just a group of people with a reinforced banner and nothing had been set up as far as a barricade or a camp yet, because they weren’t sure what time the train would leave. And then, two blocks down, the first barricade was set up by five people in twenty minutes. And it wasn’t the big, beautiful barricade that it was 12 hours later, but it was a thing that had to be moved before a train could pass. That’s such a simple thing to do. In other places, the response from the state might be different, [but] the construction of a barricade, and barricading infrastructure, fossil fuel or otherwise, is extremely repeatable. I think that people look at pictures of the camp on day 10 that are taken from far away and it looks like a sprawl of tarps and mess and you think, “they’ve been there for ten days.” It seems like a big thing and it feels like this big thing in some ways, but I think it’s important to remember there was a barricade up in twenty minutes. Anyone can do that at any time and I don’t think that there is anything about that that is unique to this place or this situation in any way. And that can be done with a very small group of people.
Blockader 4: The question is also, if you are able to outgrow the ability of you local police department to respond very quickly, then you’re good at least for a certain amount of time until they are able to rally a certain amount of support to get all of their police departments there. With the Olympia police department, they had to call in police officers from the surrounding areas to take all of their normal calls while they were responding to the eviction of the blockade. So there’s a lot of different bureaucratic mechanisms that have to go into place and a lot of agreements that have to go into place if an eviction is able to outgrow the local police department’s ability to respond. That’s a possible repeatable part of this action. So now, as far as I can tell with the research that I have done, the second and the third longest blockades of the railroads in United States history has happened here in Olympia. The longest was an indigenous blockade about mining shipments that essentially, they won. And the similar thing about that blockade and the Olympia blockade was the fact that there were these bureaucratic mechanisms that basically didn’t want to touch it because in this indigenous blockade, essentially, the state ruled it a treaty issue and put it into a federal jurisdiction. And the Feds basically couldn’t figure out what to do with it and so eventually, they got an EPA research team on the ground to check out the feasibility of what was going on at this mining site. Long story short, they won, the mine was shut down, and they took down their blockade. It’s always really good to do your research and find out exactly what the jurisdictional no man’s land is in the state because the state’s ultimate tool is their appearance of omnipresence and of solidity, you know, that they’re solid. But they’re not, and they have all of these gaps and it’s not like a monolithic—you know, while we talk about it and we think about it —and it’s a very useful tool to talk about it and think about it in a monolithic fashion—the fact that it’s not and there are all of these different parties within it and that, while we want to smash all of them, we can cause them to fight each other sometimes. And to figure out how we can more effectively agitate those areas is something that is always worthwhile thinking about. And then always finding the gaps where it’s exploitable and perhaps there can be more experimentation with seeing if other blockades in other places find the same jurisdictional gap, essentially, with local police departments not wanting to mess with protesters that are on rail police’s land. And the first year, something that is really important to think about is that there was a giant anti-Trump march marching around Olympia, and, as well, a pro-Planned Parenthood protest going on. And so if there are, knowingly, going to be other, really large scale actions happening, where the police are gonna be tied up, those are also possibly exploitable places in which people could take those actions.
Blockader 2: The emergency that we are responding to is always happening. There will always be other people doing similar things and also other horrific, terrible things happening that you can reach out to other people resisting, no matter when you’re doing something but it’s important to understand that that’s true all the time and that’s not something to wait for. I also feel like there is a lot of talk about our current moment and political climate, and there are things that are unique about every time, but I think it’s important not to get into a space of acting like we need to wait for specific crisis or specific inspiring moments to do something, because both of those things are always there.
Alanis: Although it seems like the radical communities in Olympia learned a lot since the 2016 blockade, we’re not talking about one cohesive affinity group. Rather, the encampment included a spontaneous and chaotic range of people at any given moment, many of whom had never organized together and had their fair share of differences. That’s one of the most fascinating things about this story—one of the most effective actions of recent years happened despite the people participating in it not always feeling that they were on the same page. Many people might be familiar with this dynamic from the Occupy movement or other encampments.
Clara: As a tactic, public occupation will always bring up the same issues: Which groups and identities “belong” inside the liberated space and which don’t? How do we protect ourselves from oppressive speech and behavior within the space? How do we reconcile different desires for greater autonomy or greater unity? How do transform social relations between those who have more or less social power, whether that falls along the lines of race, gender, income, health, or any other division?
Alanis: These are all big questions, and none of them have easy answers. But we can take a look at the ways they crop up in actions like this to begin to solve the core problems that block us from doing more together.
Clara: So we asked some blockaders about the tensions and disagreements in camp. It felt important to include this not to shit-talk or take away from the success of this moment, but to be real about how messy occupations can be—they are spaces where people come together for diverse reasons, from diverse backgrounds. The challenge— and the joy—of these temporary autonomous zones is learning how to get along and become powerful with people who don’t share all of your political analysis.
Alanis: We don’t want to belabor the tensions that arose, but an honest look at social dynamics can teach us how to be better prepared next time. Some of the core tensions at the Olympia blockade arose because of fundamental differences around the idea of organization versus autonomy:
Blockader 1: There were many different positions and strategies that sometimes collided with each other and I think that if we had, as a group, decided on common ground, it could have streamlined a lot of the discussion and therefore the action within the encampment. There were a lot of colliding tendencies that could have been smoothed by common agreements which I know everybody shares in those spaces. I think that obviously the main thing people think of when they think of the Olympia blockade is that we’re blocking fracking sands, and therefore fossil fuel industry. And so, some people seem to think that just by being there it was enough, and that we didn’t need to focus on any further momentum or outside issues, that just blocking that one train spoke for itself, which is very true in a sense, but it’s also true that stopping one train for twelve days is a very small part of the problem and that the Port of Olympia is going to continue to ship fracking sands and other problematic freight. And so, the greater issue is getting the port of Olympia to stop doing that. And by doing that, we need to pressure them in various different ways, and potentially regain control as a community over that port. And rest it from the corporations. And that can’t be done by having a demandless, unidentifiable autonomous movement. Also, in terms of media—and we have our own media—It’s really important to get out a streamlined message and build people. Cause I think the greater public, a lot of times, do want to support these movements and these actions and it’s hard for people who don’t know what’s going on to support something that they don’t understand. I think that having a solid coalition that’s somewhat above ground with their message and their reasons that they’re in solidarity with each other, again, points of unity, is really important. But then people protecting their individual actions and taking autonomous actions within that framework is really important as well.
Blockader 3: Yeah, so there is certainly disagreement within the camp, especially over demands and whether we have them or whether we don’t. It felt a lot less divisive than last year. Last year felt somewhat dominated by a professional activist milieu and this year felt much more heterogeneous. Some people felt very strongly about establishing clear demands and felt strongly that we needed to present a unified front to the public. And other people felt that any form of unified demands opened the door to recuperation. This issue wasn’t resolved, so as a result, there were no formal demands issued from the group. That said, some lists of demands did come up, and it’s interesting to think about how those function. One group put out a list of intentionially absurdist demands, including things like “make the port a beach again,” “blow up the sun,” and “make the city manager, Steve Hall, fight a bear,” and so on. Another group put out a list of fairly typical activist demands: green energy, horizontal management of the port and so on. This tension often felt elevated at general assemblies between a few people who felt passionate about it but I think most people most of the time didn’t actually care that much about the debate and were much more interested by the immediate possibilities of the space. I, for one, was much more interested by what we could do in the moment with what we had than in what our ideological sock puppets were. I think that those people who are strongly opposed to demands have a really good reason to be wary of issuing demands to authority figures. I think they’re familiar with the way that recuperation has functioned throughout history. And I agree with them that I want to be as opaque as possible to the police and bureaucrats and our enemies. That said, I also want to find ways to be transparent to other people who might join us and I think we run the risk of being so opaque as to be irrelevant to anyone. So, communes, like revolutions, have to grow or die, and I’m interested in the ways that we can grow our relations with other people who are maybe “non-political” who might also feel interested in what we are doing. But it might be interesting to try to sidestep the question of demands all together and instead start articulating what we’re doing: we’re blockading the trains, we’re stopping fracking, we’re providing food and sleeping space for anyone who wants it, we’re trying to live in a different rhythm of life. All of these things and communicating those things are maybe more interesting than arguing about what demands we’re issuing since those demands will never be granted, regardless. It might just be a different way to engage with the nebulous public that gets really fetishized oftentimes.
Blockader 4: The same people who were pushing back against demands were the same people who were pushing back against organization or pushing back against the media team and, you know, while a media team can be problematic, it’s also possible to have a media team that is just dedicated to getting people who are gonna release media that are separate from each other together to talk, and not saying that they have to agree or have to agree not to release media or whatever. There was a lot of different media being released from a lot of different teams within the blockade. There was people who were releasing media that, in my opinion, was more about stuff that needed to be talked about within the camp and that people needed to sit down and have conversations about, and was more about internal dynamics of the camp and not so much a media release to the world. And, I thought it was a little passive aggressive that some of this stuff got released. But we’re trying to address that now. We’re trying to sit down and have those talks. Yeah, that’s my hope. I don’t necessarily feel like it’s as important to have a unified voice from a blockade, but I do believe that it’s important for the people within the blockade to be in more communication with each other than they are with the world outside of the blockade, and that’s one thing that we definitely could have done a lot better.
Blockader 2: There was a lot of space of solidarity open between groups of people that often disagree with each other and there was of course always arguments between tendencies or people who have different visions or whatever, but I think that, especially this year compared to last year, those arguments were conducted with a lot of care and respect. It was really exciting and also kind of unexpected to me because those arguments can be so emotional. There’s something about living together, even for twelve days, when it’s in that intense type of circumstance and doing something that people care about really deeply, that bonds people and that bond can create a lot of opportunities for working together in the future that would not normally be there. They were handled with more care than I expected, which does not necessarily mean that—people are also terrible to each other when they disagree; that’s something that’s always there. But I think people were thinking through that a lot and realizing that happened and trying to be more careful with those dynamics. I think that there is a lot of division there because some people feel that no demands should be made or that there should be no attempt to appeal to authority for what we want, and I think especially when you’re in the position of a blockade and we are enacting what we desire, it can feel to me like it takes away from that, to try to then appeal to power to stop the train when we already stopped the train, and that can feel really frustrating. Other people in camp definitely feel like by stopping the train, we are given this power and we should use that to demand things of local authorities. That’s the main point of contention and disagreement that’s actually specific to the blockade. But then a lot of that can spiral into the larger disagreements of what people want the world to be like. That can be frustrating sometimes. One thing that was good is from the beginning of the blockade, it was agreed upon that—there were nightly meetings, but the general assembly is not a decision making body, and there is no decision making body. There are certain tendencies that would see the GA as a place to make decisions, to vote on things. The agreement that it was not that and that that doesn’t exist as a starting point was really good and made it so that people could do things and voice different messages, but for the most part, people were very clear that that did not speak for everyone. Because I think that when those disagreements become really upsetting is when I feel like my action and investment in this project is being used as a pawn in someone’s legislative agenda. That that’s being spoken for me. But I think for the most part, that didn’t happen and people were able to speak for themselves from a variety of angles. Not having points of unity or anything that is presented as agreed upon by the whole group, because those things are never actually agreed upon by the whole group, and not having any body that is said by some to be endowed with decision-making power were really helpful in my opinion for that going more smoothly.
Blockader 3: Long-lasting seizures of public space, occupations, and blockades and encampments and things like that—there are certain issues that are just always going to come up. One of those is questions of safe or safer spaces and just what to do with oppressive behavior when it’s not just a subculture there but is open to all kinds of people. Another question and conflict that comes up is over who “belongs” there, and I saw this play out a few times in camp, just arguments over whether “apolitical” houseless people should be there or not. Most people there, and myself included, tend to reject the question or the concept of apolitical and I am personally more interested in having a space that’s really radically open as long as people aren’t being fucked up. But also, you know, fucked up things happen and we need to deal with those things and find ways to preempt them as much as possible. We’ve gotten good in the past several years in this country at looking at infrastructure and logistics, particularly of capital and of extractive industries, as points of intervention. So blocking ports, blocking railroads, blocking pipelines, blocking highways, these are things that tend to happen a lot nowadays—and that’s great, but there are a lot of other things that are more difficult to grasp tangibly that we’re also much worse at shutting down. Patriarchy, white supremacy, all of the really fucked up varieties of oppression that fall along axes of identity. In a certain way, those are a lot harder to see and to stop than a train or a line of police. We’re not very good at dealing with that stuff, no matter how many anti-oppression workshops we do. And there’s often some sense of urgency that privileges the immediate and makes it harder to have those conversations. So, one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is how blockades or occupations can also shut down those relations and open up new ways of experimenting with and interacting with each other.
Blockader 4: We never were able to really well organize, let’s say, a welcoming committee, and I think that with a welcoming committee, we would have been able to say like, okay somebody’s coming in, and that it’s important that right away we engage with them, we talk with them. And then also, then we can explain a little bit one on one about what’s going on here. And that never happened. People were kind of flowing into the camp, free-form. There was no attempt to interact with people right when they came into the camp. And that would have done a number of things, like for one thing, it would have kept the camp a little bit more secure, so that there was somebody who knew who’s coming in and out of the camp. Because a lot of times, infiltrators and alt-right people and stuff like that—if they came into the camp and right away somebody engaged with them, then that would have actually deterred them from going farther because I don’t think that they—essentially they would probably want to walk around and look around and maybe agitate and then walk away. Where as if somebody directly confronted them and tried to interact with them, meaning like, have a conversation with them and introduce them to the space, a lot of times just that amount of attention will deter people. The other thing that it would have done is that it would have given people who are maybe supportive or are looking for a place to stay dry or anything like that [a way] to understand that this is an illegal occupation. This is not necessarily a safer place to be than in a lot of other places in the city due to the fact of the higher police presence and the possibility of a raid at any point in time and the higher surveillance. And explaining to people, like, “Hey, this is a space where we don’t allow misogyny, we don’t allow transphobia, we don’t allow racism, we don’t allow sexism,” all of these things, and giving a moment to have that conversation with somebody. What that does is it allows them the chance, it gives them the opportunity to interact with the space in a way that A) isn’t harming or hurting other people and B) allows them to actually feel a part of what’s going on. Rather than when someone is coming in who is new to these things only having the shaming component, just having call-out culture—I think that wasn’t an ideal situation for the camp. I think that people pushed back really hard against a lot of forms of organization at the camp. I am not an anti-organizationalist per se. What I think happens, especially in these spaces, is that if we don’t organize ourselves effectively and anti-hierarchically, then all of the social problems that we try to deal with like sexism, racism, transphobia, all these things—all they do, unless we try to create organization to try and facilitate and maintain that culture, then the fucked up culture that’s outside of our camp is just going to recreate itself within the camp. And that’s kind of what happened on a number of different levels.
Clara: From the folks we interviewed, there seem to be a few key areas where better communication could have prevented unnecessary tensions.
Alanis: One of the core splits was between those who wanted to issue demands and felt the blockaders needed to present a unified front and agree on one clear message, and those who preferred to act autonomously, either alone or with a few comrades they shared affinity with.
Clara: This is a really common division: while it didn’t prevent this group from pulling off an incredible occupation, it did cause some hard feelings and confusion.
Alanis: One possibility for the future would be to have clear conversations about how autonomy and organization don’t have to conflict: many comrades came away from this action believing that those who didn’t want to sign on to demands or points of unity were actively blocking the others from organizing the infrastructure they wanted to see—like a welcoming committee or a media team. This tension was exacerbated by communiqués on both sides not clearly representing just the authors who wrote them, but claiming to speak for the entire group.
Clara: Ok, I have to say it: fuck demands. I mean, why ask anything from those in power when our goal is to redistribute power? And there will always be people who want to work within existing power structures—how important is it to try to appease them?
Alanis: Yeah, I hear you, but this isn’t as much about giving in to ideologies you don’t share; it’s about building capacity across ideology—which is critically important right now. We don’t all have to agree, but we all benefit from establishing good relationships with other anarchists and anti-hierarchical organizers. For example, if points of unity were so important to some, those blockaders who wanted to could have signed on to a statement that expressed shared values, as long as they weren’t phrased as demands. Something like “we agree that this is a space that doesn’t tolerate oppression.” And it probably would have been a good idea to be more intentional about how to welcome people into the space, so as to set people up for success and help everyone feel responsible for shutting down oppressive behavior when it happened.
Clara: That all makes sense, but my concern is how quickly this can devolve into controlling behavior, where a few in the camp put a lot of pressure on the rest to sign on to their vision of how things should go. What’s more inspiring to me is when a highly diverse group can come together for different reasons, using different tactics, and still pull off something incredible. It’s worth considering that the most exciting things that came out of this action all happened autonomously, without a committee to approve of or direct them.
Alanis: Right, there was clearly at least one blockader who believed everyone should push harder to not just block the train but to disrupt and eventually take over the entire Port, essentially syndicalizing it. Clearly, this wasn’t what everyone was there to do. But in the model I’m proposing, we can all maintain our autonomy and our different goals—I’m just pointing out that anarchists who already believe in autonomy as a core value would do well to explain that to others—those who are more interested in social unity and consensus—how they can exercise their own autonomy. Some unity-oriented comrades feel blocked from acting if they can’t get everyone to sign on, and resent actions that they think “represent” the whole group.
Clara: So, it seems like one core lesson for any public occupation is that you can’t force unity, but you can work towards more transparent and welcoming spaces. I do think making our spaces friendly is important, and doesn’t have to come at the cost of sacrificing autonomy.
Alanis: Like, just being friendly as you remind people that they’re free to act in the ways they want to, and we’re going to do the same?
Clara: This seems like a no-brainer, but being open and warm to people as you explain your differences helps create the kind of social coherence that will actually feel good to everyone. That isn’t coercive.
Alanis: Right, and different circumstances will call for different social responses, clearly. Tensions always run high when everyone’s waiting for a raid and running on lots of coffee and very little sleep, so having these conversations as part of the fun times in camp will help them go better than if everyone’s urgently barking at each other at a general assembly.
Clara: So one conversation that could have happened early on would be something like: “Organizing a media team would be rad, go ahead and do it! Of course, many people will be creating media without coordination, but those who want to coordinate are free to do so!”
Alanis: Exactly. And if that wasn’t well received, following up with why you personally aren’t interested in having a unified voice come out of the blockade, and don’t really care what the mainstream media is printing.
Clara: Some comrades did seem really concerned about the image presented to the so-called “general public.”
Blockader 1: And I think, again, that it’s most important to be aware of everything you do and how it could affect the optics and the response from the community. A lot of that support came from people—not-so-radical ideologies and tendencies and people who you don’t tend to see organizing Olympia in the streets, and I think that’s really important to consider when doing actions like this. The way we present ourselves to the community ends up being really important. I have heard from various people calling themselves anarchists - whatever that means - that the general public hates us. The general public doesn’t want anything to do with us. No matter what we do, it’s not really going to change. It’s the same sort of rhetoric that you hear for the mainstream media, which is a lot more accurate I think. The mainstream media is always going to spin things for corporate gain; that’s what they do. But the greater public is a really diverse group of people and I think the friendlier of an environment we can create, the more support we ended up getting, and I think that that showed itself in this action.
Alanis: But other were less anxious about crafting a good story for the media, and appreciated the diverse communiqués coming out of the blockade.
Blockader 2: I think there was a lot of really solid media coverage from movement media, like It’s Going Down and CrimethInc. I saw a lot of good articles and texts come out of the blockade itself, that people wrote themselves and I thought that that was a great way for people to communicate their different positions and different ideas without needing a unified voice. I didn’t actually see that much mainstream media. There was a pretty solid Washington Post article that came out—unfortunately, on the morning that the camp was evicted. I think the title was something like “Anti-fracking protesters block train in Olympia and they have no plans to leave.” We unfortunately left literally as the article was published. And I think that if the camp had continued past that point for a few more days, there would have been a lot more attention drawn to it, which could have been good or bad.
Blockader 4: The news was very much curious about what was going on this year and was ready for the bloodshed. It was kind of this funny time one night where KIRO, a local news station, had contacted a protester and said, “Hey, we wanna go down and interview somebody.” And they said, “Okay cool. I’m not there; you go down there and I’ll call somebody to come and talk to you.” So they show up and I think that they’ve learned from May Day that they can’t really just show up with their KIRO van, because people don’t take too kindly to that. And so they showed up with an unmarked white van with stuff on the top so everybody’s thinking that it’s some type of surveillance van. And so they call this person—who’s not there—to say, “Okay, we’re here! And there’s people in masks who are starting to walk over to the van and they’re throwing rocks at the van.” And the protester who they had contacted had given them a fake name. They’re leaning out the window being like, “Riley sent us! Riley sent us!” Of course, like, nobody knows who the fuck Riley is. And so—but it was funny, because then some scouts essentially started following around this van, which was the KIRO van but people obviously were very suspicious and they’re like, “The so-called KIRO van has now moved over to 4th and whatever,” you know. It was just hilarious. When KIRO eventually did get to interview somebody, and then they video taped the blockade from very far away, we were having a dance night there and people were all blocked up and dancing around with black flags and it was really awesome. And actually, considering, the KIRO coverage was not overly negative. It did not actually say horrible things about the protesters. It was what I would say would be neutral to benign passive support coverage in the mainstream media—well at least with KIRO, not with our local newspaper.
Blockader 2: Our local paper is like, fucking garbage, but we always knew that. Some weird shit with them where they were basically asserting that proppants are not being shipped. And in the way they wrote the article, it was in this very vague, twisted language of being like, “There is not current plans to move them,” and then omitting the fact that there are bags of proppants in clear view in the port. Even though in comments and stuff, they were like, “It doesn’t say there is not proppants there.” But it doesn’t say that there are and it says that there are no plans to move them and that there hasn’t been a delivery since 2016. Strongly implying that this is literally a fake thing, which is just ridiculous. So it’s hard not to get annoyed by all the shitty, stupid things that are going to be said about any action. In a lot of ways, that matters less and less because I think that people who, in solidarity with our action, are going to be inspired by the blockade, are looking other places. I know that there are other perspectives that would desire for there to be a unified message but I think that showing others that there is a myriad of reasons to be blockading a train and also that it is possible for people whose affinity might begin and end with really not wanting this train to pass to be able to work together, and not only work together and tolerate each other, but to foster a really beautiful space and life together while also having flourishing and complex disagreements that are not just two sides but many, many-faceted and I think that sharing that and having many different perspectives shared is a huge positive.
Clara: The Olympia blockade has as many different stories as people who built it, moved through it, and made things happen there—you can find links to some of these in our show notes! Parts of it were really messy. Parts of it exposed social tensions that we’ll have to learn better ways of handling over the coming years—not only between different tendencies, but between white and indigenous organizers, cis and trans people, and all the other axes of structural oppression that we as individuals bring with us into spaces like this. What is most heartening about actions like these its that people keep showing up and keep trying to work together, despite these inevitable clashes.
Alanis: And even those who disagreed and experienced tension are still in communication with each other, months after the blockade ended. The relationships forged through this action continue to grow and transform.
Clara: Meanwhile, there’s a commune-sized hole in the hearts of the blockaders who shared that space for twelve days.
Blockader 4: We struck a huge blow. It fills me with joy and sorrow constantly in these few days after we’ve gotten broken up about what happened, what we did, the fact that they tore it all down. New connections. New hopes.
Blockader 3: So the entire thing feels pretty repeatable to me. We did repeat it. And I suspect we will repeat it again, but hopefully not in November. Hopefully sometime with sun. Like July. That’d be nice. I think that the things we learned last year really manifested themselves this year and I hope that the same things happen in the future. I hope the relationships and capacities and skills we are continuing to gain grow and spread rather than withering and dying.
Blockader 1: We opened up somewhat of a magical portal into kind of another dimension that while being supported by capitalism surrounding it was not so capitalist and gave a lot of people an idea of what different systems could look like and it was also about creating autonomous community. And I think we opened up a space for the community at large in this area to start having bigger discussions.
Alanis: In closing, we’ll leave you with the gratitude one rebel offers to the indigenous comrades who participated in and helped support the blockade:
Blockader 2: Yeah I want to acknowledge that we are on stolen Squaxin and Nisqually land, governed by the Medicine Creek Treaty tribes and I think it’s important to acknowledge that when we are occupying space, that we are already on occupied land. And then also specially when talking about fossil fuel infrastructure, that indigenous peoples are often on the front lines of both resistance to fossil fuels and also the negative impacts that are had by fossil fuel infrastructure and the environmental devastation that results. And I would like to also thank Nisqually tribal members and other indigenous folks from nearby tribes who did come to the blockade and did a lot of work, both there and then also other prayer work and ceremony work that I think was really important for the blockade’s success and also for us, for people who were there all the time to feel like we could keep going.
Clara: That’s our show for today. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you in the streets! Our weekly news show, “The Hotwire,” will be back with its second season in February. Subscribe by searching for “The Ex-Worker” on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. As always, thanks to Underground Reverie for the music. The CrimethInc Ex-Worker podcast is part of the Channel Zero Network. To listen to a 24/7 stream of anarchist podcasts, go to channelzeronetwork dot com. And check out a trailer for one of the other podcasts in the network now:
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