The Olympia Commune and the Blockade of the Port

It started out simply enough. Someone ran in front of the tracks and stopped a train. The grain cars attached to the engine were going to be filled with proppants for oil fracking and shipped off to North Dakota. It wasn’t difficult to stop the engine, but there was no one else around, just two workers from the train company guiding the engine into the Port of Olympia. It was the afternoon of November 7, 2016.

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One of these workers wore a t-shirt with the Weyland-Yutani corporate logo written on it. This is a fictional corporation from the movie Aliens. In those films, Weyland-Yutani is desperate to get its hands on the perfect weapon: a black, snake-like alien that stands taller than a person and has acid for blood. This alien weapon brings only death. It cannot be controlled. It will destroy anyone who tries to harness it. The train company worker wore this Weyland-Yutani shirt without affect or self-consciousness. He was simply doing his job.

His coworker pleaded for the person to get off the tracks, he claimed they were only in Olympia to pick up some organic corn. This train worker was obviously lying. There was no one else around to help block the tracks and the police were sure to come so the person ran away. At that point, word of the shipment had gone out and people began to arrive with signs, face masks, and banners. While the train engine was being coupled to the grain cars, the blockade of the train tracks grew to almost one hundred people. When the train finally tried to leave the Port of Olympia, there were far too many people for the police to handle and the train was backed up.

The worker with the Weyland-Yutani shirt rode on the front of the engine through the gates of the port. He and his coworker went home eventually, having not lost any wages and perhaps even garnered some overtime. Inside the gates of the port, the ILWU longshoreman had already been paid for loading the proppants into several grain cars and were home for the evening. The only people complaining at the moment was the fracking company in North Dakota, the politicians at the Port of Olympia, the Union Pacific Railroad, and a company called Rainbow Ceramics in China. In this manner, the blockade of the port began.

First a pile of rocks were stacked on the railway. These rocks were considered private property by the owners of Acme Fuel Co., the propane business adjacent to the blockade. The owners returned their private rocks to their private drainage gutter, but at that point a private citizen had brought their private couch to the private railroad tracks to block the private fracking proppants bound for North Dakota. All the while a private FBI surveillance plane circled the blockade, sucking up all digital communications.

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Over the course of the day and on into the evening, the barricade grew to include tents, tables, food, music, and more couches. Every resource available began to flow from every person who wanted to stop the shipment of proppants and help the indigenous warriors assembled in North Dakota. Olympia sprang into motion as it has in the past, with every sympathetic house coming to life. The small locality spread information within itself, it assembled what was needed, it prepared itself for a long struggle. The Olympia Co-Op donated food, as did several other small businesses, and there was widespread support for the blockade among the local population.

The Olympia Police Department employs around 60 officers. On a random day, only half of them are on duty in a city of 50,000 people. Once the blockade was established, the Olympia Police Department simply didn’t have enough officers to do anything about it. Their only option would be to ask for mutual aid from the Thurston County Sheriff’s Department. However, there are only 54 sheriff’s employed by the department and on a random day only half of them are presiding over 700 square miles of land. All of these officers would have been necessary to clear the blockade, leaving the entire county vulnerable to every sort of crime and disorder. It would ultimately take them six days to assemble the necessary resources.

During the first night of the blockade, a poor man who lived in a nearby shack walked down the railroad tracks towards the encampment. He approached the sound van and got into a fight with several people. Once he was taken away from the barricade, a few people tried to talk with him. The man claimed it was not a protest, that it was a party. He claimed everyone was part of the Illuminati, that they were sent to discredit real protest. When he was told that the Illuminati were not real, that the Illuminati was in fact just a centuries-old monarchist slur used against anyone who threatened their arbitrary authority, the man did not know how to respond. Unfortunately, another argument began after this and the homeless man said to the assembled crowd “mock me some more!”

The next morning he reappeared and began throwing rocks and slashing at tents with a knife. He claimed that the barricade was going to result in the police evicting him from his shack along the railroad tracks. After he was talked down from this conclusion, those assembled decided to move the camp further down the tracks. All of the couches and supplies were moved by foot and by car five blocks to the south. It was rainy and miserable that morning, everyone was delirious, but soon there were strings being tied onto every pole and in every direction. Tarps were hung up against the rain, all the tents and gear was sorted, and more people began to arrive. By the middle of the day, a massive impediment was placed along the tracks. Made of palates, soil, couches, rocks, and wood, it seemed to grow on its own, culled from supplies gathered across town by countless hands.

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People began to wear masks inside the camp. This was never questioned, given the constant surveillance of the barricade. Informal assemblies would occur, mostly based on need. Different committees were formed, the majority of them informal. The construction committee appeared but its purpose was soon diffused. Everyone built everything. The other committees fluctuated, consensus was never forced among the group, and an anarchist encampment was successfully established. Security was a matter for all and the dreaded “peace and safety committee” never managed to form. Only later, towards the end of the blockade, did the assembly become formalized.

A small faction of people began to spread a non-violent discourse in the camp. They demanded the blockade issue a letter of apology to “the indigenous” for endangering their struggle with reckless action. They demanded that the camp officially accept non-violence as its ideology. They claimed certain people were initiators of “violence” and tried to disempower the encampment through guilt based identity politics meant to cause paralysis and inaction.

These efforts were ultimately counteracted, in large part due to the presence of indigenous people who were very pleased with the blockade and wished it to continue. Several members of local and distant tribes had already addressed the camp and expressed their gratitude, but for some reason this small faction of non-violent activists insisted something was wrong. The formal assembly was the only venue through which this faction could attempt to implement its ideology. Like all politicians, they need a legislature to legislate. Without this, their ability to act crumbles. These attempts at co-optation consumed two entire evenings worth of discussion. In total, the encampment lasted six days. Had those final nights been free of this bureaucratic constraint, the encampment would have been better able to prepare for what was coming.

The morning of November 17, 2016 was a delerium, half-dream, half-hallucination. Screams filled the air once the riot cops entered the camp. There were dozens of these cops, almost a hundred, and there were less than twenty people guarding the tracks. Group by group, people in masks left their houses and gathered along the edge of the police lines. The camp was entirely surrounded, there was no way to get close to those trapped inside. This was a huge operation for both the Olympia Police Department and the Thurston County Sheriff. It involved the Union Pacific Railroad Police Department, various City of Olympia employees, and an unmarked FBI surveillance plane.

Despite all this, a group of people in masks blocked the garbage trucks and forklifts entering the camp, they climbed over the equipment like wild animals, they ran from police pepper-balls and concussion grenades. People screamed at the police with all of their hatred and anger. They built barricades and lit fires in the streets, they chased unmarked police cars away, they tried to hold the tracks for as long as possible. But once the barricade was cleared two lines of riot police escorted the engine out of Olympia. They shot anyone who tried to climb on the train, the beat anyone who came close, they outnumbered the small number of masked rebels who held the streets until the sun came up and the morning commute began. Those lucky drivers were treated to a rare sight in Olympia. It is not every morning that the cops and the sheriff have to escort a train out of town.

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This type of thing is only going to keep happening. It cost the city tens of thousands of dollars to clear the camp. The economic impact on the Port of Olympia is not fully clear. The ILWU longshoremen feel their jobs are being threatened, the conservative Port Commissioners want all commodities to be able to come through, the friendly Port Commissioner wants to ban all petroleum related products, and the hydraulic fracking proppants now sit under tarps waiting to be loaded for the next shipment. Nothing has moved since the blockade. The proppants are still there.

In the middle of the encampment, a conservative senator from Ferndale (north of Bellingham) told the media he was going introduce a bill against what he called “economic terrorism.” This senator believes that anyone who stops commerce in any way is an “economic terrorist.” This senator also happens to have been the Trump campaign manager for the State of Washington. While the blockade was ongoing, a rumor circulated that a trainload of sugar had been unable to reach a Pepsi manufacturing plant because of the barricade. A small rail spur extends off the Union Pacific line at precisely the spot where the encampment was located. This spur is owned by the Genesee-Wyoming Railroad and travels through Olympia into the neighboring city of Tumwater.

The spur does not go directly into any Pepsi manufacturing plant or bottling facility. However, it does service the plastic company (AMCOR) that provides the bottles in which the locally produced Pepsi products are distributed. Oddly enough, all of the Pepsi products in Thurston, Pierce, and south Mason counties are manufactured in and distributed out of the Mottman Industrial Park in Olympia (by L & E Bottling Co.).

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This Genesee-Wyoming rail spur also services a metal company, a pipe company, and a Boneville Power Administration electrical substation. One small disturbance on the railway was enough to threaten all of this. Whether in North Dakota or Washington, someone clearly called in a favor to the Trump-loving senator from Ferndale and the result is this “economic terrorism” bill. It is unlikely to pass, given that the Washington House of Representatives is still controlled by the Democrats. In the unlikely event that it does pass the House, the Democratic governor has no desire to reward the local campaign manager for Donald Trump by signing his bill into law.

We are living in a changed context, more volatile and dangerous, but also rife with possibility. The encampment and blockade in Olympia is a perfectly contained, easily replicated model that can be used to stop petroleum from moving across rail lines. What allowed it to work was the intention of staying. There were no leaders to manage what happened, no professional activists taking charge. For those six days, everyone saw functioning, militant, conscious anarchism in play. All six days of it were glorious. Those six days will last forever once enough of you get the memo. Good luck.

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