The Free Space – December, 1999

It hadn’t occurred to me what we would do upon arriving in Seattle, or where we would stay. Thankfully, someone else had. Our accommodations turned out to be better than expected, the details of which will be available in my book (ETA: early 2015). We called it the Not Squat. Or something like that. Enough on that for now.

After settling in, we made our way to what I recall being referred to as the Free Space. The Free Space was a large commercial building on a hill that activists were using as a gathering space to make plans, hold workshops, provide free meals soup kitchen-style, and otherwise congregate. The walls were plastered with large posters that included images ranging in diversity from Che Guavara to the American Indian Movement. The anarchist’s symbol – an “A” within a circle – seemed to be on display everywhere. Whatever one’s political philosophy was, one could find a like-mined soul somewhere within the space.

I had never before found myself in the company of so many activists like me and my Free State comrades. It turns out that there were many other Free Space-like bases throughout Seattle, each of which had its own flavor. One was the home of the save-the-sea-turtles folks and other environmentally-minded activists. Another housed the puppet makers. Then there was the Independent Media space, where journalists committed to providing an alternative take of the pending WTO protests were setting up shop. I’m sure that there were plenty more spaces, as more than 100,000 activists would be converging on the city about a week later.

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Caravan to Seattle – Nov./Dec. 1999

Having been purified in the sweat lodge, a caravan of Free Staters embarked on a journey to save society from the World Trade Organization (WTO). Members of the WTO were planning to meet in Seattle in early December to discuss barriers to trade, and thousands of activists worldwide were planning on being there to greet them. At least that’s one way of putting it.

I traveled in an old VW bus with Huck, Hillside, and a handful of others. I recall us stopping for the night in the Black Hills, which was beautiful. We made tabouli, which I had never had but which the vegan in me appreciated (did I mention that I’m also a recovering vegan?!). We pitched our tents, except for those who slept in the bus, and called it a night.

Traveling with a bunch of unshowered hippies and self-proclaimed anarchists, the former of which I identified myself as being, is a unique experience. We sang and played guitars, built fires, and white knuckled it through the mountain passes of the Rockies in the old VW with balding tires. Somehow, thankfully, we managed to survive and rolled into Seattle days before the WTO was to meet…

VW

My First Sweat, Part 2 – Late 1999

I would later discover through personal experience that not all sweats are created equal. Some are by far hotter than others, and this first sweat I attended was blisteringly hot – so hot that I literally felt like my skin was melting. The pain from the heat was unbearable, but I wasn’t about to be the only one to leave the lodge. The leader told us to pray harder if the heat was too intense, so I did.

Being literally in a state of near-agony and using the only coping mechanism possible (other than simply bailing) – praying to the cosmos – in order to tolerate it resulted in a profoundly enlightening and transcendental experience. I left the sweat that night feeling deeply connected to the universe and all things contained therein.

Ultimately, I would participate in other sweats, including one held on the Navajo Nation (formerly known as the Navajo Indian Reservation) in Arizona, and performed by a Dineh woman. The first sweat, however, was most memorable because of its newness and intensity.

sweat lodge sign

My First Sweat – Late 1999

To the uninitiated, participating in a sweat lodge ceremony may hardly seem different than spending time in a sauna. I’m here to tell you, however, that the two are quite different. In addition, there are sweats led by non-native elders that, by their inherent nature, undoubtedly evoke a different spiritual response than a “native sweat.”

A sweat was held at the Free State for those of us who were planning on participating in the upcoming WTO protests in Seattle as a means to honor, protect, and guide us during our pending journey. All day long a massive fire was tended, which served to heat the stones that would later be brought into the lodge.

After nightfall, a group of maybe 15 activists and an American Indian elder crawled into the lodge, which was now covered in a thick layer of blankets, and huddled in a circle around a pit in complete darkness. Some of the grandfathers – the heated stones – were brought in and placed into the pit. Fresh cedar was offered to the grandfathers, and the leader prayed in a native language I did not understand. He then told us about how the sweat lodge represented the womb of the earth, and the hypnotic beat of his drum symbolized her heartbeat.

Heyyyy a hey a hey a heyyyy a hey OH

The sweat’s first of four doors commenced as the elder ladeled water over the grandfathers. All told, there would be 39 grandfathers brought in, which were symbolic of the 39 Mendota who were hung by the government in retaliation for the Mankato uprising nearly 1 1/2 centuries earlier.

The Free State – November, 1999

The Free State occupied several acres of land, some of it wooded, and at least 2 activists stood guard at its perimeter at all times. Tepees, tents, and makeshift structures littered the landscape. I pitched my 2-person tent in a wooded area and did my best to make it homelike, which is rather tough to do when you consider that its dimensions are quite small.

After setting up shop, I made my way back to the Star Lodge, where I met more Carhart-clad, unshowered, and dreadlocked activists. After a few preliminary introductions, I spotted Tree, who then brought me to the most sacred place within the camp: the four oak trees planted in alignment with the four directions way back in the 1800s. In the center was a sacred fire where women on “their moon” (read: menstruating) were not permitted to be. All others were encouraged to make offerings of tobacco, however, which I did. A sign near the fire proclaimed of the government’s violation of a treaty it had entered into with the Mendota many years earlier.

I asked Tree about an odd-looking domed structure tucked off to the side near some bushes. It turned out that it was a sweat lodge and that non-natives were invited to participate in many of the ceremonies that were led by an American Indian elder. To say that I was excited about the prospect of sweating profusely with a bunch of un-showered activists packed as tightly as sardines for a couple of hours is an understatement…

It wouldn’t be long until I had my first of several opportunities to take part in a sweat.

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The four sacred oak trees and a tepee

Justice – November, 1999

The next morning I returned to the camp. An American Indian elder named Bear greeted me. Unlike most of the camp’s occupants who adorned themselves in Carharts brandished with patches adhered by dental floss, Bear wore military drab. We took an instant liking to each other.

I believe it was Tree who showed me around and introduced me to my first round of (mostly) Earth First! activists, many of whom were congregated in the Star Lodge, which served as the camp’ makeshift kitchen and defacto social base. The lodge was constructed primarily of straw bales, scrap building materials, and tarps, and was furnished with a fire pit outfitted with an iron grate, as well as an industrial sink. The water was sourced using large vessels from Coldwater Spring, which was situated several hundred yards away.

I was told to pick a “forest” name, as nobody went by real names at the camp. This was due to the adherence of a security culture, whereby no one trusts anyone – everyone is viewed as either a potential government infiltrator or agent provocateur, and the less one knows about his “friends” the safer he is. It was also to avoid identification by the police and FBI, the former of which was known to be actively monitoring the camp.

My name would now be Justice.

A New Adventure – Late October, 1999

The decision to follow a path of direct action was made over the course of several months and was aided by lectures of the late Krishnamurti. After deep consideration, I knew with absolute certainty that I was doing what I needed to do, even if it ultimately brought me back full circle to where I was at that moment in time.

I left Purdue in late October, and after a brief stint at a Free Tibet event, I made my way north up to Minneapolis, home of the Minnehaha Free State. I arrived late at night and was greeted by John, a super friendly and slightly awkward strawberry blond in his mid to late twenties. John was manning the fire and guarding the camp from the police and other potential unsavories. After a brief chat, he told me to come back the next day.

That night I curled up uncomfortably in the back seat of my car not far from the Free State. Right before nodding off, I broke out my guitar and softly strummed the song I had written around the time I met Bob.

The time has come once again to fight
We warriors must now battle with weapons of love, of truth, of peace
Our enemies will wear suits of armor bearing guns and bombs
But we will prevail, oh yes we will prevail

We must use our minds, our ethics, and our love
To counter their naive indifference
To counter their propaganda and their coercive guns
And we must never give up hope that good will overcome

The tyranny falsely labeled as democracy
Will attempt to quash our spirits, hopes, and lives
Our oppressors will label us as terrorists and anarchists
For the corporate America has so much to lose

(Refrain)

We must now band together for our freedom is at stake
And we must convince the masses that it’s a risk we have to take
If human suffering is to end and idealism will exist again
A revolution must take place in order to preserve our race

(Refrain)

The day I left Purdue…I’m the second from the right.