When people think of the built environment and its consistent racial bias, there is a standard that few people are willing to acknowledge: most of the built environment is conditioned to suit a eurocentric standard while alienating everyone else. Trillions of dollars are spent annually on real estate endeavors and predominantly White communities still boast the highest property values in the country. Psychologically, the message is that non-White communities are worthless and are there for the taking with the blessings of municipal government, while non-White people are left to manage as best as possible. How does the non-White community look for hope with the eminent threats of displacement and alienation? Some people have demonstrated a willingness to fight for visibility, and OrishaLand was the autonomous zone in Austin that pushed Black occupation to the forefront after people forgot about racism after the election.
Over twenty years after the adoption of the New Vision for East Austin, Jordan Walton, yet another Black man was slaughtered in East Austin at the hands of police brutality. East Austin had long been zoned as a “Desired Development Zone,” so police brutality systematically increased to lower property values for prospective developers. Due to the anticipation of Domain Riverside, police brutality in South Central Austin has also increased, despite the purported remorse felt by the City of Austin about the maltreatment of Black citizens. However, 400+1–an organization devoted to liberation–decided that there had been enough talk about how Austin would behave better, and set out to occupy space in Rosewood Park.
Autonomous zones were a big part of 2020 protests in Portland, Minneapolis, and Seattle. People are naturally hesitant of autonomous zones because the dominant narrative is viewed as “safe.” Independent communities raise a lot of questions because they occupy space within the built environment, which has convenience and oppression vying for space in the minds of constituents. Food and utilities are the first concerns, but occupation is always difficult when law enforcement sits on the side of the dominant narrative. OrishaLand was not only dedicated to reclaiming space within the built environment , but recreating the farming and autonomy of Black settlements, present in Austin long before the 1928 Master Plan of 1928.
The main purpose was to take up space with Blackness that was not approved of within the confines of the dominant narrative. To many activists, it has become clear that too many people are more interested in incrementalism and reform instead of actual justice. Within OrishaLand, there was land that was being cultivated for crops, space for people to live, water and restrooms. While the space was open to the public for a few hours every day, it was closed for the most part with patrols to keep the area safe for Black resistance, not people with power. OrishaLand was problematic to the dominant narrative because 1) it was something beyond its control; 2) its existence amplified that none of the previous methods for justice were effective, and 3) people were in support of the autonomous zone, not methodology that the dominant narrative used to pretend to address racism. Things are still quite difficult for Black and Brown people, and society is too comfortable blaming the marginalized for people who marginalize them.
The occupants of OrishaLand were not under any false impression that they were free, because the struggle was still taking place against the dominant narrative. Yes, they were refusing to yield to those in power, but they knew more people were necessary to take land for liberation. Also, they knew that there was going to be a bartering point for anybody who addressed them. It is far easier to take advantage of people who are not ready or willing to die for a cause, because dying for causes is recognition that society is dedicated to destroy those who do not conform. Rather than isolate their dangerous project, occupants knew that if they were peaceful and rational, they would not have to die for their plot. They knew their time was limited.
On March 7, I had the privilege of being able to visit briefly and work within OrishaLand for an hour, which was the most peaceful hour I had experienced in Austin for a while. Yes, they were patrolling the grounds to ensure that people were not violating their space or coming to dismantle or disrupt, but people were talking while gardeners cultivated the crops. Because I wanted to speak to the leadership, I started pulling grass and watering, and listened more than I talked, which is how people should behave when engaging in others’ space: help or leave. Peace without excessive expectation is the life that I and several other people seek; people have no further interest in continuing to know what is ordered by people who do not care. OrishaLand was dismantled on March 11, because even peaceful non-invasive Black autonomy is destroyed by people who need to control. There would be no further gardening, discussions, or the idea of freedom. I took a moment to mourn, knowing that everyone would revert back to the dominant narrative without the occupation.
Instead of using privilege and position to change the position of Black and Brown people in the United States, many people have become anxious waiting for opportunities for protests and voting for two reasons. First, voting is relatively easy. Despite changes in the election process, voting is still relatively simplistic, as is the choice to go vote. Second, there is almost no time involved to participate in a protest or vote. People go at different times of the day, and many people can mail in their ballots, a big part of the 2020 election. However, many elected officials campaigned on the principles that they would change the lives of Black and Brown people, but demonstrated their interest in power, not change. While the populace has been stressed out by circumstances, politicians function as power brokers who dismiss criticism or any skepticism, and instead smirk at people while judging them impatient. Such behavior indicates that people are not truly interested in sustainable lifestyles within the United States for anybody who is not already enjoying a sense of privilege. OrishaLand acknowledges that more people need to be dedicated to the concept of autonomy. Because infinite growth is a requirement of the dominant narrative, there is no further justification for it.