More than two years after ad-hoc networks of collective care sprouted from the cracks of state neglect during the pandemic, mutual aid organizers across the U.S. are convening in Indiana this July to prepare these networks to face crisis, disasters and survival for the long haul.
“To the extent that we engage in this work only as an emergency response, it’s doomed to stay a Band-Aid,” said Shannon Malloy, who is helping plan a “Dual Power 2022” gathering from July 29-31 at Indiana Dunes State and National Parks. “It’s our long-term, larger-scale interconnectedness that makes it more of a long-term viable solution, as opposed to just a way to stop the bleeding.”
Malloy described building mutual aid networks as a tactic in the strategy of constructing “dual power,” defined by the Black Socialists of America as “[a] situation where there are two powers — a democratic one developed by poor and working-class people (defined by direct democracy), and the other one capitalist (defined by domination) — coexisting and competing for legitimacy during a transition away from Capitalism.”
To this end, Woodbine, an experimental hub in Ridgewood, Queens, hopes to promote dialogue and cooperation between mutual aid groups for building dual power. In May, Woodbine hosted a regional gathering on “Autonomy and Survival” alongside Symbiosis, a network of grassroots organizations building a democratic and ecological society. Participants agreed to wear masks and take COVID-19 tests prior to attending to eliminate the risk of transmitting the coronavirus. The gathering provided organizers with space for reflecting, sharing and strategizing together to strengthen their projects locally and regionally.
“I think there was a real need for people to finally be able to gather in person to meet new people that they didn’t know or weren’t working with for the last few years to hear about different people’s experiences doing mutual aid work,” said Matt Peterson, a cofounder of Woodbine. “Political organizing, or transformation, is going to occur with real people in a real space. People that know each other have trust. They can talk to each other. They can learn.”
“Just in terms of New York City, it was interesting because we had BAM from Bushwick, which is just right next door to Ridgewood, and then we had Washington Square Park, which is in Manhattan, and then Woodbine,” said Peterson. “We’re all in New York City, but we have three very different organizational forms, very different approaches in terms of what we’re doing, very different ways of relating to each other internally.”
For its part, Woodbine underwent major organizational changes during the pandemic. Their physical hub transitioned from an events and meeting space into a full-time aid hub. In collaboration with Hungry Monk, a homeless outreach organization with some Woodbine-affiliated volunteers, neighbors began distributing hundreds of bags of fresh food — mostly obtained for free through partnerships with farms and businesses — on Wednesdays and Fridays.
“After two years of COVID, we’ve built trust and we maintained it,” Peterson said. “We didn’t do it for a few Instagram photos. So that builds more trust and new trust and that enables us to meet more people and meet different people and hopefully, expand the types of work we want to do or can do in Ridgewood, or throughout the city.” Peterson noted their ability to respond to the pandemic depended on infrastructure that members of the collective had built during previous disaster relief efforts, including 9/11, the financial crisis of 2008 and Hurricane Sandy.
In December 2020, Woodbine used funds it raised throughout the year to move into a space three times the size of its original location. Its pantry runs on Mondays and Wednesdays, with people lined up around the block well-before doors open. The new space is large enough to accommodate donation-based yoga twice a week, film screenings, an open gym with certified trainers, reading groups, Sunday night dinners and large-scale events.
A variety of other models of mutual aid organizing have emerged across the country. In Manhattan, Washington Square Park Mutual Aid formed out of rowdy battles against police evictions of the park. The collective sets up a free market with food, clothes and toiletries each Friday and distributes food and water to protesters during political demonstrations. On June 24, the group distributed free water, pizza and tacos during protests against the overturning of Roe v. Wade. BAM has operated a volunteer-run hotline for neighbors in need of food, masks, diapers, and other items for more than two years.
In Richmond, Virginia, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief Richmond (MAD RVA), a group that allocates micro-grants and ran a free supply drive in the state during the pandemic, raised thousands of dollars to transition toward opening a physical space for a free store. People will be able to come in and take whatever they want for free, a mutual aid model collective members say provides people with autonomy over their choices.
Woodbine and Symbiosis’s “Autonomy and Survival” gathering facilitated connections between disparate mutual aid organizers for building power regionally.
Taylor Fairbank, Distribute Aid’s operations director who recently moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after coordinating aid shipments across Europe for years, said the gathering helped him feel more attuned to the mutual aid landscape in the U.S.
“Oh, my gosh, that was exactly what I needed at a personal and organizing level, it was so exciting and refreshing,” he told Truthout. “I got to meet so many people for the first time there and have an actual conversation — not just the occasional call or message in the group chat — and get caught up with what they had been doing in the states for the past few years, and just build those connections.”
Distribute Aid sent aid shipments to the Atlanta Survival Network months ago, and Fairbank said meeting some of its organizers in person helped build trust between them. Fairbank also met organizers with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MADR) for the first time, and the two groups are already coordinating sending a truck-worth of water bottles to Florida to help with summer heat waves and to prepare stockpiles for hurricane season.
“I met them for the first time at Symbiosis. Boom, now we’re talking,” he said, of MADR organizers. “This wouldn’t have been possible without regional coordination that clearly exists in the U.S.,” said Fairbank, “and without these meetups and these events, you know, that heartbeat that keeps us connected and that place where we can tell each other stories and kind of dream of a shared future.”
Yet, many mutual aid projects that formed during the pandemic or uprisings have withered. Some suffocated under the weight of their own contradictions by replicating charity models, creating rigid leadership structures, or aligning themselves with local politicians. In the U.K., data suggests roughly 4 in 10 mutual aid groups that formed during the pandemic are still active.
Intentional spaces like regional gatherings push organizers to reflect on why some mutual aid projects wind up replicating the very systems many organizers hope to abolish. Durable and effective mutual aid networks tend to prioritize slowly building relationships around anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist values, says Payton, an organizer with MADR who attended the gathering and is making a documentary about mutual aid. (Payton preferred to only give his first name.)
“Mutual aid is contingent on relationships. It’s really difficult to just call a bunch of people in the room who have vaguely relevant values, or even conflicting values, and call it mutual aid,” he said. “I think we need to be a lot more scrutinizing. What do we want? What world are we building towards? How are we actually materially supporting each other and showing up for each other? Do I know you? Do I have your back? Am I in a long-term committed struggle with you? And this is where we start to develop real mutual aid.”
Mutual aid predates colonialism, Payton noted, but it didn’t need to be named as a concept. “It was just how people functioned,” he said. “We have to really think and be committed, and listen to the people who have been doing this longer than us, particularly the matriarchs and the people of color, or the people in our communities who are just doing the damn thing and not calling it ‘mutual aid.’”
For many organizers, mutual aid and abolition of the nation-state are intertwined because without police and politicians, or any type of carceral state apparatus to control resources, people could meet their own survival needs in an autonomous and communal manner on their own accord.
“White people who are interested in mutual aid really need to sit with what it means to come from a culture that has deprived the world of its ability to participate in cooperation and mutual aid and think critically then about what it means to live on the stolen land with infrastructure that’s been built by stolen bodies,” says Payton.
Once organizers establish democratic decision making structures and relationships around abolitionist values, they have a better chance of building robust federations, the organizational structure whereby autonomous groups build power locally, and then connect and support each other regionally according to set principles without a central authority.
Building federations and dual power is, of course, a tedious process. It won’t miraculously emerge out of a gathering — a difficult pill to swallow in the context of urgent, looming existential threats like the climate crisis.
“In the future, we may need to set up water purification infrastructure for whole communities, decommission nuclear power plants, or be an accomplice to the trees and help them reverse climate chaos, as only they, not us, have the wisdom and ability to do,” writes Jimmy Dunson in a forthcoming anthology Building Power While the Lights Are Out: Disasters, Mutual Aid, and Dual Power. “The skills, connections, education, experience, and experiments we learn and do now matter. Our exodus from the state and capital is not inevitable but rather hinges on our individual and collective choices. And there is no road map to where we are going. We make these paths by walking them.”
“A friend at the Symbiosis gathering at Woodbine shared the metaphor of an arch bridge,” he explained. “We can’t start with the keystone which is in the middle, and it’s suspended by gravity. It’s held together by the friction of stones that came before it. Those stones that come before are the on-the-ground long-term relationships and infrastructure that needs to necessitate the finality of the bridge, which is the federation.”
June 1 marks the start of hurricane and wildfire season. This is a time when many wait with baited breath, wondering how they will survive another storm even as they have yet to recover from prior weather emergencies. This is the time of year when anxiety kicks into high gear, and when post-traumatic stress disorder can take hold. This is the time of year when one vows to prepare, but limited resources make it impossible to do so.
While the start of wildfire and hurricane season has always been anxiety-inducing, the climate crisis has introduced new cause for concern. Climate change is causing the Earth to warm to dangerous levels. As our climate warms, we experience stronger winds, higher storm surges, record rainfalls, and costlier and more destructive hurricanes and weather events. As climate change intensifies, so will natural disasters, leaving many of us in a state of suspended animation.
Unfortunately, the people most impacted by the climate crisis are the people least responsible for creating it. Black, Latino and Indigenous communities have a 50 percent higher vulnerability to climate events and often face increased threats from hurricanes. This is not a chance occurrence. Racist housing and zoning policies and practices segregate our communities into the most environmentally fragile areas. This makes communities of color even more susceptible to climate disasters and the disaster economy.
In the wake of escalating storms brought on by the climate crisis, we must demand more from our elected officials. They should not be able to divert tax dollars and feed a disaster economy. Officials must take action to support mutual aid funds and grassroots organizers who are doing the hard work of helping neighbors and friends survive, heal, and rebuild with dignity and hope.
Disaster Relief Fails Marginalized Communities
Historically, the people of Louisiana have not been able to depend on disaster dollars to actually reach them. Because of this, Louisianians know that mutual aid efforts are far more effective than bureaucratic agencies. In fact, mutual aid has been the lifeline enabling Louisianians to survive during times of crisis.
But when natural disasters strike, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is currently the chosen method of disaster response at the federal level. From Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to Hurricane Ida in 2021, FEMA has consistently failed to address the material needs of most constituents, especially marginalized survivors. FEMA rarely helps survivors navigate insurance claims and pay out real dollars to rebuild. It often refuses to offer support to survivors with insurance, despite many insurance companies going bankrupt and delaying or withholding payments from policyholders. Equally troubling, FEMA has a history of doling out hundreds of millions of dollars to consultants and out-of-state companies while local neighborhoods and infrastructure crumble.
Louisianians know from experience that relying on bigger agencies does not correlate to receiving better aid. In many cases, the opposite is true. The Stafford Act, which governs FEMA, is too rigid to truly give communities what they need. It was not until last year that FEMA allowed families to receive funds without having clear title to their damaged homes.
While we do not know the severity of the storms that will come our way, we do know that grassroots groups are best able to support the local community. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, the quickest help some people received was through mutual aid efforts. For instance, days after the storm, and well before FEMA showed up, my organization, Power Coalition for Equity & Justice, was on the ground distributing direct cash assistance and aid to help survivors find temporary lodging, pay for child care, and feed their families.
We helped relocate people to safe havens, established a line of communication with vulnerable communities to share insights on resources, and ensured that people had access to food and medical supplies. We basically transitioned our entire body of work for focus on equitable disaster recovery. Before the crisis, we had been working on voting issues, COVID-19 testing and support, and education justice campaigns.
What’s more, we must all appreciate that disasters have specific phases — relief, recovery and rebuilding better. The media often covers the immediate aftermath of a storm, but its cameras do not always capture the recovery and rebuilding phase. Indeed, they have often moved on to other breaking news. Without the watchful eye of the fourth estate, many people are left vulnerable to the outside forces that swarm their communities in wake of climate disasters. For instance, one key FEMA shortcoming is the agency’s focus on simply aiding and not rebuilding communities impacted by natural disasters. This is something that is rarely highlighted by a media driven by the 24-hour news cycle.
Moving Beyond the Disaster Economy
Unfortunately, there is entire disaster economy of consultants and contractors and who profit off the pain of marginalized people. The disaster economy kicks into high gear in times of crisis, siphoning off resources and leaving many people worse off than they originally were. As a result, many citizens face cutbacks on resources, which are in many cases allocated to inefficient and profit-driven contractors to be used on shoddy work that is never completed. These experiences are crushing to those who have already lost so much.
Rather than relying on large agencies to implement disaster relief, the federal government could implement a tax credit that puts resources directly in survivors’ hands, much like the child tax credit.
Hurricanes tend to occur around the beginning of the month, forcing people to use critical dollars on hotels and gas in search of safety. This creates a terrible cycle in which people must find a way to survive even as their homes are destroyed and their bills are due. During Hurricane Ida, which took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, people who were already hurting from the faltering economy stayed in tents on their properties instead of leaving and seeking safer shelter, as it was unclear how much aid they would receive from FEMA.
As we navigate another wildfire and hurricane season, we are demanding federal solutions that empower communities to rebuild with dignity. Texas Rep. Al Green is looking at ways to ensure disaster Community Development Block Grants are available to the community. Such grants are provided by Department of Housing and Urban Development and offer seed money to help communities begin the rebuilding process.
FEMA is not the only solution; government entities must increasingly support innovations that have the connection and flexibility of mutual aid funds. It must also work to deliver lifesaving aid more promptly, streamlining existing processes and other innovations to support those in dire circumstances. We know the storms are coming — the question is, are we ready to help people move outside of the eye of the storm?
In 1918, tobacco represented the second most important export of Puerto Rico after sugar cane. Its production continued expanding until imported cigarettes took over during the 1930s, causing a devastating decline in the Island’s tobacco production2. By the mid 1940s, my great-grandfather, Marcelino Rodríguez, was a living fossil of the colonial Puerto Rican economy. Due to his birthplace and social upbringing, Marcelino had learned every single step of the tobacco economy, from the agricultural phase to its production and the curation of the crop. By default, his children learned the trade from an early age, as well. Marcelino was not a land or farm owner. His family belonged to the socioeconomic class of the agregados – that is, the bottom echelon in the workforce hierarchy who lived on a plantation as part of the remnants of the nineteenth century Spanish economy of African slavery, followed by notebook labor and wage labor3. It did not matter that the government’s land reforms of the time granted Marcelino a parcela, or land plot4, to build a small home for his children. This was not an indicator of significant progress, nor did it bring financial stability. Success was far away for any member of the working class.
Regularly, Marcelino boarded the now disappeared train from Barceloneta to San Juan during a time in which both locations were so distant, Borikén seemed to be three times its size. As a middleman in the tobacco economy, he spent the week in Barrio Obrero selling his product. There was no romance in Marcelino’s travels. The melody of Lamento Borincano5 did not occupy his mind. Marcelino’s reality kept him far from entertaining a popular song of the time. There was neither past in his memory nor future on the horizon, only a constant present. Marcelino’s wife, Masimina Pérez, died young, leaving seven children behind to care for. Thus, Marcelino’s most productive week at Barrio Obrero was not enough to meet the needs of his children. Neither was it enough to undo the family disruption that resulted from Masimina’s death. From early on, the children had to join the workforce. My grandmother Matilde became a domestic servant at age eleven. She had to bring a younger sibling to live in the house that became both her work and domicile. The older siblings had to migrate to the tomato fields in Utah, the factories in Chicago, and Nuevayol.
The circumstances of Marcelino’s life were parallel to the entire rural workforce in Puerto Rico. The 1940s are known to be a time of stark contradictions. The Island had hardly recovered from the social, political, and economic troubles of the 1930s6,7,8, which brought the Island economy close to collapse9. With the beginning of World War II, all imports and exports of the Island were affected to such a degree that the danger of starvation was a possibility for the Boricua working class10. During this time, most programs funded by Roosevelt’s New Deal, which were developed under the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA) were on their way to failure. The Puerto Rico Glass Corporation and the Pulp and Paper Corporation, two of the most relevant industrial projects of the PRRA, are clear examples of how the oppressive dynamics of the colonialist policies of the United States, the hostility from capitalist private enterprises, and the colonial political opposition collided to sabotage government-run programs that could have brought some economic relief to a colonized country in crisis.11 It is not surprising that the demise of the economic relief programs of the time came from the same colonizing government body that funded it in the first place. Later work by economic historians reveal that the great majority of the funds spent in all of PRRA programs were funneled back into the United States economy12.
The 1940s ended, and with them, the hopes of generations of workers who were impacted by the power of colonialism and all its forms of oppression. The first fifty years of United States rule proved to be a continuation of the interventionist practices that plagued the Puerto Rican people for 400 years under Spanish rule until 1898. The absentee white-collar brutality of the United States colonialism13, the predatory power of capitalist corporations in the agricultural fields14, the servitude of colonial political parties15, and their mafia-like enterprises formed a maraña16 of power dynamics that stymied Puerto Ricans in their ability to express and exercise their own will as a people.
The journey of struggle and suffering that Puerto Ricans endured for the first fifty-two years of United States occupation went on as if it never happened. All the abuses in the sugar cane fields, the political repression against pro-independence ideology, the sterilizing campaigns on women, these events that scarred Puerto Ricans for generations until present, were subjects that rarely made the headlines in the United States press. The American colonization brought an additional layer of isolation. Beyond the automatic isolation Puerto Rico is subject to due to its condition as an island in the eastern-most corner of the Caribbean, the island is also politically marginalized through its removal from the discourse that took place in the media from the beginning of the occupation. This isolation, perpetrated by the power of media and the ways in which history is documented, persists today in many forms, including language, the sanitization of historical facts, and other invisible barriers that result in acts of usurpation.
The acts of resistance against the power of United States colonialism of the 1950s through violence were a testament to the suffering that persisted for decades before. The promises of self-government of the time were not a reason for relief, but a reason for uprising in 195017. For Marcelino, and so many rural workers, life had continued without a day of rest, without time to reflect about the political turmoil around them.
The Real Taste of Piña Colada
One typical morning in the 1960s, my uncle Saturnino, a pineapple-field worker in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, got up to go to work without knowing that he would never return home. Saturnino was not a pineapple-field worker by choice; his fate was predetermined by his place of birth, his parents’ socioeconomic upbringing, their race. The relentless rain the night before had left the fields almost entirely flooded. Saturnino and his coworkers needed to work. The misfortune of their lives couldn’t afford a day off. They insisted on working because the behaviors of the plantation owners were known to be voyeuristically inconsistent. They were laid off frequently for no real reason, and despite the unsafe circumstances of the field due to exposure to wet powerlines, it would not be the first time the crew worked under these unsafe conditions.
Saturnino was the first worker to enter the field in defiance of the capataz. Shortly after, his body lay dead by electrocution. Work resumed once the waters receded. Others took Saturnino’s place in the field. His name was unimportant to the pineapple company. Then the pineapple economy that once scarred my family and the people of my barrio became insignificant in the capitalist agenda of the United States. When the pineapple economy collapsed, its demise was invisible to the colonizer. The fields were replaced with pharmaceutical companies, roads, funeral homes, and cemeteries.
The land reform projects that began during the New Deal era and that dragged on with the beginning of the new colonial government of the Commonwealth continued to bring more disappointments for years to come. The initial idea of the land reform consisted of la tierra para el que la trabaje18, 19. This political platform was radical in nature. In essence, it represented the Zapatista principles. The new colonial leadership of the Commonwealth, while instrumental in persecuting and imprisoning people of pro-independence ideology, also understood the reasons why Pedro Albizu Campos was successful in gaining the trust of sugar cane workers to lead the strike of 193420. As the leader of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, Albizu Campos dedicated his life to anti-colonialist pro-independence struggle through armed resistance. His success in leading the sugar cane strike, his incendiary rhetoric, and relentless political strategy made him the most dangerous figure against US imperialism in the Caribbean, for which he faced persecution, imprisonment and torture until his death in 196521, 22. Colonial politicians knew Albizu Campos was right in defining both colonialism and the working conditions of la zafra, slavery23, 24. The colonial government could see the abuses of the sugar cane corporations through their monopolies that dominated the Island. The land reform legislation attempted to break the sugar cane monopolies by redistributing and limiting the amount of land a corporation could possess25. The colonial government knew that if they could not improve the conditions of agricultural workers, squashing the political opposition would be meaningless, an uprising could happen again, regardless.
The colonial government’s land reform initiative failed in its attempts at redistributing the land to make communities more self- sufficient. Nevertheless, it was partially successful in providing small land grants for working families to obtain property. This is how a lot of political loyalties were forged for generations to come. The sugar cane monopolies receded with the shift of the economy from agriculture to manufacturing. Corporations followed one key rule; if they were not controlling and exploiting the land, Puerto Ricans certainly could not either. The effects of this approach can still be felt in the present as Puerto Rico imports up to 85 percent of the food it consumes. With time, colonial governments hid their failure to include a sustainable agricultural plan in their economy by arguing that entertaining such a strategy represented a return to the past. Maintaining a negative perception towards agriculture on the Island was also effectively used for decades later as an axe against the independence movement. Today, Puerto Rico continues to feel the negative effects of capitalism perpetrated by the sugar cane monopolies that dominated the Island during the first fifty years after the United States invasion. United States Congress legislation from the distance has paved the way for the dysfunction of colonialism to continue pushing the Island into a dead end. Presently, the deaths of workers like Saturnino repeat themselves in nurses dying in car accidents while commuting to three jobs that are not enough to sustain a family. The death of Saturnino occurs again in entire communities poisoned by toxic coal ash from highly polluted waste landfills. The death of Saturnino repeats again in generations of people who throughout their lives, worked, retired, and died in poverty because their pensions were taken by vulture hedge funds and the politicians that benefited from these corrupt schemes. Throughout time, the power of capitalism and colonialism under United States rule have proved to be toxic to Puerto Ricans. Those who have obtained power through colonial privilege have become another piece in the game of abuse and corruption. Much of what we thought we gained as people had been lost by the means of a power that insists in controlling our way forward. Solidarity among ourselves is all we have.
Hurricanes and Solidarity
The word hurricane comes from the Taíno word, juracán. To the Taínos, juracán was a god capable of manifesting nature’s deadliest rage. For them, juracán was not specific to a powerful storm with intense winds. Juracán could have displayed its power through a severe drought, or perhaps an earthquake. This word became part of universal language the moment Europeans set foot in the Caribbean due to the high frequency of the storms. Hurricanes influenced the lives of the Taínos, and obviously, still influence the lives of Puerto Ricans and people of the Caribbean today. Hurricanes have the capacity to disrupt the normal routines of life. The destruction that comes with the rage of a hurricane is a rapid introduction to trauma. Psychologically, hurricanes make people aware of the realities they do not want to see or accept, including the deception of colonialism. Nothing can bring the people of the Caribbean to the remarkable collective awareness of endurance, resistance, survival, and solidarity like a hurricane. In fact, a hurricane in 1514 resulted in the first African uprising of the Americas26. Taínos and Africans came together in solidarity to form a new Puerto Rican identity fighting against slavery. A hurricane also initiated the collapse of the government in the summer of 2019.
The Manatí river cuts through my hometown, Barceloneta. The river flows about half a mile from my old family home, where I was un chamaquito27. When I first heard the high-pitch-screeching sound of the river like nails scraping metal, when I heard the snapping of trees being dragged by the stream in the middle of the night, I understood why the Taínos considered a hurricane like a god. After a big storm or a hurricane, my neighborhood and many others would always end up surrounded by water. Many others, under it.
I was about eight years old the first time I walked with my mother, my brother, and my grandmother into town after a storm to shovel mud out of my aunt’s house, followed by her neighbor’s. As I grew up, I repeated this same trip with my family carrying a shovel into town a number of times. After a hurricane or a big storm, actions like this one were very common in my community. One had to help with whatever was needed. Whether the work consisted in cutting tree branches, moving debris to open a road or a neighborhood street, or finding out where water, propane gas canisters, or other basic need items were available, mutual aid work becomes essential for community functioning and survival after a hurricane.
During the last several years, hurricanes and natural disasters alike have become notorious in exposing the corruption of colonialism, debunking false truths about dependency and the inability of communities to provide care for each other through mutual aid. During the aftermath of hurricane María, there were many narratives attempting to dominate the political discourse through the media. The narrative from the government of the United States attempted to minimize the impact of the storm by insisting that the aid provided by federal agencies was excellent. The colonial government tried to articulate that it had the situation under control. Both failed miserably. To this day, the two governments are unable to deal with the truth about the many deaths for which their neglect is responsible.
A narrative of powerlessness, of victimhood towards Puerto Ricans persisted for some time in the media after hurricane María. There is no denying that there was a humanitarian crisis on the Island. Hospitals were shut down. People were dying in them due to absence of treatment and care. Morgues were overflowing. Containers had to be brought in to store the bodies. The public paid for that. In many communities throughout the Island, there was no access to prescription medications, potable water, electricity, food, and other basic necessities. Despite these obstacles, it is undeniable that communities were doing the work of opening roads and making themselves accessible to receive and share aid when available. Both the colonial and federal governments failed in acknowledging the work communities facilitated for them. They continued to present a narrative of isolation and lack of access to justify their idle state.
Through the middle of the aftermath of the hurricane, several mutual aid initiatives emerged in different regions of the Island. These mutual aid efforts, sometimes known as autogestión28, were ignited by many communities that were not in any way connected to the colonial government. All of them emerged organically without following specific political ideologies or theories. Still, their functioning based on collective solidarity while refusing hierarchical power schemes makes these organizations a model for how to decolonize from the root. The undeniable leadership of women, especially mothers and grandmothers, in these movements as agents of cultural change is essential in breaking old paradigms of oppression that mimic colonialist systems dominated by men.
Food and Crisis: The Great Unifiers
Not all mutual aid initiatives emerged as a function of a hurricane. For obvious reasons, however, hurricanes can produce the conditions of a crisis that would push communities to initiate sustainable mutual aid efforts. Food insecurity is probably the first sign of social stress that set communities in motion to provide care for each other in solidarity. The great majority of the mutual aid initiatives that emerged during the aftermath of hurricane María started providing food in impacted and isolated communities. This was the case of the Centro de Apoyo Mutuo in Caguas, Mariana in Humacao, Bucamaronesin Las Marías, and La Olla Común in Río Piedras, among many others. Presently, all these organizations have evolved to diversify the services they provide to their communities. In the case of Caguas, the one project I had the opportunity to visit and support shortly after the hurricane, they started with serving food but moved on to rescue (occupy) a building, and today the project provides with limited shelter: a food bank; a health and wellness center that includes acupuncture; an urban garden; workshops on earthquake preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation; and periodic people’s assemblies, among other services. All other organizations have taken similar approaches involving art, theater, and other forms of progressive education strategies for children. All of the organizations have collaborated with each other in various community events and have embraced all Puerto Rican forms of cultures such as Bomba and Plena as a way of defining a new decolonized identity.
A different kind of crisis birthed a mutual aid-like organization that has become one of the most trusted community agencies in Puerto Rico. Casa Pueblo started in 1980 in the town of Adjuntas as a self-sustaining environmentalist organization. Casa Pueblo was formed to combat an open-sky mining proposal that would have destroyed the entire town of Adjuntas, and parts of Jayuya, Utuado, and other adjacent municipalities. The initiatives of Casa Pueblo brought a sense of unity and community leadership against environmental destruction. Later on, the organization took on the management of the Bosque del Pueblo, the forested area that would have been destroyed by the mining project. Bosque del Pueblo contains one of the remaining ceremonial sites of the Taínos. Casa Pueblo was never known as a mutual aid anarchistic organization, but as an autogestión project, one that evolved to serve the people. Its success provided a blueprint for many of the mutual aid efforts that surfaced after hurricane María.
The practice of mutual aid in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean is an ancient tradition. Due to our place in the world as an island with subtropical weather conditions, by default, we are set to live in open communities. Our windows are always open. Everyone can hear what is going on in the neighborhood. There is a constant entra y sale29 of people in communities. There is a constant exchange of goods among neighbors and nearby friends in communities. There is a constant flow of information about what is needed and where it is available in communities. You just put the word out there, and it makes it to where it needs to go.
I see my grandmother Matilde, at 86 years of age, putting mutual aid into practice. She turns the stove on, cooks some guiso30, shares it with who needs it, and whatever she needs, whether it is a ride to a doctor’s appointment, grocery store, or church, will be provided by someone eager to return the favor. It occurs organically, without political ideology or theory – just out of love and solidarity.
I return to the importance of mutual aid being initiated organically, with no political ideology or definition, because Puerto Rico is still finding the path towards its decolonization while it continues to be severely divided by political beliefs. Mutual aid initiatives on the Island have opened the doors of solidarity for communities outside of political ideology. Therefore, there are people of all political spectra, from leftist pro-independence ideology to right wing pro-United States annexationists, to apolitical disenfranchised people actively engaged in mutual aid efforts, or at the very least, receiving and relying on their services. At first glance, these mutual aid efforts do not appear to be direct catalysts of decolonization, but they bring people with opposite ideas together to share a common purpose, to see a reality, one outside of the divisions and falsehoods that colonialism has imposed upon us for more than 500 years.
Coming together as people to initiate efforts that reinforce the sense of dignity and self-determination is an important step towards destroying colonialism. For those who are engaging in mutual aid but still believing in the colonial solutions imposed by our colonizers, they are one step closer to breaking with that illusion. Nevertheless, we are running out of time. The colonialist schemes of the United States government and their colonial politicians on the Island have led us into a dead end where time has been wasted into failure. Mutual aid efforts are strategies that can bring solutions to both short and long-term problems. They can help us to dismantle a dysfunctional government that operates by stealing money from the people and throwing change from the distance without focusing on problem-solving or long-term progress. History demonstrates that the main goal of colonial projects is to benefit the colonizer’s economy. Mutual aid can be effective in helping us to finally walk away from colonial political party loyalties, which have caused the destruction of the Island. Mutual aid can help us finally understand that there will never be a better advocate for the Puerto Rican people than Boricuas themselves. This is what it means to decolonize.
Born in 1976 in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, Pedro Anglada Cordero is a writer and member of the resistance community in Portland, OR. His writing can be found at Latino Rebels and in A Flash of Dark: An Afro-futurism Anthology.
This essay appears in the current issue of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, available from the Institute for Anarchist Studies by clicking here.
I dedicate this work to my grandmother, Matilde Rodríguez Pérez who passed away on July 10th, 2020. I would like to express my gratitude and love to her, and my mother, Madeline Cordero, for their lifetime support and family stories that are featured in this article. Thanks to my daughter Simone for all the love and laughter. Lastly, thanks to my wife Susan Anglada Bartley for all the love and camaraderie, the support with childcare and food, and for her criticism and editorial assistance before the submission of this piece. I love you!
Joserramón Melendes, Desimos Désimas(Río Piedras, P.R.: QeAse, 1994), 29–31.That the stories of the grandma / of “those times of the past”/ are the times here in present / disguised in new clothing. The author developed a writing style based on Puerto Rican phonetics where words are spelled to mimic the Puerto Rican collective voice. The poetry is meant to be sung or read aloud.
James L Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: Institutional Change and Capitalist Development(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986), 116–19.
“Lamento Borincano,” Wikipedia, July 6, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamento_Borincano.
Nelson A Denis, War against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony(New York: Bold Typed Books, 2015), 63–64, 116–20.
Pedro Aponte Vázquez, Albizu: Su Persecución Por El FBI(San Juan De P.R.: Publicaciones René, 2010), 5–60.
Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: Institutional Change and Capitalist Development,160–177.
10. , 201.
1 Ibid., 191-193.
1 Thomas G Mathews, Puerto Rican Politics and the New Deal(New York: Da Capo Press, 1976), 323.
1 Denis, War against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony, 44-52.
1 Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: Institutional Change and Capitalist Development, 103-134.
1 Raymond Carr, Puerto Rico: A Colonial Experiment(New York: Random House, 1984), 107–36.
1 A tangled mess.
1 Pedro Aponte Vázquez, Albizu: Su Persecución Por El FBI(San Juan De P.R.: Publicaciones René, 2010), 89–183.
1 The land for those who work it.
1 James L Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: Institutional Change and Capitalist Development(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986), 193-201.
2 Nelson A Denis, War against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony(New York: Bold Typed Books, 2015), 109-131.
2 Ibid., 157-261.
2 Pedro Aponte Vázquez, Albizu: Su Persecución Por El FBI(San Juan De P.R.: Publicaciones René, 2010), 5-302.
Denis, War against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony, 109-131.
2 Ivonne Acosta, La Palabra Como Delito: Los discursos por los que condenaron a Pedro Albizu Campos 1948-1950, Editorial Cultural, 2000, 9-180. Albizu Campos was sentenced to nearly 54 years in prison for delivering twelve speeches between 1948-1950. The speeches were documented by the police and used as evidence against Albizu. They were maintained sealed for 40 years until their release in 1991 as part of a Lawsuit filed by Pedro Aponte Vázquez. Acosta published the speeches that same year.
2 Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: Institutional Change and Capitalist Development, 193-201.
2 J. Sued Badillo and Angel López Canto, “Puerto Rico Negro,” Editorial Cultural, 1986, 175–185.
“This will be an era defined by who is deemed worthy of survival, and who isn’t, who gives a damn, and who doesn’t, and how we keep each other alive during and in between catastrophes,” says Kelly Hayes. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Kelly talks with Shane Burley, the author of Why We Fight and Fascism Today about right-wing power, the apocalypse, and organizing a counterculture of care.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. On this show, we talk about building the relationships and analysis we need to create movements that can win. I spoke with a couple of activists recently — friends of mine — who say they aren’t really sure what winning looks like anymore, or if winning is even possible. They are disillusioned by the normalization of mass COVID deaths, and the fact that the electoral system is under siege. They were also hurting over the fact that we have a lot of environmental catastrophe baked into our future. So what does it mean to win on a potentially collapsing terrain? This episode is for people who are grappling with that question, or who need to. Today, my friend Shane Burley and I will be talking about the state of right-wing power, the apocalypse, and organizing a counterculture of care. Shane is a Truthout contributor and author of the books Fascism Today and Why We Fight. He’s also a regular guest on the show and I’m always grateful for his insights.
As many of you know, a right-wing authoritarian takeover of the federal government is underway. In 2020, organizers and voters managed to beat back a highly sophisticated voter suppression apparatus, and they put a Democrat in the White House. Since then, Republicans at the state level have introduced more than 440 bills that restrict voting access, while Democratic efforts to pass federal voting rights protections have stalled. In a recent resolution, the Republican Party accused two of its members, who serve on the January 6 committee, of participating in the “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.” Here, the deadly violence of white rioters is not merely legitimized, but actually cast as nonviolence. We are seeing an increased legitimization of right-wing vigilantism in Republican bills and politics, from voter suppression to bills that foster harassment at the polls to laws that absolve motorists who strike protesters with their cars.
I am a hopeful person, but my practice of hope is not at odds with a clear-eyed awareness of what we are up against. We won’t be getting into every daunting struggle we face in this episode, but with Shane on the show, I would be remiss if I didn’t get his thoughts on the current state of right-wing power in the U.S.
Shane Burley: It’s interesting. I think there used to be this notion that the more kind of extremely racist the right was, that was a one-to-one on how dangerous they were. So the more explicit the racialism was, the more explicitly violent or tendentially violent they would be. So like, when I was young, the World Church of the Creator, now it’s called the Creativity Movement was this neo-Nazi basically like pseudoreligion that was just openly genocidal. There were so many bomb threats or assassination attempts by these folks. And people kind of assumed that would be where the most violence would be.
But in a way, the density of the violence has come from the murky world of people who claim they’re not racist, like the Proud Boys. Even more than that, the sort of unaffiliated masses of folks around them engaged in the most kind of impulsive acts of violence and that has grown exponentially. So people have really kind of celebrated the decline of the Alt-Right and any decline on the far right is good. And I’ll join them in that celebration. But nothing is over.
And in a way, some of the people that are left are the most kind of statistically frightening, the ones that engage in the most violence. But there’s other parts of this, I think that have to be reckoned with. I think people have been watching this kind of battle happening on Spotify recently.
So for folks that know, basically Joe Rogan, biggest podcast in the world, probably, is featured on Spotify. And because he’s been pumping sort of not necessarily COVID denialism, but basically COVID pseudoscience about vaccines and about the effects of the vaccine on children, in particular. A lot of musical artists are trying to pull out of Spotify. Most famously was Neil Young pulled out and that was a big cost to Spotify.
But what I think is interesting about Joe Rogan and the kind of circle of folks around him, a growing circle of folks around him, is the absolute sort of rebellion against accepting the world we live in, in a kind of deeply laid ideological way. Like as if to accept the crisis that we’re living in, for example, increased climate collapse and it’s leading to an increased rate of pandemics, the collapse of our health care system, things like that. By accepting that, that would mean that they would have to sort of challenge their own ideological trajectory, and they’re 100% unwilling to do that. And they’re totally willing to engage in really dangerous denialism, so as to do that.
And so, I think what we’re seeing now is, in a way how what role ideology has. I think people would be more willing to sort of allow a mass wave of violence meaning like unmediated COVID infection than to actually shift something ideologically. I think they’re kind of thinking about this drives a lot more than the material conditions around them. And that, I think, speaks a lot to what crisis will look like in the future. Because it’s not anchored to the conditions of crisis, it’s anchored to sort of like these subjective interpretations and the ideological reimaginings.
And I think we are prepared to deal with material conditions in a lot of ways. Like we organize around the material conditions of a crisis, where you organize like workers at a workplace, or you organize like activists to do something. But how do you organize to counter people’s subjective narratives? That’s a much different thing. And so I think what I think is most frightening is the era in which the world, itself, that lacks any kind of shared agreement. Instead, these complex kind of ideological wars take place as proxies. Denial, it’s going to be maybe the defining sort of fight of the next couple of decades. About whether or not people are going to accept that we don’t have continuity with the past anymore. Or that we’re on a kind of shifting framework of what’s possible in our society.
We’re also seeing people, younger folks in particular and also working class folks really rise up and respond in ways that are really transformational to like the very basic kind of fabric of our social relationships. So redefining things in terms of mutual aid, creating community groups, creating really mass protest response. That’s also sort of part of the changing conditions. And I think that’s, obviously, a much more healthy response. And those are the ones in which I think show people like actually behaving resiliently in response to these changing conditions.
Mutual aid is a correct and necessary response to the kind of breakdown of our dependable social structures.
KH: When the idea that something is inevitable gains traction, many people absolve themselves of any effort in preventing it — or even responding to it. When the powerful declare deadly inevitabilities, we are receiving social orders to abandon a particular group of people. We will receive more of these edicts of inevitability as ecosystems collapse and social systems fracture. Like Bree Newsome, who was recently on the show, Shane had strong feelings about the way notions of inevitability have been deployed around the damage done by the pandemic.
SB: I think it’s important to elucidate that none of these consequences are inevitable, they are a matter of choices. The way that things are talked about now around the pandemic and around other issues is that they are terrible. These are bad, tragic things that happen. But they’re not really a person’s fault. They’re just like, we’re all equally or even in uneven ways, experiencing this crisis. But it’s not a person who did this. But that’s 100% false.
So for example, when we were first talking about the first wave of the pandemic in early mid-2020, there was this crisis of looking for ventilators. Like there wasn’t enough ventilators, there wasn’t enough to go around. They’re really expensive. The uncomfortable reality, as a lot of people phrased it, was that some people just don’t get ventilators. Some people… they’re probably not going to make it through, so those people, they have to sort of pay the ultimate price so that we can give ventilators to folks that might recover easier or however they were kind of dictating this in hospitals. But that is not inevitable. In fact, we actually could do those things if you invested in health care, if you had those like more kind of humane funding systems, if you didn’t have a for-profit healthcare model, in general. You actually could have all the tools you need. But we have chosen not to do those sorts of things.
Another one was the mass wave of evictions, job losses, of people in financial crisis. No one wants this; we should open back up for that. Well, no, we can actually instead give people all the resources we need. We have chosen not to. Our society chooses not to. There’s even mechanisms to do this; it’s called the state. It could theoretically re-distribute wealth or give people those sorts of things. But again, we’ve chosen not to, it’s not inevitable. It’s always going to be a matter of choices. And particularly how extreme we want those choices to be. And so when you reframe it that way, then you have a discussion about what kind of world you want and what it takes to get there. Which is not the discussion that we have typically. And that’s what’s necessary to have it be sort of a revolutionary project. It’s only a revolutionary project if it questions the very fundamental assumptions of the society that became before. And thinks of ways of changing those. And so pushing past this conversation that some pain and suffering is inevitable, I think will allow us to start thinking about how do we build fundamentally different conditions. How do we really rethink where we’re at?
KH: My recent conversations with my friends about what it means to win in these times reminded me of an essay called “Introduction to Armageddon” in Shane’s book Why We Fight. In it, Shane writes:
Instead of aversion thinking, and especially denial, we can hone survival and transgression. The question should be how to live through this crisis and come out the other side stronger, with functioning societies, and with a vision of how to rethink instability as a vulnerability we can exploit to rebuild something ecstatic instead of the dying world we have now. Survival and the continuance of struggle are offensive, rather than defensive, positions, and can be defined by principles that draw us to the kind of fight we want.
We need all creative energy on deck. And yet, I completely understand why people are avoidant when it comes to subjects like climate change, or other issues that just feel too large to even contemplate. I never used to, but seeing how poorly people have handled the pandemic, I get it now. The human mind has a way of rejecting what we’re afraid we can’t tolerate. We latch onto narratives that allow us to reconfigure whatever’s failing to add up in our worldview. Sometimes those narratives are bullshit, and they become entrenched. Sometimes, people will embrace facts, on an intellectual level, but still proceed through life recklessly, with an unrealistic sense of optimism about their own safety, because they have failed to process emotionally what they have accepted intellectually, and apply that knowledge meaningfully to their own lives. In short, they can’t deal. And really, we would be much better off as people if we acknowledged how many of our failures come down to the fact that people just don’t know how to deal. Yes, some people are acting out a weird fascist war with science, but a lot of people are just living in a mentally photoshopped reality, where major threats blur into the background. But, our apocalyptic context is part of the reality we live in, so I wanted to take a moment to discuss, what do we even mean when we refer to the apocalypse? Are we talking about the stuff of zombie films, a meteor strike or maybe the collapse of the gulf stream?
On the It Could Happen Here podcast, Robert Evans characterizes our current era as “the Crumbles” — a period where the fragility of modern life is laid bare in unstable times, as it has been during the pandemic, and systemic failures set off unpredictable chain reactions. Each breakdown potentially leads to other, unpredictable destabilizations — like the varied fallout we are bound to witness now that one in five health care workers have left the field. As Evans notes, we entered the pandemic with a shortage of doctors and nurses. Now, an astounding number of medical professionals have left the field. As Evans explained in an episode titled “Welcome to the Crumbles“:
This is the way the Crumbles work. Problems feed into calamities and turn into catastrophes. A healthy society has the wherewithal to diagnose its problems, and patch the holes in its systems when they appear. We do not live in a healthy society. The problems that will confront us over the next 50 years — rising sea levels, out of control wildfires, crop failures, greater waves of refugees — are not less imposing than the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most of the people I read, listen to or talk to about the apocalypse agree that the public is largely hung up on the idea of one, large, sweeping, cataclysmic event — in part, because we have been taught to conceptualize the apocalypse that way, which allows us to imagine that it has not yet occurred. If the apocalypse is a large, world-collapsing event that is not yet underway, it remains merely theoretical, as opposed to something that people are and have been experiencing socially and ecologically. It was a collapse that began, in some ways, when humans decided to make themselves gods. The subversion of nature and the systematic subversion of other people, the devouring of species and landscapes, and the looting of continents. These are things I think about when I use the word “apocalypse.” But for the sake of getting an expert opinion, I wanted to ask the author of “Introduction to Armageddon,” what is an apocalypse?
SB: Well, ostensibly, it’s the end of the world. But historically, and I guess, mythologically, that’s not entirely a one-to-one understanding of it. In the Christian bible, it’s understood as the process by which social systems end, so as to allow Messiah to return. And so, in a way, the Apocalypse isn’t necessarily the ending of the world. The Messiah is. That’s what actually brings the story to a close.
But the explosive conclusion to the story, what pre-stages that final period, is this process of apocalypse, which is violent. In which people show their true colors, where they engage in unmediated cruelty towards one another. But there’s a lot of other versions of this. There are apocalyptic stories that are more cyclical. They’re simply the closing of one story to begin another.
I think that what’s more useful is, just think of it as the ending of the world as we’ve understood it to be. The rules, limitations, the expectations we can have. I think we’re seeing the end of the sort of increased culture of growth and prosperity so as to be replaced by something yet to be determined, which is frightening. But it’s not necessarily the same as the sentence being cut off halfway through and all life on earth disappearing. I don’t think that we’re going to explode in some moment of excess where everything will suddenly be gone. Instead, there’ll be really profound shifts which will be both painful and scary, but are more about a change in the way that humans engage with the earth.
KH: In some ways, the apocalypse is closing a gap that some people have enjoyed between our actions and their consequences, or between our lifestyles and the larger costs of our comfort and convenience.
SB: Part of it is sort of the long standing legacies of colonialism and imperialism where entire societies are built on the invisibility of what allows those societies to exist. But there is a period of time in which that kind of disconnect between cause and effect can’t be allowed to continue that much longer. So I think Robert Evans and the folks who do that podcast you mentioned talk about the crumbles. There is a slow, maybe not even that slow, but there is a process that doesn’t happen in an instant, but is the decline of the dependable systems of the United States.
And I think that’s actually been going on for quite some time in a way. And I think… so it’ll be hard to see it all happen at once, but I do think that we’ll look around at some point and see a break between the past and the present and which will be really hard for them to reconcile. Which is hard for them to reconcile right now out. People are having trouble reconciling with the idea that our society is not safe enough to walk around without masks on. I think people are having a really tough time reconciling with the new realities.
KH: This will be an era defined by who is deemed worthy of survival, and who isn’t, who gives a damn, and who doesn’t, and how we keep each other alive during and in between catastrophes. Borders, like prison cells, are modes of separation that give people permission to forget other human beings. Creating a counterculture of care means refusing to abandon people. Borders, cages, and other forms of incarceration and disposal are all anathema to that counterculture.
SB I think borders are the phenomenon that the right and to a degree capital will try and use as the marker of defense in the future. If we’re talking about increased migration around climate collapse. And also global economic collapse… the collapse on multiple levels inspiring a large-scale migration. The right’s solution to that will increasingly be not to deny things like climate change. But to simply reify the borders and use various degrees of ecofascism to keep people out. In that way, I mean, the border is not just like an invisible line around a supposed country. It sort of exists everywhere for people. People are sort of threatened by immigration at any point in the U.S. that they’re living in. The border is an ever present kind of reality. And the reification of the border is not just like building a border wall, but it’s increased targeting and infrastructure that singles people out, that divides people socially and legally.
So I think the border will be their solution. And that has to be… I think when you have to respond in a way by making that sort of one of the primary places that we target. Anti-border, and I mean really, like opposition to even the concept of a border has to be sort of the hallmark of a revolutionary politic going forward. Because our ability to build anew communities that have the strength to do something new requires all of us. And so fighting the kind of increased borderization of the U.S., of border imperialism, has to be front and center of what our politics will be in the next 20 and 30 years. Otherwise, we’re allowing the right to reimagine a world of crisis and to this kind of horror show. And so that has to help drive how we think of the is and what kind of issues we take on now, and how we think of them. It has to be front and center.
I think we don’t have the luxury of being separate from an international community. I mean, the reality is that any successful organizing happens across borders. It happens with large masses of people. The old equation is that the rich have the money, but we have people. And that was what was necessary in the case of an international pandemic. Not one that has no respect for borders or anything. So why would we? I think we have to now think about any organizing strategy we have, any way of … and by organizing, I do mean like just surviving, too. Like not just movements of resistance, but just basic survival. It has to be done on this international place where we make borders our enemies, because they’re only going to hinder our ability to actually win anything.
KH: Borders and bordering are the enemies of those who have strength in numbers. As an exercise, I want us to consider, if we say the words, “the future belongs to us,” who does “us” include? And is that “us” a large enough community to organize for collective survival in an era of catastrophe? Is it big enough to bring down capitalism? The future does belong to us — if we are willing to become an “us” capable of seizing it. We don’t know what it will look like, and I don’t think we can fully envision how we will live, but a call to imagine is upon us. I do know that the work of fighting for one another and the work of caring for one another will be inextricable, and at times indistinguishable, in the years to come.
A counterculture of care exists in opposition to borders, bordering and systems of disposal and annihilation, like the prison-industrial complex. Ableism has propelled mass murder by way of a politics of inevitability and indifference and we cannot allow those politics to be replicated across the course of our future.
A lot of disillusioned organizers I have talked to lament the state of the left. To me, the left is a political expanse. It has no coherence, as an identity or as a political force. Good work happens among leftists, but movements that successfully engage communities in times of collapse will have to do a better job connecting with large numbers of everyday people than many on the left have managed. As Shane and I discussed, this disconnect makes it tricky to talk generally about what the left should be doing.
SB: I think that it’s interesting because I think people do mean different things when they say “the left.” The left is generally the social movement towards greater equality with shifting constituencies and changing agendas and different degrees of politics. And it’s rarely very responsive to the people it’s supposedly the political incarnation of. So the working class or marginalized communities. It very rarely one-to-one lines up with their realities. And so I think it’s in a lot of ways more useful to take a step back and not ask initially what the left is doing or what the left does, but what does the class need or what do the actual people need and how are they responding?
And so I think the left needs this to work very hard to back away from the rules that we’ve encountered before to think about things. There’s conventional left-wing approaches to things that think about stuff; sometimes electorally and sometimes in terms of reform and social movement activism. But there’s a lot of conclusions that underlie that. A lot of assumptions about how politics work, and those are all up for grabs right now. And so I think the left, the organized left, would do a lot better to take a step back into people’s actual lives and see how they’re resisting every day. How they’re surviving, and to make that the center of how we organize. That is what will build sustainable infrastructure as the state becomes unstable in some cases or social systems come unstable. Those are the things that have the real capacity to provide more than just symbolic action in the future.
If we build coordinated social movements that are able to create mutual aid, that are able to defend communities, that are able to put pressure where they need to be. If they’re able to do all those sorts of things, they’re able to do that because they’re autonomous from a lot of the social systems before. So we need to start thinking about something entirely new. And I think that’s happening in a lot of ways.
What are the most effective ways to get a mass of people to solve a problem? To affect people’s lives in their workplaces, in their healthcare experience, in getting basic resources at home, in defending ecological reserves? I think those questions need to be the center of whatever a left is, going forward. Otherwise, it’s basically going to self dissolve. It will dissolve into the same limited framework that the state has always existed in. But now is our chance to do something different. The conditions have changed so we have to actually respond differently.
KH: My meditation for the left is that the answer to the question “Who am I willing to let help me survive?” should be a reflection of how much we want to live. For a lot of people it isn’t. We know there is no correlation between these factors on the right. They would rather die than accept the wrong help, and we can see what that looks like. They are dying in massive, unnecessary numbers, and pulling many others down with them. If we do not bring our desire to live and our willingness to collaborate across difference into greater alignment, the irrelevance of “the left” will be among the lesser consequences that we see.
I worry about the ways we disqualify one another from the work of making the world better. I also worry about a growing callousness that I sense in the world around me. Our creeping tolerance for mass death is changing us in ways that I don’t think we fully recognize yet.
SB: There’s an increased kind of cultural cruelty that exists in a lot of different ways. I don’t think it’s just a response to burnout from the pandemic. Which is real, there’s emotional burnout to constantly responding to sort of tragedy. But I don’t really think that that’s actually where the heart of it’s coming. I think there is a cultural shift that’s happening that sees empathy and compassion almost as like a bourgeois luxury. That is something that sort of ruined generations of people, like millennials. They feel too much, that’s what their problem is. It’s not student loan debt or police murders. It’s just that they have too many touchy feelies.
And so, I think it’s kind of good to take a step back and think about how we’re talking about it in general. One example is the way that we talk about the opioid crisis. This has been actually a really, I think, good example for the kind of creeping culture of cruelty that’s happened. So we’re living through … I mean, very clearly, we’re living through an unprecedented… basically mass overdoses and mass wave[s] of death. And part of the response to that has been to say that pain patients, chronic pain patients, or acute pain patients are sort of the Vanguards of that crisis. And the treatment of pain itself should be considered suspect. In a way, it’s almost like reclaiming this sort of Protestant moralism, that pleasure is inherently dangerous or sort of indulgent.
And so right now, there’s kind of a mass change in how we approach the treatment of chronic pain. Now, clearly the opioid companies were corrosive corporate institutions that exploited people for profit But also the way that we’ve started to respond to that is to back away from our compassion as though it was our compassion that caused the problem. And you’re seeing people with chronic pain unable to get medications or correct treatments with the idea that pain itself isn’t something we should intervene in because it’s too dangerous to do so.
This is part of, I think, a shift towards saying pain and suffering are sort of necessary, that’s what we need. Political pain, social pain, real talk, all of this has now become sort of the model by which we deal with crisis. And that necessarily leaves people behind, it creates this sort of hostile violence in people’s everyday lives. And I think it disallows us from imagining something different. Like a revolutionary society is built on compassion and care foundationally because our society now isn’t. So any actual change has to be built on that. And this idea that people have to incur pain and suffering as sort of a necessary piece of a healthy society is one that’s just as artificial. And so I think we should be using the support for one another as the hallmark of whether or not we’re building something radically different.
KH: Our death-making culture is getting colder and deadlier, and it is making tired, impressionable people complicit. As Dan Berger recently stated on the podcast “Death Panel,” “I was hoping in the early days of the pandemic that we would get a public health approach to prison, and instead we got a prison approach to public health.” Our tolerance of torturous prison conditions and the murderous maintenance of borders primed the public to accept the unnecessary premature deaths of the pandemic. That acceptance has paved the way for our indifference to the mass death and detention of migrants, as the climate crisis displaces millions and kills hundreds of thousands of people per year. We need a radical counterculture of care that offers people an alternative to avoidance, resignation and despair. That will place an emphasis on mutual aid and survival work as jumping off points that some organizers will not be accustomed to, but community bonds rooted in collective care are going to be foundational to movement work in the future.
The market-based plan for the apocalypse is to extract everything that can be commodified until the clock runs out. We need to envision our plan.
SB: How we think about organizing is going to be different in the future because it’s going to be really bound up with these, basically methods of survival. Some social movements have had this in the past, I think that’s going to be the defining kind of element of social movements in the future, is how do we have social reproduction? How do we keep people safe? How do we get folks what we need? And how is that a political act?
It’s going to have connections with older things like labor unions and things like that. People are going to be organizing labor unions. But they are also going to be organizing in ways that are totally new because the workplace conditions, people’s day to day lives are different than they were before. And so we have to think about different ways of using those old organizing models, like getting people together to engage in collective action. How do we do it in their new condition? How do you organize when people sometimes don’t have jobs at all because of increased rates of unemployment? Or because they work in gig economy exclusively. Or they’re changing jobs really frequently. How do you organize around that? How do you organize in areas when we have a pandemic and what could be replaced by another pandemic and another pandemic? How do you keep people safe when you’re organizing? How do you kind of mix the virtual and the in person? Those are questions being answered right now.
And I think they’re being answered in kind of vibrant and exciting ways. Having these sort of new approaches gives us tools that we’ve just simply never had before. And that’s why in a way … and I talk about in the chapter you’re talking about, why I feel more optimistic in some ways is because the options available to us despite the crisis we’re living in, are so vast that I think it opens up not just how we can resist and how we can organize people, but what’s possible to win. Like what could a new world actually look like?
KH: From fossil fuels to labor, time and the digital data mined from our daily lives — we live in a world of extractive sites. Our cooperation with this destruction is secured through normalization. Building a counterculture of care of care means rejecting normalcy. Normalcy is the apocalypse on capitalism’s terms. That’s already disastrous and it’s already happening. The hopeless path is engaging with the lie, and attempting to recreate the same conditions and relations as the world falls down, or until we get caught in one of the system’s patterns of disposal. You can’t work anymore? Then you probably can’t afford the care you will need in a medical crisis, particularly an ongoing one. That’s one path to disposal. You can’t safely navigate COVID or manage your own safety during a disaster? Too bad, you are an unfortunate example of the fact that “not everyone is going to make it” — a phrase we often hear deployed, as though there were no actual decisions being made about who would be abandoned, and as though people were not accountable for those decisions. Devastation simply happens.
That’s the hopeless path. The hopeful path forward is one in which we organize to reduce suffering, to maintain meaningful connections with other human beings, to learn together, to defend each other, to cultivate joy in the face of disaster. It is a fundamentally defiant movement, because it cannot exist in harmony with capitalism. Creating a counterculture of care means practicing patience and extending compassion much more often than we are inclined to. It means that our work exists in opposition to policing, bondage and bordering. It also means grieving our losses, for our own sakes, in order to heal and hold onto our humanity, and because unprocessed trauma is a destructive force. People are already doing this work, and some have been doing it for generations. In that work, in those relationships, in that creativity, I see a lot of hope, and room for a lot of joy.
SB: We don’t need to be sort of falsely optimistic or to kind of not see the crisis in front of us, to believe that something else is possible. And in a way, even probable. Because of the sort of massive shuffling of social systems that’s taking place. In a way … and I don’t want to … because I do not fetishize collapse at all. I think that that’s a really toxic way of thinking about things. But there is a certain amount of vulnerability in the social systems around us that are taking place, whereby our ability to build something new is much more possible than it was before. And the ability of creating counter institutions is much more possible.
And I think people sort of make choices about how they sit with the horrors around them. And I choose to sit in that world. I choose to sort of focus on what I can do and what we can do and what opportunities are available to us. And I think, in a way, living in that space allows you not to look away, but it allows you to start to process things and find your own pathway through it. And so maybe that is actually the path of seeing your way through it. Like our way through it is through the cracks. Because we don’t have another choice, it’s not like we can stop the train. And I think that’s a complicated place to be in, to acknowledge that we don’t want to celebrate the collapse of social systems because it’s nothing but pain. But we have to kind of choose which response we’re going to have.
KH: I am not at peace with the things I believe I understand about what’s ahead, including the rise of right-wing power or the progression of the climate crisis, and I don’t intend to be. I intend to rage against the right and other death-making forces, come what may, and regardless of the odds. But I am at peace with my intentions. Even if my imagination can’t fill in all the blanks between this moment and the world I want, I know what values I want that future to embody, and what values I want to see expressed in each moment I impact, for as long as I am here. I make commitments accordingly, and I try to live up to those commitments. In matters of morality, I don’t think this is a time to simply think or believe. It is a time to commit, and to be ready to dig your heels into the ground, even as society tries to pull you into a new mindset that normalizes more suffering and death.
Sometimes, people ask me how I stay hopeful, and the truth is, I am grounded in my commitment to others. When I am feeling cynical or tired, those commitments offer me direction and purpose, and remind me that I am not alone. They help me remember our potential and the joy we find, even in dark places, as long as we have the will to fight for each other. I think that leaves me far better off, to be honest, than someone who is not processing what’s happening, because really, what is to become of people who remain committed to an apocalyptic normalcy? What is to become of people who will not process the scope of what’s happening — with COVID, inequality, the climate crisis, or any other nightmare of our time? Do they stumble forward, struggling to recreate the relations of the old world, until reality hits them like a tsunami, or a wildfire, or a drought, or a tornado? And what are the consequences of so many moments of world-shattering horror? Of so many explosions of previously sublimated grief? A counterculture of care would offer people a place to process the nightmares of this world, while also imagining and practicing the politics of the world we hope to live in.
There will be many “other sides” of many world shattering moments. So what will we make of them and how shall we live? Will we sacrifice ourselves and each other to this system, or will we seek communion with other human beings, to build, care and create? I am heartened by people who are already doing the latter.
Since we are talking about instability, our fears, and what it will take to survive together in these times, I want to close with some words by James Baldwin, from an essay called, “Nothing Personal”:
For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth
is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind
down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them
because we are the only witnesses they have.
The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us.
The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one
another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.
So what does winning mean? In the long term, it means growing something that blossoms over the ruins of this system. Here and now, it’s something we find in the work of holding each other and refusing to break faith. In time, I believe we will claim victories that we have barely begun to imagine. But we have to do the work of reaching out and holding on. That’s how we will continue to build our counterculture of care.
I want to thank Shane Burley for hanging out with me to talk about right-wing power, the apocalypse and building a counterculture of care. Even though we talk about some of the most depressing topics in the world, I always feel better for it, and I hope you all do too. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today. And remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
The past four years have seen terms like “antifa” hit common parlance around the U.S., but have also seen confusing distortions of what that term means. As right-wing pundits work desperately to paint any and all potentially left-leaning protest action as anti-fascist, and then reframe anti-fascism as a series of nefarious terrorist plots, this has shifted much of the climate toward suspicion of anti-fascist activists. Despite the violence related to 2020’s protests being largely from far right vigilantes and the police, the mythology of “antifa violence” has still been spurred on by rumors, conspiracy theories and dubious allegations. This has provided cover to the far right, which uses claims of “community safety” to head into cities and attack anti-fascist protesters, as has been seen in a sequence of confrontations between far right and anti-fascist demonstrators in places like Portland, Oregon. This perception, along with attempts to crack down on activists through state repression, have led to what many people have alleged are excessive sentences that were disproportionate to the charges being faced.
In cases around the country, such as David Campbell in New York City, activists were facing prison terms for what they have claimed are self-defense against violence by far right groups, such as the Proud Boys. For many activists who have made it their job to try and prevent far right groups from parading into marginalized communities, threatening further attacks, they are finding that prosecutors’ offices see them as the antagonist in the situation.
This is what happened to Alexander Dial, a Portland, Oregon, resident who faced a series of serious felonies after a confrontation at an August 19, 2019, anti-fascist demonstration. Dial came to national prominence after photos surfaced of him taking a hammer away from a member of the fascist group the American Guard, which the Anti-Defamation League refers to as “hardcore white supremacists,” amidst what people on the scene referred to as an attack. Dial was wearing a mask and a shirt that said “Beta Cuck 4 Lyfe,” a play on the insult that far right internet trolls try to use to demean leftist men.
Dial said that he has attended protests most of his adult life, and had attended the August 17 event to show his support for the anti-fascists being targeted. The event was organized by the anti-fascist group Pop Mob and a coalition of other leftist and progressive organizations in response to a planned Proud Boys rally. The Proud Boys planned their event after another protest, just a few weeks earlier, where Pop Mob had created a dance party in response to another pair of planned far right demonstrations, one by the Proud Boys and the other by affiliates of a local far right group, Patriot Prayer. The dance party was named the “milkshake” after the then-recent “milkshaking” of English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson, known for agitating Islamophobic hatred in Britain, where activists threw milkshakes on him to humiliate him on camera and ruin his clothes. Far right media figure Andy Ngo had milkshakes thrown on him and was assaulted at that event in a well-publicized incident, which launched him to right-wing celebrity status. The Proud Boys, in response, planned a rally “against domestic terrorism,” and hundreds were set to descend on Portland.
The event itself was relatively peaceful as Pop Mob orchestrated a carnivalesque atmosphere less than a mile away from the Proud Boys, but in the same waterfront park. Black bloc activists, who dress in head-to-toe black outfits as a protest tactic and often take on more militant approaches, separated the two groups, ensuring that the Proud Boys could not attack those attending the Pop Mob event. Eventually, the police let the Proud Boys take to the bridge that separates the East and West sides of town. The American Guard members, however, allegedly took a bus back over to the Westside, near the anti-fascist demonstration, where they were met by anti-fascists.
“[I thought] those guys are here to cause trouble. Something is going to happen wherever they are,” Dial told Truthout. He then joined with a group of other activists he did not know to try and stand in the way of the American Guard from reaching other demonstrators. “They started to brandish weapons from inside. Knives. A clawhammer. They had guns,” said Dial.
Dial says that when they came out, one of the American Guard members tripped, was approached by someone else, and the Guard member dropped the clawhammer. That is when Dial got ahold of it, swung it to get them away, and threw it at them. The American Guard bus eventually left, and Dial was later circled by multiple police and arrested. It wasn’t until days later that he found out that he was being charged with multiple felony counts, including assault in the second degree and a riot charge. They charged five additional people with riot charges, making a total of six, the number legally necessary in Oregon to charge that an illegal riot had, in fact, taken place. Dial was taken from his arraignment straight to Multnomah County Jail, where he sat for 11 days until his bail was posted.
“The left is seeking progress, and that means changing institutions in ways that better more people. And if you are running the institutions that are capitalizing off of marginalized populations, you are going to fight back with all the powers of the system,” says Dial. “So overcharging anti-fascists is the easiest, cheapest thing to do.”
Without those levels of support for individual activists and long-term solidarity organizing, state repression could have a chilling effect on other organizers by making it appear too costly and dangerous.
Dial says that the expanded charges came, in part, from the release of video that was taken on that day by Elijah Schaffer, a media person with the right-wing outlet The Blaze, and was amplified by Andy Ngo (including hosting the video on his YouTube channel). Two of the charges that had come down were what are called Measure 11 crimes, those that carry with them “mandatory minimum” sentences of more than five years. Measure 11 passed in Oregon in the mid-1990s as a way of getting “tough” on violent crime, and one of the cases that was used as an example of the time was when an antiracist skinhead shot and killed a neo-Nazi when defending himself during a New Year’s Eve attack.
Because of the current bail system, and the charges that had been tacked onto his case, Dial’s bail of over half a million dollars meant that he had to put up $54,000 to get out. Fifteen percent of that money, nearly $8,000, is kept by the county permanently, and he had to solicit donations from friends and family to get this money, clearing out his savings and “financially ruining” him. Once he got out, he had to pay to have an ankle monitor on, which he wore for months, as well as observing a curfew. Because his court case was extended for over two years, he had to get by on severely limited pretrial release conditions. His ability to work was hindered and he relied on many of these anti-fascist organizations to provide a great deal of support.
“[We] knew that what he needed most was a good criminal defense lawyer,” says “Walter,” an administrator of the International Anti-Fascist Defense Fund, which raises money for anti-fascist activists facing legal or medical costs. (Walter is using a pseudonym for fear of retaliation for their activism.) “All mutual aid in anti-fascism is important, but we believe the Defense Fund fills a gap by ensuring that anti-fascists who run into trouble don’t ever feel like they only have themselves to rely on.”
Support came internationally, with donations from across the world and thousands of people signing a petition demanding the charges against Dial be dropped.
Dial eventually took a plea agreement, and then in November of 2021, he had all but two charges dismissed by the judge, and he was given “time served,” three years of probation and 80 hours of community service, which Dial says he will try to complete by working with a nonprofit that helps upgrade the homes of people with disabilities to make them more accessible.
“No matter what you’re choosing to organize or whatever actions you want to take, [you need to] develop and maintain strong community ties with people you trust,” says Dial, who points out that this means real-world relationships and not just virtual ones mediated through social media. “You need connections with people who have your back and who know how to reach out to other people who might be able to help you in ways they can’t. What got me through all of this … was my community.”
These are the types of bonds that many anti-fascist groups are creating, and what can sustain many activists when targeted by state agencies. Community organizing is built on these bonds, and as was seen during the 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations, mutual aid and fundraising support was a key part of sustaining the organizing itself. Without those levels of support for individual activists and long-term solidarity organizing, state repression could have a chilling effect on other organizers by making it appear too costly and dangerous.
The International Anti-Fascist Defense Fund addresses those needs by raising money and disseminating it where needed. Since 2017, the fund has disseminated over $19,000 to a total of 15 recipients who have faced financial hardship from their activism or have been targeted by the far right, according to Walter.
“[We] all recognize that standing up to bigotry [and] fascism is dangerous but necessary work, which is why it is important for everyone to stand behind anti-fascists when they run into trouble,” says Walter. “We believe that this is real solidarity and is true to the saying, ‘We keep us safe!’”
Dial’s story shows that it is these community connections that get activists through these situations, which may become more necessary as leftist protesters deal with the fallout from intense policing practices during the 2020 protests. By connecting different movements through bonds of resource solidarity, social movements become sustainable and individuals can come through these challenges with enough stability to continue.
Dial says that he is going to work to repeal Measure 11 in Oregon, which has reinforced a carceral culture that has been used disproportionately against marginalized communities. By sharing his story, he wants to give insight to those facing similar challenges about what it takes to survive overcharging by the state.
“You need connections to people who have your back and who know how to reach out to people to help you in ways they can’t,” says Dial. “That’s the whole point of why we’re all doing this in the first place. It’s about community.”
The holiday season is a particularly difficult time for many people. For those who are facing eviction, are isolated from loved ones, or are unable to afford gifts, there might not seem like a whole lot to toast to. And when you throw in the fact that we’re still wholly in the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic, it’s clear that a lot people are experiencing feelings of despair and hopelessness this time of the year.
With this in mind, it’s especially heartening to know that organizers across the country are working to bring a little holiday cheer to those who might need it the most. Holiday-themed mutual aid efforts are popping up in cities and towns all across the United States to help fill in some of the gaps of the official pandemic response and to spread some joy and warmth at the end a particularly tragic year.
The Winter Warmth Fundraiser in Des Moines, Iowa, is just one of many efforts across the country focused on providing warmth — literally to those who need it. The goal of the fundraiser is to raise $20,000 which will help housed residents pay their utility bills as well as provide propane to heat the tents of unhoused residents in the city.
The fundraiser is being organized by Des Moines Black Liberation Movement Rent Relief Fund and Des Moines Mutual Aid, which is part of the broader Iowa Mutual Aid Network.
Similar mutual aid networks have sprung up across the country, multiplying and growing during the pandemic. For example, the Queens Mutual Aid Network in New York City is raising funds to provide rent relief to undocumented Queens residents who have received little or no financial help during the pandemic.
Other efforts are focused on providing warm clothes for people experiencing houselessness or who are otherwise experiencing housing insecurity. The #Warm4Holidays campaign, which is put together by abolitionist organizer and educator Mariame Kaba, encourages people to knit or crochet winter clothing items, such as hats, scarves, socks or mittens, which will then be donated to groups that work with unhoused people.
Another organization working to spread some holiday spirit is Neighbors Helping Neighbors, based in San Mateo, California. The project originated at the start of the pandemic as a form of mutual aid specifically aimed toward grocery deliveries to seniors and immunocompromised people. Now, Neighbors Helping Neighbors is in the middle of its “Buy a Tree, Gift a Tree” program, where individuals or families buying a Christmas tree for themselves are given the opportunity to buy a second tree to donate to someone who can’t afford to buy one.
Moms United Against Violence is an abolitionist organization based in Chicago, Illinois, that has been putting together mutual support drives since 2014.
“We started the program because, personally, I love Christmas, and I love Christmas trees. I collect ornaments. And so I was like, it would really be a drag if you can’t have a tree, especially if you have little kids,” said Neighbors Helping Neighbors Founder Sandy Kraft in an interview with Truthout. “I think it just appeals to certain people because it’s a magical thing, right? I mean, having a tree, being with your family — kids get excited by having the presents underneath.”
For the program, Neighbors Helping Neighbors partnered with a local, family-owned business called Honey Bear Trees which has agreed to support Buy a Tree, Gift a Tree by spreading the word on social media and putting up flyers at its tree lot. Through this partnership Neighbors Helping Neighbors has been able to reach a lot of people who it might not have otherwise.
“There’s all kinds of stories,” Kraft said. “One family reached out to us who were actually living in a family shelter in San Mateo. They had a 9-year-old daughter whose grandfather had died recently from COVID. They asked us for a tree because they didn’t have money for the holidays, and their daughter was really upset. So we got them a tree.”
Although many holiday mutual aid efforts are aimed toward people experiencing houselessness or housing insecurity, there are also a number of mutual aid efforts across the country specifically focusing on bringing some holiday cheer to other communities in need, such as people who are incarcerated.
Moms United Against Violence is an abolitionist organization based in Chicago, Illinois, that has been putting together mutual support drives since 2014. The organization has compiled an online registry where people can purchase toys which are donated to incarcerated mothers to give to their children when they visit them in prison.
“We didn’t want to do a toy drive that was focused exclusively on the children,” Moms United Against Violence co-founder Holly Krig told Truthout. “We wanted it to be an opportunity for people to think about the incarceration of mothers, the relationship of mothers to their children, and not only how deeply it affects children to have their mothers incarcerated, but how much that harms their mothers and harms their relationships and how that reverberates throughout families and communities.”
What distinguishes mutual aid from more traditional forms of charity is that mutual aid puts an emphasis on empowering and uplifting the communities being supported, and building solidarity.
What distinguishes mutual aid or mutual support efforts from more traditional forms of charity is that mutual aid puts an emphasis on empowering and uplifting the communities being supported, and building solidarity. They do this through projects like toy drives and rent relief, but also through focusing their efforts on organizing communities and raising awareness around specific struggles. Moms United Against Violence, for instance, often invites people who have donated gifts to join them at teach-ins and letter-writing events, which can in some cases build up to court support and participation in freedom campaigns for people who are incarcerated.
“Mutual support is really about us coming together to support each other, to survive these violent systems so that we can resist and organize against them — as opposed to figuring out a way to survive them individually,” Krig tells Truthout. “The support drives have been an opportunity to invite people to think more critically about the carceral system — to draw people into a deeper conversation.”
In a typical year, Mom’s United Against Violence usually generates about 1,400 individual gift donations, and it usually raises around $5,000 during the holiday season to send to incarcerated mothers to put on commissary. These types of donations are incredibly important in and of themselves, but each donation is also an opportunity to draw in new organizers into the abolition movement.
“We’re trying to reclaim a sense of solidarity with one another, and to build that out in concrete ways, first and foremost, by meeting needs and inviting people who have experienced those systems to really take on roles in this work and to be able to contribute and support in a way that feels empowering to them,” Krig said.
Moms United Against Violence is one of a number of mutual aid groups focused on abolition. For example, the Survived and Punished NY Mutual Aid Group is part of Survived and Punished NY — a grassroots prison abolition organization that aims to end the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence. The group is currently working to raise $40,000 to provide commissary, packages and other material support to help criminalized survivors stay warm with winter clothing.
Mutual aid efforts led by the organizers at Survived and Punished NY and Moms United Against Violence are driven by an understanding that only through working with communities in mutualistic, solidaristic and nonhierarchical ways will they bring about the better world they know is possible.
“Ultimately, our mutual support drives are really about a political understanding of our circumstances and learning together what we need to know and develop tactics and strategies,” Krig said. “As the wonderful Mariame Kaba always says, ‘You have to prefigure the world that you want to live in.’ And in some ways, I think we’re putting glimpses of that out into the world as we do these drives and show each other what’s possible when we’re in solidarity with one another.”
If the pandemic and the recent racial justice uprisings have taught us anything, it’s that direct action gets the goods. Black Lives Matter organizers may not have gotten all of their demands, but what we have seen is that applying pressure works wonders. Rather than passively waiting for politicians to look deep into their hearts and see our humanities, all actions whether peaceful or forceful are a threat if they challenge traditional production or business as usual. Bodies need to be in the streets and new theories must be born. While we averted another trainwreck from the Republican Party, the Democratic Party is back with their status quo must stay policies. No matter how many women and black faces they put in high places, representation removed from broader transformative demands only serves the interests of empire. Public outcry will continue to build if the people are not being heard. In America, Feminism 101 is over.
American feminism is not removed from imperial neoliberal agendas with its recent pleas to move more women into the brute upper hierarchies of the military and positions of power. The historical amnesia of Americans is shocking. The military is one of the biggest proponents of rape culture within its ranks and through acts of war against foreign subjects. Women are the biggest casualties and victims to our military empire domestically and abroad. American feminism holds true to limited liberal frameworks of where power is built. Power in American feminism is not built in our schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, or environments. Women’s power can only be built in governance and corporatism. American imperial feminism continues to construct feminism’s role as a handmaiden to capitalism, a terrain where the job of handling exploitation and oppression is shared and divided equally by elite ruling women and men. It is about who is best for sitting at the capitalist table and creates a vision of equal opportunity domination. This framework asks everyday people, for the purpose of feminism, to be thankful that it is a woman who orders the next drone strike on their village.
While the Me Too movement has led to significant impacts in its take down of powerful wealthy men in the media and government, American feminists have been politically traditional compared to other nations. Feminism in the United States has been unable to commit to contemporary social movements that are discussing systematic change like Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, and the anti-ICE immigrant led mobilizations. U.S. feminism has also been unable to organize on a grassroots level, specifically around every day needs. The Women’s March has become the most pronounced expression of U.S. feminism, representing subjectivation through the caricature of “boss” and promoting the politics of establishment Democrats. It is essentially weak because it has not developed a politics for women of the 99%.
American feminists do not view patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism as interchangeable or romantically linked. The Time’s Up movement accentuates a particular type of feminist power. A power that demands change within the limits of government and individual achievements. We must recognize the importance of U.S. feminism’s ambition to eclipse the differences between survivors of gendered violence, but the Lean In strand of feminism produces elitism, that seeks equality with men and women of the same white upper class. It does not probe into queer theory, trans liberation, nor does it assess society’s oppressive gender binary. It works to preserve cis-capitalist social relationships, professionalize political organizing, and promotes crippling individualism. The extremely individualistic society we live in has the tendency to atomize collective problems. We see this in the psychologization of sexual abuse. It is easy to look at the issue of rape culture as individualized incidents. We are quick to sympathetically look at other nations who experience rape culture as a “Third World” problem, ignoring the truth that rape culture is incredibly strong in the United States as well. Nevertheless, the dominant culture is quick to name singular incidents as ‘cis men with a psychological problem,’ instead of analyzing a patriarchal system that rapes and murders trans people, women, queer, and gender non-conforming people.
*Text of the Week* An interview with @GothBotAlice from This Week in Fascism on @IGD_News on how to fight the system that tries to annihilate us, while taking care of one another so we don’t absorb the patterns of that system and destroy ourselves.https://t.co/9cHOF5v2Ri
The American feminist movement contains women and queer people who are attempting to challenge and even bring down the system that bolsters white supremacy and patriarchy, but the United States lacks an organizational base to counter the over-representation of the Democratic Party. Capitalist liberal discourse, state legitimacy, the mainstream media, and the hegemonic social conditions of public life generally go unquestioned and unchallenged. Discourse around reproductive care, socio-economic inequality, and abortion rights are driving public debates on patriarchy and gender. American feminists have begun to talk about gender oppression and have made historic strides towards gender equality. However, women in the U.S. are politically cautious. They are only willing to fight for narrow reproductive rights they have already gained and for a little class mobility. With the recent Texas anti-abortion law and the attacks on trans rights, it’s become clear that we are experiencing a roll back of our hard won concessions. U.S. feminists and radical queers have the potential to push for far more expansive and bold objectives.
American feminists seem to ignore that the prison industrial complex, military industrial complex, and U.S. foreign policy have made lives significantly worse for women internationally and at home. Justice for crimes of rape and assault is tied to carceral feminism as the only solution. The demands are that abusers need to be “put to justice” through incarceration and the fortitude of the state. The state cares little for transformative justice and changing gender oppression, but rather seeks to preserve these dynamics. Policing has been named as a “public service” or a form of community care, when for the most part, police are mainly effective at responding to theft in affluent neighborhoods and public disturbances in affluent neighborhoods. They do little to “catch” abusers and abusers are never prosecuted.
Nevertheless, we should become vigilant in our opposition to punishment and prisons as the sole vehicles to deal with social ills. Crime is a complex tricky thing, at times it’s misdirected energy, often times it’s tied to social and economic limitations. All violence is rooted at an institutional level and our prison population is filled with young people of color locked up on petty drug offenses and crimes of survival. American feminists have not adequately begun to dissect this racial intersection of justice for victims, and the political construct and even delusion of crime in America.
The Gender Class Intersection
Although equal pay for women is an adequate and reasonable goal, it has been next to impossible to achieve. Where does race play a part in this desire, when the demands for wealth equalization have mainly been pushed by white women seeking to equalize their wealth with upper class white men. The Glasgow cleaning workers strike of 2017 sought to address this issue. The Glasgow strike was led by female cleaning workers seeking to address workplace exploitation, division in pay, sexual assault, and better working conditions. Cleaning workers are majority women across Europe, Latin America, and the United States. Not long after the Glasgow strike, Google employees from different parts of the world also left their workstations in protest responding to a set of discoveries published by The New York Times. The Times published revelations on sexual harassment perpetrated and covered up by Google’s upper management. Key players in the digital empire like Facebook, continue to wear masks of liberalism and progressive capitalism as employers who exploit with equal domination. The actions against Google were not limited to harassment but also demanded trade union protections and rights.
The 2018 Teachers’ Strikes in the United States was one of the biggest strike mobilizations in recent American history that rekindled labor activity. This strike spread to more than ten states, and women now make up more than 70% of the U.S. teacher workforce. The Amazon workers strike was a direct continuation of Black Women’s Lives Matter, where women of color led the charge against the biggest corporation that has ever lived. The return of the strike has revealed working class women as protagonists and instigators. In Latin America, “la huelga feminista” – the feminist strike is a completely new development. Latin American feminist strikes have adopted past labor movement tactics while focusing on gender oppression and social reproduction.
For the past two years, Covid-19 has exacerbated the issue of social reproduction. Domestic violence and women’s unemployment levels are at an all time high. Healthcare workers have become the sacrificial healers keeping people alive, not to mention women in the United States make up almost 90% of the medical workforce. Essential work and care are inextricably tied to women’s place in America. During this pandemic, poor and working class women are being overburdened, and forced to step up more than they ever have before. They are losing their jobs at higher rates and losing their historical strides. Our imposed social-political role of caregiver is becoming unbearably fixed.
From Marx’s Capital, the theory of exploitation, and the extraction of profit and surplus value is useful to understanding women’s social reproduction. The extraction of surplus value for profit is done through the economic machine that makes workers work longer hours in order to make capital for the bosses. Marx also explains that this machine functions in order for the workers to live. At the beginning of this process, the workers had to be separated from their means of living. This process according to Marx, was done violently, and the development of colonialism and slavery were needed to foster conditions for capitalism to flourish.
If we all had access to reproducing our own lives such as making our own food, mutual healthcare, and so on, then people would not have to work for their bosses. The violent tearing away of the workers from the means of sustaining themselves, is the reason why workers must sell themselves through any skill (physical, intellectual, reproductive) and become dependent on capitalists. Wage slavery for capitalism is not a natural phenomenon, one must be made and forced into this process. Certain capacities and skills are emphasized, revered, de-emphasized, and disregarded in order for people to become workers. What is often forgotten, is that people go to work in order to live, and wage work intervenes between the human being and their own life-making. The distinct division between life-making (social reproduction) and profit-making (production) is indispensable to capitalism. This is why workers fight for the wage because it is not for the wage itself, but what the wage can achieve which is life.
When conditions of life worsen for working-class people struggle erupts. This is the foundation for a materialist theory of crisis and transformation. Crisis threatens life as we know it. Bourgeois understanding of politics trains us to think we have control over our lives by the trappings of bourgeois democracy, where a person votes once every four years to enact change. There is a direct and discreet separation between social life and political life. Part of this crisis is that while swaths of the population believe they have the right to vote, this right obscures the fact that neoliberalism has steadily decreased control over social life. A part of the answer to the political crisis is that we seek to regain control over our social life. It is not only suffrage that women want extended, but more control over how we lead our lives.
The lesson of these strikes goes beyond the need to break with union bureaucrats and the Democratic Party, it goes beyond remembering the power of mass collective action and refusal. It’s understanding that we can completely remake society along lines of mutual aid – not capital. https://t.co/1WvXUsET7a
Capitalist production requires the social reproduction of itself, it must have stable dependent social relations to propagate itself. For example, capitalism needs a pliant workforce, preferably divided by all kinds of race, gender, and sexuality-oriented divisions. Those social relations are what capitalism relies on for its continued existence. Also, capitalism produces commodities, but someone has to produce those products for capitalist profits to be realized. This is done by the working class, but the system also needs a reliable instrument for the reproduction of the working class and the reproduction of the class’s labor power.
The reproduction of labor power (life-making) and the production of commodities (profits) are united circuits. Both circuits go into the maintenance of the system, if one were to collapse then the other would collapse as well. For instance, in the early days of industrial capitalism, capitalism had no idea that there should be some limits to its greed. Capitalism ate up all the labor power it found available: men, women, and children. There are devastating descriptions of women and children who were found dead in one room where eight people would live together with no toilet facilities. This rampant greed at the start of capitalism was an actual threat to working-class life-making. Eventually, the capitalist state had to step in and regulate the system in order to not kill its main source of power. From here, one begins to see the regulation of daily hours and laws being passed to strengthen the working-class family.
Working-class women were ultimately sent into the home to monitor care inclined activities, and the male breadwinner emerged during the political economy of Victorian morality. It was never true that working-class women mainly stayed at home, especially in the case of black women in the United States, but the discourse was created that housework was women’s work. Black women throughout history and in general working-class women had to work long hours in the factories in order to make life-making possible, but they also had to do all the homemaking to make child-rearing possible. This is the relationship between life and production that capitalism obscures. It is the root separation of economic and political life from social life.
As capitalism naturalizes all social relationships, the relationship of the family is declared a trans-historical unit, where women have always given life in the more expanded sense. To the dominant ethos, is it not natural to imagine that they always will? Here lies the root of gender oppression or the bourgeois family. That is not to say there was no gender oppression prior to capitalism, but this is the specific form of gender oppression within capitalism. The efforts invoked by revolutionaries, feminists, socialists, and anarchists have always been to evacuate the house of all social reproductive functions. Demands for communal laundries, communal kitchens, and so on, become popular and needed, in order for our collective society to begin assisting the process of reproduction. This socialist demand would befar more efficient than the nuclear family or the woman taking up all the heavy work. While other countries have better social safety nets, the U.S. has women.
If we think about the concept of public kitchens, we should realize that they already exist, they are called restaurants, and yet only the wealthy can afford them. As feminists, we are essentially saying that there should be a public restaurant in every neighborhood, where community members have access to it. Housework is still the main issue in the 21st century, and un-collectivized work needs to be abolished. Like our feminist foremothers, we are still demanding “Bread and Roses.”
Our domestic and social work has been undervalued and alienated from its productive nature. Undeniably, capitalism has benefited from ignoring care. Apart from being a disaster in and of itself, capitalism thrives off of generating periodic crises. Not only does it live and flourish by exploiting traditional labor through wage work, but it also receives free rides on public goods, nature, and unwaged work that is needed to reproduce people and society. Capital inflates by helping itself to everything without replacement or catering to the management of its things, one example being a lack of adequate free healthcare for the workers doing the grunt of empire building. It is powerful to see feminism take on a 99% approach and begin to organize around popular issues such as healthcare. For the most part, the oppression of women has varied in all class societies, but capital has established new modes of sexist exploitation with the help of new institutional bodies. Its first immediate action was to divide the work of making people from the work of making a profit. The first job was delegated to the woman, then it was subordinated to the second job. This problem becomes more visible when we recall how difficult, vital, and complicated life-making is. This activity creates and sustains life and all life in a biological sense, but it also manages and nourishes our capacity to work. This means manufacturing people with the desired attitudes, skills, dispositions, abilities, values, and competencies. Making people work needs indispensable cultural and material pre-conditions for society, and for capitalism’s production. Without people-making work, labor power and life could not be embodied. In capitalism, the role of social reproduction is hidden and undermined. Rather than valuing it in its own right, people making is handled as a sheer means for generating profit.
As a mass #strikewave kicks off: 🏴offer solidarity: food, banners + child-care. 🚩support + expand conflictual + self-organized forms of action: from blockades to mutual aid. 🏴expand strikes into other sectors + into wider community. 🚩defend rank-n-file self-organization. pic.twitter.com/UBK2Z8SywN
Digging further into this dilemma of social reproduction, we must view the concept of care in a more political sense than we have normally understood care to be. We understand care to be individual care that individual caregivers give to the vulnerable and needy in our society. Neoliberalism has attacked the infrastructure of life-making. The very elements we need to reproduce our lives such as schools to educate us, hospitals to heal us, public parks that provide us with green spaces, and public transportation that allows us to easily and inexpensively roam. All of these basic infrastructures that make life-making possible were devastated, taken away, or definitively cancelled by neoliberalism. In this barren landscape of attacks on the idea and institutions of caregiving, care then emerges as a political practice. Every teacher who is fighting against school closure and every nurse who is fighting for personal protective equipment is actually doing their real work, and that is, trying to heal the injury of class. So in this context, it is a political phenomenon, and the crisis of care is beyond the diminution of public social infrastructures. It is a deeper attack on working-class life-making.
To regain control, we must understand care and caregiving as a politicized phenomenon. We should not be surprised that the majority of struggles erupting in the current context are battles for infrastructures of care. The battle for clean air, clean water, schools, parkways etc. Today during a global pandemic where is our people’s care over profit? Essentially care work is still feminized in language and politics, and thus women are leading the war against class society today. We have grown up to believe it is the mother who feeds, who heals, who teaches, and who nurtures at home. This cultural imposition on women has embodied a finite reality. Womanhood isn’t isolated to the home, but at the level of capitalist production, all healing inclined wage work (nursing, teaching, cleaning, and childcare) consists of a majority female workforce. At some point, the mess of capitalism must be cleaned up and the process of life-making must be valued and propagated above all falsities and objects.
There is also the building threat of climate change and the work of women becoming inextricably linked. Capitalism lives and grows by exploiting labor. Appropriation is a key process that has been neglected but it is as important as the issue of exploitation. Every day we see the appropriation of what is considered natural work. Natural work is the labor of Mother Earth and the social reproductive unpaid human labor (the work of women). Through neoliberalism, capitalism amplifies by commodifying the untouched and cheap natures of energy, raw materials, and compulsory/automatic work of life. The formation of value is occurring in two areas. The first area is exploitation. The second is appropriation. Exploitation is controlled by the labor relationship between the worker and capitalist. The “paid” wage work is extracted from laborers and the profiting of surplus-value. The area of exploitation is dependent on the area of appropriation. Appropriation involves all unpaid work or energy of extra-human, animals, and human entities. This doesn’t solely mean the work of racialized people, migrants, and women, it also means the labor of rivers, forests, and mountains. This energy or labor is always unpaid and extracted in a rape-like manner. As an anarchist and eco-feminist, Maria Mies describes it in her book, Patriarchy, and Accumulation on a World Scale, “it is the labor of women, nature, and colonies.” Capitalism cannot grow or be maintained without this constant, vigorous, and ever-rising appropriation of unpaid or social reproductive work. The amounts that can be extracted freely or at a low cost is what contemporary production commodification relies on. The main contradiction exists in the area of unpaid and paid work.
From pipeline blockades, wildcat + rent strikes, antifascist defense of our communities against the far-Right, mutual aid networks fighting wildfires + the pandemic + a country wide eruption against racist State violence – 2020 was a hell of a year. Here’s to what comes next. pic.twitter.com/NZCpuxdefE
Fossil fuel extraction acts as one example of an appropriation region, by cementing the labor of people and nature into an environmental simplification. Here we witness wealth at low costs, deriving from cheap exploited labor and rich appropriated resources. Under-reproduction is needed for capital by cutting subsistence needs of extra-human and human natures. Capitalism refuses to provide or pay for the imperative social needs and stratums of reproduction required to maintain the lives of those working, as well as the life forces that are creating resources. Under‐reproduction includes coercive under consumption, un-livable housing, wage suppression, unbalanced ecosystems, and as of today environmental destruction. The reproduction and accumulation crux is dangerous since it further impacts communities’ capacities to reproduce and socially reproduce. On occasion and on a superficial level, capitalism attempts to “fix” these contradictions, while also searching for cheaper commodities and aggrandizing accumulation. Capitalists and state apparatuses continue to identify, quantify, and measure extra-human and human nature for the purpose of increasing profits.
If we look at climate change as one of the forms in which crisis manifests itself, we see looming social, environmental, and political unrest on a global scale. If we as a society do not immediately adopt drastic mechanisms to confront climate change we are fundamentally saying yes to mass genocide, and as a society, we have moved drastically closer to midnight on the doomsday clock. The process of objectification and domination plays a key role in the capitalist Death Machine. Not only does capitalism objectify people, but it also objectifies all other entities on the planet. From extreme industrialization, deforestation, poaching, mining, factory farming, etc. The subordination of nature is a part of this objectification dynamic.
The United States is in the middle of a lucrative feud between party members who are climate deniers or who are proposing paltry policies for this impending peril. The current capitalist crisis is threatening life as we know it, it is no longer purely about oppression but about the continuation of all life and ecosystems. Climate change is the expression of human’s separation from nature, in order to dominate it for profit. This separation first began by former ruling classes’ exertion of control over humans, all for the purpose of expanding their wealth and power. Inevitably, this process has further separated all humans from themselves, from their labor, from the fruits of their labor, from each other, and now from Mother Earth herself. Climate change demands that we no longer continue with the dominant mold of organizing human activity. American feminism must begin to step up and understand what is at stake and learn that power can not be built by using the tools of our oppressors. Social movements are the seeds of revolutionary change and a woman’s place is at the head of the revolution.
A medic walked around the circle of 50 people occupying the lobby of the Department of the Interior, squirting water into our eager mouths before the police hauled us away. At the time, I had no idea that I wouldn’t be released until midnight, 12.5 hours after the action began. I just knew it was smart to stay hydrated, so I accepted every squirt of water offered, grateful for the care our Indigenous-led group was showing each other in circumstances designed to dehumanize us.
The Oct. 14 action occurred during the People vs. Fossil Fuels mobilization in Washington, D.C., a historic week of civil disobedience to pressure President Joe Biden to stop fossil fuel projects and declare a climate emergency. For Indigenous people, the protection of Mother Earth is deeply intertwined with the long struggle for Indigenous sovereignty, as destructive fossil fuel projects — like Line 3 in northern Minnesota — continue to be built through their territories without their consent.
Asserting that “Another world is possible,” they went to the Department of the Interior, home to the regressive Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was last occupied by Indigenous people about 50 years ago. While the media emphasized the conflict that ensued, one aspect went overlooked: how we water protectors treated each other during the tense hours of the action and arrest, illustrating the more caring world that Indigenous leaders say is possible.
Eleven Indigenous leaders from diverse territories entered first and sat in a row in the lobby, their hands linked together with plastic ties and duct tape. When a wave of approximately 45 more people joined them, we formed a large circle, holding hands, as someone swiftly linked each of our wrists to our neighbors’ with thin plastic ties. We quickly learned to adjust our hands to keep each other comfortable, moving in sync when someone needed to change position or scratch a nose.
In the middle of the circle was a bowl of burning sage, an herb used for purification. At the Line 3 resistance camp — where I spent three weeks this summer — sage was brought to each person, who then put out their hands to invite the smoke toward them, especially before actions and ceremonies. It was one of many expressions of care stemming from Indigenous understandings of interconnection. In the cavernous Department of Interior lobby, someone carried the sage clockwise around the circle, and we took turns breathing in the sweet, calming smell.
A bowl of burning sage was used for purification during the BIA occupation. (Twitter/@JenniferKFalcon)
I was especially grateful for this centering practice as uniformed men congregated at the edge of the lobby, the yellow DHS on their dark uniforms indicating they were from the Department of Homeland Security. Indigenous leaders took turns leading chants like “Stop Line 3!” which reverberated between the hard marble floor and the high ornate ceiling. “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Deb Haaland over!” they called, referring to the current head of the Department of the Interior — and the first Indigenous person to hold the position. We later heard she was out of town.
When a much older woman joined us in the lobby, a young Indigenous woman yelled for those in uniform to get the elder a chair, which they eventually did after others picked up the chant. Our ages spanned at least five decades, probably more. We also had other physical differences. The friend next to me had slid out of her wheelchair to join everyone on the floor and was nervous about whether she would be separated from her chair and medicine. As arrest grew closer, two diabetics on my side of the circle assessed whether it was safe for them to stay, not knowing when they might be able to access food or medicine. After the medic helped her test her blood sugar, the diabetic with the more severe case chose to be cut loose and leave, while the other stayed. The pain in my hip from sitting cross legged on the checkerboard marble floor was increasingly uncomfortable, but not life threatening, and not nearly as bad as what others suffered during the arrests.
DHS went first for the row of Indigenous leaders, tasing two women in long ceremonial skirts who were simply holding onto each other. One later told me that she had a finger broken in the ordeal. A baton was used on someone else. Most people, including a media photographer, were dragged away roughly, sometimes by the shoulder or by the backpack. Later, I read reports that police had also been injured in the action. If that’s true — and from experience I can attest that not everything police report is true — I suspect they threw out their own backs by not carrying people properly, which would have required helping each other. In contrast, we continued to support one another, chanting, “We see you. We love you. We will get justice for you!” each time someone was dragged away.
At one point during the arrests, an older white woman who was completely new to this kind of action leaned toward me (also a white woman) and said nervously, “I want to remain nonviolent,” expressing a common confusion about what does or doesn’t constitute violence. I explained that all of the water protectors being arrested were being nonviolent. Not one was hitting or trying to hurt the people arresting them, even in the face of police brutality. What they were doing was refusing to assist in their own arrests.
In contrast, during the actions that took place at the White House all week, the majority of the more than 600 people arrested had followed the Park Police willingly, without even being put in handcuffs. Even there, it was mostly Indigenous people who had been dragged out, illustrating both how they are routinely treated by police on the frontlines, and the fact that those experiencing the desecration of the Earth up close are also those willing to risk the most to stop it.
The People vs. Fossil Fuel movement assembled in front of the Capitol on Oct. 15. (Twitter/@jamieclimate)
While there was an undeniable racial dynamic in who was dragged away — and how roughly — there was also an age dynamic. I told the older white woman, who was in her 70s, that I planned to stand up myself when the police came for me, since I had injured my back only a few weeks earlier and, at age 59, had a history of painful and expensive shoulder problems. I felt supported in making this choice, along with most of the older folks in the group.
When I was put in plastic zip-tie handcuffs, one side was tighter than I would have liked, but nothing compared to the younger people near me who screamed that their fingers were going numb as we waited in the basement garage. Some had their zip ties replaced, only to have them tightened again just before we were loaded into vans, which took us to different precincts across the city. The medic stayed with my friend in the wheelchair until she was released on site because no accessible police van was available.
After more than an hour in handcuffs, nine of us arrived at the 5th precinct, where (uncuffed) we waited another seven and a half hours with no food, phone calls or information on when we would be released. The four women in my small cell shared two narrow metal beds, stacked on top of each other with no ladder, except the metal rails of the cell door. By serendipity, my bunkmate was a young Indigenous woman new to this type of action, whom I had been told to look out for by a mutual friend arrested earlier in the leadership group.
While creating an activist culture of care is not enough to force Joe Biden to use his power to stop fossil fuel infrastructure for the common good, it can help build a broad and diverse movement with that kind of power
When my bunkmate got cold, I took off the long skirt I had worn over my cargo pants, and she used it as a blanket. When my sore hip repeatedly needed a change of positions, she graciously shifted positions, too. When a person in the next cell was taken to the hospital to examine the thumbs that had turned blue from tight handcuffs, we sang to the remaining cell mate, now left alone. We also sang to reduce the awkward sound of pee hitting the metal toilet only a foot and a half away from the lower bed, and turned our heads to give each other privacy. As the hours wore on, someone named the enormous cockroach roaming between our cells “Archibald,” and told funny stories to help the time pass.
While we were kind to each other, and experienced moments of kindness from the police who held us, we glimpsed the cruelty of the system they worked for — from the hard, cold beds with no blanket or pillow to the slow inefficiency that dragged on through the night. No one offered us water, although we were brought small cups twice when we asked (which we promptly shared with those most thirsty).
When I inquired why our processing was taking so long, one policeman confessed his surprise that we hadn’t been cited and released already. He speculated that, in addition to our large numbers — 55 arrested, according to the Indigenous Environmental Network — we had occupied a federal building, which made D.C. police especially nervous in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. I asked him to explain — if he heard people make this comparison — that we were nonviolent, unarmed, and had sat in a circle in the lobby, not run around private offices, threatening to kill elected officials.
Two hours later, when we finally walked out of the precinct garage door, each with a sheet of paper announcing our January court date, there was a group waiting for us with hugs, snacks and rides back to the different places where we were staying. My hotel roommates were asleep by the time I got in at 2 a.m., but one had left a bottle of juice on my pillow, a small gesture of care that symbolized much of what I experienced during the action and among the water protectors opposing Line 3 more broadly.
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While creating an activist culture of care is not enough to force Joe Biden to use his power to stop fossil fuel infrastructure for the common good, it can help build a broad and diverse movement with that kind of power. Several non-Indigenous friends who’d been part of the Line 3 camps acknowledged that missing that community was part of what motivated them to travel, in some cases across the country, to join the mobilization in D.C. These were the same people who stayed when other actions during the week got scary, looking for ways to keep everyone safe, while many white people without deep connections left. We were reminded by Indigenous leaders that having their backs was crucial in such situations, where police violence was likely to fall disproportionately on BIPOC frontline leaders. As a movement, we still have much to learn about this.
Amid police violence and a lukewarm “we’re listening to advocates” response from the Biden administration, it can be hard to believe that “another world is possible.” But Indigenous people are pointing to their traditions, based on cooperation and care, and reminding the rest of us that it is. To move toward that world based on care, we need to continue building pressure on Biden, especially as he prepares to tell other countries to do more at the upcoming global climate discussions. We also need to carry support for frontline leaders from the sidewalk in front of the White House, back to the frontlines, where resistance continues, no matter what Washington does. And we need to notice that how we do that work is itself part of creating the world we want to bring forth.