Oct 1, 2020
[NOTE: I wrote this in October, for Earth First! Journal 40th anniversary edition… now I’m not sure if it will ever be published… 😦 -hang in there, EFJ crew, I’m wishing you all the best! May we all be inspired, like these critters above, to continue building again]
Greetings, fellow travelers…
Much love to our Earth First! comrades – congratulations on 40 years! Our network is younger and still evolving its unique perspectives and personalities, but we share so much in common. We grow out of the same radical soil. We are glad to be fellow travelers forging a path of resilience and resistance for another 40 years and beyond!
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief is grassroots humanitarian aid, participatory and empowering, locally self-directed and emphasizing direct action, horizontality, intersectionality, collective liberation, sustainability. We sum it up with our favorite slogan, “Solidarity Not Charity.” It is clear now that grassroots disaster recovery will be more and more necessary as we endure more catastrophes – infrastructure, economic, and ecological collapses – and as corporations and governments seek only to capitalize on the crises. Only by saving ourselves can we achieve dignity and liberation, justice and shared power.
None of us can do it alone. Humbly, we converse with many folks outside typically insular radical cliques, and we employ diverse tools, adapting to whatever problems arise. We find radical possibilities in allying churches, charities, and neighborhood councils with land defenders and anti-capitalist affinity groups, increasing intercommunal understanding and grassroots resiliency while simultaneously opposing the root causes of climate chaos, colonization and extraction.
Let’s very briefly clarify the use of the phrase Mutual Aid Disaster Relief. Because “mutual aid disaster relief” is an activity that everyone can do, here we will use “MADR” for the growing movement of diverse mutual aid groups, and “MADRelief” for the small all-volunteer organization that maintains MutualAidDisasterRelief.org and redistributes donations to the local groups, and the whole phrase spelled out when describing the actions themselves, which are common all around the world.
So common, in fact, that we might argue that mutual aid is simply the most natural and normal of all human behaviors! Our movements for justice thrive on shared compassion and responsibility – building grassroots power in our communities and campaigns often takes the form of mutual aid.
In 2020, “mutual aid” has become a hot new trend – why? Well, it’s been an eye-opening, breathtaking year, with record-breaking hurricane and fire seasons, mind-bending volumes of fake news propaganda, and crippling pandemic superseded by unprecedented uprisings shaking the very foundations of the racialized caste system that sustains predatory capitalism. Millions of people are donning protective masks at the same time that a different type of mask is being torn from the face of the violent and greedy corporate-colonial state.
In 2020, we find ourselves in a kind of meta-crisis, in which the threats of global heating, extinction and ecosystem loss, and nihilistic pyramid scheme economies converge on a world that is already reeling from physical and psychological wounds inflicted by four decades of counter-revolutionary neoliberalism.
In 2020, we just tell it like it is – this shit is scary. Especially to those eco-warriors who fully acknowledge the brink upon which we stand, but in some ways even more terrifying to those who have closed their eyes and ears for an entire generation and are now suddenly waking up to the reality of imminent system collapse. Rising fascism, escalating division and conflict, detached elites dismissing reality as if they could just change the channel, and a significant portion of the more privileged citizens siding with their 1% masters, indulging in deep denial of well-established scientific facts and even actual lived experience – these are all terrified reactions to the global breakdown that is already beginning to unfold.
In 2020, disasters are everywhere, chaos and calamity are the new norm. But disasters have always been a part of our world, and they have always been difficult and tragic. These days it just seems to be so much more – disasters amplify already extreme inequalities, shatter fragile systems, in some cases they cause irreparable ruptures in societies. Because ruptures sometimes lead to transformations, activists and revolutionaries have learned to take advantage of them. But confusion and uncertainty also lead to anxiety (sometimes even terror), which by its very nature undermines our sense of freedom and well-being.
In 2020 we are drowning in anxiety, and though it is less visible on the surface, this trembling, foreboding state of agitation is one of the greatest threats to our movements and our very survival.
“Antifa started the fires”…
The situation in Oregon may be the most poignant example of multiple crises intersecting. Since March, in response to COVID-19 lockdowns, folks all over the country have initiated basic mutual aid projects – ensuring that all their neighbors had good food, clean water, access to medicine and safety gear. And of course, countless already-existing mutual aid groups like Street Medics, Food Not Bombs, and a revitalized Black Panther Party (just to name a few) redoubled their efforts, while political action groups like BLM, DSA, Rising Tide and Earth First chapters switched gears to focus on their communities’ immediate needs.
In Portland, there were dozens of small informal groups distributing hand-made masks and giving rides or coordinating grocery runs, or whatever else helped to minimize vulnerable folks’ exposure while still encouraging maximum dignity and autonomy. When the uprisings began in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, these same groups seamlessly pivoted to providing rides, masks, food, water, and first aid to protesters. This care and camaraderie made the city’s streets a haven for humanity and encouraged more to join. The brutal attacks of police and feds were calculated to harm and to terrorize, to regain control at the expense of the last shabby scraps of democracy – but they have failed to contain the uprising, because diverse communities are banding together and fueling their fight with love and fury, refusing to let themselves and their neighbors be trampled once again.
When the fires filled West Coast skylines with smoke, another pivot was required. Mutual aid groups, now well-organized and growing to unprecedented size, reoriented themselves toward populations outside the city. They once again coordinated rides; many of the actions necessary in the emergency phase of the fires were simply to move people out of the way as quickly as possible. Protective N95 masks were essential, and these groups already knew how to distribute them efficiently and reliably, thanks to solid relationships, practiced skills, and well-defined distribution networks. First aid, food and water were also uplifting comforts, and residents shed tears not only for lost homes but also for the moving generosity and kindness of volunteer responders.
As fires spread uncontrollably, so did panic. When fast-moving flames threatened the suburbs around Portland, a new level of fear began to emerge. Rumors flew across social media, some claiming that “Antifa started the fires.” For many readers, the incongruity of placing heroes of freedom and justice into a story of deliberate environmental destruction probably sounds absurd. But just for a moment, let’s imagine what it must have felt like for those who started the rumors (acknowledging that our opposition is also human, in the nonviolent Earth First movement we know that the way forward lies in opening hearts and minds, not hating and insulting and ultimately widening divisions that are splitting society into warring factions – remember Judi!).
In most cases, rural and suburban Oregonians probably have very little exposure to other communities and perspectives – segregation and poor public schooling make a population ripe for racism and xenophobia. Some may be members of white supremacist militias (Oregon has a particularly high number), but the majority of the population does not engage in active harm, they are just scared individuals, now gathering with their neighbors, nervously watching the increasingly orange horizon, unlocking their gun safes as crackpot radio hosts spew cliched doom rants about “looters.” Families struggle through job loss and threat of foreclosure, and with their worlds already crumbling, a raging wildfire probably feels truly apocalyptic.
They likely do not understand the motivations and arguments of BLM protesters, and they may take as fact the President’s intended smear describing all white allies as “anarchists” (if only!). The nightly news tells them that protesters want to destroy America, and that the main tactic is lighting buildings on fire. And so, “Antifa started the fires” only had to be uttered once, and suddenly it was spreading at an alarming rate, outpacing even the infernos.
In small mountain towns, underfunded and mostly inept local law enforcement were completely incapable of responding to the huge fires; they fled like so many others. And in some of these locations, militias took over. They set up checkpoints to stop outsiders (“looters”) from coming into their communities, or tailed and intimidated any cars they did not recognize. It is notable that in some cases, mutual aid volunteers with carloads of water and first aid supplies were allowed to pass, proving that even frightened right-wingers can compromise when their communities stand to benefit.
Thankfully, state and local governments and law enforcement have been aggressively countering the dangerous rumor – as much as they rely on the divide-and-conquer strategy, a civil war will never further their goals of control and stability – and so far no one has been hurt. At the time of this writing, merciful rains have dampened the fires and Oregon communities are now moving on to the challenges of long-term recovery. But only halfway through fire season, record-setting blazes continue to the south, and as election season increasingly divides Oregonians, the militias threaten to encircle progressive Portland with a well-armed suburban siege.
This story is laden with hard lessons for the USA. Oregon is an unusually extreme state – founded with an explicitly white supremacist constitution, exceedingly rural and poor except for a very recent and very dramatic hyper-gentrification of uber-hip Portland – but its rapid unraveling is a good indicator of what all of us will likely see in coming years.
The Real First Responders…
Fortunately, MADR is an antidote to division and despair, an invitation to intentionally reconnect all of our neighbors. Across the country, the MADR movement is growing even more rapidly than the threats are compounding. And it must! We have already raced past numerous tipping points, and more than bad weather is at stake – we are now caught in a battle between an imagined “great” past and an actually livable future. We don’t know the answers to all these complex problems, but we believe in our abilities to learn and create together, with a movement that is DIY, anti-authoritarian, and dispersed yet highly coordinated and communicative.
More than it is any type of organization, MADR is an ethos, a web of co-conspirators, a set of shared needs and desires and wisdoms, a fierce hopeful insistence that another world is not only possible, but that together we can and must bring it into being right now. We develop and train a network of organizers and volunteers, continually growing in size and efficacy, standing at-the-ready to respond to all kinds of disasters – from hurricanes to hate rallies, from mudslides to mine waste spills – and to help survivors, especially those most marginalized, to restore their homes, to build their power, to thrive through cooperation, and to envision a resilient future.
We welcome all, regardless of experience. In fact, crisis response is a fabulous way for new people to enter movements for social and environmental justice. Every crisis declares “You are needed now. We all have useful skills.”
Our work is most visible after floods and fires, but in non-crisis times we continue – we can survive and recover better if we prepare and practice. Discovering our power and cultivating trust and camaraderie is disaster preparedness, and disaster prep/practice is community organizing, establishing widespread individual empowerment and deep supportive relationships that rise to meet the challenges of any struggle. In the wake of every disaster, people show up for each other – the real first responders are always neighbors – beautiful communities of care arise out of even the most cataclysmic societal breakdowns, and we learn to do it better every time.
Lessons from our Ancestors…
We have so many lessons to learn from our ancestors. The struggles and victories of Judi Bari, striving to connect the lumberjacks and the tree-huggers, teach us so much about possible proactive responses to the Oregon militia situation. But we will let someone else tell that inspiring story…
Here let’s remember some of the histories that inform our mutual aid work – we need to remember how our peoples have survived through dark times of the past. Big inspirations include the radical dignity of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or “Wobblies,” the “one big union” striving to “build a new world in the shell of the old.” The Wobblies sang “Solidarity Forever” as they organized across all industries, all regions, all races, testing revolutionary ideas of anarcho-syndicalism as they sabotaged and seized the means of production. Also inspiring were the compassionate “acts of mercy” of the Catholic Workers in the midst of the Great Depression. These radical Christian anarchists opened “Houses of Hospitality” where poor and disabled people worked together to provide shelter and food to themselves and others in need. Both of these movements influenced contemporary ideas about human rights, and though mostly forgotten for generations, both are making big comebacks nowadays!
In the 70’s, the Black Panther Party was labeled by the FBI as the most dangerous threat in America, but their guns were not really the concern – it was the community uplift initiatives, like Children’s Free Breakfast Programs, Free Clinics, Free Taxis for Elders, and so much more. They called them “Survival Programs,” or sometimes “Survival Pending Revolution,” because they raised consciousness in individual African-Americans (both givers and receivers of aid) and organized their neighborhoods to stand up to racist police and gentrifying city planners, but first they took care of immediate basic needs, to enable everyone to take small but crucial steps toward collective liberation.
In the 90’s, a whole generation of global justice activists in the Americas were inspired by the poetic actions of the Zapatistas to fight for diversity and democracy as they battled the corporate agenda of WTO, IMF, G8, etc. These activists, especially those summit-hopping specialists who dedicated their lives to a barrage of mass mobilizations, quickly developed impressive mutual aid skills like pop-up kitchens feeding thousands and street medics providing first aid in the middle of chaotic conflicts.
In 2005, the logic of Black Panther Survival Programs was allied with skills and resources of global justice solidarity organizers in post-Katrina New Orleans. Common Ground Collective had a meteoric rise and quick collapse barely a year later, riveting the nation with dramatic scenes of thousands of volunteers cleaning toxic waste out of homes and schools in the hardest hit Black neighborhood, the Lower 9th Ward. The city had intended to completely raze the whole neighborhood, and these solidarity actions allowed thousands of poor residents to return, against the wishes of elites who had celebrated Katrina as an “Act of God” and a profitable opportunity. Common Ground Relief had scattered but sometimes profound impacts, and their activities were essential in certain neighborhoods like the Lower 9th Ward. Today a small part remains as an NGO replanting wetlands, a separate non-profit Common Ground Health Clinic, plus independent Women’s Centers, Legal Clinic, Free Bike Shop, and countless radicalized individuals.
Common Ground was one of our most important influences – many of the folks who started the initial MADRelief collective met each other for the first time in Common Ground volunteer housing sites, often while standing in line to get their delicious free meals from Seeds of Peace! Others cut their post-apocalypse teeth in New York City, when the Occupy movement morphed into Occupy Sandy and dramatically outperformed both the Red Cross and FEMA.
More recently, experiences supporting Standing Rock Water Protectors have influenced many to reconsider old strategies, to grapple with the tensions of what it really means to return to indigenous perspectives and low-impact lifeways. We are also moved by the generosity shown by so many supporters. MADR crews took hundreds of respirators that were procured for mold cleanup to defend Protectors from tear gas and pepper spray. After the camp disbanded, there was an enormous wealth of donated materials – these were parceled out and lovingly delivered to dozens of other land defenders, pipeline blockaders, and humanitarian groups of all races and regions. Now THAT is Solidarity!
Building Power, Cultivating Relationships…
We build power from the bottom up. Those of us with more privileges find ways to open doors for those with less, pursuing the goal of maximum individual agency, and together we multiply all of our power through interconnected relationships. We begin projects very simply, by assisting and fortifying vulnerable communities in small incremental ways. We start at the margins, giving attention to women, queer people, people of color, displaced and migrant peoples, and poor and working class peoples. A progressively escalating strategy takes advantage of every disaster moment to train new members, initiate new groups, and strengthen the network, then encourages each local group to assist in aiding, instructing, mentoring, and supporting subsequent new groups in other regions during the next disaster moment. This organic expansion is realistic, nimble, and responsive, while also gaining strength and momentum continuously. Decentralization encourages responsibility and autonomy while avoiding the pitfalls of bureaucratic inertia and myopic top-down decision-making. More and more, previously vulnerable communities are empowered to stand up for themselves and to care for each other.
The MADR network is a community of praxis, with a high priority on building bridges and sharing lessons, because even in the midst of bleak destruction, we can learn to reimagine our tactics and reweave our relationships, finding opportunity in crisis, turning tragedy into transformation. We focus first on relationships, cultivating love, support, and fellowship, because we know that these are the most abundant sources of emergent revolutionary action, yielding creative projects that respond to real needs in collaborative and constructive ways.
We strive, like the Panthers, to raise up the power of the people, and like the Workers, we know that acts of mercy grow human dignity in both givers and receivers of aid, and like the Wobblies, we insist on that dignity for everyone, so we center those previously pushed to the margins. We express gratitude and respect, like the Protectors, to all others who have blessed us (the entire biosphere), and just like Earth First we pursue a vision that is place-based and autonomous yet cooperative and internationalist, completely nonviolent but assertive and utopian, insisting that this is the crucial moment to transcend our society of passive consumerism, to knock down borders and bosses and property and pyramids, to create a new world in which everyone feels encouraged to act bravely to defend all life from the death cult of capitalism.
Apocalypse means “revelation” – it leads to a recognition of our place in the universe. In a moment of rupture, a new world longs to be birthed from the ashes of the old – as MADR our work is to prepare that new world, little by little, in every crack a space of hope. From our perspective, “hope” is not a kind of naive denial of the desperate situation in which we struggle today, but an acknowledgment that our peoples have struggled through many dark times and that in our aching hearts we hold an incredible wealth of skills and wisdom.
Greetings, from the Apocalypse…
In 2020, we see clearly how mutual aid can be revolutionary, revelatory, and reinvigorating to all of our movements. The pandemic has been a disaster that none of us were prepared to handle, but the improvisational responses of folks on the ground have been impressive and beautiful. The uprising has been another form of disaster relief, pushing back against the daily disaster of life under colonization.
In 2020, it’s not only about hurricane and fire response. All of our communities are in need of comfort and healing, but also defense. We need to wield a fierce compassion hardened by constant vigilance, doing everything we can to protect each other and to counter hateful ideologies that threaten to disintegrate our social bonds. At the same time, we must not mimic the militias, who do provide aid but only to a select group. In our liberatory movements, the best defense lies in widening our circle, welcoming all by demonstrating our values, winning new comrades rather than shutting them out.
In 2020, mutual aid is showing us another way. The MADR movement inspires so many because it is both idealistic and pragmatic, growing communities of resilience through dedicated practice, organizing and building power now by visioning and preparing for a different future, co-creating just and effective ways to meet all of each other’s needs in a more connected and compassionate world. As climate disaster responders, we are ferociously aware of the need for bold risky action to protect and heal ecosystems. Our struggles are so closely linked with those of Earth First, so greatly enhanced by the combination of resistance and resilience, the bold angry “NO” shutting down our enemies, arm-in-arm with the gentle loving “YES” lifting up our comrades. Let’s continue to walk forward together.
MutualAidDisasterRelief.org has an incredible wealth of diverse resources that can empower folks to start or maintain all kinds of projects!