Last line of defense
As we have seen out west and on the Gulf Coast, the effects of climate change are already impacting our everyday lives. As forest fires, hurricanes and other climate-related disasters become more frequent, the likelihood of the government being able to help local communities decreases exponentially. We have already seen governments fail to protect their citizens during major hurricanes and in major health crises throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. When a crisis occurs and governments are nowhere to be found, it is up to each community to organize itself in order to survive. Climate change makes it more likely that a disaster will strike in your area, but a strong community can withstand any crisis.
In late October of 2012, walking around my neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn in New York City felt surreal. Stores and houses were boarded up. Fallen trees lay across streets and on electrical wires. There was a boat in the middle of a road. Soaked books and clothes littered the sidewalks. Hurricane Sandy had devastated the area, killing 48 and causing more than $70 billion in damages, and the small neighborhood of Red Hook in South Brooklyn was one of the hardest hit. With its long coastline on New York Harbor and its low elevation, much of the neighborhood was flooded. Red Hook residents were left with nothing, particularly those living in public housing, who were left without heat for the winter. Both city and state governments were slow to aid those who needed it most, leaving communities to fend for themselves.
Following the breakup of Occupy Wall Street, a protest movement against growing income inequality, participants reconvened for a new mission. A group, Occupy Sandy, set up distribution hubs to allocate food and equipment and organized teams to clear debris and clean out neighbors’ basements. In a time of chaos and uncertainty, it was the strength of the community that brought the residents out of the crisis — without any help from the government.
This same sense of community self-sufficiency was seen in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Scott Crow, an anarchist organizer from Texas, went to New Orleans to look for his friend, whom he hadn't heard from since the storm hit. He was dumbfounded by the lack of aid from the local, state and federal governments. Last year on a podcast, Crow said that he “saw the inefficiency of capitalism or governments in general, but (he) also saw the inefficiency of corporations to do anything about this,” leaving people with no choice but to fend for themselves.
This prompted Crow, along with his friend and former Black Panther, Robert King, and a small group of locals to begin organizing to provide neighbors with food, health care, shelter and community defense. The community organizing expanded — and turned into something quite different than the usual post-disaster intervention. Crow said that his group wanted to “not just [try] to provide charity and support for people in that way that everyone does because everyone could see that there was a disaster … we wanted to use it as a pivoting point to rebuild neighborhoods block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. Not in our image but in the image of what the people want.”
The organization became known as the Common Ground Collective and adopted the inspiring slogan “solidarity not charity” in an attempt to emphasize its nonhierarchical, community-led structure. When New Orleans citizens needed their government most, it was nowhere to be found — it was rather the community, catalyzed by Crow and his group, that uplifted those who most needed help in the middle of a disaster.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the lives of more than 220,000 Americans while devastating the economy and leaving millions jobless, once again putting pressure on community organizing. In our backyard in Michigan, local organizers in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti launched Washtenaw County Mutual Aid. Beginning in March, this group grew to more than 4,000 members helping with food distribution, rent payments and running errands for those who are immunocompromised. The mutual aid network complemented existing aid organizations and structures, bringing them together and making it easier for those who were struggling to find help.
While Washtenaw County Mutual Aid no longer exists, there are still ways to help others in our community. As hundreds of students test positive for COVID-19, myself included, the question of mutual aid is no longer abstract or some historical curiosity. This is something that we should do for each other right now. If you’re sick, take care of yourself, but if you’re healthy take care of your community while still following the stay-in-place order guidelines. Offer to run to the grocery store and leave food on a friend’s porch. People are feeling isolated and scared, so check in on your friends and offer them support. In short, be there for each other. We must follow the experts and trust science, but we must also organize and strengthen our communities because, in the end, nobody is coming to save us.
Alexander Nobel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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