Our national network is made up of many eco-activists, social justice activists, global justice activists, street medics, herbalists, permaculturalists, mutual aid organizers, black liberation organizers, community organizers, and others who are actively organizing around supporting disaster survivors in a spirit of mutual aid and solidarity. It is a decentralized network across the so called United States, defined by the character and creativity of a multitude of communities and drawn together by our collective commitment to stand in solidarity with those impacted by disasters and turn the tide in favor of climate justice. We build our network through education and action, valuing both collective decision-making and autonomy. We are deeply moved by the Black Panther survival programs which served the aim of satisfying immediate needs while simultaneously raising people’s consciousness. We uplift and support the efforts of frontline communities leading their own recoveries in the wake of visible crisis moments, and the invisible, ongoing disasters of capitalism, colonization, resource extraction, gendered violence, and white supremacy among other forms of domination. Rooted in our history and experiences of social movement organizing we see our disaster relief work in the context of social struggle and believe that we must simultaneously address people’s immediate self-determined needs for survival and organize for fundamental shifts in the way we relate to each other and the earth.
Growing from the seeds of the autonomous, anti-authoritarian, global justice, and occupy movements, the spokescouncil is Mutual Aid Disaster Relief’s main organizing body. Also referred to as “all hands”, “general assembly”, or “general circle”, participants work collaboratively and horizontally to move Mutual Aid Disaster Relief closer to achieving its mission and vision. Depending on size and capacity, either all people affiliated with the ongoing organizing, or just delegates from affinity groups and working groups, coordinate and collaborate to share updates, make decisions that affect Mutual Aid Disaster Relief as a whole, set the general direction with the input of all involved, and help to coordinate activities between the different affinity groups and working groups. When seeking consensus/consent, rather than asking ourselves, “Do I agree with this 100%?” the operative question is “Can I live with this?” This approach, combined with our practice of devolving decision-making to the localest scale possible, minimizes conflict and fosters an environment that is conducive to both sharing decision-making power and respecting autonomous action.
The steering committee is made up of a dynamic group of about a dozen individuals from around the country. Many Steering Committee members have been involved in previous mutual aid disaster relief projects including Common Ground and Occupy Sandy. Steering committee members educate, organize, and mobilize support around Mutual Aid Disaster Relief projects in their respective communities, regions and networks. Working with a light touch, they provide Mutual Aid Disaster Relief with long-term organizational continuity and sustainability, work to build leadership within the national network, and work closely with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief working groups, affinity groups, and the spokescouncil to ensure continuity with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief’s campaigns, needs, and processes.
Semi-autonomous working groups exist within the Mutual Aid Disaster Relief network to help drive certain aspects of our work forward. Some working groups are temporary and are formed around specific needs such as location specific organizing or a solidarity brigade during a specific disaster. Other working groups are more permanent, such as medic/wellness, media/communications, and financial accountability. Working groups communicate via conference calls, emails, list-serves, signal, and/or on the ground and are a point of access where anyone in the network can become more involved in shaping the direction of Mutual Aid Disaster Relief. To get involved with a working group, or to start a new one, contact us at [email protected]. In addition, we believe in horizontalism, decentralization, prefiguration, and that the most effective decisions and actions take place at the level of those closest to the problem or most impacted by the solution. Therefore, whenever possible, we strongly encourage the formation of affinity groups that can maintain their self-organization and autonomy, while simultaneously connecting and working with ongoing Mutual Aid Disaster Relief organizing.
Early in the morning of September 19th, 1985, a major earthquake hit off the Pacific coast of Michoacán. Mexico City was devastated. At least 5,000 people lost their lives. 800,000 people were made homeless. As soldiers and police largely stood by, neighbors fed and sheltered each other, formed clean-up crews and relief brigades. These brigadistas, as they were called, dug people out of the rubble and students laid down in front of the bulldozers so the search for survivors could continue. Damnificados, as the newly houseless were called, won housing rights. Seamstresses, after witnessing owners salvage machinery before people, started a woman’s union, people organized collectively in popular assemblies. These experiences led many to question why they needed a centralized state that did not care for the well-being or survival of its people. With this understanding, Mexican civil society was awakened. On September 11th, 2001, two planes hit the World Trade Center. Another hit the Pentagon. A fourth plane crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania after a struggle between passengers and hijackers. What most people know about the aftermath of 9/11 is the elite’s history: the curtailing of civil liberties, the war in Afghanistan (and later Iraq), the targeted persecution of Muslims and Arabs by the State and others. But New York City had a different experience. Similar to the exceptional courage of the people on the 4th plane, people in the twin towers and surrounding areas helped each other to safety. Pedestrians directed traffic at almost every intersection so the ambulances could get to the wounded. Impromptu kitchens popped up everywhere. Regular people stole yachts to rescue others from falling debris and smoke. People temporarily commandeered a pier to act as a decentralized non-bureaucratic supply distribution hub and volunteer headquarters. And over a thousand people offered to volunteer to accompany Muslim women who wore hijab who felt unsafe walking in public. In the words of hip hop artists Jay Z and Alicia Keys, it was a “concrete jungle where dreams are made of”.
On August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. More than 1,800 people lost their lives. In the apocalyptic atmosphere of New Orleans, a few days after Hurricane Katrina, here and there, life was reorganizing itself. In the face of the inaction of the public authorities, who were too busy cleaning up the tourist areas of the French Quarter, protecting shops, and responding with automatic rifles to demands for help from the poorer city dwellers, forgotten forms of community solidarity were reborn. In spite of occasionally strong-armed attempts to evacuate the area, in spite of white supremacist mobs hunting and killing unarmed black community members, a lot of people refused to leave the city. For those who refused to be deported like “environmental refugees” all over the country, and for those who came from all around to join them in solidarity, responding to a call from Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther, self-organization came back to the fore. Malik Rahim, Scott Crow, and other early cofounders new each other from political prisoner solidarity work, supporting the Angola 3: Robert King Wilkerson, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace. Together they formed Common Ground.
In a few weeks’ time, volunteer street medics named for their work as medical first providers at protests, formed the Common Ground Clinic. From the very first days, this clinic provided free and effective treatment, including holistic, alternative, and western medicine to those who needed it, thanks to the constant influx of volunteers. The clinic, Malik’s house, and other newly formed Common Ground sites like the volunteer housing of those who came to clean and rebuild flooded homes became bases of daily resistance to the clean-sweep operation of government bulldozers, which were trying to turn parts of the city into a pasture for property developers. People came from global justice, anti-war, anarchist, and other movements that survived state crackdown on dissent. Individuals from Food Not Bombs, Indymedia, Veterans for Peace, street medic and housing rights collectives, all joined together to set up popular kitchens, provide free medical care, engage in building takeovers to prevent their destruction, and more. Despite the presence of at least one misogynistic agent provocateur, Common Ground created additional health clinics, a legal clinic, built community gardens, operated a women’s shelter, distributed aid, established a tool-lending library and radio station, gutted houses, cleaned up debris, documented police abuses, created community media centers, bio-remediated the soil, and replanted wetlands to build a barrier against the next storm. People’s willingness to engage in direct action found a new context in defending public housing, re-opening shuttered school doors, delivering much needed supplies past checkpoints, and helping community members maintain their historic centers of worship despite opposition. The experience and wisdom gained from mass mobilizations against globalization melded with the legacy of the Black Panther’s survival programs. This practical knowledge accumulated in the course of several lifetimes of social movement practice all found a space where it could be deployed. The devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina gave movements for liberation and others devoted to social transformation the opportunity to achieve an unfamiliar cohesion and unity that transcended the tired old divisions based on ideology or tactics. Street kitchens require building up provisions beforehand; emergency medical aid requires the acquisition of necessary knowledge and materials, as does the setting up of pirate radios. The political richness of such experiences is assured by the joy they contain, the way they transcend individual stoicism, and their manifestation of a tangible reality that escapes the daily ambience of order and work Whoever knew the penniless joy of these New Orleans neighborhoods before the catastrophe, their defiance towards the state and the widespread practice of making do with what’s available wouldn’t be at all surprised by what became possible there. On the other hand, anyone trapped in the anemic and atomized everyday routine of our residential deserts might doubt that such determination could be found anywhere anymore. Common Ground was not an activist utopia. Despite anti-oppression trainings and other limited attempts at stemming oppressive behavior, racism and sexism still were present. In addition, one early leader of Common Ground, Brandon Darby, who later was revealed to be an FBI informant and agent provocateur, used his position of leadership to take advantage of young women, and alienated many people by his domineering misogynist tendencies, militant posturing and other oppressive behavior. When volunteers insisted that this problematic behavior be addressed, those people rather than the perpetrator were pushed out of the organization.
The problems also extended far beyond one individual. Similar to how in disaster capitalism, the economic elite take advantage of the situation to further entrench their privilege and power and introduce neoliberal economic reforms, in disaster patriarchy, which was on full display in Common Ground, the sense of crisis and urgency was taken advantage of by people who used it as an excuse to bypass their principles for expediency. Valorization of hard and constant physical labor, a crisis-laden environment, militant posturing, minimization or degradation of emotion and basic human needs – these were all red flags that painted a toxic and unsustainable organizing culture and were not appropriately addressed. It takes a constant organizational self-awareness and willingness to critically reflect in order to not fall back into the trap of patriarchal, colonial, or other oppressive modes within organizing efforts. These examples of Common Ground not living up to its ideals should not be glossed over or ignored. They are, in fact, critical to acknowledge and learn from. At the same time, it does not undo the critical, groundbreaking disaster relief solidarity work that Common Ground pioneered. It is often not a matter of whether manifestations of hierarchical power arise in our social movements and organizations, but when. When this does happen, it is critical to name it for what it is, and that this power be contested, opposed, and composted for something new to grow in its place.
Additionally, Brandon Darby was clearly part of the modern-version of COINTELPRO, the same counter-intelligence forces that infiltrated and caused the deaths and imprisonment of many people with the Black Panthers, American Indian Movement, and other movements for collective liberation. Common Ground can be thought of as a mediating organization linking the traditional revolutionary organizing style of the Black Panthers and the diffuse leadership or horizontalism of Occupy Sandy. All three didn’t share decision-making power within their organizations equally, but all three did share power with the communities they were in support of, listening, asking, and responding to people’s needs, while articulating support for radical social change. Similar to what took place a decade and a half earlier in Mexico, after Hurricane Katrina, civil society was awakened. Rapper Kanye West famously went off-script on a mainstream media nonprofit fundraiser, saying, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”. But beyond one single person, the whole white supremacist, settler-colonial State doesn’t care about black people, or indigenous people, poor people, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, people experiencing homelessness, or anybody outside of their religion of Power and Greed. It began to dawn on many more people in New Orleans and throughout the so called United States that the government does not care. And, we the people, must help each other.
Many people who participated in mutual aid after Hurricane Katrina focused again on building other movements like the International Solidarity Movement, No Mas Muertes, Food Not Bombs, Earth First! Rising Tide, Rain Forest Action Network, Mountain Justice, the Beehive Collective, what became the Occupy Movement and countless others. But finding each other through acting directly and in concert with people affected to achieve their survival and other needs, besides giving us a heightened sense of inner power and fertilized imaginations, also built bonds that survived the years. On January 12th, 2010, a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, causing at least 100,000 deaths. Some people reconnected temporarily under the name Mutual Aid Disaster Relief in Haiti and sent several teams into Haiti providing medical care, supplies and assistance.
Many of us helped shut down Wall Street, however briefly, as part of the Occupy Movement and participated in local encampments. Occupy Wall Street began in New York’s Zuccotti Park in 2011, where a number of protesters took nonviolent direct action to shut down Wall Street and raise awareness about issues of economic injustice and inequality. Occupy Sandy grew out of Occupy, the next year, to provide mutual aid to communities affected by Superstorm Sandy. Occupy Sandy programs included medical assistance, construction, a tool lending library, volunteer mold removal, free meals, distribution of aid, free legal help, a free store, educational services, and more. Smaller decentralized mutual aid disaster response mobilizations took place in Oklahoma (OpOK), and Colorado (Boulder Flood Relief). The examples are numerous and clear: mutual aid and solidarity is far more effective and efficient than top down approaches to disasters. Even the Department of Homeland Security, ordinarily diametrically opposed to the work of anarchists, anti-authoritarians, anti-capitalists, and other dreamers of a better world, concedes the superior effectiveness of this horizontal, decentralized, network model compared to the top down command and control one. In 2015, on the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Common Ground Collective had a reunion at Malik’s house in Algiers, during which people reflected on the beauty, heartache, and trauma of the Common Ground experience. The better world that we knew was possible and had tried to help midwife in New Orleans after Katrina seemed stillborn.
Mutual aid disaster relief is a radical approach to disaster relief and to social movement organizing. It is an organization, a network, a tactic and a movement. Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, the collective/organization/network, started in it’s current iteration in 2016, when several veterans of past liberatory disaster relief mobilizations came together and laid the groundwork for a permanent network to respond to disasters, from below.
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief acknowledges failures of the movement for solidarity-based relief in the past and seeks to learn from those mistakes, build on lessons learned from decades of community-led disaster response from which we take inspiration, and ensure that best practices, relationships, and resources are ready to be deployed to support communities impacted by future disasters. Since then, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief has continued the legacy of autonomous, decentralized, and liberatory disaster relief by responding to historic floods in Baton Rouge, flooding in West Virginia, Hurricanes in the U.S. southeast and gulf coast, tornadoes in Tennessee, Standing Rock, Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico, West Coast fires, the coronavirus pandemic, and more – building wellness centers, providing life-saving medication, cleaning debris, gutting flooded homes, distributing supplies, distributing masks and other personal protective equipment, assisting with sustainable rebuilding efforts through water purification and solar infrastructure, tarping roofs, advocating for incarcerated prisoners, amplifying other liberatory mutual aid relief efforts, engaging in direct action, and many more activities to support people’s survival, empowerment, and self-determination. Instead of supplanting or replacing spontaneous manifestations of mutual aid, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief partners with and supports local, spontaneous manifestations of mutual aid and uplifts the efforts of frontline communities leading their own recoveries in the wake of visible crisis moments, and the invisible, ongoing disasters of capitalism, colonization, resource extraction, gendered violence, white supremacy, and ableism, among other forms of domination. Inspired by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and the Zapatista’s Other Campaign, in 2018, we traversed diverse bioregions, and learned so much about what mutual aid is, and disasters as varied as hurricanes, blizzards, and chemical accidents to pipelines, white-supremacy, and gentrification.
On this popular education tour, we emphasized cooperation and self-determination, rather than waiting for aid to swoop in from above. Our workshops began by acknowledging disasters as much more than the acute catastrophes of climate chaos or sudden ruptures of infrastructure. We live in the disasters of colonization and capitalism every day, and it’s these systemic disasters we spend our time responding to after the embers have gone cold or the waters clear. Earth’s natural cycles aren’t the problem. The disaster is the way institutions capitalize from and create inequality. It’s the power structure that holds a monopoly on aid, but refuses to distribute it to those in most dire need. In defining “disaster” this way, we casted a broad net, met with communities that had different levels of preparedness, and brainstormed the logistics of an intersectional approach to organizing that learns from the past and builds survival programs for the future. We spent a lot of time with our new friends discussing hopes and fears, the collective work of grief, and how necessary it is to move forward at the speed of trust – to create a commons of care rather than a culture of burnout. A major theme we shared was that our “audacity is our capacity.” We constantly refined the content and narrative of our lessons to evoke more magic in our conversations. Our intimate team supported each other to make quick decisions, plot logistics, craft Instagram posts, drive long-distance, and manage funds, all while providing each other constructive feedback and making occasional time to stop in nature. This work is heavy, but, we joined tour with a whole lot of heart, and, as we traveled thousands of miles, we were replenished with so much care and inspiration by the people who invited us into their communities.
In common, we’re all witnessing the crises of gentrification, lack of affordable housing, vanishing public infrastructure, a white supremacist movement, and an increasingly toxic environment. Many people we communed with, similarly had witnessed the State fail to respond in the wake of acute disasters, and were also seeking ways to take direct action. Despite such a daunting landscape, we found people preparing their communities for responses to acute disasters while organizing mutual aid efforts that seek to collectively address the ongoing ones, too. After our tour stops, some communities continued meeting around the topic of preparedness to build upon pre-existing trainings, resource-sharing, and relationships of solidarity in advance of crisis.
From many angles, it seemed like we had been losing ground. We were told it was too late; that humanity was forgone. We watched dark clouds loom over communities. But, on tour we met with countless organizers who were walking forward to meet the bright alternatives they’ve been imagining. One of the best parts of the popular education tour was hearing people express gratitude for the opportunity our stops opened to gather with people across their regions and hold a little space for each other to talk about the nightmares that keep them up at night, and the dreams that keep them going. We encountered daunting challenges, but we persevered and worked together to find solutions thanks in large part to everyone who fed, housed, and cared for us along those epic journeys. It was a powerful experience to connect more intentionally with our network. We went deeper with existing relationships, began to create exciting new possibilities, and we made a practical impact on local projects too, utilizing our resources and free time to haul housing structures into a pipeline blockade camp in Minnesota, to fetch drywall for an elder in need of house repairs in New Orleans, and to provide start-up medic kits to the Wolfpack Gunshot Response Team in Cleveland. We also assisted Water Protectors fighting the Bayou Bridge Pipeline at L’eau Est La Vie Camp in Louisiana, and rallied with Flint residents demonstrating against the state’s closing of free bottled water distribution while allowing Nestle to double their theft of water resources in Michigan. Reconnecting with such gestures, buried under years of normalized life, is the only practicable means of not sinking down with the world while we dream of an age that is equal to our passions.
In 2020 came the biggest disaster capitalist shock yet: COVID-19. Millions of people were killed. But community mobilizations for mutual aid and medical solidarity formed in as many spaces as the new coronavirus had spread. From continent to continent, people innovated and navigated through information suppression, governmental inadequacy and unpreparedness, an attempted entrenchment of global authoritarianism, as well as supply shortages in panic-economies while the stock market crashed. Prisoners were forced to work for little to no pay to make masks and hand sanitizer. At the same time, prisons, jails, detention centers, and juvenile detention facilities were incubators of disease and widespread medical neglect, causing untold numbers of incarcerated people to lose their lives.
Many in positions of Power were consistently doing the work of delegitimizing their own positions and the State’s response to the coronavirus crisis. The political and cultural sphere was rife with the specters of xenophobia, racism, and ableism. Inclusionary public health information, gradually proliferating online was an antidote and critical to our community safety and public health. While people in the highest places of government downplayed the crisis and ignored the needs of the people, it is in these conditions where there emerged a beautiful outpouring and blossoming of community sourced mutual aid to deliver supplies to immunocompromised persons, street level organizing in neighborhoods across the globe providing medical support, food and water distribution to neighbors with various vulnerabilities, resource and information-gathering and vetting of the copious levels of incoming data from day to day to help support the health of communities as we faced the new and strange ways that a global disaster could stunt the system, leave catastrophe in its wake and impacted communities to fend for ourselves and each other. Mutual aid networks formed and grew to keep us safe and cared for in perilous times. The words of Audre Lorde echoed in us, “We were never meant to survive”. When bosses (or poverty) forced people to come into work sick, it highlighted the necessity for a fundamental transformation of our economic system. The vaccine apartheid laid bare the genocidal contradictions of global politics.
Radical solidarity in every corner of the world continues a compassionate and informed Covid-19 response to build access, resources, and power for all people in all places. The people of the world are crying out from the deepest places within them for no return to “normal”. Neoliberal Capitalism, Settler-Colonialism, and the State have been and continue to be threatening life as we know it. We are at a crossroads: one way is annihilation, the other is liberation. Malik Rahim always told us that our generation would be known either as the greatest generation or the most cursed generation that squandered life on this planet as we know it. Those who don’t learn from the past are condemned to repeat it, but those who create the future are the ones who can see it. The future, from here, is unwritten. We invite you to write it with us.