Recently we spoke with Dezeray about her organizing with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MADR) in the weeks since Hurricane Irma and how spaces such as the hub in Tampa are crucial sites for building solidarity and stability during times of crisis. They’ve had an overwhelming amount of support from the local community, especially those who have realized the practice of mutual aid is a part of the work of anarchist, anti-fascist, and anti-racist struggles. The Reverend Dr. Russell Meyer from St. Paul Lutheran Church in Tampa—the church that has provided the building now known as “the hub,”—noted during a sermon following Hurricane Irma, “a week ago these people were known as Black Lives Matter, Antifa, Terrorists. Have you ever seen a terrorist show up to a child with Pedialyte in their hand?”
Although this has not deterred the actions of neo-Confederate groups such as Save Southern Heritage from standing outside across the street taking pictures, filming, and documenting those who enter the space. In the days following Hurricane Irma, Alt-Right 4chan users trolled the MADR hotline by making false rescue reports to take away time and resources from those actually in need. 3% Percenters have tried numerous times to call or show up in the space and say there was an emergency, state multiple people were coming to collect all of the supplies, along with a number of other faulty narratives all trying to disrupt their work because of the power that it holds.
With a visit by Richard Spencer in Gainesville, Florida at the University of Florida set for October 19th, a number of Alt-Right white supremacists have already been discussing on 4chan how they are going to use “Stand Your Ground” laws as an excuse to slaughter anti-fascists and turn it into a bloodbath. It is crucial to see how we can learn from and support projects such as these, as the organizers involved are experiencing repression, threats of physical violence, and doxxing for doing this crucial work and need our solidarity now more than ever.
Can you give an update on what’s happened since Irma hit and since the last interview you all did with the Ex-Worker podcast? What’s happened in the past week, especially with the 3%ers and other far-Right groups in the Tampa Bay area that have been antagonistic to your alls work?
In the last week we’ve had numerous trucks go out, a couple trips to Immokalee, Riverview, Dover, Apopka and St. Pete. We’ve been helping folks get medication that doesn’t keep, like insulin and breathing treatments, because power is out and there’s no refrigeration. We’ve been doing check-ins on folks. As far as the wellness space and convergence center, we’ve had doctors volunteering and coming in to see folks who are undocumented and un- or under-insured.
We have a trauma counselor on stand-by, and we’ve been doing harm reduction work. We have an acupuncturist and a Reiki practitioner in the center, and we’ve been getting the word out to the community to let folks know that this is a space of convergence that is of, for, and by the community. Meaning there are no leaders and that it’s self-organized. It’s been working beautifully. We are holding on to the space with everything we have so that we are able to continue to provide a space for mobilization in the community.
We want this to be a launching point to other communities that have been hard hit like the other indigenous communities down south, the Migrant farm workers communities, down to the Keys where there is a lot damage and not adequate infrastructure to help folks. We did assessment runs to vulnerable communities, refugee and resettled communities, to see if there was structural damage and if they needed food and water. Through our already established relationships in those communities we were able to get good intel and respond in ways they wanted and get their needs meet.
As far as the other shit that comes with anarchist and anti-fascist organizing and mutual aid, we had an individual who we are not sure if they are a 3%er, but they’ve come with three different stories to three different people trying to clear out the supplies we have and cause chaos and panic. We’ve had pro-Confederate folks across the street, filming and taking photos. Those kinds of disruptions we expect and it’s a social statement about fascists and pro-Confederates: their politics are white supremacy and white nationalism and they are not in the streets doing the work. It’s anarchists and comrades in movements that are in the streets doing the work, ensuring the agency and self-determination of communities is restored and respected, and that we are responding in the way these communities request.
How many trucks and how many tons of food and supplies would you estimate you’ve sent out this week?
We sent out an 18 ft truck loaded to the ceiling with supplies to Immokalee. I would say numerous tons of supplies: thousands of cases of water and hundreds of gallons of water. We set up a medical clinic in Immokalee. Yesterday we sent out 6 trucks to Immokalee for a second run.
We sent another truck to a farm-worker association and a community center in Apopka. We’ve had cars driving around the state to meet people at their homes to provide to them. Over the last week, we’ve constantly felt at risk of not having enough supplies and then the community comes together and we have rooms that are full and ready to be sent out.
Do you have updates on Immokalee, Jacksonville, or the Keys, where people are just getting back in?
I think those assessments are best made by people who live there so we are waiting for assessments from people on the ground. I think in a couple days we will have a good idea from people who live there. We are reaching out to indigenous communities in the southwest and following up with areas and people with whom we’ve already had contact to see how we can continue to support.
How much longer will this space be open?
This space is provided by St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, who sheltered people they didn’t know during the storm. We didn’t have a prior relationship with them. They opened the space and offered it to us to have the convergence center in. We are holding on with our fingernails and teeth to the space, because this is a space in which people have come just to get some time to sit with community and recover and have harm reduction work done and just have a space to rest and organize with other folks. While we are not sure how long this space will be available, I think this space will have a transformation at the end of the month because there are costs associated with it. We are going to try to meet those costs. We don’t know exactly what the transformation is going to look like but if we are not here we will be somewhere else.
This organizing model comes out of your experience in Katrina and Haiti. By having this hub and space you all have helped a lot of people around the state and having a dedicated space has been key to that. How do you think other people can spread, build and work with this model? What have you all done in the years prior to make this kind of response possible?
The thing that is key is our established networking community. We are involved in Food Not Bombs, radical refugee solidarity work, and disaster relief in other areas with solidarity-not-charity based groups. So having a network and being involved in the community in the first place is key, and our Black Lives Matter comrades here have been a huge part of making this space what it is. So having the network and working in the community is the first thing. Mutual Aid Disaster Relief was brought about by folks that have done the work. I was in the lower ninth for two months after Katrina. There were folks who spent a lot of time there, co-founded the Common Ground Relief collective, and saw how self-organization and leaderless anarchist-based work supported community self-determination and broke with traditional “aid” relationships and didn’t “other” people.
This approach of empowering people has flourished here. Every day I come in, the space is more gorgeous, there’s new signs, art work, new stations, and I think empowering people has magical and powerful results. And this is what is beat out of us every day in a capitalist system, and that’s what we can see here, that the quality of the oil shows when the olive is pressed. I think this space could be recreated anywhere there is a community ready to empower each other and work in cooperation.
The original forecast was for Tampa to be hit hard. When that didn’t happen it seems like you all turned this space into a regional or state-wide hub for support. How did that happen? How did you build those relationships?
Fortunately, we have comrades that we’ve worked a lot with in the south and who have been killing themselves doing the work now. Up until the night of the hurricane we didn’t know what and where was being hit. The media plays it up so much and there’s really no independent meteorologist, as far as I know, that can give us information without hype. So all the reports were “Florida is going to be wiped off the map.” Doomsday everywhere you looked. I think that hysteria was an obstacle in knowing what to expect. But after we starting reaching out and the model is to reach out to groups who are doing grassroots, solidarity-based, empowering work in the streets, on the ground, non-bureaucratic, no red tape, where there’s no tickets, no applications, nothing.
It’s like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. That’s the key. So some of those structures were already in place and if we don’t have contacts we reach out and plug in in a respectful way, realizing people are dealing with trauma and post-traumatic stress.
How do you think the organizing will change over the next few weeks?
We’ve been super active in the Tampa bay area between Food Not Bombs, Love Has No Borders, Black Lives Matter, and Restorative Justice Coalition. All of these groups have been incredibly active and all these people have close relationships. We will continue to do the work from the spaces we have been doing the work from. But this has been a validation of how self-organization, solidarity and empowerment-based work actually plays out. You can see the mechanisms moving. It’s very healing, and in doing the work that healing occurs. And if this space is no longer available I think people will continue to organize both independently and together.
How can people in the region or outside plug in and support, especially from afar?
Our website is mutualaiddisasterrelief.org. You can plug in by reaching out to any of the grassroots, autonomously organizing groups on the ground that I mentioned above. Any of these groups here in Tampa doing the work on the ground can plug people in. If they want to get involved in their own areas, I would suggest looking for other groups that are self-organizing and reach out and begin that solidarity work.
We also have a social media presence on Twitter, Instagram and in the Facebook group Irma Decentralized Response. We are supporting the folks working in Houston and Louisiana responding to Hurricane Harvey and want to amplify those struggles. People can donate and support from afar by sending money, via the Amazon wishlist on our site, and by organizing in their own communities. For people in the region, state and Tampa Bay area, coming to the space and helping organize and build solidarity is the best, most critical, and direct way to contribute.
Originally published on September 20th, 2017 at https://itsgoingdown.org/living-autonomy-anarchists-organize-relief-efforts-florida/