Coalitions in the Cold: Salt Lake City
In December 2018, Alex Morales and Carlos Martinez, two dual-carding members of the Rose Park Brown Berets and Salt Lake DSA Mutual Aid Committee, and Gabe Cienfuegos, a local socialist organizer, saw an opportunity to fortify efforts in their community’s struggle with homelessness. Having collaborated before, they understood the lost potential when various socialist groups in Salt Lake City conducted isolated, yet similar, mutual aid work with the homeless population.
Putting collective action into practice, Morales, Martinez, and Cienfuegos engaged a network of allied organizations and activist circles. Their efforts brought together seven Salt Lake socialist organizations for one large event on December 29th: the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, Utah Against Police Brutality, Union for Street Solidarity, Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), Salt Lake DSA, and Rose Park Brown Berets. Amidst the holiday cheer and shared commitments, this diverse coalition held the Winter Clothing Drive, the largest unified mutual aid drive in the Wasatch Valley’s recent memory. Socialists of all stripes changed the material conditions of those most in need, while spreading knowledge about campaigns and initiatives happening in the surrounding area.
Unlike previous clothing drives which Cienfuegos had organized near Rio Grande Station, at Martinez and Morales’ suggestion, this Drive was located in Rose Park, the neighborhood where many Brown Berets members live. The decision to move the Winter Clothing Drive to this location served a dual purpose: to emphasize the Brown Berets’ critiques of Salt Lake’s segregated composition, while also committing to the Mutual Aid Committee’s work of building a socialist society in the community, with the community. Like many U.S. cities Salt Lake City (SLC) is structurally divided, both ethnically and economically, along East-West boundaries. The population of Rose Park, situated on SLC’s West Side, is significantly more Hispanic than Utah overall. This makes the community vulnerable to oppression through gentrification and decreased school funding, both of which the Rose Park Brown Berets are committed to combating.
The location change was also a strategic response to Operation Rio Grande, the ongoing citywide crackdown on homeless people. Officially named after the train station, historic district, and homeless gathering site where Cienfuegos organizes, community members have renamed the operation “the assault on the block” to explicitly illustrate its violent nature. Although officials sold the operation as a means to get homeless and low-income people off the streets and into treatment programs, in practice, police arrested and jailed thousands, with thirteen people arrested for every new person placed into treatment programs. After their release, the judicial system burdened many of these people with warrants, fines, and criminal records. Effectively, the operation’s purpose was to criminalize the homeless for existing.
Since institutional forces have forcefully evicted the homeless from their traditional community gathering sites, they have moved away from downtown SLC, towards western neighborhoods like Rose Park. Acknowledging the changing challenges and needs of their community, Morales and Martinez met the people where they were. Located next to a major mass transit stop and a new police station in Rose Park, the Winter Clothing Drive positively impacted a greater amount of people, while providing a serious political critique.
Beyond changing locations, the other factor in the Drive’s success was the ability of Morales, Martinez, and Cienfuegos to build the coalition. The greatest asset of Salt Lake DSA and the Rose Park Brown Berets is their multi-tendency, big tent structures. While the Brown Berets nationally arose from the Chicanx liberation groups of the 1960s, the local Rose Park Brown Berets are an autonomous chapter which maintains a foundation free of rigid or narrow ideological constraints. The chapter emphasizes the participation of youth members (aged 9-17) who make up a majority of their membership. This membership actively voted on joining the drive, reinforcing the Rose Park Brown Berets’ mission to build an informed and active youth movement on Salt Lake’s West Side.
With shared beliefs in the collective struggle of non-sectarian socialists, these two local chapters worked with five fellow socialist organizations. Rather than stressing the already strained capacity of Salt Lake City socialists, the coalition focused on their shared critiques of capitalism and more than doubled the resources regularly available at Cienfuegos’ clothing drives in Rio Grande. This large volume of volunteers and aid enabled an event which could only be achieved through solidarity.
With their strategic change in venue and a growing coalition, Morales, Martinez, and Cienfuegos realized that what was initially conceived of as a simple clothing drive was becoming much more. Through their collective efforts, the coalition gathered not only warm clothes, hats, and gloves, but also a variety of other essentials such as blankets, clean syringes, harm reduction kits, vitamins, sanitary wipes, condoms, and, of course, ample food and coffee.
The event, however, was no longer limited to distributing physical resources. Organizers increasingly focused on actively engaging politically with the homeless and workingclass residents of Rose Park, speaking with them about initiatives and campaigns relevant to the community. For instance, the Rose Park Brown Berets and Utah Against Police Brutality (UAPB) handed out “Know Your Rights” pamphlets, as well as flyers for an upcoming community council meeting. The community council meeting was particularly important to the Brown Berets and UAPB, as they organized a pack-in to confront the community council and demand answers regarding the Salt Lake City Police Department’s recent murder of Cody Belgard. Engaging Salt Lake’s entire community of socialist organizers, the Winter Clothing Drive became a space of solidarity, compassion, and learning for the local neighborhood and the organizers themselves.
Evaluating this event, the Mutual Aid Committee has analyzed what did and did not work, emphasizing how our future organizing can move this success forward. In Rose Park we saw firsthand the need to reach out to our base and begin the long march to relevancy. Bringing together a socialist coalition to collectivize resources is not the end but the beginning. The ultimate goal is getting the remainder of the community onboard. Seeing DSA, FRSO and PSL work together may seem like an exceptional accomplishment, but if we are not also involving the public in that process, it is all for naught.
While the Winter Clothing Drive provided a host of essentials, the percentage of Rose Park residents actively participating in organizing was relatively minimal. We must expand these efforts with community support, while growing the number of disadvantaged people who are directly aided. To us a successful day is knowing we have no resources left to provide, knowing that the people we assisted and community members who assisted us better understand their own ability to self-organize and fight for change, and knowing they are in a materially better position to do so. We must politically engage the public in new, constructive ways, and show the dedication necessary to become an organization seen as a part of the community, not one carpet-bagging through town.
In order to do this we will continue our work with the Rose Park Brown Berets and other socialists, striving towards solidarity while addressing the issues that affect our most oppressed and vulnerable. To this end, the Rose Park Brown Berets are already planning the next coalition drive for February, which the Salt Lake DSA plans to take part in wholeheartedly. With excellent examples of leadership in Morales and Martinez, the Salt Lake DSA Mutual Aid Committee will continue to organize with local socialists fighting to bring real change to the working class of our community. We must build socialism from the ground up, and to us that does not mean governing people, it means teaching ourselves and our communities how to organize themselves.
To learn more about the SLC Brown Berets’ work, contact them at: firstname.lastname@example.org