Mutual Aid with Heart of the Valley DSA

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Comrades helping comrades in Benton County, Oregon

I have long advocated for the concept of mutual aid.

Like many leftists, I believe strong networks of community support and mutual aid are essential to any revolutionary movement. At meetings of Heart of the Valley (HotV) DSA in Benton County, Oregon, I pitched it incessantly, and tried to make it central to the chapter’s praxis. However, until I needed it myself, I didn’t truly understand what that rhetoric meant.

On December 17th of 2018, my girlfriend, two other comrades, and I, got into a confrontation with several local neo nazis, which ended with them attacking us. The details of the assault aren’t important, but by the end I had a severely injured knee and one of the nazis was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. Another comrade, who was on their way to join us, called Cameron Greene, a HotV DSA member and Vice President of the National Lawyers Guild. He dropped everything and drove to the scene. He helped prepare us for arrest and excoriated the cops who were intentionally misgendering the three of us who are trans women.

The police arrested us and took us to holding, where they locked us in separate interrogation rooms for the next several hours. The police told us that we would be cited for DISCON-II, but said more serious charges were on the table if the nazi died. They stripped us naked, photographed our bodies, and took our DNA samples. The police also took our clothes, phones, and wallets, and dressed us in thin sweatsuits. Finally, they took our mugshots, and we were released, one by one, into the freezing rain. I was the first one out, and had to walk several miles home on a barely functional knee.

Like any good leftist, the first thing I did was get on Twitter to see if folks were talking about the incident. I saw that comrades across the country were sharing a fundraiser for our legal defense and medical bills. It was surreal to see myself in the same situation I’d seen so many other antifascists endure. For years, I’d shared similar posts on social media, but now I was beginning to grasp what it meant to be on the other side. Even though I was still freaking out, I felt the energy of comrades across the world gathering behind us.

The next morning, I awoke in immense pain, unable to stand up. My girlfriend contacted some of our DSA comrades, who quickly came over. They helped me out of bed and provided a phone to call into work and explain my situation. They also brought us much needed food and drove us to urgent care. While I was in the doctor’s office, two comrades dug old cell phones out of storage and filled them with prepaid plans so my girlfriend and I could reach our friends and family.

Our local paper, the Corvallis Gazette-Times, began publishing articles about the incident that day. We were dismayed to learn they publicly deadnamed and misgendered the three of us who are trans. Outraged comrades from the DSA and other groups came to our defense and inundated the paper with comments and phone calls. Eventually, they issued a milquetoast retraction. The article led to my girlfriend getting fired from her job, which severely reduced our household income. However, our comrades were there to make sure we didn’t go hungry and could live as normally as possible.

Over the next several days, we began receiving information that neo nazis were trying to doxx us. They published the addresses and other personal information of several people on sites like Stormfront and The Goldwater. Luckily, we had well armed comrades willing to spend lots of their time with us and ensure we felt safe. Folks also provided home cooked meals and transportation around town, which was a lifesaver because I could barely walk or ride a bike. We were very rarely left to suffer alone and knew we could always reach out for support.

During this time, Cameron helped coordinate legal representation for us. We got the Civil Liberties Defense Center (CLDC), an activist legal group to work on our defense. The lawyers were incredibly helpful and considerate. They provided us with all the information we needed to know about our uncertain futures as well as good advice based on their years of experience.

The fundraiser continued to near its goal, largely from the contributions of Corvallis locals and the International Anti-Fascist Defence Fund. We also received significant financial help from Bitter Half Booking and Eugene Pyrate Punx, who each put on a benefit show to raise money for us. Thankfully, the money helped cover all of my medical bills. It also paid for our legal representation and kept our lives stable through the loss of my girlfriend’s job.

On the day of the arraignment, the defendants met with our legal counsel and arrived early at the courthouse. Upon entering, we found several comrades from different organizations waiting for us. They talked with us and gave us emotional support as we waited for our turn on the docket. As the time approached, more comrades arrived, eventually filling the entire courthouse. In total, there were probably 70 people from DSA, IWW, Our Revolution, CCDS, The Communist Party, local unions, and more. They all shook our hands and reassured us. Seeing the immense solidarity from our community was incredible. It was clear that the love and compassion within the local left dwarfed our sectarian differences. When we were finally called into the courtroom, our lawyers received papers letting us know that the DA would not be pursuing charges against us. A huge cheer roared through the courthouse, and a sea of relief washed over us.

The struggle isn’t over. We are still working to combat white supremacy in our community and taking legal action against our attackers. However, we survived this traumatic experience thanks to the kindness and love of our comrades in DSA and the greater left. The mutual aid we received was truly incredible and helped us make it through some of the worst times of our lives. Without the help of our comrades, I can’t imagine how much harder the situation would have been.

After this experience, I am left with the realization that our chapter hasn’t just built campaigns and programs. It is a community that loves and supports its own. Mutual aid isn’t just about collecting and redistributing resources and labor; it’s about creating relationships between people willing to struggle alongside each other through the adversity capitalism creates. We exist in a lonely, scary, fucked-up society, and in the end all we have is each other. If we stick together in solidarity, we might just have a chance to create a new world.

What I think is most remarkable about Heart of the Valley DSA is that we show up for each other. Even though we have huge differences in opinion and countless personal quarrels, we will always be there for each other and anyone else who wants in.

To learn more about HotV DSA’s work, contact the chapter at:

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Heart of the Valley DSA

How We Did It: Harvey Relief Muck and Gut Project

by Tawny Tidwell and Colleen Kennedy

As a record 52 inches of rain fell on Houston during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, members of Houston DSA were online in our Mattermost prepping for the aftermath. By soliciting donations online through a GoFundMe, we raised over $120,000 in relief funds. After raising the funds, we immediately  incorporated as a 501c4 and opened an account at a local credit union to hold the money. We also learned that a comrade in Oklahoma City DSA was a disaster relief specialist, so we spoke with him by phone to learn the best ways for us to help. He told us that in the aftermath of a flood, the two most impactful ways we could help would be putting cash in people’s hands and assistance with muck and gutting.*

At the outset of our muck and gut operation, we created a spreadsheet to solicit volunteers and ask who needed help and where they were. These would have worked better as different spreadsheets, and translated spreadsheets in Spanish would have also been useful.

We borrowed tools at our local tool bank, and rented work vans to haul in all of our equipment. After several weekends of spending hundreds on rentals, we sent out an ask to our community for a cheap truck and secured a Ford Ranger for a few thousand dollars. Houston DSA hopes to eventually donate it to a family when the relief work is finished.

Respirators and similar supplies were difficult to find because the entire region had mobilized to do repair after the disaster. We created an Amazon wishlist for these supplies, other consumables like Concrobium (a mold killer to spray on the studs of a home), and tools. Given that the toolbank rentals would need to be returned eventually, having our own tools would become a necessity.

We sent out asks in our community through social media for space to store our tools and onboard volunteers each weekend. Bohemeos, a truly amazing coffeeshop and hangout in Houston’s East End, provided both. As of this writing, we still have about half of their coffee warehouse for tools and other equipment.They also provided us with keys to the shop to make coffee for volunteers every weekend and space on their outdoor patio for feeding volunteers breakfast. Breakfast tacos and kolaches, y’all!

We found most of the homes that we muck and gutted through Houston DSA co-chair Amy Zachmeyer’s connections with unions to locate union members in need, and were then asked by neighbors to assist on their homes next door or the homes of their friends. Eventually, we connected with West Street Recovery and Living Paradigm, similarly-minded groups who had links to the same community we were serving, additional volunteer resources, and time to blockwalk.

Initially, we worked two full eight-hour days on Saturday and Sunday, handling one or two houses per day. Now, the muck and gut crew only goes out on Saturdays to alleviate burnout and give crew members time off. We think an ideal situation would be having two alternating crews with overlapping leads, so Crew A is out on Day One and Crew B is out on Day Two, with at least one continuous crew lead to connect the work.

At the beginning of the week, we would call homeowners to firm up our schedule and get an idea of the work we would be doing, so we could decide if we had time for more than one house.**

Initially, we sent one or two teams out to homes in Houston, and another team on the two-hour drive to Beaumont to help homeowners we learned of through our co-chair’s union there. Eventually, however, our operation became a single Houston team.

At the outset of each day in Houston, we met at Bohemeos at 8 a.m. for breakfast tacos and coffee, introductions, and a basic safety talk with the volunteers (e.g., only walk where you can see the floor; masks on at all times inside; shut off electricity before tearing down walls in kitchens and utility rooms). Everyone helped load the truck at the warehouse, and new volunteers were fitted with personal protective equipment (PPE) and learn how to use it. After carpooling to the homes (parking is sparse on debris-laden streets), crew leads would tour the home with the owner, size up the damage, and make recommendations. Initially our crew leads were Houston DSA members who worked as contractors, but they trained up other volunteers to take their places.

We worked room by room, cleaning as we went, and always had people doing both tear down and debris-running to simultaneously ensure everyone’s safety and provide enough room to move about. We made sure people took frequent breaks for water and respirator-free outside-air, with the added bonus that this offered time for people to make connections across groups, communities, and DSA chapters. When a home was done, we would walk it with the owner, and make sure they received a $200 Visa gift card. Often we also replaced other items people had lost in the flood (e.g., car seats, water heaters). An entire other piece could and should be written by someone from our financial aid team on this side of the operation.

At the end of each day, we returned to the warehouse to wash our tools and gloves in a bleach solution, and disinfect respirators with Lysol cloths. After we were done, we would circle up on the Bohemeos patio, debrief, and relax. This was vital to building camaraderie and maintaining morale because it gave us a chance to talk through what we had seen, what was nagging at us, and build trust and friendship among our core team.

Finally, we want to note that anyone planning a program like this must think critically about the long haul. While I (Tawny) am now in New York, Colleen is still connecting with homeowners to muck houses over a year after the storm. This work will literally take years, and it is likely that we will get hit with new storms during that time. Think ahead about your limited resources (e.g., money, respirator cartridges, time), how you can make durable connections in the community or governance (for example, if you attend United Way meetings in Houston, you can get hooked into their drywall donation network), and how to maintain a volunteer base without burning everyone out. These large and thorny questions are beyond the scope of this article, but they must be confronted if we hope to continue improving the work DSA does.

In Solidarity,

Tawny (North Brooklyn DSA) and Colleen (Houston DSA)

*As this article primarily focuses on our muck and gut operation, you can read more about our three-pronged approach on the Houston DSA blog.

**Houston DSA did not work with renters because we had a policy against doing free work for landlords. We did, however, connect the few renters we encountered with pro bono legal representation when possible.