Mutual Aid as Community Defense

Odd years are busy years for DSA. Every comrade across the country reflects on the time since the last national convention, the projects and priorities they feel most strongly about, and the people they work with the most. I am no exception.

I left the convention in 2017 full of hope for DSA. Despite the controversy around the NPC elections (full disclosure: I voted for Fetonte, not knowing he had organized cops), my Houston DSA comrades and I were closer than ever, and reinvigorated for our planned campaigns. Then, at the end of that month, the most significant tropical cyclone rainfall event in U.S. history slammed into our City.

Our chapter’s (still ongoing) response to Hurricane Harvey is now widely regarded as a successful campaign of direct or mutual aid (i.e., people received our labor but also worked alongside us and networked us into their communities). Comrades and friends around the country came together to raise over $120k for our relief effort. We hashed out a three-pronged approach to make as direct a transfer of those funds to hard-hit Houston communities as we possibly could: (1) a large donation to a charity with a holistic aid program for undocumented folks; (2) direct financial aid to anyone who asked us and any home we worked on; and (3) a labor-intensive muck and gut operation where we removed moldy walls and floors from flooded homes.

At the time, I felt deeply that this aid was mutual (and largely, it was). However, as we watch crises caused by rapidly worsening climate collapse unfold across the country, I have come to understand this type of work is not just aid, but also, in the words of another Gulf Coast comrade, community defense.

The city abandoned the underserved neighborhoods where we worked to the mercy of their floodplains (and pollution concerns) decades ago. The Red Cross was conspicuously absent, and we heard frequent reports of brusque, overworked contract FEMA inspectors breezing through homes and denying claims. Meanwhile, when we went out to muck houses after Harvey, we found not only walls covered in mold but the support beams behind them rotted and unstable from decades of repeat flooding and termites.

Aid to these communities was measured in flat packs of off-brand bottled water, something we discovered as we hauled multiple palettes of it out of unlivable homes. “They just come by with more water, and we have nowhere to put it,” was a common refrain as homeowners handed us entire unopened packages. They implored us to give it to our volunteers rather than leave it as one more thing to move around as they cleaned. It became increasingly clear to us the state had decided, at some level, to abandon them.

If this seems extreme, consider the pathetic and essentially genocidal response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Think of the millions of unopened water bottles that rotted on Puerto Rican runways. Think of the thousands of MREs (“Meals Ready-to-Eat) brought to Puerto Rico and never distributed, only to be auctioned off as surplus.

Beyond Puerto Rico, think about the way police departments nationwide are fighting against increasing their naloxone budgets in the face of the opioid epidemic, arguing that people who overdose are worthless to society anyway. Think about the way that even liberals frame aid work and disaster relief in terms of cost, as if the central concern the state should have is the red ink behind sending an ambulance to a migrant children’s detention camp instead of the health of the kids who need the ambulance (and this is without addressing the fact that these camps should not exist at all). The inevitable endpoint of this is not a federal aid program on the order of a New Deal or a Marshall Plan.

Rather, these events mark out the path that America’s fascists will take to exterminate those they deem unworthy. They aim to seal us into an exterminist cul-de-sac in which we all shrug our shoulders when incarcerated people freeze for lack of heat, undocumented children are murdered through deliberate dehydration, and homeowners are abandoned to broken appliances and unbreathable, moldy indoor air.

This is why we as socialists must think about the breaking points in our communities. We need to strategize to keep people alive in the cold, in ash-saturated air, and floating amidst unprecedented floodwaters tainted with coal ash, benzene, hog shit, and God knows what else. Not because we are trying to build a mass movement (and we are!), but because it is our duty to each other as members of a loving society.

Mutual aid is not the only community defense tool at our disposal either. We can and should run candidates for local offices that can advocate for the communities which capital would rather leave behind. Candidates like Franklin Bynum in Houston who, by simply refusing to set bail, can drastically reduce harms that would otherwise be systematically visited on people. We can also build issues-based pressure campaigns like the Green New Deal or NYC Ecosocialists Working Group’s Energy Rights campaign and attempt to force the hand of elected officials.

By pairing on the ground material aid with policy-based campaigns and dyed-in-the-wool socialist candidates, we can, as @uhshanti says, “be the people everyone...can go to when society fails them.” 

Tawny Tidwell was co-chair of the Houston DSA chapter Harvey Relief Demo Crew. She is now a member of NYC DSA. Follow her on twitter.