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Wednesday, August 27 2014 @ 01:57 PM CDT

Dispatches from Hurricaned NY: Mutual Aid Is a Social Relationship

Midafternoon today, after doing some organizing work at Interference Archive (from below!) to help facilitate talks/discussions about “art and revolt” by the visiting Sublevarte Colectivo, a group of street artists that formed out of the 1999-2000 student strike at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and six of whose members will soon put up their “The Persistence of Dreams” exhibit here at our autonomous nonnational(istic) space at 131 8th Street in Brooklyn (opening reception/talk on November 16; http://www.facebook.com/events/183120365145843/), I headed over to the new Occupy Sandy Relief distro site for Red Hook at 83 14th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues in Brooklyn to lend a hand for a bit. On my short walk there, I thought how the Occupy dream, which had turned into a nightmare for so many of us, was now not only persisting but in fact transforming into something far more dreamlike than any of us could have imagined a year ago — a self-styled and effective “hegemonic” force in what mutual aid looks like and indeed is all about, in sharp contrast to “The Persistence of Dystopia” in the wake of Hurricane Sandy for some many in New York and New Jersey.

Dispatches from Hurricaned NY: Mutual Aid Is a Social Relationship

by Cindy Milstein
Outside the Circle
November 9, 2012

Note: If you’re looking to lend some love and mutual aid in post-hurricane NY and NJ, look no further than http://interoccupy.net/occupysandy/. And even if you don’t end up pitching in through Occupy Sandy Relief, the fantastic and fantastical legacy of Occupy last year, it’ll lead you — as it did for me today — to other sites of marvelous mutual aid. Here’s one story, amid so many right now.

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Midafternoon today, after doing some organizing work at Interference Archive (from below!) to help facilitate talks/discussions about “art and revolt” by the visiting Sublevarte Colectivo, a group of street artists that formed out of the 1999-2000 student strike at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and six of whose members will soon put up their “The Persistence of Dreams” exhibit here at our autonomous nonnational(istic) space at 131 8th Street in Brooklyn (opening reception/talk on November 16; http://www.facebook.com/events/183120365145843/), I headed over to the new Occupy Sandy Relief distro site for Red Hook at 83 14th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues in Brooklyn to lend a hand for a bit. On my short walk there, I thought how the Occupy dream, which had turned into a nightmare for so many of us, was now not only persisting but in fact transforming into something far more dreamlike than any of us could have imagined a year ago — a self-styled and effective “hegemonic” force in what mutual aid looks like and indeed is all about, in sharp contrast to “The Persistence of Dystopia” in the wake of Hurricane Sandy for some many in New York and New Jersey.

When I arrived at the new Red Hook Occupy Sandy Relief distro site, a gaggle of what appeared to be mainstream reporters with cameras, microphones, and little regard for anything except themselves were jostling to film a donation delivery out front. Inside, though, I found three incredibly nice folks, clearly just getting this new site set up. I asked if they needed help, but they said that the weekend would be better; it would get busy when folks came in to pick up material aid. They needed to organize things first so as to better integrate other volunteers into this space.

“I’m involved with an archive fairly close by, but won’t be there tomorrow,” I said. “How about Monday?” “Do you have a car?” asked one, and then without pausing, answered his own question, “No, I doubt it. Probably just a bike, huh? We need cars for deliveries.” “Do you have a laptop?” inquired another, who seemed the point person here. I affirmed that I did, and the response was, “Great! Could you bring that on Monday?” They then bent over their own computer, after handing me a whiteboard to write down my name, number, email, and availability.

“Did you say you’re an archivist?” they asked distractedly, staring at their laptop screen. “No,” I replied, “I’m an anarchist.” I instantly got a big smile and high-five from my new acquaintance. “Cool! I’ve never heard of that archive. What is it?” When I explained it was an independent space filled with social movement cultural production more for us than preservation — cultural ephemera like zines, posters, films, books, stickers, banners, buttons, T-shirts, audiotapes, periodicals, and more — and that we did related events, they eagerly asked, “Do you have ACT UP materials, especially from Philly? ACT UP was amazing in Philly.” A minute later we discovered that we had both sublet the same apartment at different times in Philly at Fancy House, one of those anarchic collectively owned West Philly residences. “Can I hug you?” they beamed. Hugs are always good, especially since genuine ones, and I thought, what a lovely interconnected world we’re trying hard to create, by design and spontaneously, and how much even the most minor of mutual aid attempts leads, serendipitously, to reshaping social relations in micro ways. Macro ways, too, perhaps, as Occupy Sandy Relief seems to be doing. Again that sharp contrast: our cooperative, communitarian, egalitarian social relations against the cruel backdrop of the competitive, individualistic, imbalanced ones instilled by capitalism.

(I want to insert a caveat here, before my story of today continues. I’ve been posting tales of hurricaned NYC on my Facebook page and blog, and have had one too many people mention, glowingly, Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell. I’ve never read the book, but I heard her speak about it, and was disturbed by what seemed to me, in her talk, an overemphasis on the “joy” and “paradise” we find in human tragedy. Maybe this stress isn’t so pronounced in her book. Yes, in moments of profound disaster, when things fall apart, self-organized community forms and works as a method of getting through those moments. But NYC and its boroughs attest to the equally prevalent situations: A Hell Built in Hell, where even with the community that emerges, people are further immiserated; and those many, many people who find not community but instead a vacuum to be filled in by self-interest, avarice, power and land grabs, and on and on. Nonhierarchical and hierarchical forces, or as James C. Scott frames it in The Art of Not Being Governed, “state-evading or state-distancing practices” against state practices to contain and control people, are always battling it out — it just becomes far, far more apparent in moments like Hurricane Katrina or Sandy, or it should. So please, much as I too am enamored of and awed by the swift, humane, and effective efforts of everyone converging around Occupy Sandy Relief NYC and NJ, a short walk away from Red Hook to Park Slope, or another short walk away from the public housing projects of Chinatown to Wall Street or publishing housing projects of the Lower East Side to Times Square shows that mutual aid is far from the only response to this latest disaster. Much as I applaud the savvy use of Amazon’s wedding registry to well-organize material donations for Occupy Sandy Relief, let’s not forget that Amazon — and so many other entities — are making bank off the hurricane; we’re all, all of us, trapped in this social structure and its tools, and hence the extra power of practicing mutual aid not as mere material aid but as a contravening social relationship to those instilled in us by capitalism.)

Back to the new Red Hook distro site: My new acquaintance mentioned that if I still wanted to help today, I could walk over to Coffey Park in Red Hook, where folks were supposedly setting up tents for another, outdoor distribution hub. So I trotted off in that direction, walking across toxic Gowanus Canal and snaking under an freeway menacing high overhead as toxic-smelling fumes wafted by, to see if mutual aid was indeed needed in the park a mile away.

The minute I got past canal and freeway, into Red Hook, I found what shouldn’t be a surprise — and yet … I found another poor neighborhood shit outta luck in “natural” disasters. It was as if Hurricane Sandy had struck the night before. I walked past someone pumping murky-muddy water out of a basement, then a corner store lit by candles, and then public housing projects still sans lights and heat. On reaching the park, there was no sign of tents or Occupy Sandy Relief but plenty of signs of suffering and devastation: downed trees & debris lingering, fowl-smelling air and toxic-looking muck on ground, ConEd workers trying to get electricity going again and “restoration” workers with masks/gloves on, homemade and bilingual signs about where to get help or when/if school would be open, and police. Lots and lots of police — doing nothing (which is maybe preferable to them doing something!). I saw two Red Cross trucks, one handing out a few supplies to a few people; the other seemingly just parked and serving no one. Nearby to this Red Cross van, there was a Warner Cable van and and two Warner Cable guys had set up a tent, with a well-made banner with the Warner Cable logo that also said “recharging station,” but no one was there, and they decided to pack up and drive away as I watched. Failed effort number two to offer some mutual aid.

I stood in the big, desolate park, in this big, abandoned (by state, capitalism, racism…) neighborhood, trying to decide what to do next. Hmm, I could walk the couple miles or more over to 520 Clinton to the big Occupy Sandy distribution hub to see if they needed volunteers (the photo at the start of this blog post is from that site; more on that later).

Then, in the near distance, I spied a big National Guard truck, its green camouflage paint job seeming like an insult directed at the bare-limbed park trees and many wind-torn branches. Next to it were three cops cars with their flashers going, along with a group of people, so I wandered over. Troops and cops had blocked a street off, and they were chatting among themselves in the middle of it, between camo truck and cop cars, flanked by a dumpster overflowing with hurricane trash. A crowd of neighborhood folks — mostly black and Latina moms with kids, pushing various ramshackle carts and strollers to fill with material aid and wheel home (home likely being a place without power) — was congregating around an open garage. Inside the garage, clean-cut, working-class-looking folks in T-shirts and sweatshirts were giving out gallon jugs of orange juice, big packs of bottled water, and canned goods. “Are you sure you don’t want some apples? Take as many as you want!” said one man to a bunch of moms, who peered into a massive cardboard box filled with fruit. The troops and cops seemed done chatting, and took their vehicles and themselves and drove off. I heard one of the garage folks mention that they were with Catholic Charities; I saw them and the moms all schmoozing, in English and Spanish, about the storm, their situations, their lives, while the kids ran around and played with each other, apples in hand. It almost appeared to be, simply, a neighborly street fest. No one seemed to notice the cops and troops leaving, nor seemed to have any need for them. Nor need for me. They had each other.

Strike out three. Back to, hmm, maybe walking over to 520 Clinton? I turned the corner, and saw severl woman with overflowing shopping carts of material aid, including stuff I knew wasn’t in that garage, and continued down the block and around another corner. It was then that I realized that the garage was the back side of a big cathedral-like church. A big truck arrived just as I did, and volunteers streamed out of the church, laughing and smiling, to unload paper towels, coats, water, and so much more. I walked up the church steps to go in, but before I could even get in the door, a cheerful woman said, “Can I help you?!” “Yes, hello, my name is Cindy. I’d like to volunteer. Do you need people?” She told me her name, shook my hand, and happily ushered me inside, “Do we need volunteers?! Yes, of course!”

There was, it was instantly clear, so much energy, enthusiasm, and initiative in whatever Red Hook church I had stumbled on in my search for an Occupy Sandy Relief site. And it was apparent that the Catholic Charities’ folks who had borrowed this church put anyone and everyone to work the minute they walked into the entryway—even godless anarcho-jews like me. First things first, though, before I was given a task. The woman who greeted me offered me warm food and coffee, and then gave me a thoroughly warm hello again. Most people were wearing nametags, but everyone introduced themselves to each other anyway, as she had to me.

There was no power, no water, and no heat in the church; a generator (or maybe more) were keeping the lights on, although only in targeted parts of the massive church. For folks pitching in at the church and probably just folks in the surrounding houses, also without power, water, or heat, port-o-lets were placed outside in a neat row. A bit later, someone asked me to break down cardboard from all the donation boxes and then take it outside, next to those port-o-lets, to a “garbage area,” where within minutes of me bringing out a bunch of scrap, a trash truck of some sort came and took it all away.

Inside the cavernous church, there were mountains of donations, first unloaded by the front door, and then carried into the enormous main sanctuary (if that’s the right word for it; “no gods, no masters, no correct religious vocabulary!”), and then divided into areas between by type, such as paper products, blankets and clothes, or “babyland,” “baby world,” or “baby island,” as it was variously called.

At first, I was put to work hauling in rolls and rolls of toilet paper to the paper area, and each time I did so, over dozens and dozens of trips, a guy organizing that area with self-directed efficiency said, “Thank you, thank you!” “Thank YOU!” I started replying each time. When I’d run out of toilet paper to deliver to him, he explained how he was trying to set up that area so that people could easily get four rolls each tomorrow, when there would likely be a big distro push. A woman brought him a bunch of sponges, and he redirected her to the household cleaning supplies area.

A friendly Catholic Charities woman than asked if I’d mind helping to sort diapers in babyland, and even though it was self-evident how to find that self-created area, she patted me on the back, thanked me, and walked me over, again asking if I needed food or coffee first. The baby products area included diapers, diaper wipes, and assorted baby stuff like powder, but for some mysterious reason (like the ol’ gender binary, I suspect) also tampons, “sanitary” pads, and shampoo, and then for good measure, toiletries like toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, and deoderant. But the diapers overwhelmed all else. One woman told me that she had taken it on herself to make order of the diaper chaos, and between her, myself, and another woman, within forty-five minutes, the mayhem became manageable.

Two other folks joined us. One was from Park Slope and the other from Bushwick; they said they were still shocked by how their neighborhoods were untouched and here, well… yes, it felt almost as if the hurricane had just hit. One told me that they had tried to lend a hand with an Occupy Sandy Relief site, but “because it is so big, doing so much, it’s harder to instantly plug in.” She didn’t say this as a criticism but rather as an observation. Her matter-of-fact explanation underscored for me how, for volunteers like her and so many others, mutual aid has proved to be the mainstay of how people are helping each other after Hurricane Sandy and the nor’easter; how longtime and large NGOs like Catholic Charities are now the little guys by comparison; and FEMA, the city, the police, the National Guard, “caring” capitalists, and other “from-above” people and institutions seem — and pretty much are — irrelevant (well, irrelevant in terms of offering help; dangerous and sometimes deadly in terms of most else). No one mentioned the standard “relief agencies” or city/state/federal officials that usually get associated with disasters. Instead, it was Occupy, or that “a friend” had told them about this church, or that they were already part of Catholic Charities (yet another friendly Catholic Charities’ woman came over to say good-bye to us, as she was leaving for the day, thank us yet again, and then offer her heartfelt “God bless you!”). The guy from Bushwick said that he’d been to DUMBO, and a fancy waterfront cafe where one of his friends work had been decimated by the hurricane. That cafe, he told me, “lost millions and millions,” and “will be closed for a year. They have insurance,” he observed. “I guess my friend is out of a job, though.” Her Park Slope friend remarked that she hadn’t thought of that at first — how even if big businesses she didn’t like and could afford it got destroyed, that meant lots of people making little money wouldn’t have jobs now. What about them? The Park Slope and Bushwick pair marveled at the profound unevenness of the destruction, relief, and reconstruction.

We were all getting overly involved in both chatting with each other and being super efficient, super organized. The first woman I’d met  — the diaper-organizer extraordinaire — commented that she was going to bring a big “organizer shelf” that she had at home to the church tomorrow, to make it even more clearly organized for the big distribution weekend and beyond. The Park Slope woman and her friend were putting together toiletry packets in ziplock bags, and she had determined that removing the boxes from toothpaste first meant fitting more toiletries in each baggy, so people would get more supplies in each ziplock when they came in. Plainly, there was plenty here, and plenty of need. We soon filled up a big cardboard box with smaller, glittery cardboard boxes extolling the virtues of each particular toothpaste — and I carted that outside to the garbage area. The third woman in our diaper-organizer crew realized that inserting pieces of paper indicating the diaper size in all the thousands of loose diapers she was sorting into plastic bags — a god-awful task, especially for someone like me who had no idea before today that disposable diapers came in so many different sizes! — so I found her some blank paper. She and another woman remarked that they didn’t have time to sort by color (blue and pink) or patterns (trucks or butterflies), but that likely the baby boys and baby girls wouldn’t care right now — or maybe they never notice.

The point here in all this mundane description is that the people in this church — and at so many other relief sites, growing little resilient weeds around NYC, the boroughs, and NJ — no matter who they were or why they had come to help, all seemed to proudly relish doing things well, in a way that would make easy sense when people came in to get material aid, and in a way that made the space itself feel tidy, friendly, and welcoming. Each person proudly relished their own innovations and self-organization along with the doing-it-together ourselves aspect. They wanted to bring dignity to their work and dignity to those who came in for needed supplies for homes without light, heat, or water. They wanted to treat each other as equals, as all doing a good job, as all needing to be thanked and all wanting to thank each other.

This and so much more is what, I think, gets lost when we use the phrase “mutual aid.” When it appears on banners, like the one pictured at this essay’s start: “Mutual Aid Not Charity,” even when we circle our A’s. The mundane usage of mutual aid as a term is simply an anarchistic version of charity (“we’re helping those people or that community, autonomously”) or a capitalistic version (it’s merely about reciprocity or more likely exchange, or a nicer version of quantitative aid). Its marvelous usage, and the one working at cross-purposes with state and capitalism, to paraphrase Peter Kropotkin, is the mutual aid that is cognizant of and reliant on its own self-organization; that is aware of the wholly egalitarian social relations it is forging explicitly against the wholly inegalitarian ones of the current social order; that is networked, grassroots, and confederated horizontally; that is about sharing, enjoying, and using spaces and things together in ways that highlight self-determination and self-management, even as we reappropriate and expropriate those spaces and things; and that sees each and every person (and the many animals impacted by this human-created disaster) as fully worthy, fully capable, in what John Holloway has labeled “a politics of dignity.”

I posted that photo of “Mutual Aid Not Solidarity” (taken by Joshua Eaton, and borrowed from his tweet of the image) on my Facebook page yesterday. I wrote: “Sign of the times, post-hurricane & nor’easter, outside the Occupy Sandy Relief hub at 520 Clinton in Brooklyn.” As of this evening, 167 people had shared the image and my caption, and in numerous instances, there was then discussion on other peoples’ Facebook pages of why mutual aid and charity were the same, and that charity wasn’t bad, as implied in the banner in the photo.

I ended up in a good conversation about this with someone who shares work space at Interference Archive, David; he’s working on a dissertation about mutual aid, so we talked a good long while, interrupting both our projects for that day. The crux of our discussion, and what underpinned our numerous examples of what we both consider marvelous mutual aid, was: mutual aid is, and has to be, a social relationship — a profoundly different form than what capitalism tries so hard at socializing us into for the whole of our (then-miserable) lives, and succeeds so well at doing.

The people-to-people — without mediation or compulsion, without bosses or police — cooking and sharing food, offering medical care, opening up one’s home for someone de-housed by the hurricane, using bikes and cars to get supplies to areas cut off by the storm, and on and on are, no doubt, the beautiful kaleidoscope of Occupy Sandy Relief across the battered landscape. And the facts that it has taken hold, captured the imagination, and brought thousands into DIY circles of relief efforts and aid are all, also, beautiful. But all this fits all too well into the cruel capitalist-statist structural domination and its equally cruel systems of oppression, which go merrily along even as we feed, clothe, caretake, and house each other.

The cross-purposes of mutual aid that just might point past this current structure, toward a social transformation that’s been tantalizingly glimpsed these past two years in do-it-ourselves social movements in squares, parks, plazas, and encampments around the globe are those new social relations we’re experimenting with. They can be oh so small, like when I was volunteering for a short time at the 6th Street Community Center in Manhattan’s Lower East Side; when people came in to get material aid, no one questioned them or their need, no one made them fill out a demeaning form or ran them through a charity bureaucracy that shames, no one gave them predetermined quantities or supplies but instead let them take what they needed, desired, and could use, and together, we somehow all figured it out. We self-managed, self-organized, self-determined, self-governed — not in a formalistic sense, but in qualitative, humane manner, person to person, with dignity.

David mentioned that in his view, this all implies we need to appropriate/expropriate spaces so as to be able to do this always; I agree, focusing on what I understand to be a notion of “the commons” that extends beyond physical space (but includes it) to embrace ecological, caring, social, and resource commons, and for me, as noted above, that means not only that we can use, share, and enjoy our world in common but also self-govern it, have shared and enjoyable power-together over it, in all those appropriated/expropriated spaces.

Today, I moved a bunch of toilet paper, sorted a bunch of diapers—in a church sanctuary under the mournful eye of a gigantic Jesus nailed to a gigantic cross, with blood dripping from his hands and feet — and worked to create toiletry bags in clear-plastic ziplock bags — not for the “culture of fear” that airports have become but instead for the “culture of caring” that this mutual aid moment is gesturing toward, in a way that I hope we recall for those many everyday moments outside hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns. Mundane activities, in a poor, ignored, toxic-filled, abandoned, mostly people of color neighborhood called Red Hook, in the aftermath of yet another capital/state-induced climate catastrophe, but somehow I kept thinking that Peter Kropotkin would be proud. Maybe not as proud as the folks sorting diapers with me, but damned proud nonetheless!

I’ll end with another Facebook share from yesterday, a photo by Nik Fox of the Yana Medical Clinic at Beach 113th, with my caption, “Wellness that warms the heart — or how folks in post-hurricane NY are prefiguring wholly new, healthy social relations through mutual aid, thanks to Occupy Sandy Relief self-organization. Fuck FEMA, Obama “Care,” and capitalism; “we got this.”

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If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com/. Share, enjoy, and repost–as long as it’s free, as in “free beer” and “freedom.

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