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‘We Must Act & Care For Each Other’: An Interview With Mutual Aid Disaster Relief

Posted in Creative Commons, Journalism, and Occupy Wall Street

Last month, I interviewed Mutual Aid Disaster Relief about one of their most recent projects and their perspective on the dangers and promise of mutual aid during a pandemic and rampant fascism.

Inspired by Common Ground in New Orleans and Occupy Sandy and numerous other community-led relief efforts, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief cultivate “autonomous, decentralized, and liberatory disaster relief.” After hurricanes and floods, they focus on empowering communities through solidarity, rather than offering top-down charity from above. According to their about page, the activities they’ve helped organize range from “building wellness centers, providing life saving medication [and] cleaning debris” to advocating for prisoners, helping communities build solar and water purification infrastructure and much more.

I’ve featured multiple Mutual Aid Disaster Relief publications in my Virtual Gonzo Zine Library. Most recently, I put “Lessons Learned” in the “Winter 2020” edition of the VGZL.

Like the title implies, Lessons Learned distills the wisdom of years of community-driven relief work. It includes both big philosophical ideas about mutual aid, and practical tips for not repeating other groups’ mistakes.

I reached out to Mutual Aid Disaster Relief by email, and they answered collectively. Though they wrote this a month ago, after the recent coup attempt, their words felt more timely then ever. I found their answers so eloquent, I wanted to present them here in Q&A format rather than editing them into a formal interview-style article. I’ve only lightly edited the responses for clarity and brevity.

Mutual aid in conflict with fascism

Kit O’Connell: Any advice for handling armed fascists or right wingers that show up in disaster areas trying to “patrol” “prevent looting” guard against “antifa” etc?

Mutual Aid Disaster Relief: This question seems to point specifically toward some actions that have actually happened recently. In Oregon, militias were setting up checkpoints and patrolling for “antifa” in the midst of wildfires.

Skills like negotiation, de-escalation, and nonviolent communication are definitely very valuable in disaster response work. In disaster zones (and more and more in protest zones too), it can be common to have interactions with right-wing militias or gangs, as well as police, soldiers, private security and mercenaries, or anybody else who could be agitated and violent for a number of reasons. If armed aggressive people are trying to control the situation and threatening violence (always implicit if they are cops or fascists), we can do everything we can to de-escalate the situation — in whatever ways feel safe and doable, try to delay, distract, and document aggressors’ actions, while delegating some others to help vulnerable folks move to a safer space.

As a mutual aid relief network, we are generally not prepared to have any kind of direct hostile confrontation with armed groups. Some groups, like John Brown Gun Club, Socialist Rifle Association, or Redneck Revolt or other groups such as these are arming and training for community defense. And can assist with security, have and share knowledge about right-wing militias, and at times may be able to even defuse conflicts or potential conflicts through backdoor channels. 

We must also be careful — bringing more guns onto the scene does not necessarily make it any safer. A sloppy presentation of rag-tag lefty open-carry gun enthusiasts can at times be counter-productive. People of color react differently to POC groups with guns versus white folks. Alternatively, having a really large group can do the trick and reduce the likelihood of violence from police and fascists. It would behoove us to develop more creative ways to neutralize right-wing violence and threats of violence. 

Some people in the network have been involved in developing a website and educational materials about defending our communities from a fascist takeover. [The website linked in this paragraph, It Could Happen Here, features an outstanding 2-page guide to planning for mutual aid under fascism. -Kit]

‘New ways of interacting with each other are not only possible, but reachable’

KO: I was really struck by the passage in “Lessons Learned,” that one of your

“secret missions is to dispel the illusion of powerlessness people feel … A moment of freedom and connection can undo a lifetime of social conditioning and scatter seeds in a thousand directions.”

Can you elaborate on the sort of possibilities opened up by mutual aid work, and how people can build on that spark of hope sometimes kindled by these efforts?

MADR: Many worlds coexist alongside each other. Disasters, for better or worse, rupture business as usual. We get windows into other people’s worlds in which invisible disasters of poverty, homelessness, alienation, colonialism, white supremacy, and other systems of domination are the backdrop of a very visible disaster such as a hurricane, fire, flood, or pandemic. And sometimes we are shown possibilities of new worlds entirely, heartbreaking in their dignity and quiet beauty.

Just like somebody who learns to read can never have that taken away from them, once we experience that a more connected, meaningful, true, and just way of existing with each other and the earth is possible, we won’t settle for anything less. When we share goods and services with each other freely, meet each other and meet each other’s needs, and step outside of the life we had known before, we understand deep inside that new ways of interacting with each other are not only possible, but reachable in the here and now. Amid the loss and ruin, a flower grows up through the concrete.

What matters is crystal clear. We must act and care for each other. And in the action and caring, we remember truths buried deep inside of us. Love and mutual support is how we pick up the pieces. Another world is possible, and we can help bring it into being, one cleaned up flooded home, one friendship forged, one act of solidarity at a time.

We are all we have. The politicians and CEO’s believe they have a monopoly on power. But we can dream things into being, from below, with our willingness to roll up our sleeves, connect with each other as equals, and stop waiting for others to do what we know must be done.

Recommended reading from Mutual Aid DIsaster Relief

KO: What zines (or other reading materials) are you reading, enjoying, or recommending right now?

MADR: On our website, we have a bunch of recommendations for books and zines for people wanting to dive into this subject more.

Especially of note, Dean Spade recently released a book entitled “Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next)” that we definitely recommend. 


Released under a Creative Commons license

Creative Commons License‘We Must Act & Care For Each Other’: An Interview With Mutual Aid Disaster Relief by Kit O’Connell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://kitoconnell.com/2021/01/14/mutual-aid-disaster-relief-madr-interview/.

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