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A Conversation with Scott Crow, Part 2: Mutual Aid

7:05 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Previously: Part 1, Occupy & Activism

Banner on Occupy Sandy relief site: "Occupy Sandy, Mutual Aid Not Charity" with Circle A

Radical activist networks are powerful sources of mutual aid during disasters. But what comes after?

One reason I wanted to chat with Scott Crow was his experience with Common Ground Collective in New Orleans. In recent years, we’ve seen similar collectives spring out of the activist networks formed by Occupy Wall Street — projects like Occupy Sandy. Late last year, alongside key Common Ground Collective organizer Lisa Fithian and many others, I organized Austin Common Ground Relief to respond to a record-breaking flood on Halloween. As the group’s dispatcher, I relied on the networks and skills formed during Occupy Austin.

Kit O’Connell, Firedoglake: You mentioned projects that appear during lulls. I see Occupy Sandy, or the Common Ground Relief work we did here recently and all that ties into what you were doing at Common Ground Collective. 

Scott Crow: Right.

FDL: Mutual aid is good for its own sake, but how do we connect that politically? We don’t want to turn anyone off. We don’t want to politicize our aid but our aid is political. How do we make that connection? What happens next after an Occupy Sandy?

SC: I think it only is what it is. You can only ‘politicize’ it as much as you can. I think what’s really important is the culture we create internally within our political movements and social movements and also the way we engage outwardly with other people — though it’s more permeable than that. We’re not trying to convert people to anarchy or to communism or whatever it is — although communists did try to convert people just like religious wingnuts. Really what we do is you just make it make sense to people.

FDL: Sure!

SC: When you go to help someone and you name it mutual aid, people see that in real life and real time. Unfortunately, that’s the only way to do it. There is no conversion.

“It’s the idea of attraction, not the idea of conversion.” That actually comes out of Alcoholics Anonymous, I didn’t make that up. The aid work is something which just emerges sort of by accident out of all these projects. Like at Common Ground Collective in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, we were able to pull from the alternative globalization movement: street medics, indy media, and Food Not Bombs and all these things which had been going on.

FDL: These were networks built through activism that then were pulled in for aid.

SC: We didn’t consciously say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this for aid!’ Now we’re starting to see that this has become a newer model, another point of intersection against the crisis of capitalism.

Make it as political as possible without drawing fake lines: like “we’re anarchist and you’re not.” Or, “this is radical and you’re not.” And also just being honest about who we are. I don’t want to convert anyone.

FDL: But you’re honest about where you’re coming from.

SC: Absolutely! I told people I was an anarchist from the beginning in New Orleans. And these are people, in some communities, who had hardly ever seen white people. I’m literally serious about that. They’d say “I’ve barely seen white people except on TV. You’re an anarchist, what is that? And why are you here?”

Now they’ll tell you, “The anarchists came. No one else showed up, but the anarchists came.” I’m sure your experience with Austin Common Ground was maybe not as extreme, but similar.

FDL: Sure, I had some people who took me aside who were like “I get what you guys are doing here.” We didn’t avoid talking about our politics, people knew we were organizers but it was never about that, obviously. It was about “here’s a meal.”

SC: Right.

FDL: During some of the later events in December, people told me, “We will remember you and what you did.”

SC: It’s also about connecting things. So when you’re gutting somebody’s house, you can come in like a service organization and say, “Yeah, we’re going to gut your house. Then we’re going to go on to do something else.” That’s the charity model. But if you come in with the solidarity model, it’s like, “We’re doing this because we want you to get back on your feet, because we want you to build your own community power the way you see fit.” It’s a different way to approach it.

FDL: We’ve been able to pass the work off to the new Onion Creek Park Neighborhood Alliance, which we helped them form. 

SC: That’s what I’m talking about! These things happen all the time, and I don’t care if we name them as anarchy or not. It’s not a brand. There’s no gain in it. It’s just a point of reference, at least to me.

FDL: I feel the same way about Occupy. Some people want to fly that banner and it’s really powerful to them, and other people don’t want anything to do with it. At the end of the day, I don’t care as long as they’re doing something.

SC: Right, right.

In Part 3: Technology and intersectionality.

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A Conversation with Scott Crow, Part 1: Occupy & Activism

8:15 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Scott Crow in jeans and a button shirt sits in a chair at the left of a long table, against an alley wall.

Scott Crow talks with Firedoglake’s Kit O’Connell about activism and anarchy.

Scott Crow is a co-founder of the Common Ground Collective which provided grassroots solidarity and mutual aid after Hurricane Katrina. An anarchist activist, author and public speaker, he travels regularly to share his views. The second edition of his book about Common Ground, Black Flags and Windmills is due out soon. It’s one of multiple book-length projects in the works.

Both Scott & I call Austin home, so I invited him out for coffee and conversation on a recent break from an unusually chilly Central Texas winter.

Kit O’Connell, Firedoglake: There’s always been activism happening but the last few years it seems there’s been more activity, more people in the streets, more stuff happening. Do you agree?

Scott Crow: Yeah, but what happens is there are times of rupture, where things kind of jump off. And then times of lulls, in-between times. Look at it like a sine wave where it rises and falls. So the twenty plus years I’ve been doing activism, I’ve been engaged with community organizing, I’ve been engaged in national struggles, international struggles, I’ve seen a lot of ruptures and falls. When I came back in really seriously was in the alternative globalization movement, the post-Seattle stuff. When that kicked off it was huge huge huge. We could get 10,000 people to a demonstration internationally with the summit hopping that was going on.

After September 11 it sort of died down. But then the wars kicked off. And I don’t mean the War On the Poor or the War On Women, but the international wars. And in that you saw another rupture where thousands of people were in the streets.

And then it kind of leveled off and then we were struck with some pretty serious disasters. One was the man made and natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina. That actually drew a lot of people to it, which was another form of a rupture. Because then people came to the Gulf Coast by the hundreds of thousands, literally,

Then there was a lull, but then we come to the next disaster which was the economic collapse of 2008. All of these things have been brewing since the millennium as capitalism’s been in crisis and then finally Occupy comes. And it’s just a natural progression of all this. So that was just the latest rupture to happen.

It’s always interesting to watch — the way I actually look at it is like an ocean, like waves coming to the shore. Is this too long?

FDL: No, No! Go on!

SC: So like the waves are out here and there’s the lulls and highs and then they just finally crash into the shore. All the waves aren’t coming at the same time but they are definitely crashing on that shore. Then they kind of recede back.

Then what I like to see is what happen in the lulls, in between the ruptures right — what comes out of it? So when the rupture happens there’s thousands — I just want to be clear I’m not saying ‘the Rapture!’

FDL: *Laughter*

SC: The tensions are the highest and when the people are the most. We saw in the Occupy movements, it was incredibly beautiful, internationally but definitely in the states, all across the country. But then it starts to recede and we see who’s left and what projects come out of it. Because that helps build for the next level.

I think that what came out of Occupy and the Occupy movements was a really beautiful rupture because you’d already seen the largest influence of anarchy and anarchist ideas in the modern times since the time of Emma Goldman and the IWW and people back then. We’re in an anarchist renaissance. So when people came into Occupy, they came in with these horizontal organizing ideas, the ideas of participatory democracy, the ideas of direct action, without even thinking about it.

And that’s forty years of organizing for a lot of people in the United States but for me that’s twenty years of organizing — not that I was a part of all of it, but seeing it come to fruition –

FDL: You and all your allies.

SC: Absolutely. I’m not taking credit for it in any way!

In Part 2: Disaster relief and the meaning of mutual aid.
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What Flood? 2 weeks of disaster relief in Austin, Texas (#ATXFloods)

7:30 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Collapsed house after Austin Halloween Flood

A condemned houses in the aftermath of the Austin, Texas Halloween 2013 flood.

In the early hours of Halloween 2013, Austin, Texas suffered from a record-breaking flood. Some 1,100 homes were affected by the floods with hundreds of those seriously. Flood response was dangerously delayed by a faulty flood gauge and improper human monitoring of the rapidly rising Onion Creek. Because of the city’s seemingly laissez-faire attitude toward the residents of the floodplain, many remained asleep as water began to pour into their homes:

Onion Creek was transformed into a raging river last Thursday. The Halloween flood set a new record for high water levels in the creek. More than 1,000 homes were damaged and five people died.

At a town hall meeting in the Dove Springs area Tuesday night homeowners had a lot of questions, and one comment caused concern.

‘We relied too much, me, on technology and gauges that were not working properly,’ said Police Chief Art Acevedo.

Flood survivor Norma Jeanne Maloney took to Facebook to tell how she and her partner Dawna Fisher were awakened by rising waters:

Dawna Fisher woke me up to tell me we had a problem. Half asleep I said ‘Say again, what kind of problem?’ ‘We have some water outside and it looks pretty high.’ I went to our front window to see a raging body of water about 3 feet high. I said ‘We need to wake up the kids we are in serious trouble.’ I woke up Ruby and she woke up Texie. I went back into our bedroom where the water had already begun to seep up into our floors, I heard my cat Pickup howling, yes cats howl, under the bed. I managed to grab him and while he clawed me to pieces ( and he has never ever hurt anyone ) I said to him, go right ahead pal, I’m not letting you go. Texie and I shoved him in a bag and zipped it up. …

We all had gathered in the living room wondering if anyone on earth knew what was happening and how we were going to get out. We saw someone trying to escape in their car, it flipped on its side and was washed away. I heard voices and saw a boat in the street and my immediate response was to open the front door to swim to the boat to get help for my family. Do not try this at home, it lets more water in. We began flicking our porch light on and off and were seen. A beautiful tall firefighter walked through the raging water and made it to our window and asked how many lives we had in our home including pets …

He said he would be back. We waited and watched the water continue to rise, our belongings beginning to float about the house. My daughter Ruby asked me if we were going to die. That was the hardest part. Of course not I said, wondering if I just lied to my child and if we were all going to perish. I said guys, I know this isn’t really your thing, but can we pray? Without hesitation we all grabbed hands in a circle and asked that we be spared, at this point the water was past our waists. … The firefighter came back, we heard our neighbors screaming and we said go back for them, they are elderly and need your help. Our neighbors (we know now) were screaming go get them, they have babies! On his last trip to our window they finally managed to get the boat near our living room window against the current and said they were ready to load us. These brave men loaded our family and our animals in the tiny craft and we were transported less than a half mile north up our street where it was completely dry.

As is so often the case in these disasters, city organizations and big nonprofits poured into the neighborhood to offer assistance and ask for cash donations in the immediate aftermath, but it didn’t last. The Red Cross turned up to serve thousands of hot dogs before halting meals a week after the floods. A city-operated shelter opened for a mere 2 weeks. And while the Austin city government offered buyouts to over a hundred of the worst damaged homes, residents are expected to wait months to receive that money: