Black Flags and Windmills

I’m writing a book about how networked communications enable self-organized groups to take on functions that once (supposedly) required large, hierarchical, capital-intensive institutions. One of the functions I’m examining is disaster relief.  I recall, from the very outset of Katrina, reading about how the agencies officially tasked with aiding the victims of that disaster were actually treating them as the enemy:  putting NOLA under lockdown, turning refugees attempting to flee the city back at gunpoint, turning would-be volunteers and helpers away at gunpoing, and suppressing self-organized groups in the city as if they were criminal gangs.  So when I was invited to read and review an anarchist’s account of those events, I jumped at the chance.

Just reading Crow’s story of his formative years, I get the impression that he got a dose of AUM Shiva in the uterus and was born a homo neophilus.  Or maybe he was just raised by one.  (If you’re not familiar with R.A. Wilson, Google is your friend.)  Scott was raised in the class conventionally referred to as the “working poor” in Texas, watching his mother and her family struggling to get by.  He also grew up on the fringes of the radical movement, with anecdotes about a mother who enthusiastically called him to watch Greepeace activists fighting off a Japanese whaling ship on TV and attending a Black Panthers preschool.  As a young man, he frequented left-wing and anarchist circles of Dallas and Austin (Gene Atkins of the I.W.W. was a mentor), along with the punk scene.

After Katrina hit, Crow organized an expedition into New Orleans to extract his old comrade Robert King, who had gone incommunicado (with all the obvious implications under those circumstances).  And afterward, as a part of their rescue efforts Crow and his comrades organized the Common Ground Collective.  Crow’s experiences in NOLA — especially with FEMA, the military, and state and local cops — bear out every single thing you’ve heard about official authoritarianism after Katrina.  Not only did the “authorities” treat the poor black population as an occupied enemy and keep them under lockdown, not only did they shoot people on sight for “looting” food and water that would be written off as unsalvageable anyway; they also turned a blind eye to the operation of white death squads terrorizing the area and shooting unarmed civilians.

The objective was pretty clearly to ethnically cleanse the poorest neighborhoods, to drive the black population from their surviving homes to the kind ministrations of the Superdome, in order to have a free hand reconstructing the city.  The real estate developers and Chamber of Commerce saw Katrina as a golden opportunity to carry out the biggest urban renewal/gentrification project in history, once they were freed from interference by the people who, you know, actually lived there.  They’d bulldoze most of the Lower Ninth, lure in lots of corporate headquarters, and turn NOLA into Seattle with a French Quarter.  At the time Jimmy Reiss, chairman of the New Orleans Business Council, announced he’d been brainstorming about how “to use this catastrophe as a once-in-an-eon opportunity to change the dynamic.”

As Crow and his comrades went door to door, asking shut-ins about their needs and distributing food and water to enable them to stay in their homes,

[s]tate workers told us off the record that we weren’t supposed to exist.  This area was supposed to be empty.  It seemed that they wanted to starve out or remove the remaining residents.  But our small-scale insurrection had disrrupted their plans.  People wanted to stay in their homes and face whatever was going to come their way.  They had all heard the stories from the Superdome and kew that friends and families were being shipped to unknown parts of the country.  The government’s agenda was simple:  clear the area of people by force or starvation.

Even when the motivation was not obviously corrupt, the bureaucracy was just plain paralyzed by its own internal culture.  FEMA turned away hundreds of would-be volunteer rescuers, attempting to go in with their own boats, simply because it didn’t know what to do with them.  Military forces composed largely of Iraq veterans had the combat mindset, approaching the local population the same way they did the populations they dealt with patrolling Baghdad.  Military helicopters that could have lowered ropes and evacuated countless refugees instead trained their weapons on the people below, ready to shoot anything that moved.

Local police, seeing Common Ground aid workers moving on the streets, frequently gave them the standard “Get down — hands on your fucking heads!” treatment.  As always with the state, regardless of its “Officer Friendly” rhetoric, you’re not the customer — at best you’re the commodity, at worst the enemy.

Even when the official apparatus made sincere attempts at rescue and relief, it displayed the high-overhead operational style and enormous tail-to-tooth ratio typical of bureaucratic hierarchies.  When a military battalion began relief efforts, its Humvees drove up and down streets with loudspeakers announcing their attention to put tarps on the roofs of anyone who needed them.  After driving around for two days blasting out this message, they spent a grand total of two hours putting up five tarps.  The Common Ground crews Crow worked with, in the meantime, worked from dawn to dusk every day tarping roofs, and worked eighteen-hour days cleaning out blocked sewer drains, removing downed trees from streets and rooftops, etc..  The military’s first aid clinic was open two hours a day, two hours a week.

As in the case of Mexico City in 1985, Crow says, the state “prioritized a return to law and order and minimizing negative media coverage instead of using its resources to get people to safety.”

As someone who’s followed the Arab Spring and Occupy movements very closely, I find Crow’s account of organizing the Common Ground Collective extremely relevant to the problems the movement faces today.

I took out some crude notes composed over the last few days and painted a picture of how we could build a revolutionary aid organization.  It would be based on the principles and practices of other groups:  an organization of residents and outside volunteers with support from larger civil society, one that engaged in aid work without government interference….  I knew we could do better than the bloated bureaucracies of the government and the Red Cross.  We would take mutual aid from street to street, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, through the flooded city and beyond.

We agreed on some goals.  First, extablishing security and checking in again with the closest neighbors about immediate needs.  Next, establishing first aid and food distribution stations….  My hope was that we would build survival programs and resistance from the ground up with members of the surrounding communities and the ad hoc solidarity networks that we had access to around the country….

As our conversation continued, I drew up a proposal on a scrap of paper for a framework based on dual power.  We would resist any further annihilation of the community.  We would also work together to create counter-institutions for the long-term….

On September 5, 2005…, Malik, Sharon and I cofounded the Common Ground Collective….  Those who assme power would not be able to turn their eyes away or cover up what was happening.  We would show their illegitimacy by “doin’ for ourselves,” as Malik said.  While they waged wars and built prisons, we would aid people until they could get their footing and do it for themselves….

We were seeing, in real time, what slowly filtered out to become painfully apparent worldwide.  The state was off balance and unresponsive.  The entities within it were failing to grasp the developing issues….  For me, it was the closest thing to seeing those in Power lose their stranglehold on control.  We interpreted this as an opportunity to create an autonomous space where residents could  establish  self-determination over their futures, be treated with dignity and respect, and have access to basic services that hadn’t existed in years, if ever.  We would begin relief work, without reliance on or interference from the state or professional aid agencies.  We would prefigure the civil society we would like to see in the future.

Common Ground — “the largest functioning organization based on anarchist ideals in the United States since the IWW” — continued to operate in the Ninth Ward until 2008.

Crow saw this prefigurative movement as a further development of the principles of horizontalism displayed in the Zapatista movement and the Seattle anti-globalization movement.

In the ten years since then, there has been a huge growth in networked and decentralized groups, projects and programs rooted in horizontal and cooperative models of organizing.  Many of these groups took direct action.  They organized shutdowns of institutions that were doing harmful things, started community gardens, fed people, created alternative media outlets, and formed cooperatives to share the work and benefits.  These disparate projects had been drawn together by the common goal of creating new worlds from below, worlds where those who are historically neglected and their allies pulled together in solidarity for the benefit of everyone….

These networks of support include medics, legal aid, food, and housing, provided by community organizers and activists from all over, even across national borders.  Networks allow groups to cross over, intersect, and overlap but keep their autonomy and connection to others with common purpose without leaders or parties dictating from the center.  They converge to create temporary autonomous zones….

Our engagement was going to be built upon these many networks.  Many projects and ideas like these had blossomed within the last ten years.  I wanted to build on these ideas to make them more permanent.  Could street medics and their temporary first aid stations become a permanent clinic or hospital?  Could groups who served food once a week set up long-standing free kitchens?  Would we be able through alternative media… to tell the deeper untold stories that countered mass-media sensationalized hype?

The Black Panther Party’s model of dual power in the ’60s and ’70s, as described by Crow, is especially relevant as a model of what the Occupy movement might become.  As I have argued many times, Occupy is mainly significant not as a pressure movement on the state, but as a fair or school for organizing our own society independent of the state.

Their analysis and the broad social programs they built in the most oppressed communities reverberated throughout the neighborhood I lived in decades after they were gone….   The Panthers’ model tried to address the myriad issues in an integral way by feeding people, defending communities from police brutality, offering education,  and providing basic health care.  With these first steps, people could get a footing and become their own agents of change….

Early in its existence, the BPP developed survival programs.  These programs were free services to their communities:  breakfast for children, grocery and clothing giveaways, legal aid, sickle cell anemia testing, martial arts, medical clinics and ambulance services, pest control, education, child development centers, prisoner and prisoner family support, and more….

What frightened the state so much about the programs run by Panthers?  It was that they advocated that people take power into their own hands through food programs, educating themselves, and defending their communities from police assaults and harassment.

My hope for OWS is that it will lead to similar horizontal linkages between open-source and free culture, Permaculture and community-supported agriculture, hackerspaces and micromanufacturing, community gardens, Food not Bombs, free clinics, Copwatch, Indymedia, and alternative currencies.

As someone who has written much — and feels driven to write a lot more — about the sheer stupidity of authority-based rules interfering with the judgment of people in contact with a situation, I especially appreciated these comments by Crow:

How many times have we all done something that was technically illegal, even something small, like walking at a crosswalk when the light is red?  We do things like this because we have all the relevant information and make a decision that is in our best judgment….

I have come to trust that any group of people can decide what is best for them in any situation….  This can be done without hurting others, or waiting for someone far away with no firsthand knowledge of the issues to make the decision for them.  All my life I have found that people can be accountable to themselves and to each other without coercion at every step.

As a market anarchist, I also appreciated crow’s account of a libertarian — as opposed to capitalist — market, embedded in the larger social life of a solidaristic community.

Individual action gains strength when it is undertaken in tandem with others for the benefit of everyone.  Anarchism means acting cooperatively for the benefit of all, as well as our own self-interest.  These motivations do not have to be mutually exclusive.  I spent many years in the antique business.  It is largely a cash economy, built on mutual trust and cooperation between people, based solely on their word.  There are no lawyers or written contracts.  Your word is everything.  Most of my business decisions were collaborative in some way.  They took into account my interests and those of  the people I was doing business with.  There was more to the equation than the profit motive.  There were multiple bottom lines that included fairness and ethics in an economy based on mutual trust across informal networks.  I made business deals across the world on handshake agreements that were reciprocally beneficial and supportive.

Many readers of this review will be familiar with Chuck Munson of Infoshop.  Crow gives special credit to Infoshop for serving as a clearinghouse of news from New Orleans on anarchist relief activity in the early days after Katrina, and the problems anarchist mutual aid workers had in dealing with the state.  I myself recall that a large amount of the anarchist news I received in the aftermath of Katrina had been forwarded by Infoshop.  Indymedia was an important source of alternative news as well, Crow says.  Thanks to the possibilities of networked journalism online, it’s possible for anyone who wants to to know what’s really going on, without depending on the “professional” gatekeepers at a handful of TV networks and wire services in the corporate-state media complex.

I especially like Crow’s statement, in response to local officials’ fear that Common Ground was “trying to overthrow the government, that

[w]e never aimed to take state power….  We neither needed nor wanted to overthrow their power….  We needed to build our own power as an organization if we were going to support people.

Exactly.  Our aim is not to overthrow the state, but to ignore it.  Anyone who wants to continue to support the state and obey its laws is free to do so, so long as they leave us alone.  Our goal is to build the kind of society we want, and prevent the state from overthrowing us while we’re doing it.  The last person out of the state can turn off the lights.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory