Mutual Aid, Political Organizing & Survival

This essay is adapted from an email correspondence. In the coming days, I’ll write a more detailed and methodical follow-up, but this will give you a sense of how one leftwing organization operating in a small Rust Belt town in Northwest Indiana is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic, political, and social fallout.

We’re staying busy in Michigan City. As you might know, I’m a member of Organized & United Residents of Michigan City (OURMC) and we’ve immediately jumped into Mutual Aid efforts.

All of the problems that would normally exist in a deindustrialized Rust Belt city are compounded during a pandemic and economic crisis, so we’re focusing on essential services right now: homeless shelters, women’s shelters, soup kitchens, and food pantries, entities already over-taxed, under-staffed, and under-funded, so this poses a great challenge. Plus, the people who provide these services are disproportionately over the age of 60, so this also adds a layer of difficulty.

OURMC has released a virtual sign-up sheet that we’re passing to friends and allies, community members and others, via social media, email, and text message. We’ve been calling everyone we know in the city and surrounding cities, and we’re regularly hosting conference calls and video chats. In our thinking, the busier we can keep everyone, the better.

Unfortunately, we’ve had to double-down on using social media, which, for me, is such a terrible reality. I’ve long argued that we need to spend more time doing face-to-face work, especially in this technology-driven era, but here we are.

Members of OURMC who work in the service sector have set up a GoFundMe account for local bartenders and servers, so that allows us to reach out to new people and show them that OURMC, not the city, is the entity helping them. Of course, this helps build support.

We might join the ‘International Rent Strike on April 1st.’ This will depend on whether or not people in the city are ready for such an action. Trump and Congress have called for a suspension of rent and mortgage payments, but again, we want people to take things into their own hands and not wait for the state to act. In our thinking, now is the time to push ideas that otherwise would’ve been unthinkable only two weeks ago.

One of the primary challenges we face is the depoliticizing of this event. So, while we’re committed to conducting meaningful forms of Mutual Aid, we also don’t want to get caught in the trap of only doing Mutual Aid, or doing Mutual Aid without connecting forcing the state to also use its full weight to deal with the pandemic and economic depression (that’s what they’re already calling it in the business press).

Our local officials are completely freaked out, and rightly so. Our county officials are useless, and as you can imagine with a state like Indiana, our governor and state legislature are not only unhelpful, they’re actively destructive.

Indiana is way behind the curve when it comes to implementing state-wide measures to curb the rise of COVID-19. I can only assume things will get particularly bad in red states with a GOP trifecta. The GOP has spent the last ten years gutting unions, the public sector, privatizing everything they could, and defunded every social program imaginable. It’s gonna be a rough go. How much we can rely on the state remains in question and will change with time.

For now, our approach with local elected officials has been mixed. We’re trying to give them advice, and some are taking it, but we’re also ready to immediately switch to a full combative mode if that would mean getting them to move quicker. At this point, lives are on the line and we don’t have time for compromise. Right now, we want the city and county officials to use our funds for social programs and relief for the poor.

The real challenge is getting the state to act. Without that pressure form municipalities and counties, the governor and GOP won’t do a damn thing. It’s just that simple. And without massive social movements, which don’t exist, expressing a unified message, the only way to pressure the officials in Indianapolis is by putting so much pressure on city and county officials that they make life hell downstate.

On a side note, and to give you an idea of how disorganized things are at the municipal level, one of our council members told me that the city hasn’t even thought about applying for FEMA grants. Fortunately, he’s taking steps to put the process in action, but that’s how disorganized municipalities are in this state. Plus, we’re also limited in terms of what we can do at the local level because of the restrictive laws Republicans have passed downstate.

That said, we’re pressuring the council to develop creative funding mechanisms — shifting money around, taking from one fund and putting into another, etc. — to fund the sort of social/relief programs that are badly needed right now.

A good portion of Michigan City’s revenue comes from the River Boat Fund (Blue Chip Casino). Each year, Michigan City gets about 12 million from the boat fund. Let’s say the boat is closed for at least 3-4 months. That’s $3 to $4 million out the window — already a budget shortfall.

According to city officials, the police and fire departments have been on the phone 24/7, pushing for their people to get paid first. In some ways, that makes sense, but we also need to find a balance between funding essential services and funding what will become essential services.

A medium-term to long-term concern, however, is that our police force and fire personnel acquire the COVID-19 virus. Already, several fire departments are down in New York City. What would happen if our police force goes down? It’s true that the police are not our friends, but it’s also true that context should change our relationship to both allies and enemies.

During a pandemic, it doesn’t seem clear to me that the police are necessarily the enemy. I know this might seem sacrilege to my leftist friends, but I’m a combat veteran and I’ve been to failed states — without proper community organization, which we lack in the U.S., under extreme circumstances, the best thing is law and order. What we don’t want are groups of people running around, disobeying orders (in this case to the detriment of others), and generally acting out of individual or tribal interest, as opposed to acting in the collective interest of the community. As I said to a friend the other day, now is not the time for armchair rebellion. In this context, individuality will get people killed, something you understand very quickly in combat.

An additional concern we have is the Indiana State Prison, one of two maximum security prisons in Indiana. The prison is already a horrific entity, and the prisoners are treated like shit, but many of the people locked in that prison are not wonderful folks, something else which probably sounds sacrilege to many leftists. I’m sorry, folks, but there are rapists, murders and complete homicidal maniacs locked in that facility. How do we approach that situation, especially if things rapidly deteriorate?

According to friends and mutual contacts, some guards have already threatened to walk off the job if they can’t get COVID-19 under control and the virus starts to spread throughout the prison. Their jobs were privatized several years ago and they’ve been bitter, rightfully so, ever since. It wouldn’t be surprising if they just say ‘fuck it’ and leave. That too poses an ethical problem for leftists. If we’re the most organized entity in the city, how do we relate to an abandoned prison with dangerous people locked inside? No easy answers.

The best bet, for us, would be for the National Guard to come into the city and lock down critical infrastructure: the power plant, water sanitation department, electrical grid, and unfortunately, yes, the prison. At this point, in my thinking, it’s just a matter of time before the National Guard gets mobilized, so if that’s the case, we should have an idea of what we want them to do. In our city, it would be better for them to secure critical infrastructure than patrol the neighborhoods. That’s how bad things happen. The last thing we need is some white kid from Southern Indiana killing a black teenager on the East Side of town.

Moving along, because we have a coal fired power plant in our city, there’s the additional problem of having a population with disproportionate numbers of people who have respiratory illnesses, asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, lung cancer, heart disease, and so on. The local hospital, like most medical facilities throughout the county, expects to be overran by patients in the coming weeks.

Beyond the Mutual Aid and pressuring the state to do everything in its power to alleviate the pain and suffering of the health and economic crisis, in this context, some of our focus must shift to more anarcho-libertarian-participatory projects.

We don’t automatically assume that the state as we know it, and the economy as we know it, will make it through this disaster. This would be true even with someone like Obama in charge of the disaster, let alone Trump at the helm. It seems clear to me that this entire situation will be handled as poorly as humanly imaginable. Why should we assume otherwise?

Right now, that looks like community gardens, community childcare, community food delivery, medicine delivery, and even social companions. If we can’t hang out with each other, now that the weather is warming up, at least we can be in the backyard and, with enough distance, enjoy each other’s company in nature, which we think is important. Small things like this, but also bigger ideas.

What would an alternative economy look like? Are people willing to barter? Do people wish to come up with an alternative currency? We’re open to anything, at this point. And we’re encouraging people to come up with their own ideas. Right now, there are no wrong answers and no one cares if you make a mistake. Make a million mistakes, just do something.

Our basic message has been: Do Not wait for anyone. Do it yourself. We can help you come up with ideas, better formulate your plans, or show you organizing skills and techniques, but we can’t tell you what to do. You have to take the initiative and start doing things on your own. Yes, you’re gonna fail. Yes, it’s not going to be perfect. But that’s okay. We need people actively doing things on their own and not waiting around for orders from the government, or even OURMC. This is the time to empower people to the tenth degree.

Mutual Aid and Politics aside, there’s the survival element to all of this. In the case that everything breaks down, what’s your plan? If you live in the middle of Montana, that plan probably looks different than someone’s plan who lives in Chicago, or rural Iowa. Regardless of where you live, you should have a plan for if things go very south.

I know this is another taboo topic to discuss on the left, and under normal circumstances I avoid it and would agree, but our people need to be armed. There’s no way around this problem. According to a recent article in the New York Times, more Americans bought guns for the first time in the last week than have over the past two years.

Every gun shop in our county (population, 110,000) is sold out of ammunition and the only guns left on the racks are shotguns and small caliber pistols. All of the semi-automatic pistols and assault rifles have sold out.

At one store over the weekend, they had eight clerks behind laptops conducting background checks for twelve hours straight. It overloaded the store’s internet system, a local paper reported.

Violent groups do exist in our neck of the woods: street gangs, militias, cartels, and bike gangs. The street gangs are largely black, and the cartels, largely hispanic, are not particularly ideological in a political sense, but the militia groups and bike gangs definitely have White Supremacist tendencies (some are more explicit than others), and that poses a concern for us because almost 30% of the city is black, and many of those folks live in poverty and are located in a few small portions of the city.

What does community self-defense look like in the context of a rapidly deteriorating state? How dow we walk the line between doing what’s necessary to protect the most vulnerable in our community, including ourselves, from rightwing violence, while maintaining our principles and not devolving into some sort of glorified-wannabe-militant group of sectarian leftists? These are prescient questions in this context.

Fortunately, my roommate and the co-found our community space, above which we live, is someone I’ve known since my time in the United States Marine Corps. Sergio and I served in the same platoon for a few years, then, during our second deployment, he joined the USMC Scout Snipers.

For us, all of this is extremely jarring, particularly the rush to buy ammo and weapons. In our thinking, we bring a few elements to the table: 1) we know how to operate under extreme pressure and stress in a life and death situation, which will be helpful, 2) we understand the sort of collectivity that’s required to complete a mission, and 3) we can help guide people through the process of losing loved ones, which, according to most estimates, will be in the millions in the U.S.

I know this context, in some ways, is very specific to my surroundings, but there are many Rust Belt towns and cities whose demographic, social, political, economic, and racial composition is similar.

There are many layers to this pandemic and we’re trying our best to deal with them simultaneously, while maintaining our principles, being realistic, and adapting where necessary.

If you have any comments/questions about this correspondence, or would like to add to the conversation, please email me at vincent.emanuele333@gmail.com

Leave a comment