A photo collage showing the state of Texas against a blue background, with dollar bills falling from the sky
Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Image from Getty

Austin Mutual Aid Raised Millions During the Texas Freeze. Where Is It Now?

As the state government faltered its response, Austin Mutual Aid effectively raised money from many online donors, but also raised questions about accountability and impact.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US

In mid-February, during a series of severe winter storms that dumped unprecedented amounts of sleet and snow throughout the South, at least 2 million homes in Texas lost power. What were meant to be rolling blackouts, used to preserve electricity, turned into permanent outages. 

The temperature throughout most of the state stayed well below freezing for a week. Without any power, Texans reported sub-freezing temperatures inside their homes. The state’s private electric grid—which was responsible for the power outages in the first place—offered no meaningful assistance, beyond orders to preserve electricity if you had it. City officials in Austin opened additional shelters and warming centers, but they were of varying accessibility due to the conditions outside. 


A glimmer of hope came in the form of a GoFundMe link that began proliferating social media feeds. Austin Mutual Aid (AMA), a community aid group started at the local onset of the pandemic in March 2020, circulated a GoFundMe page called Kick the Cold! that claimed its purpose was to help unhoused people get shelter in warm hotels. “Hundreds of Austin residents are living outside without water or shelter from the elements,” the GoFundMe page read. “Help us get them the supplies they need!”

As elected officials continued to flub the government response, direct action felt to residents and organizers like a promising way forward. Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured in from more than 14,000 donors. Though mutual aid groups in other Texan cities launched successful fundraising efforts at the same time, the AMA drive was by far the most visible. For a few weeks, it felt like everyone I knew—inside and outside of Texas—was giving money to AMA. Glittering news stories painted the group as heroes, and it felt like they were; as the Austin American Statesman reported in March, AMA put nearly 500 of Austin’s unhoused folks in hotel rooms. Dozens of volunteers worked from a distribution center downtown, delivering food, water, and supplies to innumerable Austinites. 


Now, months after the state thawed, a small group of mutual aid organizers around Texas have started asking whether AMA is fully equipped to distribute the funds it raised. Throughout the past month, organizers in Houston have issued calls to AMA to show their receipts, or publish comprehensive financial reports showing how and where they’re distributing the sum of money raised during and after the freeze. They allege AMA is potentially withholding details about the money it raised, and raise questions about AMA founder Bobby Cooper’s prior organizing history. While direct action has found enormous success through crowdfunding online, organizers are concerned that even one instance of failed accountability and a lack of transparency undermines the process of building trust with the community, particularly in relatively uncharted organizing territory. 

Though the group has been raising funds for direct action since it started in March 2020, the winter storm caused meteoric growth; AMA more than doubled its initial goal to raise $1 million. Now that the storm has long since passed, AMA is still reportedly sitting on more than $1 million. In response to the calls for financial transparency, the organization published a self-reported spreadsheet in mid-June showing an impressive $2.6 million total. By AMA’s account, about $968,000 has been disbursed, leaving about $1.5 million left to be distributed. The spreadsheet breaks down expenditures, showing support given to other groups around Texas, microgrants given to various orgs and events, and reimbursements for hotel rooms and other expenses related to the Kick the Cold campaign. 


But organizers in Houston take issue with the spreadsheet because it’s generated by AMA itself, and shows no backup for the numbers given. 

“To compare, Mutual Aid Houston does direct aid directly through CashApp and Venmo, and they post screenshots of their transactions,” Nina Mayers, an organizer in Houston, told VICE. “If you are a mutual aid organization, it should not be very hard to compile all of the receipts and evidence that you have and post it, because the people who are supporting you and donating to your funds are asking for transparency. They would like to know that the money that they are giving to the organization is actually getting to the people that it's intended for.” 

(Other mutual aid orgs, like North Brooklyn Mutual Aid in New York City, practice transparency by using Open Collective, a website that allows groups to publish their entire donation and transaction histories in searchable databases.) 

Because AMA has so far failed to show their receipts, there is almost no way to check AMA’s math. The Kick the Cold GoFundMe page has since been deleted, and is accessible only through outdated archive links, the latest of which, from March 15, shows a total of $926,663 raised. There were also hundreds, if not thousands, of donations made via various Venmo accounts, including two official AMA accounts, plus the personal account of Bobby Cooper. 


It’s not necessarily unusual for mutual aid orgs to use Venmo accounts for donations, or even several accounts at a time; transaction limits and freezes in place on the app make it difficult to distribute funds, and having multiple accounts taking in and distributing donations makes things a bit easier. But AMA’s issues aren’t restricted to matters of transparency: A small group of Texan organizers question the motives of Cooper, whose organizing history appears messy online. 

Before moving to Austin several years ago, Cooper was deeply involved with the Occupy movement in New York City, where he lived at the time. When Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in the fall of 2012, Cooper pivoted his attention to storm recovery and started Occupy Sandy, a proto-mutual aid organization focused on the hard-hit Rockaways community in Queens. Cooper’s then-girlfriend and now-wife, Bre Lembitz, founded the movement with him, and worked as Occupy Sandy’s bookkeeper. Like AMA, Occupy Sandy was born in a moment of crisis, but after the initial crisis wore off, community members had doubts about the organization’s competency in distributing funds. As Mother Jones reported in 2013, after months of aid in the Rockaways, the community questioned what Occupy Sandy was doing with all the money it raised.


As Rockaways residents told Mother Jones, Occupy Sandy was “brilliant at first,” distributing funds to local groups, buying supplies, and sending volunteers into the community to help rebuild and restore homes and businesses, much like AMA. But as time went on, residents reportedly grew distrustful of the group, claiming Occupy Sandy’s central figures were hard to get information from, and were withholding information about what they planned to do with undistributed funds. They questioned what Occupy Sandy planned to do with nearly $240,000 that had yet to be allocated, eight months after the storm. 

At the time, Lembitz blamed the delay in distributing funds on “paperwork snags.” “I naively thought it was going to be much easier to set up, and it wasn’t,” Lembitz told Mother Jones. 

Around the same time, in September 2012, Lembitz and Cooper ran a Kickstarter campaign (now hidden by Cooper, who was going by Andrew Weeks at the time), seeking to raise funds for a family farm they said they hoped to turn into a “working farm and educational center.” After raising nearly $26,000 from over 500 backers, those who donated began to complain in public comments on the Kickstarter page, claiming promises for donor rewards were never fulfilled, and pointing out that they heard precious few updates about how their money was being put to use. 


“Looks like no one is getting their reward,” wrote one backer in a public comment on the Kickstarter page, roughly two years after the funding was complete. “I have also emailed them, sent Facebook messages, etc., and have not gotten a single reply. I have a feeling we all got scammed by these two.” 

Cooper posted a final, lengthy update to the Kickstarter shortly after, in 2014. “This is one of the hardest letters I’ve ever had to write,” he began, going on to explain that his brother was selling the farm, and they’d be stepping away from the project. 

Sasha Rose, an organizer with AMA, told VICE via email that Cooper and Lembitz were “upfront about their work with Occupy Sandy,” and an Instagram user sent them the article criticizing that work in late April 2021. The group learned of Cooper and Lembitz’s farm fundraiser in May, when an Instagram user sent AMA information about the abandoned Kickstarter. Lembitz worked temporarily as AMA’s bookkeeper, but AMA said both Cooper and Lembitz stepped down from their leadership roles in mid-April, without intervention from AMA’s leaders. (Screenshots taken by VICE show AMA’s Instagram handle, @austinmutualaid, mentioned in Cooper’s personal Instagram bio up to June 8, after Houston-based organizers began circulating the 2013 Mother Jones story about Occupy Sandy. Cooper removed AMA from his bio in the late morning on June 8.) AMA said Cooper and Lembitz officially stepped down from the group entirely on June 14 at a community meeting. 


In an emailed statement to VICE, Cooper said that while he was never involved with Occupy Sandy’s finances, all of the funds were eventually distributed and accounted for. “The intention of the funds Occupy Sandy raised was to not spend them quickly with decisions made by people far removed from direct work, but instead to bring community members from the disaster-hit regions into the conversation so that they could have ample time and space to decide how the funds could be spent,” he said. As Mother Jones reported at the time, in the months after the storm, Occupy Sandy was reportedly planning to convene a small panel of people (both community members and Occupy Sandy organizers) who’d decide how the remaining money would be spent. 

Cooper added that “in-kind donations came pouring in” to Occupy Sandy in the storm’s aftermath, and the team set up a long-term plan to allocate funds in the months after the initial emergency. As the anonymous Instagram account that publicly surfaced Cooper’s history with Occupy Sandy pointed out, it’s a model similar to AMA’s. Like Occupy Sandy, AMA was inundated with donations in a time of crisis—more donations than the group could’ve anticipated. Iffy Roma, an organizer with AMA, told VICE that before the freeze in February, the group was hardly a “group” at all, characterizing AMA more as a loose team of volunteers whose primary focus was support for the unhoused population around Austin.


But the unprecedented weather in February, and the attention it brought to direct aid groups in Texas and throughout the South, changed all of that, overnight. AMA went from a loosely organized group of activists to a public-facing HQ for donors who felt helpless amid the worsening weather crisis. Money poured in faster than AMA could spend it, and then, the weather warmed back up.

“We didn't come up with the plan for, how do we transition from emergency support, who are we after this?,” Roma said. “Everything was moving so fast… We wanted to just do the best that we could do, and we were over our heads.” 

While Cooper and Lembitz have both stepped down from AMA, Cooper denied it had anything to do with the news about Occupy Sandy and his farm Kickstarter resurfacing. He instead gave three reasons why he stepped down from AMA, as the group restructures and forms committees to decide how to best allocate the remaining funds: “Mutual aid is best led by people of color,” Cooper wrote in a statement forwarded to VICE by a spokesperson for AMA. “Since the storm I've known it would be best to step back from a leadership position for the community to not have a white male presenting face represent mutual aid and let others step forward.”

For reasons two and three, Cooper said he doesn’t want to be a full-time activist, and that “burnout is real,” writing that, after working upwards of 100 hours with AMA, he was “mentally and emotionally fried and exhausted.” 

At the end of the email, Cooper addressed the allegations against him and Lembitz. “The only accusations towards the two of us that I have heard come from an anonymous Instagram account,” he wrote, referring to the Instagram account that started recirculating the 2013 Mother Jones story in June. The owner behind the Instagram account declined multiple requests for comment from VICE. 

Out of the immediate aftermath of the freeze, and with hundreds of thousands of dollars remaining, Roma and Rose said AMA is now in the process of deciding how to best and most fairly distribute the funds it raised during the freeze. 

“We’ve made big strides towards unity within our community and are making collective plans on how to utilize and reallocate these funds wisely,” Rose told VICE via email. “A lot of the issue has been that communication had been severed within the community by a lot of burnt out people. This work is exhausting and people were putting in 18+ hour days during the freeze. Mutual Aid organizations come about only when government organizations fail. The City of Austin failed in so many ways. While mistakes were made, lives were saved.”

The group told VICE it’s “working with the community” on distributing the remaining $1.5 million it raised during and after the winter storm. Plans include direct aid for unhoused folks, grants to existing organizations around Austin, and relief for those affected by Prop B, the recently passed local ban on public camping. “We are in conversation with many to address this crisis and others, including the incredibly slow and lacking form of rent relief in Texas,” Rose said. The group didn’t say when funds would be fully distributed, and said there are no current plans to publish transactions. 

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