How Anarchists Helped Californian Fire Refugees in a Walmart Parking Lot
They say "mutual aid" is a better model for providing aid than traditional top-down charity work.
The Walmart encampment where many evacuees have wound up on November 17. Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty
Before the fire, the Walmart parking lot in Chico, California, was already a natural place for people to seek a kind of refuge if they didn’t have other places to stay. According to Steve Breedlove, a local anarchist activist, the superstore turned a blind eye when people passing through town parked overnight and slept in their cars. So when the Camp Fire swept through the region, utterly destroying the town of Paradise and displacing over 50,000 people, it was natural that some 100 evacuees came to the parking lot to set up tents, and it was natural for Walmart to initially encourage them. Some started calling it "Camp Wallywood.”
As the people in the lot worked to adjust to their sudden change in circumstances, they were helped by, among other groups, a loose organization called North Valley Mutual Aid. Based on the principle of “solidarity, not charity,” mutual aid is a process of providing assistance to communities by working with and supporting them based on their needs, rather than from a top-down, hierarchical approach to aid.
This principle meant that when a Paradise evacuee named Tammy expressed a need for a community space, NVMA’s cleanup and rebuild working group helped build one in the parking lot. Two large beige tents were set up side by side, with pillows, chairs, books, and some other items inside make up the communal space. A cardboard sign is taped outside, reading, “Come get warm!” For Tammy, this was important for recovering from the collective trauma of the fire. “We all heal in community together and when [NVMA] came out and built this community space, I know they get it because community is how we heal,” she said in a video filmed by NVMA. “Community is how we do everything.”
Before the fire, Butte County already faced a terrible housing crisis, with a houseless population of at least 1,900 people. The destruction wrought by the fire will likely expand that population dramatically, and NVMA wants to help both previously houseless people and fire victims, another difference between most fire aid groups and the mutual aid society.
Organizations that have provided assistance to evacuees in the wake of last month’s fires include the Red Cross as well as local shelters, including the Jesus Center, Torres Community Shelter, and Safe Space Winter Shelter. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved more than $12.7 million in assistance for survivors in Butte, Los Angeles, and Ventura counties. But organizers said the federal response to the Camp Fire hasn’t met the immediate needs for shelter, food, medical care, and supplies, due to the slow nature of bureaucratic disaster response processes. This is where mutual aid networks are filling the gaps and taking relief efforts into their own hands.
North Valley Mutual Aid is one of these networks, and includes a mix of anarchists, communists, Democratic Socialists, “Bernie liberals,” and others who wanted to help with direct aid. In a series of meetings at an anarchist bookstore/coffee shop, organizers formed working groups aimed at providing for the most marginalized people. Activists set up a vegetarian kitchen under the Food Not Bombs value system at Pacific Culture, a local fermentation business in downtown Chico. They prepared food and delivered it to people in need, at the Walmart parking lot and elsewhere.
Rain Scher, an anarchist organizer with NVMA who has lived in Chico on and off for 14 years, explained that Chico “functions like a small town where everyone knows someone who knows someone, which makes us able to hold a public meeting and get a mutual aid network started.”
NVMA’s organizers looked to the work of Mutual Aid Disaster Relief for guidance. The national grassroots disaster relief effort was formed in response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and worked alongside the Common Ground Collective, a decentralized network of volunteers who responded to community needs. In New Orleans, volunteer street medics provided free medical treatment, and volunteers also set up a women’s shelter, built community gardens, and replanted wetlands. Some of the people who provided aid under the banner of North Valley Mutual Aid also worked with the Common Ground Collective.
Just weeks before the wildfire started burning, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief visited Chico during a national training tour. While no one at the time could have known that the deadliest wildfire in California history would hit the county soon after, Scher said it wasn’t a total surprise. “We have had bad fires—not this bad—but we’re familiar with the fact this is a real concern and we need to be more prepared as a community,” they said. “The infrastructure that exists for the local and federal government to meet the needs of our community is not enough.”
According to Miles, community members came together to help people directly after the fires instead of encouraging them to stay in shelters outside Chico—as other organizations, including the City of Chico and the Walmart did. Officials encouraged people to leave “primarily due to the rain and temperature changes as well as the lack of services available to help evacuees,” according to the city of Chico. But NVMA didn't see the need for the camp to break up. “People want to stay here because it’s their community and we want to support them,” Miles said. He explained that people are hesitant to stay at a shelter in another town because they don’t know what to expect when they arrive.
Breedlove, who is organizing with NVMA’s cleanup and rebuild group, said some community members who struggle with mental illness and addiction were hesitant to seek aid in a Red Cross shelter. For others, staying with their pets was important so they opted out of shelters that would require keeping animals elsewhere.
NVMA distributed pallets and tarps to evacuees in preparation for bad weather. The group has also been critical of Walmart third-party security, which Scher said had hassled people in the parking lot and taken the possessions of one family. In a statement, a Walmart spokesperson denied that anyone’s personal belongings had been taken, and noted that “while we were happy to serve as an immediate location for escape from the wildfires, Walmart’s property was not a shelter facility and was not intended to serve as a place of long-term housing for fire evacuees or others impacted by the Camp Fire.”
The parking lot camp was eventually disbanded on December 1, but the cleanup and rebuild working group is currently organizing to push the city to sanction self-managed camps, similar to the set-up at Wallywood, where people could help one another without being governed.
“It’s fucking nuts,” Breedlove said. “Our community will never be the same.” But in the middle of all the destruction, there also remains a sense of hope, as mutual aid relief networks are becoming more necessary and widespread as a response to climate-related disasters.
“When these disasters happen it’s tragic,” Miles said. “You see a breakdown of the state system. We have seen what happens with disaster capitalism,” he added, but “people have an opportunity to grow something new and better and we are looking at the cracks, and seeing what seeds we can plant.”
Correction: This story originally stated that the camp was currently in operation at a Walmart parking lot in Chico. While the organizers of North Valley Mutual Aid are still providing assistance to those in need, the camp in the parking lot disbanded last week. We regret the error.
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