Reimagining Resistance in the Age of Persistent Disaster

Occupy Sandy: “Mutual aid, not charity”

Puerto Rico, California, Houston, Mexico, Barbuda — an incomplete list of tragedies, and these are just the North American ones. They don’t account for India and Bangladesh or the fires spreading across Europe. Moreover, these disasters are just the natural ones. They are set in the context of an enduring political disaster: the failures of the Trump administration, the rise of nazi demonstrations, the never-ending mass shootings, and other manifestations of endemic American violence.

Whether or not this historical moment is quantitatively more disastrous than those before it, we can’t deny a feeling that has plagued the nation since November 8th: the world is falling apart. Each of these moments of crisis may have captured our full attention in another setting. But in today’s world, we encounter them as another piece in this catastrophic puzzle. We can’t blame ourselves for this — inevitably, overstimulation will lead to some level of numbness. Although we need to resist, we also need to cope. And so maybe one day we turn off the news, or decide not to read another devastating article on yet another crisis. This paradox of paralysis and agency is never clearer than in the case of U.S. mass shootings, a tragedy so devastating but so quotidian that no reaction seems quite right. We cannot feign shock, and yet we cannot succumb to indifference, either. Instead, we fall into some uncanny sort of grief, one that feels all too familiar. Maybe we take to the streets, for another rally, another vigil, another protest. And we return to normalcy. And the process repeats. Is this what resistance looks like in 2017?

This is not to suggest that protest is unimportant. I spent my undergrad studying the importance of social movements, with a particular focus in street protest, and regularly find myself defending its utility. Protest has always been a vehicle for us to perform our resilience, to build community, and to create a spectacle. Take the Women’s March — a massive display of resistance that shifted the American political landscape as Trump took office. These events are important, but in the age of persistent disaster, I argue they aren’t enough. There is a point where our dissent becomes consumed by disaster machine, and we are no longer in opposition to it, but, unknowingly, have become a part of it. Our dissent makes the hurricanes, the hate speech, the mass shootings livable. And yes, we need to live — and so we will continue to take to the streets to catch a glimpse of a world beyond this one. But is glimpsing a new world the best we can do? Is it possible we may be able to build it?

It is time, as anarchist thinker Scott Crow has said, to strike activism as we know it. He says:

“All movements are made of eruptions. We have crises that come up, or disasters. Anti-war, anti-globalization, Occupy, these are eruptions. But then what happens between, there are lulls… when we’re supposed to reassess who we are, heal our wounds, take care of ourselves, and then be ready. Thousands of people come into the movement [during the eruptions], but they usually leave in that lull. You’re left with few people to build infrastructure. Whereas if we started to build resilient communities and larger infrastructure, liberatory infrastructure, and I don’t mean only fucking non-profits or cooperative businesses. I mean infrastructure that meets basic needs: health care, education, food systems, child care, elderly care, all the foundations of civil society. so that when the [next] disaster erupts we already have networks that people can plug into…”

Crow’s analysis is particularly pertinent in this current assemblage of tragedies. If there is one thing disaster illuminates, it is how the state fails to deliver (remember Bush and Katrina?). When disaster strikes constantly, the chronic failure of the state is revealed. The age of persistent disaster requires us not only to rise up in opposition to the state, but to start building alternatives to it. It necessitates the liberatory infrastructure of which Crow speaks. Eruptions no longer suffice, because the world no longer operates on a framework of eruptions. Persistent disaster requires persistent resilience.

I recently mentioned this idea of liberatory infrastructure to a friend, when she asked the natural question: what will that look like? We can look to examples: there’s Portland Anarchist Road Care, a group that decided to fix potholes in response to state neglect. Or Brujas, an NYC skate collective that started a legal fund to pay off New Yorkers’ MTA fines. Or Jose Andres, the renowned chef who is currently preparing 50,000 meals a day with his team in Puerto Rico, providing residents with a basic need that has gone unaddressed by institutions like FEMA and the Red Cross. Some of these initiatives are explicitly political, Anarchist with a capital A. Some of them might define themselves as charitable. All of them are acts of radical solidarity.

So while I cannot say exactly what a mass movement of infrastructural resistance would look like, I can say that it is not a new idea. We can look to examples, but also to our histories, our communities, our DNA. Folks have been caring and providing for one another in times of struggle for as long as we have existed. Now, we are called to care more than ever, and to view this assemblage of crisis as an assemblage of opportunity. To end, a quote from Daniel Pinchbeck: “What do we de now? Build another world!”