Mutual Aid is the Work

For the past few weekends, I’ve woken up at 7am, strapped on work boots, work pants and a Houston DSA Harvey Relief shirt, and left my house by 7:30 to meet up with my team to go muck and gut houses. A local coffeeshop has generously offered us their patio as an orientation area, and we briefly set up there to eat breakfast tacos and chug coffee, introduce ourselves to one another, and go over safety rules. If you ever attend one of these trainings, you’ll hear my friend Nick tell you to make sure your mask seals properly (he had to shave his beard to get this effect) and probably have me stress that you shouldn’t send your sledgehammer through a kitchen wall unless the power is off (the 220 volts used to power your appliances is deadly.)

If you had asked me to provide some basic safety tips for tearing out drywall roughly a month ago, I would have laughed at you. My previous experience with home repair could be described as “scant” or (truthfully) “non-existent.” I knew how to change which direction a power drill turns, and I could identify a circular saw, but that was about it. Hurricane Harvey, and its devastating effect on my city have changed all that.

When Harvey hit, my comrades at Houston DSA and I were sitting in our group chat, furiously trying to come up with ways we could help once the storm was past. We put up a fundraising link while we brainstormed, confident we could probably get about $10,000 to provide people with some bottled water and maybe some granola bars. As we chatted, the number skyrocketed to over $100,000, and we suddenly found ourselves in a brand-new situation. We contacted a disaster relief expert immediately and hopped on a video call only to learn that pretty much everyone on earth would be providing food and water, and our approach needed to be a little bit different.

That’s why you’ll find us training our teams on safety before we head to some of Houston’s most devastated communities. We drive our work trucks down streets narrowed by piles of drywall, fiberglass, and furniture, and arrive at homes where the entire life-story of a family is spilled onto the lawn, being sorted through by people who FEMA and the Red Cross have left behind. I cannot quite describe what it is like to shake someone’s hand before masking up with a respirator and entering their home to bring more of their belongings to the lawn. I can’t describe what it feels like to sort through souvenirs from the Caribbean islands that an older Black couple has visited in their time together, or to gingerly remove framed, half-ruined family photos from standing water, hoping to save them. “I shouldn’t be in here,” I keep thinking, “This family does not owe me this intimate knowledge of their lives.” But I am in here, and the homeowner needs me (or someone like me) to be in here.

Some folks have been skeptical of our mutual aid work, worried we are out holding forth on Marx to homeowners before we will help them. (We offer aid to anyone who needs it, no questions asked or proselytizing done). Others are afraid, puzzlingly, that the work is useless for building socialism, that we aren’t doing membership-building work or talking enough theory. This perspective is hard for me to understand as someone who came to the most radical aspects of my politics through reading about the Black Panthers and their free breakfast for children program (among other things). To me, being there for my community is the most socialist praxis there is. If we do not build the better world we want, who is going to build it for us? It’s certainly not going to be the state (even if we snag some electorally important positions in the next few years.) Serving the people is the work of socialism. Being there for each other is the work of socialism. Asking yourself “What would I need?” and answering it with what you do for others is socialism.

Secondly, being out in your community is capacity-building. I am ashamed to tell you that talking to low-income Black and Latinx folks is not something I do too often, probably not for lack of available opportunity with other organizations. Hell, talking to people outside my social circle, even new people at DSA meetings, is difficult for me. Being out in these neighborhoods where people know their neighbors, and getting to meet and talk with these people, is transformative for my ability to build socialism. And it’s not just interpersonal skills we are gaining — running a muck and gut operation with multiple teams (one that travels a multi-hour trip to Beaumont) and keeping track of a warehouse of tools and a spreadsheet of expenditures are valuable organizing skills being built in real time. When it comes time for us to run a canvass for Medicare for All (or our own candidate for judge in the primaries this year), we will have many more people ready to facilitate those efforts.

But all of that aside: for me, it’s being with the families that are transformative for my politics. It’s pulling out the drywall of a house and seeing decaying load-bearing beams that are eaten away by past floods and termites. Our communities are not suffering because of a fluke storm; they are suffering because poverty and oppression are rampant, and moving unseen in their walls and floors and neighborhoods. These problems are not only structural in the sense that they are built into these homes; they are structural because this is the way our society is built. Houston DSA’s muck and gut operation might only be a bandaid on that process for now, but it’s also, in the words of Fred Hampton, a stage that takes people to another stage. He says, “any program that’s revolutionary is an advancing program.” Houston DSA’s muck and gut operation is an advancing program for all of us, for our communities, and for anyone who is watching us work. I have faith in the people.