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Mar 25, 20

Mutual Aid, Abolition, and the 815: A Dispatch from the Rustbelt

Report on ongoing mutual aid organizing in the wake of the pandemic in Rockford, Illinois.

We started our collective as soon as we could when the pandemic began. There is generally not a lot of radical organizing in Northern Illinois, and when it does happen, it is usually not well-documented. Most folks understandably do not know that there is a radical movement in Illinois outside of Chicago. We are writing this as anarchists, abolitionists and anti-colonial revolutionaries situated in and around the city of Rockford on occupied Illinois and Miami land (Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo), Peoria, Sauk and Meskwaki, Bodéwadmiaindigenous mapskiwen (Potawatomi), Očeti Šakówiŋ (Sioux) people were also present on this land prior to settler-colonialism. We call it occupied due to the fact that the United States forced indigenous people off the land as a part of a violent settler-colonial process. We recognize that a de-colonial orientation that centers black, brown and indigenous people is essential for a revolutionary movement.

All of us are from the Rockford metropolitan area, have organized in the city and other places at various points, and have lived here for a long time. We are inspired by the movement work happening all over the country, especially in this moment of crisis around COVID-19. In particular, the mutual aid work of Food, Clothing and Resistance Collective in Baltimore, the Anarkata collective SQUAD in NYC, and the Black Panther Party’s mutual aid work (the Party here in Rockford used to do food-serves in Fairgrounds Projects) are great inspirations for us. We’d also like to shoutout to Mutual Aid Disaster Relief for publishing great pieces and holding it down through this whole thing.

We wanted to write this piece to share some of our thoughts on the pandemic, mutual aid, abolition and the movement struggle in Rockford. Rockford is different than many other places because it does not have a lot of left-wing organizations – let alone anarchist ones. In writing this piece, we are attempting to build at least a bit of digital history around radical work here in Screw City that is so often forgotten. Rockford is a decaying Rust Belt city of roughly 150,000 people, with a larger metro area comprised of over 300,000. A lot of people think our city is destined for death and desolation. We disagree.

We wanted to write a bit about the history of radical organizing in Rockford in the past 10 years and what this crisis could mean moving forward. There has been very little well-recognized struggle, in our view, against the State in the city of Rockford. However, there is a history. The protests against the police murder of Mark Barmore in 2009, the brief Occupy Rockford movement, a few solidarity demonstrations with the uprisings in Ferguson, Baltimore and Standing Rock, a successful Latinx-led opposition movement to block the construction of an ICE detention center in Winnebago County Jail, and the demos against Metro Enforcement’s murder of Valentina “Jovan” Landry in 2016 are all proof that resistance is alive in Rockford.

The Rockford Police Department, Metro Enforcement and the Winnebago County Jail all have long histories of brutality and violence against black, brown and poor people, especially to folks living on the West Side of town. The racist anti-black fears around the West Side as “dangerous” or “lawless” are commonplace here. Our conclusion from the past 10 years has been that police, prisons, and detention centers do not keep us safe. To read more about the history of the Winnebago County Jail, we recommend you check out this website.

Many people with a left-wing orientation in Rockford have a fear of being perceived as “too radical,” as our community is perceived as being very far-Right. Rather than Rockford being a right wing community itself, we would argue oppressed people here are held captive by a powerful group of right wing business owners, land owners, politicians, judges and state officials. The far right has held people in Rockford captive for too long. A lot of people with leftist ideas in Rockford would rather move to rapidly gentrifying cities with pre-existing left wing subcultures (such as Philadelphia, New York City and Chicago) than to build a movement here.

As revolutionaries, it is imperative to understand that our values must be carried with us wherever we go. Furthermore, there has been a large degree of electoral opportunism of “activists” entering the Democratic Party rather than attempting to build power outside of and counter to the State. Building relationships and community is the basis of any revolutionary movement, we must do this through deepening mutual aid work in our networks and challenging state power. While we understand the fear of the State which has historically in this area demonized and suppressed all resistance to domination, we cannot be afraid to be resolute on our values in the face of the power. This is why building strong collectives with organizational ethics that subvert hierarchies alongside strong security culture practices is essential to survival and freedom.

In terms of mutual aid work, we made our first delivery of food and supplies on March 19th. We completed another food drop-off on March 21st. The food and supplies came from volunteer donations. Some volunteers also donated money to a mother in Rockford to buy groceries who had been laid off. We were glad we were able to help, but importantly, we want to stress that mutual aid is not charity. We are not a state agency with a bunch of requirements for aid. We do not work with oppressive institutions. We seek to create mutual aid networks that build and reproduce as we aid people in this crisis. Mutual aid already exists throughout Rockford and the surrounding community through everyday care people take for our friends, family and neighbors. We seek to build with folks who want to help people without the need for violent state institutions. We are all we have. We are currently operating where people can send us requests and then we reach out to our volunteers for support. Shoutout to the volunteers who signed up! We will include links to both our volunteer signup and mutual aid requests for people in the Rockford area looking to be involved. Hopefully, it will build into a network that lasts beyond the pandemic. If you are not based in Rockford, we will include a donation link.

Some of us, as well as many of our friends, have lost our sources of income as a result of this crisis. Many of our friends work in restaurants as well as other service industry jobs, and will not work for several weeks at minimum. Liberals in Rockford are always telling us to “support small business,” but do not seem to support the workers in those businesses at all. Much of the aid the municipal government has provided is geared towards the owners of business, landlords, and homeowners. The city’s has offered a defer on loan payments for these property owners as well as other such aid to those with access to capital. While doing this does little to help working people, the refusal to cut off water to those who can’t afford to pay is a step in the right direction. However, the measures implemented by the city are too few, and those implemented do not even come close to what is needed. Already, people in Rockford and the surrounding area are being laid off and applying for unemployment. Those lucky enough to have work are struggling to feed themselves at what is the beginning of a months long world pandemic.

As the stock exchange continues to collapse into what could become a lengthy worldwide depression, it is the working people who will bear the harshest burdens. The working class and working poor in the United States will be forced to pay the price of State’s lack of care and preparation. We think that the solution to this has to be at least the demands within a petition that we, along with other members of our community, have been circulating. The first demand of that petition is a Rent freeze, which is deeply important in ensuring housing for working-class citizens during this time. To read more about the petition, please check the link.

Obviously, circulating petitions is not the preferred anarchist tactic, but we hope the demands will encourage people to connect with us and act autonomously. We believe that there must be pressure put on the city to declares rent freeze and a city-wide rent strike if the city does not meet the demands. In this moment, we feel that it is deeply important for anarchists and other anti-authoritarians in Rockford and the United States to deepen our relationships with our communities through mutual aid and conflict with the State over reforms such as the rent freeze.

Finally, as we mentioned earlier, we situate ourselves in conflict with the institutions such as the Winnebago County Jail and the larger system of the Prison Industrial Complex. These institutions are the continuation of the anti-black chattel slavery system. Prisons are the modern day plantations. The tragic recent deaths of Eugene Washington and Joseph McCormick point to how the prison system in Rockford is completely devoid of any legitimacy and accountability to the community that it purportedly serves. Despite these deaths, politicians ignore it and continue to make comments about “not tolerating crime” which in our view is a way to demonize and further incarcerate black and brown communities. Many politicians and organizations in Rockford makes overtures towards being progressive while not actively trying to release the people locked in cages downtown, especially in this moment of the pandemic.

We recently wrote a petition in collaboration with community members to demand that the Winnebago County Jail responds to the current pandemic with appropriate action to keep folks inside safe. It is deeply important that in this moment, we center folks who are captured by the State. Our movement cannot forget incarcerated people. To read more about the petition, please check the link.

Abolitionist movements in other cities are demanding to free incarcerated in the event of this crisis and the State is conceding by releasing people locked behind the walls. We must seize on this moment to save lives from COVID-19 which will harm many people inside of Winnebago County Jail if the County does not act. We will draw up these demands into a petition in the next few days. We hope that interest around making sure people on the inside of the prison walls are safe proliferates into more abolitionist struggle in Rockford. We encourage people who want to know more about the history of the black struggle in the United States, the prison industrial complex and abolition to read the book Burn Down the American Plantation by the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement.

Liberating our area from capital, the State and white supremacy will mean building a movement based in our communities–with strong values around mutual aid, abolition and decolonization. The outflow of support for the petition calling on the Mayor for a Rent freeze, our volunteer signups and mutual aid work have given us hope. As we move forward, we hope to strengthen our bonds with each other, build community farms to support mutual aid work this summer and develop more long lasting structures beyond this world. A strong movement has been building here for decades. The traditions of the Rockford Black Panther Party, the slave abolitionists and the radical labor movement all have deep histories here that we will draw upon to inform our own practice. The crisis of COVID-19 will be remembered as the time that people in Rockford took revolutionary action to liberate ourselves, our friends and our community.

Against the State, against Capital and against Colonialism. Towards freedom, abolition, and revolution.

815 Mutual Aid Network


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