Continued personal reflection on the self-organized Wallywood encampment in Chico, CA. Describes many events that took place directly after the first dispatch.
If you want a picture that sums up America in 2018, it’s this: a sign has been put up by a private out-of-state security company, Bronsan that reads “NO DONATIONS,” and is hung directly above a car that bears the message, written on its back window in soap: “CAMP FIRE EVACUEES.” The future war is not one of ‘globalism’ vs ‘nationalism’ but of capitalist civilization vs autonomy. If you want a preview, you need only peep the parking lot.
A car with “CAMP FIRE EVACUEES” written on it sits next to a sign telling people not to bring donations to Wallywood, a self-organized encampment set up outside of Walmart in Chico following the Camp Fire.
It’s my second day at the Wallywood encampment and the “NO DONATIONS” sign is the first physical expression, besides the huge security SUVs and trucks which roll by literally ever 5 minutes, that shows outside forces are directly trying to shut down Wallywood, a collection of almost 100 tents resting on several acres of land that sits adjacent to a Walmart parking lot. In the aftermath of the Camp Fire that destroyed thousands of homes in nearby towns like Paradise, hundreds of people were killed in a matter of minutes and tens of thousands were displaced, many only able to escape with the clothes on their backs and if they were lucky, their pets.
Many people ended up here, in the Walmart parking lot were for about two weeks a make shift commune developed, featuring free food, BBQs, supplies and clothes, and a steady stream of resources, such as showers and bathrooms. But as time dragged on and the media slowly began to drift away, organizations like the Red Cross and FEMA entered the picture and slowly attempted to push the encampment out of the parking lot, and redirect donations into the hands of NGOs and the State. First, this meant shutting off various resources, then it meant separating those in trailers and RVs from those who had set up tents in the field, next to the parking lot. In the end, it meant complete eviction.
But in the first days and weeks after the fire, the infrastructure of the encampment grew; four large army style tents went up, creating a central meeting place with different tents for emergency shelter, canned food, a makeshift kitchen, a place to dry wet clothes, and a depot with everything from blankets to kids items. For a while it would seem, people were ready for the long haul.
A Meeting That Never Came
I had returned to the encampment after my first day to wait and see if a representative from FEMA would arrive and address the camp; while later we heard that the head of Walmart security for the entire corporation was in talks about the encampment. Some supporters hoped to be relocated, while rumors swirled that FEMA was going to make available trailers for people to live in.
With the rains coming however the question remained if those on the ground would be driven out of the space by mother nature or if they would be physically removed by security and police. A few hours after I stepped foot back onto Wallywood, I along with others watched as the security team evicted one resident, after they had left a note on their door stating that it had been unattended. The person inside had come back to discover the note, only to then have to gather up their items and take down their tent. Bronsan security then went back to circling the encampment, ready to start the process all over again. God forbid you go to the store, work, or pick up your kids – or you know, deal with being burned out of your home, and you may just come back to see you’ve been displaced, yet again.
The representative from FEMA never came, while a volunteer from the Red Cross poked around the outside of the encampment, as Bronsan maintained a constant schedule of continuous surveillance and driving around in literal circles. Various reporters showed up; faces a mix of sadness at the situation and eagerness to capture the scene with their cameras. Three douche-bros with a nice set up began to film the main tents, only to hear, “Don’t film people who don’t want to be filmed!” They quickly moved on. “Who are you with?,” someone asked. “We’re independent…,” one replied. Whatever the fuck that means. At one point, four middle aged white people in suits came out from the parking lot and walked the trail that hugged the dirt between the parking lot and the field, giving that awkward upper-middle class white people smile mixed with frightened scowls to anyone that cared to make eye-contact. They said nothing and walked on.
It was clear that an eviction was coming. The only question was, was it going to happen before or after Christmas, and would the evicting forces simply tell people to kick rocks, or offer them somewhere else to go in return? Would the community launch some sort of defense, and would the camp itself be able to make some sort of collective decision about what the residents themselves wanted?
As I left the camp that night, a Bronsan security guard exhaled a cloud of smoke into the night air from a cigarette, his camo bulletproof vest sticking out in front of him, other hand resting next to his gun. Nearby, camp members walked back and forth, getting rid of trash, making food, and getting ready for another night outside.
The hammer came down against Wallywood quickly, on the night of November 30th, a little more than three weeks after the Camp Fire burned through nearby communities. 22 days. That’s all they got.
Through text message I heard from a friend that the encampment was completely shut down in a joint operation between the Red Cross and private Walmart Bronsan security, who were also aided by “2 out-of-uniform cops” who “went tent to tent and forced everyone to pack and put them in vans and U-Huals” and moved them to a new shelter at the nearby fairgrounds. My friend went on to state, “they left no choice for folks” besides facing arrest or accepting the move. By early morning on December 1st, the operation was complete.
As we saw with Katrina, to Puerto Rico, to the State response to the recent hurricanes, the strategy put forward by the government has little to do with helping people put their lives back together and everything to do with protecting private property and carrying out a campaign of counter-insurgency. As as in Iraq with Blackwater, Walmart was smart to turn towards the heavily armed Bronsan security, who did everything from evict campers, to start rumors to scare camp fire evacuees, to their efforts to physically stop donations from coming into the camp, but all while not wearing a Walmart uniform.
Throughout the response to the Camp Fire in Chico, the State and various non-profits and government agencies sought to shut down and destroy any sort of self-organized disaster relief response, while using the cutting off of resources as a way to try and move people in a certain direction without a PR disaster. But even that facade only lasted for so long, before the State reverted back to a strategy of open threats of police violence and arrest.
It’s important to point out that nothing the State offered will address the core problems created by the Camp Fire: namely that of tens of thousands being displaced and made homeless. Instead, the goal is as always to simply manage the catastrophe. To keep the situation from turning on its own contradictions and against the forces ensuring things stay that way.
Towards A Better Strategy
While anarchists have gotten pats on the back for their mutual aid efforts in Chico and beyond, we need to expand our tool box when it comes to these interventions and organizing efforts. Luckily, both past experiences and current struggles offer us a lot of insight.
The clearest target in a broader campaign supporting Wallywood, should have been aimed at Bronsan and Walmart itself. Call in campaigns, pickets, actions, and disruptions of offices all could have put pressure on both Walmart to back off as well as put Bronsan on notice that people were watching them and that attacks on Camp Fire victims wasn’t going to go unnoticed. Pushing Bronsan out of the parking lot and out of Wallywood would have been a major victory, and giving Walmart a black eye for their role in both the harassment and the eviction of the space could easily have been achieved. Anarchists could have also called on people in other cities to organize and carry out actions, decentralizing the activity and amplifying the push back.
More could have also been done to politicize the space, hold events, and bring people together, attempting to at least address the division between “volunteers” and those that were displaced by the fire. These events could have included block parties featuring music and speakers, as well as film showings and workshops.
One thing is for sure, all of these tactics and lessons could be applied, now, across the social terrain. in California and across the US, there are currently fights to defend houseless encampments, as various city governments move to break them apart. Everyday, more and more people are being displaced due to gentrification, rising rents, and the increasing cost of living. Moreover, in other disaster zones such as in Florida, the State is also actively bulldozing homeless encampments and likewise pushing out disaster survivors. Without mobilization and bringing attention to these atrocities, these attacks on the poor are simply going to continue, especially as the news cycle is dominated by the Trump spectacle.
While there are so many beautiful things about Wallywood that I could point out, this has been one of the first times that the disgusting and authoritarian nature of our enemies has overshadowed how great the wider community was in coming together and supporting people with mutual aid.
Next time around I hope that we can do more than just show up and help people over a short period of time, I want to be able to push back against the State’s attempts at making them disappear. Next time I want to win.