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Nov 16, 18

Unfolding Crisis In California Part of Growth of Internal Refugees

In the lead up to the election, Donald Trump and Fox News anchors attempted to mobilize the Republican base by playing up fears of disease laden refugees from Honduras coming to the United States to seek asylum, ironically fleeing a regime that was helped into place by Hilary Clinton and the Democrats. On Thursday, November 15th in Tijuana, the first trickle of refugees from across Central America began to arrive at the border, as thousands of US troops stationed across three states along with border patrol and pockets of heavily armed paramilitaries were ready to great them.

Tent City in Chico, California. Noah Berger/AP

But while Trump and the rest of the far-Right has spent weeks building up fear around the so-called “migrant caravan,” within the United States, much larger scores of internal refugees are being mass produced through eviction, rising housing prices, and now, massive fires and hurricanes. These new internal refugees are taking on different forms, from park lots filled with the working poor, displaced from their neighborhoods, to climate refugees burned and washed out of their homes now grouping together in the back of Walmarts and on beaches, to say nothing of the growing number of homeless tent cities and encampments popping up across the country, as the population of houseless people grows in the first time since the Great Recession.

“Trump and the rest of the far-Right spent weeks building up fear around the so-called “migrant caravan,” While within the US, scores of internal refugees are being mass produced.”

The number of these internal refugees is only getting larger, and in many instances the State has no idea of what to do with them, other than to make half-hearted attempts to funnel them into bureaucracies like FEMA. These growing bodies of people, many of them still working jobs, going to school, and with families to support are now part of a burgeoning segment of the working-class that has now found itself homeless, displaced, and increasingly pushed to the margins of society, often with little hope of ever being let back in. These new concentrations are also leading to other, often even more horrific problems. For example in Northern California, this week tens of thousands of people made newly homeless and clumped together after devastating fires, faced multiple norovirus outbreaks across different evacuation centers in Chico, CA. To make matters worse, as of Sunday the largest self-organized tent city for Camp Fire survivors is scheduled to be evicted.

The Growing Fire Crisis in California

Over 60 people are confirmed dead in Northern California and hundreds are still missing, after tens of thousand were displaced in a matter of hours following the rapid incineration of the blue-collar town of Paradise, close to Chico, California. Eric Holthaus of Grist wrote of the fires, that they are “the most destructive to ever hit California and the deadliest wildfire in modern American history.”

Wildfires have also broken out in Southern California, causing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands, and as of November 16th, fires were also reported in the Santa Cruz Mountains, below the bay area. The impact of the fires has gone far beyond just the tragic lives lost, as now across Northern California, schools have been canceled and people have taken to wearing breathing masks or staying inside when possible. As Grist wrote:

On Thursday, northern California’s Air Quality Index, a measure of how polluted the air is, was the worst of any region in the world. Chico, Oroville, and Sacramento reported pollution levels in the “hazardous” category — the highest on the scale — topping parts of China and India and breaking records for the worst air quality in the area since record keeping began. It’s the equivalent of smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day.

It appears that the recent crisis was brought on by a mix of human caused climate change, environmental factors, and human error. Over the past several years, severe drought has been coupled with infestations of bark beetles, which has led to the deaths of over 129 million trees along large sections of eastern California, setting the stage for vast amounts of territory going up in flames. As one report wrote:

After burning for more than one week, the Woolsey Fire near Los Angeles has destroyed over 98,300 acres, approximately equal in size to the city of Denver, Colorado. The fire prompted the evacuation of more than 295,000 people and is responsible for three deaths thus far. An estimated 504 structures have been destroyed and an entire section of the Pacific Coast Highway remains closed.

As new details emerge of the Woolsey Fire’s devastation, the death toll in Northern California’s Camp Fire jumped to 63 on Thursday with the number of missing increasing to 631. The Camp Fire is now the deadliest wildfire in California history. More than 11,862 structures have been destroyed as of this writing. The Camp Fire completely destroyed the town of Paradise in the Sierra Nevada mountain foothills leaving more than 26,000 residents with no homes to return to.

There are also reports of electrical malfunctions in Northern and Southern California which may have triggered the initial fires, while far-Right and pro-Trump pundits have even gone so far as literally to blame “ANTIFA.”

But the unfolding tragedy across California has only been made worse by the inability of capitalist society to deal with the crisis. Many people in affected areas learned of the fires and had to leave so fast, (some estimated the fires moved “at a rate of one football field per second“), that they were not able to grab phones, IDs, and basic items. A majority of those displaced by the fire were working-class and working-poor, often renters; people that no have nowhere to return to.

In the face of this, starting on November 15th according to local news, at the behest of the Red Cross, services such as free clothes, bathrooms, and food began to be slowly turned off, as it was announced that the Chico based tent-city behind a WalMart would be shuttered on Sunday, November 18th.

According to local news:

Federal assistance isn’t available yet. The Disaster Recovery Center for FEMA won’t even be open until [the 16th], and even then the temporary housing options aren’t in place.

FEMA stated to the local news that shelters in Chico could be used to house some people, however many currently are suffering from norovirus outbreaks, leading many people to choose to take their chances on the streets.

Volunteers with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief have spoken to It’s Going Down for years about the poor response from FEMA and the Red Cross to current disasters. They have shared stories about the Red Cross offering sporadic aid to devastated communities while ignoring poor communities of color completely, often leaving behind those without access to food and shelter. We’ve heard about people in the the wake of Florida’s storms being quickly made homeless after their landlords evicted them from apartments destroyed by flooding, and turned away from any sort of relief from FEMA in North Carolina after their mobile homes were destroyed by hurricanes.

Speaking with local news outlets, both organizers of the informal tent city and survivors of the Paradise fire both expressed frustration at the inaction from government officials and also a fear of what was going to happen next as the eviction on Sunday looms.

Only Part of a Growing Crisis

According to The Guardian, 2017 marked the first time since the Great Recession in 2008 that homelessness has been growing in the US. Across the US, there are signs of an exploding crisis of economic and climate refugees, as more and more tent cities pop up, parking lots and streets are lined with those sleeping in their cars, and beaches are populated by those fleeing massive fires.

In California, courts have ruled that cities must provide shelter beds and cannot ticket people with no other recourse but to sleep on the streets. In Modesto, California, only a few hours south of Chico, this has led to the creation of a massive self-organized tent city filled with hundreds of tents and families. Other cities, such as Minneapolis, are in the process of evicting their tent cities in the middle of winter, while in Oakland and British Columbia, homeless people and their allies have fought to take over vacant land and even squat buildings.

As Alliance Against Displacement wrote:

The organization and direct action of homeless people constitutes a frontline in an international struggle against capitalism. In the Bay Area and Vancouver, we see skyrocketing wealth inequality and gentrification, alongside the state’s disinterest in housing poor and working class people. Municipalities all over Turtle Island are attempting to invisibilize the global housing crisis by directly attacking homeless communities, but their efforts are not enough to hem in a growing movement led by homeless people, whose determination to survive and thrive radically intervenes in a society founded on profit, property, genocide, slavery, and displacement. The right to homes for all, and the power to defend them, must be won through asserting relationships to land against the logic of property.

Meanwhile, more and more sections of the working class are being displaced. In many major cities, the number of working and poor people sleeping in their cars is skyrocketing. As Slate wrote:

As housing costs soar in major cities, more Americans are living behind the wheel. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t collect national data on vehicle residency, but unsheltered homelessness—a category that includes people sleeping in vehicles—is on the rise. In 2016, HUD counted 176,357 unsheltered people nationwide on a single night; last year, that number jumped to 192,875. In King County, Washington (which includes Seattle), about 3,372 people—more than half of the county’s unsheltered population—are living in vehicles. And in Greater Los Angeles, which has the largest unsheltered homeless population in the country, more than 15,000 people live in cars, vans, and RVs.

“human beings are going to have to organize themselves to impose their own needs directly upon everyday life, in the face of and against the interests of the rich and powerful and calls by liberals for “civility.”‘

The discourse around this reality on both the “left” and “right” is predictable as it is idiotic. One side takes a “law and order” approach as it always has to the homeless, as some local governments hire advisors to pass laws and ordinances to push the homeless out of their cities by means of harassment and court fines. On the “progressive” side however, simply advocating for tent cities and allocating unused corporate parking lots at night for those sleeping in their cars, which could be seen as a form of “harm reduction,” at the same time does nothing to address a system of industrial capitalism that is creating all of these problems to begin with.

One thing in looking at all of this is clear: the refugees we need to worry about aren’t the ones coming to the US from Central America, but the refugees being created daily by gentrification, capitalism, and climate change. Moreover, this system is not able to meet the demands of hundreds of thousands of people impacted by these disasters. Instead, human beings are going to have to organize themselves to impose their own needs directly upon everyday life – now, not by waiting on elected officials or through the ballot box, and doing so in the face of and against the interests of the rich and powerful and calls by liberals for “civility.”

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