A personal reflection on a growing squatted encampment in Chico, California that has grown in the wake of the Camp Fire disaster.
As I drove towards Chico, California along a long stretch of Highway 99 from Sacramento, I didn’t know what to expect. My plan was to meet up with friends doing autonomous disaster relief outside of a Walmart in the aftermath of literally the most most deadly and devastating fire in US history. I slammed energy drinks and talked to friends on the phone to kill the time, and when I finally started to take my surroundings in, I realized that for miles the dry golden grass next to the highway was burnt to a black crisp. As I pulled off the freeway, I looked to my right to see the abandoned Toys “R” Us building known as “Miracle City” that in the wake of the fire had become a drop off donation center, but was now set to be turned over to FEMA.
With the Walmart sign in my sights, I took a left at the Dino Mart, where a long necked green 10 foot tall dinosaur stood outside with a dust mask on its face. “Welcome to Wallywood,” it seemed to say as I entered the parking lot. As I made my way towards the vacant dirt field where people were squatting on the far side of the parking lot, I noticed row after row of RVs and campers, then port-o-potties and finally industrial dumpsters. As I parked my car, I saw that tents and makeshift shelters were dotting a concrete path that encircled a massive field of several acres, and closer to Walmart, a central “hub” of several army command sized tents was erected and a buzz in activity.
Wallywood has been the name of a growing squatted autonomous encampment (there are several throughout the city) that grew up organically in the wake of the Camp Fire that began on November 8th. The name itself is a reference to Walmart, but also to Hollywood, a lumpen-proletarian nod to he tclass differences of those burned out in Southern California towns like Malibu and those displaced in Paradise, CA.
Cal Fire says 153,336 acres have burned in the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. At least 85 people have died in the fire and 296 are listed as unaccounted for by the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. A total of 13,696 homes burned, in addition to 276 multi-family structures and 528 businesses destroyed.
Since Wallywood sprung up after the initial fires, the city, Walmart, government relief organizations, and the State have been trying to shut it down and push the people there off the squatted land. The first eviction scare came on November 18th, as various agencies began to slowly pull resources from the parking lot (like showers) while encouraging people to go to shelters across town or even in other cities. Despite this, people have kept coming.
Shelters Run By Bikers and Armed Walmart Security
The reasoning to refuse such an opportunity for a bed at a shelter for many was clear: they had no desire to be shipped off to another city while many still had not been allowed to go back up to Paradise orand shift through whatever was left of their homes. Moreover, on top of a rising death toll, hundreds are also still missing. On my first day at Wallywood, we helped one family put up an announcement on the community board looking for a two year old, who they hope was picked up by a family member and was simply lost in the evacuation.
Other local shelters have developed a bad reputation, such as one I heard about several times that recently has hired a group of bikers to act as security, even wearing their club cuts while filtering in folks and who supposedly are prone to even use violence against anyone that gets out of line. Other shelters often bar those with warrants or without papers, further separating the most vulnerable from much needed resources.
For this and a multitude of other reasons, Wallywood became the de-facto autonomous zone to be inhabited by those that refused to be funneled into various bureaucratic programs or those who simply, because of various legal, medical, or other factors, couldn’t.
And the camp is growing. One of the comrades that I met with said that currently Wallywood boasted about 90 tents, a growth of about 5 just in the last day, making the total size of the encampment well over 100 people. It is also estimated that about 75% of those at the encampment were made up of people that had directly fled the impacted evacuation zone.
But as the size of the camp grew, so did the infrastructure. People brought hay bales in order to stop the dirt from turning into mud and pallets to help elevate tents from the ground. Massive army styled tents were erected at the center of the encampment and next to the parking lot for easy access to the constant stream of dropped off supplies; each one housing different camp needs, from dry food and pet supplies, to hot food, coffee, and water, clothing and toiletries, and finally a drying area for items that were wet.
Walmart has responded to this growth by hiring Brosnan security, a large corporation that provides around the clock security in three different shifts and is constantly seen driving their vehicles up and down the concrete road between Wallywood and the parking lot, and then circling to stop in a vacant part of the field, only to watch the people going about their day to day activities. Brosnan and other forces have also pushed to move the RVs and campers in the parking lot away from the Wallywood encampment, attempting to attack any potential sense of collective solidarity people might have with each other.
While disaster have the potential to reveal bonds of mutual aid and solidarity between us, on the other hand, they also lay bare the potential for the growth of new forms of authority and proto-statism. Thus, as non-profits and churches move into the role of attempting to control and manage incoming resources for those who lost everything in the fire, they in turn look to new forms of policing, from corporate goons to far-Right bikers, to keep the population in line.
Lastly, the situation in Chico also shows how fast the State and other forces are willing to go from parking lot commune back to “business as usual.” Less than two weeks after the fire and it was already pushing for an end to the encampment. But the reality of life in capitalist civilization which in part is defined by the growth of internal refugees and displaced people shows that in the face of such a crisis, even in the dead of winter: the system literally has nowhere for these people to go. You don’t have to have a home, but you can’t stay here.
“Are You Antifa?”
The other thing that marked my first day of Wallywood was the intense and steady stream of supplies that filtered into the camp. I met people who came from hours away to drop off sleeping bags, others brought whole flats of hot food. Those bringing supplies ranged from yoga moms in their spanks, to Church goers, to roughneck construction workers.
The friends I was with also fundraised through various networks several grand, which allowed them to buy supplies like tents and sleeping bags from Walmart and other nearby stores. Others gave volunteers gift cards to hand out, which were given to people that needed tents and thus expanded the encampment. This direct aid not only clothed, fed, and housed people, but also gave them the space to get their lives together. One interaction I witnessed that stood out on my first day was between one man who had lived at the encampment for weeks and a volunteer; the man stated that he has found transitional housing and was leaving his tent for the next person. Before he left, he reiterated several times how grateful he was for everything and for the space.
One hilarious story I heard from friends, is when one person living at the camp asked if they were “antifa.” To which they replied, “are you asking if I’m an antifascist?” The person, seeming confused replied, “No, like do you wear the all black thing?” “Are you asking me if I’ve ever been in the black bloc?….” Such an exchange reminded me a similar conservation between a youngster in Ferguson, who asked an different comrade if they were in fact with the “black bloc” he had heard so much about.
The sky grew dark, I collected my things and left Wallywood, but with plans to return the next day. That night I attended a Mutual Aid Disaster Relief meeting, which boasted over 50 attendees who were organizing themselves into various working groups to take on everything from child care to stream clean ups to stop flooding. Across the city, the forces of autonomy sought to intervene.