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Mar 24, 21

Winter in the Boroughs: Navigating the Spaces of Rebellion

The following report on the tail-end of the rebellion in New York discusses the importance of mutual aid in providing space to work out key questions raised by the revolt.

There has been some speculation if the pivot to mutual aid in the wake of the George Floyd uprising represented a retreat into liberal charity; a great demobilizing of revolutionaries, communists, anarchists and insurrectionaries into an endless laborious toil. These arguments are founded in the constant recuperation of the least threatening aspects of mutual aid by the State and capital. A common example is the romanticized legacy of the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program, presented as a benevolent good; decontextualized from the multifaceted, international and militant Black Power movement from which the BPP drew its force. Furthermore, liberal mutual aid projects can serve to perpetuate anti-Blackness, racism, misogyny and the dynamics around gentrification, especially when bound within the hierarchical trappings of an NGO. While these are very important dynamics to explore in detail, this piece focuses on the radical aspirations of mutual aid, and the way thousands of people have experienced the 2020 uprising and its reverberations in New York City. We will explore the roots of our “insurgent possibility” with a brief revisit of the City Hall occupation, a report back on the October 28 Walter Wallace Jr. solidarity march, and an exploration of dynamics around the election.

Like the NYC CHAZ, mutual aid projects can be a flawed, yet vital space for many people with little contact to prior leftists formations to experiment and find each other. Some revolutionary formations in NYC wrote off the occupation outright because of its initial reformist structure, general chaos or multitude of bad actors. However, those of us that participated heavily in the first weeks, through the reproduction of the library, and in the explosive nights building barricades and defending the encampment from police attack, helped to find a common militancy with those who had come to the occupation as strangers. This is a key dynamic that continued throughout the rest of the summer, which bolstered our confidence and sense of possibility; inspiring many to choose a hammer or paint-can over a bicycle as their tool of choice in the streets. As the occupation wore on and some of us drifted away, many of these strangers made connections that have formed powerful, resilient blocs that continue to reproduce in a multitude of other contexts, and form a base of struggle going into Spring and Summer 2021.

A little background is due to explain what appears to be the total impasse of mobilizations in NYC since the election. Although there is some truth in chalking up the nullification of the explosive revolutionary upheavals of 2020 to liberal pacification after Trump’s defeat, there is another paradigm at play here that the left rarely acknowledges. Beyond the usual discourse of protesters’ victim-hood at the hands of police, which is both true and can be strategic to amplify, we should recognize the way the police and the state understand our movements and the unique contexts that we exist in, which determine what options are available to us. What follows is a summation of the week leading up to the election, which I believe has set the tone for how the NYPD moves against us.

On the afternoon of October 26, 2020, police gunned down 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr., in front of his mother and other community members on a street in West Philadelphia. Philly erupted in massive rioting, widespread looting and brazen use of vehicles to break police control over huge swaths of the city. Inspired by the images coming out of Philly and rolling into the uncertain territory of the election that was just days away, revolutionaries in NYC mobilized for an immediate solidarity action.

Much like the rest of the country, New York had developed a comms infrastructure around semi-public encrypted channels that sought to break attempts of clout chasing “swoopers,” faux-abolitionist NGOs and general counter-insurgency tactics that had led to past nights of demobilization and confusion. (It should be noted that these tensions came to a head the night of the Breonna Taylor verdict, and there will surely be a massive push of these counter-revolutionary groups to prepare to pacify and control whatever protest spectacles come out of the George Floyd trail in the months to come). These comms channels were able to call and promote an action in solidarity with Philly at Ft. Greene Park in Brooklyn on October 28th, jumping in front of liberal attempts to corral this energy. The prompt response to call an action allowed for hundreds of people to avoid capture by the suffocating alienation of another liberal march to nowhere, and instead find themselves among the summer’s affinity groups, as well as anyone else gathering to continue the ongoing struggle in Philly on the streets of New York. The meet-up point was deep within the park, far away from the police cars and scouts that had nearly surrounded it. What occurred next can be defined as a riot. The police, who were exhausted from a summer of daily actions, and still totally unable to discern which protests might be militant ahead of time, were entirely overwhelmed by the surge of the crowd vengefully storming into downtown Brooklyn.

The march immediately set a tone of insurrectionary abolition, which gradually picked up in temperature. The scope of attack widened from every police car, to every bank window, to any window at all, and culminated in dozens of willing hands slinging rocks at the police guarding the jail and destroying the glass facade behind them. In the fever pitch of these last moments before the SRG units formed a kettle, it was clear this had already gone outrageously far: much further than anything since the explosive nights of social revolution we experienced in late May. This crowd had successfully not been swooped by a megaphone duo to take the Brooklyn bridge, brilliantly maneuvered through the streets utilizing every trick to go against traffic and keep it moving, and generally done every brave act that the strength, safety and composition of the crowd granted. The crowd was made up of the usual networks of New York revolutionary youth, movement people, bloc’d up autonomous/anarchist crews, as well as the mass of people looking for a way to be a part of passionate street actions; working class Black people, multiracial crews of young people, and unaffiliated white people, many there by themselves.

About an hour after the march had started, the SRG bike brigade descended on the march in full force, kettling the remaining crowd between two walls of police. In the melee that followed, 32 arrests were made, and in a wild crescendo a vehicle that had gotten stuck on the block drove through the police line after they began smashing out the car’s windows, allowing a mass of the remaining kettled crowd to escape. While the number arrested made clear that there was a need for people to choose their own points of dispersal, rather than wait for the end of a march to be called, the night felt like a victory.

There were actions called the next 3 nights in solidarity with Philly but at that point the jig was up: NYPD closed every park in Brooklyn, starting their week of overtime in anticipation to the election a few days early. Many more working class Black and brown NYers came out the next night, having heard it had gone down the night before, to find that even stepping off into the street was impossible. Street corners full of stragglers, wondering what to do next, decided to “live to fight another day” and went home. Many people had come by themselves, and didn’t know how to make connections or even much conversation about what to do next without raising suspicion.

The election spectacle sought the total “disarticulation of the event”; to repress, invisiblize and subsume the tides of Black liberation struggle and decolonization that the summer had wrought, and recenter and normalize the authority of the state. In NYC, it largely felt like the left had also lost the plot, and walked into this dull charade as well. There were fantasies about “swooping the libs” in Washington Square Park but of course this never happened. The NYPD had fully prepared for social revolution election week, and a whole new industry was born scaring every lootable store in Manhattan into hiring crews to board up their windows. A square four block area above 14th Street was sanctioned as a police staging area. Yet despite this knowledge, and ignoring the great advantage we have over the police to be flexible and mobile in our organizing, the decision was made to stick with the original plan and try to march against the police in Manhattan. With the immediate memory of the Walter Wallace Jr. march fresh in their minds, the SRG wasted no time clocking, kettling and crushing the election night march. We will never know what may have occurred had Trump won the election. Perhaps the city would have erupted again and the specter of civil war would have swept across the US as the right wing expected. However, none of this occurred, and instead we descended into a cold New York winter and near total police repression of street action.

In the absence of street mobilizations, many of us have felt the need to reground ourselves and our ethics in mutual aid work. This has taken many forms. For many, there was a total continuity from moving in the streets together, to doing jail support, to making sure comrades have a place to stay and food to eat. The occupation of City Hall led to many connections that live on in a resilient youth movement, which has organized across lines of race, class and gender to reproduce a living revolutionary network. These are currents that move within a growing underground squatting movement in NYC, and people the many mutual aid distros throughout the city. Some folks facing charges, or living under the threat of deportation were able to fall back from street actions into this work. For many others it has been a space for socializing and learning how to live together again during COVID. This is undercut with a sense of ambition; that the ways we gather are in step with a revolutionary ethics that grew out of the summer’s uprisings; that we are learning how to source and distribute food, and work collectively to solve problems.

There are still open issues in this organizing: namely, how to we deal with interpersonal conflict, and the looming question of if our mutual aid projects are reproducing the dynamics of gentrification and perpetuating anti-blackness. The role of political education is an open discussion and continues to circle back to the oft repeated, self conscious notion of white saviorism and charity. Working through these questions is a perennial process, and gathering consistently through the winter has allowed people to challenge these dynamics. Unlike the bar, a show space or work environment, many of us experience mutual aid as non-alienating and affirming to our sense of intuition; a continuity that is grounded in navigating the day-to-day challenges and working together to do the tremendous amount of work that needs to be done, even through the winter months, has seeded many new friendships and connections. There is not so much yearning for an old way of life as much as living through an unprecedented collective transformation.

We may not know what the spring and summer of 2021 hold, but mutual aid has been an essential way to remain connected and growing through the winter months. In this era of extreme social isolation, hunger and poverty, working together to address these things has felt like a positive necessity and in many instances like a joyous victory. While it is argued that we are doing the State’s work and putting band-aids on structural inequalities, as anarchists, communists and autonomists we affirm that our organizing and commitments to each other are prefigurative and reject the fantasy of a benevolent capitalist system.

Similar to the FTP coalitions in 2019 that prepared the rebels of NYC for 2020’s uprising, mutual aid serves a space to explore a lived engagement with abolitionist values, and forms an infrastructure and base of support for future struggles. Lastly, the impasse of our winter has broken with the norms of protest & complaint, and allows us to go beyond into the creative realms of insurgency and direct action. May we work to build and sustain solidarity amongst mutual aid networks, locally and internationally, to prepare for a future of climate catastrophe and popular rebellion.

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