Bradley Young

Community Is Resistance


ISSUE 19 | DROUGHT | AUG 2012

“We hear only ourselves.
      For we are gradually becoming blind to the outside....
But we walk in the forest and we feel we are or could be what the forest dreams...” -Ernst Bloch, The Spirit of Utopia

It was a Tuesday, and I was on a bus. A Megabus, to be precise. I was on my way to Hartford when I got the call. The choked-up voice of my mother was on the other end. That damned capricious wind had changed directions. And with the wind came the fire.

Though we did not know it at the time, the Waldo Canyon wildfire (so named for its place of origin in northwestern Colorado Springs) was to be the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.

Needless to say I was worried. Worried for them, for the thousands of others threatened by the fire, and of course worried for my copy of Walden which lay in their basement alongside other precious possessions that weren’t quite precious enough to make the cut when I moved to New York.

I lived in Colorado Springs for 10 years, from 1989 to 1999. Admittedly, and as many of us might say about where we grew up, I never had much love for the city, which, despite a population of over 400,000, always felt like a constraining, cultureless small town. I can say in all honesty that it made perfect sense to me when I found out that the city routinely places #2 on the list of most suicidal cities in America.

The suburbs of Colorado Springs, given their vastness, may as well be Colorado Springs. On the west side of the city, the housing developments are not exactly nestled up against the Rocky Mountains as much as they are uncomfortably burrowed into the foothills. Inexplicably large houses (but not quite mansions, they say, to ineffectively placate their guilt), circumscribed by unnecessary lawns, and complete with three-car garages at capacity with, you guessed it, three cars. Step into the garage, step into the car, and drive to your choice of Walgreens, Chipotle, 7-11, Best Buy. Haunts for people like me (independent bookstores and video stores—hell, even the chain video stores) died out here a long time ago. The soil on the west side is too dry for such establishments to survive. So I spent a good portion of my 10-year tenure listening to (what else?) Joy Division: “No life at all in the house of dolls. No love lost.”

Here, in the shadow of Pikes Peak,1 the fire made its presence known.

That there was a fire was not surprising. Every summer for at least the past decade I have had the same conversation with my mom. “Drought again. Fire danger is high, higher than last year.” Maybe higher than ever. It’s getting hot out there. Some of us have a convenient name for this phenomenon. We follow the scientists in calling it ‘climate change.’ Much like ‘evolution,’ these little words signify a great deal: a threat, a demand for action and responsibility, or a thing to be repudiated. Like evolution, it strikes at the core of certain ideological superstructures. Some simply cannot accommodate it. The earth is not the center of the universe, is not that which the sun revolves around. We came from apes, and if that weren’t enough, we are driven by unconscious forces. Now we can add to Freud’s list of revolutionary blows to human pride: climate change. A real threat in a unreal world. It implies the necessity of such deep and fundamental changes, and requires widespread collective action, all of which have become increasingly difficult to imagine. Let alone to realize. Though there is a drought, and though there was a fire, this is not (directly) about climate change. Maybe it should be. Maybe we ought to make it about that. But we won’t. Because this is about another drought. A drought revealed to me by three statements which my mother made as we spoke on the phone several days into my parents’ week-long displacement. A drought quenched, ever so briefly and paradoxically, by the possibilities and impossibilities those nearby flames created.

* * *

With surprise and relief she said, “There hasn’t been any looting.”

Should there be?

I thought it curious that this absence required acknowledgement. The degree of relief implied an expectation. The expectation might have been that, because of the evacuation, conditions were ripe for some looting: as though the city were chock-full of intrepid souls willing to defy the orders of authorities and risk injury for the sake of a free bike or Blu-ray player. And yet, this wasn’t the case. In my surprise at her surprise, I wondered, was I being naïve? It had never occurred to me to expect that people should be breaking into the evacuated homes and businesses. I suspected that the presumption of others’ anti-social behavior pre-existed this fire.

And sure enough, as I was later to discover, Rebecca Solnit, in her book A Paradise Built in Hell, investigated this: “The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it. Decades of meticulous sociological research on behavior in disasters...have demonstrated this. But belief lags behind...”

This ‘image’ is not purely a media or government concoction, though the actions of the two, as Solnit argues, more often than not aggravate this perception and often are primary causes for bringing about its realization. Certainly there are cases of looting. Equally evident is that the mainstream media fixates on these obsessively, reporting stories over and over and thus, contributing significantly to driving this expectation. Rather than arising from specific social conditions, the looter, like the fire, appears as a force of nature, who threatens to take away the things we have spent so much of our life acquiring, looking at, living in. That this figure is so near at hand, ready to be deployed even in spite of little evidence to support the likelihood of its actually affecting an individual, suggests that a deeply rooted suspicion of others is at work.

I see the looter as being in the same family with another common figure that does exist quite prominently in our everyday experience: the stranger. How much of our life is spent in the company of strangers? The subway, the sidewalk, the grocery store. In traffic, in line, in the waiting room. What the disaster does is not to negate the stranger necessarily. Although in many instances, by sharing space, suffering, and the deep awareness of our dependence on others, this surely does occur. In addition to this, it changes our relation to strangers. Disaster manifests a desire to be of service to whomever we can, however we can, regardless of our familiarity with them. Perhaps a fear of the stranger transforms into the looter, and yet, even this figure cannot play center stage because we are forced to recognize that survival is now, as it is always, a collective project.

* * *

I could picture her face, a smile I’ve seen a million times but could never see enough, when later in the same conversation she said, “This has really brought out the best in people.”

What is ‘the best’ that’s in us?

On the northwest side of town, most folks have pets. With 32,000 evacuees, we are talking a lot of dogs, cats, turtles, ferrets, and even horses. Under these circumstances, you can’t always take them with you. All over town, though, they were ready. Strangers networked with strangers to get trailers which could transport horses to safety. The Humane Society opened its doors and volunteers (as young as 12!) flocked to help out. Churches took and offered donations of food and animal crates. Could FEMA have organized this?

The battalion of firefighters dispatched to the area were met with so many donations of money and so much food they had to start turning it down. No equal exchange on the basis of market value here. Nor even a reciprocity of bartering. There was, quite literally, an excess of giving.

Sometimes the flood happens when other channels have been dammed up. Sometimes it takes a fire to break open these channels. This excessive outpouring of support indicates the extent to which giving and even participating meaningfully in our communities has been restricted, often extending only as far as our families or friends. Or when it does extend beyond these circles, our capacity to give appears to consist largely of monetary support, which requires mediation through charitable organizations. These can seem quite distant from ourselves and those we are giving to.

Through the state of emergency’s reawakening of dormant ways of being with and relating to others, many isolated and estranged suburbanites became enmeshed in an exceptional community. Being dispossessed from habits and things, even if only temporarily, forced the evacuees, like my parents whose house ultimately remained untouched, to soak up the care of others: on their couches, at their dining tables, and through the phone calls from those they hadn't spoken with in ages.

This exceptional situation is not itself an exception. This has all happened before. Solnit’s book gives a wonderfully detailed account of several major disasters in the 20th and 21st centuries (from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake up to Hurricane Katrina). All of them have, in contrast to common media presentations of disaster, been largely met with precisely this same spontaneous altruism. She found amidst the fear, the loss, the uncertainty: “immersion in the moment and solidarity with others,” “purposefulness, immediacy, and agency,” and “joy.” The best in people indeed.

So we see folks freely giving what they otherwise hold so tight. We are confronted with the fact that we are indeed quite capable of self-organization and mutual aid. Cooperation and the fulfillment of basic needs come to the fore, and competition and the consumerist accumulation of material pleasures, these are forced to show their true face: nothing but a hindrance to our survival.

Why does the best hide in the shadows until disaster strikes? Must we then face a disaster in order to experience it again? I wonder, aren’t we already?

Solnit argues that the conditions of neoliberal capitalism, such as precarious labor, a health care system that too often provides neither health nor care, environmental degradation, etc., constitute a “social disaster,” which has been normalized. It has been painted over under the guise of a ‘free society’ with no better alternative. The sources of fear, insecurity, uncertainty that many live in have been codified into the rules of the game we play. The disaster presents a direct force that gives us no alternative but to make up a new game. To our surprise, under these circumstances we realize, as Solnit writes, that “friendship and love counted for a lot, long-term plans and old anxieties for very little.”

* * *

And then perhaps what surprised me most, “The community has really come together.”

In what state was this ‘community’ before?

I think this oft-expressed idea actually reveals more than is intended. Community is not wholly absent from our lives. Yet, nor can it be described as ‘together,’ except under exceptional circumstances. It is rather dispersed, loosely-knit, or to borrow an image from Zygmunt Bauman, decomposing.

To me, a community implies recurring material and emotional support. It implies belonging and an identification with other members. This identification comes through shared experiences of work, care, and loss. Instead of this, it seems, we identify with things which are alien to us. We may identify with a job where our work is not directly for the benefit of those around us. We identify with a nation into which we were by chance born. We identify with the things we own or consume, which are rarely, if at all, produced by us or by members of our community. We identify with the products of culture: movies, music, books, sports teams. And to be sure with some of these there is a more direct involvement, a more direct relationship between ourselves and others. But unless we ourselves are the producers and/or are lucky enough to be a part of a broader creative community, do they facilitate collective agency, or involve our participation (beyond consumption)?

So when we say that ‘the community really came together’ in a time of crisis, might it not be the case that since desiccated and privatized ways of acting in common became realized on a wide scale, and on the basis of such nourishment, a community flowered, grew, and recomposed? The isolated individuals who dot the pointillist landscape of suburbia were revealed to be a coherent and beautiful image, in part by virtue of the state of emergency that caused them to flee, to pull back from the narrow standpoint of ‘normal life,’ in which each could see the other only as competitor or stranger. This exceptional community that arose from the state of emergency points us towards a great absence in unexceptional times; it calls on us to invert the exception as it exposes ‘normal life’ as something which acts, more often than not, only to reproduce and reinforce the isolation that keeps community a near desert, nearly deserted.

Community, as I am envisioning it, would be built upon the same kinds of relations Solnit describes and that my parents experienced. That it is an exception seems to me to make it all the more important. The exception demonstrates that it is rather ‘normal life’ that is stagnant, drought-ridden, and desperate for rain, that leaves us parched as we walk through it. It submits to an interrogation by means of the disaster. Questions that otherwise could not appear with the same degree of force become unavoidable. I am encouraging this ruthless questioning to continue beyond the state of emergency and into all aspects of human life.

Part of the project to irrigate and revitalize our communities would involve reflecting not only on the moments of joy and solidarity that happen in the midst of disaster, but seeking to understand what it is about normal circumstances that all too frequently blocks such expressions. The next part of this task would be imagining how we could remove the obstacles and incorporate the exceptional moments into daily life without a natural disaster. I think this would likely and ultimately take a great transformation of material circumstances: social, spatial, economic, and political rearrangements. There is of course a large-scale, long-term project here. A project that will require action in addition to reflection. But it is a project that should be figured and carried out only through these communities. Not here. Not now. But soon. For one way or another, whether by force of disaster or through choice and persistent work, these communities will come. But until the Fall, or the Revolution, we can begin.

But where? And how? In the absence of an event causing a massive upheaval in our material conditions, how can we begin to make evident these capacities for self-management and mutual aid? For we can only start where we are, and with what we currently have. And if there is any truth to my title, creating such communities would be an act that goes against much of the deeply ingrained habits of daily life. Moreover, this would entail a resistance to those forces that try to ensure such habits stay ingrained.

Todd May, in a talk entitled “Friendship as Resistance,” argues that we must think about how to extend some elements of our most meaningful friendships into the political and economic arenas. I think a similar project can be undertaken with the help of disaster communities. To do so, I think we must first recognize that aspects of these transformed social relations have a political dimension. ‘The community coming together’ and ‘bringing out the best in people’ defy many of the ways we ourselves and our communities are viewed and to a great extent constructed by neoliberal capitalism.

The disaster shows how much richer our lives become when we give freely to friends, family, and strangers with no thought of return, and how much more meaningful and deeper our relations are when based upon shared suffering and care. But it also reminds us how rarely this occurs in daily life. The severe drought of such experiences is the effect of political and economic forces in which we all participate at the expense of deeper forms of togetherness.

Therefore, the question becomes by what means can the community be empowered in non-emergency situations? Or put another way, how can we build and maintain power at the community level in defiance of the forces which seek to keep us isolated consumers or individualized entrepreneurs? I think it might begin at the dinner table, where we can invite our neighbors and friends over and ask such questions. We can reflect collectively on exceptional experiences and how they might become a greater part of our normal life. Hopefully it would grow beyond this, but from a small beginning we can learn how to communicate our desires and vulnerabilities to one another, and furthermore, to translate these, as they spill out across the table, from the private to the public. Out of this process we would be able to see how we can meet our demands more directly, effectively, and in a much more human and less bureaucratic way than is normally done; we could realize that collectively we can place demands that we are unable to realize on our own upon the forces holding power over and above our communities, or even figure out how, as was done in the disaster, take some of that power back.

In this way we would be engaging in a process of expanding democracy. That is, taking politics out of its hiding place in the voting booth and attempting to relocate it where it must be in order for real democracy to be possible: in the hands of all the people.

1Which the Arapaho called heey-otoyoo’, or ‘long mountain.’ And indeed, long arms stretch wide suggesting an imminent caress. Friend, daughter, lover, it welcomes you. Does it say something about Anglo-Saxon narcissism that, instead of describing a thing, our explorers simply give it their own name? Despite the disappearance of the possessive apostrophe, the words ‘Pikes Peak’ suggest ownership. This peak belongs to Zebulon, but, when confronted with this massive, awe-imposing beauty, who would think to give a fuck about him? This mountain defies the name itself as well as the very implication of possession.

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