Members of Portland DSA organized a response to a set of converging crises last summer that ranged from logistical support for uprisings against police violence to addressing the effects of climate-change-induced wildfire displacement and poor air quality. What emerged from the response was the recognition that practicing mutual aid for the sake of building systems of resiliency was critical to making our community safer while building non-capitalist systems of economic provisioning. In particular, we see our work as directly practicing a form of social provisioning that denies the scarcity logics of capitalism that emerge when we see each other as individuated, passive members of the community, and instead strive to provide ‘soup for our families1.’ In doing so we are stronger, more resilient, and readier for the challenges of an increasingly precarious future. We hope to lay out the emergence of the work and its historical significance and point to lessons for its ongoing reproduction, while appealing to those who would dismiss street or autonomous action as non-revolutionary or a distraction from broader electoral goals, demonstrating the zero-sum error of that thesis.
Understanding the crises
Portland is known to many as a sort of liberal oasis of progressive politics, culture, and food. In other words, the so-called ‘Portland Brand’ is this promise of a quirky and safe place to stand in line for ice cream or donuts, while feeling relief knowing that each of your neighbors will vote blue no matter who. But this is simply a shiny veneer established by some pretty successful marketing campaigns and that unfunny show on IFC. In truth, Portland is the site of a very cynical municipal power structure that has long served the interests of landlords, developers, and absentee owners in finance capital at the expense of the community. The result is a city that has failed to invest in large swathes of its infrastructure while concentrating attention on the central business district and specific “enhanced service districts” as targets of development by gentrification. This disparity in resource provisioning is obvious as one travels to the east side of the city, where many neighborhoods lack basic municipal infrastructure like paved roads and sidewalks. But, moreso: there is a systematic pattern of malinvestment in broad categories of infrastructure that have resulted in inequality and precarity for all but the most well-off of Portlanders. We use malinvestment intentionally here: it’s not enough to point to public neglect in explaining the sad state of affairs in this city, rather we use the term to cast attention to the deliberate underdevelopment of the infrastructure that serves non-white people in this city.
Historically, Portland is a metropole to a region that was established as a settler colony and site of resource extraction. Portland was built on this colonial legacy and has never dealt with its own internal commitments to white supremacy, despite its presentation as a liberal oasis. This current of white supremacy runs uninterrupted through its history, embodying even mundane aspects of public administration such as destroying Black communities to make way for a highway. Most recently, Portland has been subject to near-constant threats of far-right white supremacist organizing by street gangs like Patriot Prayer, Proud Boys or American Guard to inflict violence on leftists and terrorize its queer and non-white residents. But, choose a decade and you’ll find this violence in Portland: in the ‘90s Portland was known as ‘Skinhead City,’ in the 80s the police would terrorize the Black community for sport (See, e.g., the Possum Incident). In the ‘20s Oregon elected a KKK governor. Racism is deep-seated here and runs back to its founding.
Its racist history provides important context and should not be viewed as simply an adjunct to other class issues present in Portland. In truth, Portland’s racist history is inextricably bound to its class processes and explains how its municipal governance has established a crisis of local political economy. In cities, municipal political institutions are responsible for organizing the provisioning of resources to the public, to include shaping development patterns and establishing boundaries to private property claims. As such, these institutions are responsible for the social provisioning of resources to the community. But this provisioning process has been malformed as it privileges the white affluent parts of the city at the expense and neglect of its communities of color. The city has focused most of its resources on building its central business district and key neighborhoods of cultural significance that contribute to its brand, including significant outlays to the Portland Police Bureau to ensure that the sidewalks remain clear of people living unhoused, white people do not feel threatened by the presence of Black people, and the community is unable to organize a direct political challenge to these municipal institutions.
Outside of the city, Portland is nestled in a broader region known for its significant timber stands and wildlands. Like all sites of colonial resource extraction, the ecosystem of the region has suffered from poor forestry practices and insufficient wildlands management. Additionally, there is a sharp “town and country” divide in terms of ideology and culture, wherein the suburbs immediately outside of the city as well as the rural areas of the hinterlands are deeply conservative and often given to far-right paranoid fantasies about the goings-on in places like Portland and Eugene.
A year of crises
Portland entered 2020 with these institutional tensions that contributed to a series of overlapping and interrelated crises. The economic effects of the Covid-19 public health response were historic, causing unprecedented unemployment and precarity not seen since the Great Depression. These impacts were largely borne by lower-income households or those with no income at all. While federal aid was unusually responsive to the moment, at least by comparison to the miserly fiscal packages of the Obama years, our local governments were not set up to facilitate an efficient transfer of those benefits to households most in need. Archaic unemployment insurance claims systems and understaffing in state government resulted in individuals waiting far too long for cash relief.
The George Floyd or Black Lives Matters protests would emerge as the catalyst for the second crisis of 2020. Starting in late May, and going for over 100 days, the community took to the streets each night for the whole summer and well into the fall. While seemingly spontaneous, this response was rooted in a very long-standing crisis of police violence in Portland, often resulting in the murder of young Black men. At times there were thousands assembled in marches or stationary protests at key targets in the city. The response from the city government was immediate and violent. Last summer, the Portland Police Bureau deployed more than 6,000 uses of force against protesters, including tear gas, less-lethal munitions, and bull rush tactics. The scale of this violence was staggering. Whole neighborhoods were blanketed in thick clouds of tear gas and other chemical weapons. Rather than diminish the resolve of these protesters, the uses of force galvanized them and informal, non-capitalist systems of provisioning emerged to supply the logistical needs of daily protest activities. Such activities included sourcing medical supplies, food and water, and even protective equipment such as respirators, makeshift shields, and body armor.
Alongside and in coalition with a nexus of different affinity groups all overlapping in this effort, members of Portland DSA engaged directly with protest support. As it became clear that ongoing participation in the protests would require a more widespread distribution of respirators capable of filtering gases deployed by both local police and Federal DHS agents, members of the Portland DSA Resiliency Working Group prototyped and produced DIY activated charcoal respirators in an effort to make them accessible in terms of cost and availability. Additionally, members participated daily in procurement and distribution of resources to sustain protest activities, as well as direct support to houseless encampments.
From Protest Mutual Aid to a Vision for Resiliency Work
For members of the Portland DSA’s Resiliency Working Group, participation in this logistical work extended beyond mutual aid or the desire to provide material support to the broader BLM movement. Instead, this mode of participation in the summer uprisings was a direct intervention in the very constitutive fabric of the capitalist mode of production, wherein we sought to reproduce non-capitalist modes of provisioning. As socialists, anarchists, or communists, we saw the work as direct engagement in history to put forward an alternative to capitalism in the business of social provisioning for our community. And, critically, we did not see this as detracting from other important organizing work happening within our chapter; on the contrary, practicing non-capitalism every day, sometimes literally providing soup for our families (however broadly defined!), we found this work to be renewing and an opportunity to show others that we can choose to craft a new economic system in which institutions of care replace those of state violence.
By August, there was a fairly well-tuned protest logistical system in place. This was fortuitous because the historic-in-scale wildfires would ravage the region and directly displace thousands of residents of communities in immediate jeopardy, as well as blanket the Willamette Valley in dense smoke and create asphyxiating conditions for several weeks. Almost overnight, the same network of affinity groups and mutual aid hubs, in which Resiliency WG was active, that had constituted the primary economic institutions of the Portland Uprising, retooled to serve as a disaster relief program.
While official institutions failed to act, Resiliency responded immediately to procure and distribute methods to filter indoor air as Portland’s residential building stock is quite old and ill-equipped to prevent infiltration of harmful levels of smoke. Additionally, we distributed N95 masks and redirected respirators intended for use during protests as protective equipment for safely breathing the so-called Death Air, a term many Portlanders adopted to describe the reality of air quality so poor it broke the EPA’s scale. Additionally, members continued to assist in supporting and supplying the mutual aid hubs that were serving as resource distribution centers for people displaced by the fires or otherwise unhoused, sometimes pulling long shifts in that air themselves.
As summer passed and the immediate crises in abeyance, members of our Resiliency WG took stock of lessons learned and looked to the future. We emerged from that summer with some thoughts on how to better prepare for crises, but more so we were reminded that solidarity is not a scarce resource. Indeed, we build more of it through every deliberate action that we take to improve people’s wellbeing. Moreover, we remained committed to thinking through how all of the pieces of inadequate infrastructure intersect to keep people trapped in a place of fragility and precarity and considered ways to destroy those systems.
For example, we experienced a “once in a generation” winter storm that downed many trees in the Portland metro area leaving whole neighborhoods without power for up to weeks. Members of the Resiliency WG organized an ad hoc team to clear downed tree limbs from neighborhoods impacted by these obstructions. But, seeing this as part of a broader set of resilience interventions, the team sectioned off and collected it for firewood and is in the process of distributing it for fuel to camps. We also provided direct support for members whose lack of local infrastructure left them without power or heat for over a week.
Similarly, in response to the lack of infrastructure capable of provisioning financial services to underbanked people, members of Resiliency WG formed ‘1040 bloc’ and began holding tax prep sessions for those who fall through these traditional mechanisms, through an active outreach campaign. To date, over sixty returns have been filed for people for an average of $3200 in refunds owed to people who would otherwise have been unaware of those funds they have rights to claim.
Final thoughts: Taking action is good, actually.
The importance of engaging in direct mutual aid and resilience work is twofold. First, as socialists, it is imperative that we demonstrate to those we organize with that another world is possible. Before we can bring anyone into the fold of a mass movement against the oppressions of capitalism, we must first expand their imagination of what’s possible. Direct mutual aid does precisely this. Every need met through mutual aid is a direct repudiation of capitalism, thereby illustrating an alternative to the scarcity or zero-sum logics of capitalism.
Second, and a companion to the previous point, our work in mutual aid and resilience has proven to be an excellent entry point for those looking to begin anticapitalist work. The Resiliency group has grown to be the largest of its kind within the Local, and its activity level has grown in proportion. In the scope of building a mass movement, any entry point for those not yet activated is a valid entry point, and one we must pursue if we are to build the movement. Once brought into the fold, the barriers to connecting the overlapping and intersecting oppressions of capitalism are lowered. Individuals who begin by tending a community garden or helping supply unhoused individuals with firewood, quickly move on to becoming tenant or labor organizers as they build relationships and become acquainted with other dimensions of the struggle. Oftentimes, once the first crack in someone’s belief in capitalism emerges, the dam is quick to crumble. If we are to build a mass movement, we must be the water seeking out this initial imperfection in the wall that then leads to the flood, regardless of where that imperfection might be found.
It should be noted that elevating one form of organizing work over others surrenders too much to bourgeois ideology. By prioritizing only the forms of organizing that consolidate and wield power in a narrow political sense, such as workplace organizing, we tacitly accept the capitalist logic that only those that can contribute to production are worthy of value. We reject this logic. For many, simply surviving to the next day is a repudiation of the brutality of capitalism, and as socialists we must fight to build solidarity with these individuals, regardless of whether they can contribute to our movement in the immediate sense. In capitalism, whether one lives or dies, eats or starves, breathes or gasps for air, depends on privilege and access to monetary claims on the surplus of social labor. Rather, we instead chose to do violence to that system directly, by refusing its arrangements and instead provisioning ‘soup for our families.’
1In July of 2020, Donald Trump made claims to the press that Portland protesters were using cans of soup as projectile weapons against DHS personnel, rather than as part of mutual aid food drives. This became the basis of the ‘Soup for Our Family meme,’ which many members of Portland Resiliency Working Group embraced for its hilarity.