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Sunflowers in the Concrete

Tuesday, May 5, 2015 12:21
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Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy and the Common Ground Collective, Second Edition by scott crow (PM Press 2014), 288 pages.

Four years ago, anarchist activist and co-founder of the radical humanitarian aid organization Common Ground Relief (formerly the Common Ground Collective) scott crow released his memoir about the nearly three months where he and a band of activists and New Orleans residents beat the odds – and the Feds – in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

C4SS’s Kevin Carson penned a glowing review of Black Flags and Windmills in 2011, writing, “As someone who’s followed the Arab Spring and Occupy movements very closely, I find Crow’s account of organizing the Common Ground Collective extremely relevant to the problems the movement faces today.”

Last August, crow released the second edition of Windmills, which includes a collection of emails, interviews and a photo diary of sorts that documents his trajectory as an activist from young, state-loving communist to the incredible “puppetmaster” of an anarchist (according to the FBI) that he is today, as well as moments from his time on the ground in New Orleans.

This new information, which adds roughly 100 pages of material to the book, is incredibly illustrative and should be of interest for any activist or aid worker looking to create a horizontal, decentralized and anti-authoritarian movement in their communities – whether they’re affected by natural disasters or simply the long, slow disaster wrought by state capitalism.

Besides that, there’s not a whole lot of difference from the first to the second editions; crow’s narrative flows roughly the same in both copies of the book, and Carson has already done a great job of summarizing that first edition in his own review from 2011. So rather than rehash what Kevin said, and you should really go back and read that review because it’s fantastic, here instead are some impressions the book left on me as a younger self-described anarchist.

1. It’s never just about one person. It’s about the people.

crow has received a lot of notoriety (and rightly so, in my opinion) in the years after Katrina for being one of the sort-of public faces of Common Ground; in between organizing in his hometown of Austin, Texas, he goes on speaking tours to college campuses, infoshops and independent venue spaces around the United States to talk about the foundational principles he, Malik Rahim and Sharon Johnson started Common Ground on, as well as the concept of “emergency hearts.” I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him in Oklahoma twice now.

That being said, crow makes it clear toward the end of his narrative in Windmills that while he, Malik and Sharon put a whole heap of work into what Common Ground stood for and what it was doing for the community, they were not the sole people we should focus on when we talk about the success of the organization. Hundreds upon hundreds of local residents and out-of-state activists made Common Ground what it was, and without them – not to mention the support of Algiers and the surrounding rural and urban communities they served – the effort would have sputtered out.

Ultimately, the narrative crow creates – and lived – is not one about a rockstar anarchist swooping into New Orleans and rescuing the flooded poor communities in the Lower Seventh and Ninth Wards from the wrecking ball of the State, but one where the communities themselves rose up against outside pressure – from crooked, killer cops, vigilantes, overly bureaucratic federal relief organizations and the military – to save their homes, schools and neighborhoods, Zapatista-style.

2. When the State gets injured is when it shows its claws the most.

Arguably, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and its sister storm, Hurricane Rita, showed exquisitely what the State will do and how it will respond when it has been dealt a truly damaging blow. crow captured the stark realities of the days and weeks post-Katrina in Windmills, pulling no punches and telling the whole story: the white vigilantes, the shoot-to-kill orders, the mainstream relief agencies delivering nothing but baby wipes and plastic cutlery to Algiers when food and water was needed, FEMA employees getting “the best medical treatment” they had ever seen in New Orleans at the Common Ground Clinic. One scene in particular was especially striking. Rather than paraphrase, I’ll let crow do the talking:

Early one afternoon, I drove a truck over to St. Mary’s to drop off our regular supply load. Their volunteers helped with unloading, and I was set to leave, when I realized the truck was blocked in by a Humvee full of young-looking soldiers. I stepped out and cordially asked the driver to move forward so I could back out. The vehicle didn’t move. The driver stared through me without moving or acknowledging I had spoken to him.

Then the blank stare changed to a disturbing facial expression I had seen on many faces recently. I thought, “Is he going to shoot me?” Suddenly, a ranking officer stepped off the curb to the driver’s side, barking at their car, “Soldier, this is not Iraq! We do not control the streets! These are American civilians! Now move your ass — immediately!” Instantly, the driver turned and the vehicle moved. The officer waved me on. Stunned, I drove away. That shell-shocked look was in the faces of many of the young soldiers who were cycling through, fresh from Afghanistan and Iraq to the hell in their own backyards.

While there are arguably more intense scenes peppered throughout the book, this particular scene hit me with the force of weeks of exhaustion and the knowledge – the certitude – that at any moment crow or any other activist working in Algiers could be shot and killed by any number of government officials, soldiers, cops or yahoos with a gun and a penchant for Klan kosplay. Despite this, the people who made up Common Ground still showed up and helped the work along in defiance of an injured and feral State.

3. Building counterpower works.

Perhaps the biggest point I took from Windmills is that, regardless of whether the Common Ground Collective can be considered “pure anarchism,” or how messy the organization’s internal framework was, or what it eventually turned into, it is still a pretty dang great model for how we can build institutions of counterpower that can actively oppose the State. We don’t have to wait for a revolution, or a natural disaster, or for the bus driver to walk off the bus, to start building. We know this model works – it worked for Occupy Sandy, and to a lesser degree, the radical cleanup efforts in Moore, OK after the May 31, 2013 F5 tornado. The principles it employs can be used in a variety of settings and are even adoptable as a personal, individual framework.

As poet June Jordan, quoted by crow in Windmills, wrote in her 1978 “Poem for South African Women,” we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. crow’s book shows how ordinary people can create something more effective and more vital for their own communities than any outside force, be it the State, corporations or mainstream relief organizations, and we can do so without waiting for anyone’s approval.

Ultimately, Windmills left me with a sense of hope and excitement for an anarchist future. It’s not a future that will come easily, as crow demonstrates, and as the old cliche goes, I may not see it in my lifetime – none of us may! But damn if you won’t see me running to meet it.

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