By John P. Clark
May 10th, 2020
In my book, The Impossible Community I reflected on the experience of the Common Ground Collective and other groups that I worked with in Post-Katrina New Orleans. I concluded from this experience that there exists in the midst of crisis something that I called “disaster anarchism.”1
Disaster anarchism is a collective force that “breaks radically with the ordinary course of things,” and is characterized by “an extraordinary flourishing of love, compassion, solidarity, mutual aid, and voluntary cooperation.” It is a source of hope and inspiration, since “within it there emerges a strong sense of the possibility of a qualitatively different way of life, through the actual experience of that other way of living.”
It is inspiring to see exactly such radical possibility emerge once again, at the present crucial moment, through the work of the New Orleans Mutual Aid Group (NOMAG).
NOMAG developed out of the Cat’s Claw Collective, an anarchist community center in the Eighth Ward of New Orleans. The Collective takes its name from a locally (in)famous vine that it defines as “a flowering plant deemed a nuisance and capable of dismantling just about any structure.”
Cat’s Claw sees its mission as working against “gentrification, exploitation, authoritarian capitalism and white supremacy,” and practicing “direct action, mutual aid relief based on the principles of inclusivity and consensus.” So, it is not surprising that the city’s main radical mutual aid project should grow on that particular anarchic vine.
NOMAG’s work focuses on food distribution. The core group from Cats Claw had already been working with a food share program started four months ago, and had also worked with Community Kitchen, a local organization that serves food at political events, to those in need, and to the community in general. So NOMAG is an organic growth out of that prior work, adapted to this time of crisis.
The Group has been working for two and half months, starting shortly after Mardi Gras. So far, about one-hundred people have expressed interest in the group, and about fifty volunteers have already gotten actively involved in various ways. The project was originally centered at the Cat’s Claw site but is now located at St. Roch Metalworks, an Eighth Ward warehouse about a mile and a half away.
Distribution started in the neighborhoods of the 7th, 8th, and 9th Wards of downtown (the local term for “downriver”) New Orleans. It has since expanded to neighborhoods in the Mid-City area. NOMAG hopes that as it moves into more neighborhoods it can divide into sub-groups based in the various neighborhood communities. The current plan is to divide shortly into two hubs, and then to create more as activity grows.
NOMAG makes weekly food deliveries to families at a current rate of about twenty per day, and has made about five-hundred deliveries so far. The Group estimates that each delivery is shared by five people, so the program has thus far aided recipients 2500 times.
The Group is beginning to publish a twice-monthly broadsheet called The Broadcast that will be put in food boxes and distributed in the neighborhoods. It will include basic practical information on subjects like food resources, COVID-19 testing, finding diapers, pet food, and other supplies, mental health services, and dealing with utilities.
However, reflecting the project’s dual emphasis on providing immediate aid and also promoting long-term community liberation, it will also include political activism-oriented material. For example, there will be information on the prison and legal system, housing issues, workers’ struggles, working for better health care, rent strike organizing, and support for local protests and actions.
NOMAG recognizes that given the structures of domination, every crisis takes on a particular form in which different social groups and communities are affected differentially, and levels of assistance are determined not by personal and communal needs, but rather by the demands of power and profit. Consequently, as the Group states it, “This is a crisis of capitalism, of property, of profit, and of white supremacy as much as it is one of health.”
The Group sees a problem with many paying lip service to “solidarity not charity” (the famous slogan that came out of the anarchist-influenced Common Ground Collective), but still in many ways following a charity model of aid. The Group wants to further politicize mutual aid, and to make its efforts part of a larger project of creating a community in which mutual aid and solidarity are a systemic practice and, most important of all, a way of life. The Group’s political engagement is exemplified by its active support for a sanitation workers wildcat strike on May 8.
NOMAG’s work has already given birth to a related mutual aid project with a broader scope and transformative vision. This is Lobelia Commons, which defines itself as “a network for autonomous food production and neighborhood survival,” and foresees the creation of a variety of interconnected land-based projects. At present, it has a core of ten active members, in addition to many friends and supporters.
Lobelia Commons’ first project is the St. Roch Free Nursery. At this site, the group is raising about four-hundred okra plants, in addition to squash, watermelons, herbs, tomatoes, chilis, and other vegetables for the plant delivery program. It has also started a garden in the Upper 9th Ward, about a mile from Cat’s Claw. So far, it has built a water catchment system, sheet mulched the beds, and brought in compost to this site.
Immediately, the gardens will function as a free nursery for the community and enable NOMAG to include more fresh vegetables in deliveries, in addition to distributing plants for community members to raise in their own gardens. Eventually, they will include additional projects such beekeeping, growing mushrooms, and sharing cooperative neighborhood chicken coops.
But they are also part of a larger transformative vision of creating community resiliency and self-sufficiency through neighborhood food production. The hope is that the gardens will be the beginning of a dense network of politically engaged community gardens, orchards, and farms, dispersed throughout the city’s neighborhoods.
The goal of establishing a network of community-controlled projects in vacant lots is not only to make good use of abandoned space. Its aim is also to create a strong basis for autonomous food production, for neighborhood survival, and for community self-determination. Vacant space in historic neighborhoods of New Orleans is prey for the kind predatory development that is epitomized by the viral epidemic of Airbnb’s that has plagued much of the city. Building neighborhood power—from the ground up—will make possible deep-rooted resistance to this exploitation.
It seems best to conclude with a description of how NOMAG sees itself. Here is the way one collective member sums up the Group’s mission and action:
We practice mutual aid as opposed to more institutional and static forms of charity because we have found this tactic to allow for the spontaneity and flexibility to change course and adapt our practices as the complexity of crises reveal themselves. As the pandemic shut down the world economy, we saw not just a drastic need for material support that the state would predictably fail to adequately provide, but the need for networks and groups who could link together and support wildcat strikes, eviction defense, and find new ways to protest. This situation requires not only material resources, but fluid and adaptable militancy. We came together loosely affiliated by social and political tendencies, but we deepen our solidarity to each other with each passing week of sustained action.
For contact and support:
NOMAG email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lobelia Commons email: email@example.com (to request plant delivery)
Lobelia Commons phone: 504-345-8097 (text to request plant delivery)
NOMAG on Venmo: @nolamutualaid
Lobelia Commons on Venmo: @lobeliacommons
NOMAG on Twitter: @nolamutualaid
Lobelia Commons on Twitter: @lobeliacommons
NOMAG on Instagram: @nolacovid19mutualaid
Lobelia Commons on Instagram: @lobeliacommon
1 “Disaster Anarchism: Hurricane Katrina and the Shock of Recognition” (Ch. 8) in The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism (New edition forthcoming from PM Press).
John P. Clark is a philosopher, activist, and educator. He lives and works in New Orleans, where his family has been for twelve generations. He is director of La Terre Institute for Community and Ecology, located on Bayou La Terre in the forest of coastal Mississippi. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books, including The Anarchist Moment; Anarchy, Geography, Modernity; and The Impossible Community. He writes a column for the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism and edits the cyberjournal Psychic Swamp: The Surregional Review. He was formerly Curtin Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University.