Mutual Aid Response During Fires Shows Black Lives Matter Is Building Community

One year after Occupy Wall Street spread to public squares across the nation, a spontaneous network formed to provide civilian disaster response during and after Hurricane Sandy. They called themselves “Occupy Sandy.” Now, in response to a different climate catastrophe, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters in Portland, Oregon, are making a similar transition.

Shortly after rallies and direct action protests to celebrate 100 nights of Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, the region was hit with historic wildfires, sending thousands to seek shelter, and blanketing the metropolitan area with the worst air quality on the planet. Almost immediately, networks of organizers who cut their teeth protesting the Portland Police Bureau quickly transformed to begin providing direct services for the houseless and fire refugees flocking to the city.

One group, called Portland Equitable Workers Offering Kommunity Support (EWOKS), has spearheaded mutual aid efforts in a cinema parking lot, a few blocks from the Red Cross’s outpost at the Oregon Convention Center in northeast Portland. According to EWOKS volunteer medic Davis Beeman, the group, which was profiled by the Los Angeles Times in July, helped coordinate burn bandaging and gloves to frontline firefighters and are helping fill some of the gaps in the Red Cross’s services. (The Red Cross shelter location in Portland is not accepting donations of goods).

“It’s been awesome to see different affinity groups come together like this,” Beeman told Truthout. “We have come together efficiently and quickly because we know each other.”

The Red Cross is operating out of the Oregon Convention Center and is not accepting donations of goods there.
The Red Cross is operating out of the Oregon Convention Center and is not accepting donations of goods there.

A variety of hygiene products, diapers, hot and cold food, a porta potty, clothing, pet food, and other materials are being distributed by EWOKS and its partners, which include houseless outreach groups Advocacy 5 and Boots on the Ground PDX.

One volunteer named Lisa Lake is the director of Advocacy 5 and works as a trained medic and crisis worker for EWOKS at the Black Lives Matter protests. “We’ve been doing this for the houseless for years, and at the protests for Black lives. We are accustomed to working in emergency situations,” Lake told Truthout. “We want to make people see that there can be another way other than the police. We are talking about defunding the police and we are building something to replace it with — to show people there are other models, where no one will fall through the cracks.”

The city has declared an emergency, opening up more shelter space at the Oregon Convention Center and Charles Jordan Community Center. A September 15 press release from Portland’s Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) says those seeking shelter can call 211 and do not need an ID to be admitted. According to JOHS Communications Coordinator Denis Theriault, around 130 people have sought shelter in the new space. And if they fill up, more space will be opened up at Mt. Scott Community Center.

An earlier declaration of emergency from Portland merely directed houseless people to move to safer parts of the city, even though the entire city was blanketed with smoke. Lake says she would like to see Portland do more outreach to people still living on the street. Theriault says the JOHS pays a group of nonprofits to do outreach to houseless people. In addition, the JOHS has been coordinating with volunteer groups since COVID-19 hit, providing supplies as they do their outreach across the city, and staffs a free supply hub available to volunteer groups. Lake says EWOKS received lots of direct support, so they have not needed the city’s help with their current efforts. Advocacy 5 and Boots on the Ground PDX have worked with the city in the past, she says. The city is a “great resource” for volunteers, Lake says.

“Folks have been braving these conditions, bringing KN95 masks to people, they have an educational role too,” says Theriault. “Not everyone is taking them up on shelter right away.” According to Theriault, last weekend, 27 different organizations and groups helped pick up and share 30,000 masks.

One recipient of food at the EWOKS mutual aid center is Richy (who would rather not give his last name). His house lost power due to the wildfire in Clackamas County, just outside Portland. “I heard about this place through a friend,” he told Truthout. “My home hasn’t been destroyed or anything, but I had to evacuate.” Richy says he’s met evacuees from California, Southern Oregon and Clackamas County. He has stayed at friends’ homes and in a shelter, and has used the mutual aid hub for food and toiletries, and appreciates it as a “place of refuge,” and meeting place for people to collect themselves and “evaluate their situations.”

Richy has also been participating in Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, where he says he’s been tear gassed, along with hundreds of others. “It’s been 400+ years of systemic and racial oppression — wherever there’s been oppression it’s been met with resistance. At a certain point there’s a revolt. George Floyd was just the tipping point.”

EWOKS aid recipient Richy in the cinema parking lot.
EWOKS aid recipient Richy in the cinema parking lot.

Mutual aid volunteer Melissa Lewis says EWOKS provided her medical assistance when she was shot in the head with a tear gas canister by law enforcement at a protest. “I thought because they took care of me it was fair to take care of others,” she told Truthout.

Mutual aid volunteer Melissa Lewis staffs the dry goods tent at the hub.
Mutual aid volunteer Melissa Lewis staffs the dry goods tent at the hub.

“With these conditions we have taken a step back from protesting,” says Gary Floyd, another protester now volunteering at the mutual aid hub. “Right now, it is all about fire victims and community. BLM is not just about protesting, it’s also about building community.”

Gary Floyd (right) assesses newly donated goods.
Gary Floyd (right) assesses newly donated goods.

Don’t Shoot PDX, a prominent Black Lives Matter organization, has partnered with the group Fires Igniting The Spirit to make emergency supply runs to help Indigenous communities in Oregon and Washington.

Another group, known as “The Witches,” describes itself as “a collective and coven in PDX.” They have been on scene at the Portland protests providing supplies for protesters, including jail support, and are now fundraising and distributing supplies, water and snacks in downtown Portland, as well as within evacuation zones.

The Witches say they “lend aid where we are needed and help give a voice to those forgotten or exploited by society.”

Other protesters have also mobilized. In fact, these protesters are uniquely equipped to fill the void: They’ve been dealing with toxic fumes for months as the Portland Police Bureau and federal agents have unloaded massive amounts of tear gas on them as well as reporters. Months ago, many protesters purchased or were gifted gas masks for the tear gas, which can now be used outside in the smoke.

For now, attention on the municipal contract with the Portland Police Bureau and the bureau’s current budget has temporarily subsided, though some protests are continuing. Now, most everyone is looking to the sky, and praying for more rain.