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Kansas City IMC

LOCAL Commentary :: Kansas

FEMA and the State Control of Grieving Communities

It has become clear through natural and "un-natural" disasters alike that communities must care for themselves and other communities in time of need. The federal and state governments are not going to aid those who need it, they are going to "secure" and "manage". Non-profits and NGO's, while well intentioned and staffed by dedicated workers, do not utilize the organizing models needed when disaster strikes.
It has become clear through natural and "un-natural" disasters alike that communities must care for themselves and other communities in time of need. The federal and state governments are not going to aid those who need it, they are going to "secure" and "manage". Non-profits and NGO's, while well intentioned and staffed by dedicated workers, do not utilize the organizing models needed when disaster strikes.

All of this was evident as I drove into Greensburg, Kansas earlier this morning. Over two weeks ago a tornado more than a mile wide had reduced the town to practically nothing in mere moments. 12 people were killed, over 1,000 displaced and roughly 95% of the town now piles of rubble.

My work with a group based out of Lawrence Kansas, called Kansas Mutual Aid(KMA), had brought me to Greensburg. As an anarchist collective, KMA has been a part of the community in Lawrence, Kansas for over four years. We serve free food, and maintain community gardens; host anti-war demonstrations and fight for the rights of the incarcerated. We organize in an egalitarian manner, trying to use the principles of cooperation and mutual aid and support as much as possible. It seemed like a natural progression of our politics and organizing efforts to offer our skills, supplies and resources to the communities of Greensburg.

Over this past weekend, four members of KMA had traveled to Greensburg in the hopes to make connections with the residents and to see what kind of support we could offer. With the information they had gleaned from the residents, we as a collective decided to offer our long term support to the people of Greensburg. We have the supplies to set up a base camp where we can keep tools and provisions, and where we can organize with the local Mennonite church to give aid and support where it is needed. Our trip this morning was done in an effort to solidify those plans and to do what work that could be done. Unfortunately, what we found in Greensburg was a highly militarized operation, not designed to help the people of that town, but to "secure" it.

At the checkpoint on the way into town, we informed the officers of our intent to do aid work with AmeriCorps, the only non-denominational volunteer organizing effort we had found. After being granted access to the city and given a placard for the dash of the car signifying such, we ventured on to the red and white AmeriCorps tent. There we found a slightly dis-organized group of volunteers trying to keep up with the task they had been handed. We signed in and received our glow-in-the-dark wrist bands, and were told to follow a green AmeriCorps truck to our first site.

There are very few words to describe the stillness and the quiet that comes from Kansas wind as it rushes past what was once a town. The only things moving were the few people rummaging through piles, and picking through the pieces of peoples' lives. With work gloves ready and respirators in place, we started to clear the area near a nearly demolished home. Two walls were gone and the roof was missing significant portions. Food still sat in the cupboards, and the yard was littered with broken children's toys. We assumed that this home like many others had not been returned to by its occupants. It became clear to me that something was keeping the people of Greensburg away from their homes. Whether it was the state agencies, economic limitations, or lack of resources, it was obvious that this is a major problem within the city limits. How can a town start to heal if its residents feel, or are, unable to return?

The people directing us from AmeriCorps were dedicated and gave off an air of wanting to be of assistance to the town. What became clear after a few mis-communications and confusions was that their "top-down" system of organizing was not letting information flow freely or easily. How were the volunteers supposed to know exactly what to do or not to do without a dialogue with the ones coordinating them? How were the coordinators supposed to know what to do when the dialogues with FEMA and the National Guard hadn't happened, or when they hadn't talked thoroughly enough amongst themselves? A lot of these problems could have been solved with a more egalitarian and transparent organizing structure. Dialogue and discussion between residents, volunteers and coordinators could bring about a more empowering and long lasting solution to the immense task of not only cleaning, but of re-building, the city of Greensburg.

After a few hours of working with AmeriCorps we decided to find the Mennonites we had been in contact with since KMA's last visit to the area. When we located their Church (only a trailer where a building used to stand) we were greeted warmly and openly. They thought our idea of creating a base of operations for our group was a good idea, they were just out of room on their land. They told us of another Church just near the city limits that might be able to help us.

After a short drive down what used to be Main St., we reached the Church that the Mennonites had told us about. It had been taken over for use as a make-shift fire station and two police cars were parked in the driveway. We continued down the road past the Church in hopes of finding a local with more information. After a short distance we encountered a man clearing the last of the large debris off of a foundation which we later learned to have once been his home. He was now living with his wife in a "small but livable" house out on their farm outside of town. He was interested in letting us use his property as a contact point for our group.

After a brief conversation with him, one of the police cars from the "fire station" pulled along side us. We talked with the officers for a few moments and were informed that we had to talk to the Kiowa County Emergency Response Command Post to get the all clear. We said goodbye to the farmer who was waiting for an agent from FEMA, and told him we'd be back to talk about details.

Myself and another member of our group finally found the correct air-conditioned trailer among the sea of FEMA vehicles near the city hall area of town. The other three members of our group went to find food and water. After a few conversations, my friend and I found the person we were looking for. The exchange was interesting in that he needed to know a lot of personal details about us; full-names, addresses, phone numbers, but had never heard of AmeriCorps and informed us that this was his "second day in the town". There is a severe lack of cohesion and a lot of wasted resources when after two days a person from the Kiowa County Emergency Response Command Post does not know what the largest organization co-ordinating volunteers is. Nonetheless, he informed us that all we needed to do was get written permission from the land owner to use their property, and that as long as we were co-ordinating with the Mennonites we should not have a problem.

Surprised at the ease with finding that information in such a confusing bureaucratic nightmare, my friend and I went to find the rest of our group. As we rounded the corner I saw them being spoken to by someone from the Olathe Police Department. As I got closer I heard him telling the whole group to "keep your hands out of your pockets and where I can see them," and that we all needed to produce identification. I was floored at the manner that we were being herded away from the groups of people causally chatting and eating near the FEMA trailers to a side street, where we would "cause less of a scene". Before any IDs were produced we asked why were being stopped and detained. The officer, whose name I discovered to be Ty Moeder, told us that we were being investigated to see if we were "affiliated with the anarchists".

As he continued to talk to us, members of different state agencies began to encircle us. Members of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, Olathe Police, Dickinson County Sheriff's Department and eventually a Lawrence Police Officer named McNemee had surrounded us.

Officer Moeder asked us how we had gotten into the city. We told him the truth; that we had driven our car into town in the morning. Unhappy with that answer he continued to berate us about how we possbily could have gotten into the city. Confused at the line of questioning, we answered the same each time, we had driven our car in. As it turned out, all checkpoints had been alerted not to allow us entry into the city. We were a car full of volunteers ready to work, with our own tools and supplies, and we were to be turned away from the city limits. The reason for this became clear as we waited. Officer Moeder repeatedly told us that he would not "allow us to be a drain on the cities resources", that the task of "securing us" would be such a drain. This was specifically in response to our belief in anarchist principles. We were deemed a threat before we had even entered the city. Apparently our methods of organizing using consensus and mutual aid were a threat to the security of the area.

While we waited for our IDs to be checked for any warrants. Lawrence Police Officer McNemee took pictures of our car; the outside and inside. Officer Moeder asked one member of our group to speak with him a few feet from the rest of us. Immediately surrounded, our friend and comrade was threatened and berated for his and our involvement in the relief efforts. Officer Moeder was heard to say things such as "You're being ordered to leave and not return." He said that the decision to expel us from the city was "not negotiable, not appealable," and that if we returned we would be "arrested on site". He insisted that we didn't want to "push that right now. This system is pretty messed up, and you wouldn't be issued bail. You could disappear in the system." It is an strange thing to be told that you may disappear inside a judicial system for wanting to help clear debris.

The member of our group being questioned asked why we were being ordered out of the city. What had we done? We learned that we were being considered a "dangerous anarchist group that would drain security resources". We had been monitored through our e-mails and list-serves and that they "knew what we were up to". After a few more back and forth exchanges, Officer Moeder explained once and for all that we were labeled a threat and we were no longer welcome in Greensburg. It made me wonder how a police officer from several counties away could speak for the residents of a town that had welcomed our support.

We were soon escorted back to our car by the same police who had been surrounding us. We were ordered to turn around and follow a patrol car out of the city. Followed by a caravan of up to five police vehicles with lights flashing, we were escorted out of the city.

It was a long drive back to Lawrence after a terrifying encounter with a highly militarized police force with nothing better to do then use their "security resources" on people simply trying to bring in supplies and volunteers. Despite all this, upon returning to Lawrence my want to extend a hand of solidarity to the people of Greensburg was even greater. There is great empowerment in knowing that the state deems you a threat to their order because we saw what "their order" really was. It was cushy FEMA trailers while residents had nothing but holes in the ground to call home; it was a highly militarized area where people were threatened with "disappearence", while running water was barely beginning to come back on; it was struggling volunteers trying to come up with the solutions to a major catastrophe while people with the want and a new way to organize were escorted out of the city under armed police guard.

We plan on helping the people of Greensburg who have a very long road to travel until re-building their lives is an option. We plan on being there for them long after FEMA is gone and Homeland Security has walked away, after Greensburg is not on the national news and after AmeriCorps moves onto the next site. That is anarchism in action, the thing they were so desperate to rid the city of this morning. That is the resolve to work with the people of that town to build a community that they want to live in, to help them build a new world for themselves and their families. No state agency is going to stop us.

In solidarity
Jordan F.
Kansas Mutual Aid

((Join us this Monday the 21st @ 7pm at the Solidarity Center-1109 Mass St., Lawrence Kansas. To discuss the next steps in the relief process))

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