Mutual Aid stories

For the past week I’ve been thinking and praying a lot about Mutual Aid in preparation for a discussion we plan to have at my Quaker meeting tomorrow.

As I have nearly every Saturday for the last year, I was with my Mutual Aid friends this morning for our weekly food distribution. Here are a few stories triggered from what happened this morning.

I had a clear spiritual leading to become involved in Des Moines Mutual Aid. For the sake of brevity, I’ll begin with my return to Iowa in 2017. I was looking for justice activists and soon had the opportunity to walk on the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March. A group of about ten native and ten non-native people walked and camped together for ninety-four miles, over eight days, along the path of the Dakota Access pipeline. The intention was for us to get to know each other as we shared stories, and that worked amazingly well. I got to know Sikowis Nobiss, Trisha Etringer, Matthew Lone Bear, Alton and Foxy Onefeather, and Donnielle Wanatee, among others. Various combinations of us worked together since then on things like racist monuments and mascots, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and an Indigenous led Green New Deal.

There are a lot of photos and blog posts related to this sacred journey here: Part of the story relates to the support we received from Friends.

The summer of 2019 Peter Clay, Jim Glasson, Linda Lemons, and I helped arrange for Paula Palmer to have several sessions in the Midwest related to her ministry regarding Quakers and Indigenous peoples.

We wanted to continue this work. On February 7, 2020, we planned to meet at Friends House in Des Moines.

At that time, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were attacking the Wet’suwet’en peoples in British Columbia. They were clearing the way for the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory. There was nothing about that in the mainstream press.

I learned about this when I saw the title of a YouTube video about the eviction of Coastal GasLink personnel from Wet’suwet’en territory. For many years I worked on the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines resistance when I was in Indianapolis. I remember how shocked I was to see pipeline construction personnel evicted! I’m sure the Spirit led me to learn about the Wet’suwet’en. This struggle has become one of my primary areas of justice work since.

Returning to the February 7 meeting, we thought we would hold a rally in support of the Wet’suwet’en before the meeting we had already planned. I created a Facebook event in case anyone else might want to join us.

As the Spirit would have it though, Ronnie James saw that and joined us. I learned Ronnie has had over 20 years of experience as an Indigenous organizer. He was surprised anyone else in the Midwest knew about the Wet’suwet’en and came to check us out. A great organizing technique.

Peter Clay, Linda Lemons and Ronnie James

Over the subsequent two years Ronnie has become one of my closest friends, as well as my Mutual Aid mentor.

The Des Moines Mutual Aid project I’ve been involved in is the weekly food distribution project. There are many stories related to that but I’ll just tell about things that happened this morning.

About sixty boxes of food are put together in the basement of a church in Des Moines. Then they are taken outside and put on four tables, from which they are loaded into cars as they pull up. People know by word of mouth to park in the parking lot at 10 am. Then one of us directs them to drive up to the tables of food.

I learned those four long tables were donated to the church years ago from a mental health facility that my Quaker meeting, Bear Creek did a lot of work on.

This morning we could only find two of the tables. We looked all over and when we couldn’t find them, we carried a few smaller tables down from the third floor of the church. Shortly after though, when the bread that had been piled on some tables was put in the food boxes, we discovered the tables we were looking for had been hidden by the bread. We had a good laugh about that. Ronnie told me I’d have to write about that on my blog. This is a small example of how we all get to know each other as we work together.

The institutions of forced assimilation are often on my mind. Some Quakers had been involved in those institutions. Ronnie and I had a discussion about that.

I enjoyed hearing him talk about his son. Ronnie said, “he makes me happy (most of the time)”. I remember when Ronnie introduced me to him. He rarely says anything, but his voice sounds just like Ronnie’s. This morning I heard him say “dad”. When I left this morning, he was the only person in the basement. I said, “see you later” and he said, “see you later”. (It feels like I should not write his name. So many of those involved in Mutual Aid have had experiences with the police.)

I will finish by returning to the Wet’suwet’en peoples, who are yet again being threatened by the RCMP. When these latest threats began again in November, Ronnie and I talked about whether to do something in support. We decided to invite whoever wanted to hold signs in support after our Mutual Aid work was finished. It was like completing a circle from our initial meeting related to the Wet’suwet’en.

I don’t get opportunities to take photos when with my Mutual Aid friends, again because of concerns related to police. But this time it was OK because of the masks and each person had given permission. When people were lining up, someone said, “across the street”. I thought they meant to move across the street, but what was meant was to line up across the street. And after the first few shots someone said, “wait, am I the only one with a fist up?”

You might notice the sign on the far right. A 5-year-old attends every Saturday, the life of the party. I knew he liked to draw, so I brought markers and a blank sheet for him.

In December, the Wet’suwet’en called on supporters for solidarity actions. Chase bank funds the Coastal GasLink pipeline. A solidarity event was organized at a Chase bank in Des Moines. People were there from Mutual Aid, and Jon Krieg of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and his partner Patti. You will also see one of the leaders of Des Moines Black Liberation there in support of the Wet’suwet’en.

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