From Katrina to Occupy

Renee Feltz Dec 19, 2011


Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective
By Scott Crow
PM Press, 2011

In 2005, Austin-based activist Scott Crow set out for post-apocalyptic New Orleans to help find and rescue a friend after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city. Once that was taken care of, he felt compelled to stay and fill the vacuum left by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross. The result was the Common Ground Collective, one of the largest and most significant anarchist projects in the United States. Along the way Crow took copious notes that form the basis of his new book, Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective, which reads as both a memoir and a how-to manual for the horizontally organized Occupy encampments as they transition into locally based struggles in search of relevancy. 

Some of Crow’s descriptions of Common Ground recall statements from the original Occupy Wall Street organizers explaining the success of the General Assembly model. 

“One of our greatest strengths was our flexibility. There was no command hierarchy that information had to go through, followed by useless paperwork and arbitrary rules,” Crow writes. “Often this meant people would take up a project simply because they saw the need. Within a few weeks we moved from negotiating emergencies to other kinds of issues, a fragile sense of stability was emerging in the programs.” 

Those programs were established after consulting with residents of the Algiers neighborhood where the collective was based in the house of former Black Panther Malik Rahim. They gutted houses, distributed food and water and kept racist vigilantes and police at bay. The idea became not just to rebuild, but to provide resources that had never existed before — their current community projects range from a free health clinic and a women’s shelter to a legal clinic and a job training program. 

Their success was often met with violent resistance. Crow details police raids on what officers referred to as the “compound” during which he and other Common Ground members found themselves laying on the ground with guns pointed at their heads. This was after he sat with a gun on Rahim’s porch several times in an effort to protect residents as white vigilantes patrolled Algiers ostensibly to prevent looting. 

Interspersed with his personal narrative, Crow offers condensed descriptions of the movements that inspired his actions. Anarchism is the philosophy that inspired him most, which he is quick to note “… is not chaos. It is self-organization at its root.” He also draws lessons from the community programs established by the Black Panthers as well as the Zapatistas, whose project, Crow writes, “suggests to me a living anarchism, not only of communes and small temporary projects, but also of community self-defense, autonomy and the appropriate inclusion of survival projects and services that build for a future without the state.” 

Nearly 35,000 people have volunteered with Common Ground since its inception, learning about the political underpinnings of the organization while gutting houses and restoring tracts of wetlands. Now Crow is taking these experiences on the road with his book tour. He says the Occupy movement, which he sees as “the mainstreaming of anarchism and horizontal ideas” inspires many of the people who come to his talks. He encourages them to think beyond what they want to protest, and to consider what kinds of alternatives they would like to create instead. 

Crow recalls a moment at Rahim’s kitchen table back in 2005, “ … when I was joking with Malik about how we were already doing things [that] hadn’t been done in [a] long time. It was weird to know it at that time. Then over the months it started to grow, despite all the challenges,” Crow says. “That is what I feel like with the Occupy movement. We dream these things and sometimes the reality doesn’t look like our dreams, but not like the reality we knew before. If we never dreamed of these things, our world would look different.” 

Ultimately, Black Flags and Windmills is about envisioning a better world and trusting ourselves to believe that our dreams actually contain the paths to make it happen, not as voters, not as consumers, but as participants in a spontaneous, horizontal democracy that looks different everywhere but meets the needs of the people where they are.

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