On white saviors with cliff bars
It was impossible to ignore the irony of how many survival supplies were donated and collected those first few days of the wildfire evacuations. Pallets of granola bars, mountains of them, so many fucking granola bars it literally had to be said- please, no more granola bars! At the Emeline warehouse where folks were directed to donate goods, masses of volunteers swarmed the few tired and frustrated people holding clipboards, asking over and over, “What can I do?” only to be met with shrugs, or redirects to another area where they would repeat the same desperate inquiries to more clipboard holders. Some of these volunteers began self assigning arbitrary tasks just to have something to do. Moving boxes of food, or hand sanitizer, or water from one side of the building to another, for no apparent reason or need. Several people approached organizers demanding some kind of essential task, and then stormed off in irritation when they weren’t needed. I had to talk a woman out of opening up individual boxes of *sterile* face masks in order to make smaller “hygiene packages,” another self-appointed task to fulfill her desire to be of use.
I marveled at the sheer volume of aid, the righteous indignation only white women have perfected in their pursuit of performative saviorism. The chaos and unnecessary confusion. The excess of donated things no houseless person could possibly use. The inundation of community and material support that we have never seen in response to the chronic houselessness ever present in Santa Cruz. To survey the surplus, to watch these volunteers hover over one another and overwhelm organizers, it is impossible to make the argument that resources are ever or have ever been too scarce to support houseless community members with their needs on a daily basis.
Doubtless this outpouring of support is the white neoliberal ethos at work- white homeowners and normally resourced/housed people are deserving of aid while poverty and houselessness are routinely not. The urgency many of us are feeling in being temporarily unhoused (anxiety, uncertainty, hunger, and the trauma of displacement) is a constant state of mind for houseless folks who are ALWAYS deserving of the kind of care and aid I saw that day. Where are these people when tent communities are destroyed by clandestine police enforcement on a daily basis? No doubt some of these same volunteers worked to keep formal encampments out of their neighborhoods when they were desperately needed in the winter. The same people who supported the so-called “health and welfare” policies put forth this summer to further criminalize houselessness and poverty.
As I write this, Food Not Bombs is being ticketed for “squatting” while they serve food to houseless community members at their regular distribution spot on Laurel and Front. Meanwhile, nice white families are living in the same tents all over town, eating the same donated food, exempt from harassment or further displacement. Is this a moment for Santa Cruz to reconcile with the supreme contradiction of its classist and racist benevolence? I want to believe this could become more than just another opportunity to center the narratives of white, wealthy, resourced people in a crisis. I want to believe, in the midst of a pandemic, Black liberation uprisings, and a community upended by a wildfire whose genesis can be traced back to the erasure of Indigenous people and their stewardship of this stolen land- that we can recognize that displacement and loss is not new here, and when the fires die down and the volunteers go home, and the donations stop flooding our warehouses, there will still be folks struggling to survive outdoors who are worthy of aid, sovereignty, and protection from violent displacement.