The polar vortex of February 2021 was launched into the national spotlight when a winter storm system between February 15th and February 20th brought uncharacteristically large amounts of snowfall to the Deep South, leaving millions of residents from Texas to Mississippi without heat or potable water for days or longer in dangerous sub-zero temperatures. The storm brought to light some of the deadliest aspects of American capitalism. Those who did not simply perish due to failed infrastructure faced their entire life savings being wiped out by for-profit utility companies. The weather has thankfully warmed, but instead of moving on, it will be important for the left to take stock of its successes and failures during this time.
Even before this tragedy, the polar vortex brought life-threatening sub-zero temperatures to the northern and eastern United States. Chicago experienced constant below-zero temperatures and frequent snow storms from at least February 6th until the first above-freezing average temperature day on February 22nd. This presented a challenge specifically for Chicago’s houseless, whom the city left entirely defenseless to these conditions.
Chicago’s network of houseless advocates, socialists, communists, anarchists, and abolitionists mobilized to provide vital necessities where the state and capital refused. In the span of just a few weeks, over a hundred people from across the city formed a horizontalist, cross-tendency structure dedicated to saving lives and turning this emergency into a moment of political radicalization for Chicago’s working class. The group collectively raised over $60,500 and spent approximately $53,700 on gloves, blankets, hats, hand warmers, propane tanks, and hotel rooms and other shelter. The rest will be given to various community initiatives that center Chicago’s houseless.
The city government was categorically unhelpful to the movement. In fact, it was actively hostile. Activists demanded to keep warming centers open for longer. But Mayor Lightfoot, several alderpeople, and CPD used the fact that houseless people were off the streets and in temporary shelter to destroy remaining encampments and personal belongings. CPD even collaborated with hotel owners to evict our houseless neighbors, for whom activists had secured shelter, back into the life-threatening cold.
Mutual aid is one of the key sites of class struggle in societies under the grips of late capitalism. As climate collapse accelerates, flaccid progressive reforms are stalled and rolled back, and poverty becomes steeper and more degrading, the left must embrace mutual aid both to stay relevant in the eyes of the working class and to build the tools necessary to overcome capitalism.
A Closer Look
To do this, we will present, to the best of our ability, a more detailed picture of the events of the polar vortex mutual aid effort in Chicago.
An encrypted group chat that became the center of the mutual aid effort was created on the night of February 1st by members of a number of organizations including the Libertarian Socialist Collective. We were in contact with members of Chicago organizations that prioritize mutual aid and housing work such as the Chicago Union of the Homeless and the Black Autonomy Federation. The chat started with around a dozen people and is still active with almost 120 members.
The first task that the growing group committed to was raising as much money for the cause as possible. In a cross-community effort, our coalition was able to help dozens protect themselves from the weather throughout this crisis. Everyone we managed to help, and the dozens of new organizers we managed to mobilize, will remember that it was the socialists who rose to the challenge of this moment, and not the bourgeois state.
By the weekend of the first deep freeze (February 6–7), thousands of dollars had already been raised and spent. Relying on networks largely built prior to the emergency, members drove around the city asking warming centers if they would be open, buying and delivering supplies, and interviewing houseless people to get a better idea of what they had, what they needed, and what they were interested in.
The week of February 8th, the work became more collective in nature. There was a realization that sub-zero temperatures would remain for much longer than just the one weekend. While the money that was raised was useful, most of the work up until then was work these individual groups would have done alone, just with extra financial support. This was the week where true coordination began.
Different groups combined their maps and data on houseless encampments, warming shelters, and abandoned housing into one large map that everyone volunteered to update as they learned more information. One problem with focusing the effort on city-run warming centers is that they tended to be closed on weekends. So, as the size of the group and the available funds increased, the focus shifted away from blankets and shelters toward housing people in hotels for longer periods of time.
The continued success of the effort, particularly in bringing together over sixty individuals who opted for hotel housing, elicited resistance from the state and capital.
On February 12th we became aware that the police were using the fact that some houseless encampments were abandoned to schedule sweeps and clean-up. Personal possessions, including family pictures, were thrown away by CPD under the excuse that notices were posted at the targeted encampments before removal—notices that many could not have been expected to see as they were sheltering from ongoing extreme temperatures.
On Valentine’s Day, a hotel that activists had used to keep our houseless neighbors out of the cold notified residents that they would be evicted within an hour, into the dangerous cold. Police and private security backed that up with force. At least one community member was beaten and violently restrained in the process. The group had to track down and relocate as many affected people as possible.
After this roadblock, the group continued to provide shelter and materials to houseless people until temperatures eased up by the end of the month. By the end of the week of February 15th, the group was having larger and more regular meetings, talking about how to extend what had taken place to a more permanent structure.
Where We Go from Here
Despite the obstacles we encountered in February, the future of mutual aid and radical organizing in Chicago has never looked brighter.
South Side Mutual Aid Solidarity, a mutual-aid network run out of Chicago Democratic Socialists of America’s South Side branch, has grown, and centers anticapitalism through providing for the needs of working-class Latinx and Black people. A Chicago-wide food sovereignty network still runs strong. The Black Autonomy Federation continues to provide for and mobilize Chicago’s Black urban poor. A new mutual-aid network, South Side Mutual Aid Coalition, has just got off the ground. And while they are realistically years away, the push for a citywide tenants’ union and mutual-aid congress are at the forefront of activists’ minds as they continue to build and expand socialist projects.
The work starts with small, community-focused mutual aid groups, labor unions, and tenant unions. Left organizations must back mutual aid efforts as one of the key sites of class struggle or create them, in tandem with their communities, where they do not yet exist. To do this work, we must center efforts to build sustainable coalitions by cultivating practices that put our socialist values to work. This helps us to build for a future without capitalism.