Solidarity after the storm in greensboro gas pains 6 weeks pregnant


In the storm’s wake, shingles, bricks, insulation, metal debris, misplaced mattresses and paneling were scattered across a predominantly poor, working-class Black community. The destruction was another blow for a neighborhood that has faced decades of racism, inequality and segregation.

James B. Dudley Senior High School and the historically Black college North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University are located there–students from these schools provided the spark for the civil rights movement with the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960. Residents endured the violence of the state during the Greensboro Uprising in 1969, an armed assault against the students and community that left one student dead.

Decades after these renowned acts of resistance, East Greensboro is plagued by poverty, and while the community remains underfunded, the city’s "redevelopment plans"–translation: gentrification–expand further east every day into an area conveniently nestled minutes away from the affluent and growing downtown area.

Many people in the neighborhood struggle to survive with low-wage jobs, lack of insurance, negligent utility companies and real estate developers who scout their lands for conquest. As a result, community members are understandably apprehensive about redevelopment strategies that put the interests of outsider developers ahead of the historical significance of the community and its residents.

One section of East Greensboro that was hit the hardest by the tornado–a predominantly Black neighborhood with a growing number of Latino residents–has a median household income of $16,786 compared to the citywide median of $45,064. According to Data USA, Greensboro’s Black community is the largest demographic living below the poverty line.

The tornado has only exacerbated the bleak financial problems that area residents endure. Yet despite all of this destruction, the community responded immediately with emergency recovery efforts, providing food, water, transportation, clean-up and organization to those who needed it, especially the elderly and sick.

But the reality is that multiracial, working-class families were the first on the ground after the disaster, and they did everything they could to protect one another until further relief came–and when these aid agencies got there, they relied on the organization already put in place by the community.

LESS THAN a week before the tornado ripped through East Greensboro, a man one hour’s drive away in Chapel Hill was making pancakes for his children before school. When he went outside to take out the trash at about 8 a.m., he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and was eventually thrown into a federal detention center in Georgia.

Some 50 people were swept up in recent raids in North Carolina in April, creating another wave of terror in immigrant communities and neighborhoods statewide. At least half of the people who were detained in the area weren’t considered "intended targets," but "collateral arrests" made during the course of ICE agents’ sweeps.

WHILE THE city was taking care of what fell on public property–into streets and telephone poles–hundreds of trees remained where they had fallen, crushing houses and vehicles, livelihoods and futures. According to Siembra organizer Andrew Garcés, one of the group’s members suggested: "Hey, what if we put the word out and got a brigade to go?"

Many of those in contact with Siembra are roofers, carpenters, plumbers and lawn-maintenance professionals. Already in touch with the East Greensboro Community Collective and other neighborhood volunteers, Garcés began reaching out and collecting a list of needs. "We’ll do whatever we can to follow your lead," Garcés told them. "Let us know who needs help, and we’ll try to put it together."

Immigrant volunteers began arriving, ready to donate their skills, tools and labor wherever needed. They began cutting and dragging trees, and removing the demolished vehicles. They bought tarps and stapled them on dozens of roofs, showing people how to put them on correctly, and undoing the ones that had been installed incorrectly.

When it might have taken a dozen laborers hours to do a job by hand, undocumented volunteers brought Bobcats and other machinery to drag many tons of wood off houses and across lots. Before installing tarps, they brought out ladders to reach the roofs and clear trees, sweeping off the excess debris and branches.

THOUGH MANY arrived to pitch in without hesitation, not everyone was at ease. Early in the relief effort, according to Garcés, someone in the Siembra group chat wrote, ‘There’s a lot of police here, I’m not going stick around.’" Garcés said, "We had to talk to them and be like, ‘It’s okay, they’re not looking for us and we’re going to watch out for everybody.’"

Over the last year, several people around North Carolina have taken sanctuary in churches in order to avoid deportation. These refuges exist due to an ICE policy–yet not a law–stating that agents will generally avoid detaining immigrants in "sensitive spaces," such as places of worship, schools and hospitals.

A father, husband and small business owner who has employed U.S. citizens and paid taxes on his earnings has been forced to enclose himself in this stained-glass garrison. Here he hopes to keep his future, his dignity and above all else his proximity to his family.

According to Garcés, word reached Canales that the volunteers were short on chainsaws. From within the church, Canales tried using his credit card to buy a chainsaw from Home Depot over the phone. When the store wouldn’t permit a telephone transaction, Canales called his brother who drove a good distance to collect a chainsaw from his house and deliver it to the relief-effort volunteers.

Oscar Canales, forced to find shelter in a church from a racist immigration policy, did everything he could to help strangers he would most likely never meet. Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is still deciding what kind of aid Greensboro will get–a decision that may take weeks, if any aid comes at all.

As for whether or not their assistance will help promote solidarity between largely disparate working-class communities, Sandoval said, "We hope so, definitely, yes, we hope so. Because that’s what we should do–be united and not afraid." "We’re just doing it from our hearts," said Sandoval. "Because we really just want to help. We’re not waiting for anything in return."

Community initiatives, led by working-class people of color, are keeping people safe and alive, like they so often do in times of disaster. Ordinary people are stepping up and doing whatever it takes, while many larger agencies and organizations remain either slow to the scene or nowhere to be seen–bureaucratically incapable of acting with the urgency needed.

We couldn’t help but think that it could be like this all the time. With the many challenges and injustices we face in the present and the future, we must continue to build this world that we not only deserve but need: A world invigorated with multiracial, working-class solidarity that truly empowers and protects one another and our communities.