Roger Benham dispels one of the most common myths about anarchy - the myth that without the state, people will go crazy and eat each other’s children, among other things.
“To me, anarchism means the absence of a coercive authority and people acting in the absence of that authority. So what we’re seeing now played out in the wake of Superstorm Sandy we’ve seen before in the wake of other disasters:
When there is the absence of a coercive authority or something/someone telling them what to do, people automatically tend to act in co-operative ways to help their community. We’ve noticed this before with disasters. They really do seem to bring out the best in people. The best in people, to me, is anarchism, and that’s what we mean when we talk about anarchism - the idea that when there’s not a cop or a priest there to tell you what to do you are going to act in ways that are beneficial not just to yourself and not just to your immediate family but also to your community.
In the immediate wake of a disaster all human beings tend to exhibit anarchist principles. When there isn’t a disaster around there are some of us who want to advocate for that kind of organisation all the time in that belief that as humans we can organise ourselves without a coercive force and on principles of mutual aid. But the institutions of our society are obviously completely opposed to that. The prison industrial complex, capitalism, the state. These institutions have top-down organisations and hierarchies that are very slow to react to new realities on the ground. One of the best things about anarchism is that we are decentralised when we’re doing anarchist practice. We’re trying to be responsive to ourselves and to our communities and this enables us to be more nimble than the state and corporate responses. Another very important thing is that it enables us to go into communities that are directly affected immediately and not be afraid of them. That’s also something that the state depends upon - the fear that if the state didn’t exist then all of us as humans would be at each other’s throats. So you’ll constantly see this narrative deployed in the wake of a disaster:
“There’s no police! There’s no food! There’s no public utilities! People are out there pillaging and looting and raping!”
Time after time after time we find out that this is not the case, that these stories are false. These stories make it so that the state wants to reconstitute itself through its most basic function, which is that of a monopoly on violence and this is what happened in Haiti after the earthquake. In Port Au Prince, the US military took over the airport there and actually stopped aid shipments for two solid days so that they could get elements of the 82nd airborne on the ground with all of their security assets.
I responded to the disaster in Haiti with some other anarchists and anti-authoritarians. We were going into areas of Port Au Prince that we were told “You cannot go in there with anything less than a battalion-strength security force”. It was ridiculous. There were all these stories of people looting and burning and roadblocks with bandits. When we got there, that wasn’t the case. It was neighbourhoods of people in dire situations and they were helping one another. It was found out that the crime rate in Port Au Prince actually went down after the earthquake. We see this over and over again. The same thing happened in New Orleans in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. All of those stories the police and the press were spreading about rapes and pillaging. That wasn’t happening. The violence that happened was perpetuated mainly by the police and by private security forces, who had this idea that people were going crazy and assaulting each other because they didn’t have a coercive presence there. As anarchists, we don’t believe that the coercive presence of the state is what prevents people from being at one another’s throats. So this enables us to go into disaster areas immediately after they’re affected. Because we’re not waiting around to make sure that we’re safe or that we’re secure. I saw this in New York. An aid organisation in New York was very concerned that we were going into darkened public housing in New York City to check people’s needs. They said “You need a police escort to do that”. Even when the power is on you need a police escort to go into those buildings. Organisations like the American Red Cross… my understanding is that they are not allowed to deploy their resources into evacuation zones. They have this obsession with security. We don’t have that as anarchists. The people that we are going to treat are our comrades and our neighbours and our friends and our fellow human beings. We don’t see them as possible threats. We also are self-directed and very invested in the idea of small autonomous groups that are able to see a need and respond to it. We don’t have to go back to some chain of command and fill out paperwork.
'Hey, there’s a problem here. Let’s go ahead and respond to it directly.'
There are five or six of us together who can work together and we don’t have to check it out with some kind of hierarchy."
Roger Benham, Mutual Aid Street Medics Collective
This quote comes from a fantastic edition of Stimulator's "It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine" - http://submedia.tv/stimulator/2012/11/15/anarchy-in-the-usa/