One of the silver linings of the deadly storms that have battered the Gulf Coast and Florida, figuratively speaking, is that the charged energy of anger and fear generated by Charlottesville has been redirected into volunteer relief efforts, at least to some extent.
Redneck Revolt, a left-wing militia whose members patrolled a public park in Charlottesville, Va. to protect counter-protesters during the Aug. 12 Unite the Right rally, fielded teams from around the country to rescue Houstonians stranded in the floodwaters, and started soliciting donations to World on My Shoulders and Black Women’s Defense League, two Texas organizations that are coordinating relief efforts for under-served communities on the Gulf Coast.
Meanwhile American Pit Vipers, a pro-Trump, right-wing patriot group based in western North Carolina whose members were also in Charlottesville, filled a trailer with bottled water, canned food and diapers, and delivered it to Coldspring, a small town in southeast Texas, over the past weekend.
It’s not altogether surprising that people who are willing to take direct action to defend their communities and who view the government as either irrelevant or an obstacle would jump in to provide direct support in response to a hurricane. These are not the type of folks who make donations to large aid organizations like the Red Cross and United Way, or wait on cumbersome bureaucracies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency to come to the rescue. (Notably, I could find no reports of white supremacists mobilizing in response to hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and despite the white supremacist Traditionalist Worker Party’s appeal to the struggling white, working-class people of eastern Kentucky this past spring, there’s no supremacist brigade that I know of handing out diapers in Beaumont.)
Of course, plenty of people without any apparent political agenda are pitching in to help their fellow Americans on the Gulf Coast, and no doubt they’ll expand their efforts to Florida once Irma concludes its deadly business. As an example of how ordinary people can display remarkable resourcefulness and creativity in the face of crisis, Holly Hartman, a high school journalism teacher in Houston, described her experience working with the Cajun Navy to coordinate rescues in an Aug. 31 Facebook post.
Unable to tear herself away from nonstop television coverage of the hurricane and having read about how the volunteer Cajun Navy from Louisiana used a walkie-talkie-type app called Zello to communicate, Hartman downloaded the app and started channel surfing.
“I was completely enthralled,” Hartman wrote. “Voice after voice after voice coming through my phone in the dark, some asking for help, some saying they were on their way. Most of the transmissions I was hearing when I first tuned in were from Houston, but within 30 minutes or so, calls started coming in from Port Arthur and Orange. Harvey had moved east from Houston and was pummeling East Texas.
“Call after call from citizens saying they were trapped in their houses and needed boat rescue,” Hartman’s post continued. “None of the volunteer rescuers had made it to that area from Houston, but as soon as the calls started coming in, they were moving out, driving as fast as they could into the middle of Harvey.”
The Oath Keepers, a patriot militia group comprised of retired law enforcement and military veterans, is representative of the movement’s response to the hurricanes lashing the Gulf Coast. Notably, the Oath Keepers did not show up in Charlottesville, but the organization’s paranoid view of Islam, support for restrictive immigration policies and nationalist outlook makes it an appealing recruitment target for white supremacists. Ordinarily, the Oath Keeper website brims with screeds against Black Lives Matter, Islamophobic treatises and baseless conspiracy mongering about George Soros directing antifa. Over the past couple weeks, those have been replaced by appeals for volunteers to provide security at transit points where truck drivers are delivering relief supplies. A recent post, on Sept. 9, shows a picture of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner draping his hand over the neck of Oath Keepers Founder and Executive Director Stewart Rhodes during a visit to the hurricane relief warehouse to express gratitude.
This past spring, I watched hours of YouTube videos of Rhodes articulating a view that a shadowy globalist cabal is manipulating hardcore communists (translation: antifa) and radical Islamists to destabilize America — a threat that he believes Oath Keepers must be prepared to meet. I got the chance to meet Rhodes when he came to Stokes County for a North Carolina recruitment drive. I was fascinated by the way he pitched the organization as being primarily a disaster response network. I asked him how he prioritized the threats that Oath Keepers faced, and he surprised me by saying that it depends on the region of the country where the chapters are located. He added that in Montana where he lives, wildfires would be considered a more proximate threat than terrorist attacks by ISIS. It crossed my mind that I should ask whether the worsening drought conditions that increase the risk of wildfires has prompted him to consider that climate change might be a more grave root cause of instability than radical Islam. I ended up keeping my mouth shut, figuring the question would likely inhibit rather than encourage a frank and thoughtful discussion.
It’s a serious question, though. With scientists uncovering evidence that increasingly suggests that the earth’s warming atmosphere intensifies storms, I keep wondering if the escalating destruction wrought by Katrina, Sandy, and now Harvey and Irma will make climate converts out of patriots yet.