Solidarity after the storm in Greensboro

May 8, 2018

Despite fear of deportation, immigrants descended on East Greensboro to help out after a devastating tornado. Keisha Williams, Danny Timpona and Joel Sronce report.

TREES AS tall as skyscrapers lay uprooted, toppled on roofs and thrown down upon demolished vehicles, after a Category 2 tornado screamed through the east side of Greensboro, North Carolina, on April 15.

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.

Yet despite a history of oppression, the east side of Greensboro has been an epicenter for social transformation and grassroots organizing since the 1950s.

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.

Residents at work rebuilding on the East Side of Greensboro, North Carolina
Residents at work rebuilding on the East Side of Greensboro, North Carolina (Danny Timpona | SW)

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.

Despite these incredible relief efforts, the media largely focused on aid agencies like the Red Cross, Goodwill and the United Way.

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.

What's more, many of these early responders volunteered their time and resources knowing that they could be risking deportation.

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.

As he was being seized, he refused the agents entry into his home, protecting those inside from possible detention--but sacrificing a last glimpse of his children.

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.

As a result, many immigrants in the area fear leaving their homes. Many are afraid to let their children play outside on the first few days of spring.

Despite the heightened levels of fear, however, when the immigrant rights group Siembra NC issued a call for help for the neighborhood affected by the storm, undocumented immigrants responded with solidarity.

Knowing the desperation that the East Greensboro community faced in dealing with disaster relief and the slow speed of state and federal assistance, Siembra called on its members and supporters to take action.

The message: Residents of East Greensboro, mostly working-class--African American families who themselves have been victims of state-sponsored violence and systemic racism--were in desperate need of help.

The answer: An enormous and immediate response from immigrants who were ready to do whatever it took to help.

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.

Garcés remembers one instance in particular. "Yesterday," Garcés said on April 22, "[someone] was like, 'Look at that guy.' They couldn't find a broom for him to sweep the roof when they were done, so he was doing it with his sleeve."

The immigrant volunteers were cooking and supplying food and water. They were taking days off work to help those they didn't know and sometimes couldn't communicate with at all.

The stepdaughter of the man detained in Chapel Hill a week earlier was among the volunteers.

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.'"

The fear, which is unfortunately nothing new, has set in throughout the state. But despite this, many continue to band together, protect one another and accomplish unimaginable acts of solidarity.

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.

In January, Oscar Canales, a man from El Salvador who worked as a roofer in Greensboro, took sanctuary at the Congregational United Church of Christ.

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.

He hasn't left the church for three months. But last week, when Canales heard about the tornado relief effort, he did something unbelievable.

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.

A WEEK after the tornado, a group of Latinx volunteers explained, with Garcés interpreting, why they were there.

"The people that suffered in this tornado--we can't help them out economically, but with our power and our work," said Luis Sandoval, a 45-year-old volunteer. "We're here to help the people, whoever it is."

When asked how it feels to donate so much time and labor, and potentially risk being targeted by ICE, Salestino Rubio, a 38-year-old forklift driver, responded: "Everyone does what's in their heart."

Sandoval agreed. "We can't stop helping one person because another person harms us in some way," he said.

For Azul Gonzales, a woman in her 30s who works as a painter, one thing is important: "To not be afraid to go out--to go out to help."

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."

Seeing all the multiracial, working-class solidarity on display couldn't help but leave us wondering what another world could look like, even amid so much destruction.

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.

"It's just a shame it can't be like this all the time--people coming together, building community and helping each other out," said one resident. "It takes something like this to see through all the bullshit."

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.

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