In mid-February, during a series of severe winter storms that dumped unprecedented amounts of sleet and snow throughout the South, at least 2 million homes in Texas lost power. What were meant to be rolling blackouts, used to preserve electricity, turned into permanent outages.
The temperature throughout most of the state stayed well below freezing for a week. Without any power, Texans reported sub-freezing temperatures inside their homes. The state’s private electric grid—which was responsible for the power outages in the first place—offered no meaningful assistance, beyond orders to preserve electricity if you had it. City officials in Austin opened additional shelters and warming centers, but they were of varying accessibility due to the conditions outside.
A glimmer of hope came in the form of a GoFundMe link that began proliferating social media feeds. Austin Mutual Aid (AMA), a community aid group started at the local onset of the pandemic in March 2020, circulated a GoFundMe page called Kick the Cold! that claimed its purpose was to help unhoused people get shelter in warm hotels. “Hundreds of Austin residents are living outside without water or shelter from the elements,” the GoFundMe page read. “Help us get them the supplies they need!”
As elected officials continued to flub the government response, direct action felt to residents and organizers like a promising way forward. Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured in from more than 14,000 donors. Though mutual aid groups in other Texan cities launched successful fundraising efforts at the same time, the AMA drive was by far the most visible. For a few weeks, it felt like everyone I knew—inside and outside of Texas—was giving money to AMA. Glittering news stories painted the group as heroes, and it felt like they were; as the Austin American Statesman reported in March, AMA put nearly 500 of Austin’s unhoused folks in hotel rooms. Dozens of volunteers worked from a distribution center downtown, delivering food, water, and supplies to innumerable Austinites.
Now, months after the state thawed, a small group of mutual aid organizers around Texas have started asking whether AMA is fully equipped to distribute the funds it raised. Throughout the past month, organizers in Houston have issued calls to AMA to show their receipts, or publish comprehensive financial reports showing how and where they’re distributing the sum of money raised during and after the freeze. They allege AMA is potentially withholding details about the money it raised, and raise questions about AMA founder Bobby Cooper’s prior organizing history. While direct action has found enormous success through crowdfunding online, organizers are concerned that even one instance of failed accountability and a lack of transparency undermines the process of building trust with the community, particularly in relatively uncharted organizing territory.
Though the group has been raising funds for direct action since it started in March 2020, the winter storm caused meteoric growth; AMA more than doubled its initial goal to raise $1 million. Now that the storm has long since passed, AMA is still reportedly sitting on more than $1 million. In response to the calls for financial transparency, the organization published a self-reported spreadsheet in mid-June showing an impressive $2.6 million total. By AMA’s account, about $968,000 has been disbursed, leaving about $1.5 million left to be distributed. The spreadsheet breaks down expenditures, showing support given to other groups around Texas, microgrants given to various orgs and events, and reimbursements for hotel rooms and other expenses related to the Kick the Cold campaign.
But organizers in Houston take issue with the spreadsheet because it’s generated by AMA itself, and shows no backup for the numbers given.
“To compare, Mutual Aid Houston does direct aid directly through CashApp and Venmo, and they post screenshots of their transactions,” Nina Mayers, an organizer in Houston, told VICE. “If you are a mutual aid organization, it should not be very hard to compile all of the receipts and evidence that you have and post it, because the people who are supporting you and donating to your funds are asking for transparency. They would like to know that the money that they are giving to the organization is actually getting to the people that it’s intended for.”
(Other mutual aid orgs, like North Brooklyn Mutual Aid in New York City, practice transparency by using Open Collective, a website that allows groups to publish their entire donation and transaction histories in searchable databases.)
Because AMA has so far failed to show their receipts, there is almost no way to check AMA’s math. The Kick the Cold GoFundMe page has since been deleted, and is accessible only through outdated archive links, the latest of which, from March 15, shows a total of $926,663 raised. There were also hundreds, if not thousands, of donations made via various Venmo accounts, including two official AMA accounts, plus the personal account of Bobby Cooper.
It’s not necessarily unusual for mutual aid orgs to use Venmo accounts for donations, or even several accounts at a time; transaction limits and freezes in place on the app make it difficult to distribute funds, and having multiple accounts taking in and distributing donations makes things a bit easier. But AMA’s issues aren’t restricted to matters of transparency: A small gr
oup of Texan organizers question the motives of Cooper, whose organizing history appears messy online.
Before moving to Austin several years ago, Cooper was deeply involved with the Occupy movement in New York City, where he lived at the time. When Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in the fall of 2012, Cooper pivoted his attention to storm recovery and started Occupy Sandy, a proto-mutual aid organization focused on the hard-hit Rockaways community in Queens. Cooper’s then-girlfriend and now-wife, Bre Lembitz, founded the movement with him, and worked as Occupy Sandy’s bookkeeper. Like AMA, Occupy Sandy was born in a moment of crisis, but after the initial crisis wore off, community members had doubts about the organization’s competency in distributing funds. As Mother Jones reported in 2013, after months of aid in the Rockaways, the community questioned what Occupy Sandy was doing with all the money it raised.
As Rockaways residents told Mother Jones, Occupy Sandy was “brilliant at first,” distributing funds to local groups, buying supplies, and sending volunteers into the community to help rebuild and restore homes and businesses, much like AMA. But as time went on, residents reportedly grew distrustful of the group, claiming Occupy Sandy’s central figures were hard to get information from, and were withholding information about what they planned to do with undistributed funds. They questioned what Occupy Sandy planned to do with nearly $240,000 that had yet to be allocated, eight months after the storm.
At the time, Lembitz blamed the delay in distributing funds on “paperwork snags.” “I naively thought it was going to be much easier to set up, and it wasn’t,” Lembitz told Mother Jones.
Around the same time, in September 2012, Lembitz and Cooper ran a Kickstarter campaign (now hidden by Cooper, who was going by Andrew Weeks at the time), seeking to raise funds for a family farm they said they hoped to turn into a “working farm and educational center.” After raising nearly $26,000 from over 500 backers, those who donated began to complain in public comments on the Kickstarter page, claiming promises for donor rewards were never fulfilled, and pointing out that they heard precious few updates about how their money was being put to use.
“Looks like no one is getting their reward,” wrote one backer in a public comment on the Kickstarter page, roughly two years after the funding was complete. “I have also emailed them, sent Facebook messages, etc., and have not gotten a single reply. I have a feeling we all got scammed by these two.”
Cooper posted a final, lengthy update to the Kickstarter shortly after, in 2014. “This is one of the hardest letters I’ve ever had to write,” he began, going on to explain that his brother was selling the farm, and they’d be stepping away from the project.
Sasha Rose, an organizer with AMA, told VICE via email that Cooper and Lembitz were “upfront about…