Staff and volunteers at Harding Middle School in Des Moines are providing both free meals and workbooks to students. Photo: Phil Roeder / Flickr

Mutual aid: “When the system fails, the people show up”

  • April 22, 2020

Care & Community

Across the US, mutual aid initiatives provide basic goods and services while building community, resilience and collective power that could outlast the pandemic.

A humid spring hangs thick in the air and it feels like I have absorbed my body weight in pollen during this bike ride alone – mostly through my eyes. I resist the urge to rub them and try to stifle my sniffles in my mask. The gloves go on as I enter the corner store where I head straight towards the paper goods aisle. Mutual aid grocery runners are a bit like treasure hunters — popping from store to store in search of the most requested items like toilet paper.

Today, I find a store where shelves are stocked high with a fresh shipment. A hand-written sign decrees “Limit Two Per Customer.” I hand over a badge to the clerk that reads “DC MUTUAL AID,” explaining that I would like to buy ten for the mutual aid efforts, not myself. It does not always work. This time it does.

The badges are both for security and for building relationships. We want our community corner stores to know us as those who are looking out for the people. And we want the people to know who we are in case they need help or can lend a hand. We want cops and other government entities to acknowledge and respect that we are essential workers getting supplies and services to our community. It is not a fail-safe, but for scrappy DIY mutual aid teams, nothing ever is. We roll with what comes as best we can. We are unpaid and many folks are brand new to this work. And yet, we still manage to do a better job than the almighty politicians and their corporate overlords.

For instance, here in DC, several offices under the purview of Mayor Bowser, along with city-partnered nonprofit organizations, have routed calls for help to mutual aid networks around the city. DC, a city operating on a budget surplus, is dumping the dire needs of its people into the laps of underfunded mutual aid teams who have only been building capacity around coronavirus for a month, taxing our capacity to support the people these officials are paid to support.

Similarly, the grocery store chain Giant Foods writes on their site that they have “encouraged associates to wear masks” but say nothing about how employees are supposed to acquire those masks. DC Mutual Aid ended up supplying some employees with both gloves and masks, including masks that volunteers have made themselves. When I reached out to Giant about this issue, a Communications and Community Relations Manager told me that they were providing masks and gloves. “The safety of our associates and customers is our number one priority,” he wrote, but it remains to be seen whether this statement is true or not.

Meanwhile, beyond the aisles of big chain grocery stores, a growing food crisis looms, affecting both hungry people and those who would feed them. Yet here again, governments and the charity industrial complex are failing. For those who can no longer afford to go to the grocery store, food banks have become a literal lifeline. Despite this, food banks across the city are closing — and some of the ones that are open are not returning calls. One man told me that before calling Mutual Aid DC, he tried walking several miles to one food bank after his multiple calls there went unanswered. When he finally arrived, he was turned away without food.

Stories like these echo throughout the nation as the pandemic worsens. In cities like San Antonio, Pittsburgh, Inglewood, Chicago and Sunrise, Florida, cars waiting in food distribution lines snake by the hundreds. At the same time, the highest paid salary at the largest network of food banks in the country, Feeding America, is close to one million dollars, and despite receiving a donation of $100 million from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, it is still complaining of budget shortfalls. While huge nonprofits steered by multi-billion dollar corporate heads lament budgeting problems, people are going hungry.

Profiting off a pandemic

Meanwhile, tons of food are being destroyed. Fresh milk is being dumped into manure pits, ripe vegetables are being plowed over, and nearly a million freshly laid eggs are being crushed each week. Farmers across the country depend upon the business needs of hotels, restaurants and schools — the majority of which are now closed or operating on greatly reduced margins. Farmers who can are donating their surplus, but this is both economically unsustainable and requires donation points to have massive refrigeration capacities. Most simply do not have these.

From a broader perspective, the answer seems simple: pair hungry people with food that is ready to go. Ideally, the federal government would respond with a wartime mentality, creating new supply lines that move desperately needed food to empty refrigerators and freezers in those closed schools, hotels or elsewhere. The government could not only subsidize farmers’ surpluses, but also buy refrigerators and freezers and set them up in spaces made accessible to locally run and operated distribution teams.

Instead, the government is bailing out Wall Street, greenlighting unrestricted environmental destruction and deeming pipeline construction as essential work. Instead, government is continuing to throw $80 million/hour towards the military industrial complex. Instead, big corporations are hoarding wealth as their workers must look to their neighbors for basic PPE. In the $8.3 billion emergency stimulus bill, for instance, industry lobbyists successfully blocked any language that “would have threatened intellectual property rights for any vaccines and treatments the government decides are priced unfairly.”

Perhaps it is not surprising that those who have profited from our oppression are now not moving to mitigate our pain. Dezeray Lyn, a member of the Tampa mutual aid response to COVID-19 conveyed this well: “The very same people [who are] killing our environment, waging war, dealing arms globally, destabilizing the governments of other lands…ordering the murder of migrating humans at the border, cutting off humanitarian aid to desperate populations, and profiting from the labor…of the people it presumes power over are the same people offering up the deaths of hundreds of thousands of lives so the economy can live.”

Mutual aid in DC and beyond

At DC Mutual Aid, we would much rather see food enjoyed than destroyed. Thus, we are building relationships with local farmers in order to get fresh food to the people. This has the added benefit of supporting producers after a recent crackdown on farmers markets. We are also looking to connect folks who are financially more secure to those who need financial assistance so as to build more direct streams for sharing wealth.

Around the country, mutual aid groups are focusing on communities most vulnerable to COVID-19. In Tacoma, Washington, Food Not Bombs has shifted its focus from hot meals to care packages and to-go bags that not only include food but other necessities like hygiene products, socks and underwear. The mutual aid response to COVID-19 in Tampa, Florida is similarly focused on the city’s unhoused community, addressing basic needs like public bathroom access and harm reduction materials. In St. Louis, STL COVID Mutual Aid works with the undocumented Spanish-speaking community, filling in the gaps left by a local government that fails to offer vital and life-saving information to anyone who is not documented or does not speak English.

Mutual aid projects are also bearing witness to law enforcement harassment. On April 9, the St. Louis Police attempted a 4 a.m. raid on a downtown encampment, defying CDC recommendations as well as their own police chief’s internal memo ordering officers to specifically “refrain from clearing encampments.” The raid was ultimately unsuccessful, and members of the mutual aid team quickly spread the news. Citizen journalism like this is yet another example of mutual aid, as are cop watch projects in general.

Mutual aid is an emergent set of ideas and tactics, but it is also nothing new. Mutual aid has been there when climate disasters hit, when winter rolls through and the unhoused are literally left to die. What was once a release valve for localized disasters and localized government failings is now a synchronizing global network of autonomous, decentralized and active solidarity all working within the same paradigms of panic and disaster — and all working outside the confines of a long-existing crisis of capitalism.

“The pandemic is like an inferno,” explains Dezeray. “The smoldering ash and smoke that was always in the sky before the inferno became an internalized backdrop. And when that inferno dies back down, my deepest desire is that community by community, we recognize all of the ways in which that smoldering is not an acceptable status quo and we refuse it and seize the world back from the powerful people who stole it from the rest of us.”

From the ashes of the old

Assata Shakur once wrote that “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” Mutual aid is built upon that concept. It is quite literally and very simply the people helping the people because we are the people we are helping.

We, as those engaged in mutual aid, refuse to rely on a system that is rigged against our survival. We do not work with law enforcement because we serve and protect each other, not the powers-that-be. We do not care if you have the right papers or any papers at all. We do not demand proof of hardship. We are not interested in charity, but rather solidarity. Charity needs poor people so that CEOs can make six figures. Charity wants to parade the unhoused at fundraising balls. Solidarity demands that poverty be eradicated and that housing be treated as a basic human right alongside healthcare, education and access to healthy food and fresh water. Mutual aid is reciprocal and non-hierarchical. Charity is transactional — it pities but never understands.

“In our minds, mutual aid within a capitalist system is both a response to the failings of the system itself to assure us with our necessities, and an opportunity to sow the seeds of revolution. To build something new from the ashes of the old,” say Catarina Papagni Terrill and Arrow Forrest of Food Not Bombs in Tacoma, WA.

And this is precisely what is happening now. With adaptive and resolute fervor, mutual aid networks across the country are sourcing goods, finding DIY workarounds for needs like masks and hand-sanitizer, and planning for a future built on the foundations of solidarity and justice.

The breadth and depth of this disaster continue to grow but, in their shadow, mutual aid continues to work — without official backing, without big financial support. We are working to bolster our communities not only against the continued onslaught of COVID-19 but also against those who made this pandemic possible. People know the system does not work for them, even if they have different ways of articulating it. What we are doing now as organizers and neighbors is showing — through action — what does work for the people. As Maurice Cook, director of the community organization Serve Your City and a member of DC Mutual Aid, points out, “When the system fails, the people show up. All power to the people.”

As calls for a return to “normalcy” echo off the walls of our confinement, we must not lose sight of this work or of what their “normal” means. Their normal is our oppression, paid for by our own labor and complicity. But mutual aid is proof that when people show up and take hold of the power that is so clearly ours, we do exactly what the system is designed to avoid: work with and for the people. By showing up, working with and for our communities, we are taking hold of that power.

As we move through this crisis, we must maintain that power and refuse to let it be taken back in order to bolster their empire, their bottom lines and their investments. How exactly that power manifests will be different from DC to Dublin, New Orleans to New Delhi. We will call it by different names; we will organize and scale it differently. But it will grow and blossom with the same core elements that all of these mutual aid efforts share today: solidarity, justice and power in the hands of the people.

Eleanor Goldfield

Eleanor Goldfield is a creative activist and journalist. She is the co-host of the podcast Common Censored along with Lee Camp, and will soon be releasing a film, “Hard Road Of Hope” about West Virginia as both resource colony and radical inspiration.

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