Above photo: A volunteer wearing protective gloves organizes pre-bagged food donations n the Tomkins Houses area, March 18, 2020, in New York. John Minchillo | AP.
As state and local authorities struggle and the federal government focuses on saving Wall Street, a volunteer-driven mutual aid revolution is taking hold in disenfranchised communities across America.
I‘m not from DC, but I live here. I’m now a part of this living, breathing being that is a city. This city. It helps me to think of cities that way, even ones that I don’t fully feel at home in – like a body. And I’m like a blood transfusion. I know this isn’t my city, my body, but it’s where my life flows now, and so I best flow with it. This body holds me – it is my literal and figurative structure. I am one of the millions of cells rushing through the veins of this place, and although I’m a relative newcomer, I can feel that this body is not well. I can feel that familiar illness – it’s the same as any city I’ve ever lived in..
Every body is weakened and bowed under the weight of capitalism. Yet, there is a new illness – one that found a foothold in our immunocompromised bones and at the same time exposes the severity of that underlying sickness so old it’s etched in our souls.
Now, with the renewed vigor of a body on high alert, cells rush in symbiotic aid to save each other. A new fever awakens dormant fighters and engages new ones. The city pulses with ancient knowledge and emergent ideas.
As I steer my bike through a quiet street, I smile at the seemingly cliché and trite synchronicity of it all: all systems go, all working together for the common good. This city and I can now claim each other. The fight, the solidarity, we share it. We can beat this, and we can beat the underlying cancer. For a body is not its sickness. A city is not its oppression.
I park my bike outside a nondescript brick building. Earlier, our Mutual Aid team established some new protocols on how to address emergency requests for food, between our scheduled delivery days. I make a call to the number listed and a man comes down to collect the bags of sanitized groceries I’ve left by the front door. I wave my gloved hand and we get to chatting – at more than a six foot distance. He says he’s tried calling several places around DC that had previously offered boxes of food but weren’t anymore. He heard about us from one of those organizations. He says we’re the only people he called that sounded like real people. We talk a bit longer – about his kids, about my house plants, about these bizarre times. He offers me advice on how to keep my bike chain from slipping. I remind him of our DC Mutual Aid number and he reminds me of his, in case the bike acts up again.
Mutual aid is built on reciprocal exchanges like this one. Small and personal, it represents the antithesis and the answer to top-down, whitewashed charity schemes that treat aid work as school credit, or karma crystals, or what have you.
Mutual aid is the medicine that bodies respond well to, the antidote to capitalism, and the salve for those basic elements of humanity so ruthlessly shanked by our system: solidarity, community, sharing, and supporting. It’s not about charity. Charity pities. Mutual aid understands. Charity distances. Mutual aid connects.
As Dezeray Lyn, member of the Tampa, FL Mutual Aid Response to COVID-19 puts it, “Charity is transactional, hierarchical.” Mutual aid is about “sharing with your community because they are us, we are them.” Josiah king Harris-Ramos and Brianna lee Marie Coleman, co-directors of Black Trans Blessings in NYC echo that sentiment in saying, “Our people need us. We are passionate and driven to do this work, because our community is us, and we are our community.”
This symbiosis is powerful. It is also, unfortunately, an excuse – for the powers-that-be to do nothing, or worse, to obstruct. Mutual aid is often used as a dumping site where the ruling class throws their gross missteps, their corrupt dealings, and botched bungles. It’s where they seek to distance themselves from the poverty and oppression their policies have made, hoping we’ll all be too busy trying to take care of each other to notice that absolute moral bankruptcy of the rich and powerful.
If we bothered to keep track, the list of referrals from bankrolled NGOs and government institutions would read like a guest list at a royal wedding. Most recently, we got a mutual aid request from one of our neighbors who said the DC Mayor’s Office of Veteran Affairs referred him to us. In other words, Washington DC, the city with not only a full “rainy day fund,” but money to spare, is offloading those in need to an anarchistic mutual aid network with little to no budget. It certainly begs the question of what kind of rainy day DC Mayor Bowser & co. are waiting for.
The need for everything from basic hygiene products for the unhoused to food for the unemployed is skyrocketing. Jails remain full. Bail remains high. Food banks are closing and bills are still due. DC Metropolitan Police continue to be an occupying force in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods, harassing people at close range as if their goal were to infect and unnerve. As Maurice Cook, director of Serve Your City and member of DC Mutual Aid said: “The Bowser Administration has been woefully inadequate in addressing the immediate needs of the people including a lack of testing, an inability to address the food and supply shortage for the most marginalized and an escalating Public Health disaster in our homeless shelters, halfway houses and our local jail.”
The so-called “United” States
DC is hardly alone in its deep deficiencies. The entire so-called “United” States is but a collection of deficient governments failing to work with and for the people, lorded over by the ultimate breakdown of common sense and care: the federal government.
As politicians around the country blab about free testing for COVID-19, tests remain absurdly scarce and treatment is prohibitively expensive. One woman racked up an almost $35k medical bill for her Coronavirus treatment. Undocumented folks know their names aren’t on any role to get a government check. Many don’t want to take the risk of reaching out to any official support hotlines, and even if they did, many official hotlines lack services in Spanish. Meanwhile, ICE raids continue during the pandemic, risking the lives of thousands while simultaneously using precious N95 face masks to perform Gestapo duties as frontline medical workers wrap themselves in trash bags.
Needless to say, in a vehemently unequal society, disaster does not hit evenly. “Right now in our community, we are seeing a need for housing and all-around physical and spiritual support for TGNC (Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming) folks in order to sustain themselves, and keep themselves healthy by providing other options besides survival sex,” say Harris-Ramos and Coleman. Alex Cohen, member of the STL Covid Mutual Aid in St. Louis explains that “the need for literally every basic resource for the unhoused community has doubled during this time, with an urgency similar to doing outreach on a cold winter night, but with no end in sight.” On April 9, that urgency peaked when St. Louis police and City Parks and Recreation raided and attempted to clear an encampment in the downtown area at four in the morning. This assault came a mere two weeks after Police Chief John Hayden sent an email to the entire department saying that “According to CDC recommendations, officers should refrain from clearing encampments during the spread of COVID-19.”
Without a doubt, when we get to the other side, it won’t be thanks to our government or those tasked with cleaning up the messes of their own oppression. It’ll be thanks to mutual aid. It’ll be because folks like Black Trans Blessings are working with, protecting and providing for black and brown TGNC folks in NYC. It’ll be because STL Covid Mutual Aid are making their own hand-washing stations, taping information pamphlets to them and sourcing tents and no-contact thermometers. It’ll be because folks in Florida, DC, LA and elsewhere are taking on the requests from closed-down food banks. It’ll be because our networks are building relationships with local organizations – from farmers to faith-based groups – in order to address the changing and growing needs of our communities. It will be because we do what our system has never done and will never do: work with and for people.
“It [mutual aid] creates millions of paths of support for people to counter the red-tape waterlogged, bottle-necked, dehumanizing and deadly top-down system of which we have lived and died by,” Dezeray says. It puts decision making in the hands of the people those decisions will directly affect, cutting out the avarice and illogic of remote middlemen, politicians and corporate interests.
“The community knows what its needs are,” Amanda Tello, member of STL Covid Mutual Aid in St. Louis says. “It does not matter if you have a social security number, what zip code you live in, or if you are unbanked,” she says.
With that in mind, we do not work with cops or any other law enforcement agencies. Some groups might connect with elected officials for leverage or political support, others may not. Many of us don’t have official websites. We wheat-paste flyers and tack hotline numbers up on community boards. We often fundraise from within our communities, connecting folks that have some extra money to those who don’t. We don’t have rigid roles or official titles – besides perhaps neighbor. No two mutual aid groups are the same. They, like the cities they represent, are unique. We share common principles like solidarity over charity, and no collusion with law enforcement, but there is no blueprint, no one-size-fits-all for these diverse bodies. We transform and grow, we roll with what comes at us, fluid but never flimsy.
Here in DC, we’re a collective of seven autonomous mutual aid groups, split up by wards. Each group has its own neighborhood rhythm and feel. We’re different regions of the same body, hyper-local, but always connected to each other. All working in concert, these groups make up the heartbeat of DC. Lead by women of color, as many if not most of the movements that have pounded the streets of this capital city, it is radical solidarity in action; a continuation of decades of work in caring for the outcasts who literally live in the shadow of empire.
Indeed, it’s important to note that mutual aid in general is nothing new – and has been at play under many banners, names and iterations since the plague of colonialism and capitalism first infected what we now call the United States. “We’ve been creating mutual aid and support intentionally in order to live outside of the bounds of white supremacy and colonialism,” Amanda says. “I have no doubt in my mind that our work will continue – community is how we survive, we know this – so we aren’t going to go back to engaging in colonial structures of individualism.”
As mutual aid pulses and surges across the country and in fact the world, people are also thinking about how we can use this current disaster to shift away from the disaster that is our system, how we can dismantle the architecture of our oppression. The combination of a global pandemic and an economic crash has spotlit the designed failings of this system in glaring detail. We see how the very foundations of this system create and catalyze both public health disasters and widespread oppression.
How to dismantle the architecture of oppression
It was a mere two years ago that a leaked analyst note from financial giant Goldman Sachs expressed concern that curing disease was a bad business model. Fast forward to today and we see how the government, owned and operated by big banks, including Goldman Sachs, has utterly failed to conjure even the measliest of responses, focusing instead on corporate bailouts and limitless loans to big banks.
While some local governments have responded with moratoriums on foreclosures, evictions, and utility shut-offs, this merely begs the question: why does it take a pandemic to get a glimmer of human rights? As Dezeray notes, “The battle to appear empathetic by pulling the blade out just enough to slightly less occlude the arteries of people’s existence is really just highlighting the arbitrary nature of that occlusion to begin with.”
It is that arbitrary violence that is the very core of a capitalist system: profit, above all else. Indeed, in the midst of a global pandemic the shock doctrine is wasting no time: green-lighting climate destruction, stealing more indigenous lands, criminalizing protest, attacking reproductive rights, free speech and more. Elected officials are quite literally suggesting people offer themselves as sacrificial lambs to the almighty dollar. In response, the hashtag #NotDying4WallStreet popcorned around social media in late March, signaling to organizers that the will to fight for and build something outside this deranged cult of capitalism is out there.
And the powers that be know it. For years, they’ve been frantically polishing the facade of exceptionalism as more and more people saw beyond it to the sadistic structures beneath. And now, as these pillars of capitalism buckle and shake in the cyclone it stirred, the breadth and diversity of these mutual aid efforts are making clear who takes care of those hardest hit by the storm.
For all the things that people need access to: information, medical care, mental health care, groceries, language services, child care, financial assistance and resources for everything from herbal remedies to DIY face masks and hand sanitizer, communities are turning to each other. The body is working in overdrive to heal itself.
The rolling and future challenge will be what to do when the fever breaks. It’s certainly no easy task to plan for future fights in the daze of illness. Yet, the work we are doing now is the foundation for that future build. What has been viewed as a localized release valve for specific disasters and the associated specific government failings, mutual aid is now the scrappy DIY welfare system for an entire nation, an entire globe, with no expiration date. As author Arundhati Roy wrote in a recent article, the pandemic is a portal, and “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
The question our communities must consider is how do we walk through? How do we organize when the system beckons like a Pied Piper to go back to their “normal?” How do we bolster these aid networks against internal burnout and external onslaughts of bureaucracy and harassment? These aren’t rhetorical questions but I don’t have the answers. I have some answers and more ideas. I know others do too. And it is only in the collective rush of these veins, the pulse of these places, that we’ll figure out what works. We’ll have to flesh it out, as it were, and combine our rhythms, our beats to a deafening roar – a symphony of the voices, the will, the power of the people.
Mutual aid is our road map through that portal. How we walk is up to us.
Note: Mutual aid efforts are in full swing across the country. Here is a good list of resources where you can find local groups as well as various funds, DIY and health links.
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief is another good hub for information on mutual aid. There are countless ways to do mutual aid and your community needs you!
And if you’re in DC, Tampa, St. Louis or NYC, the groups mentioned in this article want you to reach out to get plugged in.
Eleanor Goldfield is a creative activist, journalist, and poet. She is the founder and host of the show, “Act Out!,” which airs on Free Speech TV on Dish Network, DirecTV, ROKU, Amazon Fire and others. Her articles and her show cover people and topics which corporate media either censor or misrepresent. Her spoken word performances blend visual projections and politically charged poetry. Her latest book, “Paradigm Lost,” blends radical verse with art from 15 dissident artists. She also was the co-founder and singer of Rooftop Revolutionaries, a political rock band born from the fight against capitalism and all the evils that stem from it. Besides speaking and performing, she assists in local action organizing and activist training. She is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her website is Art Killing Apathy.