As the first coronavirus cases came to Washington state, the government response was both slow and confused. That’s when community members knew they were going to have to build something themselves if they wanted to get through this pandemic.
“We recognized that we couldn’t rely on our current systems in place and needed to take care of each other directly,” said Janelle Walter of Tacoma Mutual Aid Collective, an all-volunteer organization of community members sharing resources. Mutual aid means creating “a network that can be mobilized immediately, without needing permission.”
Set right near the Puget Sound, Tacoma is a working-class city down the road from Seattle that does not have a large left-wing political scene like other West Coast metropolises. They were hit with the first wave of what would become a nationwide, and global, pandemic — shutting down social services, forcing people out of their jobs and leaving entire communities struggling to hold on. This was a crisis of catastrophic proportions that no one was prepared to deal with, and it came on like an avalanche over just a couple of days.
“Mutual aid is community,” Walter explained. “Relying on each other builds trust and capacity. It removes the need for paternalistic approaches to aid, like we see with nonprofits and other state programs. We are seeing mutual aid projects pop up all over — several here in Tacoma — and it’s because folks are realizing that our systems collapse in emergency situations, whether it be a pandemic or a natural disaster. Systems that are already inefficient and officials who are already incompetent are unable to meet basic human needs, so we need to take care of each other.”
The Tacoma Mutual Aid Collective formed quickly from people who wanted to create a strong system for supporting those most affected, and immediately started doing grocery and prescription pick-ups and deliveries for people who could not risk going out in public. They began a Saturday grocery and school supply distribution in front of the local McCarver Elementary School, where families could drive up, grab what they needed and head out without violating the new rules of “social distancing.” The goal was to listen to those they shared the neighborhoods with, to hear what people needed and to start a system of sharing.
The community of helping
The United States, the world’s largest economy, has been driven to a practical halt as every single state is dealing with outbreaks of a deadly coronavirus, called COVID-19. As the global death toll rises to the tens of thousands, and people are reminded of earlier flu pandemics that knocked percentage points off of the world’s population, governments have scrambled to figure out what the best course of action could be.
This bureaucracy has left many communities behind, particularly as “shelter orders” come down and businesses close, leaving many people without income to support their families. This is one of the worst case scenarios for a public health threat, and most communities have been left to fend for themselves.
The clarity of this situation has led people active in their community — some political and some simply looking for the best tools for survival — to start developing a series of “mutual aid” groups to help each other meet their basic needs.
“Mutual aid is the idea that humans should help humans, even and especially outside any market forces,” said Breht O’Shea, of Nebraska Left Coalition, who also hosts the podcast Revolutionary Left Radio. “Human cooperation, solidarity and communalism is built deep into our DNA, and mutual aid is just what that aspect of humanity looks like in practice.”
Mutual aid is the idea that when we support each other’s needs in a reciprocal relationship, but without obligation or exchange, we have the best chance to survive and flourish. Mutual aid projects have been a staple of radical social movements for decades — from food distribution services like Food Not Bombs to the “Survival Pending Revolution” programs of the Black Panthers, which included free health clinics and breakfast programs. When the state fails to meet the needs of the public, many communities will build resources themselves, and in doing so will build an alternative to the hierarchical bureaucracies of the government.
“Mutual aid is a reciprocal, respectful relationship, and it is distinct from charity or government programs,” said Devin Ceartas of Triangle Mutual Aid in Piedmont, North Carolina. Mutual aid avoids the bureaucratic inefficiencies we often see in governments and large non-governmental organizations, and instead hopes to build community. “Every event that stresses our system forces us to choose: Will we hoard toilet paper and sanitizer, bolt the door and embrace the National Guard enforcing curfews? Mutual aid chooses instead to plant gardens, pool our resources, prioritize those most in need, and protect those most vulnerable,” Ceartas continued.
In almost every city around the United States mutual aid networks have started to form — ranging from projects for resource distribution to simple options like fundraising, compiling lists of resources and contacts, and creating “chat threads” so that people in the same area can stay in contact with one another. The speed with which these groups have arrived, and the depth of care that many of them offer, have started to show what options communities have when the large institutions around them fail, or are unwilling to deal with the disaster.
Getting what we need
The COVID-19 crisis is unlike many others because it affects everyone, shuts down business and government in a massive sweep and prevents us from coming together because of the risk of cross-infection. This has created an urgent need for resources that is massive in scope, including everything from medical supplies to food and childcare. This is why many of the groups that first formed focused on centralizing all the resources that were available, letting people know how to get a hold of each other and any services that are at their disposal.
“This project is serving as a hub or clearinghouse of information, as opposed to other organizations which are directly providing aid. We do not have the people, time or money to directly provide assistance, but we can help people find the resources that they need,” said Andy Rutto of NYC United Against the Coronavirus, which came together on March 12 to create a master resource document. “I believe we have already passed the point where our governments — at the city, state or national level — can adequately meet the needs of society under this ongoing coronavirus pandemic. That means that we will need to take care of each other, and we will need to keep each other safe.”
“Every day we are getting endless amounts of volunteers,” said Kevin Van Meter, who is working with the Benton County Family Response Team in Corvallis, Oregon. This mutual aid organization was started by the Coalition of Graduate Employees, a graduate student union at Oregon State University, which has been doing mutual aid work before this crisis to help support the struggling student workers. Now they have 150 volunteers ready to do runs, more than the requests coming in. “That’s probably changing now for the fact that this stuff is starting to shut down. People are having a stay at home order. The crisis is deepening in their own lives and now they have to lean on these services like never before,” Van Meter added.
The Mutual Aid Network of Ypsilanti, or MANY, in Michigan, predated the crisis and was created by people involved with other organizations, including the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief and the Industrial Workers of the World. MANY, which actually has a 501(c)3 status, was able to respond quickly to the pandemic because they had already been doing the work of building community connections in advance, doing support work for local food pantries and providing meals.
Ypsilanti has faced the same tough economic circumstances that many cities in the Rust Belt have, with a 30 percent poverty rate and a 13 percent of students being homelessness. Before the coronavirus hit, the community was still grasping for resources that were not available through government programs.
“Because we’ve spent the last year building intentionally, we plan on responding to the pandemic with the same slow-moving processes we’ve used to build this project out,” said Payton MacDonald, an organizer with MANY. “We are committed to a ‘solidarity, not charity’ approach to organizing and won’t claim to be the experts on mutual aid since we believe that it is an inherent part of life. It’s important to stress that we don’t ‘give’ mutual aid to the ‘less fortunate.’ Our existing programs are still taking off, and this global crisis is testing their limits.”
Health resources are particularly scarce, including basic sanitation tools, such as cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer, which were sold out in many places within days of the pandemic starting. In Portland, groups organized in a coalition, including the Democratic Socialists of America, Symbiosis, Pop Mob, and Portland Action Medics have begun a network that delivers resources and creates materials from scratch — including making their own hand sanitizer using a World Health Organization recipe.
“A really simple thing you can do is contribute to any efforts to get food or sanitation supplies out into the community. We need to slow the spread, which means making it easier for people to avoid close proximity and keep their hands clean,” said Aya Leigh, a street medic who was helping to put on a resource fair to hand out important tools before the “shelter at home” orders were put in place. “Each of our actions affects others. We’re all on this planet together. We’re all in this pandemic together, and we need to start acting like it. The more we take care of each other, the better off we’ll all be.”
Volunteers from the network are now distributing supplies, including the hand sanitizer, and working to create dependable drop-off locations that people will know to visit when in need.
As 3.3 million people are laid off because of coronavirus closures, the need for money is going to become as pressing as food and medicine. That is why several of the mutual aid organizations have simply prioritized fundraising efforts to get money where it is most needed. The Baltimore Mutual Aid & Emergency Relief Fund was created by members of the Food, Clothing & Resistance Collective – Maroon Movement, which formed in 2015 to do ongoing mutual aid work like food distributions, garden support projects and group meals.
“We are part of the community as opposed to some outside entity doing charity work or bougie handouts,” explained member Sima Lee, who was inspired to get involved because of the basic need for resources that many marginalized communities have — particularly communities with indigenous people and people of color. “We are just looking out for our people. We are fiercely anti-capitalist, so our work emphasizes doing things in a cooperative manner without money always being involved.”
They have also been working with Baltimore Safe Haven to support sex workers during the crisis, who have the added difficulties of finding shelters and being without income.
“Our examples and my personal mentors were the Black Panther Party and their survival programs that would help take care of the needs the state would neglect while also providing political education in the process,” Lee continued. “We are about horizontal power for the people. We don’t just show up at a disaster for a photo op. We are always here!”
As these projects sprout up, or build on the work they have already been doing, people are building new methods of coordinating between them and trying to construct relationships to allow these groups to be dependable beyond the next few weeks. Adam Greenburg created the COVID-19 Mutual Aid Coordination Slack channel — an instant message service popular in the tech world — to start building those bridges between groups so that people would have a central place to share resources.
“My hope is that with this Slack, organizers can make their needs known and people can swarm towards what makes sense for them,” Greenberg said. “This could look like more modular distribution templates for direct, needs-based aid, or consolidation around a set of progressive demands to keep our communities safe.” The difficulty will be in responding to circumstances that are changing quickly, particularly when the response from public officials and law enforcement changes daily.
While the practical utility of these mutual aid groups is what has received attention and inspired participation, the motivations run a lot deeper for many of the organizers involved. As income inequality increases and periods of climate and economic crisis expand, many are feeling pulled to build a strong community that can remain vibrant as much as it centers the bonds of solidarity. In a world where preparing for disaster, or “prepping,” has a lot of consumer cache, those who practice mutual aid believe that it is actually the relationships and commitment of support people rely on that is the most critical to our survival.
“This can serve as a model for others because we hope to provide an impetus to overcome the cultural inertia associated with individualism,” explained the prison-support and antifascist group Nashville Anarchist Black Cross in a recent interview. “If anything positive can be gleaned from the COVID-19 outbreak, it is that our bodies are extremely connected, and we should be more mindful of the numerous ways we can and do love collectively. That is empowering for us to recognize that we are only as strong as the most vulnerable in our community, therefore we all need to take part in actions to protect our community as a whole.”
The coming weeks are going to be difficult, yet the actual results will depend on how people on the ground respond. For radical activists at the center of many of these projects, there is a desire to simply apply the principles that have been learned from social movements to do their best to support the community in crisis. In doing so they can open the door to the world they want to build, one that puts value on each member of the community and finds its strength and resilience through collaboration.They have used their resources to create hygiene packs, hand sanitizer, and other tools to hand out to anyone who needs them — with the understanding that fighting a pandemic requires everyone’s participation and that everyone needs support.
“Mutual aid shows you there is more than enough to go around and that we all have more in common than the elites and bosses would have you believe. It is much easier to organize around other issues when that rapport is built,” said Sima Lee, who emphasized that the long-term effects of the coronavirus are going to be felt for months, maybe years. “I fully expect to see rent strikes and more after so many neighbors have connected over disaster mutual aid during COVID-19. The crisis is bigger than the virus. The crisis is 400 years of white supremacist capitalism and all the contradictions are falling apart before our eyes. We have to start now deciding what things will look like long after this is over.”
The impact of mutual aid efforts can do far more than meet immediate health needs. They can build the kind of bonds that all mass movements emerge from — the willingness to stand in solidarity and struggle as a community. As weeks turn into months, and we potentially enter a new era of recession, job losses and evictions, those relationships that have been formed doing mutual aid can also be used to push for the deeper, more systemic change that is so desperately needed.
Shane Burley is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of “Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It” (AK Press). His work as appeared in places such as Jacobin, AlterNet, In These Times, Political Research Associates, Waging Nonviolence, Labor Notes, ThinkProgress, ROAR Magazine and Upping the Anti. Follow him on Twitter.