More than two years after ad-hoc networks of collective care sprouted from the cracks of state neglect during the pandemic, mutual aid organizers across the U.S. are convening in Indiana this July to prepare these networks to face crisis, disasters and survival for the long haul.
“To the extent that we engage in this work only as an emergency response, it’s doomed to stay a Band-Aid,” said Shannon Malloy, who is helping plan a “Dual Power 2022” gathering from July 29-31 at Indiana Dunes State and National Parks. “It’s our long-term, larger-scale interconnectedness that makes it more of a long-term viable solution, as opposed to just a way to stop the bleeding.”
Malloy described building mutual aid networks as a tactic in the strategy of constructing “dual power,” defined by the Black Socialists of America as “[a] situation where there are two powers — a democratic one developed by poor and working-class people (defined by direct democracy), and the other one capitalist (defined by domination) — coexisting and competing for legitimacy during a transition away from Capitalism.”
To this end, Woodbine, an experimental hub in Ridgewood, Queens, hopes to promote dialogue and cooperation between mutual aid groups for building dual power. In May, Woodbine hosted a regional gathering on “Autonomy and Survival” alongside Symbiosis, a network of grassroots organizations building a democratic and ecological society. Participants agreed to wear masks and take COVID-19 tests prior to attending to eliminate the risk of transmitting the coronavirus. The gathering provided organizers with space for reflecting, sharing and strategizing together to strengthen their projects locally and regionally.
“I think there was a real need for people to finally be able to gather in person to meet new people that they didn’t know or weren’t working with for the last few years to hear about different people’s experiences doing mutual aid work,” said Matt Peterson, a cofounder of Woodbine. “Political organizing, or transformation, is going to occur with real people in a real space. People that know each other have trust. They can talk to each other. They can learn.”
More than 200 people from across the country shuffled in and out of the gathering for a weekend of panels, discussions and parties. A mutual aid panel featured organizers from groups born out of the pandemic or uprisings, including the Atlanta Survival Program and Bushwick Ayuda Mutua (BAM), Washington Square Park Mutual Aid, and others that had already been established, like Woodbine, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief and Distribute Aid, a grassroots organization specializing in providing logistical support for aid shipments around the world. Attendees learned about groups’ varying organizational styles, historical contexts, and about how the pandemic altered the trajectory of their work.
“Just in terms of New York City, it was interesting because we had BAM from Bushwick, which is just right next door to Ridgewood, and then we had Washington Square Park, which is in Manhattan, and then Woodbine,” said Peterson. “We’re all in New York City, but we have three very different organizational forms, very different approaches in terms of what we’re doing, very different ways of relating to each other internally.”
For its part, Woodbine underwent major organizational changes during the pandemic. Their physical hub transitioned from an events and meeting space into a full-time aid hub. In collaboration with Hungry Monk, a homeless outreach organization with some Woodbine-affiliated volunteers, neighbors began distributing hundreds of bags of fresh food — mostly obtained for free through partnerships with farms and businesses — on Wednesdays and Fridays.
“After two years of COVID, we’ve built trust and we maintained it,” Peterson said. “We didn’t do it for a few Instagram photos. So that builds more trust and new trust and that enables us to meet more people and meet different people and hopefully, expand the types of work we want to do or can do in Ridgewood, or throughout the city.” Peterson noted their ability to respond to the pandemic depended on infrastructure that members of the collective had built during previous disaster relief efforts, including 9/11, the financial crisis of 2008 and Hurricane Sandy.
In December 2020, Woodbine used funds it raised throughout the year to move into a space three times the size of its original location. Its pantry runs on Mondays and Wednesdays, with people lined up around the block well-before doors open. The new space is large enough to accommodate donation-based yoga twice a week, film screenings, an open gym with certified trainers, reading groups, Sunday night dinners and large-scale events.
A variety of other models of mutual aid organizing have emerged across the country. In Manhattan, Washington Square Park Mutual Aid formed out of rowdy battles against police evictions of the park. The collective sets up a free market with food, clothes and toiletries each Friday and distributes food and water to protesters during political demonstrations. On June 24, the group distributed free water, pizza and tacos during protests against the overturning of Roe v. Wade. BAM has operated a volunteer-run hotline for neighbors in need of food, masks, diapers, and other items for more than two years.
In Richmond, Virginia, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief Richmond (MAD RVA), a group that allocates micro-grants and ran a free supply drive in the state during the pandemic, raised thousands of dollars to transition toward opening a physical space for a free store. People will be able to come in and take whatever they want for free, a mutual aid model collective members say provides people with autonomy over their choices.
The Atlanta Survival Program, a free food delivery initiative that launched in Georgia’s state capital during the pandemic, is supporting the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement, an abolitionist struggle against the construction of a new police training facility in the South River Forest, by dropping off resources to people occupying the forest. Nimble forest defenders rely on donated goods to live communally while helicopters and police drones buzz overhead, and riot cops stumble through the woods to destroy their camps. Resources are distributed freely amongst one another according to need, without bosses or hierarchies of any sort.
Woodbine and Symbiosis’s “Autonomy and Survival” gathering facilitated connections between disparate mutual aid organizers for building power regionally.
Taylor Fairbank, Distribute Aid’s operations director who recently moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after coordinating aid shipments across Europe for years, said the gathering helped him feel more attuned to the mutual aid landscape in the U.S.
“Oh, my gosh, that was exactly what I needed at a personal and organizing level, it was so exciting and refreshing,” he told Truthout. “I got to meet so many people for the first time there and have an actual conversation — not just the occasional call or message in the group chat — and get caught up with what they had been doing in the states for the past few years, and just build those connections.”
Distribute Aid sent aid shipments to the Atlanta Survival Network months ago, and Fairbank said meeting some of its organizers in person helped build trust between them. Fairbank also met organizers with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MADR) for the first time, and the two groups are already coordinating sending a truck-worth of water bottles to Florida to help with summer heat waves and to prepare stockpiles for hurricane season.
“I met them for the first time at Symbiosis. Boom, now we’re talking,” he said, of MADR organizers. “This wouldn’t have been possible without regional coordination that clearly exists in the U.S.,” said Fairbank, “and without these meetups and these events, you know, that heartbeat that keeps us connected and that place where we can tell each other stories and kind of dream of a shared future.”
Yet, many mutual aid projects that formed during the pandemic or uprisings have withered. Some suffocated under the weight of their own contradictions by replicating charity models, creating rigid leadership structures, or aligning themselves with local politicians. In the U.K., data suggests roughly 4 in 10 mutual aid groups that formed during the pandemic are still active.
Intentional spaces like regional gatherings push organizers to reflect on why some mutual aid projects wind up replicating the very systems many organizers hope to abolish. Durable and effective mutual aid networks tend to prioritize slowly building relationships around anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist values, says Payton, an organizer with MADR who attended the gathering and is making a documentary about mutual aid. (Payton preferred to only give his first name.)
“Mutual aid is contingent on relationships. It’s really difficult to just call a bunch of people in the room who have vaguely relevant values, or even conflicting values, and call it mutual aid,” he said. “I think we need to be a lot more scrutinizing. What do we want? What world are we building towards? How are we actually materially supporting each other and showing up for each other? Do I know you? Do I have your back? Am I in a long-term committed struggle with you? And this is where we start to develop real mutual aid.”
Mutual aid predates colonialism, Payton noted, but it didn’t need to be named as a concept. “It was just how people functioned,” he said. “We have to really think and be committed, and listen to the people who have been doing this longer than us, particularly the matriarchs and the people of color, or the people in our communities who are just doing the damn thing and not calling it ‘mutual aid.’”
For many organizers, mutual aid and abolition of the nation-state are intertwined because without police and politicians, or any type of carceral state apparatus to control resources, people could meet their own survival needs in an autonomous and communal manner on their own accord.
“White people who are interested in mutual aid really need to sit with what it means to come from a culture that has deprived the world of its ability to participate in cooperation and mutual aid and think critically then about what it means to live on the stolen land with infrastructure that’s been built by stolen bodies,” says Payton.
Once organizers establish democratic decision making structures and relationships around abolitionist values, they have a better chance of building robust federations, the organizational structure whereby autonomous groups build power locally, and then connect and support each other regionally according to set principles without a central authority.
Building federations and dual power is, of course, a tedious process. It won’t miraculously emerge out of a gathering — a difficult pill to swallow in the context of urgent, looming existential threats like the climate crisis.
“In the future, we may need to set up water purification infrastructure for whole communities, decommission nuclear power plants, or be an accomplice to the trees and help them reverse climate chaos, as only they, not us, have the wisdom and ability to do,” writes Jimmy Dunson in a forthcoming anthology Building Power While the Lights Are Out: Disasters, Mutual Aid, and Dual Power. “The skills, connections, education, experience, and experiments we learn and do now matter. Our exodus from the state and capital is not inevitable but rather hinges on our individual and collective choices. And there is no road map to where we are going. We make these paths by walking them.”
For Payton’s part, he warns against any attempts to replicate large-scale projects that organizers in the U.S. admire, including Rojava in North and East Syria or the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, which were built across generations of revolutionary struggle.
“A friend at the Symbiosis gathering at Woodbine shared the metaphor of an arch bridge,” he explained. “We can’t start with the keystone which is in the middle, and it’s suspended by gravity. It’s held together by the friction of stones that came before it. Those stones that come before are the on-the-ground long-term relationships and infrastructure that needs to necessitate the finality of the bridge, which is the federation.”