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The coronavirus pandemic is setting in across the United States. As the number of COVID-19 cases rise (with our collective anxiety), calls over the weekend to take the situation seriously were met with photos of busy restaurants in major metropolitan areas and logistical nightmares at airports, situations that could potentially spread the novel coronavirus in large group settings.
The global pandemic has spurred government action in areas with big outbreaks. In countries like China and Italy, massive lockdowns are getting results in stemming the spread of the disease, but also raising concerns about the potential for authoritarian governments to overstep.
President Donald Trump’s administration has struggled to respond effectively to the situation, and his record of overstepping his executive authority has many experts concerned that a federal response could lean on authoritarian tactics.
So how can we all take steps to look out for one another? How do communities already vulnerable to the glaring shortcomings of our political and economic systems ensure their own survival during a pandemic? An early answer, that’s arisen in the last week, is a tactic long used by activists and organizers: mutual aid, a term that simply refers to people helping one another.
As the COVID-19 crisis stretches nonprofits and public service providers to their limits, a number of informal, hyper-local “mutual aid” groups have been cropping up throughout Los Angeles to fill in the gaps for the region’s most vulnerable residents.
Often organized through Google Docs, online spreadsheets, and Facebook groups that are circulated online, these grassroots, community-run networks are pairing Angelenos who have needs with willing volunteers across the city, and are helping to provide services like grocery drop offs, childcare, financial assistance, and more.
Shirin Senegal, a community organizer in Long Beach, says she created the Coronavirus Long Beach Community Support Group on Facebook not long after experiencing her own COVID-19 scare. One of the first people tested for the virus at St. Mary Medical Center, Senegal was ultimately found to have a different respiratory ailment. But she emerged from her weeklong quarantine eager to help others who had been impacted. “I started a Google Doc form that basically asked, ‘What are your needs?’ and ‘What can you pay forward?,’” says Senegal.
Charitable organizations are typically governed hierarchically, with decisions informed by donors and board members. Mutual-aid projects tend to be shaped by volunteers and the recipients of services. Both mutual aid and charity address the effects of inequality, but mutual aid is aimed at root causes—at the structures that created inequality in the first place. A few days after her conference call with Ocasio-Cortez, Mariame Kaba told me that mutual aid couldn’t be divorced from political education and activism. “It’s not community service—you’re not doing service for service’s sake,” she said. “You’re trying to address real material needs.” If you fail to meet those needs, she added, you also fail to “build the relationships that are needed to push back on the state.”
Historically, in the United States, mutual-aid networks have proliferated mostly in communities that the state has chosen not to help. The peak of such organizing may have come in the late sixties and early seventies, when Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries opened a shelter for homeless trans youth, in New York, and the Black Panther Party started a free-breakfast program, which within its first year was feeding twenty thousand children in nineteen cities across the country. J. Edgar Hoover worried that the program would threaten “efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for”; a few years later, the federal government formalized its own breakfast program for public schools.