More than any crisis in recent memory, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted deep structural problems that prevent our government from properly handling a public health emergency.
Our healthcare system is strapped and unable to provide testing and medical treatment to the people that rely on it. We haven't effectively implemented social distancing because even during a pandemic, the needs of capitalism supersede those of actual people, forcing underpaid workers to put themselves at risk so that companies can continue business as usual.
Rather than waiting for the government to fix things, people have created Google Docs and Forms to organize mutual aid efforts across the country. There’s a mutual aid coordinator Slack channel. Even New York House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has encouraged people to get involved, co-hosting a webinar on mutual aid on Wednesday evening with prison abolition activist Mariame Kaba.
“COVID-19 is just pulling back the curtain on how unbelievably flawed our political and social structures are, and our economic system, not to mention our healthcare system,” Kendall Mayhew, an organizer with Ground Game Los Angeles, which is organizing a mutual aid system, told Motherboard. “We’re only as safe as the person who has the least among us, so we have to pull together to lift everybody up, and that means systemic change.”
But what is mutual aid, and why do so many people turn to its methods in times of crisis? We spoke to some of the people on the ground—college students, organizers, parents—about how individuals and community organizations are creating online mutual aid systems to make up for the lack of governmental support. Of course, we shouldn't have to be doing this. But as we acknowledge the structural failures of our systems, standing in solidarity with one another is one way to compensate for how screwed up everything is—and hopefully, save lives.
What is mutual aid?
In systems of mutual aid, communities take on the responsibility for caring for one another, rather than forcing individuals to fend for themselves.
Mutual aid is also not charity: rather than creating a centralized organization where one person is giving to someone else, forcing them to become dependent on yet another relationship negotiating their access to material resources, mutual aid creates a symbiotic relationship, where all people offer material goods or assistance to one another. Mutual aid organizing is volunteer-run, transparent, and driven by the needs articulated by community members.
Mutual aid as a principle is attributed to Russian anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin, who defined the term in his 1902 missive Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution:
“[M]an is appealed to to be guided in his acts, not merely by love [...] but by the perception of his oneness with each human being. In the practice of mutual aid, which we can retrace to the earliest beginnings of evolution, we thus find the positive and undoubted origin of our ethical conceptions; and we can affirm that in the ethical progress of man, mutual support not mutual struggle — has had the leading part.”
Mutual aid played an important role during community organizing in the sixties and seventies. Some famous examples include the Black Panther Party’s Breakfast Program, which provided free meals to kids in impoverished urban areas, and the 1970 takeover of a Bronx hospital by New York City’s Young Lords Party. More recently, activists with Occupy Sandy organized direct relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy after the superstorm made landfall in 2012. Thousands of volunteers provided necessary goods that were otherwise unavailable because of shuttered stores and damaged infrastructure, like bottled water and food, and set up community hubs where those in need of help could seek resources and support.
What are people offering?
Neerja Garikipati, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, is a member of several on-campus organizations, but hadn’t been involved directly with mutual aid work until this past week. They noticed online mutual aid efforts cropping up at other universities and colleges across the country.
“[At University of Pittsburgh] there are a lot of first generation, low income students, a lot of students of color and students in the LGBTQ community, who I knew when this happened” would be disproportionately impacted, says Garikipati. They reached out to their personal network of student members of on-campus organizations, and suggested they begin preparing for the university's shutdown by copying other schools’ mutual aid plans.
Immediately, Garikipati heard back from about 15 students, and since then the number of involved students has more than doubled. They’ve built out a resource sheet to help people offer and receive aid. Many campuses, including University of Pittsburgh, have closed and pushed out students from the dorms, leading to students being stranded—some far from home and without resources to travel. Garikipati says the main requests have been for temporary housing for those who cannot make it home, storage for their belongings that they were unable to transport, funds to support them getting back to their homes, or getting material resources like prescriptions or groceries.
Motherboard spoke to one member of a mutual aid network in New Hampshire who helped create a local rapid response spreadsheet, and who asked to remain anonymous, fearing police retaliation against himself and other mutual aid organizers. In the months before the COVID-19 outbreak, he and other volunteers were on the streets in the city of Manchester distributing products like toothbrushes, toothpaste, and Narcan to the city’s homeless and those struggling with addictions. As the coronavirus pandemic hits the state, their biggest challenge has been accessing their usual resources.
“What we need people to understand is that it is direct outreach and mutual aid that is going to keep you safe,” the organizer said. “The best way to not get this virus is to make sure that people around you don’t get it, and that they’re taken care of if they do. That means the opposite of hoarding.”
While the organizer’s fellow volunteers are taking the necessary precautions to keep each other safe, such as reduced volunteer hours and keeping their spaces especially clean, he said it is essential for aid workers to continue helping these vulnerable populations.
“People will literally die if we don’t do this outreach, so we need to do it, and we’re going to just do it in the most practical and safe way possible,” he said.
In Los Angeles, Ground Game modeled its organizing after a similar effort in Seattle, which was hit earlier in the pandemic; it later helped organizers in D.C. and northern Nevada set up online forms and coordinate.
“People are just offering their experience and being really generous and spreading the knowledge, and that’s all based in mutual aid principles,” Kendall Mayhew, the Ground Game LA organizer, said.
The group’s form, which is in both English and Spanish and currently being translated into several other languages, hopes to accommodate different types of requests for Los Angeles residents in need. Ground Game has simultaneously raised over $40,000 to distribute to those seeking financial assistance. Mayhew said the main requests have been for things like groceries and hygienic supplies, as well as monetary support.
Taking it offline
While having access to the internet has been a useful support system for organizers struggling with self-isolation and social distancing, it’s an imperfect solution to a long-term problem.
On Tuesday night, Facebook began marking posts about the coronavirus as spam, causing concern from users that mutual aid groups were being targeted. After our interview, Kendall from L.A. sent me screenshots of members of her organization having mutual aid-related posts marked as spam. According to Facebook, a bug in their software was marking coronavirus-related posts as spam, and because they had sent home their content moderators due to the coronavirus, there was no one to clarify the issue or verify the posts at the time.
“Technology has a limit,” said the mutual aid organizer from New Hampshire. “People struggling with houselessness, the elderly, children, are not going to hop on a Google spreadsheet and fill in their needs and their phone number and address and all that stuff. It’s not going to happen.”
Mayhew noticed the same thing. “A lot of us are really connected digitally, but in the US, 25 percent of [rural] households don’t have broadband.” Overall, 8 percent of Americans lack access to broadband, according to the FEC. “It’s obviously a lot more pressing in rural communities, but even in L.A. we have a lot of people who don’t have internet in their own home, or elders in our community that don’t know how to interact with these things.”
The organizer from New Hampshire added that this is tied into the greater history of mutual aid. “People who do mutual aid and direct outreach, and have been doing it for a long time, are extremely used to operating in a hostile environment,” he said. “Even before the rise of the internet, existing institutions have always been hostile to mutual aid,” he said, noting that there are laws in many areas of the country that prohibit people from giving food or money to the homeless. “We see that the policing of individual behavior is really focused on trying to make people dependent on institutions, rather than dependent on each other, so going forward what we need to be doing is thinking creatively.”
All three of the organizers that spoke to Motherboard were hopeful that this desperate moment would lead to a longer-term vision for interconnectedness—and more people acknowledging the failings of our political system.
“I really hope this is the start of something bigger and the start of something more permanent, because there's always going to be people who need help,” said Neerja Garikipati, from Pittsburgh. “And I think we've seen just in the last week or so that there are people who are willing to provide that help, and it's just a matter of connecting them.”