Summary: Does mutual aid in today’s freedom movements challenge rather than reinforce the existing capitalist state? — Editors
Because “mutual aid” has become a buzzword with the COVID-19 pandemic it is important we are clear about what mutual aid is and what it is not. In the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “we have to put away the idea that mutual aid is some form of philanthropy. It’s not. It is a way of surviving, pending revolution. And all philanthropy is merely the private allocation of the social wage and we’re talking about the public allocation of the social wage.”
Dean Spade with the Big Door Brigade defines mutual aid as, “when people get together to meet each other’s basic survival needs with a shared understanding that the systems we live under are not going to meet our needs and we can do it together RIGHT NOW! Mutual aid projects are a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions, not just through symbolic acts or putting pressure on their representatives in government, but by actually building new social relations that are more survivable.” The history of mutual aid within the context of the US is as long as it’s existence, mutual aid work was critical to the abolitionist movement and the underground railroad.
A common slogan amongst community organizers now is “mutual aid is solidarity not charity.” Non-profits and the state do not engage in mutual aid because mutual aid is necessarily about working outside the state and is anti-capitalist. Of course, non-profits and the state will try to take up the buzzword but we have to call these orgs what they are—charity organizations that parasitically rely on our colonial capitalist state and/or state funded welfare programs that largely are used to coerce and control the populations our society exploits and oppresses.
What does survival pending revolution mean? It means furthering the self-determination of Black, Brown, Indigenous and working-class communities. It can mean distributing needed resources from places that hoard wealth to places actively underdeveloped and divested by racial capitalism. In Chicago every grocery store and pharmacy was closed in the South and West Sides post-May 30th uprisings in response to the murder of George Floyd. In response to these conditions mutual aid networks works to getting prescriptions and groceries from open stores in the north side and suburbs and distribute them to those who needed them in the South and West sides of Chicago. Even at a sanctioned moderate march lead by religious leaders from the Southside, leaders condemned the capitalist owners of Marianos, Walmart, Walgreens and others, when they knew they could re-open at real cost to them and whatever losses the suffered didn’t even put a dent in their wealth. Mutual aid is about not treating anyone as disposable and building relationships based on trust and sharing rather than exploitation and hoarding. In as many ways as our capitalist society is failing to meet our needs there are mutual aid projects.
Of course, redistribution of resources alone does not solve the root cause of racial capitalism, but it is a tactic for survival pending revolution. To create alternative distribution networks city-wide will be essential in the face of whatever worse political and socio-economic conditions we may face in the near future. Also, it is key to see the work of community organized mutual aid is not only re-distribution but it is also a mode of offering needed resources within a framework that is not about gatekeeping and surveillance, but rather the expansion of people’s agency and ability to care for themselves and their community.
While widespread calls to defund the police and fund services that serve super-exploited and oppressed communities has translated to elected leaders and liberal news services calling for expansions of existing services that are highly carceral and punitive—abolitionist organizers are calling for the exact opposite.
The free breakfast programs of the Black Panther Party (BPP) were considered the most dangerous programs by COINTELPRO and the state in general. So dangerous in fact that in 1969 Chicago Police Department (CPD) broke into the BPP Chicago storage location to ruin and urinate on their breakfast food so it couldn’t be distributed. Recognizing the power of free breakfasts for hungry children, Chicago (and the Federal Government) would steal the idea to implement their own free breakfast programs in public schools attempting to make community care “redundant.” Once they had sufficiently repressed wide-spread radical Black community organizing they would end the free breakfast programs. Other historical examples could be given, like the history of Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT’s) and ambulances and the work of the Young Lords in NYC—as well as more recent grassroots projects in Chicago like Ujamaa Medics training youth to treat gunshot wounds because hospitals on the South Side largely will not treat gunshot wounds and the drive to Northwestern hospital 45 mins away has led to countless unnecessary deaths.
Just a couple months ago we saw a similar tactic in Chicago. After the May 30th uprisings, on June 1st Mayor Lightfoot suspended the free lunch program for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students which began during the COVID shutdown. She also imposed a 9PM curfew and invited the National Guard—just after previous statements about “strongly” opposing Trump sending the National Guard.
Immediately, Black-and-Brown-led community organizations filled the need and organized existing mutual aid networks to bring food to children in need.  The very next day Lightfoot, after seeing mass organization to feed the children, reinstated the free lunch program—very soon after she also reversed the curfew after it had little effect on protest turnouts.
Fighting police is also about fighting militarism in all of its forms. The military and police are essential to maintaining settler states and enforcing imperialism and neo-colonial ventures. Police and military function to protect property and facilitate the continue accumulation of capital. At the very first set of political education meetings with Black Abolitionist Network (BAN) we talked about the ways in which the military are a “global police” and the police are militarized—calls to defund and abolish the police must necessarily also translate to the defunding and abolition of the military. Otherwise, the military and national guard will step in serve as the new police. This of course cannot be fully accomplished until we radically change not just our social relations, but also property relations, and how we determine value.
In the few past decades’ social services have increasingly shifted to jails and prisons, turning Corrections Officers (COs) and police into gatekeepers of social services. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore has pointed out, there are 50% fewer hospital beds today in the United States as there were in 1975. However, even with the social services we want the most, like education and healthcare, these institutions also act in collusion with police and colonial capitalist ideology. In words I have heard others speak recently—teachers are snitches too. To think about the paradigm of mutual aid alongside abolitionist principles requires us to divest from and/or transform institutions that are not life and community affirming.
Thus, mutual aid, abolition of police and militarism, abolition of capitalism, and decolonization go hand in hand. Mutual aid can be thought of as the building up of networks to serve as the basis for dual power, as Rhaysa Ruas explains in the context of Brazil:
Brazilian mutual aid actions maintain in their daily praxis a long tradition of popular solidarity and dual power in areas where the state historically has been present only through military/punitive force. Since colonial times, Blacks, Indigenous people and the working poor created and lived in autonomous territories. While they were more and more subsumed by capital, even today we have areas where the state does not penetrate very much, and self-organization is a general form.
While the scale of the penetration of capitalism is different here than in the context of Brazil, even here in the belly of the beast there are needs either not addressed by the state or inadequately addressed, which is why mutual aid programs are organized in the first place.
For example, our jail support mutual aid efforts have given people free and safe rides to places that are not easily accessible with public transit. Not to mention many leave the jail with no money for cab rides or no phones to call for rides because their personal items are many times housed at the police precinct that booked them miles away. People are released having eaten no food, or no adequate food, in a day or more and are dehydrated. Cook County Jail (CCJ) also for a time lead the country as a hot spot for COVID-19 infections, proving the point made over and over by abolitionists that jails and prisons are a public health crisis.
One thing that has come up in our ongoing effort at CCJ is that CCJ, in response to our mutual aid, has been scaling back its care to prisoners. One example is that they are legally obligated to provide free bus cards to everyone released but at least a third of those released now are not receiving bus cards and being told there are “free taxis” outside.
One reality is, as a group of only volunteers who largely don’t make much money if we even are employed currently, we don’t actually have the resources to make sure every single person released every 24 hours has a ride and shelter and food. Due to this, and the legal obligation that the jail has to provide this small $2.25 “service” we have talked with the press and there is at least one article published locally exposing this issue. However, I wouldn’t say that our desire to make sure people get bus cards is because we want to strengthen the jail or the welfare state, but rather the Sheriff and the jail have a $600 million budget for 2021 and in solidarity with the Chicago Community Bond Fund we are actually demanding massive cuts in the Sheriff’s budget. We understand that the budget of the jail is not connected to the living standards of those imprisoned in the jail, nor the welfare of people released. Until the day empty CCJ, abolish CPD, and vastly increase our mutual aid capacities, we want people to get their free bus cards.
I hope we can think further about the ways in which expanding mutual aid work makes the capitalist imperialist state and its goons less and less relevant to people’s everyday lives. We should continue to think about how mutual aid can build dual power and help erode the basis of one of the most important pillars of capitalism’s justification for imperialism, which is funding a capitalist welfare state.
More Resources on Mutual Aid and Abolition
- Video on Mutual Aid and Resources from Mariame Kaba
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJaeblrlW_Q&t=5085s&ab_channel=BarnardCenterforResearchonWomen and https://padlet.com/ayonyc1/Bookmarks
- Dean Spade on Mutual Aid: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PopmGAvsggg&feature=youtu.be
- Forthcoming book on mutual aid from Dean Spade: https://www.versobooks.com/books/3713-mutual-aid
Chicago Community Jail Support’s Linktree
 Ujamaa Medics in Chicago: https://www.vice.com/en/article/ywqevg/the-children-treating-gunshot-wounds-on-chicagos-south-side and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yxqIhoNx2yo&feature=emb_logo&ab_channel=GreatBigStory
 https://imhojournal.org/articles/covid-19-and-resistance-in-brazil-life-making-memory-and-challenges-in-seeding-an-alternative-future/see also https://www.weareplanc.org/blog/from-mutual-aid-to-dual-power-how-do-we-build-a-new-world-in-the-shell-of-the-old/