Mutual Aid Dispatches


It’s been hard to keep track of time since COVID-19 entered our radars, at different times, as a pandemic. Time is multiplying and extending and shortening all at once. It’s eclipsed by longer naps, shortened by the anxiety of waiting to hear from loved ones, and multiplied in the management of impossible expectations. Since a few weeks ago, most of what characterized NYC has been shut down. You can hear birds chirping out of your window. Businesses have started foregoing the posting of COVID-related reasons for closing their doors.

There’s also been a lot of flourishing–of grocery deliveries, of information networks, of apartment phone trees, of DIY mask making, etc. What had seemed the glacially-moving ship of the city has made a wide turn to “mutual aid,” offering new ways and routes by which to live together, separately. New Facebook pages, new neighborhood pods and relationships have cropped up. Many of us are inundated with resources that are entirely new to us. And amidst what had been the seemingly complete absorption of the electoral, even national news outlets have started discussing mutual aid.

But in the rush of the new and the infrastructures that thrive off feeling the new and the pressures of time, we risk repeating the widespread tendency of leftist and radical organizers to forget. Namely, the forgetting of those who have built, created, and renovated mutual aid networks running when the rest of us were working elsewhere. In the rush to deal with the new, we risk repeating a kind of unknowing–of “producing” knowledge in a way that actively erases where it has come from and what it has survived. Let’s work to make reference to the places where these practices come from. And when we don’t know, let’s take the time to understand from where we’ve received them.

Towards that end, we’re interested in generating an ongoing and conversational “archive” of mutual aid practices and projects that have been running some time, or projects that laid the foundation for things we’re picking up again today–in NYC or elsewhere. How can we do a better job talking about and building projects now by understanding the concrete needs and locations that contextualized former mutual aid projects? What are the already existing projects that we should be joining? As we get to know our neighbors and neighborhoods more intimately than ever before, let’s also work to build knowledge of those who did the work before us to create the forms of living that are helping us to survive today.

If you’ve got examples that would be useful to cover, please send us a message on our FB page or Tweet at us @macc_nyc

Food Not Bombs

When a billion people go hungry each day, how can we spend another dollar on war? Food Not Bombs is an all-volunteer movement that recovers food that would otherwise be discarded, and shares free vegan and vegetarian meals with the hungry in over 1,000 cities in 65 countries in protest to war, poverty, and destruction of the environment. We are not a charity but dedicated to taking nonviolent direct action. Our movement has no headquarters or positions of leadership and we use the process of consensus to make decisions. We also provide food and supplies to the survivors of natural disasters, and people participating in occupations, strikes, marches and other protests.

As grocery stores empty out and food shortages loom, food-sharing projects like Food Not Bombs (FNB) take on new urgency. FNB volunteers collect food from bakeries, grocery stores, and restaurants, cook together, and share meals and groceries in public spaces with whomever comes. Volunteers also take part in nonviolent direct action to change the social structures that produce hunger. FNB-like initiatives have already appeared in restaurants that offer free meals to laid-off workers and in grocery-delivery networks. There’s an increasing need for flexible, mobile, horizontal approaches to food distribution.

Eight anti-nuclear activists formed the first FNB group on May 24, 1980 at the Occupation Attempt of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station in Cambridge, MA. Their basic insight was that hunger is unnecessary in a country that spends millions on weapons of mass destruction. The San Francisco Police arrested FNB volunteers hundreds of times during the summer of 1989 to quell a 27-day occupation in support of the city’s homeless. The high-profile arrests in San Francisco spurred new chapters in most of the major cities of Canada and the US. The arrests ended when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake cut off power and gas and police discovered that the only meals available for them were provided by FNB. FNB has a history of providing aid in response to disasters: FNB volunteers were the first to provide food and help to 9/11 rescue workers, and were among the first to provide food and help to survivors of the Indian Ocean Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. FNB’s historic role in disaster relief demonstrates that federal assistance cannot replace peer-to-peer aid. FNB has also provided meals to protesters, including at Camp Casey outside Bush’s ranch in Texas, at a 100-day occupation in Kiev during the Orange Revolution, and at a two-month Peace Camp on the West Bank in Palestine.

There are four FNB chapters in NYC. The LES branch last distributed food on April 5 in Tompkins Square Park, giving out 50-70 containers of cooked food, plus 17-20 bags of produce, before announcing hiatus in response to COVID-19. The FNB website issued special guidance to California branches in response to COVID, suggesting that they implement social distancing in their lines, invite public health nurses to meals, provide PPE to volunteers, and offer a laser thermometer and a foot-pumped handwashing station.

FNB follows three principles: each chapter serves only vegan or vegetarian food; they are independent, autonomous, and consensus-based; and they are dedicated to nonviolent social change. FNB teaches that emergency food-sharing efforts should also always address the structural causes of hunger and food shortages. Apolitical charity begets more apolitical charity. FNB sees food-sharing as just one part of the overthrow of food inequity. Today, the FNB movement shares food in nearly 1,000 communities in at least 65 countries.

Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU)

VANDU is a group of users and former users who work to improve the lives of people who use drugs through user-based peer support and education. VANDU is committed to increasing the capacity of people who use drugs to live healthy, productive lives. VANDU is also committed to ensuring that drug users have a real voice in their community and in the creation of programs and policies designed to serve them.

One of the reasons that VANDU seems like a great project for comparison is because of its location and population. Much like NYC, it’s witnessed massive and violent gentrification that has led to a skyrocketing unsheltered population. In addition, it’s a city with a large population of drug users. Amidst much of the language of “able bodied” and “healthy” people peppering volunteer projects right now, the composition of VANDU serves as an amazing reminder of the knowledge base and survival skills that people pushed outside of such rhetoric possess.

The VANDU project is run and decisions are made entirely by people who are affected by its primary issue: the health and well-being of drug users. The mutuality of this project means that there are no distinctions between those involved in the organization and the drug users they “serve.” By ending that distinction, VANDU rejects an ableist mentality that would suggest that there are people with needs and people without them. While drug use is often the most stigmatized indication of need or dependency, VANDU’s mutual aid model puts drug use back into the more general social and human fact of need and dependency as it takes many different forms. This organizational model also privileges the knowledge that drug users have based on their own experiences, such that members of that community, and not “experts” outside of it, are the most knowledgeable source of program and policy design.

Some useful mutual aid principles we want to share from VANDU:

“If researchers want to work with us they should really become allies of our movement.” In other words, all knowledge and/or theory should come from participation and allyship.

Emphasizing transparency so that people know exactly how they can be involved, how to access any benefits of membership, how to move into leadership positions, and how to exercise their democratic rights as members.

People who use drugs are the ones to define the participation of people who do not use drugs in the organization. In other words, those most affected by, but also those most experienced with, the problems addressed by the organization decide how others can best work with them.

Reclaiming Our Homes

“Well, we need to do something, and we should probably just start taking over these vacant homes.” (Benito Flores)

Impacted by the housing crisis, and feeling even more urgency in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, we are reclaiming vacant houses owned by the state to fight for housing as a human right. We the Reclaimers are calling on the city and state to immediately use all vacant properties to house people. We need all levels of government to make a massive investment in public and social housing so that everyone has a home during this housing and public health crisis.

As public health organizations are insisting on social distancing as one of the most powerful tools to manage the Coronavirus pandemic, there has been little to no acknowledgement that this tactic is currently impossible due to pre-existing housing needs. In a city like NYC, this is painfully obvious. In response to a need that no city or state government has yet taken seriously as a part of COVID-19, the Reclaiming Our Homes group launched a housing occupation in Los Angeles in early March.

Reclaiming Our Homes was inspired by the previous housing occupation by the Moms 4 Housing group in Oakland, a group which successfully occupied a residence for two months and ultimately the right to keep it. The continuity between the Los Angeles and Oakland occupations shows that the crisis facing us today is not natural, but is part of the overlapping structure of the protection of private property at all costs. The occupations echo back to the wave of groups across the U.S. that began strategically occupying foreclosed homes in the wake of the 2008 crisis/ wealth transfer. Looking back to, and actively citing, the struggles that make it possible for us to work outside of capitalist exchange and state-controlled resources will be crucial to our ability to build long-lasting networks out of this crisis.

Some useful mutual aid principles we want to share from Reclaiming Our Homes:

Staying at home and social distancing will only truly be possible after strategic collective action is taken to house everyone Much of what is happening with the Coronavirus is not new–thus, we need to continue to rely on previous organizing strategies and tactics where possible.

Turning out small, socially distanced groups to support these occupations at some point will be necessary, because they need visible support.

The demands for self-isolation open up an opportunity to call for and defend housing occupations in our neighborhoods: “The rapid spread of coronavirus kicked all their work into high gear.”

More info:

Radical Organizing Around Outbreaks: The Young Lords and present-day needle exchanges

For the past couple years the term ‘epidemic’ has been applied to the drastic uptick in opioid use across the country. The infestation jargon may signify a motion away from blame-based conceptions of drug use - imagining dependency as something done upon a person, rather than brought about by defect or criminality - but treatment still tends towards moralization and othering. One of the most progressive efforts against this are needle exchanges, which provide free, unused needles, as well as other services like acupuncture, therapy, medicaid assistance and referral to detox clinics. The effect is a massive reduction in Hepatitis C and HIV transmission.

As E.M. O’Brien outlines in Commune Magazine, this methodology finds its root in the actions of the Young Lords in the late 1960’s and 70’s. They recognized that contemporaneous European sociast movements harbored hostility towards the underclass, considering them the unproductive proletariat. “If the dignity of work is the basis of socialism, junkies unable to maintain stable employment have no place in the revolutionary project.” Instead, they recruited “young men of color hustling on the streets of urban America,” looking to create a revolutionary movement that alleviated the chaotic cycle of working-class drug use. In 1970, the Young Lords took over a wing of Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, turning it into a detox unit that lasted until 1978, when it was raided by police. This project was an important model of communal healing; as people who had personally encountered and engaged in drug use, the Young Lords were well-equipped to provide a destigmatized place to seek care.

Similarly, many people who work needle exchanges are current or former users of intravenous drugs. This is essential: absent is hierarchical doctor-patient dynamic, which treats the user as a problem to be solved. Present Instead is the practice of harm reduction, “an alternative ethical framework that allow[s] us to stop constantly judging others — and ourselves — according to the rigid criteria of political righteousness.” Rather than stigmatise the user, these mutuality-based efforts look to ameliorate their situation, informed by a joint understanding of the traumas that both cause and stem from drug dependence.

Some useful mutual aid principals to take away from Junkie Communism, and the aforementioned Young Lords movement and present-day needle exchanges:

Revolutionary projects should not be “based on the dignity of work, but on the unconditional value of our lives.” Rigid criteria surrounding value only perpetuates hierarchy.

Harm reduction is a useful framework in reconceptualizing our approach to helping others.

Creating parallel models of care undermine the status quo of those sanctioned by the state.

More info:

Published on April 6, 2020

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