What is Mutual Aid?
Mutual aid is the basic principle of anarchism and the fundamental way that anarchists differentiate their vision from capitalism and the state.
Simply put, we believe that humanity can fulfill its needs and desires better through cooperation than through competition. In fact, anarchists have been arguing almost since the movement began that the brutal, Darwinian view of human progress through competition is mistaken, and that mutual aid has been absolutely essential to every form of life on the Earth from the beginning (see Peter Kropotkin’s classic Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution).
Just because we live in a state-capitalist society doesn’t mean that mutual aid is a strange or unfamiliar concept. We practice it all the time: when we share resources with people who need them more than we do, when we talk through our differences instead of resorting to force or appeal to the so-called authorities, when we go on strike and pool our resources to pull through a period without pay. Mutual aid saves lives; restores dignity to people ground down by a “free market” system that masks a ruthlessly racist, gender-violent, and environmentally destructive reality; and offers us a vision for a future of freedom and equity.
The Black Power movement has a rich history of mutual aid in action. The Black Panther Party is, perhaps, the best example with its Free Breakfast for Children and community self-defense programs started in the late 1960s. Eventually, the BPP expanded its free “survival programs” to include clothing distribution, medical and first aid clinics, classes on politics and economics, and much more.
The beauty of mutual aid is that we can practice it in so many ways, in so many different and vital aspects of our lives. Here are five areas of everyday life where we practice mutual aid all the time – whether we know it or not.
1. Sharing Resources
Getting involved in waste reduction and goods redistribution are great ways to start engaging with mutual aid projects. Many of us have more than we will ever need, while others are struggling to obtain the most basic items needed to sustain themselves and their families. Projects like Food Not Bombs, community food pantries and kitchens are often on the front line of cooking and sharing food that was otherwise destined for the landfill. Community tool libraries, vegetable seed swap events, and Really Really Free Markets are also examples of mutual aid in action, whereby useful resources are made freely available to those who need them. If any of these projects exist in your community, they will nearly always welcome extra hands.
2. Disaster Response
Capitalism is a disaster in so many ways. Disasters fueled by climate change, industrial “accidents,” and crimes stemming from political corruption (e.g., the poisoning of the water system in Flint, Michigan) impact an increasing number of communities and ecosystems every year. Disaster response by governments and large NGOs is frequently inadequate and heavily biased by racism and classism. Mutual aid disaster response networks have been emerging as highly effective alternatives, with local know-how launching rapid response rescues and evacuations, food kitchens, distribution of emergency supplies, and emergency accommodation networks that are safe for undocumented folks and others who might find government shelters unsafe or otherwise problematic. If your region doesn’t already have its own mutual-aid disaster response group, there are a number of great resources online for creating one.
3. Skill Sharing
Do you have experience or skills that other people could learn from? Community workshops, how-to-guides, and online videos are fantastic ways to share skills in the spirit of mutual aid. Self-defense, local ecological knowledge, ancestral skills, healing methods, emergency medicine, crafts, bike and car repairs, building and carpentry … the potential for skill sharing is infinite. In-person workshops are an especially powerful form of mutual aid because they facilitate community connections and create new spaces for development of local relationships and projects. How-to guides in the form of printed and digital zines, blog posts, and videos have the potential to reach more geographically disparate audiences and can plant seeds of knowledge, inspiration, and mutual aid in far flung places.
4. Community Defense
Since hate groups constantly shift their targets, there’s always a need for a smart, agile, organized community response to the virtual and physical threats posed by such groups, including state-sanctioned violence perpetrated by law enforcement. With physical and online aggression from white nationalists and neo-fascists on the rise, we can support at-risk members of our communities in a variety of ways. These extend from establishing safe houses and safe spaces to forming well-trained self defense groups and cop watch networks to anti-doxxing security measures, legal support (see #5), and communication systems that share information about the location and activities of hate groups. How a community responds to hate and violence needs to be informed by the unique situation that community experiences; the process should always center the voices of those being marginalized.
Antifa Seven Hills
Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, by Mark Bray
The Antifa Comic Book: 100 Years of Fascism and Antifa Movements by Gord Hill
View: Scott Crow vs Tucker Carlson on Antifa, antifascist organizing
5. Legal Support
The U.S. is the biggest carceral society in the world; opposing the prison industrial complex and supporting community members facing state persecution is one significant focal point of collective organizing and struggle. With unfortunate frequency we see radical individuals and groups being targeted by the state, which uses the courts and the prison system as a weapon. The legal system turns people’s lives upside down and has an enormous impact on families and loved ones. Mutual aid in the form of legal support can mean turning up to court as an expression of solidarity with those being targeted by the state; helping to find appropriate legal representation; supporting family members of those going to trial or already in prison; childcare; fundraising for legal costs; and setting up prison support networks that can sustain the work for the long haul. Community bond funds are a type of mutual aid project that are increasingly springing up around the country to pay bonds for people charged with crimes. These revolving funds support individuals and communities impacted by structural violence and who cannot afford to pay the bonds themselves. Engaging in legal support can also entail mounting media campaigns to amplify the narrative and plight of defendants/prisoners.
Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC 2000 by Kris Hermes
Midnight Special Law Collective
Grand Jury Resistance Project
Anarchist Black Cross Federation
Chicago Community Bond Fund
Philadelphia Community Bond Fund
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