Dean Spade: 5 Book Plan: Mutual Aid

Dean Spade picks five books that explore how mutual aid projects have been part of every powerful social movement.

Verso Books, October 27, 2020

Dean Spade’s new book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the Next) offers both a theoretical understanding of mutual aid and practical tools for sustaining this crucial movement work. Spade defines mutual aid as “collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them. Those systems, in fact, have often created the crisis.” Spade explores how mutual aid projects have been part of every powerful social movement, citing examples such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 1950s, the Black Panther Party’s survival programs that provided free breakfasts and medical clinics in the 1960s and 70s, and the resource and skill-sharing that emerged in the Occupy encampments starting in 2011. In the contemporary moment of the widening wealth gap, a global pandemic, increasing storms, fires, and other crises resulting from climate change, as well as myriad other social inequities, Spade demonstrates how and why mutual aid is essential for meeting people’s needs and building big, transformative movements that get to the root causes of these crises.    

Here, Spade selects five books that shaped his thinking on mutual aid.    

Harsha Walia, Undoing Border Imperialism (AK Press 2013)
Walia is a brilliant activist and independent scholar whose book draws from her many years working for migrant justice, including in the organization No One Is Illegal which has autonomous chapters across Canada. This book provides an important theoretical account of border imperialism as a state building process that includes both dispossessing people from lands and criminalizing and racializing migrant laborers in order to justify commodifying their labor. In this way, the book guides readers to think about what is sometimes narrowly understood as “immigration policy” in the context of colonialism and global capitalism. Walia also gives detailed accounts of the work of No One Is Illegal (NOII), including explaining how NOII’s border abolitionist work is tied to their mutual aid work, which includes “drafting legal submissions, coordinating group delegations to immigration offices, providing child care, mobilizing court support, raising funds, hosting press conferences, running errands, organizing public actions, and offering emotional support.” (102) She describes how NOII’s mutual aid work strives to operate as “solidarity not charity” (103), “responding to [the] lived realities”(102) of migrants and building power and momentum through campaigns defending specific people and groups from deportation. When I turn back to this book, which I often do, I like to watch the video of 2,000 people taking over the International Terminal at Vancouver Airport to stop the deportation of Laibar Singh, in December 2007. It reminds me what might be possible with enough people power, and how mutual aid is a way to build that power.

Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Fight Against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press, 2011)
The Black Panther Party’s “serve the people” programs are the most famous example of mutual aid in US movements. Nelson’s book provides a rich account of the BPP’s health programs. She demonstrates how these programs how they grew from study of the work of Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara and Mao Zedong, how these programs related to the BPP’s beliefs about armed self-defense, how they were surveilled and criminalized by the police and FBI, how they interacted with medical professionals and sought to deprofessionalize medicine, and how the Party struggled with questions about whether to accept government funding for these programs. Body and Soul also provides insight into the daily operations of the “serve the people” programs and how they related to the Party’s hierarchical structure. This book exposes the complex questions that faced the BPP, and still face people doing mutual aid today, as they experimented with ways of building autonomy and wellness in a brutal context of violence and inequality. Nelson does an excellent job letting the reader into the debates and dilemmas that party leaders contended with as they practiced and theorized mutual aid.

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