Truthout, October 27, 2020
When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as a crisis in the U.S. in early 2020, people all over the country started coordinating to deliver groceries and prescriptions to vulnerable people, making and distributing masks and hand sanitizer, and raising money for people who were losing jobs and ineligible for unemployment benefits. By the time the uprising against anti-Black racism and police violence brought people into the streets in early summer, the concept of “mutual aid” had gained significant traction in the media, and it was visible on the streets as people operated street medic teams at protests, offered each other free food and water, and defended each other from cops and white supremacists. COVID-19 mutual aid projects are ongoing, and as social movement groups prepare for the possibility of a contested election next week along with increasing strikes, street protests and occupations of public space, activists are gearing up to support each other.
“Mutual aid” is one term used to describe collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually stemming 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, or are making things worse. We see examples of mutual aid in every single social movement, whether it’s people raising money for workers on strike, setting up a car pooling system during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, putting drinking water in the desert for migrants crossing the border, training each other in emergency medicine because ambulance response time in poor neighborhoods is too slow, raising money to pay for abortions for those who can’t afford them, or coordinating letter-writing to prisoners. These are mutual aid projects. They directly meet people’s survival needs, and are based on a shared understanding that the conditions in which we are made to live are unjust.
There is nothing new about mutual aid — people have worked together to survive for all of human history. But capitalism and colonialism created structures that have disrupted how people have historically connected with each other and shared everything they needed to survive. As people were forced into systems of wage labor and private property, and wealth became increasingly concentrated, our ways of caring for each other have become more and more tenuous.