Written by Ava Ahmann (She/Her)
Image by United Nations COVID 19 Response
Content warning: discussions of death, COVID-19, poverty, racism, and state violence.
As the world approaches the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sheer amount of loss and devastation inflicted by the virus and exacerbated by governments is difficult to comprehend. The virus has dealt a particularly lethal blow to the United States, where the federal government is struggling to right a sinking ship. Deaths continue to rise and the public health care system, crippled by routine underfunding, is left running on fumes. The picture is sullied further by the government extending crumb-like stimulus cheques to sick and out of work Americans. At best, this suggests a disconnect between politicians and their constituents, and at worst, callousness. The economic and political tumult that has dogged the US since the onset of the pandemic in March has created a space for the emergence of fresh dialogue regarding resource distribution. This begs the question; when the traditional top-down model of aid fails to offer us a lifeline, where do we turn? The anarchist practice of mutual aid, and its recent move into the mainstream, provides a possible answer to this question.
A representative from Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MADR), a US-based mutual aid network that works on the ground with communities impacted by natural disasters, described the practice of mutual aid in an email exchange as a practice of reciprocal giving and a rejection of the typical ‘charity’ model of social services. Charity can be ‘patronizing and stigmatizing,’ leading many people to choose to avoid the services. Additionally, charity services do little to recognize the existence of harmful power dynamics in society, MADR argues. They instead prey on them, leading to a lack of accountability which in turn invalidates ‘the needs of those they are supposed to serve, ignore[s] the knowledge, skills, capabilities, and resources of survivors, and even undermine[s] the organization’s own mission.’ Mutual aid isn’t about one-off acts of kindness, but rather relationship building aimed at collective liberation, building power from below and maintaining ‘opposition to colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, the state, and other systems of oppression’ by working on the ground to meet the needs of the people.
In the United States, the practice of mutual aid was adopted as early as 1780 in the state of Rhode Island, with the founding of African Mutual Aid through the African Methodist Church. The tradition expanded with the development of communities such as the Combahee River Colony, which was founded by several hundred African American women during the Civil War. The popular and autonomous nature of these early mutual aid organizations has continued to inform Black cooperatives throughout history, such as the farmers alliances of the 1800s, up to the present day with the development of Black food cooperatives, and establishment of the Black Panther Party and their education and food initiatives.The widespread success and popularity of which J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI at the time, deemed a serious threat to authorities’ attempts to ‘neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for’. Although the FBI was successful in using force and intimidation to dismantle the BPP breakfast program, the spirit of Black radicalism is reflected in the fast-growing culture of mutual aid today.
The pandemic is fertile ground for an expansion of the practice of mutual aid and the proliferation of mutual aid accounts on social media suggests that the practice is becoming more common. The accounts act as aggregators of those in need, publishing the names along with the Cash Apps or PayPals of the recipients, allowing for users to aid in rapid and direct payments without any need for the means-testing often required for monetary support. In allowing people to give funds without limitations or supervision on how the aid is spent, these accounts demonstrate a key tenet of mutual aid: trust, which in turn foments a culture of reciprocity. The accounts demonstrate less accountability in a sense, given the lack of formal restrictions on how the money can be spent. However, a similar absence of accountability exists when one donates to large corporations with limited transparency or trusts the government with our taxes. These bodies are certainly not immune to their own missteps, such as the United States government sending $1.4 billion dollars’ worth of stimulus checks to dead people .
Mutual aid accounts subvert this relationship, cutting out the middleman and embracing non-hierarchical giving. @dcblacktranssupport, an Instagram account based in Washington DC, is an example of an account that aims to specifically support those who have marginalised identities, and are often HIV positive, Queer, or homeless. These accounts, such as @dcblacktranssupport or @nojusticenopride, drive discussions around mutual aid’s role within the context of an ongoing debate on reparations and wealth distribution in the United States, where a history of slavery has given way to a violent culture of systemic racism. White people are encouraged to make regular contributions, leveraging inherited wealth to combat the conditions that are fostered by the culture of white supremacy in the United States, the effects of which have led to disproportionate COVID-19 deaths for Black Americans.
Pandemic aside, 2020 has provided its fair share of disasters; environmental, economic, political, and social, disrupting the lives of many. This precarious climate has allowed for the practice of mutual aid to resonate with many which MADR hopes will inspire a movement towards the incorporation of ‘positive constructive programs’ in organizing, and forging connections that allow for greater community resistance and local organizing power. The ineptitude of the state and the woeful inadequacy of the non-profit industrial complex ‘won’t save us’ MADR argues, ‘in the end, all we have is each other. As bad as current disasters are, there will most likely be worse ones on the horizon, so the seeds we plant now and the relationships we establish will be needed for what comes next’.
 Timeline of mutual aid from the Deep Grocery Co-op, on Instagram at @thedeepgrocerycoop