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Solidarity Not Charity: Mutual Aid & How to Organize in the Age of Coronavirus

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Image Credit: Tacoma Mutual Aid Collective

As lockdowns and layoffs sweep the U.S., mutual aid groups are forming to protect and provide for the vulnerable, including the elderly, incarcerated, undocumented and unhoused. We look at the incredible community networks across the country that are coming together to protect their neighbors during the coronavirus pandemic — and how you can get involved. From Washington state to the Bay Area, Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota and New York City, thousands of mutual aid efforts are aimed at building solidarity, not charity. We speak with two longtime mutual aid organizers and activists in two hot spots of the pandemic. In New York City, Mariame Kaba is a longtime organizer, abolitionist, educator and the founder of the grassroots organization Project NIA, which works to end the incarceration of children and young adults. She has raised tens of thousands of dollars and redistributed it to groups across the country in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and she just did a public conference call with Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on mutual aid. In Seattle, Washington, Dean Spade is an associate professor at Seattle University School of Law and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. He is the creator of mutual aid resource website Big Door Brigade.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We end today’s show looking at the incredible community networks across the United States that are coming together to protect their neighbors during the coronavirus pandemic — and how you can get involved. As lockdowns and layoffs sweep the country, leaving millions at risk, mutual aid groups are forming to protect and provide for the vulnerable, including the elderly, incarcerated, undocumented and unhoused. Their aim? Solidarity not charity.

In Washington, the Tacoma Mutual Aid Collective is organizing free food programs for kids hit by school closures. In the Bay Area of California, the West Oakland Punks with Lunch is working with the houseless community and distributing lunch and supplies. In Arizona, Tucson Mutual Aid is coordinating food and supply drop-offs to people’s front doors. In Colorado, the Denver Service Worker Solidarity group is building a network to demand an immediate moratorium on rent collection and evictions citywide. In Minnesota, the Twin Cities Queer and Trans Mutual Aid group is organizing assistance for queer, transgender and gender nonbinary people affected by COVID-19. Here in New York City, now the epicenter in this country, NYC United Against Coronavirus has put together a network of resources for child care, grocery delivery, food donations, housing needs, bail funds and other types of support across the five boroughs. And those are just a few of the thousands of efforts.

For more, we go to two of the hot spots of the pandemic: Seattle, Washington, and here in New York City. We’re joined by two longtime mutual aid organizers. In New York City, Mariame Kaba is with us, longtime organizer, abolitionist, [educator] and founder of the grassroots organization Project NIA, which works to end the incarceration of children and young adults. She’s raised tens of thousands of dollars and redistributed it to groups across the country in response to the coronavirus pandemic. She just did a public conference call with Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on mutual aid. And in Seattle, Washington, Dean Spade is with us, associate professor at Seattle University School of Law, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, creator of the mutual aid resource website

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! in this so difficult, trying, challenging time. Mariame, tell us about a few more of these mutual aid efforts and what you’re doing.

MARIAME KABA: Sure. As I mentioned — as you mentioned, there are several projects happening around the country. I have been privy to seeing the work that’s happening in Chicago, where Kelly Hayes, Delia Galindo and other organizers pulled together, on very short notice, a Google doc to help people with direct needs, who needed any number of dollars, whether for rent or food or etc., provided an opportunity for people to sign up, and then for people who could offer to support to step in to do that. So that’s one way that, through technology, people are reaching out to each other in order to be able to meet people’s direct needs.

There are folks here in New York City, as you mentioned, that pulled together an abolitionist group, an abolitionist mutual aid fund, that raised money to be able to provide groceries to folks, grocery money to people.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what you mean, Mariame, when you say “abolitionist.”

MARIAME KABA: Well, in this case, it was an abolitionist collective, meaning people who are prison-industrial complex abolitionists, who believe that we need to create the conditions in the world to be able to abolish prisons, policing and surveillance. So, in this particular case, this grouping came together — they’re socialists, abolitionists, feminists — and they try to raise money in order to be able to provide grocery money for folks in the — not just in New York, I think, beyond New York, as well. They got — I think this is an important point, which was that they raised a lot of money quickly, about nearly $40,000. But the requests that came in were $220,000. And so, you can see that there’s an incredible need, and that need needs to find a way to get met. And it won’t just be happening through individual donations. It has to also be the state mobilizing to provide for the needs of those people. So those are just a couple of examples.

Survived and Punished New York did a soap drive to raise money so that soap could be sent inside to incarcerated people, first in New York and now around the country, because, as you know, incarcerated people can be hired, for example, through Governor Cuomo, to create hand sanitizer, that would help the rest of the community, but they themselves can’t have hand sanitizer within the prisons because of the alcohol level within those particular — within that particular hand sanitizer. So, trying to mobilize to meet the material needs of the folks who need support and to have that reciprocity is key.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go to Dean Spade. Mariame Kaba is in Brooklyn, New York, and Dean is in Seattle, associate professor of Seattle University School of Law. Talk about the history of mutual aid, for people who have never heard that term before.

DEAN SPADE: Yeah. The term “mutual aid” basically just means when people band together to meet immediate survival needs, usually because of a shared understanding that the systems in place aren’t coming to meet them, or certainly not fast enough, if at all, and that we can do it together right now. So, usually you see them really visibly during kind of sudden disasters, like earthquakes, storms, floods, where people are rescuing each other or distributing water or distributing masks, things like that. But there’s also an ongoing history of people and a contemporary reality of people doing mutual aid projects to deal with the ongoing disasters of the systems we live under. So, an example a lot of people have heard of is No More Deaths in Arizona, which puts water into the desert, and food, so that people who are crossing, hopefully, are less — it’s less mortal for them; or abortion funds, that help people access abortion right now; or bail funds, as you mentioned; or projects that help people coming out of foster care or our of prison find housing; or prison pen pal projects; or child care collectives. Those are all sort of ongoing ways people are meeting each other’s needs.

And I think the most probably visible historical example of mutual aid in the U.S. that people talk about a lot is, of course, the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast programs and health programs, which were a vital part of the party’s work. And it’s a good example of how social movements often, pretty much always, centrally organize mutual aid, because people come into social movements to get immediate needs met, and they also desperately want to help others facing what they’re facing. And when they’re there, they can build a shared analysis: Hey, why don’t we have food? Why don’t we have shelter? What systems are in place that we all actually want to get to the root causes of?

And I think that one other piece to say about this is that in a country like ours, the story is elites will solve the problems, we should change laws, or we should get policies passed, and you should kind of wait to vote for those people or lobby them and ask them to do things. And mutual aid has a really different feeling to it. It’s like, you know what? We’re not just going to wait and hope that they solve our problems, especially since they have a bad record of not doing that, and especially because most relief doesn’t end up reaching the poorest people or the most marginalized or targeted people. Instead, we’re going to do something right now to build the world we want to live in. So it’s a very empowering, participatory kind of work that tends to build people’s ability to mobilize generally.

AMY GOODMAN: And the idea of solidarity not charity, Dean?

DEAN SPADE: Yeah. So, “charity” is a word we often use to think about like social services or nonprofits that give stuff to poor people if you qualify, if you meet these eligibility verification requirements, if you’re the right kind of poor person. We don’t give it to you unless you’re sober, unless you take these meds, or unless you have kids, or — you know, there’s histories — unless you’re properly Christian or not queer or whatever. Charity is this kind of thing where usually money’s coming from the rich, and they get to determine who is deserving.

That’s the opposite of solidarity, right? Solidarity is, wow, people are in need? That’s not because they’ve done something wrong, and we need to find the good ones and reform them. It’s because there’s something wrong with the system that makes people homeless, that makes people criminalized, that makes people desperate and makes people, you know, have no immigration status — whatever the case may be. So it’s a really different framework, and it’s not about saviorism or about elites determining who should get what relief, which is how charity looks. It’s instead about all of us getting together and practically just trying to meet each other’s needs and solve immediate problems together, in a very grassroots, bottom-up way, instead of a top-down way.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Mariame Kaba, we only have a few minutes. How do you hope to see these networks being developed in response to the pandemic evolve even after? And that’s a hopeful question, thinking about after the pandemic. And also where people can go to see the kind of groups that they can support?

MARIAME KABA: Sure. So, I think one of the most important parts about mutual aid has to do with changing the social relationships that we have amongst each other, in order to be able to fight beyond this current moment, beyond the current crisis, beyond the current form of a disaster that we’re trying to overcome. And so, one of the beautiful aspects is that you really don’t know where the connections are going to take you. You’re going to make and build new relationships that will kind of lead to new projects and will lead to new understandings, that will shape the potential future of, you know, your community and beyond.

I think the fact that these are like hyper-local projects is actually a very helpful thing, because you’re definitely going to run into these folks again. And it provides a foundation for future political action, if it’s done in a good way where people feel good about it and good about each other. So I think that’s very important.

And in terms of where people can go to find some of these mutual aid projects, there’s a new hub that was created, that somebody put together, using all of these different — how do you call it? — all the different Google docs that have been coming up and circulating, so that people could find each other and find themselves. And I will send that, because I don’t have the actual link for it right now. But I will send that over so that you can put it on your site. And that’s a way where people can connect. People can go to Twitter, go to Instagram, go to Facebook. There’s so many Facebook pages that have come up, so many —

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, we’ll link to it at There have been calls by progressive prosecutors, DAs and, of course, the whole abolitionist movement around the country, to release people in jails at this critical point, and detention centers. Can you quickly — we have just 20 seconds — comment on this?

MARIAME KABA: Yes, absolutely. And I want to comment specifically for New York. Governor Cuomo has complete discretion to be able to issue mass clemencies for the prisons. We know that de Blasio, the mayor, has the power to be able to release hundreds and thousands of people from Rikers Island and other jails. And so we really want them to be able to do that. There’s lots of pressure and demands that have been issued by local groups. And we want folk —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there.


AMY GOODMAN: But I want to thank you both for being with us, Mariame Kaba, organizer, abolitionist, founder of Project NIA, and Dean Spade, associate professor at Seattle University School of Law, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, creator of mutual aid resource website

I want to just take this moment to thank the remarkable team of family, my co-workers at Democracy Now!, who are mainly working from home. I want to thank Julie Crosby, Miriam Barnard, Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Nermeen Shaikh, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Libby Rainey, Sam Alcoff, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Charina Nadura, Tey-Marie Astudillo, Denis Moynihan, Adriano Contreras, María Taracena.

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