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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

What Is Mutual Aid (And How Can It Build Power)

From the New Orleans DSA brake light clinic to benevolent associations in the Jim Crow South to a disaster relief supply “heist” in Puerto Rico, Cate Root explains mutual aid and its relationship with power.

When I’m asked at meetings, “What brought you to DSA?” I usually give a vague answer. I tell the rooms and Zooms of people that I joined because a friend inspired me, because I saw something I could do to help, and because I needed to turn away from cynicism—I needed to believe that anything mattered, or could matter. 

But the full story starts with a humbling. One day I was sitting outside a bar, and my friend was telling me about her plans to drive to the D.C. Women’s March the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. I confessed to her that I didn’t understand how it could make a lick of difference. Even as I said this, I actually knew that I was wrong. I knew that mass movements could work, and large-scale protests are part of them. But at that moment, I was full of self-loathing, and I couldn’t figure out what made the difference between activism as catharsis and activism as work that builds a better world. My friend said to me, “Sure. Or you could not disrespect the work some people are actually doing.”

Of course, that response didn’t make me instantaneously go out and start organizing: it’s not that simple to snap from feeling bad about everything to actually doing something. Like anything else, it’s a series of steps. And so a few months later, when the same friend told me she was organizing the first brake light clinics in New Orleans, I said, cool. I want to help however I can.

I have to tell the humbling part of the story because it matters. If you can’t respond to being humbled by trying something different, then you aren’t going to be much use to the fight for a better world. 

In 2017, the Democratic Socialists of America only had 25,000 members, but its membership roll had roughly tripled in a single year, scrappy and ascendant. The same month that the New Orleans chapter piloted its brake light clinic, DSA members gathered in Chicago for the bi-annual national convention. At that meeting, the organization’s highest decision-making authority set three priorities for power-building: 1) drum up support for Medicare For All, 2) strengthen the labor movement, and 3) elect socialists. These are all terrific goals: ambitious, national in focus, and geared toward gaining electoral power and achieving policy objectives.

Mutual aid was not one of these priorities.  It makes sense, therefore, that some in the organization have looked askance at individual chapters deciding to put resources into mutual aid projects such as brake light clinics. In our New Orleans brake light clinics, we change people’s burnt-out tail lights for free. (The police often use burnt-out tail lights as an excuse to pull people over, which—especially when the drivers are Black—can result in a “fatal traffic stop” aka the police murder them.) We also show people how to change their own lights and even send them home with spares, if they need them. And while we’re at it, we discuss policing; our co-chair has one goal for every clinic, and the box always gets checked: get someone to say aloud “Fuck the police.” On top of providing mutual aid and raising awareness around the issue of policing, these brake light clinics have unequivocally brought more attention, skills, and people to DSA. Dozens of chapters followed our example, spurred along by our DIY guide. These clinics have been important skill-sharing experiences for novice organizers, and have offered a template for nascent chapters to start their own projects. 

But did the brake light clinics help us build power? And if they didn’t, is it because mutual aid can’t build power? To begin to answer this question, let’s begin with a survey of the history of mutual aid, and what it is and what it isn’t.

What is mutual aid?

Mutual aid is a survival technique based on collectivism. Peter Kropotkin’s 1902 essay collection Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution focuses on mutual aid as a feature of the natural world, complicating the inherent competition in Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” Kropotkin notes, “the abundance of facts of mutual aid, not only for rearing progeny, as recognized by most evolutionists, but also for the safety of the individual, and for providing it with the necessary food. With many large divisions of the animal kingdom mutual aid is the rule.” Despite the popular conception of individual animals and genes as inherently selfish, engaged in a permanent struggle of all against all, many contemporary scientists have found through observation that Kropotkin’s theories hold true: many animals do engage in mutual aid and other altruistic behavior

Kropotkin gives the familiar example of ants’ collective labor, but goes even deeper to show how interdependence affects every aspect of ant life.

“If we take an ants’ nest, we not only see that every description of work—rearing of progeny, foraging, building, rearing of aphides, and so on—is performed according to the principles of voluntary mutual aid… If an ant which has its crop full has been selfish enough to refuse feeding a comrade, it will be treated as an enemy, or even worse. If the refusal has been made while its kinsfolk were fighting with some other species, they will fall back upon the greedy individual with greater vehemence than even upon the enemies themselves.”

There are myriad examples of mutual aid among humans in the modern world: abortion funds, bail funds, grassroots legal and eviction defense, disaster response, and food distribution, among others. But mutual aid can easily be co-opted by the state or nonprofit organizations, turning a potentially power-building social action into another fixture of the neoliberal state. One example? Two years after the organic launch of the brake light clinics, Minnesota cops gave themselves the discretion to pass out vouchers for a free fix instead of a traffic ticket

Another classic example of the state co-opting a powerful mutual aid project is the USDA’s School Breakfast Program, a means-tested program that offers free or reduced-price breakfast for qualifying children in schools that choose to participate. The USDA began experimenting with a free breakfast program in the mid-1960s, but expanded in earnest in the 1970s. What changed? The rapid spread of the Black Panthers Free Breakfast for School Children program across the United States.

Bill Whitfield, member of the Black Panther chapter in Kansas City, serves free breakfast to children, April 16, 1969 before they go to school. (AP Photo/William Straeter)

National Geographic reports that “by the end of 1969, the Black Panthers were serving full free breakfasts (including milk, bacon, eggs, grits, and toast) to 20,000 school-aged children in 19 cities around the country, and in 23 local affiliates every school day.” The Panthers sought donations from local businesses, and members served the breakfast, offering a communal experience.  

In a 1969 memo to all FBI offices, J. Edgar Hoover professed that the Panthers’ breakfast program “represents the best and most influential activity going for the [Black Panther Party] and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.” With the permanent authorization of the USDA School Breakfast Program in 1975, the state maintains control of how well breakfasts are funded, whether the program is subject to austerity measures, who qualifies for a free breakfast, and importantly, who ends up at the same table and what they might talk about. 

What are some examples of mutual aid as a survival technique?

Some of the clearest examples of successful mutual aid in American history originate in the antebellum and Jim Crow eras. W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1907 work Economic Cooperation Among Negro Americans details the structures in which Black Americans collectively strugged for survival. From the Black church as site of planning slave insurrections to the Underground Railroad, people without institutional power cooperated to attempt to survive colossal violence. 

Jessica Gordon Nembhard, the author of Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, said in YES

“Even if we take enslaved African Americans as an example—people who didn’t own their own bodies, didn’t own their labor, weren’t paid—were totally exploited. Yet, on the one day they had off, on Sunday, they would farm small gardens together. Some actually hired themselves out if they had skills. They found alternative ways to make sure they could feed their families and have some dignity. And often they did it collectively, by helping each other. If they were farming, they shared the produce. They taught each other how to read, even though it was illegal. They would save money to help each other buy their freedom.”

Free people of color also organized Black mutual aid societies and benevolent associations in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Southern Cultures reports, “From Emancipation through the 1880s, African Americans organized more than two hundred benevolent associations in New Orleans.” As a heavily-trafficked port city in the deep South, New Orleans was one of the most ethnically diverse places in America even before Emancipation. After it, “ex-slaves left rural plantations and settled in the city where [the] municipal government offered little in the way of public assistance. Even the Freedman’s Aid Bureau provided only minimal health care and other services to the former slaves.”  

Much like present day, the city government relied on charities to bridge the gap in needed social services, and much like present day, charities could discriminate as to who received aid. According to Southern Cultures:

“The consequences of these public policies were particularly manifest among the poor and working-class members of the African American community. Often living in crowded quarters with few sanitation services, drinking unsanitary water, having little access to health care outside of the overcrowded Charity Hospital, and excluded because of their race from most charitable institutions… It is little wonder that in this environment the number of black mutual aid societies mushroomed.” 

Benevolent societies arranged for members’ funerals, wakes, and physicians’ visits, coordinated care for ill members, paid for prescription medicines, and offered stipends to members who were too ill to work.  Membership in these groups was highly selective, and to be in good standing, a member had to pay timely dues, attend meetings and funerals (in proper uniform), and abide by the organization’s constitution. These groups had a decision-making structure, and consequences for misconduct. If a member fell behind on dues, missed a meeting or funeral, was disrespectful and insubordinate to the club officers, or otherwise violated the club’s behavioral standards, then that member could be fined, suspended, or expelled from the organization. These benevolent societies provided material relief, but they still left out plenty of people who still needed help. As a survival technique, these benevolent societies were effective, but they weren’t invested in organizing the full working class or building sufficient power to override Jim Crow. 

How is mutual aid different from charity?

Mutual aid projects often spell out that their work is “solidarity, not charity.” In both cases, people mobilize to provide aid to others; the difference lies in whether peers autonomously share resources or whether individuals interact in a hierarchical structure where elites get to decide who is deserving of help. In “Solidarity Not Charity: Mutual Aid for Mobilization and Survival,” scholar Dean Spade argues that

“mutual aid projects face the challenge of avoiding the charity model… The distinction between deserving and undeserving disaster survivors rests on the idea that suddenly displaced renters and homeowners are sympathetic victims, while people who were already displaced by the ordinary disasters of capitalism are blameworthy.”

For example, a housing rights group or renters assembly operating under mutual aid wouldn’t just focus on people who already have housing, but would also be organizing aid for unhoused people; if aid or participation in the group is contingent on housing status, that group would be operating from the charity model.

Spade offers this rubric for evaluating mutual aid campaigns: “Does it provide material relief? Does it leave out an especially marginalized part of the affected group (e.g., people with criminal records, people without immigration status)? Does it legitimize or expand a system we are trying to dismantle? Does it mobilize people, especially those most directly impacted, for ongoing struggle?”

The experience of organizing mutual aid can change how people think. At the brake light clinics, we ask, “Why do you think the city would rather fine you $150 than help you change a tail light that’s gone out?” Replacing a brake light bulb can be done in minutes and costs significantly less than $10. Spade underlines how organizing mutual aid can offer significant opportunities to learn new skills.

“People engaged in a project to help one another through housing court proceedings will learn the details of how the system does its harm and how to fight it, but they will also learn about meeting facilitation, working across difference, retaining volunteers, addressing conflict, giving and receiving feedback, following through, and coordinating schedules and transportation.”

What’s more, organizers can also expand their imagination and conception of what is politically possible. In the example of eviction defense, activists “may also learn that it is not just lawyers who can do this kind of work.”

How can mutual aid be effective without a strong decision-making structure?

Mutual aid’s greatest strategic strength is its capacity to empower people. Most of the time, when people talk about “empowerment,” they’re just using a buzzword. But mutual aid projects can offer a chance for ordinary people to “get involved” for the first time—passing out food, volunteering as an abortion clinic escort, changing brake lights, gutting houses, or barricading the doors to eviction court. Regular people act, and not just act, but make decisions about how best to help.

Autonomy is a key principle for Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, a grassroots network that traces its origins to Hurricane Katrina. It arose out of the Common Ground Collective, a group in New Orleans that offered free food, water, supplies, healthcare, and debris removal in the immediate aftermath of the “Federal Flood” (the preferred local name for the disaster, which highlights that the devastation flowed not from wind shear but from the breaches and failures of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ levee system). Common Ground had its problems, including an FBI agent provocateur, but on its “About” page, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief attempts to address its past errors, saying, “Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, the organization and network, acknowledges failures of the movement for solidarity-based relief in the past and seeks to learn from those mistakes, build on lessons learned from decades of community-led disaster response, and ensure that best practices, relationships, and resources are ready to be deployed to support communities impacted by future disasters.”

Disaster relief provides a good example of how mutual aid can sometimes be more effective without strongly centralized decision-making. Mutual Aid Disaster Relief has helped coordinate autonomous disaster response to flooding in Baton Rouge and West Virginia, as well as Hurricanes Matthew, Irma, Maria, Florence, Laura, and others. Disaster relief work includes providing medication, food, and water, as well as cleaning debris, gutting flooded homes, tarping roofs, and more—work which requires immediate, on-the-ground decisions.  When someone volunteers with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, that organizer is empowered to make these decisions without appealing to a central authority for guidance. A person who is running supply drops doesn’t have to ask how much water, food, or medicine they can distribute to people who need it. While some might assume that a centralized bureaucratic structure would more equitably distribute supplies, well-documented failures of the Red Cross (not to mention the federal government) offer evidence that this just isn’t true. 

Autonomy limits bureaucracy and encourages organizers to use whatever tools and ingenuity they’ve got to get the job done. Dean Spade highlights this story: When a group of volunteers and organizers with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief travelled to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, they “found out about a government warehouse that was neglecting to distribute huge stockpiles of supplies. They showed their MADR badges to the guards and said, ‘We are here for the 8am pickup.’ When guards replied that their names were not on the list, they just insisted again, ‘We are here for the 8am pickup.’ They were eventually allowed in, told to take whatever they needed. After being let in once, aid workers were able to return repeatedly.” In the guide that Mutual Aid Disaster Relief developed after a 30-city disaster relief training tour, this story is told with the slogan “Audacity is our capacity.” Confidence is crucial to winning, and organizers build confidence by engaging in mutual aid.

How can mutual aid build political power?

Mutual aid can be very effective when people work independently and without a centralized decision-making structure, but that doesn’t mean mutual aid can’t fit into a structured campaign. The Montgomery Bus Boycott is a prime example of a long-term campaign that could not have been won without a strong mutual aid mechanism.

The boycott, which lasted more than a year, was originally scheduled to last just one day—December 5, 1955—to protest that week’s arrest of Rosa Parks. When a supermajority of 90 percent of Black Montgomery residents stayed off the busses, leaders who planned the one-day boycott decided they could use this strong show of unity to launch a long-term campaign. On the afternoon of December 5th, leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and formally elected an executive committee to manage the campaign. 

The MIA had to adapt to an ever-changing set of conditions, and arrange mutual aid to keep the boycott going. The most obvious need was alternative transportation. At first, Black cab drivers accepted ten-cent rides, the same as bus fares. The city instituted new regulation forbidding discounted fares to penalize the taxi drivers, and the MIA had to keep switching tactics. Smithsonian Magazine reports

“The elaborate carpool relied on a fleet of 15 ‘rolling churches’—station wagons donated to black churches by Northern supporters that were harder to seize than privately owned cars—to serve the 17,000 African American bus riders who took the buses twice every day. The service was like a carpool on steroids and relied on a combination of logistical smarts and improvisation. A black farmers’ association rented a safe parking lot to the fleet for cheap, and organizers arranged for a dispatch system. When white insurance companies refused to insure the cars, an African American insurance agent based in Montgomery finagled insurance through Lloyd’s of London instead.”

Individuals still could autonomously help aid the boycott by picking up passengers and taking them where they needed to go, so the centralized structure of the MIA didn’t need to manage every single action taken by thousands of people unified in the boycott. But the executive committee could oversee the entire strategic campaign and make decisions about how to allocate aid. An individual whose car insurance is revoked might not be able to solve that problem on their own; this is where a coordinated organization can step in. There’s no real contradiction between autonomy and structure—if planned carefully and thoughtfully, they can reinforce each other.

What can mutual aid do? What can’t it do?

Mutual aid can help people survive. As we face a global pandemic, alarming income inequality, mass unemployment, and escalating and unpredictable climate catastrophes, working toward collective survival could be a full-time job. 

It makes sense for organizations—and most particularly, organizations which explicitly seek to build power—to weigh mutual aid projects against capacity concerns. In my DSA chapter, we spent weeks trying to develop a robust COVID-19 mutual aid program, only to realize our time would be much better spent directing our members to volunteer with any of the networks that were currently in place. The work was worth doing, but that doesn’t mean we had to make our own redundant internal structure to do it.

New Orleans DSA is still hosting brake light clinics, although we took some months off from entirely in-person events during the pandemic. The most recent clinic was paired with a weekly food distribution and a voter registration table. The clinics—and our organization’s established presence, month in and month out, for years—continue to bring more visibility, legitimacy, and new activists to our chapter. 

But the brake light clinics haven’t won DSA power. When the early summer uprising brought a swell of protests to the streets, they weren’t connected to our mutual aid work. When defunding the police became an explosively popular topic, no one was looking to our organization to lead. And we aren’t in any position to influence the District Attorney and judges elections happening this fall. 

The process of not just starting, but growing, maintaining, and justifying the brake light clinics has itself been deeply humbling. From the beginning, our chapter—including a large number of inexperienced or first-time organizers—has had to grapple with the central absence of our project, that however helpful, it remains unconnected to a strategic fight for power. 

How do we build power? The answer, frustratingly, is that we have to confront power where it currently sits: your boss, your landlord, and your government. If you want to confront power, you need a collective to back you up. And how do you get that collective? Mutual aid isn’t the answer, not on its own. 

We have to embrace mutual aid, even accepting its limits, if we are going to build a big enough movement to consolidate power. Of course, mutual aid feels more effective when we’re coordinating Bread for Ed to support massive teachers’ strikes than when we’re managing a handful of volunteers at weekly food distribution. But the greatest strategic error the left can make is to ignore that our comrades’ conditions vary. You aren’t going to get anywhere telling New Orleans to concentrate on Bread for Ed over brake light clinics, given that our teachers’ union was destroyed in 2005. 

Our scrappy little chapter, in our scrappy national organization, isn’t going to quit. We’ve organized three years of brake light clinics, fomented local support for universal healthcare, helped to support our comrades in new chapters throughout the state, offered strike support and assisted our members in organizing their workplaces. We may not yet be confronting power on a massive scale, but we are building power, and every new comrade who joins the fight expands our potential to shape the world. 

Even as we look to successful past organizing, like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, we struggle to hold the full picture. This timeline from the IIT Chicago-Kent Law Library highlights what we miss: E. D. Nixon’s February 1955 political forum to question white candidates about their positions on bus seating policies; Claudette Colvin’s March 1955 arrest for not surrendering her seat to a white woman; a March meeting between Black leaders and city government to discuss bus seating; the October arrest of Mary Louise Smith for failing to cede her seat to a white woman. You can look at any “before” point and say, they weren’t doing enough. They weren’t confronting power. But “confronting power” tends to be a series of actions, not one big dramatic event. It takes a lot of work.We are going to need more than collective survival techniques, but survival is what gets us to the next step. We may not know exactly what is coming, but to confront and seize power, we are going to need lots of people, and lots of practice. How do we get from here to there? Here’s the first step: Join us.

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