Abolition Action was one of the many small mutual aid collectives fundraising online in March when the COVID-19 lockdown hit New York City. After raising money for their grocery fund, the group posted their request form on social media in the hope that it would reach people in need. Their email inbox was soon inundated with requests for money transfers.
A mutual aid collective asks no questions and has no requirements. It trusts people to know what their needs are, and it tries to meet those needs.
“We’re just one group, and we immediately got thousands of requests,” says Cheryl Rivera, an organizer with Abolition Action, which describes itself as an anti-capitalist collective that “creatively resists carceral systems and mindsets.”
The challenge at the beginning of the pandemic for Rivera was moving money and resources as quickly as possible. Abolition Action ran into roadblocks when it tried to transfer money to many families at once.
“Money is made to move to the wealthy,” says Rivera, who was hampered in her organizing by transfer restrictions from money payment systems like Venmo and PayPal.
Now, through the NYC-DSA Mutual Aid COVID-19 Relief Fund, a trust fund set up by members of Democratic Socialists of America, Rivera has been able to transfer tens of thousands of donated dollars to families in need; nevertheless, the mutual aid learning curve at the beginning of the pandemic was steep. Networks of resource distribution needed to be started from scratch and then scaled up swiftly.
Whitney Hu, one of the founders of South Brooklyn Mutual Aid (SBMU), says her collective began by working in a single Excel spreadsheet. Given the vastness of the undertaking before them, they had to quickly develop more systematic methods of organizing. Now they have a warehouse and a van to mass distribute groceries to more than 500 families every week.
Mutual aid, a term popularized by the anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin in the nineteenth century, can roughly be defined as the reciprocal exchange of resources for the sake of mutual benefit. But many contemporary mutual aid collectives, especially those that came into existence during the pandemic, may appear to have more in common with charities than with mutual aid collectives in the traditional sense. Yet, nearly all of the organizers I spoke with see what they are doing as very different from philanthropy.
According to these organizers, a lack of means-testing makes mutual aid organizing distinct from other kinds of resource distribution. Hu says that in SBMU, they don’t ask “who deserves and who doesn’t.” Nor are they “interested in asking people about their salaries, citizenship status, or where they are.”
Rivera contrasts mutual aid collectives with government welfare services as they currently function. She believes that the primary role of mutual aid collectives is to serve people’s needs. This, she says, is in contrast “to the official support structures of the city in its response to the pandemic, which are frequently centered around ‘how do we make sure the people who don’t deserve to have their needs met are not served.’ ”
She juxtaposes mutual aid work with programs like state unemployment benefits, in which the receiver is required to appear to be searching for work in order to receive payment. A mutual aid collective asks no questions and has no requirements. It trusts people to know what their needs are, and it tries to meet those needs.
In April of this year, Hu received a call from a young single mother who had lost her job and was in debt. “She asked me if she could set up a payment plan to feed her babies,” Hu recalls. The woman’s assumption was that she could only receive aid from SBMU if she went into debt.
“The fact that I could have a mom of two children in the richest city in the world want to set up a payment plan so she could buy rice to feed her family, that’s just a moment when you really reevaluate everything you’ve known about the government, about our place in society, about the way things should and should not be,” Hu says. “I said, ‘don’t worry about a thing, we’re buying you groceries.’ She started crying and I didn’t know how to respond.”
Though many new mutual aid organizations may not conform to traditional leftwing conceptions of what mutual aid is, they open up a community space for non-transactional relationships between strangers. And a growing corp of radicalized volunteers suggests that these collectives will continue after the pandemic.
Scott Heins, a member of Crown Heights Mutual Aid, says many members of his mutual aid group began with little organizing experience. They began the work with the expectation that “mutual aid is going to be a six-week sprint to the finish line. As long as we can deliver as many boxes of food as we can, we’ll make it and we’ll get out of it.”
“A mixture of the pandemic and the protesting rewired how people see each other and changed mutual aid.”
The reality of the pandemic changed that. Heins says, “The reality is not only is the COVID-19 crisis ongoing, but crises of food insecurity, income inequality, and racial capitalism continue and have been going on for centuries.”
Heins would like to see the mutual aid organizations that came about as a result of the pandemic become further embedded in their communities. He hopes that newly radicalized organizers “try to address not just the immediate need of folks but also the root cause of what’s going on.”
In the first two months of the pandemic, 5 percent of New York City’s population moved away. Of that 5 percent, 40 percent were from the wealthiest Manhattan neighborhoods.
As the real estate market dipped slightly and the richest people fled to the suburbs, many media outlets decreed that New York was dead. However, of those who remained (which is to say the overwhelming majority), many may come out of this era with a different set of politics than they entered into it with.
These New Yorkers have stayed through the first coronavirus spike and witnessed the police violence during the Black Lives Matter protests. Mutual aid collectives participated in the protests, giving out food, water, medical attention, and personal protective equipment. Some even opened up their homes to those who were fleeing police violence.
“The protests in the summer helped people recognize this idea of giving when you have and being able to receive when you don’t. That has helped make sure mutual aid can walk that delicate line between mutual aid, solidarity, and charity,” Hu says. “A mixture of the pandemic and the protesting rewired how people see each other and changed mutual aid.”
As a result of organizing during COVID-19, many groups are now more embedded in their communities and have a more ideologically coherent outlook than they started out with. They are establishing hubs of solidarity and community that could continue long after the pandemic comes to an end.