Amid the coronavirus crisis, mutual aid networks erupt across the country

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Duane Townsend

Waging Nonviolence - March 27, 2020

As the first coronavirus cases came to Washington state, the government response was both slow and confused. That’s when community members knew they were going to have to build something themselves if they wanted to get through this pandemic.

“We recognized that we couldn’t rely on our current systems in place and needed to take care of each other directly,” said Janelle Walter of Tacoma Mutual Aid Collective, an all-volunteer organization of community members sharing resources. Mutual aid means creating “a network that can be mobilized immediately, without needing permission.”

Set right near the Puget Sound, Tacoma is a working-class city down the road from Seattle that does not have a large left-wing political scene like other West Coast metropolises. They were hit with the first wave of what would become a nationwide, and global, pandemic — shutting down social services, forcing people out of their jobs and leaving entire communities struggling to hold on. This was a crisis of catastrophic proportions that no one was prepared to deal with, and it came on like an avalanche over just a couple of days.

The Tacoma Mutual Aid Collective formed quickly from people who wanted to create a strong system for supporting those most affected, and immediately started doing grocery and prescription pick-ups and deliveries for people who could not risk going out in public. They began a Saturday grocery and school supply distribution in front of the local McCarver Elementary School, where families could drive up, grab what they needed and head out without violating the new rules of “social distancing.” The goal was to listen to those they shared the neighborhoods with, to hear what people needed and to start a system of sharing.

“Mutual aid is community,” Walter explained. “Relying on each other builds trust and capacity. It removes the need for paternalistic approaches to aid, like we see with nonprofits and other state programs. We are seeing mutual aid projects pop up all over — several here in Tacoma — and it’s because folks are realizing that our systems collapse in emergency situations, whether it be a pandemic or a natural disaster. Systems that are already inefficient and officials who are already incompetent are unable to meet basic human needs, so we need to take care of each other.”

The community of helping

The United States, the world’s largest economy, has been driven to a practical halt as every single state is dealing with outbreaks of a deadly coronavirus, called COVID-19. As the global death toll rises to the tens of thousands, and people are reminded of earlier flu pandemics that knocked percentage points off of the world’s population, governments have scrambled to figure out what the best course of action could be.

This bureaucracy has left many communities behind, particularly as “shelter orders” come down and businesses close, leaving many people without income to support their families. This is one of the worst case scenarios for a public health threat, and most communities have been left to fend for themselves.

The clarity of this situation has led people active in their community — some political and some simply looking for the best tools for survival — to start developing a series of “mutual aid” groups to help each other meet their basic needs.

“Mutual aid is the idea that humans should help humans, even and especially outside any market forces,” said Breht O’Shea, of Nebraska Left Coalition, who also hosts the podcast “Revolutionary Left Radio.” “Human cooperation, solidarity and communalism is built deep into our DNA, and mutual aid is just what that aspect of humanity looks like in practice.”

Mutual aid is the idea that when we support each other’s needs in a reciprocal relationship, but without obligation or exchange, we have the best chance to survive and flourish. Mutual aid projects have been a staple of radical social movements for decades — from food distribution services like Food Not Bombs to the “Survival Pending Revolution” programs of the Black Panthers, which included free health clinics and breakfast programs. When the state fails to meet the needs of the public, many communities will build resources themselves, and in doing so will build an alternative to the hierarchical bureaucracies of the government. ...
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