Mutual aid has been around a long time. For many people who practice mutual aid, it is not known by that name. Rather, it is simply a common sense activity essential to the survival of human communities. When you see members of your village or tribe or city or even a faraway community suffering because of a lack of food or health care or shelter, you do what you can to provide them with whatever it is they need.
Through such practices, people come to see mutual aid as a better way to organize collective life than the hierarchical societies most of the world lives in. For some, mutual aid puts into practice the precept that “I am my brother and sister’s keeper.” For others, the labor ideal of “an injury to one is an injury to all” applies. Whatever the inspiration, mutual aid serves as an alternative to social organization where most power rests in the hands of a small number of people and where profits, self-interest and the accumulation of wealth are propagated as the highest goals to which one can aspire.
Mutual aid is in direct contrast to charity. Charity is carried out by the better-off who believe they know what’s best for those in need, with no recognition that injustice is the essence of a society like ours. Charity is doled out by people who have no interest in transforming society and charitable organizations operate to keep people powerless and dependent.
The Black Panthers
Mutual aid has manifested itself in many ways throughout the history of this country. The work of the Black Panthers in the 1960s is one example. Based on their experiences and the expressed needs of Black people, the Panthers established a broad spectrum of community survival programs in cities throughout the country. The Free Breakfast for Children program is the best-known and thousands of children from poor families were served free breakfast, in some cases for years. In response to requests from the people, the Panthers also established mobile health clinics that provided testing and treatment for a wide array of health problems as well as schools for people of all ages with classes on subjects ranging from basic literacy to African-American history. Over time, new people became involved in these activities and initiated new ones.
Food Not Bombs
Another mutual aid organization in the United States that dates to the 1970s is Food Not Bombs. The idea is a simple one: provide healthy meals to hungry people. To do so, a core of people set up outdoors soup kitchens in a park or common area in cities and towns around the country. Food was collected from stores and individuals, and volunteers set up a basic cooking operation at a set time and place. Once a regular schedule is established, as many as several hundred hungry people come to eat once and sometimes twice a day. Vegetarian food was served to encourage better health and living harmoniously within the natural world. And naming the effort Food Not Bombs underscored that the meals were being provided in a society whose priorities were seriously askew, one where trillions of dollars are spent on weaponry while millions go hungry for lack of work and government assistance.
Bridgeport Mutual Aid
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an increase in mutual aid activity and organizations. In Bridgeport, Connecticut where I live, a dozen or so people came together in March of 2020 to form Bridgeport Mutual Aid (BMA). A large percentage of Bridgeport’s residents are poor and many others who are not categorized as such were nonetheless struggling even before the pandemic. Their situations became more precarious when the state ordered many businesses to close, jobs were lost and people were advised not to socialize even with relatives living nearby. The elderly who are most vulnerable found themselves cut off from their usual social network of sons and daughters and grandchildren. When Bridgeport officials also suspended the city’s bus service, those without cars found it much more difficult to shop for groceries and other essentials.
BMA decided to provide food and other items like toilet paper, diapers and sanitary napkins to as many of those in need as possible. Most members had contacts of all kinds throughout the city, especially in poor and working class neighborhoods, and drew on those contacts to spread the word about the project. Because of social distancing requirements and restrictions on travel, a decision was made to deliver the food since it was too dangerous to set up a central gathering place for people to come and pick up whatever they needed.
Since the Spring, BMA members have gathered four afternoons a week. The cars of those making deliveries are loaded, updated lists that include the names and addresses of the newest recipients are printed, and people disperse throughout the city to bring a large box of goods to each household on the list. Members make about 20-25 deliveries each and several hundred people receive groceries and other goods on those four days.
Anyone who requests aid gets it. New people have joined the effort and stores and retailers contribute food and other goods. Supporters contribute money that is used to buy any items that aren’t contributed and BMA also secured a small grant. People work whenever they can, whether it’s four times a week every week or once every four weeks. BMA members belong to the Bridgeport chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and other organizations and participate in the work those and other groups in the area are doing.
One prime example of organizational overlap occurred in June when activists working to end police brutality established an encampment in front of police headquarters for ten days and nights. BMA folks have also been involved in the organizing against police brutality so it was only natural that BMA participated in both the encampment and in making sure the 50 or so people who were camping out every night had sufficient food. BMA members also helped to ensure that the encampment included portable bathrooms, a first aid tent, a library and entry points where face masks were given to anyone not wearing one.
BMA hopes to expand as the advent of colder weather makes it more difficult for people to travel. COVID cases are on the rise in Bridgeport and health experts are warning about the possibility of very dramatic increases if no significant preventive measures are taken by the federal government. With some experts warning of a winter that will be the worst of our lives, it’s possible stores and other businesses will again close down in which case the work of BMA will become more important.
Expanding the Circle
Some food recipients have become BMA members, expanding the circle. New members without activist experience have in this way gotten to know people and organizations working on other important issues like rent relief and police brutality that they did not previously know about. The circle expands further when they tell friends, family members and neighbors about BMA and these other organizations and their projects.
BMA’s work is one small example of mutual aid activities happening all around the country. The need for such efforts grows as ruling elites increasingly show themselves to be completely opposed to the needs of the people. Mutual aid can take whatever form people in a particular place decide.
The practice of mutual aid is antithetical to the predominant social ideology put forward by ruling elites. The idea of a society where people look out for each other is ridiculed at every turn by those who see profits and empire as the highest callings in life. We in this society are bombarded from birth by propaganda that everyone is an isolated individual in competition with every other isolated individual. People know both from their own experience and intuitively that that is wrong, though it is sometimes difficult to know how to live otherwise and then to have the ability to do so. Mutual aid efforts are one piece of how it can be done.
In a society as highly individualistic and atomized as ours where there is often little organizational support for mutual aid projects, such projects are often initiated by people with some degree of collective activist experience. It is one form of political participation among many in the larger effort to create a society based on human and planetary needs. Most everyone in BMA also attends demonstrations, protests, lobbying efforts and meetings of all kinds to pressure institutions of power to act to meet human needs until such time as those institutions can be reformed or done away with.
Human freedom will come about only when people on a massive scale come to see their own actions as central to such efforts and act accordingly. Alongside of and in combination with the essential work of Black Lives Matter and others organizing in workplaces, campuses, prisons and communities everywhere, mutual aid activities help create the possibility for both large-scale participation in all aspects of social life as well as our collective liberation.
Andy Piascik is an award-winning author whose most recent book is the novel In Motion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.