As the coronavirus pandemic tore through America, leaving mass unemployment, precarious housing, and rising food insecurity in its wake, communities across the country banded together to support one another through mutual aid groups. Neighbors called upon each other to donate funds, deliver groceries, and distribute masks and other PPE.
Mutual aid programs are systems that shouldn’t have to exist — community members are stepping up where federal and state governments fail to act — but they’re an anticapitalist response to systemic inequity. The people participating in mutual aid programs right now are building upon the radical legacy of the Black Panthers and their free breakfast programs for children, and of medical and food volunteers helping New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
The global uprising against white supremacy and police violence gave mutual aid networks a new role. Discourse Blog talked with two mutual aid organizers who found themselves having to respond to the new movement.
Anna Maria (who requested that her last name be withheld) is a journalist and organizer with Mutual Aid Houston, a previously abandoned effort which found new life in bailing out arrested protesters and getting them home.
Sarah Philips is a student at the University of Texas at Austin and an organizer with Mutual Aid Collective in Austin, a mutual aid coalition led by university students which expanded its efforts to sustain and protect protesters.
We spoke to Anna Maria and Philips about mutual aid’s role during city protests, and how other people can emulate this kind of community care themselves.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did your mutual aid efforts begin?
Sarah Philips: There was a Facebook group that started with other community members in Austin, but for younger people or people who are not on Facebook, there wasn’t an easy way to get a bunch of students in there. I have all these people that have volunteered for past [student council] campaigns or past organizing who are great graphic designers, who are great at building websites. So we started on Instagram because that was the way that students could engage most easily. We started sharing information on places distributing food, and started a Google spreadsheet where people could offer and request things like rides, or help with getting kicked off campus or having to move home.
The first three weeks we were working all the time, and once Austin stalled evictions and shutting off utilities, and created a small rental assistance program, I felt like I could breathe because people weren’t suddenly going to get evicted, and we had more time to stall while finding extra funds for them. We held off on donations at first but had distributed $14,000 in COVID relief before the protests.
Anna Maria: I had experience with protesting in Austin, and some but not as much organizing experience. Around the time the protests started, I saw Mutual Aid Collective online as this massively helpful resource for protesters in Austin, and I thought we needed that. There are other Houston aid groups doing a lot of great work but I didn’t see one central place where all of those resources were consolidated. I searched Google and there was no [Houston] mutual aid organization, and then I found a Mutual Aid HOU Twitter account that was created and fizzled out at the start of this pandemic. I DM’d the account asking to revamp it as a resource, and we made an Instagram and a Facebook from there and started posting. Once we actually started doing on the ground community work, people just started wanting to get more and more involved.
What needs were you seeing during the protests, and how did mutual aid go about fulfilling them?
Sarah Philips: On May 30 we opened donations specifically for protest-related aid, and at that time we were seeing this uprising of people being met with tear gas, rubber bullets, getting hurt. It was very organic. People weren’t just calling for a rally in front of City Hall. So we were seeing that and thinking about how we can fill in the gaps and organize medical supplies and water and food.
We knew that organizers were preparing for arrests so we wanted to prepare for these things by fundraising and distributing mass medical supplies to the protests. We have people on the ground who are communicating with us — the cops were holding rubber bullet rifles, you don’t need to see it happen to know.
Because of surveillance it’s not safe for me to be an online presence if I’m on the ground. It also protects my ability to distribute funds since I can’t be on my phone during a protest. I’m the remote person but we’re in contact with other organizations and we’re sending funds to street medics and bail funds. We have volunteers going to [the supermarket] HEB and I’m sending them money for Gatorade and other folks are taking the supplies to the protest, it’s like a line of people passing a bucket of water. We assess what’s needed on the ground and we go from there.
To some extent this is still COVID — organizing mutual aid for COVID relief is an acknowledgement that the state is doing violence against you and your communities. And this is another manifestation of that at Black communities and over all the country. Getting tear gassed is going to affect whether you get COVID, so thinking through that is really important.
“Mutual aid before the protests and after are all part of the same thing, and mutual aid has to step in and help provide for people in times of state repression, which COVID and this uprising represent.”
Anna Maria: The number one need was on the ground safety, like basic physiological needs like hydration and sustenance. It’s dangerous to protest in the summer because it’s really hot. They needed information about the credibility of the protests and who was organizing them. I noticed a lot of people were lacking very basic knowledge of protesting safety 101, and then it sort of evolved into people as a whole just needing access to information. Both protesters and off the ground allies seem to be really struggling with keeping up with the overwhelming onslaught of information — where to donate, who has enough donations, should we protest? I feel like a lot of mainstream coverage of protesting is very generic: This is happening in these cities, without context of the actual danger that cops pose to protesters. So we tried to organize that information in one place.
A good number of our 15 organizers have put in our own funds but in all my time in activism I have never seen such a massive population of people respond so quickly to financial and material aid. Our organizers’ houses are now just storage units, just supplies stacked from the floor to six feet in the air. During protests we divide supplies up into trash bags and people carry as much as they can with them. We’ve set up a station near an entrance area and passed things to people as they’ve arrived, but once the trickle slows we’ll have volunteers move toward the protest, checking in on people and offering water, snacks, and gloves, and check in on exhausted people at the end. If we do end up having extra stuff, we either save it for the next protest or distribute it among Houston’s homeless community.
Once a couple of our team members got unlawfully detained for peacefully protesting, we started getting really involved in jail support and making sure those protesters got home safe. Now that the flow of jailed protesters has slowed to a trickle, we’re just continuing jail support as a general community service. Black Lives Matter Houston and West Street Recovery organized jail support for protesters so we showed up to help them. We really needed to get protesters home, so we helped organize drivers and volunteers. We posted up right in front of the jail, we’re providing Ubers for people who need them, we have phone chargers at our station, we have supplies like water, Gatorade, snacks, masks, cigarettes and food donations. When people leave the jail we’ve offered people new masks, and I’d say about 90% of people who come out of the jail say they weren’t provided a mask when they asked, and weren’t allowed to keep the masks they came in with. Obviously [the Houston Police Department] has very little care for the ramifications of a global pandemic.
Protesters were coming out of the Harris County jail talking about how they weren’t given food or water for 24 hours, or medical attention for tear gas wounds or baton wounds. After three to four days, when protesters weren’t a majority of the people being released from jail, we had seen enough and heard enough horror stories of people inside the jail and we knew that we couldn’t stop, so BLM and WSR handed jail support off to us on June 8. We’re working around the clock to figure out how to make this sustainable.
What advice do you have for other people trying to practice mutual aid?
Sarah Philips: I think your neighbors are really important, but the reason why we went with the social media avenue is that a lot of people in our communities are BIPOC, usually queer or trans, and Austin’s a very white, scary place, so knocking on your neighbor’s door and being like, “Hello!” is not really a thing for most of the people in our community. Even just having a sign in your house saying, “Do you want to start a phone tree?” There’s simple ways to do it.
I think also if you’re thinking about starting a mutual aid social media is really important. I’m totally a digital organizer. I don’t think people are talking about it right now because it would seem kind of ludicrous criticizing digital organizing, but it’s something that I remember from the last couple of years, people being like, “Digital organizing isn’t real organizing.” And I’m so glad that I never listened to that. These are usually elders in our community but I remember being uncomfortable with that but feeling like I needed to listen to them. I think social media’s really important. I think it’s the way to get attention, resources, volunteers, and get the word out. Having this graphics comms team that can put out content has been really important, because we’re coupling political education with this mutual aid work. We are abolitionists in framework, but that’s not immediately obvious to people who haven’t engaged with what mutual aid looks like, so we’ve been trying to put out political education about abolition over reform and defunding Austin Police Department and working with communities of color.
My biggest takeaway is that mutual aid before the protests and after are all part of the same thing, and mutual aid has to step in and help provide for people in times of state repression, which COVID and this uprising represent.
Anna Maria: Always reach out to organizers of preexisting mutual aid collectives for advice. Maybe seek to help out your local Black Lives Matter chapter, then when you work with them for a little while you might see an area of aid that you could take. Always defer to the leaders and organizers that have been doing the work, and always be cognizant of the way your body and your identity takes up space. If you’re trying to help out the Black Lives Matter movement and you’re not Black, you better be listening to Black organizers. Be open to learning everything you can because nobody knows the needs of the community more than the members of that community.
Start out with a team that you trust unwaveringly, if that’s one person or five people, who you can delegate to, that shares your politics and believes in the same things you do. Take note of everything you do — if you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, I probably won’t need a spreadsheet,” you absolutely will. Get organized from the start because these kinds of organizations gain traction quickly because the need is always there, and it can be really easy to become overwhelmed by the administrative side of structuring an organization unless you have an iron grip over that from the very beginning.
There’s so much need in every community, it’s so easy to get overwhelmed. What are you passionate about? There are so many different areas that you could explore in aiding your community, so just start out with one. Social media is your friend, start out with getting your friends on board and the circle will grow. On the ground work is just as important as off the ground work. I would say like 60 to 70 percent of what all these mutual aid initiatives have been doing would have been impossible without the work of online organizers.
Photo by Jack Crosbie