15 May Jonathan Cartu Declared: ‘The way we get through this is together’: the rise of
eople behaving badly is a staple of the news, and the pandemic has given us plenty of lurid snapshots. In the US alone, we have seen protesters with guns in Michigan’s capital demanding an end to lockdown, anti-vaxxer women in a frenzy at California’s capitol, opportunists stockpiling hand sanitiser to resell for profit.
One of the biggest cliches about disasters is that they reveal civilisation as a thin veneer, beneath which lies brutal human nature. From this perspective, the best we can hope for from most people under crisis is selfish indifference; at worst, they will swiftly turn to violence. Our worst instincts must be repressed. This becomes a justification for authoritarianism and heavy-handed policing.
But studies of historical disasters have shown that this is not how most people actually behave. There are nearly always selfish and destructive people, and they are often in power, because we have created systems that reward that kind of personality and those principles. But the great majority of people in ordinary disasters behave in ways that are anything but selfish, and if we’re stuck with veneer as a metaphor, then it peels off to reveal a lot of creative and generous altruism and brilliant grassroots organising. With the global pandemic, these empathic urges and actions are wider and deeper and more consequential than ever.
A dozen years ago, the term “mutual aid” was, as far as I can tell, used mostly by anarchists and scholars. Somehow it has migrated into general usage in recent years and now, in the midst of the pandemic, it is everywhere. Mutual aid has generally meant aid offered in a spirit of solidarity and reciprocity, often coming from within struggling communities, empowering those aided, and with an eye towards liberation and social change. Generally it meant volunteer coalitions doing work such as rebuilding or food distribution or supporting resistance camps. One of the most striking aspects of this global crisis is how many forms of aid and solidarity there are. These new forms of generosity we are seeing – organising, networks, projects, donations, support and outreach – are numerous beyond counting, a superbloom of altruistic engagement.
This work has been made more difficult by the great withdrawal – the empty schools, shops, streets and offices. And that withdrawal is itself altruism in action – a withdrawal carried out by billions for the benefit of their communities, as well as their own safety. In the initial phase, we withdrew from the spaces we share out of solidarity: we moved apart to come together. We intentionally produced, in the form of business and school shutdowns and staying home, an unprecedented economic calamity as an alternative to accepting mass death.
In March, many small business owners and service workers in the US willingly shut down their enterprises, and thereby their livelihood, even before the official orders came. In April, 50 restaurant owners in the Atlanta area publicly rejected the Georgia governor’s invitation to reopen. Together they took out an ad in a local newspaper and wrote: “We agree that it’s in the best interest of our employees, our guests, our community and our industry to keep our dining rooms closed at this time.”
For some, staying home may be a strain, but for others it means financial ruin. Sacrificing your own financial security for the common good was a solemn commitment that people made across the world. It was one of the things that made this crisis distinct: how often refraining, not doing, not going anywhere, not continuing activities, was also an act of public-spirited generosity. This is willing sacrifice for the public good. But people have been doing more than that.
In March, the UK’s National Health Service called for 250,000 volunteers to sign up to help seniors, people who were isolating and medical staff who needed deliveries. More than three times that many signed up. Appreciation for the NHS grew even stronger, and the widespread weekly rounds of applause for its workers became one of the welcome interruptions of isolation. In mid-March, a website was launched listing several hundred new mutual aid groups across the country, so people could search their local area.
“In my area in London, we have had so many [mutual aid groups] that we’ve spun off down to street level,” one Londoner told me. “Our two-street collective has done shopping, picked up medicines, created an Easter-egg -in-the-window hunt for kids, all to help one another.” Another wrote: “Hackney in London has all the usual stuff like grocery buying and support, plus people are sourcing donated phones for people in hospital, laptops for kids who need them to access home learning and cars for healthcare staff redeployed to the makeshift Covid-19 hospital.”
A few weeks ago, I heard someone complain that Lexington, Kentucky, had four mutual aid groups – they were concerned that so many volunteers would be redundant; I was awestruck by the abundance. In the course of writing this piece, I looked at various new mutual aid projects: meal deliveries to the elderly in Paterson, New Jersey; the Twin Cities Queer and Trans Mutual Aid group in Minneapolis-Saint Paul; projects to aid the Hopi, Zuni and Navajo on reservations in the US south-west; a Washington state project to support the undocumented; sex workers organising to raise emergency funds.
I saw people stuck at home in isolation teach dance and drawing classes, tell stories, play music online to encourage others quarantining in place; Italians singing together from their balconies and Iranians reciting poetry from theirs; a young native Nevadan going fishing to feed members of her Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe. Most of us have seen, or performed, one-off acts of kindness – running an errand for a frail neighbour, chalking a cheerful message on the pavement, picking up the shopping bill for the struggling couple at the checkout, donating to a fundraiser for an acquaintance who has been laid off or taken ill. But such individual actions are not enough to address this triple catastrophe of a viral pandemic, a financial collapse and the emotional, educational and other consequences of the great withdrawal.
Thus there are also people building organisations to provide broader, ongoing practical aid – such as the young people in more than a dozen US cities delivering groceries and supplies to older and immunocompromised people via a network called Zoomers to Boomers – and others organising emotional support for those who feel isolated, including the UK’s adopt-a-grandparent programme. There are new groups, projects, organisations and networks, and old ones retooling for the crisis.
Fiji-based climate organiser Thelma Young-Lutunatabua told me about the return of traditional Fijian forms of equitable, cooperative food distribution to make sure no one was left out. “The way we get through this is together,” she said.
ifteen years ago, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a mutual aid organisation called Common Ground Relief was founded by a handful of people inside the damaged area, including the former Black Panther Malik Rahim. (In the US, perhaps the most famous past examples of mutual aid are the Black Panther party’s 1960s-era food programmes to assuage hunger in inner-city neighbourhoods.) The group’s slogan was “solidarity not charity”, a phrase inspired by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano: “I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.”
As a definition of mutual aid’s ideals, “solidarity not charity” surfaces constantly today. Charity often implies that the afflicted population is powerless or incompetent to address its own needs. Sometimes, it can take away confidence and pride even as it gives tangible aid. Solidarity is, first of all, an…