It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment everything changed. Every person has their own memory of the moment when time jumped ahead, when they first realized this whole coronavirus thing was real, and that life wouldn’t return to normal anytime soon. For many people, especially those who are overworked, underpaid, criminalized, incarcerated, subjected to violence and oppression, or lacking in basic resources, “normal” was already a struggle. Yearning for a return to normalcy feels like a fool’s errand when the way things were was already a waking nightmare for so many. By the time the pandemic crashed over us like a great and terrible wave, those who understood that tension—the activists, abolitionists, and anarchists—had already been fighting to dismantle the oppressive systems the crisis had since laid bare. For them, organizing was an established practice. For many others, helping the community became a new calling, a means of growing something sweeter on the rotten bones of our old world.
Mutual aid—the organizing principle dreamed up in 1902 by anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin that’s based on the idea of exchanging resources for mutual benefit—is suddenly on everyone’s lips. The idea has even found its way into the ivied pages of the New Yorker. Contrary to the top-down charity model, in which people tell others what they need and control how resources are distributed, mutual aid projects take their cues from the community itself and share resources as they’re needed. At a time when many feel that state and federal governments have failed them and essential workers are being put on the line in service to capitalism, it has been heartening to see community-care projects popping up like snowdrops after a storm. People are feeling the same pull to pitch in, to find—or become—one of the helpers that so often follows a natural disaster or great tragedy.
New community-based groups have sprung up across the United States, joining established mutual aid projects and forging their own paths, whether that takes the form of delivering food and supplies to their elderly or immunocompromised neighbors or plugging into a broader radical framework. The ancient concept of caring for one’s community is coded into our DNA, and yet the practice has found new life during this time. The idea of mutual aid is nothing new for the anarchists and other anti-capitalists who have already built coalitions around antifascism and community self-defense; abolitionist campaigns to free incarcerated people and ICE detainees; and rank-and-file organizations like tenant associations and labor unions. According to a spokesperson for It’s Going Down, an influential digital community center for anarchist, antifascist, autonomous anti-capitalist, and anticolonial movements, what has changed is the scale—groups have reported being flooded with new people who want to get involved.
“What the pandemic has done is amplify these projects and bring in many cities, hundreds of volunteers, and create much larger networks,” the spokesperson, who requested to remain anonymous, says. “As these new post-coronavirus projects have grown, we’ve also seen a greater degree of coordination and growth of infrastructure. With this greater degree of organization and networking, a new horizon appears—one in which we can see greater numbers of people becoming involved in autonomous forms of life and struggle.”
Reckoning with the Present
Many organizers have urgently amplified calls to release incarcerated people from crowded prisons and jails to decrease their potential exposure to the coronavirus. People who are immunocompromised, elderly, or already have compounding medical conditions are at heightened risk from the virus, and the often filthy, dangerous conditions inside U.S. prisons turned many facilities into death traps. Releasing people was the only humane option, and even then, politicians have failed to take meaningful action. Prison abolitionists cheer every time someone is sent home, but their vision of a future without cages requires much more drastic action.
“Mutual aid that is rooted in abolition, rather than the capitalist nonprofit-industrial complex, is essential for both currently and formerly incarcerated people,” says Adryan Corcione, a journalist who cofounded COVID-19 Behind Bars, a project tracking coronavirus cases in U.S. prisons and jails. Corcione also emphasized the need for organizers to be cognizant of how seemingly unrelated issues intersect. “While calls for decarceration are necessary, many reformist groups fail to address the connection between incarceration and chronic homelessness, as well as drug use,” Corcione says. “We see it now that those homeless shelters face similar conditions to those behind bars. It’s critical we address housing (or lack thereof) when addressing abolition [through the] lens of harm reduction.”
Indigenous communities were hit especially hard by the coronavirus thanks to a lethal combination of poverty, institutional racism, and federal neglect. In response, Indigenous Action, an organization in Flagstaff, Arizona, organized a wide-ranging Indigenous mutual aid network, which has distributed millions of dollars in material resources to Indigenous communities. The organization encourages settler accomplices to volunteer transportation and donate funds to support their work, and has also facilitated a flow of information about logistics, security culture, group finance, healthcare, and other aspects of anarchist direct action between experienced organizers and newer participants.
“This crisis has laid bare the ineffectiveness of the federal government to respond to people’s needs,” Eepa, a spokesperson for the group, says, castigating the Trump regime’s bungled, race-baiting response to the pandemic. “They’re here to dominate us, not to help us. Migrants continue to be hunted down and thrown in prison, where they die of this pandemic. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people are the communities whose bodies occupy America’s latest mass graves, just as they always have throughout American history.” Of course, not everyone has the time or energy to devote to outside projects, especially the communities Eepa mentioned, who are already more likely to be neglected or targeted by this administration; survival is enough of a burden.
Most folks are just trying to get through the day, and the nature of work itself has shifted during this pandemic. For those who have the privilege to work from home, it has brought isolation, alienation, and loneliness; for those who lost their jobs, there is a Byzantine maze of rickety unemployment websites and economic stress; for those who are still compelled to report to work outside, there’s the fear of contracting a deadly virus and bringing it home to their families. For millions, the stereotypical 9-to-5 office job evaporated almost overnight, and it looks like it may never return—at least not in the form to which we’ve become accustomed. “This weird moment of completely isolated but completely plugged-in online for all waking hours (along with the general threat of the pandemic) sparked the sorts of collaborations you’re seeing with X Campus and other organizing efforts,” says Andrew Fitzgerald, an organizer with the X Campus Coalition, a group of graduate workers at more than 75 public and private universities in more than two dozen states and Canada. “Where before in-person meetings and local efforts were the predominant approach to addressing systemically created inequalities and economic cracks, now everything’s always virtual anyway across time zones and institutions.”
The rise of remote work provides an interesting new argument for changing the way we work together. Members of the disability community who had long lobbied for the ability to work remotely and been told “no” over and over again (and missed out on work opportunities as a result) expressed frustration as an unprecedented number of companies transitioned into a remote work model. Keah Brown, an author and disability justice advocate (who has contributed to Bitch), says she hopes this moment will compel companies to start treating remote work as the norm. “I want employers to reevaluate their standard hiring pool and ask themselves what amazing candidates they’re letting slip by because they once frowned upon a remote work model that is actually working for them now,” she says. “I hope this shifts the very bleak prospects disabled people have come to know and that we get the opportunity to show what we can do to employers who overlook us otherwise.”
The pandemic’s initial stirrings in spring 2020 also coincided with an ongoing movement among grad students and other education workers at numerous universities to demand better working conditions and higher wages. Now, the broad shift to online learning has brought a host of new issues along with it. As schools closed and students were sent home, organizations like X Campus and UCI4COLA—a group at the University of California, Irvine, who have joined a broader coalition of grad students at several campuses in the University of California system to agitate for a cost-of-living wage increase—have remained active and kept their eyes turned to the future. A lot is riding on what happens next. “This crisis will be disastrous for higher education on many fronts,” says Semassa Boko, a doctoral student at UC Irvine and a UCI4COLA organizer. Boko said the move to online teaching has placed an untenable burden on grad-student workers who haven’t received proper training in online methods, has cheated students out of quality instruction, and has raised alarming issues over privacy, security, and academic freedom.
UCI4COLA is pushing back against an administration the group says cares only about its profits. “We have to refuse in big and small ways,” Boko says. “From refusing to turn our cameras on in Zoom meetings to wholesale labor stoppages, it’s going to take action to radicalize our coworkers. Post-COVID education represents an opportunity to imagine a new university, one that is much more mindful of the health and working conditions of students and workers which doesn’t bloat administrators’ paychecks.” Claudio Gonzáles, a media liaison for X Campus Coalition, echoes those concerns, as well as Boko’s call to rethink higher education. “The goal of groups like these is to deconstruct and then reshape the university system in order to serve the people instead of wealthy donors or corporate interests.
This crisis is accelerating the largest shift in higher education in the last century, one where campus workers—from graduate students to adjuncts to custodial staff to nurses to tenured faculty—have been structurally disenfranchised from having a say,” Gonzáles says. “Our organizing as graduate employees has to become bigger than workers on a single campus mobilizing against their bosses. We have to boldly demand justice for all and establish a culture where academic workers worldwide understand their shared fate with one another.”
Fighting for a New Future
The concept of workers wresting control of their shared fate away from predatory bosses has been a major through line during this crisis. It became especially apparent when scores of workers in precarious, low-wage industries were crowned “essential workers” overnight and expected to sacrifice themselves in exchange for public displays of appreciation (and, if they were lucky, a small pay raise). Gig Workers Rising, a grassroots campaign focused on supporting app and platform workers who are organizing for better wages, working conditions, and more respect, has been extremely vocal about the challenges its members face.
“People are thinking differently about work and workers right now; all of a sudden, gig workers went from people who didn’t have ‘real jobs’ to frontline essential workers,” Carlos Ramos, a rideshare driver and organizer with Gig Workers Rising, says. “The gig economy has always been predatory. It’s meant to exploit and take advantage of a workforce who have no legal protections, but then they wrap it in a bow, put it on an app, and sell it to the public with expensive design and marketing. Right underneath that gloss is a system that is designed to take advantage of vulnerable people. I think that veil has been torn down, and people are starting to see what is really going on.”
While some elected officials made overtures suggesting they would try to use their power for good during the crisis, seeing agents of the state step up in any meaningful way remains a rarity. However, one bright spot has been an increasing focus on labor legislation to extend protections and benefits to workers in the gig economy, particularly those who have been misclassified as independent contractors. New York City Councilmember Brad Lander and his staff have been on top of this issue, in a city where more than 150,000 people had been working as gig contractors prior to the pandemic.
“This crisis has thrown into sharp relief the deep inequality undergirding our society, fueled by gaping holes in our social safety net and companies that have exploited every opportunity for cheap labor,” Lander said via email. “While there is a lot of uncertainty about the economy right now, one thing is very clear: The contingent work economy isn’t working for its workers. We have to make some big changes to ensure that workers get the rights and benefits they deserve, whether that is by addressing rampant misclassification that has cut many gig workers out of benefits like sick days and minimum wage, or by creating new systems to ensure that healthcare and other benefits follow the worker rather than the job.”
Ultimately, the most important lesson here is that no one is coming to save us. That shouldn’t be cause for alarm; if anything, it’s a chance for people to come together and fight for a truly revolutionary vision of liberation.
While some workers are lionized, others are still being denied access to the most basic protections because their labor is criminalized. Sex workers have been shut out of the mainstream political discourse on workers’ rights, and yet those in the sex work community are often some of the most vulnerable or marginalized, especially those who are Black or trans. If anyone needs support or protection, it’s them—so in response to this ongoing lack of care, they’ve been organizing to protect themselves. “The pandemic has been particularly devastating for people who sell sex; the sex industry has been hit hard by shutdowns, and many sex workers don’t have access to the same structural safety nets or online tools that others do,” says Emily Coombes, a Las Vegas–based researcher and resident movement scholar with Hacking//Hustling.
“COVID-19 has exposed the lack of material support in place for people in the sex trade, but it has also shed light on sex workers’ long-existing vibrant mutual aid networks and abilities to support each other,” they continue. “There’s a long history of sex worker mutual aid projects, though we have definitely seen an influx in sex worker mutual aid organizing around emergency relief funds for those in the community hit hardest by the shutdown. We’ve also seen an uptick in digital mobilizing efforts, with some sex workers hosting webinars, community workshops, and trainings on how to safely move their businesses online.”
Gearing Up for the Fight
For those who are newer to organizing, it can be overwhelming to find the right place to plug in, and for those who are already immersed in this work, the possibility of burnout is very real. With so much happening, and so many needs to be met, how can this new generation of organizers find their niche, avoid burnout, and ensure that their projects remain sustainable after the initial glow of excitement has dulled? How can we ensure that these moments of rebellion and radical care last a lifetime? The answer, according to the activists in this piece, sounds simple: Be ready to adapt, keep organizing, keep investing time and resources into mutual aid, keep chipping away at the halls of power, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. “This is where bringing new people into the organizing comes in and also having an organizing structure that shares the workload.” It’s Going Down’s spokesperson says. “The best way to avoid burnout is to train people to become organizers themselves.”
Gonzáles, whose focus remains forging a more equitable education system, says for X Campus’s part, “We’ll sustain ourselves and each other through programs of mutual aid, sharing tactics and resources, and a strong collective vision for a world in which our institutions are accountable to the everyday people who make them possible.” Emily highlighted mutual aid as a core tool for sustaining the sex worker community and mentioned the work of organizations like Lysistrata, Green Light Project (based in Seattle), and Whose Corner Is It Anyway (Western Massachusetts). “Their organizing projects helped lay a foundation of collective knowledge that allowed for us to set up a local fund and receive donations quickly, build a distribution system aligned with shared community values, as well as vent and cope together,” they explain. “Providing direct material support to sex workers’ mutual aid projects is also essential for sustainability, as is publicly supporting sex workers’ autonomy to organize and be the experts on what policies and resources they need.”
“This crisis has shown that there is strength in anarchist mutual aid organizing, strength in independent groups of people working separately, but united through networks, and this crisis has shown that America is weak,” Eepa adds. For him and his Indigenous comrades, the latter is not a negative; rather, it’s a long-awaited opportunity to reclaim that which has been stolen. As he says, “The decay of this colonial empire provides the fertilizer for a decolonized future.” Ultimately, the most important lesson here is that no one is coming to save us. That shouldn’t be cause for alarm; if anything, it’s a chance for people to come together and fight for a truly revolutionary vision of liberation.
“Workers are being super politicized by the failures of these companies and the state,” Ramos says. “This pandemic is radicalizing workers like we’ve never seen before. It is our responsibility to share our vision and lay out a plan to help workers connect the dots and see that through organizing, we can turn the tides. We can win.” Ramos is right; the working class has notched monumental victories over the evils of capitalism before, and by Jove, we can do it again. But only through mutual aid, solidarity, and radical hope can we continue our collective mission to burn down the old systems of oppression and build something better on their ashes. If we want to survive, we’re going to have to save ourselves.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect that Indigenous Action created the Indigenous mutual aid network. (08/25/2020, 7:57 a.m. PST)