Mutual aid, Abolition and Movements: An Interview with Dean Spade
A lot of people have been introduced to mutual aid this past year, through the pandemic. But you have been involved and writing about mutual aid for a long time. Can you say a bit about how and why you got involved initially?
When I first got involved in organizing, in the mid-1990’s in New York City, I wasn’t aware of the term “mutual aid” but mutual aid was a core part of what I saw around me in all the groups I was in.
Rudy Giuliani (or as we called him, Ghoul-iani) was mayor and his administration was attacking and targeting people on many fronts. He was going after taxi drivers, street vendors, unhoused people, queer bars and public meeting spaces, the sex work industry, people on welfare, and more. His administration’s brutality really “remade” the city in ways that are so visible today, increasing displacement and criminalization of poor people, pushing people off benefits, “cleaning up” Times Square and other areas to be family-friendly tourist attractions by sweeping street people into jails and prisons. It’s hard to estimate how many people’s deaths his policies hastened.
The resistance to Giuliani’s agenda was widespread, with people working on all these fronts to oppose him and also building vibrant coalitions to back up each other’s efforts. In all this work, people were doing a combination of mutual aid, direct action, street protest, and more. Many people I was involved with were directly supporting people living with HIV and AIDS who were fighting for public benefits and housing. This meant we spent time with people in social services offices and making calls, trying to force the city to comply with the laws and policies that the AIDS movement had won that said they were supposed to give people basic necessities.
This was mutual aid work—direct survival support for people in crisis. It was tied in with lots of other mutual aid efforts like needle exchanges, jail support and legal support for people arrested, food programs, and more, and it was also tied in with other actions like chaining ourselves to the doors of the Human Resource Administration (NYC’s welfare authority) office to demand change, having big public meetings about the problems, and much more. Many people I worked with, in these grassroots all-volunteer groups, had been part of ACT UP New York and had a lot to share with me and my friends in our late teens and early 20’s about resistance tactics.
I think my experience is much like many other people’s in that we enter social movement work and immediately become part of mutual aid efforts that are intertwined with efforts to get at the root causes of the problems, to put big pressure on the systems causing the crises, and to build the new world we want. I have also spent a lot of my life working in the movement to abolish police, prisons, and borders, and especially in supporting queer and trans people who are being criminalized and/or face deportation. In that movement we also see that direct support for people in crisis goes hand-in-hand with the work to abolish the systems that are causing those crises.
It is from people in prisons of all kinds and in deportation proceedings that movement groups find out what the system is doing to people, what the priorities are for resistance work, and how to not be duped by surface reforms that don’t make the change we want.
Abolition work is based in networks of relationships between people inside and outside prisons and comes from the wisdom of the communities that have been targeted for criminalization and deportation and have learned first-hand about the failures of the main reforms that the systems keep offering up. It is through those networks of relationships that abolitionists have developed our discernment of what kinds of reforms are system-sustaining and which kinds will actually get us closer to our goals of living in a society that does not cage and deport people.
How do you define mutual aid?
The term mutual aid is used in many different ways, but what I mean by it is the direct survival support work we do in movements based in a shared understanding of the systems that are causing and worsening these crises. It is the work where we get together and help each other get by as part of a broader movement to get to the root causes of the crises.
A key way to understand mutual aid work is to distinguish it from charity. Charity is a framework where rich people and the governments they control give small crumbs to some people in crisis to make themselves look good and legitimize the systems that are causing wealth concentration and poverty. Charity is based in determining which people in crisis are “deserving” and it uses elaborate eligibility criteria to determine this.
So, for example, unhoused people are only eligible for the housing a charity or social services program is giving out if they are sober, take the psych meds they have been prescribed, are not undocumented, don’t have a felony conviction, etc. Charity is moralizing. It tells us that people are in crisis because there is something wrong with them and the eligibility criteria are going to root out the deserving ones and give them some conditional relief.
Mutual aid rejects all of this, arguing that the people in crisis are not to blame for the crisis, it is the system that is to blame. People are not homeless because they failed at “personal responsibility,” they are homeless because of a racialized-gendered capitalist housing market designed to extract as much profit as possible for the benefit of the few. Mutual aid rejects eligibility criteria and strings attached to relief that are based in the idea of who is deserving and undeserving. Mutual aid is interested in supporting the people in the most dire situations, which is often the very people who are stigmatized and excluded from charity and social services.
What is the connection between mutual aid and social movements?
Mutual aid work has been part of all social movements that have organized a lot of people for big change. Mutual aid is typically the onramp for people into movements. Many people enter social movements because they go to a mutual aid project for something they need, and when they get there they get to encounter this liberatory space where no one is blaming them for being in crisis and instead they are being invited into collective action to solve the problem many people are facing. Others enter movements because they get angry about what they see is going on and they want to help the people in crisis, perhaps because they have been through something similar, so they join a mutual aid project to dive right in. For many people who become lifelong organizers, mutual aid is where they first made contact with movements.
I’ve been focused for the last five years on trying to popularize the idea of mutual aid with writing, teaching, videos, a mutual aid toolkit because, especially after Trump was elected, it was clear to that there are many newly mobilizable people who are pissed and scared about what is going on.
Unfortunately, there are really damaging mythologies about how social change happens that are meant to demobilize us, that tell us that social change come from charismatic leaders, law reforms, elections, and work done by professionals in nonprofits. This asks us to participate only passively, to vote, donate, post things on social media, and admire elites, but essentially to wait for those people to solve it.
Mutual aid is written out of the histories we learn of social movements. We are told that the big moments happened when important men signed legislation, and the reality of millions of people we’ve never heard of working together on the ground is obscured. I hope that people talking and thinking more about mutual aid encourages people towards a different kind of participation. I did not anticipate how much the idea of mutual aid would mainstream when COVID-19 hit, and I am hopeful that it is bringing a lot more people into deep movement participation that helps us build bigger movements for change and help each other survive as conditions worsen.
Volunteers from a nonprofit organization provide food supplies to people who line up ahead of Thanksgiving amid the COVID-19 pandemic in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City on November 20, 2020.
Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency // Shalom Rav
You write that mutual aid is in part about communities finding solutions for their own problems and not waiting for a savior. One possible savior always is, of course, government. How do you see the balance between building our own solutions to problems and holding the state accountable to doing so?
I think that people really vary on the answer to this question. It is clear that when social movements do work, including mutual aid work, that exposes and opposes the brutality of the crises we’re facing, governments often respond with concessions, providing some kind of relief.
Some people doing social movement work would articulate their goal as having governments provide relief. That is not my approach. I think that we should celebrate government concessions as an indicator of our movements building influence and capacity, but as someone who has spent my life studying poor relief and disaster relief programs and fighting for people’s benefits in them, it is clear to me that government relief will always exclude stigmatized populations, be distributed through racialized-gendered hierarchies of deservingness, and be inadequate.
Additionally, the government can withdraw relief, and will do so, as soon as possible. This is the history of welfare in the US—it expands during crisis when people are organized and there is a real threat that people will topple the machine of extraction and wealth concentration, and then it contracts as quickly as possible after. Sexist, anti-Black rhetoric has been relentlessly used to contract welfare and to punish the poor. Disaster relief, similarly, is designed in ways that leaves the poorest people out, that exacerbates debt relations, and often includes further criminalization of poor people and Black people. Because I don’t believe that poor relief or disaster relief in the US, including if we had universal health care or other welfare state features common in rich countries that we currently lack, will ever be distributed in ways that are fair or just, I do not see government relief as the goal of mutual aid.
The US is a colonial government founded in slavery and genocide. It’s institutions, whether they are welfare programs, police, health programs, schools, or housing programs, are designed to implement racialized-gendered colonial control, have always done so, and will do so. Additionally, they are crumbling as the world faces climate change and the US lives with the results of decades of deindustrialization, divestment from basic infrastructure, and massive investment in militarism, surveillance, policing, and border control. Given all this, I do not see a robust anti-racist feminist welfare state as likely emerging here.
Instead, I think we will be facing mounting crises and that the more practice we get taking care of each other, sharing, building relationships based on mutuality instead of domination and extraction, and making decisions together, the more likely we are to reduce suffering and increase survival.
In the meantime, if we’re doing a good job putting up a fight, we’ll sometimes see concessions from the government, like inadequate stimulus checks or maybe even Medicare for All. But whatever they give us will be designed to be inadequate and excluding. People on the margins have always survived on mutual aid here, and as wealth concentrates and suffering increases, mutual aid is the only way to survive for more and more of us.
All across the country, as the housing crisis mounts we see increasing tent cities. I’ve been moved seeing the mutual aid projects supporting people living in those tent cities, like StreetWatch LA that provides food, water, tents, charging stations and hygiene kids. I’ve also seen the bold defense tactics that people across the country are using to defend these encampments from police raids.
Meanwhile, other anti-eviction activists have been blocking the doors to courts to stop evictions, while migrant justice activists block ICE from arresting immigrants. I think we will be seeing more of these kinds of militant forms of mutual aid, in addition to the distribution of housing, food and medicine, and conditions worsen in the coming years.
To me, particularly with the Biden Administration coming into power and showing that it is beholden to the fossil fuel industry, loyal to US military imperialism, and eager to continue the Obama’s deportation legacy, it is well past time to let go of the fantasy of a savior US government that will finally deliver racial and gender justice and take care of us all. This country was designed for extraction and wealth concentration, and it has done a great job at that and continues to do so. If we want something else we have to make it together, just as we always have. I love that slogan, “We’re all we’ve got. We’re all we need.”
I know you have also been active in the abolition movement, which connects with a critique of the state, and the idea that we as communities should look to develop our own forms of justice. Can you say a bit about how you see these connections?
Yes, the abolition movement is based on an understanding that the police, prison, and border systems are not redeemable. They cannot be reformed to be something they are not. They do not make people safe, they protect the interests of the rich and bring enormous violence to the BIPOC communities, poor people, people with disabilities, queer and trans people and other targets.
Abolitionists work to shrink police, prison and border enforcement anywhere we can, to support people who are currently in the grips of these systems, and to build real safety strategies. This reframing, which identifies the biggest threats to our safety as coming from government which not only maintains (and arms to the teeth) a brutalizing police force and prisons that are torture centers, but also organizes a deadly for-profit health system, facilitates the poisoning of our the land, air and water, and organizes property relations that keep most people in desperation, is essential. It moves us from a conversation about reforming the police to examining the root causes of suffering and early death. It moves us from a conversation about what to do with “dangerous people” to a conversation about how to stop the biggest sources of suffering in our lives.
Feminist abolitionists, particularly women of color, have also created brilliant resources for doing Transformative Justice work in our own communities to address the violence that happens between our people, particularly as we face community desperation combined with internalized value systems that permit and encourage racialized-gendered violence. In these ways, abolitionist work attacks and undermines the justifications for state violence, and practices building the world we want, where we work to prevent and address threats to our safety based in community capacity for response rather than calling the police.
You give some great examples in your book about how some of the mutual aid projects intersected with movement building. What do you see as the potential for the mutual aid networks that have developed and grown over the past year to build with the other movements of our current moment, such as the movements for racial justice, movements against “Trumpism,” and movements for economic justice?
Because mutual aid is most frequently the onramp into social movement participation for people, where people go from passively holding certain beliefs to participating with others in collaborations to make change on the group, I think we will be seeing the impacts of the past year’s proliferation of mutual aid projects for years to come.
A lot of people who had never previously been part of social movement groups, we can’t yet know how many, joined mutual aid projects this year and practiced organizing in new ways. I meet these people all the time because mutual aid projects often reach out to me to get support on building their internal structures, addressing conflict, and dealing with other problems that have come up. Almost everyone I talk to never organized before 2020, and it is remarkable to hear about all they have learned and tried. People might have gotten involved initially because of one particular issue they are interested in, but inevitably learned a lot from the people they were collaborating with and grew new solidarities.
For many, the combination of already being involved in a COVID mutual aid project of some kind, and then joining the summer 2020 (and ongoing) protests against police violence and anti-Black racism, has meant a quick education in social movement tactics and a transformation of life values and life plans. A decade ago, I saw something similar when tons of people who were new to organizing became part of Occupy/Decolonize encampments. Even after the police raided and destroyed those camps, people who got started in them continued doing all kinds of movement work in their cities and regions. Comparatively, 2020’s mobilizations were much larger, and I think that we will continue to see people who got mobilized in this time both sustain the mutual aid projects they started and expand the reach of their participation and leadership in new directions. I am grateful to be alive in this moment of emboldened resistance, and I hope that together we can do enough to tackle the immensity of the crises we are facing.
[Stephanie Luce is a professor of labor studies at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, a member of the Portside collective, and on the editorial board of Organizing Upgrade.]
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