An essay on mutual aid in this moment

by Gabby Miranda

When I was ten I spent the summer in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico with my grandparents and great uncle. All those old relatives had something memorable to share with me that summer, and for Abuelo, his words are the clearest part. I don’t know what brand of traumatized I fit into, but it’s the one where sometimes when I’m talking to people about our struggles, I feel no choice but to respond, “my grandpa told me all you need to sleep is to be tired; all you need to eat is to be hungry.” I think I’m saying, “shit’s hard, but we have to be okay,” and move the conversation along.

My grandpa’s pointis in tune with the sway and verve of a crowd of voices alternating between - who keeps us safe? We keep us safe. There’s a certain irony to it - making survival sound simple - but if you take the facts into consideration, in the undeniable, breathable, everyday texture that is the lives violated by carceral-capitalism, survival is simple because it’s necessary. We must keep us safe. And because we have to, it’s aspirational. The instance of my actions is tied to what I must do, not what I could do. That we will be able to eat if we are hungry doesn’t literally put food on the table, but it does say to me that my need is enough. Anyone’s need is enough. In times of solitude, such as the current circumstance, I’m brought back to the feeling of Shakur - it is our duty to win - radiating through our chorus.

My friend Caroline (she/they) said, “we’re behaving our way into community.” Caroline organizes with me through Abolition Action, the collective that brings you this newsletter. I was asking them some questions about mutual aid, trying to find out a bit more about the meaning the phrase holds for Caroline, someone who’s done a lot in the past month-and-change to contribute to Abolition Action’s response to the pandemic. “Mutual aid is relationship building, ideally, you’re coming into community with other people, it’s not just a one term transaction, you’re inviting people into a movement, a new way of relating to the state and to capitalism.”

Amongst the series of events that eventually led to Caroline’s many hours organizing to build the infrastructure of the Abolition Action collective, was the time they spent driving to pick up and drop off a member of their hometown DSA community. Not to put them too much on the spot, but to also very intentionally shine a light on them, Caroline has a car that seems like it’s always being offered up to the group. As a co-organizer, I’ve also witnessed Caroline adeptly establish limits to their efforts, modeling the importance of paying attention to self-sustenance while doing any kind of community work.

Caroline’s characterization of organizing as relationship building - it holds some truth for me. In our conversation, they noted the difference between the giving of grocery money and delivery of groceries during the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and doing some kind of mutual aid that works to form a long-standing relationship.

Because if mutual aid happens once among strangers, how can it be mutual? Duration is an essential component of mutual aid because the descriptive “mutual” is attached to the substantive “aid.” In order for aid to be mutual, it must be part of an on-going exchange - over time - of resources or labor. Caroline continues, “even if people who come to a meeting and don’t make a call or do something, the shift in awareness [in them] is important because it makes some change to how people view and relate to each other - it gives us the tools to solve bigger problems.”

And those bigger problems aren’t just big. More than big, the problems that tell us we need prisons are a dense lattice of modulating factors and agents, property and propertied, called capitalism. This lattice exists on the local, individual scale. We all have our moments of deception, distraction, and danger by capital. And our encounters with the capitalist lattice are not only circumstantial, but inherited. Depending on where and how, we are born into being both the agents and the medium of capitalism. It’s not our DNA, but it’s like the epigenetic factors that modulate our DNA; born into a world a manipulated by carceral capitalism, we inherit the debts of our forebears.

Those debts may take the form of numbers on a digital ledger - but in a world where the worth of resources (such as food) is tied to contract and labor (as opposed to actual specie) - the debts we inherit also look like attitudes of fuck the police, mentalities of survival that justify themselves, and scrappiness that looks like giving now because I trust that I will receive what I need later. Because in addition to our debt, our “profit” is extraneous to the system of capital. It doesn’t exist, it grows. Phrases like mutual aid don’t mean much else besides looking out for your own. Where debt exists as a concept, so does profit, and we meet our debts by saying we don’t owe anyone for our survival.

We identify the symptomatic traumas of our relationship to the lattice. And while we grow individually and in relation to each other, “we fill in the gaps of neoliberal capitalism,” my friend and other co-organizer Yuri said. Yuri tells me that “capitalism needs mutual aid,” in order to support the market that can’t afford to survive through capitalism, but mutual aid doesn’t need capitalism. Where child care isn’t affordable, we make it non-purchasable. Our loved ones, the friends and family of our loved ones, even just people we trust - they step in to fill the gap because they can. There is no lack, because we are very much like grass, making our own sustenance and growing taller because of it.

This intergenerational growth is the context in which mutual aid develops over time. It allows for relationships within wealth disparities that aren’t just systems of oppression and privatization. To Yuri, this is what makes mutual aid mutual; it’s not just a situation in which one person has resources and gives to someone who doesn’t. “Ripe with contradiction, mutual aid is not just the right thing to do, it’s a way of building power.”

In Yuri’s vision, that power, if big enough, could result in a “dual power” situation in which mutual aid not only fills in the gaps created by the neoliberal state, but challenges that state’s legitimacy. He argues that public welfare programs benefit companies like Walmart the most: the state’s provision of bare necessities allows Wal-Mart to sell jobs to people without any benefits and with less-than-liveable wages. Comparably, the neoliberal state itself benefits from mutual aid keeping the labor base afloat where welfare and government intervention fails. But mutual aid isn’t just a transaction of resources and labor, and it does exist in its own right, operating from a different value system than capitalism.

Instead, as a form of relationality, “mutual aid” can exist in as many permutations as there are relationships. For communities that are already built, mutual aid goes under the radar in a number of ways, be it cash discounts, block parties, and church funds. And for new communities built from relationships just getting started, mutual aid can be a way to “behave into community.” I don’t know if everyone can be friends, but we can pool and share resources in the meantime. As inter-species mutual aid participant Brother Nature says, “everybody eats.”

Yuri mentioned his group of close friends that encountered each other as strangers on an obscure politics subforum. He shared that “as we cohered into a group of friends, which was the basis for our mutual aid, we edited each others’ resumes, lent each other money, provided housing for one another. And we always talk about how many other little online communities like ours must exist if ours does.”

I like to think of my family members as friends, and vice versa. For me this inclination is rooted in the nature of the politicization of what we’ve been referring to as mutual aid. When I asked about the role of politicization in mutual aid, Yuri said “it serves as the answer for why we start doing this. Mutual aid communities are likely to be informed about why we’re in a position to need mutual aid, politicization follows.” Caroline says, “mutual aid is an abolitionist way to engage with capitalism because it does the transformative work that builds a world that doesn’t need prisons because [poverty isn’t criminalized, but actions that agitate are also needed].”

Puerto Rico is farther away now than it used to be. My dad in Cincinnati, in response to my groaning about not being able to leave the land deemed liveable to me by the legislature, says over the phone that he’s glad he has to go to work at the Jimmy Heath House every night. Every earnest conversation we have I inch around the self-important worry that returning to his midwestern homecity and not living with me anymore has pushed him that much closer to doing more than “playing the Devil’s advocate” for 45. He worries about the pandemic’s effect on “the economy,” when I shade the Democratic Party for the thousandth time, telling him it’s about survival. I remind him we’re on the same page, “the state of the economy does make it hard for everyday people to survive.”

My mom in San Germán doesn’t tell us she’s sick until she begins the authorization process to get tested for covid (her results later came back negative). I could buy more than three one-way tickets to Aguadilla with the amount of Spirit Airline reservation credits I have, but I’m not sure the plane would take off. “The economy” does change my life, in ways that are both less and more harsh than what I imagine to be the experience of others’, just by having the ability to leave NYC for my chosen sister’s home in the “bedroom community” of Deptford Township. I left here from an ex-partner’s house for a change in vibes, to be honest, giving up about an acre of the Hudson Valley in the spring time and romance, for the feeling of being with three people and a dog who love me. I chip into the fund the other two working adults take turns supporting to provide groceries. Nobody tells anybody to make a meal; we eat when we’re hungry, and we make enough for all of us. I don't know which comes first, mutual aid or community. I haven't done enough in this essay to get into what we mean when we say we "build community," but I do know that in the communities I share, we behave ourselves into it.

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