In light of the pandemic, we have seen an extraordinary emergence of mutual aid strategies around the world.
“If states can release thousands of people from jails to avoid worsening a pandemic, do we even need jails at all?”
In this feature, we ask organizers involved in mutual aid projects to share a little bit about their work. We understand mutual aid work as the part of social movement organizing that meets people's direct needs. Unlike charity work, however, mutual aid is part of a broader strategy to address the root causes of injustice by mobilizing people to dismantle structures of domination and build the world we want.
Mutual aid efforts are proliferating as people respond to the Coronavirus pandemic. You can track emerging projects at mutualaidhub.org, and we recommend checking out this useful guide from Mutual Aid Disaster Relief about how to start COVID-19 mutual aid projects and do the work safely and effectively. We also recommend the Big Door Brigade’s Mutual Aid Toolbox and this short mutual aid explainer video, for starting conversations about what mutual aid is and why it is a vital tactic to expand right now.
This week, we had the honor of interviewing Alisa Bierria.
Dean Spade and Roberto Sirvent: Can you please tell readers of the Black Agenda Report a little about your background and the mutual aid work you have been involved in?
Alisa Bierria: If we’re using the Big Door Brigade’s definition of mutual aid — “political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions” — I’ve participated in several projects through local and national organizations that I think are good examples of mutual aid grounded in principles of radical care, community participation, and transformative politics.
At CARA/Communities Against Rape & Abuse, a Seattle-based grassroots anti-rape organization founded in 1999, we learned from many survivors of domestic and sexual violence that they wanted community-based strategies for safety, support, and accountability that did not rely on police and prisons. So we collaborated with survivors and their communities to develop ideas for meeting those survival needs collectively, an effort that became known as community accountability or transformative justice. Through my involvement in the national feminist of color organization, INCITE!, I worked with the New Orleans Women’s Health & Justice Initiative (WHJI), which built a grassroots feminist health clinic that provided sexual and reproductive healthcare in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. WHJI mobilized volunteers locally through their own grassroots connections, and nationally through INCITE!’s broad network, to refurbish a building, organize inventory, create filing systems, develop outreach materials, and fundraise to collectively build this clinic from the ground up. WHJI also provided opportunities for those volunteers to learn about conditions of violence that contextualized Hurricane Katrina, as well as legacies of New Orleans-based political resistance.
“Survivors of domestic and sexual violence wanted community-based strategies for safety, support, and accountability that did not rely on police and prisons.”
In 2013, I helped establish the Free Marissa Now Mobilization Campaign, which organized a national participatory defense campaign to free Marissa Alexander, a survivor of domestic violence in Jacksonville, Florida who was sentenced to 20 years in prison when she fired a warning shot to defend herself from an attack by her abusive husband. A participatory defense campaign mobilizes a broad base of people to actively support the freedom of a person facing charges. People from all over the world engaged in media advocacy, fundraising, political education, letter writing, and court watches, strategies which helped to secure Marissa’s freedom. Free Marissa Now and other defense campaigns and organizations built a coalition in 2016 to create the national organization, Survived & Punished, which supports defense campaigns and participatory clemency campaigns to free incarcerated survivors who are post-conviction.
I became a Black feminist philosopher, anti-violence advocate, and prison abolitionist through these mutual aid projects. These efforts are also part of a radical Black feminist tradition that understands violence multi-dimensionally — intimate and imperial, economic and emotional, around the world and around the corner. Engaging political work on multiple registers like this is central to the heart of mutual aid because it helps us re-imagine our scope of responsibility to one another.
How does this work fit into the broader struggle for change you are working on? How does it mobilize for change rather than merely being a "band aid" on a harmful system?
I was a member of the #FreeBresha participatory defense campaign to free Bresha Meadows, a Black girl who was only 14 years old when she fatally shot her physically and sexually abusive father. Bresha attempted to get help from multiple authorities before the shooting, all of whom failed to help her. So, she acted on her own to defend her life. In a recent interview, Bresha said it never occurred to her that she would go to jail. She thought it would be obvious that she was acting in self-defense, and everyone would agree.
It’s remarkable and powerful to me that Bresha thought it would be obvious that jailing her for saving her life would be out of the question. Because the principle of punishment occupies so much of our instinct here in the U.S., this is, disturbingly, incorrect. I think “reason” is a landscape on which mutual aid can have a profound impact. Bresha’s story reveals that mutual aid in the form of defense campaigns has to be about more than decarceration and more than ensuring material needs are met; mutual aid is about creating a radical shift in what we think is reasonable to expect. In the participatory defense campaigns I’ve worked on, we’ve used a number of strategies — media advocacy, art, political education, research, foregrounding survivors’ narratives of their own lives and choices — to make a case that incarcerating survivors for navigating conditions of violence is actually horrifying, doing so should be out of the question, and freeing incarcerated survivors is an obvious moral imperative. Mutual aid has the potential to transform “common sense.”
Have you seen dangers of co-optation of the mutual aid work you have done? What structures or methods have the organizations or projects you work with put in place to address that danger?
Community organizers who have developed community-based strategies for accountability and repair under the banner of “transformative justice” (TJ) over the past 20 years are contending with the possible professionalization of this work. We never meant for community-based accountability processes to be limited to a realm of a few specialists with elite skills; TJ is part of a radical broad-based social movement that everyone can and should participate in. Yet, facilitating processes for accountability after someone has experienced sexual or domestic violence can be very complicated and facilitators sometimes need specific skills to do the work as thoughtfully as possible to avoid causing more harm. So this is a tension.
There have been approaches to addressing this tension, such as broadening the TJ framework to be about building skills for basic things like how to effectively apologize, or developing everyday relational practices that make it easier to address violence when it happens. Building cultures of accountability rather than only individual accountability processes redefines TJ as an ongoing practice that can support many people to level up when a crisis hits, rather than having to rely on one or two exhausted specialists. (These important shifts have notably been led by Mia Mingus, Connie Burk, Mariame Kaba, Shira Hassan, Mimi Kim, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna Samarasinha, Ejeris Dixon, and many others.) But capitalism works like a magnet, and it has positioned a non-profit professionalized approach as the default model for anti-violence services. So it requires real intentionality to avoid that pull.
What are the pitfalls of mutual aid work, from your experience?
I wonder about the “mutual” in the concept of “mutual aid.” Through Survived & Punished CA, I’m on a team that visits survivors who are incarcerated at the Central California Women’s Facility, and we advocate for their freedom and well-being. The relationship building, information sharing, and advocacy that happens in the context of these visits is part of a feminist abolitionist praxis of care. However, the concept of “mutuality” can camouflage the profound difference in power and access between people inside and outside of prisons who are working with each other. If we are not thoughtful about those differences and about how we engage one another across those differences — particularly in spaces like prisons, occupied lands, communities recovering from recent disaster, or even just communities where we’re not from — then these encounters can cause harm. But we also can’t let these differences intimidate us from connecting with one another.
So, I’ve learned from my team to ask the question, how do we re-imagine what can be mutual in that relationship? A sharing of ideas and stories? A mutual desire to collaborate with one another to end the caging of human beings? I’m learning from people inside about what they are doing to support each other, they’re learning from me about what people outside are doing to support each other, and we’re mutually sharing notes across prison walls. Perhaps prison visiting can be understood as participating in a complex anti-carceral feminist network of people that centers learning as a method of mutual care. Then we all act from where we’re situated to use this shared information to end violence and actualize freedom.
Do you think mutual aid work has any special or particular role in the current conditions/crises?
In light of the pandemic, we have seen an extraordinary emergence of mutual aid strategies around the world. These efforts provide opportunities for people to support each other and be provided with what they need, build community networks, and participate in political education, all key components of mutual aid praxis. They also shine a light on life-saving mutual aid work that existed before the pandemic. For example, organizations like the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) have been able to respond quickly to the Covid-19 crisis in prisons because, through decades of supporting, learning from, and building networks with people across prison walls, their members have built an infrastructure of relationships and skills that challenge the health crisis of prison itself. Mutual aid practices address immediate and ongoing needs while equipping us to recognize and respond to future needs.
But I’m also interested in how people have used the crisis to ask important questions about capitalism. For example, if states canrelease thousands of people from jails to avoid worsening a pandemic, do we even need jails at all? Does the current rent-strike raise questions about whether rent is necessary to have housing? Does the suspension of federal student loan payments suggest that it’s within our reach to permanently cancel multiple forms of debt? Also, the way the pandemic has shone a light on the ease in which the U.S. treats immigrants, poor people and people without stable and safe housing, incarcerated people in all forms of lock-up, elders and disabled people, Black women, etc. as essentially disposable may not be surprising to many of us, but is always devastating. Under Covid-19, we’ve learned more about vulnerability, collective capacity, and how things that seem permanent (good or bad) can actually become quickly unsettled. I’m hoping we can use those insights to take a fresh look at things like Universal Basic Income, prison abolition, profound racism in the healthcare industry, disability justice, and safe and accessible housing.
Do you have ideas about how mutual aid could expand or mobilize more people?
Mutual aid has the capacity to engage people beyond one’s immediate political community. For example, we don’t all have to agree about what to do about the issue of prisons to agree to write letters to incarcerated people, sign petitions advocating for their freedom, or donate to bail-out funds. The hope is that these kinds of mutual aid exercises provide people with opportunities for collective political education and robust debate among people with divergent political views, which is necessary if we want to really build a broad-based movement. Can we build mutual aid practices that not only enact our personal or organizational political principles, but also create emotional, intellectual, and institutional space for learning, curiosity, and unexpected coalitions?
Are there any examples of other mutual aid work, historical or contemporary, that particularly inspire you or that you have used as a model?
Mutual aid can be revelatory. It demystifies structures that seem impenetrable. I’ve recently been reflecting on how ACT UP attempted to democratize science in the early days of the AIDS crisis. People realized they had to develop a collective grasp on the processes for producing, testing, and distributing pharmaceuticals in order to do effective medical advocacy and healthcare-based mutual aid. The problem was not just how to gain access to information, but how to undo the idea that medical knowledge is beyond regular people’s scope of engagement and responsibility. We are trained by a profit-driven medical industry to believe that, if we are not part of the industry, it’s not our place to engage the details about how choices are made in medical care, even if our lives depend on it.
ACT UP said fuck that, and did political education about what medical terms meant, what medication did what and why, how medical trials worked, and how to craft demands aimed at the medical industry to get the healthcare people desperately needed. That is no band-aid. This kind of work can increase people’s skills to get the resources they need to survive, but it also has the capacity to radically shift people’s relationship to institutional processes that are intimidating, and expand their understanding of what they are capable of doing. Revelations like these can embolden us and potentially be cultivated over time to incite future political disruptions.
What can readers of the Black Agenda Report do to support your work?
Due to the pandemic, detention centers, jails, and prisons are even more lethal than usual. Therefore, taking action to secure people’s releases from all forms of lock-up is more crucial than ever. Here are a few ways to help:
- Donate to the #FreeBlackMamas bail out fund to help release black mothers who are jailed while awaiting trial.
- Take action to #FreeLiyah, an Ethiopian immigrant survivor of domestic violence incarcerated in ICE detention because she defended herself from her abuser.
- Make calls to #FlattenICE and take action to free vulnerable people from ICE detention during the pandemic.
- Sign CCWP’s #CareNotCages clemency petitions to help free incarcerated people who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic.
- Survived and Punished NY has learned from incarcerated people that the Bedford Correctional Facility is denying food to them in the midst of a pandemic. Demand that people have immediate access to food and tell Gov. Cuomo to #FreeThemAll and grant clemencies to save lives.
- Post a photo on twitter to support the #ClemencyCoast2Coast campaign.
Dean Spade is the creator of the mutual aid toolkit at bigdoorbrigade.com. He has been working in various poverty-focused and abolitionist mutual aid projects for the past 20 years. He is the author of Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law (Duke University Press 2015). His video projects and writing are available atdeanspade.net.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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