a journal of modern society & culture

From Pandemic to Solidarity, Mutual Aid from Plague Days to Autonomous Zones

Benjamin Shepherd

Epidemics expose a great deal about who we are. They always have. Old orders die.  New ideas take shape. “There is something deep here connected to what is the real truth about who we really are, not what we are told about ourselves,” says social movement scholar Marina Sitrin. “Yes, we are afraid. Yes, we feel pain and vulnerability, and what we do with that, again and again, throughout history and now more than ever, is to reach out to one another and find ways to care for each other.”    

In March 2020 the world went into quarantine. One night in the midst of it, I found myself watching Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, his 1954 film about war-torn 16th-century Japan. Its real subject, of course, is modern anxieties about old ways of living in flux. “This is the nature of war,” says one of the samurai. “By protecting others, you save yourself. If you only think of yourself, you’ll only destroy yourself.” While our president might not understand the point, many others do seem to know that we benefit by extending care, a safety net catching people, helping us see that we need each other. Our health depends on it. Yet, protecting others is never simple.  Built of personal narrative, theory, interviews, and observations, this ethnography considers the mutual aid of the days of COVID in New York City.

The days since the COVID-19 pandemic began witnessed countless forms of mutual support, as activists and neighbors, healthcare workers and service providers connecting and breaking isolation. Wave after wave of people, including high school kids, preachers, bikers, queers, rise and resisters, and homeless folks sharing resources, cheering and screaming. As we march, each of us share stories, offering more supplies, our destinies entwined, our liberation tied to each other’s survival. Greeting those on the way back from City Hall, across the Brooklyn Bridge, marching, solidarity expands as we walk together, New Yorkers in a Critical Mass against racism and inequality. It is hard to separate protests over Black Lives, the pandemic, and the marches for the dead. They all overlap, each intersecting with the next. 

Veterans of the AIDS crisis see resemblances in the non-response approaches to COVID and AIDS, looking at the patterns of a global pandemic and the social responses. AIDS activist Cleve Jones reminds us:

“AIDS came they said don’t worry it only kills gays.

30 million heterosexuals and their children died.

But don’t worry Covid-19 only kills old people.”

We’d have to take care of each other or die, many of us thought, recognizing the old lines from the poem “September 1, 1939” by Auden.  

Over time the struggle shifts from a global health pandemic to a struggle for lives, particularly Black and brown lives disproportionately impacted by COVID (CDC, 2020). The map of COVID in New York mirrors maps of poverty in the city. “Many of the neighborhoods with the highest number of cases per capita were areas with the lowest median incomes and largest average household size,” notes The New York Times. The actual impact moves in divergent directions, revealing a stark reality as the pandemic flows into existing lines of inequality. 

As long as some are sick, everyone is vulnerable. Our destinies are intertwined into a single garment of history, as MLK used to say. Some even carry the slogan on signs at Black Lives Matter actions. In countless circles, people start looking out for each other. Without support from the federal government, many see a need for mutual aid. Mutual aid, as anarchists have noted for over a century, manifests as intertwined survival and development across species. Based on notions of reciprocity, not social services, mutual aid is “participatory rather than expert-led,” says Dean Spade; this approach emphasizes engagement by regular people instead of “experts”; it avoids “the use of eligibility criteria that cuts out more stigmatized people.” As a relational tendency it offers a solution and a practice in building interconnections ripe with the potential for expansion. Mutual aid also offers us a lens through which we can address questions about interdependence that Martin Buber recognized, seeing others as neighbors, as people to understand. 

On Mutual Aid

Social movements overlap, with common themes between reactions to lack of government help tackling COVID-19 and other contemporary protest movements against systematic racism and similar forms of bigotry. We see the co-occurrence and evolution of movements that are derived from seemingly distinct tragedies and social ills. Such a patterned manifestation could be coincidental, but there are some common threads which indicate that there is a deeper relation and/or that the responses are rooted in a common ethos (ethos here as in an ethical system). That ethos? Mutual aid. What comes to bear is a yearning for solidarity, an impulse toward cooperation and support.  Certainly, one could propose mutual aid is response to a fragmentary , dislocated global economic system, or anomie.

“[T]he great majority of people in ordinary disasters behave in ways that are anything but selfish,” posits Rebecca Solnit, looking back on her experience with Common Ground Collective after Hurricane Katrina. Quite often, she says, what we witness is “a lot of creative and generous altruism and brilliant grassroots organizing. With the global pandemic, these empathic urges and actions are wider and deeper and more consequential than ever.”  To put it simply, people want to support each other. Take the infusion of cycling and environmental activists into the Black Lives Matter movement. “This is your fight too,” Street Riders chant on their weekly rides in support of the Black Lives Matter protests, imploring people from across the five boroughs of New York City to respond to their call for human rights, for people across ethnicities to look out for each other.  “See others as yourself,” declares a sign on another bike. The response is striking, with thousands joining the weekly rides. Between COVID-19 and the subsequent waves of Black Lives Matter protests, doctors and nurses applaud anti-racist activists; a flourishing of donations for protective equipment changes hands; community projects take shape; a free food refrigerator is placed down the street from my house; and harm reductionists journey throughout the city on outreach. These are just a few of any number of practical forms of support as regular people reach out to each other in reciprocal exchange.

“A dozen years ago, the term ‘mutual aid’ was, as far as I can tell, used mostly by anarchists and scholars,” says Solnit. The concept has long been a part of social movements. First developed and explored by the anarchist prince Kropotkin, he suggests: “[T]here is in Nature the law of Mutual Aid, which, for the success of the struggle for life, and especially for the progressive evolution of the species, is far more important than the law of mutual contest.”  For Eric Laursen, the work challenged a “dog-eat-dog morality that capitalism had embraced through a misreading of Darwin’s theory of evolution.”   David Graeber and Andrej Grubacic suggest: “Such interventions … reveal aspects of reality that had been largely invisible but, once revealed, seem so entirely obvious that they can never be unseen.”  This is one of the great ideas of the anti-authoritarian social movements.    “[I]n the midst of the pandemic, it is everywhere,” says Solnit, signs on street corners, people tabling, giving away food.   

Mutual aid within the context of the COVID-19 crisis builds on the dynamics of the moment, as one crisis leads to the next, from financial to ecological to public health to environmental to questions about inequality. “In the midst of a global crisis, we must listen, learn, and build with people from around the world,” notes Astra Taylor. “A crisis is a turning point.” Such times can lead to economic disrepair, shock doctrine, and fascism, or possibility for something more abundant. Stories about mutual aid “teach us a great deal.”   

Mutual Aid and Loss

The COVID cases we learned of first were from our students at City University of New York, the largest urban university system in the United States, where a majority of students are people of color. And then friends of friends, a teacher, a housing advocate for people with HIV/AIDS, a high school classmate, a social worker who provided shelter for the homeless who got sick herself, a nurse who took her own life. The Centers for Disease Control confirms: “Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put some members of racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting COVID-19 or experiencing severe illness, regardless of age. Among some racial and ethnic minority groups, including non-Hispanic black persons, Hispanics and Latinos, and American Indians/Alaska Natives, evidence points to higher rates of hospitalization or death from COVID-19 than among non-Hispanic white persons.”  The health disparities revealed by COVID-19 are anything but new. Neither are the losses. 

Mid-April social worker Spence Halperin receives a message from work, his CEO

reporting “that 53 clients have passed away and that in our staff, one subcontractor and two home health aides have passed away due to the Coronavirus.”

My friend Mark Milano writes an equally personal account. “To those who think COVID-19 is just another flu: my fellow long-term survivor Ed Shaw just succumbed to it. After beating AIDS for 32 years, this damn virus took him. Rest in Power, Ed.”  I’d known Ed for decades. Person after person we knew, dead, week after week.

“I can’t believe my government is not helping everyone out,” says one of my students.

At first the city dragged its feet about closing schools, continuing business as usual, with basketball games in the gym at my daughter’s school in early March. That was until a group of parents informed the city of plans to pull their kids, regardless of official policy.  Labor unions support their efforts. L.A. Kauffman, one of the organizers, who helped push the issue, and I talk about the moment. For years now, we’ve supported each other in our activism.  The last we’d seen each other in the real world, I had “just gotten out of D.C. jail yet again, after another direct action, this time one calling for 45’s removal from office,” writes Kauffman, who was there to offer moral support and aid after the arrest. “The challenges of collective action in the age of social distancing,” are many says Kauffman.

In lieu of a coordinated government response, mutual aid flourishes. People are offering recipes and food recommendations, movie picks, book chats over Zoom, food delivery, support for rent strikes, and other forms of solidarity.   In Brooklyn, anti-gentrification group Equality for Flatbush begins a campaign called the Brooklyn-shows-love-mutual-aid-project: “Since March 25th, we have delivered over 191 community kits of non-perishable food items and household supplies to community members living in the neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, Bushwick, Canarsie, Coney Island, Crown Heights, East Flatbush, East New York, Flatbush, Fort Greene, Kensington, Marine Park, and Mill Basin…grocery/supply deliveries, medication pick-up/drop-offs, tenant/rent-strike organizing support, and other forms of material aid.” 

Countless community groups step in. Housing Works creates services and housing for homeless kids in a shelter for people with COVID. Volunteers such as New York writer Tim Murphy work to get kids in these shelters food and supplies, as well as get medical workers protective equipment. 

Watching all this take place, the good we see from people and the neglect from the government, one of my students posts a comment from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita in a reaction blog about the pandemic. “Yes, man is mortal, but that would be only half the trouble. The worst of it is that he’s sometimes unexpectedly mortal—there’s the trick!”  Sometimes we surprise ourselves. We are wonderfully horribly made, fragile and resilient, ugly and beautiful at the same time. Over and over, students talk about patience and silver linings, the yin and yang of how we support each other. We cheer for healthcare workers at 7 PM every night, roars going up all over Brooklyn, neighbors greeting each other. People make the best of it, despite the insanity. Efforts to help can be seen in countless ways, a cat sanctuary down the street, where people feed the strays by the canal. Our city of friends expands and contracts, some hiding away, the losses pile up; the ones we adore get sick. A drag performer from my wife’s high school in Staten Island dies on the couch. His boyfriend was on the way home. We toast to him. But sometimes it is too much.  

Each day, I bike through the city, glad to be in the metropolis instead of the country, where many have retreated, happy to be in town during the crisis. Glynnis MacNicol observes: “It is, of course, not a holiday, nor is the city nearing the end of a long night. The witchy New York hour between yesterday and today is now the New York of all day, every day. A nightmarish bizarro world set to the soundtrack of sirens. Everything is still here, but off… Now food delivery people are on the front lines, risking their health to keep us fed.” We see a lot here. When I get a flat tire on the Brooklyn Bridge, a man stops to help. Sitting on our stoop, Ed offers us PPE and a story. We give him greens from the garden, mutual aid expanding by the day.

More notices of people getting sick, my work colleague Victor Ayala writes: “Those who know me understand my silence and distance… today I want to share a very emotional and touching moment. My friend and colleague of 30 plus years called me from her ICU bed to say goodbye. In between breaths we expressed our love for one another and encouraged Hope and Prayers. She reminded me to hold on to our memories and love we shared while traveling to conferences and the many lunches and profound discussions about religion and higher education. Call ended with I love you…I will continue to hope and pray for her and yes hold onto   our memories, love and respect for one another…..”

For many in the AIDS world, this is nothing new. “We are fighting for our lives once again,” notes Greg Gonzalves. “Activism was a response to mourning, but also a way to obscure grief,” he follows. “We need to take care of each other, ourselves as we continue the fight.” And take care of each other we do. 

My friend Michel Coconis is one of many involved. “My mutual aid activities have included (or so I believe)” volunteering, dropping “off food and diapers, putting masks together with our local Emergency Management, driving folks to the store or shopping for them, and  reading .. newspapers and magazines to ppl who cannot get them from the library…” Still, Coconis cautions, “I’m actually not sure which of these is technically mutual aid … I have been to one drive-by rally on releasing ppl from Ohio’s prisons and jails.” There is a fine line between mutual aid and charity, with which many are still grappling. The definitional demarcation between charity and mutual aid is important. Other cases are positive and meet needs, but may not be mutual aid. 

Jessica Rosenberg of Long Island University notes, “I am thinking about my daughter-in-law, a medical social worker in a Staten Island Hospital. Each day, she helps grieving families who have loved ones dying of covid – 19. She provides the missing link between the hospital structure and loved ones who are desperate for information. She consoles and comforts. She helps patients get ready to leave the hospital … She fights for patients being prematurely discharged and who are not ready to leave the hospital. She is an advocate. Because of the dangers of her work environment, she contracted coronavirus.” The degree of risk is real.

Nancy Kusmaul says: “The University of Iowa School of Social Work and Mercedes Bern-Klug … are running bi-weekly support groups for practicing nursing home social workers.” 

 “My partners and I created a ‘Bergen County COVID Support Group’ on Facebook and conducted live talks on multiple issues to help our community get through these difficult times,” adds Suzanne Badawi, of Ramapo College of New Jersey. 

Others look to those left behind. Throughout April and May, I take part in #FreeThemAllFridays car and bike caravans. “As COVID-19 spreads across the country, immigrants continue to be locked up in ICE detention without adequate medical or sanitary facilities. The undocumented community is shut out of state relief even as they provide the essential labor that keeps New York running.” Cyclists join “to say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.  We demand that Governor Cuomo use his emergency powers to order the release of all ICE detainees locked up in NY State to safeguard human life and public health. We also stand in solidarity with all prisoners and call for their freedom amid COVID-19.”

Increasingly, we turn to movement work, addressing the gaps in the safety net, the inequality exposed by the crisis, via policy advocacy, helping to fight unemployment, supporting co-workers, running clinical trials, housing homeless people in hotels through community fundraising, looking at health disparities, bridging the gap from direct action and direct services, trying to be creative problem solvers.

New Alternatives  

New Alternatives is a Manhattan-based group providing services for LGBT homeless youth, a group that disproportionately experience homelessness. Queer youth make up nearly 40 percent of the city’s homeless youth but only seven percent of the youth population. New Alternatives helps them to transition out of the shelter system with education, life skills training, meals, groups, and case management. Like many organizations, they shut their doors with the New York Pause, ending Sunday meals. Over time, the group’s director, Kate Barnhart, grew more and more concerned about those with compromised immune systems, who faced increased health risks. Darrell Wimbush, a security guard at their space inside a midtown church located on West 40th Street, started to have the same concerns, hearing more and more clients worry about the coronavirus and their own isolation. In response, he worked with Barnhart to create a drop-off program for those unable to take the trains to come pick up meals. Countless volunteers, including myself, joined the effort. Every day we connect we feel better. Each of us gains a sense of community building, supporting the city, doing our parts.

My 17-year-old daughter and I volunteer to drop off food and bring supplies one afternoon a week from April through June. Some weeks we take food to the Bronx, others to the Lower East Side, often both. Sometimes, we drop off in the Far Rockaways, witnessing the ways the city has changed. “I’d rather be taking food out than sitting at home,” says the 17-year-old, helping navigate the pickups, coordinating with the clients. The drop-offs reveal something extraordinary about our city—the sprawling gaps in needs and experience, passing homeless people on the street, new street murals, candles, chalk, photos and makeshift memorials outside of buildings for the dead.  “‘Those are his kids,’ says an onlooker, chatting on the sidewalk as we leave, referring to the memorial, many more bearing witness, or helping those who remain.

Jewdi Clech of the NYC Disorder of Sisters describes getting involved with coordinating the meal drop-offs. “When COVID hit NYC, I got sick the first week and thought, ‘Gee, I wish there was some way I could help people even though we are all home.’ Then I got the call…”  Clench would spend the next three months “diligently calling, texting and communicating with the LGBTQ youth folx through New Alternatives to check in with them and help arrange food delivery.” For many, providing material support actually supports their mental health. Completing those three months, he felt compelled to thank Darnell, Kate, drivers such as myself, and the other volunteers. “I know it wasn’t easy…we cannot thank you enough for the opportunity, it made me happy to be a part of the community and find a way to participate…  Thank you to all of the drivers who tolerated my last minute messages, spreadsheets, complicated instructions, calls, check-ins, last minute requests, and bullying behavior to see if you’d yet again be willing to venture out, but braved COVID and curfews to get food to people who needed it. Roughly 350 meals per week, for the past twelve weeks have been distributed—that’s more than 4000 meals!”

Certainly, we were not the only group out providing aid during the peak weeks of the pandemic. Tamara Oyola Santiago, Alexis Del Rio, and Nelson Gonzalez brought survival supplies to drug users in upper Manhattan and the Bronx via their organization Bronx Móvil. Santiago recalls: “One late night, we were doing outreach outside a shelter on 182nd Street, and a participant looked at us and said, ‘Harm reduction on the streets—love is love.’ That made our night. Also, we started getting boxes of beautiful cloth masks sewn by hand—we have no idea who’s sending them.” Another night, a man got out of his car and approached them. Santiago said, “Do you use drugs? Because I have syringes.” The man replied, “Why do you have to do that?” One of the participants in the program jumped in adding, “This stuff saves lives and prevents HIV and hepatitis C.” Santiago did not have to say a word. “The mutual-aid networks that have arisen are beautiful. The Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Herald Square gave us an average of 100 meal bags every time we went out.”

The last Tuesday in May, we make our way from Brooklyn to Times Square, up to 99th Street, down to the Lower East Side, and out to Rockaway Beach. Homeless people wait outside at West 40th Street, many in the street. People are hungry. Seemingly invisible, many more have no place to stay or get away from the virus. On our way up to Times Square, a man is asleep in the street by a corner. People step over, ignoring him on their way. All over the city, homeless people have little to nowhere to shelter themselves from COVID. Homeless people can’t shelter in place, they can’t “stay home.” It’s a message activists repeat again and again.

The next day, the last Wednesday in May, I attend a rally at City Hall organized by the #HomelessCantStayHome campaign. Walking there, the first person I see is Kate Barnhart of New Alternatives. “85 deaths in NY shelters is unacceptable…” says Barnhart, wearing a mask on her first time out in weeks. “They are directly a result of the negligence of de Blasio. It is essential the homeless population be given a chance to shelter in hotels rather than crowded shelters with higher rates of infection.”

At City Hall, homeless New Yorkers and advocates set up symbolic “body bags” and gravestones before the mayor’s press briefing. Holding signs that read “COVID + DHS = DEATH,” and “Mayor de Blasio: there is blood on your hands,” protestors gather to mourn the lives of New Yorkers who have died as a result of the mayor’s failure to guarantee homeless people the right to safely socially distance in hotel rooms and permanent housing.

“Stop the sweeps, give homeless people a place to sleep,” says Lynn Lewis of Picture the Homeless. For years now, her organization has pushed the city to count the number of housing units that exist in New York, challenging the scarcity narrative driving real estate speculation.

“We need housing not empty luxury buildings for speculation,” reads a sign held by Fran, of the Stop Shopping Choir.

“Homeless people are dying,” says Donald, of Families for Freedom.

The action is also in memoriam and honor of Nikita Price, a Picture the Homeless member since 2006 and organizer for more than a decade. Nikita tragically passed away shortly before the action. Until his final days, Nikita was organizing for the safety and survival of homeless people in New York City and against police violence.

Standing in front of a row of dozens of body bags in front of City Hall, police behind him, Christoph explains, “I’m here for all the voices, all the people who cannot be here, cannot be heard. How many lives will be lost over the cost of a hotel room? We’re lives that matter. We count. We matter.” In the weeks to come, this point become more and more prophetic.

A Wound from One Pandemic to the Next

The next day, May 28, I attend a funeral for Larry Kramer, the founder of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. All week, the world swirled with action. Word about a policeman in Minneapolis, who kneeled on unarmed George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as he begged for life, was making national news. Watching the video of Floyd, face on the concrete, saying “I can’t breathe” before dying, tears pour down my face, a flood of images of everyone who had died lately, mostly from communities of color. And then the sense of shame, frustration, déjà vu. Here we are again, Rodney King and Eric Garner, whose last words were “I can’t breathe” in Staten Island. And then Larry Kramer, a white man who started ACT UP and GMHC. He sounded the alarm that this would impact everyone. Kramer reminded us that there was a place for anger. We could channel that anger. The feelings about the horror could be translated into action. This wasn’t the stuff of adolescent misbehavior. We could ACT UP. We could and should disobey, especially in the face of the horror, when Black people are killed by cops, when Abner is tortured, when Patrick is shot, when George is killed, when your friends are getting sick and no one is doing anything about it.

It’s all the same thing, homophobia and racism, says Jay Walker, of Rise and Resist, at Kramer’s memorial. Over the next few months, he takes part in subsequent street actions calling for the city to defund the police. I’d run into him almost daily at protests, activists responding to the deaths of Black and brown people. Walker writes, “First, the inaction in response to Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, then the police execution of Breonna Taylor, then a white woman calling the police on birdwatcher Chris Cooper in the Central Park Ramble, and the one-two gut punches of the death of legendary activist Larry Kramer, less than a year after he had delivered an impassioned speech after our inaugural 2019 Queer Liberation March, and the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Our members and organizers took to the streets in protest.”

We all know the 400 years of horror that never seems to recede. Day after day rallies for Black Lives, moving from one borough to the next, marches, rallies, speak outs, over bridges, across highways, through traffic, across town. People support each other, share food, supplies, and aid.

All summer, thousands join the weekly Justice Rides, reclaiming public space in a world where Black people, immigrant bodies, women, those who look different are suspect and subject to scrutiny and quite often violence. Standing in the shadow of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, Orlando, one of the organizers, speaks before a ride. “Thank you!!!!” he screams. “There is no place in the world I’d rather be than riding with you. I am doing this for my friend Peter who was killed by the police. Each ride gives me strength. Thank you for coming down here. Just know it’s not unnoticed. We’re all in it together. Let’s keep it going. It ain’t going to stop.” 

City Hall Autonomous Zone

During drop off days for New Alternatives, we make our way past the rallies in the Rockaways on the beach in Queens, across Manhattan, and at City Hall. There activists began an occupation, dubbed Occupy City Hall or City Hall Autonomous Zone, in late June, calling for the city to reduce the police budget by one billion dollars and reinvest that money in the needs of communities of color. Food and supplies pour in from. When there is more than needed, they send it to New Alternatives. Social movements such as the Black Panthers and Occupy have long looked to models of food exchange as a form of movement building. The practice became ever more important as people faced food insecurity, job losses, with deepening poverty.  With tables for food, communications and art, the City Hall occupation is a huge experiment in mutual aid.

The City Hall Autonomous Zone builds on the model from Seattle. Bridgette Read   describes the scene: “On June 9, an area of around six blocks in downtown Seattle became known as CHAZ, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.” CHAZ came to be after clashes between police and protesters before the police recognized the area as a makeshift temporary autonomous zone for the movement. Without law enforcement, community stepped in; people provided support, dubbing it the Capitol Hill Organized Protest. The police announced a “decreasing footprint” around the East Precinct “as an exercise in trust and de escalation.”  Community members organized protests, arts, and community events.

Each day I drop by New York’s autonomous zone. Committees form around composting, sanitation, a library, food donations, supplies, clothing. I run into different friends taking part. Strolling, my friend Stacy tells me about Seattle and the ways both spaces are experimenting with mutual aid in their own ways, with more gardens, art, and a medical center in Seattle, a lot more organization in New York, giant Black Lives Matter murals, images of beauty in both.

A central call of Occupy City Hall was to defund the police. As activists sleep outside, the #HomelessCantStayHome coalition makes significant breakthroughs in budget negotiations.  The inside and the outside work in tandem. Craig Hughes, of  the Urban Justice Center points out that while most council members side with police and supported the council speaker’s sham police-centered budget there were some unexpected wins based off of years of organizing and efforts to reshape the policing narrative put forth by successive administrations, much of which was led by homeless folks themselves and all of which was grounded in the perspective that cops are never the answer to homelessness. For example, the Subway Diversion program is formally ended. Not only had non-profits like Human NYC organized against it effectively, but it is actually the testimonies of people who experienced it that provided its most damning and effective indictments. In fact, the sole city council hearing on the matter was interrupted by people who have experience with homelessness making clear what a farce it was through a skit that saw these activists removed by council security. The NYPD’s “Homeless Outreach Unit” is disbanded, which is a significant win in creating distance from homeless people and the cops and decentering policing from “homeless outreach.” The NYPD is removed from overseeing  security operations at shelters. These were some tangibly useful outcomes.  The question of how to harness power to meet need is ever present in mutual aid, including in distinctions between “charity” and “solidarity,” between “reform” and “transformation” or “revolution.” 

Queer Liberation March and Jail Support

As negotiations continue inside and activists sleep outside City Hall, New Yorkers celebrate pride weekend. The official pride parades were canceled as a result of COVID, yet local parades continue. Bikes zip and to and fro around the zone the night of the yearly Drag March. After a month of protests, no uptick in COVID cases had emerged among the groups of activists in attendance, almost universally wearing masks and staying in public.

Little did anyone expect it to be another example of the need for police reform, yet that is exactly what happened. That last Sunday in June, activists in the occupation join the Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and against Police Brutality, solidarity expanding. From Foley Square to Washington Square, some fifty thousand people peaceably march together, converging at Washington Square Park. There, Jay Walker, Bill Cashman, and others see police “indiscriminately throwing innocent, non-violent Pride March attendees to the ground.” 

Alexis Danzig and Jamie Bauer, of Rise and Resist, try to de-escalate the scene and provide jail support for those who were arrested. The two activists describe the ways jail support functions as a form of mutual aid: “I learned everything I know about jail support during ACT UP,” says Alexis Danzig. “Jail support matters because the through-line of direct action is solidarity to build skilled, resistant community. We plan actions together, in person; we listen carefully and democratically to each other to create strong, engaging, disruptive protest; we take care of each other during arrests and while in jail; and we ensure that there is on-site community—jail support—for each person arrested at an action we plan, as they are released. People are tired and sometimes disoriented after being arrested and processed; jail support is there to receive people and attend to their immediate needs, feed them and help them get home or to medical attention. Jail support connects people to the community of legal support—and solidarity continues through any court appearances. Sunday night after QLM the jail support community that’s been active took over from us. They kept in touch with Reclaim Pride until everyone was released. It’s a pleasure to work with responsible people from different communities, we share many similar ethics.”

Jamie Bauer follows, “There are two different forms of support—one for organized civil disobedience with an expectation of arrests—and one for a situation where the police arrest without warning and all of a sudden there are unexpected arrests of people. Alexis and I are more used to the first situation. There is a great structure that’s been set up for the second. The first keeps track of who’s arrested, who needs to be contacted, medical concerns, etc. We keep track of who got out, charges, etc. It’s a little easier because we know who we are looking for. Sunday was different because there was a lot of conflicting information and we didn’t know who, and why. But either way, the NYPD knows we are out there waiting for people and we believe that helps make sure they don’t get roughed up again or lost in the system.”

 Alexis recalls a new chant. “‘Who keeps us safe(r)? We keep us safe(r)!’ This is the sweet-spot where ACT UP generation really overlap with the new kids. I love that chant.”

Amnesia and Mutual Aid in an Enchanted City

The crisis has exposed the best and the worst of our city. A doctor who works down the street tells us he’s lost half his patients with COVID-19, sometimes fifty a day. It is nothing to be proud of he says during the nightly cheers for healthcare workers. “[T]his crisis has laid bare the routine processes of structural violence” the poor endure, notes social worker Jesse Bernstein. “The politics of disposability—the triage of who must be prioritized for survival and whose survival is up for debate or relegation—are in full display.”

There’s an adage in New Orleans, people care for each other when storms hit. It’s a feeling of magic. Those are the times when we remember what is most important, that we are all in it together. We need each other. Unfortunately, such moments pass and we separate. It’s better to stick together. Yet that fellow feeling dims as people get back to business. AIDS activists saw the same sentiment take place with AIDS treatment. Peter Staley writes: “I know many are saying COVID will change things forever, creating a new normal. But I’m reminded of the post-plague years in the U.S. (starting in 1996), when the LGBT community pivoted away from AIDS before you could blink, almost as if it had never happened. The collective pain can create its own kind of backlash, where a ‘return to normal’ floods in quickly to help everyone forget (for a while). Sadly, I’m pretty sure a year after we get a vaccine, we’ll go right back to burning up the planet.”

Sixty thousand Americans died in the Vietnam War in some twenty years, while some 260,000 died of COVID-19 in the first year in the US, 1.41 million worldwide. And people are fighting about what it means. The amnesia express wants us to forget. But reminders are everywhere.

“Be good to everyone, LOVE” declares a mural painted on a boarded-up shop window in the Bowery in Lower Manhattan. The boarded-up walls of downtown are full of such displays. The streets look like art galleries, thanks to the creative flourishing of regular people. The implicit message: we should remember what it means to offer support. Each day, the papers carry more and more obits, stories of police abuse, and ever spiralizing crises.  We still catch glimpses, the feeling of magic when people connect, providing food and care. It’s a place where colors fly off spray-paint cans; poetry grows of chance encounters among strangers conjuring an alchemy of ideas, approaches to care, support, and even joy. This is a place where we play in the rain or imagine other worlds; rituals invoke spirits, the dead dance with the living, and the faeries lead us into a blurry world in between. Here pieces of green find inspiration in the cracks in the sidewalk, crawling up from unknown worlds, eternal returns of the repressed. Cycling through these streets, one occasionally stumbles into a rally or a march, or garden, someone offering a hand, or occupied space, disappearing and reappearing in a critical mass.  We find the homeless sleeping and more people marching, in deep appreciation of our collective humanity. All the while Thanatos, who lurks nearby leaving bodies in his wake, is held at bay, survivors consoled by mutual aid.  Exploring these gestures of care, one witnesses a secret history of a distinct urban practice led by regular people, organizers and dreamers, faerie magic and a creative clash between a new colossus and Moloch. A sustainable urbanism requires mutual aid. At a time of plague, when the poor are left to make due, layoffs are rising, and a cavalcade of bodies are marching for something better, gestures of mutual aid are a reminder: we can reimagine the city.

Benjamin Shepard is a reluctant organizer, a supporter of unions, and Professor in the Human Services Department at City Tech/CUNY. He is author of numerous books including Illuminations-on-Market-Street, Brooklyn-Tides, as well as Sustainable Urbanism and Direct Action: Case Studies in Dialectical Activism, from which this essay was born.