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How Mutual Aid Can Build Working-Class Power

Mutual aid builds the collective people power we need to take on the state.

Vicko Alvarez

The Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus—from the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America—give out winter coats and talk housing justice in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood on Dec. 20, 2020. Mutual aid networks across the country are helping address local material needs during the pandemic. Rob Wilson

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Amidst the tragedies of 2020, the surge of mutual aid efforts across the country has demonstrated the best in us. But can the Left build power through mutual aid? 

Our decision to focus on direct action is informed by the reality of the communities we are building with, which have been systematically written out of even the best policy victories.

The answer depends on the community you seek to empower. 

In Chicago, as part of the committee for the South Side Mutual Aid Solidarity (MAS), we have chosen to build with the Black and Brown poor. Our group is composed of members from the South Side branch of the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (CDSA), the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus of CDSA, and unaffiliated community activists. Our volunteers distribute hygiene items, food boxes and winterwear, primarily in the Back of the Yards neighborhood I call home. As neighbors line up, we also have organizing conversations and share socialist literature. 

A mutual aid approach is not new to movement building and is particularly viable in communities already shorted on essential items by systemic neglect from the state. Meeting these immediate needs while sharing earnest conversation creates an opportunity for relationship building. One of the best-known examples is the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program (19691980), which fed tens of thousands of Black and Brown children nationwide. Another is the Garbage Offensive of the Young Lords (1969), which cleaned up neglected streets in New York’s Puerto Rican neighborhoods and dumped the trash on ritzy Third Avenue. These efforts not only exposed the shortcomings of the white supremacist state but tightened the social fabric between the organizers and the unorganized. These acts of care became an intimate canvassing effort. 

At our early distribution events, we began with questions as broad as, We are distributing hygiene items today, but is there anything you feel could be more helpful?” Later, we were joined by members of the Chicago Tenants Movement (CTM), which engages tenants in direct action approaches to securing housing rights. At a winter coat distribution on Dec. 20, 2020, for example — where a line of several dozen formed even before we opened — each neighbor who joined us was met by a housing organizer who introduced themself and asked a question such as, Have you ever felt mistreated by your landlord?” 

These conversations let organizers learn from communities the state has neglected, while disarming the divisions (particularly class and race) that oppression thrives on. The first woman in line I spoke to at the December event quickly turned the tables and informed me on the issue of housing; she offered a detailed analysis explaining why — while landlords are crooks — the worst crooks are banks foreclosing on people’s homes. She and her daughter then jumped in to help us set up a table. 

The aim of our collaboration with CTM is to grow a poor and working-class militancy that demands housing for all. After canvassing our neighbors and gathering contact information, the next step is phone banking to invite our neighbors to a housing meeting and plan direct action. While we are not opposed to achieving housing justice through policy, our decision to focus on direct action is informed by the reality of the communities we are building with, which have been systematically written out of even the best policy victories. State protections are never guaranteed to the undocumented (landlords may call ICE in retaliation), the non-English speaking (taken advantage of while navigating English instructions), the formerly incarcerated (against whom housing discrimination is often legal), or much of the Black and Brown poor (whose low credit scores empower urban slumlords). 

Part of our mutual aid experiment must be to force the state’s hand, because mutual aid efforts will never be able to distribute items at the scale the state could. The political power in mutual aid is through our empowerment en masse, so we can walk a clear, direct path from our immediate needs to our collective fight to challenge the state — to house us all, to feed us all, to care for us all.

For a response to this article, read Desperate Times Call for Mutual Aid” by Marianela D’Aprile. 

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Vicko Alvarez is a teaching artist and former union organizer. She serves as co-chair of the South Side branch of the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America and chief of staff to Chicago’s 33rd Ward Alderperson Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez.

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