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Where Mutual Aid Comes to Its Own Assistance

Amid police crackdowns on mutual aid efforts around housing, many activists are finding support in each other.

March 23, 2023
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cross-posted from YES! Magazine

When Sarah Norris joined a “community art build,” a protest that invited community members to work on art projects in a public park in December 2021, she had no idea she would soon face felony charges stemming from her action. Norris was part of a mutual aid group called the Asheville Survival Program, which supported a houseless community that regularly converged in Aston Park, a centerpiece of downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Like many American cities, Asheville faces skyrocketing housing costs, which is why local activists began supporting the encampments of those pushed out of indoor housing by rising rents. Like many such encampments, the city does not support the one in Aston Park, and the camp is instead built autonomously by those who need shelter each night.

“Mutual aid is showing up for each other from a stance that we all deserve care, that we all have the same inherent dignity, that there is space for all of us,” says Norris, who explains that her collective provides weekly deliveries of food and camping gear to the people in the park. The encampments faced daily sweeps, where police clear the people out of the park, after which the houseless community would usually return to rebuild.

In December 2021, activists from Asheville Survival Program and others in the city organized a multiday protest in the park demanding the city provide a sanctioned location for unhoused folks to camp, and include sanitation services. Then, police descended, arresting activists and journalists alike. From December through April 2022, a total of 16 people were arrested on warrants for their work in the park, facing charges like “felony littering” and “conspiracy to commit felony littering,” and local politicians, as text messages obtained by The Asheville Free Press showed, cheered on the arrests.

While the Asheville defendants may face uniquely severe consequences for their efforts, their experience is not uncommon, as police increase attention on groups supporting communities that lack resources. The term “mutual aid” refers to social movements that provide resources to those who need it but do so outside of the traditional charity model that sees a sharp division between those receiving care and those providing it.

In that way, mutual aid is political. By creating a community institution where everyone receives support equally and everyone is invited to participate, organizers not only fill the gaps in the social safety net, they also demonstrate what a more caring society could look like. Mutual aid projects—like Food Not Bombs, which emerged from the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s and is known for providing food to houseless communities and activist events alike—are essential for providing larger social movements the resources they need to keep activists involved.

Many mutual aid groups report facing pressure from law enforcement, which they see as emerging directly from their support for marginalized populations. As cities experience a deepening housing crisis, mutual aid projects have become essential for supporting houseless encampments, refugee communities, and others who are met not only with neglect from government and social service organizations, but also harassment from and criminalization of their activities by law enforcement.

“The state recognizes the power of people who are networked, capable, and ready to take action,” says Kelly Hayes, a Chicago-based mutual aid organizer and co-author of an upcoming book on the subject, Let This Radicalize You: Organizing and the Revolution of Reciprocal Care. “When such people are more invested in each other’s well-being than the edicts of the ruling class, they can quickly become a threat to the order of things.”

The repression these groups report is often tied directly to the communities they support. This is how the police zeroed in on South Bay Mutual Aid and Care Club in Los Angeles, which has been supporting a houseless encampment for the past two years by coordinating various resources, such as food distribution; providing harm-reduction tools, such as clean injection kits; and providing intermediaries to support those seeking public assistance. Los Angeles’ unhoused population is only growing as the city becomes unrealistically expensive, and with the 2028 Olympics looming, the city has been cracking down on encampments, sweeping the encampment dozens of times and as often as once a week. South Bay Mutual Aid’s goal is to support one particular encampment of about 70 residents near the Port of Los Angeles, coordinating with a network of similar groups across the city and country to share resources. This has, subsequently, allowed the community in this encampment to stabilize, rather than to dissipate whenever a police sweep disrupted their living arrangements. This allows those living there to stay connected to each other, and this has made it nearly impossible for the city to disperse it.

“The residents have told us … that we are the only reason they have not been evicted yet,” says organizer Bunny Mitchell, who herself was charged with felony resisting arrest after protesting one of the police sweeps of the South Bay houseless encampment and trying to talk with the sanitation workers who were destroying the belongings of those living there. She was originally arrested for trespassing, a “cite and release” offense, but was also cited with a felony charge, which led to her spending the night in jail, and which kept her in nine months of criminal proceedings. The sweep was allowed to commence. While her charges were ultimately dropped, this has become a common experience, Mitchell says.

This gets to the heart of what mutual aid organizer and scholar Sean Parson says is the driving force in the repression of mutual aid organizations, which is that these groups support the very communities who make it impossible for developers to gentrify. “[When mutual aid groups] are targeted, it seems to be overlapped or linked when it’s tied to a desire for gentrification. … When homelessness [becomes] a barrier to those housing values is when you really see that hostility,” says Parson. He added that escalation in the targeting of mutual aid groups almost always comes alongside efforts to “sanitize” a city for commercial interests. Parson has organized Food Not Bombs in cities across the country, but in 2008, he saw this dynamic firsthand in Eugene, Oregon, as organizers were faced with what felt like manufactured charges (such as arresting him for using a glass jar for salad dressing at a meals event, because glass beverage containers are prohibited in city parks) at the same time the city was preparing for the 2008 Olympic Track and Field Trials being held at the University of Oregon. Parsons believed the city wanted to cleanse its image as athletes and press flooded in from around the country, and so cracked down on public food distribution and places where houseless people convened.

Parson points out a tension inside mutual aid groups, between those simply wanting to get the most food and resources as possible to those who need it, and those who use the work to challenge city policies around houselessness and gentrification. “The more cities start cracking down, the harder it is to actually give away the food, which means it is shifting … to much more of a confrontational political movement,” says Parson.

For the mutual aid organizers in Asheville, part of their solution to police repression was another act of mutual aid. In this case, it was coming from the North Carolina ACLU, which is supporting the activists in court. “We need our neighbors to know what’s happening, to tell each other about it, and to speak up to city government about how opposed they are to the city using our very limited public resources in prosecuting a bunch of folks who give out tents and sandwiches on weekends,” Norris says. These activists ended up needing the same kind of support that was central to their own work, such as fundraising for court costs.

The answer to repression, Parson says, is more mutual aid, not less, and if there is more coordination locally, nationally, and even internationally, then resources can be floated between communities and projects that need them when they are targeted.

“The state exploits conflict in our movements, and that’s one of our primary weaknesses,” says Hayes, arguing that if mutual aid is fundamentally built on interpersonal relationships, then strengthening those relationships gives activists the strength to survive pressure. “To understand that we have differences, but are committed to a shared mission or purpose, and to have agreements about how we will address issues as they arise—this makes [long-term] group cohesion possible.”

For Parson, mutual aid groups like Food Not Bombs have been essential not just for sustaining the communities that depend on them, but also for building the kinds of relationships that all social movement work is founded on. So fighting back against state repression again means fortifying those relationships, gaining support from the wider public, reaching out to legal organizations for assistance, and even finding allies among local leaders. “Build alliances with other homeless support groups if you can,” says Parson. “Make it as public as you can. … It does seem to turn the brakes on city campaigns.” If mutual aid depends on relationships, then expanding and growing the strength of those relationships can be what helps them weather the storm.

“It would be really exciting to have a formal or informal federation of mutual aid groups to share affinity and talk more about what has worked or hasn’t worked—the possibilities are endless,” says Eithne Hamilton, one of the Asheville Survival Program organizers who is now a defendant in the case against them. “Mutual aid is putting the saying ‘We are all we’ve got’ into practice, and trying to meet some of the survival needs of struggling people, including ourselves, while building community and working towards [long-term] solutions that don’t depend on the state.”

Of the 16 people arrested in Asheville from 2021-2022, there are four remaining defendants (a fifth recently entered a non-cooperating plea agreement) who will have to wait until April 10 for their trial to begin, where they will be fighting against potential prison time. The question about whether they will be able to continue their work is a question of whether the surrounding community will follow their example and offer the kind of mutual aid that could help them fight the charges.


Header image via Asheville Survival Program Facebook page.


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