As Americans across the country lead nightly protests against the historical racism and violence of our police forces, they are being met with violent cops in paramilitary gear — and sometimes, the actual military. In the past few weeks, Portland has been ravaged by secret police who are disappearing protestors into unmarked vehicles; soldiers in D.C. were given bayonets to quell protestors; police in Buffalo, NY shoved a 75 year-old man to the ground, then walked around his body while blood leaked from his ears; and a reporter in Minneapolis lost her left eye after she was shot with a pepper round.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the country. Public health officials recommend isolation, social distancing, and frequent hand-washing to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. They certainly don’t recommend inhalation of chemical agents like tear gas and pepper spray, which are being used liberally against protestors. Protestors put in jail and incarcerated people held in prisons are not given options to isolate or maintain recommended hygiene practices to protect themselves from coronavirus.
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Mutual aid — people coming together to meet basic needs that aren’t being met by our current government or other systems — is a critical part of the response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black people. It can include money, time, or resources, and is a political act of solidarity amongst individuals and communities, rather than charity. People on the outside are coordinating rapid-response bail funds; providing jail support to find out where arrested protestors are taken, arranging bail if applicable, and waiting for their release; and fundraising for injured protestors. Monetary support like GoFundMe fundraisers to pay for medical bills, safe houses, and other forms of care are “a way to be there for our people, to build community, and to ensure that people are cared for,” according to Micah Herskind, an Atlanta-based organizer and writer. “I think jail support is another way to live out the abolitionist truth that ‘we got us.’ It’s also saying that there’s a role for everyone in the struggle — some will be in the streets, some will be doing support from home, some will be at the jail to welcome those who are released.”
According to abolitionist Mariame Kaba, “Mutual aid is not new […] It’s basic survival work that relies on the fact that human beings are interdependent.” She pointed to this chart created by Dean Spade as a way to show the important differences between mutual aid and charity, including the fact that mutual aid is an effort to flatten hierarchies without expectation of anything received in return. According to Spade, where charities and NGOs have high costs to operate and must follow government regulations, mutual aid is volunteer-powered, resisting the government’s efforts to “regulate or shut down activities.” K, a Black nonbinary organizer in Brooklyn, echoed this: “Mutual aid is so effective because it works outside of the bureaucracy of the nonprofit industrial complex. People have more control and autonomy over how aid is distributed and used, and also because mutual aid contains a political education component, longer-term relationships are built.” When it comes to mobilizing resources to support detained protestors, it also means having the speed to respond with the urgency the situation demands.
Mutual aid, however, extends beyond short-term, urgent needs. Many protestors and organizers realize that the murders of Black people at the hands of the police are just one part of a very violent system and many of those working to help protestors normally support incarcerated people. Incarceration is another violent — and often deadly — form of oppression for Black and brown people, and as with the protests, K notes, coronavirus has complicated the response.
Due to stay at home orders, mailing checks and visiting the post office have to be done “strategically” and loved ones can’t visit their family or friends in prison. Even when mail can be sent out, K said “prisons are limiting people’s access to mail and lying about it.” Morale is low on the inside, where some people “are being forced to stay inside their cells for 23 hours a day.” People on the outside are struggling with lost jobs and access to resources, but “with the help of our comrades on the inside,” K said they are doing their best. Amani Sawari, the statewide coordinator of the Michigan Prisoner Rehabilitation Credit Act, knows this well. Sawari is fundraising to help incarcerated people access prevention products like hand soap and disinfectant, putting money in people’s commissaries to get around Michigan Department of Corrections’ very restricted mailing. Sawari said it is integral “that the community step up in order to provide these materials to people in prison.” In New York, Survived and Punished NY and the Inside/Outside Soap Brigade similarly began a combined grassroots fundraising effort to send commissary money to incarcerated people while continuing decarceration efforts. They stress the importance of direct monetary aid because of the mail, movement, and other restrictions due to COVID-19.
In addition to bail out funds for protestors, a COVID-19 Bail Out Fund has been organized to get people out of New York City jails if they cannot afford to pay bail. Many people held in jails haven’t even been convicted of a crime, but are trapped inside because bail can often be unaffordable. In fact, the vast majority of people in jails — nearly 500,000 people — are held there in pre-trial detention. Release Aging People in Prison’s Melissa Tanis points out there are a large number of people who could be released immediately, regardless of innocence. Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) Co-Founder and Executive Director, Gina Womack, explains they are advocating releasing youth from detention, where outbreaks have unfortunately already begun. Womack stresses that “[D]uring a crisis, the facilities could be put on lockdown. In the aftermath of Katrina, when prison staff couldn’t get to work, youth went without food and sanitation for days.” If a similar situation arose due to COVID-19, the results would be inhumane and devastating to incarcerated youth.
Rapid-response mutual aid is necessary for the survival of incarcerated people, and taking to the streets to prevent further incarceration and police violence remains of the utmost importance. That said, while the ultimate goal is decarceration, it’s heartening to see the swift action of organizers in response to crises. Faced with unprecedented challenges during both a global pandemic and a national movement, “communities are coming together to act where the government refuses to,” according to K.