This story is a preview of the Salt, Soil, & Supper Almanac, a forthcoming collection of stories examining climate justice and Southern environments—emphasizing the traditions, practices, festivities, and lenses of critique that have allowed Southerners to persevere in the face of hostile physical, political and cultural environments.
For some of us, it's not hard to imagine a world that is so violent that the act of tending to wounds, filling stomachs, and caring for land is persecuted. That is our world. And amid the frenzy of State-sanctioned political repression and assassination in a world of clear threats from the outside, our impulses lead us to look without rather than within. But, as important as it is to watch our external assailants, I've become curious and vigilant enough to watch us, too. I now recognize that this is the way that people move when they are at war.
Many have noticed mutual aid organizing work coming under attack, given the latest RICO indictments against StopCopCity activists and organizers handed down in a collaboration between Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and Attorney General Chris Carr. In a chorus of uproar, we witnessed many point to the clear threat of the State's criminalizing mutual aid—a practice of mutualistic and collectivist communal care posed to our movement and those beyond our city who stand in solidarity with us. It was immediately obvious to many that the State's treatment of mutual aid as a project that is counter to its goals illustrates the ways the State is not interested in meeting the needs of the community.
Well and good. But what does it mean for our movement to also treat mutual aid as a pariah in the project of community organizing?
The tenuous place of mutual aid in movement spaces
Despite its popularity and use as of late, mutual aid is not unanimously valued among organizers.
In fact, during my stint organizing here in the city in the forest, I've heard assertions that "every organization doesn't need to be doing mutual aid" and questions like "You're doing mutual aid but what else are you doing?" As millions poured into organizations dedicated to "Black liberation," and they took exception to calls for mutual support, many rightfully interrogated this action: Why aren't y'all practicing economic solidarity with us? Potentially, this comes as news to some of you. It's very likely those who have been organizing mutual aid collectives already know how people in the movement talk about your work, or at least how they used to.
Mutual aid is sometimes treated as if it is incomplete, insubstantial, unworthy, undesirable, and not "real" organizing. Building the infrastructure to do mutual aid is not easy, and yet we've seen incredibly successful efforts go underfunded, overlooked, and abandoned.
It's well-documented that the pandemic and uprisings of 2020 reignited many communities' and radical movements' commitment to mutual aid praxis. While some explored the idea for the first time, forming pods, food exchanges, or COVID-19 supply distributions, others quickly offered their established infrastructure in response to emerging needs. The idea that "when the government abandons us, we're all we got" lingered in the air. Alongside this proliferation of mutual aid collectives grew the desire to capture and direct the wild, radical mass action of thousands in the streets.
"And how do we make something of this momentum?"
By 2021, I had already grown tired of the simultaneous argument that somehow mutual aid isn't "real" organizing, but electoral organizing is a legitimate way to engage the community "where they're at" around liberation. Why would these two thrusts be in opposition?
Well, many mutual aid organizers also had concerns with legitimizing the State—and usurping unwieldy resources to do so—while their mutual aid programs had their donations dry up due to the economic crisis. Contingencies of Black radical mutual aid organizers were more interested in building economic alternatives than entrenching folks in the existing political economy, furthering tensions. In a 2021 interview, former Black Panther and political prisoner Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin said "We are in this period where there are some people who understand or are practicing mutual aid but the masses do not. We need to go beyond 'just helping,' to working toward some sort of different economy, a survival economy on the way to full-on anarchist communism. Maybe that's the name we know of, as anarchists, but in some parts of the world, they call it a 'solidarity economy' to help them survive capitalism. Whatever it's called, we need to have that so we're not totally dependent on the capitalist state."
The schism between radical anarchism, which is a politic that breathes life into mutual aid, and centralization was palpable—and apparently consequential in 2020 and 2021. Ervin also pointed out: "We're not fighting just to have a cult or a group, or some leaders. We're fighting to put power in the hands of the people in a new society. We need to be training them, equipping them to be independent of this political structure."
In a world of entangled mutual aid collectives and nonprofit tax statuses, manufactured scarcity inherent to the nonprofit industrial complex and philanthropy, folks were really supporting and funding voter mobilization instead of mutual aid. Still reeling from Rayshard Brooks' murder and subsequent legislative attempts to (partially) Defund APD, Black Georgians would be tasked with flipping the state blue, and in doing so, the country.
Then, the blues begged for labor toward Senate control in the Raphael Warnock/Jon Ossoff tickets. This continued directly into warding off Mary Norwood for mayor and mobilizing for a "fair fight" in Stacey Abrams' second run. The uninterrupted focus on the presidential election, Georgia Senate runoffs, special elections, and local mayoral elections created repeated opportunities for deprioritization of self-determination organizing (like mutual aid) in order to make space for… other, urgent matters. There always seems to be an election around the corner. And with an election comes an argument that it will never be a convenient time for Black masses to determine a future for themselves.
How do we Atlantans let go of fear of the "race massacre"—or the idea of a non-cosmopolitan Black Mecca and a white supremacist City Too Busy to Hate—inhibiting the long overdue rebellion married to no cause?
As the spring transitioned to summer in 2021, it became clear that COVID-19 vaccines would not be the all-purpose protective shield against all variants to come. At this time, communities realized economic hardship due to price gouging and COVID-19 transmission would be here to stay—unless there was a radical intervention. Rapid response mutual aid efforts had turned a corner and eyed sustainability for their work, while other groups would have to sunset their efforts. All of this to say, the early summer of 2021 marked a turning point for radical organizers, and at that moment the proposal to build a Public Safety Training Facility in the South River Forest of Atlanta entered.
How Stop Cop City embraces mutual aid
The #StopCopCity movement is certainly a historic one by many accounts. Turning out a record-breaking public comment at the city council more than once, attracting international solidarity and media coverage, staging direct actions to stall the construction, fleeing construction companies and project funders, several lawsuits filed, 116,000 signatories on a petition for a referendum on the ground lease, a fucked up construction timeline, and an ever-growing base of supporters are all evidence that something is different about this movement.
I think one of the main things that has felt so different about this movement is the ways people have cared for one another. This can be explained, in part, by the fact that many of the Black radical youth organizers in Atlanta who have been holding down mutual aid since the initial stages of the pandemic are also sustaining care work in support of the StopCopCity movement. This is the single most inspiring aspect of this movement, for me.
At each #StopCopCity week of action, there has been so much care offered. From acupuncture to free groceries, and mental health support spaces to temporary housing, people have made a point of attending to the needs of one another.
In past moments of mass mobilization, care work, and mutual aid was often the first thing abandoned in our desire to mount rigorous, well-coordinated campaigns against targets and threats. Given that care work is a form of labor—often gendered and commonly extracted, undervalued, and marginalized by our economy—it is no surprise that vestiges of capitalist logic also appear in the very ways we organize. Reproductive labor is "work required to sustain human life and raise future generations."
As Black educators struggle to balance their commitment to Revolutionary Love with their entrapment in the schooling-as-colonial-indoctrination, evading state appropriation and embracing abolitionist pedagogy requires a reimagination of love and care.
It is work that under American capitalist hegemony, has been delegated to Black people, those of marginalized genders, and poor folks. And because even abolitionist, Black feminist organizing spaces are still grappling with patriarchy and capitalism internally, they are still potentially undervaluing reproductive labor in the form of care work or mutual aid. Such grappling also reveals that this reproductive labor is not above critique. Dr. Joy James notes through her concept, the captive maternal, the ungendered labor of Black captives that sustains and stabilizes their communities through mutual aid work also stabilizes the State and reproduces American democratic hegemony.
As the stakes of struggle have heightened in the 2020 turn, the reproductive labor of mutual aid has become more prominent in the struggle to defend the ATL forest. This work, which sustains the human life of our movements, has proven itself indispensable as the world moves in solidarity with local organizers here in a global fight to StopCopCity.
The mutual aid turn has leaned much in the service of widening the political imaginary of the movement. Mutual aid organizers, who sharpened their analysis by the state and community responses to COVID-19, have developed an analysis around disability justice that directly confronts status quo insistence on "productivity," "performance," "outcomes," and "sacrifice." When left unchecked, this prevents movement organizations from actually meeting the needs of their community—activists and organizers included.
Where ableism tells us to look after our own safety and needs, organizers navigating pandemic and climate crises demand a different kind of movement. Held under the boot the heels of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore terms organized abandonment by the government in the face of COVID-19, hyper-exploitation in the labor market, and climate disasters, many (admittedly, not all) organizers in the #StopCopCity movement have made it their mission to show up for their community.
Attention to care work and mutual aid has meant activists and organizers now have access to the care they need, which has, in turn, enabled folks to show up in radical ways, while also making space for rest. If lessons have been learned from 2020's rampant burnout among organizers, that wisdom has manifested as this renewed commitment to collective care, and I'm grateful for it. That said, alongside the many folks with disabilities in this fight—including the ones who have suffered damage from the toll of this movement— I still call for us to escalate this commitment to care.
In the spring of 2023, following a #StopCopCity canvassing effort, organizers shared that community members wanted to participate in the movement, but needed more material support in order to have the time and energy to join. Black radical organizers, in our long-standing tradition of mutual aid practice, had already known that. In fact, Community Movement Builders' free grocery program participants are also regularly engaged politically about what's happening in their community. For these groups, mutual aid is one of many ways to build trusting relationships with their community as it subsequently provides the community an entry point for further organizing.
This moment in early 2023 among #StopCopCity canvassers, signifies an opportunity for a (hopefully) permanent shift. And there's no better time than now.
Mutual aid prepares us for revolutionary abolitionist climate justice
Just this year, earlier in September, flooding at the Atlanta University Center and along Northside Drive shook the community. A few weeks ago I-285 became a river following heavy rainfall. Atlanta has had issues with flooding for decades, though AUC alumni commented that they'd never seen it to that extent in the campus neighborhood. As folks began to connect the increased flooding to heightened deforestation via the lessons taught by Cop City and other Atlanta area development projects, we have reached a collective consensus that the climate crisis is already here. And as Atlanta, like the rest of the country, muddled through the planet's hottest summer on record, the city's mutual aid organizers responded by distributing water, ice, and portable fans while explaining to the residents that deforestation causes a rise in surface temperatures and that heat stroke disproportionately impacts Black communities, as they are most often communities where greenery had been removed.
With an expected increase in weather anomalies and climate disasters, the practice of mutual aid can uniquely prepare us for our collective survival, if we let it.
Because I often talk about the intent of the police to wage urban warfare, people sometimes ask what it looks like to prepare for war. My first response is usually that we have comrades who have survived countries at war that could probably offer us much more than I can. My second response is that whether it is war, environmental disaster, or police-state fascism, we will need to know how to care for one another without the State, beyond the reach of the State, without hesitation. And by "without hesitation," I mean mutual aid response should be like muscle memory; this praxis of care work will need to be in our bones. Maybe we're practicing for the inevitable. Maybe our insistence to exchange services for goods without currency, pool resources, grow our own food, give that food away, trade medicine for training, and simply being curious about what our neighbors need is the best preparation for fighting fascism, environmental disaster, and the ongoing war the state wages on us. This threat is why the State is so intent on targeting mutual aid specifically.
The struggle today around Cop City is the result of a decades-long fight over who Atlanta belongs to, who is run for, and who it stands against. Making sense of it requires understanding the city's history of shifting dynamics of class and racial domination.
Mutual aid gives us the tools, wisdom, humility, and connection we will so direly require as we seek to survive these violent struggles. In abolitionist spaces, I have been hearing folks talk of "world-building" a lot, and I am actually not sure whether or not we can predict or fathom what a world on the other side of liberation might look like. My greatest hope is that those that come after us, those that survive, can write that story for themselves. But what I have learned from my Black radical comrades practicing mutual aid, who are responding to new threats, ignoring patriarchal, ableist attitudes towards care work, and sustaining the #StopCopCity movement, is that mutual aid has the potential—if we do it right—to hold us together as we approach the end of this world as we know it and the start of another.
We can't afford for mutual aid to be marginalized in our movements any longer. Mutual aid is as much an economic intervention as it is a political one. It inspires the spirit of collectivism in us, the spirit of responsibility to one another, and keeps us mindful of our intertwined futures. Mutual aid is part of a broader effort to build solidarity economies or economies that prioritize care over profit, which is a direct threat to the captivity we experience under capitalism. If our movements can continue to value this care, as the #StopCopCity movement has, our struggles against the ecologically destructive, oppressive engines of the police-military state will be sustained for the long haul.
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