Kai Wright: This is the United States of Anxiety show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
Ida Siegal: Tonight, the governor confirming that the coronavirus has arrived here in Manhattan.
Mayor Bill DeBlasio: This is a moment we all knew would come, but it doesn't make it any easier.
Sara Sidner: This is the 10th hospital that I have been in and to see the heartache that goes so far and so wide, it's really hard to take.
Mendy Hickey: We're pouring our hearts out to the patients and the entire staff. I’m tired.
Maryam Shariat Mudrick: My hope is that we're not waiting to go back to what we call normal, but that this experience helps us shape what we want the new normal to be.
Carmen Means: I need to make sure that folks ain’t hungry. That people are secure where housing is concerned.
President Biden: We're bound together by the loss and the pain and the days that have gone by. We're bound together by the hope and the possibilities in the days in front of us.
Kai: I'm Kai Wright and welcome to a special national broadcast of our show. It's an emotional moment for so many of us this past week we hit the official one-year mark of this pandemic. For most of this hour, we're going to talk about all the remarkable ways in which people have taken care of one another in that time, and about the long, very much political history of that communal caretaking, but we need to start with a remembrance. One out of every five people in the US have lost somebody to COVID. We begin tonight by checking in with one of those people.
Gregory Porter is a Grammy-winning singer and songwriter. He's a famous guy towards the world playing jazz and gospel and R&B. We met him last summer to talk about his brother's fame. He was a sort of local hero here in Brooklyn. When he died from COVID, it hit hard. Gregory is at the virtual Grammys tonight, so I checked in with him earlier this week about living with his loss.
Well, Gregory, first of all, Hello, and thanks for coming back on the show.
Gregory Porter: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I'm glad to be back with you.
Kai: When we last spoke your older brother Lloyd Porter, he had just passed from COVID here in New York City. This was last summer. It was a moment when a lot of people were experiencing similar loss suddenly and rapidly and helped us process all that by introducing us to your brother. I wonder if now you can sort of-- For those of our listeners who missed that episode if you can reintroduce us to him. One of the things that I remember is it seems like he was just a constant maker of community.
Gregory: Yes, people are still sending me messages about things that he's done, connections that he's made, even as a matchmaker, there are babies that are here because of him. He's like, "Hey, you need to get to know this girl, and y'all need to sit over there in the corner and have a cup of coffee." This is the kind of guy he was. He gathered a group of people, a group of artists, together, designers, photographers, videographers, for me to shoot all of my music videos, all of my first music videos [chuckles] and my budget was very small. I was seen as just a fabulous, fabulous person in terms of just making things happen and bringing community together.
Kai: Well, in that way. It sounds like he was a bit of a mentor or father figure for you too he played this huge role in your career. You're now a multi Grammy-nominated artist, but in those early days it was Lloyd who believed in you, right?
Gregory: Yes. Right. He believed in me before I believed in me, which is a funny thing. There's a lyric and in one of our songs, Thank You, which is. I say.
A rough-cut stone, I couldn't polish myself, it had to be done by someone else. I'm using it in a religious casing, but I'm speaking about my brother because I thought I could sing pretty nicely, but my brother would get up on the mountaintop and say, "My brother is the best singer in the world." Now, I still don't believe that, but that's the person he was for me, and he was a comedian. The funniest comedian who never had a Pulitzer or a Grammy for his genius of comedy, but his memory, and his image, his likeness is in my music.
Kai: He died on May 6th, which I gather is also your mother's birthday. That's coming up. I think about a lot of people who have lost loved ones over the last year. I imagine there's probably a lot of anniversaries like that coming. I wonder for you how are you thinking about that preparing for that, what might you say to other people who are in similar situation?
Gregory: Well, I would say that the grieving process has been so profound the way in which people died without a close connection, without me touching his hand, without me seeing him physically in the same room, is just so disconnected, so cold-blooded. That I think extended the grieving process for me, he just disappeared. He just disappeared, and I had no parts of him. A couple of things happen before he was pronounced dead. I sang to him a couple of times. The first time I sang to him, the idea, the thought was, he's recovering, he's still there, and this will encourage him, give him some encouragement. I'm singing my heart out just to him.
Then, the next day, he had had a heart attack, and the doctor's tone was different. He was like, "Sing to him, give him some encouragement," but I was looking at him on screen and I said to myself as I sang, "He's not there. He's not there." Essentially, that was my funeral. The last time I sang to him because I knew he was gone, and I was just singing to his soul. The healing has just come over days, really just considering just who he was as a man, who we were as little boys [chuckles] and that keeps me laughing, and that keeps him alive. Yes.
Kai: One of the things that happened when your brother died was that the community had to come up with this really innovative way to remember him. We couldn't have funerals. What was that like for you to witness that? How did that impact you from afar?
Gregory: Yes, I watched from 3,000 miles away that when the community and many of my good friends walked past my brother's door of his brownstone and waved at his wife and child as they stood on their stoop, it was beautiful, painful, but beautiful to see people, almost a scene from a movie just giving him his respect, letting his family know, letting his people know that he was loved. He was seen, and he will be missed. The interesting thing that I did afterwards is I watched it a few times again. I just listened to some of the comments because the microphone was just picking up random comments.
Children didn't understand like, "Where's Mr. Lloyd?" Then the parents explaining as they walked away from the microphone because there was a steady procession. Then some people would stop and say some of the things that he did, "I can't believe he's gone. He's the one that helped me find my house." "He's-- Look, Mr.--" They were saying these things standing in front of his house, and the microphone was picking up some of these things. A lot of them were thinking out loud, thinking nobody was listening. I heard some of those comments and it was just so beautiful. It was beautiful to see.
Kai: You've written and talked about the way you've turned to music throughout this pandemic. You released an album last year was nominated for a Grammy. You also released a collection of songs of your work that was explicitly about helping us get through this, get through this time?
Gregory: Well, I was self-medicating and have always self-medicated with music. I wanted to put together something that was encouraging because I realized I was going to my stereo, to my vinyls for memory, for encouragement, for uplift, not to sound self-important. I went back to my songs to reaffirm what it is that I believe and about the optimism that I have about love, irrepressible love. Sometimes I write these songs for other people to encourage other people not realizing one day, I'll need them. The simple phrase, there will be no love that's dying here, is I needed it to reaffirm that idea for myself.
Kai: Can I ask you about that song in particular? It's called No Love Dying. It's one of the songs you included in the collection. It has this incredibly poignant lyric. It says, the death of love is everywhere, but I won't let it be. I just felt so 2020.
Gregory: Yes, it's about the deeper love, the physical manifestation of love can disappear, but that thing still exists. I still love my brother deeply and I still trade love with him, but he's not here anymore. That will continue to live no matter if he breathes or not. There's evidence of almost getting used to death, but I believe in love and I'm fighting for love. I'm fighting for the life of love.
Kai: You talk so beautifully about the song. Can you sing us a few bars of it, maybe?
Gregory: Sure. There will be no love that's dying here. The bird that flew in through my window, simply lost his way. He broke his wing, I helped him heal. Then he flew away. Well, the death of love is everywhere, but I won't let it be. There will be no love here dying for me. There will be no love dying here for me.
Kai: I'm Kai Wright. This is a special national broadcast of the United States of Anxiety. We'll be right back with more of my conversation with recording artist Gregory Porter, about losing his brother to COVID. The ways some of us have begun to take care of each other. Just a little more. Stay with us.
Welcome back. This is a special national broadcast of United States of Anxiety from WNYC in New York. I'm Kai Wright. We're looking back at a year in our lives with COVID-19. One in five people in the US have lost someone to this virus, at least according to one survey by the Associated Press. Gregory Porter is one of those people. Before the break, he told us that one way he's mourned his brother's loss is by turning to music.
Gregory is a Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter. In December, he made a collection of his music dedicated to people who were like him finding their way through grief. Gregory is at the virtual Grammys tonight, but I talked to him earlier this week about that collection. You also included Revival song, which is from your new album. It's a gospel-infused song to me at least, but there's also or maybe this isn't a "but" there's also this tone of resilience and defiance in it.
The sort of not just grief in the sort of sicker patients beginning and it feels like we're marching somewhere. Tell us about that song and why you included it in this particular collection?
Gregory: Yes. In the gospel tradition, songs always have double meanings. The River Jordan is not really the River Jordan. It may be the Ohio River, the Mississippi River or there's a double meaning.
You lift me higher, out of the fire and out of the flames. This idea of ascending this merch and mire and rising above this thing that we find ourselves in at the time to a higher place. Looking to something that reminds us of our strength. Looking to something that reminds us of our highest self.
Kai: Gregory, what would you leave people with? What would you say to folks as we mark a year since this pandemic began?
Gregory: The memory of this time will be really a profound for all of us, even for those who haven't lost someone. There's been some beautiful things that have happened. People have helped one another get through and let's continue to do that. We'll need to continue to do that because there's some wounds and some scars. Let's continue to watch each other and help each other. We will make it, we will get through this and I'm hopeful and optimistic. I know the memory of my brother will continue to inspire me and inspire my music. I hope that your listeners and other people will be as well.
Kai: Thank you so much.
Gregory: Thank you.
Kai: Gregory Porter's Revival song from the Grammy-nominated album he released last summer. From the collection Getting Through It, which he put together to help those who like himself are grieving someone they've lost in this pandemic. Gregory said he's been happy to see how people have taken care of one another over the past year. He hopes that we'll keep doing so even after the pandemic ends. That's what we're going to talk about for the rest of this show. Coming together for communal caretaking. Not just with some facile notion of unity or the false idea that this pandemic has hit us all the same. It most certainly has not.
It has rather illustrated a great many inequities and made many of them worse. It's because of that fact because so many people have not gotten what they need from official quarters that community networks have sprung up to fill the gap. A lot of us have even learned a new term in this past year, Mutual Aid. For the rest of the show, we're going to talk about Mutual Aid and learn its long and important history. As we do, I want to hear from you. Have you started or joined any kind of communal caretaking effort during the pandemic? Whatever you call it, call us and tell us about it. What need were you trying to meet?
What trouble did you encounter along the way and what worked well? What lessons can you share? I am joined by author and activist Dean Spade. In October, Dean published a new book from Verso press called Mutual Aid, Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next). He's been studying Mutual Aid and importantly working to create Mutual Aid networks for decades. He joins us from Seattle, where he is an associate professor at Seattle University School of Law. Dean, thanks for coming on the show.
Dean Spade: Thanks for having me.
Kai: Can we start by just helping us to find some terms here. A lot of people have probably heard this term "Mutual Aid" in the past year, but maybe for the first time. It reflects a kind of general idea about taking care of each other, the "mutual" part. It also has a really specific idea that is distinct from community service or volunteering. Can you just explain that idea?
Dean: Yes, totally. When I term "Mutual Aid," what I'm thinking of is the part of social movement work, where people are getting together to meet each other's immediate survival needs. With a shared understanding that the crisis that people are facing is not the fault of the people facing the crisis, but the systems that have produced the crisis and are worsening it. It's not just like feel-good volunteerism. It's also got teeth. There's something in it that's connected to social movement work that says, "Hey, what are the root causes of these problems? Why are the same people always left on the bottom? Why are these systems so extractive and produce an extreme crisis for some people when the storm rolls in or the pandemic rolls?"
Mutual Aid, as you mentioned has become a pretty popular term in the last year, and when terms mainstream, sometimes, it can be hard to tell what meaning is because they get used in a lot of ways, but the way I use it in my work and I think the way people in social movements have used it for a long time is to talk about that part of our social movement work that is the direct survival work to support each other.
Kai: It's tied to the root causes of the problem that you're addressing. Also, there's an important distinction here from charity work. What is this distinction and why is that important?
Dean: That's great. A lot of us think of Mutual Aid is the opposite of charity because charity is generally when elites, rich people, governments, sometimes religions historically are organizing aid for people in crisis, but with the idea that there is something wrong with those people that we're going to figure out who's the deserving poor and the undeserving poor, so "You can only have this if you're the widow of a veteran, but not if you're one of these loose women," or, "You shouldn't have this if you're undocumented," or, "You should only have this if you're sober."
Charities usually deploys eligibility criteria that memorializes people's poverty and says that it's the fault of the people who are in crisis. Mutual Aid is the opposite, it says the crisis is the fault of the system and so everybody should have what they need right now and we're not going to deploy moralizing exclusions that keep the most stigmatized people out of the relief. Most social services that we all know about in our towns, most nonprofit frameworks, do this exact thing.
They exclude people unless they're sober, or unless they take these or those meds or unless they're documented all of these pieces. Mutual Aid tends to be volunteer based, and collectively run and really centering the dignity and wisdom of people facing the crisis, instead of saying, "Oh, there's some elites who really know what's good for you and if you took this budgeting class and if you took this parenting class, then maybe eventually we could make you eligible for this thing we're giving out."
Kai: We already heard from a few listeners this week about their own experiences with Mutual Aid, and I want to play a couple of voicemails we got because they might help illustrate the idea. First, here's Tori from Tacoma, Washington.
Tori: It's been really amazing to work with all these people that I didn't know before COVID started, and frankly, to work with them, mostly virtual. We've really never met in person. A few times we've done grocery distribution all together, but socially distance and masked. It's really people from all walks of life who've signed up to help and we have a regular crew now who does it every week. Knowing that if I needed something like this that I really feel like my community would step up and be there. I don't know, I like being that for other people.
Kai: That's Tori and here's Madeleine from Baltimore, Maryland.
Madeleine: I joined Mutual Aid group at the beginning of the pandemic in our city. I was unemployed, I was laid off from both my jobs because of the pandemic and I wanted to get involved with the community more with all the free time I had. It led to a couple of amazing revelations for me. My own thoughts about scarcity, scarcity of love, scarcity of money, and understand that those are stories that my culture has told me. It feels a lot easier to share generously now, even though I've gone from an $80,000 income to a $13,000 a year income, I'm giving more than I ever was.
Kai: Dean, I want to hear you talk about anything you heard in that, but one of the reasons I played them is that in both of those there's the idea of mutual, the idea that you may need aid one day and have it to give the next day so there's nothing special about being at either end of that spectrum. It's almost like, at least in my family, how I was raised to believe what family is that is really the core idea here. Did you hear anything in those messages that you want to pick up on or adjust to?
Dean: One of the things I hear people find participating in Mutual Aid projects very deeply heartening, because we live in a culture that just does not own this thing, tells us to experience scarcity, to distrust others, to just get what you can for yourself and hoard it just for your tiny family. We have a vibrant sci-fi TV world that tells us that difficult times will come with like armed bands just protecting our own, but in reality, when crisis strikes, people tend to really show up and help each other out in huge numbers and demonstrate a generosity that's transformative for people.
It's so countercultural to care about people you don't know, and who are different from you and to work with people you don't know and who are different from you for the good and well being of all and to make decisions together instead of waiting for some boss to tell you how it's supposed to be. I think people have very big transformative changes happen in them from doing this work and one other piece that relates to what you just said is that Mutual Aid deeply de-stigmatizes poverty.
I always think about this wonderful movie I saw about the Black Panther party where this woman interviewed and her family went to the free breakfasts, and she talked about how you're feeling like there's something wrong with you that you can't feed your children. There's something bad about you that you're poor and then you go to this place and people are like, "No, it's white supremacy that's making everybody poor, let's have breakfast together and talk about how to take it down."
Tori was saying that to you. Her delivery, of course, is even better because it happened to her. She was one of these children, who's eating this breakfast and seeing this de-stigmatization, but I think that's very meaningful in a culture that tells us that good people will rise to the top and if you're on the bottom, there's something that you've done wrong.
Kai: Speaking of the mutual part of it also you have studied this, but you also come to it as an organizer, and racial justice movements in queer and trans liberation movements, and you have a personal relationship to Mutual Aid work as well, would you mind telling your own story of turning to Mutual Aid in moments of crisis?
Dean: I feel like everything about my survival has been shaped by Mutual Aid as I think it's the case of so many people. Certainly, I came of age in a queer and trans movement in the 90s and a lot of people were doing a lot of harm reduction work and we were doing a lot of support for people with HIV and AIDS and some of the first Mutual Aid work I was involved in was directly supporting people trying to navigate the New York City welfare authority, who had HIV and AIDS, and who were not getting what they were supposed to get, and we were going to the offices with them and staying and not only when the offices closed until they gave people the housing they're supposed to get and that kind of thing.
I've also had my own experiences of like, I think that Mutual Aid is both specific projects that people enter, to become a Mutual Aid or whatever it is, but it's also an ethic inside radical or left movement. I'm remembering it I think of a period, a moment for me where I really was on the receiving end of Mutual Aid was this time in 2002, when I was arrested for using a bathroom in Grand Central Station, yes, this typically happens to trans people. We get arrested for using bathrooms and other kinds of basic survival needs.
Not only did two people who were there with me, who were friends of mine, jumped in and tried to tear the cops off of me, which I think is Mutual Aid, and they both got arrested, but then also a community of people outside who knew me came together and figured out who are the lefty lawyers and call those people and figured out how to stand up for me in court.
There was a lot of people in court when I had to appear. It wasn't really scary experience as you can imagine. I experienced transphobia from my court appointed lawyers. It was a really big deal but these people gave me a lawyer that worked. People put pressure on the city to drop the charges, and that's a very typical Mutual Aid in left movements, and also in queer and other marginalized and criminalized communities like court support and defense campaigns, Survive and Punished is a great group that has a New York chapter that people may know of that does defense campaigns or criminalized people who've been criminalized for surviving violence, fought back against their attacker and whatnot.
Kai: Let's try to get in a caller before we have to go to break. It's talk to Noolah from Queens, Nullah welcome to the show.
Noolah: A year ago, I put a poster on my neighbor's door. I realized that my neighbors didn't know my phone number and just said, "If you need anything, call me." I started a Facebook page and it became something called Covid Care Neighbor Network. Within a month, we had over 100 volunteers. Initially, we were just serving the immediate needs of our neighbors, but I live in Jackson Heights, Queens, which is an immigrant neighborhood. It really quickly became clear that the government just didn't care about our undocumented neighbors.
They didn't get a stimulus check. They didn't get unemployment, they didn't even get food stamps. It really became just a way to advocate for them to get food and now, people in my group, we distribute almost over 2,000 boxes of food for our neighbors every week. They became a movement and I think our community is stronger now than it was before COVID.
Kai: Thank you for that. Dean, just quickly that 2,000 boxes of food, can you talk about the way the scale this might be able to hit?
Dean: Definitely. I look forward to when the studies are going to come out about how widespread the COVID Mutual Aid has been because there are just endless stories like what Noolah just shared. I think that many of us believe that we're going to continue to see an erosion of-- The economy of the climate. It's all going to be facing a lot more crises. The work we're doing now to support people during COVID is actually going to be important for the next time the storm hits the blackout. All of the things that are coming to all of our communities that-- We just saw in Texas or we've been seeing it worsening and worsening for years.
I think many of us believe that we could have a society that really runs on Mutual Aid, especially as we see, I think US Empire crumble in some ways and the long history of-- The US putting more and more of its resources towards militarism, policing, and immigration enforcement and less and less for people's basic needs, we start to imagine what does it look like?
Of course, many communities have already been left out for a long time as Noolah said, but what does it look like if we all start really taking care of each other, of course, while we fight to dismantle these horrible systems that are criminalizing and harming us? That level of scale is not about centralizing Mutual Aid, but instead about this proliferation of many, many, many, many, many local projects based in local wisdoms that can do this crisis support really well and be run locally by the people there who are part of that community instead of something from on high.
Kai: I'm Kai Wright and I'm talking with Dean Spade about the history of Mutual Aid and the ways in which people have discovered and rediscovered the idea during the pandemic. Stay with us.
Carolyn Adams: Hey, everyone, this is Carolyn Adams, the associate producer for the United States of Anxiety. This past year has been really hard. And even though there's some light, we're still not out of this tunnel. Here on the show, we've been trying to understand why and just how this pandemic hit our communities so hard. We invite you to reflect with us and check out our collection, “What COVID Revealed.” It's a curated list of episodes in which we explored what love and loss resistance and resilience looked like this year.
There's a link to it in this episode show notes but you can also find it on our website, wnyc.org/anxiety. If you click the tab at the top labeled Collections, you'll see "What COVID Revealed," listed there. We hope that these episodes will bring you some peace and understanding in these trying times.
Kai: Welcome back. This is a special national broadcast of United States of Anxiety from WNYC in New York. I'm Kai Wright. We're looking back at a year in our lives with COVID-19. We're focused on the ways in which communities have come together to take care of themselves, as so many of the institutions that were supposed to form a safety net have failed to do so. I'm joined by author and activist Dean Spade.
In October, Dean published a new book from Verso press called Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next). He's been organizing and studying this stuff for decades and may have advice on how to face any challenges you've encountered. Let's start with Jay in Los Angeles. Jay, welcome to the show.
Jay: Good afternoon. Thanks for having me.
Kai: Thanks for calling. What has been your experience?
Jay: I'm a substitute teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. When the pandemic hit, the district began a project called Grab & Go, where we offered food to needy families. People just had a drive through, stop the cars, we put the food into the trunk or into the backseat of the car and they drive off. You could get up to six meals or six packages a day. When they first asked for help, about 1500 of us subs volunteered. They couldn't even take us all at the same time, but I did three, two weeks shifts of helping distribute the food. If they had extra at the end of the day, they couldn't put it back, we'd take it away.
If I saw somebody on the street who needed it, I gave it. I have a couple of neighbors who I was sharing with. We were feeding, that was the deal.
Kai: Had you done anything like that before?
Jay: Not in the same way. I have served as Jewish clergy and I have done a little bit of feeding the homeless at my former billet in southeast Los Angeles County, but that was relatively spot thing. This was every weekday for a total of six weeks.
Kai: What did you learn? What was the hardest part of it, I'd say?
Jay: The hardest part of it was thinking that a lot of the people who came to watch had no place else to go. I guess we were glad to be able to help those people.
Kai: Well, thank you for that, Jay. Let's go to Maggie in Minnesota. Maggie, welcome to the show.
Kai: How you doing? Thanks for calling. What was your experience?
Maggie: Well, I feel like my whole life I have been and experienced Mutual Aid. It never really had a name. Everybody I know who's part of the poor working class, maybe lower middle class is kind of sharing the same $15 around over and over again. It's an interesting in the last year to just see it have a name and see the middle class and upper middle classes participating in it more and seeing so many efforts in it, and I really appreciate it.
But I do think it's important to acknowledge that middle-class people, working-class people have always taken care of each other because they can see exactly how easy it is for the bottom to fall out and to see how vulnerable you can be when you don't have a lot of money. And so when you do have an extra $15, $10 you give it to somebody who might need a little bit of extra support. GoFundMes and whatnot. I just think trust is the hardest thing to establish. It's been nice to see, especially in Minneapolis to be precise, there's already kind of established trust there. There's a lot of support here.
Kai: Thank you for that, Maggie. Dean, can I ask you about something Maggie said there about the fact that this has been going on a long time. We've sort of touched on this a little bit in the conversation. To go in for it a bit, this Mutual Aid has been a core part of so many social movements. Is it fair to say that maybe the most intense period of that was in the '60s and '70s, both in Black and Puerto Rican movements for self-determination and in queer communities? If so, can you talk about that history and how it was used in those movements?
Dean: That's a great question. I really appreciate what Maggie said about the fact that working class people and people who are stigmatized and marginalized are always surviving by taking care of each other because the systems that are supposed to do relief like disaster relief or poor relief, are actually designed to leave certain people out. They always have been designed and racialized and gendered ways, in ways that leave out immigrants, in ways that leave out queer and trans people, et cetera. They're always designed to be inadequate because the point of them is to force people to work at any wage under any conditions.
There's always a whole set of people who have to be on the very bottom, both the warn the rest of us who are not there right now, "You'll fall there and die in the street if you don't do exactly what we say," and because people are exempted out by these criteria. I just really appreciate that. Mutual Aid is very visible during COVID because it's this global pandemic happening everywhere at once, but it's a consistent future in all of those communities and all of those social movement struggles lik the struggle to abolish prisons always has included and still includes support for people in prisons.
The support for people in detention centers, et cetera. Yes, I think that the '60s and '70s were a flashpoint where we see it's kind of the last moment. I think right now major uprising against white supremacy, war, sexism, capitalism, colonialism in the US and so many people were active and so the Mutual Aid is very visible there. I think that's true in every movement across time. That's a really important and fun place for us to look. Some of the examples people-- The flashpoint where many people look at are, of course the Black Panther party's free breakfast programs, but they also had many other programs like health clinics and ambulance service and tons and tons of programs.
Also, the Young Lords, people who were working for a Puerto Rican liberation, both the decolonization of Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican liberation and for people in the US, they're famous for their trash strike. They were both picking up trash and throwing it in the middle of the street to make a point about the ways that Puerto Rican neighborhoods were neglected by the City of New York. They hijacked a mobile X-ray unit that the city of New York used to test people for tuberculosis, that the Young Lords felt didn't come to the Puerto Rican community at accessible times for the population and there was a lot of TB.
They hijacked the truck and brought it to the Puerto Rican community when they thought it was needed. It was Mutual Aid with teeth. They took over part of Lincoln hospital. It was about serving the people and they did serve the people a lot, but it was also an indictment of the system. Many other movements at that time had health clinics, I think that's also a crossover we can see. There was the emergence of gay health clinics at that time. Tons and tons of projects of the feminist health movement. There was people giving each other what were illegal abortions. There were people trying to teach sexual health to each other.
Trying to shine a spotlight on Black health and native health by directly doing health care for each other. Some people being professionals and many people being lay people who were trained to do things and doing it all for free, on the fly out of vans, out of storefronts. This kind of, "We can do it. We're going to create the world we want to live in right now instead of waiting for someone to come save us." I do want to mention-- [crosstalk] I'm sorry go ahead.
Kai: It's funny because you don't think of those are all such explicitly political projects and direct action in some cases, you're describing civil disobedience. I wonder if you see that too in any of the COVID era Mutual Aid?
Dean: Absolutely, absolutely. I think one example here in Seattle, but I'm following these kinds of struggles all over the country. We have a lot more visible, homeless population and people living in encampments and parks because people-- The economic conditions have worsened severely, yet housing costs are at an all time high. People have been defending those encampments when the police tried to raid them, it's like people are bringing water to the encampments, and bringing food, and helping people have tents, but then they're also fighting the cops.
Street Watch LA is another group that I've watched doing that. That stood in front of the sanitation trucks that come to clear the homeless encampment. I think we're going to be seeing a lot more of that as rent becomes due and background becomes due because we're still not seeing real relief from that coming from the government so I think we'll be seeing more Mutual Aid with teeth. We can also see this recent examples, I'm sure many people have followed, No More Deaths, they support people who are crossing the border, and often crossing through desert conditions, and they put water out for people and they put clothing out for people and they help find people's remains and identify them, they do this really powerful work.
The Trump Administration have their medical camps rated in the last few years of the administration, we can see how there's nothing unusual about Mutual Aid work being criminalized, being repressed by the government. I do think there's a danger with the mainstreaming of the term right now, for people the only one I think about the Mutual Aid work that doesn't make them uncomfortable or doesn't try to get at root causes or challenge the conditions themselves, but we need to see it.
It is Mutual Aid work when it is part of a broader awareness that we are going to resist conditions because as the last caller was saying, if we're passing around the same $15 to each other, that alone will not get us out of these miserable conditions and watch people's lives end early. We also need to fight the systems that make certain people so poor so that other people can be made so rich.
Kai: Let's hear from Nate in Philadelphia. Nate, welcome to the show.
Nate: Hi, there. Thanks for having me. My name is Nate, I worked with Occupy Sandy during the hurricane, but when the pandemic started, I run a nonprofit that deals with food and farming, we started a project that's become something called the Cooperative Gardens Commission, coopgardens.org. Our biggest project is distributing free seeds, we get seeds donated from seed companies, we had folks around the country apply to be a local or regional seed hub and then we repackage seeds and send them out. We're just doing it right now for this year. We got seeds last year to 257 local regional seed hubs in 41 states, we think we got seeds to at least 12,000 garden so that people can help to feed themselves and their communities.
We prioritize Black and brown communities, Indigenous communities. we're all volunteer, do have a bunch of working groups working by Zoom and conference call and we've got a policy working group trying to get at some of those root causes and build coalitions with other organizations doing similar work, not how I expected my pandemic year to go, but would not be doing anything else.
Kai: Nate, you mentioned Occupy Sandy at the beginning, there is some history here that a lot of folks learned about Mutual Aid in the course of the Occupy Movement, was that the case for you?
Nate: Yes, absolutely, I probably had heard the term Mutual Aid before, but when Sandy hit, I was living in the Philadelphia area and a lot of my friends were involved with Occupy Wall Street and got Occupy Sandy started and a bunch of us in Philly got Occupy Sandy in New Jersey started and that ended up being about a year and a half of my life.
So many lessons that I took from that were applied to this work, and pretty much our whole organizational structure is based on that, we practice consensus based decision making, and we're decentralized, non-hierarchical collective. Yes, it served us really well, you don't want to be duplicating the systems of oppression that led you to this problem in the first place.
Kai: Thank you for calling Nate. Let's hear from Lucy in Bed-Stuy. Lucy, welcome to the show.
Lucy: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
Kai: Thank you for calling. What's been your experience?
Lucy: Actually very similar to the last caller. I also had plugged in very intensely during Occupy Sandy and it had been dormant in me until the pandemic started. I organize right now alongside a group called IOH, NYC. They started the first Community Fridge in New York City, last February, actually right before the pandemic started, and now there's nearly 100 in the five boroughs and in New Jersey, and it's really taken off across the whole country, which if anyone doesn't know a Community Fridge, is a fridge open on public property, they're pretty much open 24/7 and they're stocked with healthy rescued food that would have otherwise been wasted.
Kai: Thank you for that Lucy. Dean, two people who had some roots in previous movements, particularly Occupy, can you talk about that on ramp in and out of political movements through Mutual Aid?
Dean: Yes, I think that most people who join movements actually join through Mutual Aid because either you show up because you need something and these people are giving it out and they're also saying, "Hey, we don't think it's your fault that you need this, would you like to join collective action to deal with the fact that this situation has been created, this crisis has been created," and you get invited into other social work, including continuing the Mutual Aid project, or possibly, also, "Oh, we're all going to go to the Transit Riders union event," or, "We're all going to go block the bridges and tunnels to oppose this," "or, "We're going to do this thing with prisoners," or whatever.
The other way people get involved in movements often is that they are upset about something that's going on, and they're like, "I want to get involved." When you first want to get involved, what you mainly want to do is help someone, it's a beautiful thing about humans. Either, "This thing happened to me and now I want to help somebody who it's happening to now," or, "This thing happened to someone I love," or whatever the case may be, or heard about it in the news.
Mutual Aid tends to be the on-ramp because it's where people often first interact with social movements. I think this is really clear, during the summer, there was this occupation of this park in Seattle, it was called the Trap the Occupy protests, maybe people were falling that. The police left the precinct there, and there was people hanging out there and living there and gardening there. Similar, there was an occupation at City Hall in the summer, in New York City, and many places.
These occupations, when you look at them, what they are to the eye is a bunch of Mutual Aid tents. If you're like, "Oh, I think I want to involve what's going on down there," you go there, it's actually going to be because someone hands you a bottle of water, or a flyer for free to come to this dance party or come to this discussion group. When you get somewhere it is Mutual Aid that touches you and it's the people who are offering something. That's who's your first contact.
A friendly contact when you're like, "I think I want to be part of this." Mutual Aid is central to the building of powerful social movements, and a lot of people-- I love that the caller talked about making consensus decisions together and learning about group process. We're in the groups and we're both learning together about who's affected by this and "Wow, there's some aspects of this problem I didn't know about," or knowing that, "I definitely never worked with trans-people before." "I didn't know how this affects undocumented people."
Then, you're also learning about like, "How do groups of people make decisions together when no one's getting paid to be someone's boss or someone's employee? We're all just choosing to be here. How can we be in a way together that makes us want to stay and treat each other well?" That means shaking off a lot of the social norms that we've all been conditioned by, that might tell us to dominate each other or play out our racist or sexist stuff, or whatever the case may be. Mutual Aid spaces are also spaces where people practice the skills for the world we're trying to build while we build it, and hopefully, as many of us as possible survive to get there, I think it's an on ramp in multiple ways.
Kai: Practice the world we're trying to build while we're building it. I like that in sentiment. Dean Spade is author most recently of the book Mutual Aid Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next). Thanks for joining us, Dean.
Dean: Thanks for having me.
Kai: United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Joe Plourde makes the podcast version. Kevin Bristow and Matthew Marando were at the boards for the live show. A special thanks this week to producer Carl Boisrond for help answering the phones and getting callers onto the radio. Our team also includes Carolyn Adams, Emily Botein, Jenny Casas, Karen Frillman, and Christopher Werth.
Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Veralyn Williams is our executive producer. I am Kai Wright, you can keep in touch with me on twitter @kai-wright, that's K-A-I underscore Wright, like the brothers. As always, I hope you'll join us for the live version of the show next Sunday 6:00 PM Eastern. You can stream it at wnyc.org, or tell your smart speaker, "Play WNYC." Until then, thanks for listening and take care of yourselves.
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