Transformative justice, harm reduction and the acknowledgment of marginalised legacy in newly emergent COVID-19 mutual aid grassroots movements

I recently sent an email to the rest of the learning group asking the question ‘what could our group do in this current moment?’ It is a question I am still thinking through as a small group with multiple commitments and challenges who are still trying to find our feet. This blogpost is a result of starting to think about the new formations of UK mutual aid networks from where I am at as a white British queer person invested in transformative justice principles with an eye on abusive dynamics that unfold in activist groups.

The COVID-19 pandemic is for sure showing up the worst of our world. For example, how capitalistic structures of scarcity encourage panic buying whilst telling us to blame and label each other as irresponsible and selfish consumers. It is also showing up the best of us. For example, gestures of care, support and solidarity like the network of new mutual aid groups springing up across the country. Energised by this I joined up to the Sheffield Mutual Aid group. From what I can tell these groups have good intentions but I am also experiencing some discomfort. A bit like how I felt when white-majority volunteers were photographed and praised for clearing up the streets after the England riots in 2011. Total eye-roll. I became super interested in thinking about what and who is being left out during this current moment, asking questions and having discussions to strengthen community mutual aid responses in the long term.

Mutual aid work is not new. It has been the way in which the most marginalised and vulnerable in our world have survived. Eshe Kiama Zuri has long been running UK Mutual Aid: a private facebook group that works as an intersectional support group for the most marginalised people in the UK, particularly queer and trans people of colour. Queercare have been providing community care for queer and trans people, particularly trans women and people who experience transmisogyny, as an alternative to state institutions. You may have already come across their food networking form as they mobilised in response to COVID-19 and they offer up some crucial policies and protocols for doing mutual aid during this moment. This labour, knowledge and expertise has been nurtured and developed by black and minority ethnic communities, disabled, immunocompromised and chronically ill communities, queer and trans communities, sex workers, refugee and migrant communities, people who face poverty and many others who the state refuses to protect and support. There are some great guides and resources coming out of transformative justice groups established in the United States. For instance, check out pod mapping for mutual aid by Rebel Sidney Black and Half Assed Disabled Prepper Tips for Preparing for a Coronavirus Quarantine by Leah Piepzna-Samarasinha.

The least those of us who are new to mutual aid work can do is listen, learn, acknowledge, amplify, and thank those who have done the work. How can you continue to do this work or make this work more sustainable in the future after the current moment has passed? And if you have the means you could financially support this work:

Mutual aid groups, as activist groups, are susceptible to reproducing abusive power dynamics. This includes the white saviour complex, in which the help that white people do boils down to how it makes white people feel good about themselves rather than what would be in the best interests of black and minority ethnic groups. It also includes everyday microaggressions and marginalisation of women and femmes, queer and trans people, disabled people, survivors of violence and abuse, asylum seekers, and working class people that happen in activist groups. I for one have experienced how a small research project I was involved in, which sought to examine abuse and harm in activist communities, failed to recognise our whiteness and reproduced harm. I know I still have a lot to learn here. How can we make sure that the help that mutual aid groups offer does not fail to recognise the competencies that marginalised groups already have? How can we best respond to the harm and abuse that unfolds in mutual aid groups? To bring together those concerned about these harms a jitsi (video-conference call) has been called to discuss ideas for preventing & dealing with harm in mutual aid networks. Let’s have these necessary discussions:

  • Ideas for Preventing & dealing with Harm in Mutual Aid Networks
    Wednesday 18 March at 8:30pm. Full information here.

Domestic abuse and sexual violence is highly likely to increase during this pandemic. I have seen some discussion of safeguarding in mutual aid groups, of what is needed to avoid vulnerable people being exploited. The guidelines here seem to focus on hand washing, not entering people’s homes, and not taking money upfront for groceries. However, I haven’t seen much discussion about how to support survivors in what will be an upsurge of gender-based violence within discussions of safeguarding in mutual aid groups. There is some guidance emerging from the domestic violence sector here. So what can mutual aid networks do to best support survivors during this moment? 

  • Safeguarding Training for Mutual Aid Networks by National Food Service and COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK
    Tuesday 17 March 18:30-20:30 via Zoom
    Resources available here

In warmth and kindness

If you’d like to get in touch you can:
Twitter @juliahdownes
E-mail julia dot h dot downes @ gmail dot com

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