Protests against police brutality still roar across the nation from the front page to cable news. But if we put an ear to the ground, we can also hear the network of activity rising in reaction to systemic racism and violence. It’s known as mutual aid, and it has its roots in the earliest history of Connecticut.
“These Americans are peculiar people. If, in a local community, a citizen becomes aware of a human need which is not being met, [they] thereupon discuss with their neighbors. Suddenly, a committee comes into existence. The committee thereupon begins to operate on behalf of the need and a new community function is established. It is like watching a miracle, because these citizens perform this act without reference to any bureaucracy or official agency.”
Alexis de Touqueville wrote this 1835 in Democracy in America. The nineteenth-century French political observer, despite his antique language, offers a good description of today’s youth-led mutual aid networks.
Such projects are a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for one another in the face of changing political conditions. They are needed now more than ever, given today’s convergence of the pandemic, the faltering economy, and the violence of ICE, prisons, and police.
These groups work in cities and towns across the state. Hartford’s Mutual Aid/Apoyo Mutuo is a good example. Unlike charity, which is vertical (governed from the top), the group’s structure is horizontal (democratic and participatory).
“When we say mutual aid,” the group explains, “we mean that every member has the opportunity to give and to take, as needed, no questions asked. This is people helping people. We are action-driven and rooted in the belief that this is the only way we can survive capitalist society.”
Apoyo Mutuo echoes the early forms of support found in our state’s history:
— At the start of the 20th century, the Workmen’s Circle (Arbeiter Ring) provided medical clinics, old age homes, and burial assistance to the immigrant Jewish community (two cemeteries still exist in Hartford). The Circle linked their services to “deeply-held Jewish values emphasizing community and social justice.”
–In the 1930’s, depression-era groups like the Hartford Association of the Unemployed (HAU) organized to demand jobs and income. Their members moved families back into their homes after households were evicted by the authorities. They scorned the city’s efforts to require jobs without an actual paycheck. The unemployed went on strike at Brainard airfield for wages, no matter how small. They needed, as one man said, “to have something to show for our work.”
–In 1932, the so-called Bonus Army veterans of WWI received gasoline, tires, money and food from Connecticut neighbors to reach Washington D.C. There they joined 45,000 other vets to demand the cash benefit they were promised after the war. Together they established a massive self-sufficient tent city that allowed them to protest and lobby Congress every day.
–In the 1960’s local Hartford community activists organized Roots, the first drug and mental health crisis center for youth, based on need not income. Nearby on Union Place, Wooden Ships built a vibrant arts collective designed to democratize local culture. Shanti high school, although publicly funded, prioritized student and teacher cooperative learning and governance.
–In 1969 the Black Panthers in Hartford and Willimantic followed the organization’s mandate to provide morning breakfasts to children, years before the public schools did. These efforts were not charity; they were “survival programs” undertaken while the Panthers worked to raise the political consciousness of people of color and the urban poor. Motivated by “freedom to have communities rather than colonies” (as one observer wrote), the Panthers envisioned a new system they described as “communitarian.”
–Since the 1980s, a Waterbury community/worker alliance known as the Naugatuck Valley Project has fought economic powerlessness so workers to can win democratic control over workers’ lives. Their list of achievements is documented in Jeremy Brecher’s book Banded Together. He writes: “The tragedy of defeat by heartless [corporate] forces is universal, but so is the struggle to make a ‘better place to live’ in the face of those forces.”
Today there is a rainbow blend of grassroots groups, like Food Not Bombs in Hartford and Middletown, and the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance, They inspire cooperative action, provide concrete support, and foster reciprocation. They expose the profound failures of the 1 percent’s political and corporate profit system, where structural violence — food scarcity, lack of healthcare, and high unemployment — literally kill thousands of people each year in the world’s richest country.
Hartford Deportation Defense has learned to “move at the speed of trust,” according to organizer Constanza Segovia, who also works with Apoyo Mutuo. The group rejects the paradigm of the “inherent goodness of people who give and the powerlessness of those who receive,” she says. “Our community has always survived through cooperation, but we didn’t have an organized group that people could join to give or receive support, especially with immigration matters.”
These activists explain: “Mutual Aid is not a brand. It is a black and indigenous tradition that marginalized communities have been using for centuries. The intention is to decentralize power and put control in the hands of our community. It’s not charity. It’s solidarity.”
Put another way, these activists are building a new world in the shell of the old.
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes for ShoeleatherHistoryProject.com