Ettinger: If Washington Won’t Help, It’s Time to Consider Mutual Aid

By Eve Ettinger

January 2, 2021

Forget federal help. It’s time for states, counties and cities to focus on what we can do to help each other.

ROANOKE-The holidays are over. We are watching a failed rollout of the coronavirus vaccine, and laughable $600 stimulus checks are hitting our bank accounts. Meanwhile, Sen. Mitch McConnell weds a bill creating an election fraud commission to the bill that would give us a second round of $2,000 stimulus checks in order to keep such an offering dead on the Senate floor. Virginia hit over 5,000 new coronavirus cases today and just about as many total deaths from the virus to date. It’s a new year, but this slog to the end of the pandemic and the financial crisis for working and middle class families is far from being left behind with 2020. So let’s talk about mutual aid.

I’m being bleak, but these are the very real circumstances in which I have seen my community rally around each other more than ever before.That’s remarkable, but not surprising. Humans have always rallied around each other during a crisis and shown mutual aid in the moment to ensure collective health and survival. We’ve seen this time and again throughout the centuries–it’s not the billionaires or the government swooping in with million dollar donations or setting up funds that save communities, it’s the communities themselves that rescue each other. 

‘The Opposite of Charity’

Mutual aid is the opposite of charity, it’s the opposite of top-down change. When there is no help coming from the outside, it’s when people come together and discuss their needs and work to try to meet them to keep each other afloat. It’s apartment complex residents coming together to form a tenants union, it’s neighbors sharing food and watching each others’ kids. It’s gig economy millennials passing back and forth the same $40 on Venmo to make sure everyone has gas and groceries. Taking responsibility for the fact that you live on the same land and have the same essential human needs, and collaborating and communicating about those needs with your physical community: this is mutual aid. 

The government has a responsibility to protect its citizens and in a pandemic that means healthcare and financial sustenance, but the Trump administration’s attempts to do any such thing has been fraught with class solidarity with the uber-rich and with bureaucratic cowardice on the part of individual elected officials. It has been, in short, a shit-show. $600 will barely pay half of the average rent for most U.S. citizens this January–there is no rescue coming for us from outside, and even when the Biden Administration is installed, we’re going to be deep in a hole and nothing will be quickly restored to working order. And the working order we had before Trump was still far from sufficient to ensure that minimum wage workers in this country could afford healthcare, pay off student loans, and pay for rent. 

RELATED: Ettinger: So, Let’s Have a Conversation

We’re Tired

And here’s where I’m going with all this: we’re tired, and now that the holidays are over, we have less traditional reasons to be connecting to each other. The weather is going to be bad, there’s a new strain of the virus on the rise, and we’re going to be more isolated than we’ve been in the coming months until it warms up again. Mutual aid means caring for the welfare of each other’s bodies and this means caring for mental health just as much as it does caring about food on the table and the heating bill being paid. 

“Check on your friends,” is a trite saying that goes around when suicide awareness campaigns hit the social media networks, and while it’s well-intended, it’s insufficient. Checking in on each other only works if you’re already in steady, regular contact with each other and have enough trust established that mental hygiene topics come up on a regular basis. Mental health check-ns also can only do so much when the cause of stressors are situational: domestic violence during the pandemic is a quiet crisis of which we will only know the toll when people are able to move around more freely; student loan payment deferment ends on Jan. 31; and eviction moratoriums also lift on Jan. 31. There are practical concerns that are amplifying existing mental health conditions to levels that require a village of support and kindness to survive. 

Time to Adjust

For me, as a professor, this means adjusting my policies to be as generous as possible with students who have crises popping up during the semester. As a sister, this means taking the midnight call from my sister when her boyfriend cheats on her. As a friend, it means scheduling regular group Zoom movie nights so my friends and I are in each other’s business often. As a survivor of abuse living with C-PTSD, it means making sure that I am resting when I can and pacing myself so that I’m not constantly in fight or flight mode about everything and nothing. As a body that hasn’t been really touched in months and months, it means playing with my dog outside in the woods and going on long hikes. It means writing letters and sending care packages with homemade salve to my community members who are far away and living with chronic pain issues. It means accepting help from others when I need it and it’s offered to me. 

Take some time at the start of this year and ask yourself what mutual aid means for you. What’s your role in your community and how can you deepen those bonds and avenues of communication so that needs can be met before they hit crisis levels. We’re being left high and dry in many ways by our government and existing systems of aid, but we still have each other.

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