The People’s Crisis Response

Three people serve food from a foil pan outside
Local volunteers dish out food
Can Mutual Aid Be More Than a Survival Strategy?

By Cheryl Rivera

Photographs by Ramie Ahmed

What is it with people today?” my fellow volunteer said as they wrapped sets of cutlery up into napkins. A fourth person in as many minutes had tried to cajole us into letting them cut the line and just get dessert — cheesecake, highly prized. It was sunny but cold as hell, and the crowd at the food distribution that March afternoon was a little rowdier than usual. As I had taken my place as a platemaker, a fight broke out between two men at the back of the line. One of them produced a knife. Everybody started yelling. Organizers sprang into action, asking the man with the knife to take a walk and cool down. Soon we had moved on to our next problem: finding more forks. We ran out of cheesecake 30 minutes before the distro ended but no one left hungry. Everyone who wanted one got a plate of food, including the volunteers. 

Everyone who wants a plate, gets a plate, is one way to describe the work of We the People, a mutual aid organization that started, like many others, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Their Brooklyn distro takes place on the sidewalk of Fulton Avenue, right off the Nostrand A/C stop in Bed-Stuy. The set-up is simple: a few tables with trays of homemade food dished out by volunteers, and some free clothing off to the side.

Mutual aid is a form of community care. Dean Spade, trans activist and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, defines it as “collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them.” While mutual aid has taken many forms over human history, the phrase was mostly associated with anarchists and efforts like Food Not Bombs up until 2020, when it burst into mainstream consciousness as a response to the pandemic. We had to help each other because it was horrifyingly clear that the Trump administration could not and would not.

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