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The Spectre of Mutual Aid

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Mutual Aid in Rochester

What Is Mutual Aid?

“[I]n its simplest form, mutual aid is the motivation at play any time two or more people work together to solve a problem for the shared benefit of everyone involved. In other words, it means co-operation for the sake of the common good.”1

A hand-drawn picture depicting five stick figures carrying a carrot many times their size.

Mutual aid is an active practice. It is not volunteering, donating, or charity work. People who practice mutual aid come together intentionally to build a stronger community through the fruits of their collective labor. A range of creative tactics allow networks of people to collaborate to meet each other’s basic needs: dumpster-diving to reclaim healthy food from corporate trash bins, clothing swaps to ensure quality clothing, carpooling for transportation, self-defense courses for physical safety, healing spaces for emotional safety, free food stands for food security, skill shares to encourage autonomy, community accountability processes to strengthen our mutual bonds, and more.

Mutual aid has been a successful strategy in the modern context. During the Civil Rights Era, many groups, notably the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, embraced the strategy of mutual aid with transformative results. Our whitewashed histories, which neglect to tell us that MLK was the most hated man in America while he was alive, do not tell us this. The Black Panthers created the Breakfast for Children program to combat systemic child hunger. The initiative was so successful that the federal government was forced to launch its own meal program. The political consciousness that the Panthers infused their program with was, of course, left out.2

Mutual aid can also erupt spontaneously. In the aftermath of disasters, when bloated and ineffective governments struggle to respond to the needs of affected people, it’s organizations on the ground that provide aid and relief to their communities. During these moments of chaos, when the mirage of state control is peeled away, people come together to provide for each other and keep one another safe.3

All mutual aid has one thing in common: it threatens the status quo. When people come together to focus on care for one another instead of monetary exchanges, the façade of capitalism dissipates. When we can rely on each other instead of the system, the system loses its power, and the people regain their autonomy. When we are self-sufficient, the system is not necessary, and another world is possible.

“Solidarity, not charity” is a phrase used to describe mutual aid. The core idea here is that people who practice mutual aid are working to build community and support networks among everyone involved, whether they’re helping to provide or receive it. Many of us are a couple of bad weeks away from being on the street – when you have solidarity, you know that you can count on your networks if your luck runs out. The humans who survived the many hazards of life thousands of years ago were the ones who worked together and cared for each other, not those that embraced an individualistic outlook akin to that preached by corporations, media figures, politicians, and influencers today.

It is no secret that those few in power are scared to death of the possibility of working-class solidarity. In Dekalb County, Georgia, the District Attorney is charging 61 supporters of the Stop Cop City movement under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which prescribes 5-20 years in prison. The (publicly available) charging document cited concepts including “mutual aid” and “social solidarity” as reasons to charge these individuals. They cited people power as evidence of conspiring against the government – clearly, we are on to something!4

Our goal in writing this zine is to jolt people into action. Many of us have allowed the bustle of our lives – or preoccupation with mere survival – to crowd out the need to come together in collaboration and solidarity. This is understandable, but unsustainable: the planet is dying and the threat of authoritarianism taking hold here is as present as it ever was.

The Imperatives of Getting Involved

Resurgent (Neo-)Fascism

Umberto Eco was an Italian philosopher who grew up during the era of fascism in Italy. As a youth, he was made to argue that death “for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy” was a positive thing.5 After the liberation of Europe, young Umberto learned the truth of the horrors he and his fellow humans had endured. He came to study the subject of fascism with passion and insight.

Eco identifies many key features of fascism in his works. Perhaps the most important for understanding our position today is the idea that fascism is adaptable, “a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions.”5 Italian fascism was not Nazism, and Nazism is not Italian fascism. In the same way, the fascism of today is not the fascism of yesteryear. One of the most glaring differences is that it does not name itself as fascism, but masquerades as patriotism and religious zeal.

Eco identifies 14 features that can be present in fascism. A movement or ideology need not embrace all of them to be fascist, however; it is enough to build a movement with some of these traits. When we accept that Eco knows what he is talking about, it becomes clear that America checks far too many of the metaphorical boxes this list provides.

  • Adherence to Tradition. We see this today with calls to return to “the American way of life”, which is also depicted by the Right as being under attack by the Democrats, the “woke” Left, or even Satan.
  • Rejection of Modernity. The flip side of the above point, this characteristic of fascism is embodied in the relentless assaults on the hard-won advances in rights and visibility for our queer siblings, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and other condemnations of change and progress.
  • Action for Action’s Sake. Eco notes that many fascists believe, implicitly or explicitly, that “[t]hinking is a form of emasculation.”5We see this aspect of fascism, which ranges from pseudo-intellectualism to outright condemnations of higher education, most recently in right-wing attacks on free (and progressive) thought in education, such as the banning of courses on Black History in Florida.
  • No Space for Criticism. Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, Peter Meijer, and dozens of other right-wing politicians have been politically buried for refusing to fall in line. The likely victory of Donald Trump in the 2024 Republican primary is perhaps the best example of this aspect of fascism in contemporary America.
  • Fear of Difference. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” The anti-other sentiment in this Trump quote can just as easily be applied to Arab people, who are all too often conflated with terrorists; Black Americans who are constantly Other-ized; and every other group that doesn’t fit the fascist definition of American.
  • Appeal to Frustration. Economic grievance is a key factor in the new American fascism. Economic gains since the Great Recession went almost exclusively to the already-rich.6 Unfortunately, millions of Americans don’t believe that the rich can be the problem and look for other scapegoats – whom the fascists will happily single out.
  • Obsession with a(n International) Plot. The resurgence of antisemitism and the flowering of Q-Anon conspiracies come to mind, to say nothing of constant Fox News diatribes against “woke conspiracies.” We also see an obsession with enemies abroad – nary a day goes by without worries about China, Russia, or Iran being aired to millions.
  • Humiliation in the Face of the Ostentatious Enemy. Right-wing politicians constantly rail against “coastal” and “media” elites (often thinly veiled references to Jewish folks), while right-wing media publishes article after article about the stunning incompetence and corruption of “liberal snowflakes,” often depicted as well-off kids with no common sense.
  • Pacifism is Trafficking with the Enemy.5 How much ink (digital and print) has been spilled describing how the 2023 House GOP conference is unwilling to compromise with the Democrats (the Left, the Enemy)? We have also seen open calls for “national divorce” and “civil war” in recent years.7
  • Popular Elitism. While this idea seems contradictory, we see it expressed in our society every day. We are all members of the “greatest nation on Earth,” but there is a sense that a certain type of American is superior. The “blue-collar American” and the “self-made entrepreneur” are often juxtaposed against the lazy Millennial (unless the author or newscaster in question uses a racial stereotype instead).
  • The Cult of Heroism. How many supposed patriots scream to the online void that they are ready to die for the real America? A glorious death for the nation, or for the leader, is what every fascist should aspire to.
  • Machismo. See the cos-playtriots, rampant societal and interpersonal sexism, the rising popularity of monsters like Andrew Tate, and the comments our former President made about grabbing women “by the pussy.”
  • Selective Populism. In a fascist system, the Will of the People outweighs the individual. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, we see this reflected in the words of right-wing politicians who discuss The Real America (which is understood to be white, rural, and Christian).
  • Fascism speaks Newspeak.5 All of the politicians and parents crowing about their rights to prevent their children from encountering new ideas are engaging in Newspeak, to say nothing of the so-called leaders who lambaste the crimes of foreign dictators while ordering the deaths of brown people in countries few Americans can point out on a map.

The idea that America is struggling with fascism is anathema to many people who fit the definition of a fascist. They firmly believe that American freedom is the greatest in the world and that fascism could never threaten it – at least not from the right wing. The truth, however, is that some conservative elements of society are willing to turn to violence to maintain their dominant position in America. We have seen this before in the violent re-assertion of white supremacy after the Civil War, in the brutal repression of the anti-war and Black Power movements of the mid-20th century, and today in the handling of the 2020 Uprisings and the movement to Stop Cop City in Atlanta. Fascism is here, wrapped in the flag and bearing the cross – and it’s up to us to join arms and stand up to it.

Climate Crisis

A number of recent headlines have proclaimed that we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction event in the history of Earth.8 Folks who have been paying attention to what has happened on the planet during the short time we have occupied its verdant surface will be unsurprised to hear this – we see plastic bags, electronics, cigarette butts, and all sorts of garbage thrown to rot in piles around the globe every day.

This zine does not seek to be alarmist, but neither does it shy away from the truth of our situation. The fact is that 75% of mammal species are at risk of disappearing within a century.9 When we consider that the same conditions threatening warm-blooded beasts will also affect reptiles, insects, and every other form of life, the scale of the ecological devastation that has been wrought on the Earth begins to become clear. One can feel hopeless in the face of the monumental challenges posed by climate change.

The truth, however, is that there are things we can do. You can support the efforts of people campaigning for stronger environmental protections, and you can personally take measures to reduce the waste you leave behind. It’s true that massive corporations create the majority of the pollution that we see on this planet, but who buys their goods? Reuse your plastic bags. Wash out a sturdy take-out container and use it for holding leftovers (or donate it to a local mutual aid group that provides meals to folks who need them). Building these habits is a good thing – imagine if we all did so.

This idea of building habits applies to mutual aid, too. People who are active in this sphere have already done a lot of good by distributing tonnes of food to their neighbors here in Rochester, joining each other on the picket line, and building accepting communities, among other things. As climate changes accentuates the inequalities that already exist under capitalism, mutual aid will become even more important to our collective survival. Climate change will not suddenly happen one day. Instead, weather will get more chaotic as much of the planet becomes too hot for easy human habitation. We must build more solidarity now, before it’s too late.

We cannot afford to stand placid in the face of a (relatively) slow-moving disaster. Other countries on this planet have been gripped with massive protests against the use of fossil fuels and the desire of the rich to extract more wealth from the blood of the planet, with no regard for the well-being of their (grand)children. As more and more young people in our region come to resent the inaction of their elders, these protests – and perhaps more drastic direct action – will intensify here, too. If we get ready now, we can increase the chance of drastic action that will help alleviate the ravages of a warming world.

Racial Disparities

Structural racism is an issue in every city in this country, and like all cities in America, Rochester has a long legacy of this insidious type of bigotry. During the Great Migration, tens of thousands of people of color came to Rochester from the south. Through racial covenants enacted by white supremacists in places of power, they were forced into two neighborhoods in the city: Corn Hill and Upper Falls.10 These areas were overcrowded and underfunded. Black people who attempted to move out of the cramped ghettos were met with violent opposition from whites, which manifested structurally and interpersonally. In 1957, a black couple tried to buy a house in the 19th Ward. The real estate agent refused to work with them, so they had a white friend buy the house and transfer the deed to them. This was met with a letter from the neighborhood KKK chapter, wherein they threatened to burn the house down.10

In 1935, the federal government created the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) to make Residential Security Maps in a handful of cities – Rochester was one of them. Thus, the practice of red-lining was born. Red-lining is the rating of neighborhoods in order to know where to safely back mortgages so as to not invest in a potentially “hazardous” (i.e. poor, black) neighborhood.10 Areas already afflicted by poverty and attendant crime were cut off from the new system of mortgage lending that was born during the early 20th century. Instead, low-interest, federally-backed mortgages were given to almost exclusively white people in the wealthier neighborhoods. Even after the social upheaval of the civil rights movement and the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, Rochester still chose to cling tightly to its racism and bigotry. Five Star Bank was found guilty of red-lining as recently as 2015.11 Our new development (e.g. the Business Investment District) prioritizes corporate interests while the composition of Rochester’s neighborhoods has remained nearly static.12

Home ownership is the primary vehicle for building and transferring generational wealth. Racial covenants, red-lining, gentrification, and urban development have all worked to deny generations of black folks in Rochester the opportunity to amass wealth. The result is a city with extreme income disparities, and the second highest rate of child poverty in the country.13

For decades, it has been left up to our so-called leaders to fix racial disparities. They have failed: Rochester proper has a high infant mortality rate (13.0 compared to a national average of 5.77 per 1,000 births).14 It’s clear the state is not investing in the basic needs of these communities, so people must turn to one another. In order to cultivate and maintain safer communities, we need to be able to center the most vulnerable in our fight. The state has clearly failed us on this front (along with many, many other fronts). Mutual aid can help to center and empower folks to seek self-determination and learn to respect and rely on community instead of the state.

Black and brown communities have been using mutual aid as a means of survival and resistance for much longer than it has been trending. From the Underground Railroad to the Black Panther Party for Self Defense to the American Indian Movement’s recovery and healing work, the Black Radical Tradition and all de-colonizing efforts are centered in collective care and protection.

A hand-drawn graphic that reads “Collective Care Is Resistance”; fungi grow at the bottom of the image.

Mutual Aid, Well-Being, and Consent

“It’s about building solidarity, preparing for battle, and creating a culture of care to displace the atomizing culture of individualism and the market.”15

Trying to survive in a deeply broken system is traumatic, and dealing with this trauma in our own solitary vacuums is extremely difficult.16 Individualism and capitalism have tricked us into thinking that healing from societal trauma is our own respective problem that we must figure out in isolation. We recognize that such an individualistic approach to healing will ultimately be unsuccessful – it’s impossible to bootstrap oneself out of isolation and loneliness.

Mutual aid has concrete benefits for the lives and well-being of people who practice it. If you start going out to liberate food waste at night, you can find some of your own groceries while working to fill the food stands around town. Folks that start making sandwiches with their friends to hand out to hungry folks in their neighborhood can also have a communal meal that raises everyone’s spirits. As we all begin to liberate our imaginations and strive collectively for the betterment of each other, we improve our own situations. Engaging in intentional mutual aid helps you build community. Cultivating a network that supports each other fulfills a human need for meaning and connection – and will help us weather the coming storms together.

With that being said, an incredibly important and necessary aspect of mutual aid is consent. When shame and/or coercion are present in an interaction, it cannot be mutual aid. All participants must be given autonomy. This means that we all can freely pursue the goals that we choose. This is the biggest step toward self-determination, which is the process by which one gains full control of one’s own life.

Autonomy and self-determination are not to be confused with individualism, a core tenet of western culture and the basis for capitalism. Individualism can be defined as self-interest – acting and achieving to acquire for one’s own personal gain. When we understand these terms, we can see that autonomy is the antidote to fascism, which requires blind allegiance.

Now, for consent to be valid, it must be explicitly voluntary, informed, and subject to change.

Voluntary means that there is no force involved. If any hesitance is detected, it is important to take a step back and assess the situation, making sure all needs are being communicated and all dynamics of power are acknowledged.

Informed means that we are honest about any known risks that are involved in the situation. We know full well that those who work against the status quo face many risks. It is becoming more and more subversive to do things as simple as feed our hungry neighbors. Houston, Texas just passed a law that prohibits “charitable feeding” of five or more people on public property without express permission from the city. This is a potentially arrestable – or at least fineable – offense.17 Whether it be losing resources, losing jobs, getting injured, or being arrested, all risks must be able to be assessed by every person involved. This includes all parties being coherent and fully aware of the situation.

Subject to change means that consent must be active and ongoing and that every party wants to be there every step of the way.18 So, check in. Communication is really the key to any type of relationship. Every party involved is not only allowed to say no when made uncomfortable or triggered but should be encouraged to do so. The current dominant culture makes this difficult for some people.

Letting them know that it is in fact okay to say “no” can empower them to speak up.

Everything that has been said about consent can translate to our sexual lives as well. Good sex is consensual sex, and consensual sex is mutual aid. Sex must be voluntary; everyone must want to be there. Sex must be informed; all sexual and environmental risks must be evaluated. And, of course, it must be subject to change when needed. When we focus as much on the “yes” as we do on the “no”, our sex can be transformative. Express your desires! Consider the possibilities when you are brave in these spaces!

A hand-drawn trio of sunflowers in black and white.

How to Get Involved Locally

Much of this zine has discussed national and even global trends and threats. One can feel powerless in the face of the forces of history. The lesson that history teaches us, however, is that people working together can surmount terrible obstacles. The Civil Rights Movement was not the work of MLK alone, but that of thousands of committed human beings who suffered for their beliefs. If we join together, we can accomplish so much.

Group Overlap and the Importance of Networks

You don’t need to start from square one if you want to get involved in Rochester. There is a thriving scene of committed leftists here that has built a powerful network of organizations that are supplemented by affinity groups and other social formations. Joining and/or supporting these groups is a great way to start practicing mutual aid.

It’s important to remember that these groups are made up of human beings. They will be imperfect, and there will almost certainly be some folks around that you like less than others. That’s okay – we’re on the same team. That’s not to say that truly toxic folks should be given space to harm others, of course, but well-intentioned folks can find a space – and community – here in Rochester. These are some of the groups that do mutual aid locally:

  • Roc Food Not Bombs
  • Flower City Noire Collective
  • Rochester Mutual Aid Network
  • Being Black in the Burbs
  • Free the People Roc
  • Community Justice Initiative
A hand-drawn image depicts three stick persons pushing an apple much larger than themselves up a hill.

Non-Profit Organizations and Mutual Aid

Non-profit organizations can do good work under capitalism. The need to chase funding and maintain relationships with oppressive systems does, however, force these types of organizations to make compromises that can undermine their missions. Some nonprofits are also, simply put, better than others – the horrendous treatment of LGBTQ+ folks by the Salvation Army is a great example of something to steer clear of.

Is the structure of nonprofits part of the capitalist system? Yes. It is, however, important to utilize non-profits for our own purposes while simultaneously working to liberate ourselves and our neighbors from the chains of individualism and isolation.

With these considerations in mind, it’s worth noting that many great organizations choose to become recognized nonprofits in order to better do their work. Here are some nonprofits in Rochester that conduct mutual aid activities.

  • The Flying Squirrel Community Space
  • Recovery All Ways
  • Trillium Health
  • Metro Justice (RED Campaign)
  • Father Tracy Advocacy Center
  • Cameron Street Ministries
  • MC Collaborative/REACH
  • 490 Farmers

Reach Out to Us and/or Start Your Own Network

The authors of this zine (and our networks) are always happy to make new radical friends or provide advice for any projects you might be interested in trying. Feel free to email us at:

askaboutmutualaid@proton.me

We will respond, but don’t check the email every day. See you on the street.


Works Cited

1: subMedia. “What is Mutual Aid?”. Anarchist Library. 2016.

2: Jay Jones, “The Black Panthers and Young Lords: How Today’s Mutual Aid Strategies Took Shape”. The Emory Wheel. June 30, 2021.

3: Nicole Greenfield, “Mutual Aid and Disaster Justice: ‘We Keep Us Safe’”. NRDC. October 6, 2022.

4: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/23940338-cop-city-rico-indictment

5: Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”. June 22, 1995.

6: Dylan Matthews, “How the 1 percent won the recovery, in one table”. The Washington Post. September 11, 2013.

7: Evan Rosen, “’Civil war’ trends after Marjorie Taylor Green tweet asks for national ‘divorce’”. The Seattle Times. February 23, 2023; Max Burns, “Republicans just can’t stop calling for civil war”. The Hill. September 6, 2023.

8: Damian Carrington, “Sixth mass extinction of wildlife accelerating, scientists warn”. The Guardian. June 1, 2020; DTE Staff, “2022 too short, too far: A sixth mass extinction is unfolding”. DownToEarth. December 24, 2022; Barnosky, A., Matzke, N., Tomiya, S. et al., Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?. Nature :471, 51–57 (2011).

9: Ann Gibbons, “Are We in the Middle of a Sixth Mass Extinction?”. Science.org. March 2, 2011.

10: Shane Wiegand, “History of Segregation and Racist Policy in Greater Rochester”. Teaching Tolerance.

11: Matthew Daneman, “NY settles with Five Star over mortgages”. Democrat & Chronicle. January 18, 2015.

12: Jonathon, “The BID, the Bad, and the Ugly: No BID in Rochester, NY”. Western Regional Advocacy Project. February 17, 2023.

13: Alex Love, “Nearly Half of All Children in Rochester Live in Poverty, Second Highest in the Nation”. The Children’s Agenda. March 29, 2022.

14: “Children & Youth: Infant Mortality Rate”. ACT Rochester. https://www.actrochester.org/children-youth/infant-mortality-rate

15: Dean Spade, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next). Verso Press. 2020.

16: The Jane Addams Collective, “Mutual Aid, Trauma, and Resiliency”. Anarchist Library. 2018.

17: Ashley Brown, “Food Not Bombs volunteer found not guilty after citation for feeding homeless”. Houston Public Media. July 31, 2023.

18: Sarah M. Hanks, “Restoring Solidarity, ‘Accountability’ in Radical Leftist Subcultures”. The Anarchist Library. 2019.

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    The Spectre of Mutual Aid