FOR MAURICE COOK, a community organiser in Washington, DC, the covid-19 pandemic has brought mostly the worst of times—but in some ways the best.
The poor black neighbourhoods where the burly Washingtonian has spent 20 years trying to improve educational opportunity are among the most ravaged in the country. Plagued by generations of poverty and ill-health, black residents of the capital city have succumbed to the virus at six times the rate of whites. And with government-support programmes running dry, even as many of Washington’s restaurants and other businesses remain shut, years of steady poverty alleviation in the city are unravelling.
“The effects of covid-19 look like this,” said Mr Cook, gesturing grimly, while handing out masks in an encampment of homeless people one wet and icy day this week. Huddled beneath an underpass, a short walk from Capitol Hill, its rows of dowdy tents had doubled since he began distributing basic supplies there early this year. Yet he has at least had unprecedented backup in that effort. “The incomers, the gentrifiers, they really stepped up,” he said.
Having refocused his education efforts on disaster relief as soon as the pandemic hit, Mr Cook emerged as a local leader of a distinctive form of civic engagement, known as mutual aid. Harking back to hardscrabble times, before the passage of the New Deal, its advocates preach the virtues of neighbourly “solidarity” over “charity”, which left-wingers such as Mr Cook consider paternalistic and obnoxious. The origins of the phrase “mutual aid” make that seem even more Utopian.
It was the title of a book published in 1902 by an aristocratic Russian anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, in which he promulgated a vision of communal harmony drawn from his observations of birds and beavers co-existing on the harsh Siberian tundra. The term was then dusted off by the Black Panthers to describe a multi-city programme of free breakfasts for children launched by the radical group in 1969. With at least nodding bipartisan support, nonetheless, the mutual-aid networks that have mushroomed in most American cities this year are a rare bright spot in the crisis.
Mr Cook was inundated by offers of help, mostly from local white professionals. A tweeted call-to-arms from one of his early supporters, Allison McGill, a social worker at a largely white evangelical church, elicited 3,600 offers. There were perhaps few true Kropotkinites among these volunteers (though that is another verboten word for mutual-aiders such as Mr Cook; they prefer “members”). “Mutual aid is not reducible to one political valance,” says Benjamin Soskis, a historian of philanthropy at the Urban Institute—who, coincidentally, also does a food run every other week for Mr Cook’s Ward 6 Mutual Aid. Yet at least some of the original leftist vision is still evident in their efforts.
The Facebook page of Ward 6 Mutual Aid presents a heart-warming exchange of offers and requests for English language tuition, flat-pack-furniture assembly and Christmas presents for children. The group’s fundraising and distribution of basic goods—including face-masks, food and clothing for several hundred poor Washingtonians—is more recognisably Tocquevillian. Though there are no reliable national data on the phenomenon, a multitude of similarly engaged new mutual-aid groups have sprung up across the country.
Julia Ho, a leader of St Louis Mutual Aid, describes its 1,700 “members”—and also the network’s origins in the racial justice protests that roiled nearby Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014-15. Kristen Gonzalez of Mutual Aid NYC points to that huge network’s slick database, which she helped compile. It lists 131 groups across the city, ranging from “LI Face Masks for the People” on Long Island, to “The End is Queer”, a citywide endeavour. The evidence of Lexington’s own neighbourhood, which has launched quieter schemes to shop for elderly residents or feed the families of poor classmates, suggests the phenomenon may be more common still. It speaks to America’s volunteering tradition. And to the paradoxical sense of reciprocity inherent in an infectious-disease crisis in which suddenly everyone has a stake in everyone else’s health.
Set against the enormity of the crisis—and the more than $3trn that Congress threw at it in April and May—the social impact of this do-gooding will be marginal. Contrary to a recurring fantasy on the right, notably pushed by George W. Bush and Paul Ryan among others, charity is never a substitute for the government action required to alleviate poverty or a crisis of this magnitude. As the effects of the stimulus have worn off, the poverty rate has duly soared. Figures released this month suggest that it has grown by almost a quarter in the past five months, easily the fastest pace in half a century. There are meanwhile indications from Ward 6 and elsewhere that, as expectations of a successful vaccine roll-out climb and the temperature drops, the zeal for volunteering (or membering) is tailing off. Yet it could leave a lasting mark, in politics as well as philanthropy.
Leftier than thou
That could in theory be on the right. One of the Panthers’ unwitting contributions, notes Joanna Wuest of Princeton, was to spur Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, to boost the state’s food-assistance programme as a retaliatory measure. Yet, given the do-nothing mentality of today’s Republican Party, it is much easier to imagine the mutual-aid groups augmenting the rise of left-wing activism. Decentralised and tech-savvy, they are part-modelled on leftist campaign groups such as Indivisible. They have in turn championed those groups’ politics. A striking feature of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests in Washington was the mutual-aid stalls handing out free face masks, food and water. Thus have protest, campaigning and volunteering become dynamically reinforcing on the American left. For good or ill, this may turn out to be one of the major legacies of the Trump era.■
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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Good neighbours”