‘All we have is each other’: The George Floyd uprising and the rise of ‘mutual aid’ organising

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People sit at a bus stop at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, Minnesota on April 21, 2021, a day after Derek Chauvin was convicted of Floyd’s murder. – The conviction of white officer Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s murder raised hopes on April 21 in the Black community of a historic turning point in US justice, but the police killing of another African American cast a shadow over prospects for change.

((Photo by Kerem Yucel / AFP) (Photo by KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images))

Early one morning in late March, as former officer Derek Chauvin sat on trial in downtown Minneapolis for murdering George Floyd, more than a dozen police converged to evict residents of an encampment of unhoused people in one of the city’s main Black neighbourhoods, Near North.

The Near North camp’s 20 or so residents, however, were there because they felt the city had no other suitable place for them to live. Prior to the eviction, Minneapolis said there was enough shelter space for everyone, but navigating the bureaucracy and precarity of the system can be taxing, and a shelter bed is not the same thing as a home in a community.

Some encampment residents had already been evicted from numerous communal sites over the previous year – an empty Sheraton Hotel, plus multiple city parks – since the pandemic began and numerous people lost their jobs, then their housing.

The group, many of them Indigenous or people of colour, have been living on a small plot of empty city-owned land since last fall, and have set up a thriving community, sustained by its residents, the local neighbourhood association, and a broader web of in-person and virtual donors. All told, they’ve transferred supplies and what eventually amounted to tens of thousands of dollars to residents via Venmo and their page on the fundraising platform Open Collective. This coalition supplied the encampment with goods like food, firewood, and hotel rooms in the depths of the ice-cold Minnesota winter.

As a result, when the city – citing health and safety risks on what it says is a contaminated piece of land – gave three-days notice it would close the camp, more than 100 volunteers rallied at the site and blocked the police called in to carry out the job.

The morning culminated in a struggle between police and demonstrators, who say officers pepper sprayed them, accelerated aggressively towards them in squad cars, and even, according to video footage taken at the scene, appeared to kneel on someone’s neck in the manner Chauvin was later found guilty of murder for. (The MPD says demonstrators pelted officers with snowballs and taunted them before one patrolman was “physically attacked” and another was choked).

The Near North encampment is still standing, and has raised more than $12,000 so far towards its goal of buying land for a permanent community, but its future is up in the air. Its fate highlights a major tension that still exists between activists and authorities in Minneapolis following Chauvin’s landmark conviction.

In the months since George Floyd was murdered, the city has seen a flourishing of “mutual aid” work, a longstanding organising method where community members, sometimes with the help of virtual donors in the social-media age, pool their efforts, supplies, and money to share with others in the community who need it most. It has few of the strict hierarchies or rules of traditional nonprofit or government relief efforts. Oftentimes, it’s as simple as someone posting a Venmo or Cashapp link on social media for a certain request – someone needs diapers or extra rent money – and someone else supplying the funds with much formality.

Mutual aid frequently occurs in communities where people feel ignored by the government, or where sudden disasters lead to a breakdown of normal institutions. In post-George Floyd Minneapolis, where residents led a citywide uprising after decades of mistreatment by police, both conditions were true. Aid took the form of everything from bail funds, to safe needle exchanges, to grocery stockpiles and collections for gas masks for protestors.

“The bottom line is it’s people supporting each other,” Near North encampment volunteer Ben Melançon said. “It gives people the smallest amount of space to take control of their lives.”

But mutual aid efforts often butt-up against policing, in Minneapolis and nationwide. Both types of action are often responses to the biggest gaps in the social safety net, although they’re frequently in exact opposition. A mutual aid group might support unhoused people in a public park, while police might be called to evict them. The Chauvin trial may be over, but the complicated conversation around mutual aid in Minneapolis suggests the city is still working out what full community justice looks like.

On 11 April, just before the Chauvin trial ended, police in the nearby Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center killed yet another unarmed Black man, 20-year-old Daunte Wright, during a traffic stop. Officials say former Brooklyn Center officer Kim Potter, a 26-year veteran and field training officer, mistakenly fired her gun thinking it was her Taser. The killing brought thousands of protesters on to the street to demand justice, and triggered an avalanche of mutual aid.

To date, nearly 30,000 people have contributed more than $1 million altogether to a GoFundMe page for Mr Wright’s family, which has raised money for funeral expenses, grief counselling, and continued support as they push for Ms Potter to be convicted. Almost overnight, the Brooklyn Center school district converted itself into a food and supply distribution hub, as protests and a violent riot police response caused many stores to shut their doors. Their GoFundMe has raised more than $137,000. Meanwhile, groups like the Minnesota Freedom Fund crowd-sourced money to pay for protesters’ bail, while Brooklyn Center Protestor+Resident Safety and Mutual Aid helped residents of apartment complexes near the Brooklyn Center police station, many of whom were terrorised and hit with tear gas as riot police converged on largely peaceful protesters outside.

“With mutual aid, something a lot of people had never heard of prior to the Minneapolis uprising [of last summer], has become something basically everyone I know is a practitioner of,” said Sean Lim, a student activist from the University of Minnesota who works the non-profit Minnesota Youth Collective as well as the mutual aid group St. Paul Camps Support. “It’s something that’s really empowering to watch flourish.”

During the Daunte Wright protests, he both offered and received mutual aid. One night, while handing out first aid supplies, he was arrested for unlawful assembly. He got legal support from groups like Minnesota Uprising Arrestee Support and the National Lawyers Guild until he was released more than a day later.

Communities, and communities of colour in particular, have been pooling resources for collective benefit for centuries without slapping the label “mutual aid” on it. That’s more or less the point of a coherent social group. But mutual took on a new urgency, visibility, and multi-racial base of support after George Floyd was murdered last summer during the depths of the coronavirus pandemic and recession, while the state mobilised millions of dollars in police resources that could have been put towards social services.

As the writer Anya Ventura put it, “A dreamy insurrectionary air took hold; the world had been cracked open and was now being put back together.”

Numerous new mutual aid groups sprang up across the Minneapolis-St Paul area filled with fired up volunteers, and they joined together with longstanding activist networks working to support a city in crisis.

“Once that happened, a lot of people immediately started looking around, and saying, ‘How can we best meet the needs of the community, which is suffering right now?’” Mr Lim said. “Within 24 hours overnight, you saw sites across the metro area start to transform themselves into medical care centres, into supply centres that were running supply drives, into centres that were housing protesters overnight, ranging from churches to nonprofits.”

With police focused on the protesters, neighbourhood groups formed volunteer street patrols, fire-fighting brigades, medic units, clean up crews, laundry services, transport coops, and food pantries.

The need for mutual aid was even more acute during the George Floyd uprising because it took place amid a Covid-induced housing crisis in Minneapolis, where people with homes lost them, and those already unhoused were evicted from one site then the next by police, according to Jack Martin from Southside Harm Reduction, a South Minneapolis-based outfit that has been providing safe needle exchange and overdose prevention services like naloxone to community members since 2017. They give community members as many supplies as they ask for, as way to support mutual aid efforts that go on between friends and neighbours, outside the easy reach of their non-profit.

“While the uprising was happening, while the 3rd Precinct was being burden down, and all this other stuff was happening across the city, there was also a mass forced movement of people, especially folks who were living outside, and that was largely enforcement by the police,” Mr Martin said. “We both directed resources to folks living outside – tents, hygiene supplies, naloxone supplies – to folks that we see regularly, and we were able to supply those secondary networks for folks that maybe aren’t able to access our services.”

The intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, where Mr Floyd was murdered, also became a mutual aid site in addition to a memorial. In what became known as George Floyd Square, community members blocked off traffic and created an autonomous zone where people shared books, clothing, health supplies, medical aid, and provided funds to continue maintaining the space and tending to flower beds planted around a community-built statue of a raised fist.

“We already knew the pandemic was hitting Black and brown folks really hard,” said Erickson Saye from Community Aid Network MN (CANMN), a mutual aid group that formed during the uprising and now serves over 100 families a week with food and supplies. “When George Floyd was murdered, that just brought up so many needs of equity that weren’t even being addressed. Folks just came together.”

The whole point of mutual aid, says Jae Yates, another CANMN organiser, is to tap into the power of communities that was always there to provide for themselves, without waiting on politicians or complicated state welfare systems to do it for them.

“We’re here for you. You don’t need to wait until you are in dire need. If you need groceries, just come get groceries,” he said. “I don’t care how much money you make. You don’t need to prove to me you’re in dire straits to use of our services.”

Now that donations from outside have slowed a bit, Mr Yates says funds mostly come from the community and go back out to it. That’s the ideal.

“The same people that run the mutual aid also use the mutual aid,” he says. “It’s all cyclical.”

Mutual aid is not a new phenomenon however. In the US, it’s as old as the country itself and its earliest inequalities. Groups like Free African Society, founded in 1787, pooled resources to support newly freed, formerly enslaved people, while various waves of immigrants throughout the country’s history have set up their own mutual aid societies, which provided everything from everyday household supplies to services like banking. Mutual aid has always been especially prominent in communities of colour, where centuries of state-sanctioned discrimination in employment, housing, and banking cut people off from key resources.

More recent examples took root during the radical civil rights activism of the 1960s and 1970s, and showed the often direct connection between struggles against police overreach and for community empowerment. Indigenous peoples organised American Indian Movement (AIM) safety patrols in Minneapolis in response to police brutality, while the Black Panther Party, another group formed in part to push back on police abuses, provided free breakfast to young people in Oakland, California.

What’s different now is the utter magnitude of the problem – a civil rights crisis, wrapped in a housing crisis, wrapped in a public health crisis – as well as the powerful tools available to fight it.

The problems laid bare last summer were always there, according to Georgia Fort, a Twin Cities native, Black woman, and journalist who has been covering the George Floyd story for a community-based project called Racial Reckoning: The Arc of Justice. But something about the gravity of what happened to George Floyd, as well as the power of social media to broadcast it to the world, unlocked something.

“After George Floyd was killed, we saw millions of dollars come from where?” she said. “Invested into Black businesses, invested into Black families, invested into Black programming, Black art. Where did all that money come from? We’ve had those issues this whole time.”

Social media also let people within the Twin Cities extend the reach of the help they could provide each other beyond just a few next door neighbours.

I could go on Twitter, and I could put out a call for milk of magnesia, diapers, towels, water bottles with squirt nozzles, and within 15 mins it would land on our doorstep,” said Mr Lim, the student organiser. “The power of organising in this digital age when we’re all connected cannot be understated.”

And these networks were already revving up the spring before Mr Floyd was killed, as the pandemic hit the country and thousands of people began strategising ways to support the seemingly endless groups of people who slipped through the cracks of government-relief efforts: laid-off restaurant workers, nurses crowd-funding personal protective equipment, seniors who needed help getting groceries.

The writer and organiser Mariame Kaba has said mutual aid is a way of “prefiguring the world in which you want to live”. In Minneapolis, where communities of colour have faced decades of under-investment and over-policing, that world is often one where the millions spent on policing each year go elsewhere – or policing as its currently done doesn’t exist at all.

Mandla Xaba, one of the residents of the Near North Encampment, argues that the police are being used in Minneapolis to clear out unhoused people to make way for further gentrification, and the mutual aid work around the camp is a way of building a version of Minneapolis where its most vulnerable residents don’t have to worry about being thrown out by police.

“It’s just a simple gentrification story,” he said. “The goal is to actually have a stable housing situation. Not a place where we’re always having to deal with the anxiety of being removed.”

The camp is currently raising money to buy a piece of land and establish a permanent community.

In addition to a flowering of mutual aid, the uprising and its aftermath underscored for many just how much money the region puts towards policing. Minnesota officials spent millions on heavily armed riot police that occupied the city for months on end, and who returned once Mr Wright was shot.

In addition to directly responding to protests, police resources were also put directly in opposition to many of the causes mutual aid organisers were working towards. Not only are police the point of the spear in the deeply discriminatory War on Drugs, according to Mr Martin, from Southside Harm Reduction, but they also directly harmed unhoused people throughout the year in Minneapolis.

“It’s inherently violent and it just works against people getting out of the situation and having any sort of stability,” he said of the evictions, which prompted a lawsuit from civil rights groups last October. “During all of the evictions that happened during the uprisings, people’s medications got destroyed, hundred of dollars if not more of tents and other supplies people needed to stay safe were destroyed and bulldozed by the police. That also included people’s personal items that are invaluable like old family photo albums.”

Ironically, these efforts, in addition to consuming government resources, also mirrored the language of the mutual aid movement almost exactly. Operation Safety Net, first formed to head-off social unrest during the Chauvin trial, involved millions spent and calling in thousands of Minnesota National Guard, Minnesota State Patrol, county sheriff’s deputies, and local police departments, who were later put to breaking up the Daunte Wright protests. Minnesota governor Tim Walz initially asked for a $35 million fund to cover the programme and future operations. Fourteen different law enforcement agencies also pooled more than $1 million in funding in what they called a “mutual aid” agreement to fund security and community outreach during the trial.

The problem goes deeper than policing though, according to Mr Saye, from CANMN. The structure of the US economy itself seems to always have some segment of the population remain poor and disempowered, and that keeps communities from organising to their fullest potential.

“People won’t engage in the democratic system if they can’t pay their rent, if they can’t get food for their kids, if they can’t get food for themselves,” he said. “There’s no way that our government structure can meet the need of everyone because we operate in a capitalistic society. In order for somebody to have more, somebody has to get less. There will always be a need for mutual aid.”

And now that thousands of people across Minneapolis have gotten a taste of what’s possible by working together on both a local and a mass scale, mutual aid practitioners believe this sort of organising isn’t going anywhere.

“It’s going to be some strong bonds formed from this,” Mr Xaba, the Near North resident, said.

The key to making this movement sustainable, according to organisers, is moving beyond just seeing it as an ad-hoc strategy to be used when a city is reeling from a tragic police killing. Instead, they hope to make it a long-term, regular part of life in Minneapolis, where community members have true control and input over the resources that will determine the course of their lives.

That spirit seems to have already taken root in George Floyd Square. The city says it plans to re-open the intersection, preserve the fist sculpture, and help fund Black businesses in the area. But activists are saying they’ll continue occupying the site as their own space for community healing and solidarity until the city meets theirdemands and reforms police practices as well as investments millions in housing, bill relief, and health care. In other words, until catches up with what mutual aid organisations are already doing.

“We want our demands answered and, before that, we don’t have any reason to leave,” Neal Baxter, who volunteers in the Square, recently told MPR. “And our demands aren’t that radical. We get the demands, we vacate the streets.”

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