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Mutual Aid in Seattle

People are helping each other because the city can't (or won't)

On December 27, 2021, the temperature in Seattle dropped below 23 degrees — the coldest day in 31 years. According to Hannah Krieg of The Stranger:

WHEEL, a grassroots organization of homeless and formerly homeless women who host Women in Black vigils when homeless people die in the county, reported that 178 unhoused people in King County died outside or by violence in 2021. By WHEEL’s numbers, eight of those unhoused people died of hypothermia.

The estimate of how many people in King County sleep outside varies, and because of COVID-19, most available numbers are dated. In 2019, shelter operators and volunteers counted over 11,000 people who do not have a permanent place to sleep at night; about 5,000 of those people sleep outside.

“We are really setting people up to just die in some unknown place to be discovered after the snow melts,” said Tye Reed, a Seattleite who does mutual aid work with the Transit Riders Union.

It's doubtful as to whether or not the system was up to the task of taking care of its most vulnerable citizens before the dual catastrophes of COVID-19 and climate change, but these days — as Congress spends its days fighting over how little money to cough up to keep Americans alive — I think we're all realizing that going forward, we'll have to take care of each other a little more and depend on the government a little less.

I don't feel like defining "mutual aid," so I'll let The Cut do it:

In mutual-aid systems, people work cooperatively to meet the needs of everyone in the community. It’s different from charity, which features a one-way relationship between an organization and recipients, and often responds to the effects of inequality but not its causes. Mutual aid is an act of solidarity that builds sustained networks between neighbors. As prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba explained to the New Yorker: “It’s not community service — you’re not doing service for service’s sake. You’re trying to address real material needs.”

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In other words, charities generally act as band-aids that address the symptoms of a failed (or failing) state, letting the actual causes thrive below the surface.

The term "mutual aid" was popularized (if not invented) by 19th-century Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin as an anarchist alternative to Social Darwinism and capitalism-run-amok. In essence, Kropotkin argued that cooperation among equals, as opposed to whatever the United States is doing right now through private corporations and moribund political structures, is ultimately a more robust and effective way to provide for our basic human needs.

In practice, this means groups of people working together to survive even the most dire circumstances. In my short life, I've seen some remarkable results from community-based aid groups. In the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina, members of the Common Ground Collective — co-founded in Algiers, Louisiana by ex-Black Panther Malik Rahim — helped rehabilitate homes, supplied medical aid, and fed climate refugees in the city. Meanwhile the National Guard, fresh from the war in Iraq, did little more than speed around in desert camouflage Humvees with their eyes peeled for looters and IEDs. (Not that they found any IEDs; old habits die hard.)

In many ways, post-Katrina New Orleans was a dramatic preview of the real-life dystopia we've found ourselves in these days. And freak snowstorms in Seattle are no longer freakish.

Groups like Greenwood Mutual Aid and the Transit Riders Union are picking up the slack of this capitalist society, distributing warm clothing, hand-warmers, and Narcan to homeless people stuck living in snow-covered tents.

"[T]he government is not in a position to really help people,” says Tye Reed. “People in your community know you and know the people living outside much better than a city worker who has to drive up from Auburn to go to their city job so they can make $18 an hour to try to talk down or serve somebody who lives in downtown Seattle.”

SOURCE: The Stranger, The Cut