Mutual aid, a community-based strategy for collective survival and political action, has gained popularity during the pandemic, but communities and social movements have been using it for far longer. Two revolutionary organizations of the 1960s and ‘70s, the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party, shaped modern mutual aid with their anti-oppression efforts. While both are better remembered for their political education and militancy, each also championed early examples of “serve the people” programs that are widespread today.
According to lawyer-organizer Dean Spade, associate professor of law at Seattle University School of Law (Wash.) and author of “Mutual Aid” and “Solidarity Not Charity,” mutual aid is the practice of meeting people’s basic needs by providing good food, clean water, quality clothing and physical safety. It is also a form of political participation in which communities care for each other to resist the suffering inherent in capitalism, colonialism and policing. Rather than rely on what Spade calls the “gatekeeping,” saviorism” or “hierarchies of deservingness” common in charity and state welfare, mutual aid allows those impacted by oppression to build alternative solidarity-based institutions.
Mutual aid has been practiced for as long as people have lived in communities. To resist past and present colonial genocide, Indigenous peoples across the world have relied on cultural traditions of collective survival similar to what we now call mutual aid. Black Americans also have a long history of mutual aid as well, from the Underground Railroad to the Black women’s club movement to community support within Black churches.
This history undoubtedly influenced the Black Panthers’ and the Young Lords’ community aid programs. In addition to their revolutionary politics (the Black Panthers’ Ten Point Program and the Young Lords’ 13 Point Program), both helped their communities survive and resist inadequate—and often abusive—state and private services by creating community-run alternatives.
Founded in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in Oakland, California, located on stolen Ohlone land, the Black Panthers fought for the survival and liberation of the Black community. Based on the belief that freedom and self-determination are impossible under capitalism and colonialism, they used a two-pronged approach: armed self-defense (“policing the police”) and social self-defense (“serving the people”). Despite intense surveillance and repression, the Black Panthers’ programs saved lives by intervening against police brutality and providing basic necessities.
In response to the failure of federal War on Poverty programs, the Black Panthers developed their own institutions to simultaneously provide material support, uplift community knowledge and politicize their communities. Because the health industry restricted medical knowledge and harmed people of color, the Black Panthers’ survival programs aimed to deprofessionalize medicine, build community trust, provide first aid training and value patients’ knowledge. The Black Panthers also created the Free Breakfast for Children program to combat not only hunger, but the idea that mass hunger is acceptable; FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover even called the program the “greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.” By showing how social services could operate without abuse or neglect, the Black Panthers demanded more just systems.
Inspired by the Black Panthers and a Puerto Rican Chicago street gang called the Young Lords Organization, a collective of Puerto Ricans in New York created the Young Lords Party in the late 1960s in New York City, located on stolen Lenape and Siwanoy land, to fight for Puerto Rican survival, independence and self-determination. By emphasizing what they called “declassization” (unlearning oppressive social hierarchies) and “decolonization” (rejecting internalized capitalist and colonial ideas) the Young Lords sought to create change with political education and eventual armed resistance.
The Young Lords aimed to use community aid programs to radicalize its members by confronting oppression head-on and taking survival into their own hands. Through the Garbage Offensive, they forced the New York Department of Sanitation to collect trash in Puerto Rican neighborhoods by blocking the street with trash and analyzing why the government neglected the living conditions and health of poor Puerto Ricans. The Young Lords later established the People’s Church by occupying a conservative church and using the space to redistribute clothing and food. To combat Puerto Rican health inequities, they commandeered an X-ray truck and took over a wing of the Lincoln Hospital to directly provide healthcare. When presented with collectively-run alternatives to oppressive and neglectful institutions, many residents in poor Puerto Rican neighborhoods joined the fight for community self-determination.
Many programs created by the Black Panthers and the Young Lords are recreated across the world today. Like the Black Panthers’ free breakfasts, Food Not Bombs provides free vegetarian and vegan food to anyone who wants it which meets basic needs while radicalizing communities against war. Countless food pantries, community fridges and grocery delivery services do similar work.
In the tradition of the Young Lords’ X-ray truck action and the Black Panthers’ free clinics, street medics provide emergency care to protesters and harm reduction programs supply clean needles and naloxone to prevent overdoses. Community patrols provide social self-defense amid rising anti-Asian attacks by walking the streets of Chinatowns to pick up trash, support businesses and prevent violence without the need for police.
Mutual aid has helped us survive crisis and hardship for centuries. We must draw from our predecessors to build alternative ways of meeting basic needs and resisting oppression. It is impossible to be free under today’s violence of capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy and militarized policing; these are our oppressors. Instead, we must find the safety, resources and connections we need in each other. The first step toward liberation is survival, and the first step toward survival is collective community care.
Jay Jones (22Ox, 24C) is from Tallahassee, Florida.