Safety in the Time of Corona: A Mutual Aid Case Study


By Mikhael Erzengel

A bad article about activist praxis during the 2020-21 COVID19 pandemic would probably start like this: ‘The COVID19 pandemic of 2020 had monumental effects on society, the economy and politics’. That same bad article would then probably go on to list examples of these effects, and try to deliver some supposedly witty yet profound insight.

In truth, trying to sum up the effects of the pandemic on our lives would be tedious, pointless and redundant. There is, however, an aspect of the pandemic which will likely be forgotten, but deserves appraisal and analysis: that old mainstay of anarchist praxis, Mutual Aid.

At the start of the pandemic, the spirit of mutual aid was infectious in some corners of the left. Kropotkin’s assertion that humans thrive when they cooperate rather than alone, that human survival itself depends on working together, was inspirational to a great many, as people began to organise networks of food distribution to housebound people, and tenants unions were drawn up to brace for the waves of evictions which were predicted (but which didn’t fully eventuate). Many of these efforts, while having noble intentions, fizzled out not long after they were conceived. It is an unfortunate dynamic that while support for mutual aid swells during ‘big’ moments, it quickly diminishes soon after. It also must be acknowledged that these abortive efforts were limited in scope; while it is very noble and neighbourly to bring groceries to your immunocompromised friend, without actually trying to challenge the economic relations underlying the distribution of goods, it’s little more than an unpaid delivery service. Another problem with these efforts was that they flowed in one direction only; mutual aid needs to be reciprocal to be sustainable, even if the mutual actions are unequal in size or scale, or else the side providing the service risks being burned out, or worse, exploited.

The iconic historical example of mutual aid in action would be the Black Panther Party in 1960s America (if you listen very hard, you can almost hear the sound of Maoists fuming that an anarchist would invoke the BPP). The Panthers provided free breakfast for children, and free education and free legal support to those in their neighbourhoods, a practice which reportedly was more confronting to the FBI than all the Panthers’ fiery rhetoric combined. The difference is that the Panthers engaged their mutual aid practices at the point of struggle. The free breakfast program was an opportunity to interact with youth and begin to break the racist hegemonic brainwashing which was forced upon them by society. Free education was radical education, inspiring entire apartment blocks with anti-capitalist, anti-fascist theory and praxis. Free legal aid was used to challenge the abuse of police power over black residents. In short, the Panthers practiced mutual aid in a way which allowed their communities to not only survive under capitalism and racism, but to begin to build power and tangible resistance against such forces. While anarchists may be opposed to the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist politics of the BPP, their praxis of mutual aid is admirable.

But mutual aid engaged at the point of struggle is only one part of a successful leftist movement. Free breakfast and legal defence will not alone vanquish the state- worker revolution remains the only solution. For mutual aid efforts to be truly revolutionary, they must exist alongside and supplementary to a broad class struggle campaign. While Australian anarchists are not in a position to patrol the streets with rifles like the Panthers did (yet…), we need to be able to analyse mutual aid not as an isolated action which helps a discrete set of people, but rather as a tool which can be used alongside other tactics as a means to sustain and strengthen them. As a hypothetical, we can use the example of striking workers. A mutual aid program which gives food and groceries to workers’ families is very noble, but not exactly revolutionary. Meanwhile, a strike which quickly fizzles out because workers are unable to put food on the table without pay isn’t very helpful in advancing their interests. However, a mutual aid program which puts food on a striking workers’ table, thus enabling them to continue the strike action longer than they otherwise could, is a perfect example of a sustained action in practice. Better yet, a group of workers in one industry banding together to put food on the tables of the striking workers of another industry, with the understanding that the favour will be repaid in kind when circumstances are reversed, is a microcosm of a bona fide worker revolution. 

Now, we move out of hypotheticals and back into the setup of this article’s first paragraphs.

In May of 2020, the world exploded in a new wave of protests against police and institutional racism. In Australia, a country which oftentimes refuses to reckon with its past of genocide and colonial violence, mass attention was turned to the Deaths in Custody campaign, protesting against the conditions which enabled the police to murder over 400 First Nations people since 1991. But while Australia’s coronavirus burden was, at the time, very low, there was understandable anxiety about the prospect of mass demonstration during a pandemic. However, rather than letting this stop them, or waiting for the state to impose a solution from above, activists began to develop their own methods of keeping the community safe.

The first time I ever acted as a COVID19 marshall was in June of 2020, at a protest in the Domain. We didn’t really know what we were doing; we were just motivated to make sure everyone was kept as safe as possible. Our function was exceedingly simple: we stood at the entrance to the gathering with a big box of facemasks and a few big bottles of hand sanitiser, offering them freely to rally attendees. But the community response was very positive; people felt like their safety was being accounted for, and their anxieties about mass gatherings were alleviated somewhat.

And so we decided to do it again at the next rally, and then the one after that, and the one after that. Our protocols were made gradually more elaborate, incorporating marshalls in high-visibility vests with designated zones to look after, and lengthy pre-rally briefings. It’s possible that we instituted a practice of QR codes and contact tracing before most businesses did. We steadily built a robust network of volunteers. Hand sanitiser and masks to hand out were often donated by the community, or, a few times, even ‘appropriated’ outright by warehouse workers. We built a complete set of procedures and trained up members of the community to take their community’s safety into their own hands, all without an iota of state intervention. In fact, when the organisers of March 2021’s Mardi Gras protest march were pulled into court on bogus assertions of public health violations, our very own coronavirus safety plan was reviewed by the NSW Department of Health itself, and declared to be sufficient to mitigate risk. We had managed to build a bottom-up, volunteer-run alternative to the state’s own inconsistent public health procedures, strong enough that the state itself could not find a fault in it. By December, it was often said, only half-jokingly, that the facilitators of our safety plan were about as qualified in public health procedures as you could be, barring a formal scientific qualification.

Earlier in this article, we defined a set of criteria for what makes a mutual aid effort successful: reciprocity, sustainability, a willingness to engage at the point of struggle, and engagement with wider movements. It is only valid to assess our COVID19 marshalling efforts on these bases.

The general response to our efforts was consistently very positive, and while we didn’t typically try (or even have a way to) gather donations, it is my belief that we were paid back by the large turnouts of many of the rallies we were involved in. Once people felt like their safety was being accounted for, they became more and more willing to engage in mass action, and to rally for the justice we were striving towards. We were essentially rewarded for creating a safe-feeling atmosphere by the large and radical community response at each and every action. 

We also managed to successfully integrate our program into larger movements. Once it became clear that our community-based alternative to state mandates was effective, we were given a seat at the planning table of several campaigns. By our very nature as a network which facilitated the safety of mass actions, we became embedded in the campaigns for First Nations, queer and environmental justice. Our methods were picked up by members of other campaigns, therefore enabling our mutual aid efforts to be integrated into a larger and larger sphere of the broad Sydney radical sphere. Our very nature also meant that we were engaging at the point of struggle, literally, by helping to facilitate that struggle. We empower ourselves, and empower the community to make its voice heard.

The major shortfall of our network was sustainability. Even though we were broadly decentralised and facilitated by a large group of volunteers (to whom I am eternally grateful and will name my firstborn child after), inevitably some people would move on, and it became necessary to rapidly engage and train a new set of volunteers. The result of having to keep going through this process of recruitment and upskilling was severe burnout on the shoulders of the most experienced and long-term volunteers. In hindsight, a more sustainable network would have foreseen this issue before it arose and decentralised the processes of recruitment and training within the network itself.

There was also the ever-present risk of state action. Although the state could not, under scrutiny, identify a failure in our protocols, our volunteers still found themselves frequently under threat of police crackdown, violence and, ultimately, court action. It is never easy for a volunteer to put themselves up for a job which might land them in the back of a paddy wagon, and all our volunteers who put their hands up despite this chance deserve nothing but respect.

Our coronavirus safety procedures and the network of volunteers who put them in practice may not have been a perfect state-smashing example of mutual aid in practice, but what astounds me in hindsight is that it was formed completely organically, without any aspirations beyond general social safety, by a group of concerned members of the community. We essentially began with a recognition that there was a need which had to be fulfilled, but gradually we evolved into a genuine asset to the wider community, without state oversight, and completely run with bottom-up decision making. It’s unlikely to be remembered in a book of great radical history, but it’s an experience I found deeply inspiring, and which will inform my activist efforts for years to come.