When I first spoke with Mathews, she quickly pointed out that other local groups—such as Equality for Flatbush, which organizes against unjust policing and housing displacement—had been “doing the work for much longer.” She told me that she didn’t want to raise her hand and say, “Look, we’re new, we’re so shiny, we’re on Slack!” The organization’s strictly local focus reflects a principle of many mutual-aid groups: that neighbors are best situated to help neighbors. Ocasio-Cortez’s team, after the conference call, distributed a guide hashtagged #WeGotOurBlock, with instructions for building a neighborhood “pod” by starting with groups of five to twenty people, drawing on ideas popularized by the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective. The idea of “pod-mapping,” according to one of the group’s founders, Mia Mingus, is to build lasting networks of support, rather than indulge in “fantasies of a giant, magical community response, filled with people we only had surface relationships with.”
Mingus, a disability activist who was born in Korea and brought up by a white couple in the U.S. Virgin Islands, told me that she’d been spending her days checking in on her pod, dropping off food and supplies for people, and her nights reading articles about layoffs and hospitalizations and new mutual-aid groups. She felt, she said, like the earth was moving beneath her feet. More people were recognizing that the problems Americans were facing weren’t caused just by the virus but by a health-care system that ties insurance to employment and a minimum wage so low that essential workers can’t save for the emergencies through which they will be asked to sustain the rest of the country. She’d learned, after years of organizing, that, in some ways, people are attracted to crisis—to letting problems escalate until they’re forced to spring into action. “Pods give us the structure to deal with smaller harms,” she said. “And we have to deal with smaller harms, or this is where we end up.”
Mathews told me that Bed-Stuy Strong was trying to plan for coming hardships that the government would also probably fail to adequately address. Unemployment would skyrocket in the neighborhood, and community needs would evolve. She is committed to the chaos of collective decision-making; the group’s discussions about operations and priorities happen publicly, with input from anyone who wants to contribute. There are no eligibility criteria for grocery recipients, other than Bed-Stuy residency. (A distinctive quality of mutual aid, in general contrast with charity and state services, is the absence of conditions for those who wish to receive help.)
Jackson Fratesi, a friend of mine in the neighborhood who used to oversee last-mile delivery operations for Walmart stores in New York and now helps run logistics for Bed-Stuy Strong, said, “We have guesses about what community needs will be in the future, but we also know that some of these needs will blindside us, and we’re trying to prepare for that.” He added, “And—who knows?—maybe one of the things we’ll be blindsided by is the government actually doing a good job.”
In her book “Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America,” the Harvard political scientist Nancy L. Rosenblum considers the American fondness for acts of neighborly aid and coöperation, both in ordinary times, as with the pioneer practice of barn raising, and in periods of crisis. In Rosenblum’s view, “there is little evidence that disaster generates an appetite for permanent, energetic civic engagement.” On the contrary, “when government and politics disappear from view as they do, we are left with the not-so-innocuous fantasy of ungoverned reciprocity as the best and fully adequate society.” She cites the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, who helped her mother craft classic narratives of neighborly kindness and became a libertarian who opposed the New Deal and viewed Social Security as a Ponzi scheme.
I called Rosenblum to ask what she made of the current wave of ungoverned reciprocity. Disasters like this one, she said, have less to teach us about solidarity among neighbors than about our “need for a kind of nationwide solidarity—in other words, a social safety net.” She went on, “If you look at these really big, all-enveloping things—climate change, a pandemic—and think they will be solved by citizen mobilization, it may be necessary to consider the possibility that these problems are actually going to be solved technocratically and politically, from the top down, that what you need are experts in government who are going to say, ‘You just have to do this.’ My own opinion is that you need both top-down and bottom-up.” She continued, “But, still, the idea that what we need most, or only, is social solidarity, civic mobilization, neighborly virtue—it’s not so.”
Rosenblum, though, told me that she had noticed a difference between the mutual-aid groups that were forming in the wake of the coronavirus and the sorts of disaster-relief work that she had studied in the past. Because it had been clear from the beginning that the pandemic would last indefinitely, many groups had immediately begun thinking about long-term self-management, building volunteer infrastructures in order to get ahead of the worst of the crisis, and thinking about what could work for months rather than for days. “That’s interesting,” she said. “And I think it’s new.”
On Day Twelve of my self-isolation, I checked in with the Minnesota COVIDSitters. The governor there, Tim Walz, a Democrat, had mandated that health-care workers have access to free child care at school facilities, and I wanted to see how the government’s efforts were changing the group’s work. The COVIDSitters, like Bed-Stuy Strong, had been careful to coördinate with more established organizations, hoping to reduce redundancy and share resources. The group had funnelled donations—many from health-care workers who wanted to pay their volunteer babysitters—toward homeless shelters and food banks.