Mutual Aid in London: A Cautionary Tale

At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, I was heartened to see a network of mutual aid groups springing up, mostly autonomously, around the country. There did seem to have been some central impetus behind this. Still, my experience with the few that I started to organise with (I spread my time around a few different boroughs) was that they were generally grassroots and managed to stick to the non-hierarchical principles of mutual aid.

For those who don’t know, mutual aid is characterised in its approach by a firm commitment to horizontal organising, anti-bureaucracy and reciprocal help. It is not a charity. It is people coming together outside of the formal frameworks of NGOs and government relief to help each other. It will often duplicate efforts, but this is worth it in order to keep a horizontal, non-bureaucratic structure.

It also encompasses whatever is needed – mutual aid is not just handing things out. If people need political action to secure their homes or livelihoods, then mutual aid between people will make that happen. The purview of a mutual aid network is whatever individuals in that network decide they need and have the capacity to provide. This, along with everything else, is to be decided by each individual in the network – not by any central organising committee. Hopefully, a consensus is reached. See this link for a good example of mutual aid in practice: Preliminary notes to a diagram of Occupy Sandy.

This article is about an experience I’ve been having with the St. Peter’s Ward mutual aid group, which I have decided to disengage from out of frustration and a sense my efforts would be better spent in the other, actual mutual aid networks I’m engaged in. During the week or so I’ve been attempting to organise mutual aid within this network, what I’ve witnessed has essentially been a takeover by councillors, ex-councillors, higher-ups in NGOs and Labour Party organisers. I don’t believe any of their actions were ill-intentioned but they did show a deliberate and willful disregard for the basic principles of mutual aid. I believe this situation will be familiar to many non-hierarchical organisers who have had to organise in spaces with significant numbers of people who are used to being at the top of a command chain.

When I first joined the Bethnal Green Mutual Aid Whatsapp group, I was surprised to see it was locked. There was one admin making announcements about things to come and nothing else. This seemed odd, and I couldn’t see how anything could be getting done. I messaged the admin asking when the group would be opened, and was told that although they personally didn’t mind whether it was locked, ‘some prefer it to stay locked atm so that’s what’s happening.’ I had to wonder who these ‘some‘ were, and who gave them the right to lock an entire group covering a whole ward. We then briefly talked about plans and we largely agreed that the ward would eventually need to be cut up into smaller sections. I assumed this would happen organically as networks linked up and new ones were formed, or at least as part of some participatory process. Apparently, however, ‘a couple of people have experience in this due to working for the council or canvassing for elections etc.’

This worried me deeply. Already there were very important decisions being made entirely away from the main group, who didn’t then have any forum to influence these decisions. I was also shown a ward map and told it would look something like this. I pushed back and asked if perhaps it would be better to let this happen more organically as people would already likely be forming groups and linking up, and government drawn boundaries may not be practically best. ‘Haha! Ok I’ll share what you said.‘ I wasn’t entirely convinced my voice was being heard here.

The group then split down into two and I joined the St. Peter’s Ward group. At this time the admin I’d previously spoken to of the Bethnal Green group was the only admin of this new group. I asked that this be changed and they agreed, only to do nothing – although I was assured they wouldn’t lock the group ‘for now‘.

This was the beginning of a pattern I noticed of being told yes, good idea, that sounds reasonable, only for no action to be taken. Turns out politicos are indeed masters of fobbing you off politely. Another group member also asked who was calling the shots as the way things were going didn’t gel with how they’d seen mutual aid work in the past. They were told that ‘due to to logistics and the need to move forward and make plans, for now a few of us have become lead organisers.‘ This is ironic considering this group moved much, much slower than any of the truly horizontal groups I saw operating. At this point, Labour Councillor Tarik Khan said hello, and that he had fed back to the councils, there were amazing volunteers ready to support [the council, presumably].

There was much talk of taking charge and having a few people lead sub-groups and such. A few people offered to set up groups for their local area but were told by one of these ‘lead organisers‘ to hold off as they didn’t know how the area would be split yet. It, again, became apparent that a small group was working on this, completely separate and without oversight or input from anyone else.

We can’t do everything together!’ Chat about organisational structure was largely shut down as being ‘too much chatter for people to keep up with‘. Concern trolling would also be a prominent feature of this group. When legitimate discussion points were raised by those outside the ‘core organising group‘, such as who speaks which languages, they were largely ignored in favour of more discussion around structure and how we split wards. One woman was told that she must ‘allow time‘, when she raised concerns about who spoke Bangla.

At this point, it was very clear there was a core cadre of people who had previous social connections, largely through the council and local Labour Party, who were intent on running things. Initially, there had been quite a few active and engaged people who did not appear to have any affiliations and had just heard about the group and decided to join in. As I write this, very few of these remain. I will be leaving when this is published too and have only stayed around out of a grim determination to preserve some of the spirit of mutual aid.

People would raise ‘legitimate concerns‘ about ‘taking our time and doing it properly‘ any time someone tried to take action un-sanctioned by this group. I raised concerns at multiple junctures about how things were being done and was messaged by three separate people appealing for patience and understanding with the ‘admins‘. When I explained my concerns about the nature of having ‘admins‘ and being co-opted by Labour or the council, I was told my concerns were very legitimate and all the rest, but right now we needed to not think about politics and just do what was best. It was left unspoken that what was best would be to listen to our betters and do what we were told.

There came the point where there was a lot of talk of working with the council, getting requests sent through them and at one point even getting volunteers DBS checked through them. When I raised concerns about what mutual aid was about and why some people may not want to engage with the council or the authorities, and why even outside of these concerns it was anathema to mutual aid, I patronisingly had my concerns swept aside.

One argument I made was that political action such as eviction resistance and rent striking would likely become necessary to keep people above water, and council involvement would scupper that. I was told that that was not in the purview of this group and that if I wanted to do that there would be other campaigns. I was told this by someone very high in the informal hierarchy which had formed. They did not seem to understand that they did not get to inform the purview of a mutual aid network.

There were piecemeal attempts to understand mutual aid when it became clear that I had serious disagreements about how they were running (and indeed that they were running) the network, but again concerns were swept aside, and they didn’t seem to want to hear it. In response to one organiser asking for more resources on mutual aid ‘as I see it‘, the admin I had first spoken to snapped that we were following the guidelines on the official COVID-19 UK Mutual Aid website so that was fine. I’d never heard of this website and it certainly didn’t sound like something a grassroots movement would be following blindly. [Note from Freedom News editor: the COVID-19 Mutual Aid website is a legit grassroots organised project and I would like to advise everyone to follow their amazong manuals on how to set up your own mutual aid group: in the true mutual aid spirit, and not in an attempt to shut things down that is. zb]

The area was split into 18 smaller groups with each to have ‘representatives’. This word kept popping up, and every time I queried it I was told it was the same as a coordinator. Nonetheless, it kept getting talked about as a different thing. I had to challenge this difference multiple times, and I honestly believe that I did not loudly insist each time that there wouldn’t be two separate chats for representatives and coordinators, there would now be a semi-parliamentary system at play in this group.

As it stands, the old coordinator group has been renamed the ‘representatives‘ group. I wouldn’t like to speculate on whether there is now a separate coordinator group, but the renaming seems pointless and bureaucratic to me, and borne of a reticence to make new people into coordinators. I also noticed that in the message sent out to local groups, representatives are told they will be ‘working with‘ coordinators, directly contradicting what was earlier promised. How this ends up, we will see. Indeed, although a few of us insisted that it was made very clear that anyone could easily become a coordinator and that coordinators had no more power than anyone else, basically no one joined the coordinator group after the initial couple of days. Presumably, they were put off by messages like ‘Thanks for volunteering, please sit tight while the coordination team works things out.

I became suspicious of this informal network at the ‘top’ of the group and did some digging. A quick look through Twitter found that many indeed were involved in the Labour Party. What’s more, they were blatantly covering up who they were, and I suspect whether they knew each other.
Rachel Saunders, former Labour councillor was one of these ‘lead organisers’, so you can imagine my surprise when, when I asked people out of interest their affiliations, Rachel failed to disclose that she had ever been a councillor. Among the other people who it would have been helpful to know the affiliations of were active Labour members who are related to former councillors, journalists, a Tory councillor, a founder of Tower Hamlets Momentum, and various other Labour campaigners. One of the journalists involved joked with Cllr Kevin Brady on Twitter about how ridiculous it was to say that having one WhatsApp admin was authoritarian, and that she wished he would just come and tell everyone what to do. Very mutual aid.

The group, as it stands, is still having long discussions about safeguarding and GDPR while failing to actually help anyone, while other groups are already packing up deliveries and delivering effective mutual aid on a non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic basis. This isn’t to discount the importance of safeguarding or data protection – these things can be done effectively with some common sense and goodwill. There is also the occasional worried interjection that one of the local groups has already started printing and distributing their own flyers (‘Was hoping they’d hold off‘ – actual quote).

Spontaneous, grassroots action was never celebrated as a good thing, but as a spanner in the works of the machine they were trying to create. People getting ahead of themselves were seen as well-meaning, but the sentiment seemed to be that they should wait for the core group to tell them what to do. Most recently, councillors and former councillors, including Kevin Brady and Rachel Saunders, have been posting in the mutual aid groups encouraging people to sign up for the official, council-run volunteer program – not much of a show of confidence in the power of grassroots organising, I wouldn’t say.

Anyway, I could give plenty more examples of the anti-democratic, pro-authority behaviour exhibited by the group, but it would take a lot of scrolling through chat logs. I’m happy to release these logs to anyone who wants them to make their own mind up. When I say I’m committed to transparent organising I mean it, and anything in those organising chats should be entirely public anyway.

My experience with the St. Peter’s Ward group left a really sour taste, and serves for me as a perfect example of how larger political bodies and their organisers can co-opt grassroots movements like what we’re seeing around the country. It also shows that this influence isn’t always obvious – I was, for example, told that my concerns about the group being co-opted by the council was ridiculous, as councillors were acting in a purely personal capacity. Again, hilarious.

This is intended as a cautionary tale to all other mutual aid groups popping up around the world. While it could be taken as politicising things in a time when we’re meant to come together to help, I’d say that this isn’t politicising anything – a mutual aid network during a time of crisis is already highly political. From who we organise with, to how we organise, to what we do, all of these things are political. The liberal left has always tried to deflect criticism by accusing others of being inappropriately political, but this is only because their mode of politics is what they see as ‘normal‘, and therefore not political. It is political, and it is more important than ever to aggressively assert the principles of transparency, non-hierarchy, and mutual aid.

Do not let those who have traditionally held power tell you that you need to wait for their orders – you don’t need them, you never have, and you never will.

~Jerry Rogers