Mutual Aid in Action

A comrade writes about the Walthamstow Hoe Street Ward Mutual Aid group

While Johnson and Co have careened from one profit driven Covid-19 blunder to another during the last nine months, from underequipping front line workers to unnecessary deaths of older people in care homes, mutual aid networks have shown that there is a practical alternative to capitalism and its uncaring nature. Local mutual aid groups sprang up in March in response to the first lockdown, proliferating across the country in following months. Some were initiated by activists including anarchists, others by people with no experience of politics or activism.

This explosion of grassroots activity has provided a real time example of the innate tendency towards human solidarity described by Kropotkin in Mutual Aid. At best, mutual aid groups have been exemplars of the maxim ‘from each according to their ability to each according to their need’, people in local communities instinctively and voluntarily supporting each in diverse and mutually beneficial ways. Perhaps not surprisingly however, a number were fairly quickly taken over by controlling Labour Party councillors with stultifying ‘administrators managing WhatsApp groups, while some others have adopted a traditional charitable approach of helping ‘the needy’. Anecdotal accounts also suggest that involvement in mutual aid groups has decreased, with less people active during the second lockdown.

But an impressive number of mutual aid groups continue to thrive, run by and for people in local communities  – from housing estates to rural towns. One such group is to be found in Walthamstow, in northeast London. This is an area marked by gentrification, hipster makeovers with social engineering brought about by property developments, aided and abetted by the local Waltham Forest Labour Council. The Walthamstow Hoe Street Ward Mutual Aid group is something of an antidote to this, supporting those at the sharp end of the Covid-19 situation continuously since the first lockdown in the spring. Creating a large network of volunteers, on some levels it has roles very similar to many other mutual aid groups – helping with tasks such as doing shopping or collecting medicines for people unable to leave home. It has also built up an impressive volunteer operation as part of a Waltham Forest-wide Food for the Forest initiative, cooking and delivering meals for some 40 people within the ward. Alongside this a weekly Food Stall provides a different model of organisation, a small but inspiring example of genuine mutual aid in practice – of interest to anarchists and activists elsewhere.

Our Food Stall started on The Drive, a local Council owned housing estate, in April, providing fresh veg and fruit along with non-perishable items such as tinned foods, pasta and rice. Open weekly, it’s avowedly not a food bank – open to all with no questions asked, no referrals needed and no stigma attached to using it. As well as supplies from London-wide food sources such the Felix Project (with the much appreciated help of the Hornbeam, a Walthamstow community cafe) lots of donations have also been forthcoming from local community, including allotment holders in the summer.

During the first lockdown it provided a lifeline for many tenants unable or afraid to go to supermarkets or other shops and continues to do this, especially for those who have lost jobs or are shielding. But it’s not one way traffic, not a case of well-meaning members of the community just helping those ‘less fortunate’: we have consciously strived not to perpetuate a ‘giver versus recipient’ model of operation. While started by a small group of mutual aid activists, the Food Stall project involves and is run by residents who initially came into contact coming to get food for themselves and their families. As well as running the stall on Thursdays, volunteer residents are involved in driving transport to pick up supplies, taking bagged up food to housebound households and doing publicity. We now have some ten local residents regularly involved, a diverse group reflecting the multi-cultural working class community in Walthamstow. There is an incredibly friendly feel to the operation. It’s become a valuable social hub for those running or just using it in the time of covid isolation. It’s a great example of mutual aid in practice! Non-bureaucratic, there are no ‘leaders’, with group decisions taken at the stall, through an accessible WhatsApp group, and outdoor meetings.

Its impact has been clear from feedback and conversations at the stall. In line with our open access philosophy and unlike traditional food banks, we don’t ask for or require personal details. However we have kept some basic but impressive statistics. An average of 25 plus people use the stall each week, with 104 households comprising 350 people since the end of May. Some people using the stall have lost jobs, have health issues and struggle to make ends meet, while for others it is their main social contact of the week. As Sunak’s austerity ‘under another name’ bites, we are absolutely sure that more people will start to use it and become involved, and aim to remain open throughout the winter.

There is no community centre building on the estate, so we approached Housing officers and the local Councillor with a request to use one of the many empty garages on the estate as a physical storage space, but were told that the garages can’t be used for storage! So much for Labour Council community empowerment! Instead we use a tenant’s small pram shed to store non-perishable items and have to ship in most supplies each week on the day of the stall.

The social solidarity aspect of the Food Stall has created the basis for further initiatives in the future, with the possibility of the project evolving into a Food Co-op mooted. There is interest in this, although we are not yet as advanced as Cooperation Town community ventures elsewhere in London and further afield. Meanwhile, the Food Stall project has been a small but great example of self-organisation and Kropotkinesque mutual aid – a little seed of a possible future society!