On April 1st, thousands of tenants around the country went on a rent strike, citing COVID-19’s complete elimination of their livelihoods and the injustice of having to pay for housing with no income. Although the strikes barely surfaced in mainstream media coverage, both the severe economic and social impacts of the virus and the effort that went into organizing a mass mobilization were incredibly real. On Instagram, #RentStrike has amassed over 5,000 posts featuring art, organizing how-tos, and screenshots of threatening letters from landlords. Tenants in cities all over the US and Canada began hanging white sheets as a symbol of their plan of action. From spreadsheets of local rent strike efforts to message boards dedicated to organizing tenants, it’s evident that the existing organizing energy has only been amplified by the crisis.
Image Credits (Instagram): [@rentstrike] [@keepyourrent] [@anarchistposters]
Meanwhile, in DC, it took over two months from the first domestic case of the virus for Congress to pass an economic stimulus package attempting to mitigate the virus’ effects, despite clear scientific projections of a severe and long-lasting pandemic. There has been nearly no national mobilization toward a pandemic response, with Trump waiting until March 13th to declare a national emergency and delaying invocation of the Defense Production Act until March 27th. Nonetheless, many are lauding Congress’ “historic” $2.2 trillion stimulus bill as evidence that the government is taking the pandemic seriously, ignoring its fundamental flaws.
As seen in this graphic, about a quarter of the funds Congress squabbled over will end up going to large corporations.
Despite a promise that 30% of funds will go to individuals, the bill’s guidelines guarantee only a $1,200 lump sum payment to those making under $75,000 per year. For reference, at the end of 2019, the median rent for a 2 bedroom apartment in a US city was $1,343. When viewed in the context of a possible 18-month long pandemic, it’s clear that everything Congress and the President are currently proposing will not only be much too little, but will also come far too late.
Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s deadline for disbursement was April 17th, nearly four months after the country was first touched by the crisis. Just last week, as people started seeing money in their accounts, it was reported that banks could garnish stimulus checks if account-holders owe them money. Those who don’t have bank accounts or couldn’t list direct deposit information on their tax returns will likely endure an even slower turnaround. These tend to be 1099 workers and others who simply don’t get tax refunds. Residents without a social security number won’t get anything at all. The small percentage of the funds committed to loans for small businesses has already been depleted. As both parties lash out at each other and play up the inadequate funds they managed to agree on, people will continue to get sick, lose their jobs (and healthcare), and die en masse.
Across the country, however, working people have taken the health and safety of their communities into their own hands. Rent strikes are just one example of the organizing power spurred by the pandemic. Community members are helping each other make rent, buy groceries, take care of family members, and access medical care when the state and slow-acting institutions show the inability to react. This is mutual aid.
Although popularized intellectually by early 20th century anarchists such as Peter Kropotkin and Emma Goldman, mutual aid is as old as human society itself. In its purest form, it is any decentralized group of people organizing non-hierarchically to distribute resources and support their community outside the influence of the state.
In practice, mutual aid exists in nearly every community that has historically been neglected or harassed by the government and other hierarchical institutions that preserve the status quo, like companies and huge charities. In a country founded on the abuse and negligence of minority groups, it’s unsurprising that mutual aid has flourished, especially where and when institutional violence has cracked down. From the indigenous values of reciprocity and self-reliance to the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program, mutual aid has formed the lifeblood of community resilience among marginalized groups. Now, as COVID-19 hits poor, black, disabled, immunocompromised, and undocumented people particularly hard, a wave of online fundraisers, hyperlinked spreadsheets, and neighborhood grocery distribution “pods” has become the newest form of this age-old practice.
Building on the vast network of existing mutual aid groups, COVID-19-focused efforts have exploded in Facebook groups and on other social media all over the country. Massive spreadsheets have been put together, listing mutual aid efforts from all over the country. There are even entire spreadsheets dedicated to individual voluntary wealth redistribution and documents on hygiene and safety when delivering groceries or supplies.
Across Instagram and Twitter, leftist artists, meme accounts, students, and workers are coming together to signal-boost aid efforts whenever they see them. While large charities maintain PR departments and spend heavily on overhead costs, both local and nation-wide mutual aid efforts are typically run by individuals setting up funding and contacting people one-on-one— a much more direct, compassionate, and cost-effective form of aid appropriate for a crisis situation.
In place of the scrutiny and discrimination that marginalized people can experience from homeless shelters, charities, and other institutional aid networks, COVID-19 mutual aid efforts provide a place to receive immediate relief without judgement. Most importantly, giving and receiving directly with your neighbors and people online helps build long-lasting connections whereby people find those they can lean on in the future as well.
The sheer lack of an appropriate crisis response from the government compounded with a virus that exposes the violent effects of systemic racism and classism has taught many how much is truly possible when we urgently face the truth.
Mortgage moratoriums show the willingness of the government to bail out homeowners and landlords, but not tenants. Rent strikes showed us just how much power individuals have to resist that. The inadequacy of our medical system is on full display. While doctors and nurses are heralded as heroes, many are shouting out that they are not supported by their institutions or the government. With thousands rallying to make masks, donate supplies, and clap out of their windows, we see energy that could be harnessed politically into fighting for a consolidated national health system (or federal universal single-payer) to truly support all medical professionals and patients.
We’ve learned that much of the work we do is very possible to do from home and with heavy accommodations. Where was this effort when parents needed long-term paid parental leave? Where was this commitment to “adaptation” when disabled workers were told they could not receive accommodations to meet their needs? Why have “low-skilled” workers only now been designated as essential when the labor of farm-workers and grocery workers has always brought food to our tables?
We’ve learned that the only thing stopping many incarcerated individuals from coming home is a state order or thousands of dollars in bail. We’ve learned that ICE operations are non-essential. We’ve learned that strong, invested community organizing is thousands of times more responsive and effective than the federal government; people are just lacking the resources and authority it hoards until its own assets are at risk.
We won’t go “back to normal”— what we’ve accepted as “normal” just isn’t. Instead of relying on a government and economic system that was never truly “by” or “for” the people, we can learn from and normalize horizontal community organizing as the basis for our relationships and survival, building a future that provides for and uplifts all people. Combatting COVID-19 with mutual aid shows that future at work.
Suggested places to donate
Green Mutual Aid: Support for those with mental health conditions- paypal.me/pools/c/8o9d2Sou1Q
Seeding Sovereignty’s Indigenous Impact: Masks, meals, stipends, books to indigenous people-
COVID Bail Out NYC: www.covidbailout.org
Or find a mutual aid effort near you:
Alex Madaras has been a writer with NGP since July 2018 and Editor in Chief since July 2019. She is finishing her senior year at Mason High School in Cincinnati, OH. In the fall, she will study International Affairs and Cultural Anthropology at Northeastern University. She enjoys long bike rides, playing the piano, and learning new languages.