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Done Waiting

Opinion: Government Inaction In A Time of Urgent Need

By Andrew Green

Oakland, CA — A tenant poses on her fire escape with a makeshift rent strike banner

The ongoing pandemic has been disastrous for America. Not only has Covid-19 brought about a staggering number of deaths, it has also, when combined with governmental inaction, brought the nation to a state of dire precarity; as of early August, between 29 and 43 percent of renter households are projected to be at risk of eviction by the end of 2020. Combined with this housing insecurity, Americans are struggling to feed themselves. Some states have seen food pantry requests increase by 2000% of what they were prior to the pandemic. The federal SNAP (food stamps) program has also been overloaded with new requests, with spending increasing by more than $9 billion from March to August.

With all of these difficulties facing their constituents, lawmakers in Congress have done very little to help. Only four Covid relief bills have been signed into law, and only one of them included direct aid to working-class people.

Gridlock in Washington and unrelenting demands from landlords have left people unsure of how to stave off homelessness. In early September, the government finally put in place a long-awaited federal eviction moratorium, but as of now, it’s only in place till the end of the year, and many landlords have been shirking state and federal eviction restrictions for months, taking advantage of low-income and undocumented tenants’ reluctance to take the issue to court.

Some tenants have forged their own solution, unionizing their apartment complexes and other properties held by a common landlord. Many of these tenant unions have initiated “rent strikes” — essentially tenants agreeing not to pay until certain demands are met by their landlords. By mid-May of this year, there had already been nearly 200,000 of these strikes nationwide. Though widely failing in achieving their policy goals, namely rent freezes and debt freezes for tenants struggling to pay, some of these tenant unions have pushed individual landlords to agree not to raise rents or to forgive some amount of debt.

This type of grassroots, non-governmental organizing long championed by left-wing groups is seeing increasing relevance as the virus rages on and those in power do little to address it.

Similar actions are being taken in response to issues like food insecurity. Perhaps to the surprise of the federal government, raising SNAP payments by 5.3% has fallen a tad short of resolving pandemic-imposed hunger. Mutual aid networks are popping up in neighborhoods all over the country, as people desperately search for any means of providing for themselves and their families.

Mutual aid networks, for those unfamiliar, are essentially a collection of people within a community that is committed to helping each other in a sort of reciprocal giving. One person with a car might agree to make grocery store trips for their immunocompromised neighbors. In exchange, someone working from home might agree to watch the driver’s kids a few nights a week. This reciprocation extends into a broader network of people, all giving what they can, and eventually, it more or less balances itself out, with people giving and receiving at a stable, sustainable rate. These systems don’t require that everyone’s input and output are strictly equal, and organizers understand that some community members will be needier than others, whether permanently or temporarily, but they do rely on people to give what they can.

On the issue of food insecurity specifically, mutual aid has been used to set up community gardens, and some with spare change have given grocery money to their less fortunate neighbors. These actions have not only found great success in working to assuage community hunger, they have also helped lay a framework for long term community organizing; mutual aid is often referred to as “solidarity, not charity” in that it works with a horizontal structure, rather than a top-down one. Mutual aid relies less on pure generosity, and more on acknowledging and addressing each others’ individual needs, in the knowledge that one’s own needs will also be addressed. This means that, even after the coronavirus and its economic aftershocks fade away, mutual aid will have no reason to go away. Unlike charity, which requires regular emotional appeals and an endless search for new contributions to sustain itself, mutual aid requires only a group of people with an ability to organize and a desire to have their needs met. Aid networks can span multiple cities, or be confined to a single floor in an apartment complex. They can be as simple as a work carpool or as complex as the networks set up by the Black Panther Party starting in the ’60s, which included everything from testing for Sickle Cell Anemia to providing meals to schoolchildren.

As food pantries struggle to find volunteers, due to most of their pre-pandemic staff consisting of vulnerable elderly people, mutual aid networks are fulfilling much of the need for extra-governmental food assistance, and often doing a better job of it than food pantries, due to more variation in nutrients and a more direct understanding of communities’ specific needs.

This expansion of working-class organizing as a means of addressing the needs of the many through mutual aid, tenant unions, and other means of collective work, represents a new dawn of community organizing. At a time when the government is failing to address the needs of the people, the people have created systems to pick up where public policy drops off. This inspiring display of solidarity is hopefully a sign of broader working-class solidarity to come.

For readers in the United States who have the ability to give, many across the country have been organizing through this shared Google Doc. For those who are immunocompromised and in need of assistance, feel free to add your information here.

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