With a long history in marginalized communities, mutual aid can be understood as well as practiced in a variety of ways. When the system that was built off of your labor and exploitation leaves you behind, the community finds a way to survive; it is this need for survival, and a unique knowledge of the struggles within one’s own community which informs mutual aid work. One of the most famous examples of a group that practiced this concept was The Black Panthers.
Incidentally, The Black Panther Party is not often thought of in this context. Oftentimes the discussion is centered around their armed demonstrations. This is by no means something I want to minimize, but rather I want to shift the context in which people consider these demonstrations. The Black Panther Party was revolutionary, militant, anti-fascist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist among other things.
These are the values that led them to create many of the community social programs they are known for. Building off of the first program initiated which provided free breakfast for families in Oakland, eventually the party expanded to offer clothing distribution, classes on politics and economics, free medical clinics, lessons in self-defense and first aid, transportation to upstate prisons for family members of inmates, an emergency-response ambulance program, drug and alcohol rehabilitation along with testing for sickle-cell disease and HIV/AIDS.
Some of these models were even co-opted by the government and implemented nationwide — albeit less successfully and with more of a concern around profit than people. Nonetheless, to give credit where credit is due while recognizing what is before us, what we see today in schools with free breakfast and free or reduced lunch is thanks to the BPP. And without the model they created, we wouldn’t have the dedicated ambulances we do today.
With the understanding created here, we return to the importance of firearms to the mission of The Black Panther Party. Community Defense is Mutual Aid.
The Black Panther Party’s core practice at its founding was its open carry armed citizens’ patrols — which would later become known as copwatching. The goal of this practice was to monitor officers of the Oakland Police Department as they carried out their duties. This practice was effective in challenging the police brutality experienced by the community and ultimately worked as a means for the masses to hold officers accountable where the city had failed to do so.
These demonstrations did not go unnoticed. In 1967 the Mulford Act was proposed to undermine the power of the BPP; this bill would make the public carrying of loaded firearms illegal. In one of their most famous and powerful demonstrations, the BPP executed an armed protest of the bill, disrupting the assembly in progress. Following the demonstration, six would be arrested and would later plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of disrupting a legislative session.
The attempts by the government to undermine the power of the BPP and other radical groups went far deeper than a few misdemeanor arrests. COINTELPRO, short for Counterintelligence Program, was a series of covert projects conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting American political organizations.
This operation was bred from corruption and illegality. In 1969, the Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover described the Black Panther Party as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” It is clear what this meant, the BPP believed in radical change and they were willing to do whatever it took to make that change. That does not come easy, and those that are comfortable with the status quo will resist efforts such as these at every step.
Before the operation was finally terminated COINTELPRO had infiltrated a number of radical organizations and undermined their efforts.
The Black Panther Party was not alone in their radical thoughts and actions. There have been a number of powerful groups dedicated to mutual aid and community defense over the years with similar histories, tactics and goals for the liberation of their communities. Black Liberation Party and Afrikan New Resistance are two other Black-led groups while The Brown Berets, Latin Kings, and Young Lords are Latinx-led organizations, and the American Indian Movement was an Indigenous-led group. Just to name a few.
Communities are stronger together, and this is the key to mutual aid. All of these groups were founded on that understanding. With what we are facing today, between the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing brutalization of communities of color by Police, we need this kind of radical action more than ever.
As the Black Lives Matter movement continues in many places around the country radical actions have been taken as protestors challenge our corrupt policing system. We have seen autonomous zones rise and fall, and people have learned to combat the terror tactics used by their local PD and Federal agents. The momentum that was felt during the initial weeks of this movement needs to continue. Organizing is a critical part of this. Find your strengths and reach out to local groups to see where you can lend yourself. Everyone has a part to play and every hand is integral to the dismantling of the system which oppresses us.