Mutual Aid, Abolition, and Transformative Justice

CJ Trowbridge


ETHS 100

Week 13 Notes


Dean Spade

Dean Spade’s book is about the importance of mutual aid for building social movements, and the specific models and approaches for avoiding the common pitfalls that mutual aid organizations run into. Dean has been involved in mutual aid for decades, but felt a strong desire to make the idea of mutual aid popular in new ways after the 2016 election. Dean highlights that donating to the ACLU or voting next time are not realistic strategies for defeating Trump and Trumpism.

Common neoliberal mythologies on social change hide the way social change actually happens by centering law and charismatic leaders and hiding the mutual aid and especially the daily work done mostly by women, BIPOC, and incarcerated people. These things are actually more central to building powerful movements. These neoliberal mythologies disempower social action. Political people are not about powerful lawyers creating change, they are about movements of people engaging directly to demand change. The neoliberal colonial legal system will not deliver change; only with pressure from social movements can change happen, and even then the change will be as small and superficial as possible and it will be undone as soon as possible.

Mutual Aid means working together to meet each other’s survival needs based on a shared understanding that the systems we live under will not meet them and actually are creating the situation where the needs are not met. Mutual aid meets people’s immediate survival needs. Mutual aid is an onramp for building movements and getting people engaged, it builds solidarity among people engaged in mutual aid. Mutual aid is the way we practice living in the world we want to live in by giving people access to their basic needs and creating a world where people’s needs are met without any strings attached.

The book also focuses on ethical best practices for how to work together to do mutual aid work that is effective.

Abolition and transformative justice are fundamental to the practices and goals of mutual aid. Transformative justice is about creating the safe future that people need and want, which the current carceral and juridical system promises but does not deliver.

Ejeris Dixon

Progressive movement cultures are sometimes not as open, even within a concsensus decision making system where everyone may not have the same understanding of the concepts and terms being discussed. Something as simple as defining harm can lead to conflict and confusion in discussion and consensus which interrupts the potential for radically liberated movements.

Mariame Kaba

Mutual aid has been described as “survival pending revolution” as part of the politicized survival work of the Black Panthers. Mutual aid has been described as “cooperation for the sake of the common good.” Mutual aid has been described as “collectivity towards survival” within community organizing. Ruthie Gilmore describes mutual aid as rehearsal for a post-abolition society, or as one of the mechanisms with which we can prefiguring the world in which we want to live.

Transformative Justice is about focusing on healing rather than punishment. Participatory defense campaigns are very good examples of abolitionist mutual aid in support of transformative justice, fund raising for the legal and life needs of criminalized people and their families.

Everything doesn’t have to be everything; it’s too much for anyone, especially right now. Many topics are not any one person’s to answer.

How to define the world we’re trying to create?

Dean Spade

Zillions of small projects and solutions working in different, local ways, instead of trying to create monolithic colonial systems that erase local knowledges and differences between people. Instead, we want proliferations of different kinds of wisdom that work in different ways for different people. Collective self-determination is not about individual self-determination, it’s about being determined to decide together what conditions we want to live under.

A world without prisons or borders does not have nation states. Nation states fundamentally exist to create and reinforce social hierarchies and reify white supremacy, misogyny, etc. There are many important and fundamental concepts in mutual aid that we can agree on even if we disagree about many fundamentals and political ideologies.

Ejeris Dixon

We don’t live in a democracy. We live in a system that was designed to exploit and oppress communities. Is actual democracy possible in the US? Communities should be able to determine their own needs and how to fulfill them in non-oppressive ways. Process is more important than scale.

Mariame Kaba

We want to change things that make everyone’s life more livable. We want to end premature death and make life livable for people. Fascists and antifascists both tend to fetishize the state. The state doesn’t do anything; the people enliven the institutions to do things. Every system of power has within it the key to its own undoing.