The Solidarity Economy in COVID-era New Orleans

When New Orleans locked down in mid-March, Alex Anderra was a recently-promoted assistant manager at a local hotel. Orders from the corporate office were quick and brutal: “Cut until it hurts.” Managers and assistant managers would be given their full salaries, but they would have to replace the front desk workers who had been let go without severance to minimize costs. “That didn’t sit well with me,” says Anderra. “I inquired about providing emergency cash, housing, and food for our employees, but that was shrugged off. Despite being a hotbed for contagion (at least four employees contracted the virus), our hotel remained open, invalidating the early unemployment claims by our workers who had their hours slashed.”

Before long Anderra contracted the virus. Stuck at home, sick, and pissed off, she decided to create a Facebook group to provide the resources people needed to avoid falling through the cracks. Now, with over 8,000 members, the Mutual Aid – New Orleans Facebook group is a thriving community network that serves as a fully circulating economy in which no money changes hands. “Cash should not be exchanging hands for any goods or services,” reads one of the group’s stipulations.

For the thousands of out-of-work and struggling New Orleanians practicing mutual aid since lockdown began, mutual aid is not just a matter of meeting community needs. It is a declaration of independence from a government that cannot, or will not, accommodate its people. As Anderra puts it, “Mutual Aid is solidarity, not charity. We provide free goods and services independent of any authority or government; we don’t wait for permission or wade through red tape to help a neighbor. We take care of our neighbors as beloved members of this community.”

From the first days of the shut down, when an entire working class found itself out of work at once, people could turn to Mutual Aid – New Orleans to find much more than just food, clothing, and emergency shelter. Some people offered help with filling out unemployment forms, others sought support against vindictive landlords, and generally people shared whatever useful resources they could find. Toups Meatery would post free daily meals that they offered to out-of-work service industry people and anyone else in need. Now, with community fridges popping up all over the city, people post on the Mutual Aid page when they’ve filled one of the fridges with large batches of home-cooked meals. Recently someone posted that they were giving out large quantities of homemade bagels at the polls to anyone who voted.

While mutual aid groups have been focused on meeting basic needs during this time, they are rooted in a larger political consciousness. Mutual aid has a long history as a revolutionary political strategy. “Mutual aid is collective coordination… to directly meet people’s survival needs, and is based on a shared understanding that the conditions in which we are made to live are unjust,” writes the legal scholar Dean Spade. In mutual aid, exchange is founded on trading any available surplus to meet material needs instead of hoarding it and calling it profit. Mutual aid is an essential pillar of anarchism; during the Spanish Civil War, practices of mutual aid became one of the anarchists’ most significant contributions. As the Mutual Aid – New Orleans group was quick to tell new members joining after Hurricane Laura, people of all political views are welcome there, but they should all know that the person offering them aid may well be an anarchist.

Jasmine Araujo, founder and lead organizer of the 30-person volunteer-based mutual aid group Southern Solidarity, explains, “Mutual aid requires folks to understand that everyone’s liberation is connected. Mutual aid entails solidarity and an understanding of the ways in which others are oppressed in the world.” Southern Solidarity has been organizing its members to care for the needs of unhoused New Orleanians, delivering hundreds of meals daily since the beginning of lockdown. They do this work with the knowledge that “mutual aid is a survival program of reciprocation and cooperation,” and they cite the radical ancestors as inspiration. “Black Panthers, Harriet Tubman, and the Young Lords participated in mutual aid as an integral part of their political organizing,” Araujo says.

The Black Panthers indeed operated along similar lines, as Malik Rahim, a founding member of the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP), can attest. Following the example of other chapters, the party attracted community attention with free political classes and BPP newspapers, and they held that attention by providing free services to the communities BPP had found abused and neglected by the New Orleans city government. “We taught our community members that collective way of life,” Rahim explains. “We were doing sickle cell testing—and anyone could come to the office and get their blood pressure or sugar checked—to open up those most pressing problems for the community and show that you can’t rely on a politician to solve things. You have to do it yourself.” People in the St. Thomas and the Desire projects welcomed this approach with open arms. Panthers helped people get rid of pest infestations, accompanied elders when they went out to cash checks, and offered free daycare. Within two months, the communities completely transformed. “It was one of the proudest moments of my life to be a part of something like that,” says Rahim wistfully.

In 1902, the anarchist Peter Kropotkin (who first coined the term mutual aid) wrote: “In our mutual relations every one of us has his moments of revolt against the fashionable individualistic creed of the day.” The industrial capitalists of Kropotkin’s day stressed the importance of rugged and ruthless individualism, ideals which have now become synonymous with profit. Mutual aid does not only substitute the role of the government in times of crisis, it also serves to create a parallel economy that refuses to operate exclusively based on self-interest. During the Paris Commune of 1871, when working class radicals barricaded the streets of Paris to declare their independence from the French government, they created a self-reliant economy based on meeting the immediate needs of the community. Economic independence is political power; the circulation of goods and services through mutual aid rejects the larger economy simply by rendering it unnecessary.

If history tells us anything, it is that the established order finds this kind of independence extremely threatening. In September 1970, in response to the rise of the New Orleans BPP,  Mayor Moon Landrieu sent a full police assault team to shoot up the Black Panther Party house on Piety Street. With the Panthers thrown in Angola, mutual aid in the New Orleans housing projects came to a shuddering halt.

However, the first generation to seek independence from a racist New Orleans city government was not Malik Rahim’s. The political philosophy of mutual aid may belong to a specific intellectual lineage, but you don’t need to be an anarchist to practice revolutionary economic independence. For instance, most people know Congo Square as the wellspring of New Orleans music, but Congo Square was also the first center of the Black economy in New Orleans. Before the city limits had expanded past the French Quarter, Congo Square was a marketplace on the outskirts where free and enslaved people sold their wares. By spending what little money they could make on the side on each other’s goods, people at the bottom of the social hierarchy took currency out of colonial circulation and put it into their own communities. Some people were able to buy their freedom from the money they made in sales. As the free Black New Orleans community—the most prosperous in the country—began to gain wealth, benevolent societies proliferated to use recently accumulated economic power to benefit the whole. Today there are over 40 social aid and pleasure clubs, descendants of these same benevolent societies, in New Orleans today. Young Men Olympian, Black Men of Labor, Original Lady Buckjumpers, and others all continue to support the material needs of Black New Orleanians. Their Sunday second lines also create various economic opportunities for everyone from the musicians to the people selling beer and jello shots.

But in the post-COVID world, New Orleans mutual aid options are rapidly expanding past traditional forms. Rahn Broady is an outdoor educator who set up a mutual aid table outside his house. “I tell my students, if anyone has the ability to give, materially or otherwise, I think they should and not ask for anything in return.” At the school garden where he worked, spring vegetables were growing without children to harvest them. “I thought, friends are losing their jobs, there’s a pandemic, and people need fresh food. I started harvesting tons of vegetables and giving them away,” he says. His offerings soon attracted others. People began using the table as a place for exchange. Medicine was set out; a friend of his created a nighttime herbal mix to give away to those suffering from insomnia. A headshop gave away CBD and coupons for kratom; one person even left Plan B emergency contraception. “Anything could filter through the free table,” says Broady.

Broady is also involved in a group called How NOLA Grows Dat!—his young daughter is featured in their Facebook cover photo. When quarantine went into effect and the whole world started growing gardens, the group began as a way to offer tips and advice for novice gardeners. As spring progressed, gardeners shared ideas and gained new skills. Members learned which crops to put in the ground, how to tend finicky citrus trees, and how to stop accidentally killing houseplants. Anna Timmerman, an LSU agricultural specialist and the group’s standout champion of gardening advice, started growing plants to give away. To this day, she places seedlings on a free table outside her door, and she estimates that hundreds of people have her plants in their gardens.

Not all of the cashless New Orleans economy is donation-based; in the post-COVID reality, barter is also alive and well. Baylee Badawy and Joseph Makkos are neighbors in the French Quarter. Makkos is a collector by nature; his claim to fame is answering a Craigslist ad offering tens of thousands of historic print editions of the Times-Picayune. Badawy is a fellow archive aficionado who works at the Jazz Museum. During quarantine, the two breathed some life back into a ghost town French Quarter by creating a neighborhood barter circle. People have traded groceries for diapers and instruments for wine. Once someone used the barter circle to have a mural from the deceased local artist Ben Gregory removed and relocated. Bartering helped Makkos collect hundreds of plants, and others give their unwanted items new life as currency. Badawy found that no instructions or rules were required for the burgeoning barter market to run smoothly. “People take to [barter] really quickly. There’s no real secret to it other than being honest and timely,” says Badawy.

In the growing independent working class economy, some people have found ways to get creative with their funding models. Aimee Helms was an employee of Bellegarde Bakery until the pandemic led to layoffs, and she had nothing but time and no one to bake for. She and her Bellegarde coworker Stefphan Gambill decided to start sourcing Bellegarde’s flour (milled in house) for a baking business with a wealth redistribution twist. “The artisanal bread movement currently exists for the wealthy,” says Helms from the kitchen of her home bakery. “Good, nutritious bread can sustain you— it shouldn’t only be accessible to people with money.” Calling it Bread to the People, Helms and Gambill designed the business so that every loaf of bread purchased would subsidize a loaf they could give away for free. Throughout the pandemic, they’ve sold their bread in a Lower Garden District park underneath the statue of Margaret Haughery, known in the 19th century as the “Bread Woman of New Orleans.” The unhoused people that received free bread often had their loaf subsidized by the wealthy residents of the neighborhood who would pass them by without a glance.

Thanks to the spirit of mutual aid, regardless of who is elected this November, many New Orleanians can rest assured that even under a government that lets them go hungry, they can still be fed. Consider the abundance and efficiency of the mutual aid economies that organically arose without funding or official sanction, and where that leaves our relationship with our city government. For all the money the government costs taxpayers, a simple community-run social media platform was able to provide more direct aid to those in need than any publicly-funded government authority. Is creating a prosperous working class in New Orleans essentially a matter of lowering the overhead by paying less into a costly government infrastructure that gives back so little? After over six months as an administrator for Mutual Aid – New Orleans, Alex Anderra’s answer is clear: “I have found that the consistent kindness of strangers is more powerful than any economic initiative that can be corrupted through greed and discouraged through endless paperwork. There’s nothing like a good neighbor who always has your back.”

photos by James Cullen