Mutual Aid in Queens Amidst COVID-19

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Photo: Courtesy of Woodbine.

COVID-19 has taken the lives of over 90,000 in the US alone, and has infected more than 1.5 million. The heart of this crisis is strongly beating in New York City, with 191,650 cases and 20,887 deaths as of May 20th. Amidst the catastrophic loss of lives are the 30 million (and growing) number of Americans that have lost their jobs in the last six weeks. COVID-19 is not a “natural” disaster and therefore it was neither inevitable nor is it apolitical. Despite the natural mutation of viruses, critical geographers have argued that the, “circumstances in which a mutation becomes life-threatening depend on human actions.” Stimulated by violent and unregulated neo-liberal extractivism, it is our austerity-based society, rather than nature’s fate, that has given rise to the unequal conditions creating vulnerability to COVID-19. It is in the midst of what Naomi Klein has termed “Corona Capitalism” that I argue for a movement past our profit-motivated disaster capital responses. Paying particular attention to the experimental community hub Woodbine, located in Queens, New York, I present anarchism as a method for survival amidst the crisis of COVID-19. Woodbine’s organizing efforts manifest that we must create new, resilient social living systems. We need autonomy, and we need mutual aid. Most of all, we need each other.

Woodbine is situated in the heart of the crisis in Ridgewood, Queens. Ridgewood has seen between 1,390 and 3,809 COVID-19 related deaths. Created in 2014 by a group of friends who had organized together during Occupy Wall Street and Hurricane Sandy, the crew decided the best way to continue organizing was to center around a space which could allow for the sharing of resources, support, conversation, and serve as an anchor for projects to come. Over the years Woodbine has hosted weekly Sunday community dinners and poetry readings, created a community garden and CSA, and engaged the Ridgewood community through a community forum. In an interview with Matt Peterson, one of Woodbine’s organizers, he deemed the last seven years of organizing in Ridgewood as “really relevant to the food pantry and mutual aid things we’re doing right now. Having met all of those people, having surveyed the neighborhood, having built all of those connections, having met local media… because we did all of those things, we’re in a better position now to organize within the pandemic.” Without the trust that Woodbine created in their community over the past seven years, meeting the needs of people in this crisis would prove extremely difficult.

The mounting number of human needs due to COVID-19 seems to be the existential crisis of 2020. Despite the warnings of past outbreaks such as SARS and Ebola, the global neoliberal capitalist system has persisted, leaving our society ill-prepared for the arrival of the non-native microbial guest. Austerity-policy designed to fund tax cuts and subsidies to corporations and the rich has left any state public health effort lacking in the funding necessary to protect its constituents. In addition, the pharmaceutical industry is shirking the very responsibility it is supposed to have—protection against sickness. Instead, Big Pharma has traded in its expectation to prevent sickness with a money hungry agenda, focused solely on designing cures. The more sickness, the higher its share-holder values. It is this continuation of free-market capitalism that is continually creating vulnerabilities to public health crises. Unfortunately, this vulnerability is not equally distributed, and is particularly concentrated in regions that are experiencing more infection, death, and unemployment than their surrounding areas. Queens, New York is one of these regions. Situated in the Easternmost part of NYC, Queens is the largest of the five boroughs, with a population of over 2.2 million people. Also known as the most ethnically diverse area in the world, 28.1% of residents are of Hispanic or Latinx origin, while 20.7% are Black. In Julie Sze’s, Noxious New York, she details the historical events that have plagued Queens with injustice, including the effects of zoning for land use and development conflicts, and the Maspeth incinerator which made Queens home to mass-scale incineration, heightening the pollution in the already-industrial area. A system striving for infinite growth, coupled with the history of injustices in Queens have left the borough that Woodbine is located in prone to the adverse effects of COVID-19.

There has been recognition of the unevenly distributed casualty rates of COVID-19, but this recognition has often come with an elision of the pre-COVID-19 landscape of inequality. For example, a recent New York Times article was titled “Virus Is Twice as Deadly for Black and Latino People Than Whites in N.Y.C.” The title suggests that COVID-19 is racist, attacking structurally oppressed groups because of their skin color. A far more honest title would be “Current Economic and Political System Only Protects White Elites, Doubling Death Rates for Marginalized Groups.” The lack of access to health care combined with no other option but to serve the elite—those that can work from home—as front-line workers is the direct cause of a doubling of death rates for Black and Latinx residents in NYC. In addition, out of sight is the slow violence being enacted upon marginalized communities. Slow violence is that which is not obvious, and which happens over long periods of time over dispersed areas of space, a violence that is often delayed but ultimately just as ruthless (sometimes, even more so) as the violence we are used to such as murder or sexual assault. The combination of neoliberalism, zoning for land use and development, and the Maspeth incinerator, created a build-up of historical injustice in Queens. Pollution from incineration leads to inflammatory lung disease and coronary heart disease, two health conditions that make individual COVID-19 fatality risk increasingly severe. Residents of Queens have become victims of increasing state neglect and proximity to pollution, exacerbating the borough’s vulnerability to COVID-19. This violence is not attributed to any particular person or group, but rather to systemic injustice that caused violence, in the form of higher asthma rates and worse health outcomes, to happen over many years, throughout the borough. Also known as environmentalism of the poor, Rob Nixon explains in Slow Violence and Environmentalism of the Poor, slow violence is inflicted primarily on those that the system neglects to care for in the first place. It is the inhabitants of Queens that are suffering from the slow violence of neoliberalist extractivism.

Countering the slow violence in Queens are the anarchistic organizing methods of Woodbine’s mutual aid efforts. Amidst the ongoing digital and virtual organizing, Matt said organizers at Woodbine realized that if they were going to help their community, they “had to do so in an extremely localized way.” They began with culling various mutual aid documents and information and created a mutual aid website with the most significant sources. Soon after, they “decided the best thing to be done was to partner with Hungry Monk—a homeless outreach organization—to expand their efforts with the food pantry and open up a satellite location.”

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Photo: Courtesy of Woodbine.

Operations began on March 27th, and now there are about 20 volunteers— “mostly old friends, although more than 100 new people have written to us to get involved to help”—aiding in the effort to feed the Ridgewood locals. In crews of 4 to 5 volunteers at a time, food is packed on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and distributed on Wednesdays and Fridays. Tables are set up outside of Woodbine’s nondescript, punkish storefront, and bags of fresh food are handed out to local residents lined up around the block. “About 300 come now for each distribution day, they start lining up around 8:45 in the morning (we open at 10am), and we do that twice a week. We also do home deliveries to around ten people a week—seniors, disabled, sick, in Ridgewood, Glendale, and Bushwick mostly. But the line and needs continue to grow, people are still hearing about it for the first time, we still get new requests daily for food delivery,” Matt elaborated. On Friday May 15th over 700 bags were handed out, and coupled with Hungry Monk’s distribution on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, Matt said the two locations are “providing to more than 1,000 local families a week.” In addition, “Woodbine has distributed thousands of homemade and donated masks, neighbors donated two sewing machines to Woodbine, so we’ve been producing our own masks as well. The masks disappear as quickly as we get them. People have also donated MetroCards, tablets, and laptops for us to distribute to those in our pantry line.” Those that line up outside of Woodbine tend to come back, and because of this continuity, the community is getting to know one another. Woodbine is creating the basis for a strong dual power structure as the State deteriorates before our eyes, failing to protect the most vulnerable.

A third of NYC’s COVID-19 cases are in Queens, and the hospital at its center—Elmhurst—does not have the proper funding or support to combat the damage. In Elmhurst and Corona, two neighborhoods surrounding Elmhurst Hospital, one in four people lack health insurance, and the same fraction of people live in poverty. On March 26th, 2020 Mayor De Blasio tweeted “Elmhurst hospital is at the center of responding to this crisis. It’s the number one priority of our public hospital system right now.” Despite being the city’s so-called number one priority, officials are stating that the hospital is desperately asking for help. The COVID-19-related deaths in Queens are not happening by chance. When it comes to crisis, survival and death are predetermined. Perpetrated by a classist and racist economic and political system, it is the marginalized folks that are unable to prepare, unable to seek protection, and ultimately, unable to survive. The COVID-19 related deaths in Queens prove the inequality inherent in this crisis, facilitated by slow violence due to the structural inequities of the global capitalist order.

As COVID-19 continues to ravage the country, the State is likely to either continue to crumble, or else become re-entrenched, only serving the interests of the powerful elite. Either way, a future led by a corrupt state is moribund at best. Many will be left unable to meet their basic needs. Relying on our current system to keep us afloat in this moment is a pipe dream, particularly for those that are the victims of slow violence. An alternative method of organizing is necessary.

Amidst disaster, anarchism can be used as a method for survival. Built on community, anarchism distributes power horizontally, and facilitates interdependence, agency, and self-actualization. Anarchism evades coercion and instead leads to liberty and justice, making decisions for the benefit of the community rather than for the individual. As we listen to ambulance sirens roar down our blocks, there is no need to anxiously await revolution or a savior to meet our neighbor’s needs. Anarchist elements can be implemented today, at the local level—in the family, workplace, or neighborhood. It is in observing the success of Woodbine’s mutual aid network that the strengths of anarchist tactics become clear. Using the anarchistic elements of autonomy, agency, and mutual aid, Woodbine is meeting the needs of their community. However, without a strong network of interdependence amongst their neighbors, Woodbine wouldn’t be able to maintain consistency in their efforts. Matt mentioned that the mutual aid efforts are in need of “new and consistent food sources, money to buy food and cover other expenses (vehicles, insurance, gas, utilities, rent), and volunteers to help with research, outreach, and running the pantries.” As needs are fulfilled and folks no longer have to fight for food security or shelter, neighbors will be better able to support one another. Agency will be put back into the hands of the people through the dual power structure that is created. Through the community trust built over the last seven years, the interdependence being facilitated in Ridgewood, and autonomous dual power structure that is evolving, Woodbine’s mutual aid organizing efforts are an example of successful anarchism. Woodbine serves as an alternative, an option for survival.

The rising death count is not the only calamity tied to the pandemic. In mid-March, the stock market crash had led to a net devaluation of nearly 30% on stock markets worldwide. The failures of capitalism were bound to crash sooner rather than later. From Santiago to Beirut, protests were already mounting against global capitalism. Whether or not the dominant economic model can survive COVID-19 can only be learned in time. Capital accumulation is collapsing across the world: unemployment has skyrocketed, tourism is negligible, companies are going bankrupt, restaurants are closing, and festivals, sports games, and weddings are being cancelled. Local governments and institutions are cratering. Capitalism is dying. Matt said that “what seems to be the existential economic crisis is rent.” How will we pay for it if there is no paid work to go around? And if we decide that we cannot pay for it, how can we effectively rent strike? As the tides of crisis change and we turn from mass death to economic cataclysm, Woodbine’s efforts will become more important than ever. To reach the neighbors that they haven’t already encountered, Woodbine created a newspaper of which they have “printed 1,000 copies…We acquired a newspaper box that we installed outside the space to distribute them as well.” This outreach exemplifies the accessibility to their mutual aid efforts that Woodbine is creating.

Woodbine’s dual power model will not only be necessary for survival of this immediate medical crisis, but also for what looks like months or perhaps years to come of a major economic crisis. Woodbine organizers “believe this situation is going to last a very long time, both medically but also socially, at least into the Fall if not further. We’re going to stay the course here in Ridgewood and be a base for people to organize and survive.” A dual power structure such as the one Woodbine is building, using the anarchistic elements of interdependence and mutual aid, can scale past food distribution and be used to ensure shelter or financial support.

As we transition from health crisis to economic crisis, it is essential to find the cracks in the system that are slowly revealed and redistribute power where we can. Woodbine calls for self-organization. As Peter Kropotkin put it in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, “in the long run the practice of solidarity proves much more advantageous to the species than the development of individuals endowed with predatory inclinations.” When faced with a crisis, anarchism has the potential to extend care to the communities that have been continually neglected by the State. It is now that we have a chance not only for survival, but for wresting power from the State, and for taking it back into our own hands.

Sophie Jones is a student at NYU-Gallatin.