Southern Solidarity is an organization that resolutely politicizes mutual aid both in theory and practice. In this text, Jasmine Araujo describes the organization’s political vision and references, as well as its numerous actions, in particular during the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated the capitalist violence of social exclusion that frames the lives of the houseless.
“I am nurturing but I carry a machete.”
In Louisiana, an unhoused man clutches his tent as Hurricane Ida winds threaten to destroy his only shelter. In New York, an elderly houseless woman just released from jail scouts a dry spot on the Post Office steps — Hurricane Ida flood waters lapping at her feet.
There is a kind of absurdity in our allegiance to peace while the United States government enacts gross levels of quotidian violence abroad and domestically. On any given night, more than half a million people sleep on streets across the United States, most concentrated in cities like New York and Los Angeles. Since the 1980s, various factors have led to the rise of homelessness: escalating housing costs that supersede personal income growth; accelerated loss of affordable housing; austerity measures such as decline of rental assistance, family support services, mental health services and drug addiction services. Instead of strengthening these services which have been proven to help lift people out of unstable circumstances, or resolving homelessness through policy and regulation, politicians passed legislatures in the 1980s and 1990s that criminalized homeless people. Today, masking austerity measures, blaming people for their situation and funneling money into the carceral state so that police can control the movements of unhoused people, most of whom are disproportionately Black and Latinx, is common practice. Police, or violence workers, publicly model a predatory way of relating to homeless people which is then replicated by the general public. To further compound the situation, the houseless — those most traumatized by class warfare — are rendered sacrificial lambs to unfolding ecological collapse. People in the U.S. fear the recrudescence of Trump, and yet the violence and fascism he represents is the very fabric of the U.S. empire and has been since its inception.
The Southern Solidarity network emerged out of a collective understanding that regardless of who is in power, the crisis brought on by capitalism enacts its most vicious violence on the unhoused community. Houselessness is a form of torture; people living outside are subject to extreme variations in weather while oftentimes beset by physiological ailments, poor sleep, and little nourishment. Because of this, direct relief characterizes much of the organizing work we do. We deliver hundreds of meals, clothing and medical supplies daily with teams in Bulbancha/New Orleans and New York to alleviate conditions for unhoused people in these areas.
The team is called “Southern Solidarity” because Southern organizing influences much of our work. The South has long been a site of cultural resistance to white supremacy — what Ishmael Reed fictionalized as “Jes Grew” in the 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo. From the 1811 slave revolt to Fannie Lou Hamer’s FCC to the recent Take ’Em Down movement, organizing in the South is shaped by both the delegitimization of white supremacy and an emphasis on the dignity of Black and Indigenous life in all of its manifestations. Southern Solidarity upholds that history by working with local healers, musicians, activists, and scholars who pass down affirmation of the lives and cultures of the dispossessed. Those directing the relief work are Black, Indigenous, and people of color — many of us queer. Some are underhoused, formerly unhoused or living under precarious situations ourselves. This defies the often repeated refrain that mutual aid is typically organized by the privileged, a refrain that ignores the grassroots care network created by the Black Panthers, Young Lords, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Underground Railroad.
Our direct relief work began during the first days of lockdown when it was evident that unhoused people would not be receiving aid, shelter or information on the pandemic. We went out everyday, forged relationships, and then organized with the unhoused to fight for shelter. After helping to organize a mayday protest calling government officials to move the unsheltered into housing during the pandemic, a hundred people were moved into hotels. When riots erupted across the nation in response to police killings in 2020, our network led protests. Several of our members were arrested and/or questioned by the FBI as a scare tactic, but we continued to organize and resist.
For the last two years, our care and resistance work has evolved in a myriad of ways. Members fundraise to support the commissary accounts of imprisoned homeless people who are targeted by the State. We create a network of support for workers who want to unionize. We resist homeless sweeps by gathering together at dawn to block police from clearing homeless encampments and throwing away tents. We sign houseless people up for government resources they either didn’t know about or couldn’t access. We board unhoused people in our homes as they wait for affordable housing to open up. We grow food and direct what is grown to chefs within the network to produce meals for direct relief. We write and distribute weekly newsletters to the unhoused so that they stay informed on the organizing practices of unhoused people across the country. Self-defense lessons, Marxist/anarchist book readings and workshops led by outside community leaders who uphold the Black Radical Tradition are some of the activities that glue people in the network together. Thousands of dollars have been redirected into the hands of unhoused people. But most importantly, we partner with other groups to expand our reach and organize larger structures of resistance. The Citizens Relief Team, Trystereo and Renters Rights Assembly are other political resistance groups we’ve partnered with doing effective organizing work.
One of the key components of our organizing is that the unhoused are part of the vision building of our relief work. They decide what we spend on, and train in, based on what they say they need. For instance, if narcan and needles are a request, we train on how best to deliver that specialized need. When unhoused people communicate what they don’t need, we also listen. Before Hurricane Ida hit, Southern Solidarity members drove as many homeless people as were willing to local shelters. After the hurricane, members spent eight hours walking through New Orleans to find and support those who refused rides because of previous trauma associated with shelters. Members act on the principle that those who are oppressed know what they need, and as they receive what they need, we all become better equipped to organize.
Mutual aid groups are often criticized for only engaging in care work which is not inherently radical. Political theorist Joy James explains the concept of Captive Maternal as those calcified into feminized roles of caretaking that in turn stabilize the very predatory conditions causing the need for caretaking in the first place. Caretakers such as Assata Shakur can, however, create ruptures in the form of rebellion, strike, and riots; they are ruptures because they disrupt the state’s ability to further terrorize the poor.
Leveraging our power against systems of oppression need not manifest in ways that are legible to conventional forms of organizing: de-arresting, reclaiming housing without appealing to authorities, or blocking housing court so that evictions are brought to a halt, are effective ruptures that can and should be part of any mutual aid toolbook. The goal is to strengthen the base enough such that those displaced and severed from the mainstream begin to see, feel a part of, and organize networks guided by visions of socialism. Creating a web of emancipatory relations — relationships directed toward autonomy, solidarity, respect, and liberation –can help pull us out of this brutal social context so that we can better resist and create rupture. In an age that confers value through visibility, empty symbolism and celebrity activism, this is a difficult but not impossible feat. We are after new ways of relating because relation and liberation go hand-in-hand; no one is free until we are all free. ■