Taking It into Our Own Hands

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It is June 2, and as you log in to your social media accounts, you find that many of your friends are posting a single black screen to their feed. By lunchtime, your timeline is a swatch of identical posts, all accompanied by similar sentiments— captions like: “I do not understand, yet I stand,” “We must show our support now more than ever,” “I don’t know how to help, but I want to help.” Perhaps you share a link or include resources for your followers to check out, but within a week, it is business as usual. Maybe a handful of your Black friends have a conversation with you, or maybe they are too mentally and emotionally exhausted, but soon the online onslaught of “Blackout Tuesday” becomes a distant memory for many. Senseless murders become memes, and resources stop being shared. Though timelines may have returned to a general sense of stasis, field organizers, protestors, and fundraising efforts continue.

The term slacktivism has entered public consciousness in a powerful way in 2020. The term is a portmanteau of slacker and activism and typically refers to those who support social or political causes, but do so with very little effort. It is usually used pejoratively and as a part of call-out-culture, as a way of holding those who partake in activism for “likes” or “social clout” accountable. To many, the constant barrage of black square posts during blackout Tuesday typified the idea of slacktivism as a lazy and disengaged excuse to seem “woke.” The fact of the matter remains that at the time of writing this article the hashtag for Blackout Tuesday was used over 21 million times. It is clear to see that the campaign had reached, and regardless of each poster’s intent, if everyone who shared the post donated even $1 the BLM movement would have received millions more in funding. Funding which could have been used in a multitude of truly actionable ways.

This event was one of the specific examples that Michelle Ortiz, 22 of Salem, NH referenced in a now-deleted Instagram story, where she demands people take more accountability and action to truly show their support for political and social causes. “Blackout Tuesday was the Boston BLM protest day, and all organizer information was completely buried by allies using the space to post their own solidarity performance, with the black boxes,” said Ortiz, this self-described “17-minute venting video” was an outlet for her frustrations and annoyances, and a way for her to convey her dissatisfaction with the structural issues she saw within online activism. This video challenged allies to truly get out and get involved.

A few months later, Ortiz again shared a video to her story. This time she sat in her car with green hair and eyeball earrings and stated her intent for starting a Mutual Aid Fund for Salem NH. “Mutual Aid,” she explained, “is inherently anti-Capitalistic. It is people providing for those in their own community, for the simple fact that we need to take care of those who are around us, and not for any other capitalistic profit-driven reasons.” Mutual aid is a form of solidarity-based aid, where communities are able to unite in a collective effort, rather than leaving individuals to fend for themselves. This is typically seen in fundraising efforts, but can also come in various different forms such as sock drives, or in the case of Norfolk Prison, a fundraiser for soap and other hygiene products. Norfolk Prison charges inmates for soap, and during COVID-19 fundraiser organizer, Katie Omberg asks, “We're all being told to wash our hands, stay home if we're sick, and make sure to socially distance, all in interest of communal health and well-being. But what if we were prevented from taking any of these basic steps to keep ourselves and others healthy? What if we were unable to access something even as simple as soap?” This Mutual Aid effort raised $35,510 of its $30,000 goal and got soap and hygiene products into prisons to protect against the virus.

Mutual Aid sees a financial problem, raises funds for it, and acts to fix that problem. “Mutual aid to me is recognizing that we have allowed our community and our neighbors to be ignored and not have necessary resources. Mutual aid exists to directly assist those who are struggling,” said Ortiz. “We need to stop thinking that politicians are going to just solve these problems for us,” Ortiz recommends that we should act on the problems we see rather than waiting for others to step up to the plate and do it for us. She says she created the fund because she was frustrated with the lack of response for our government during COVID and was “done with the state of the world.” She is also careful to clarify, that while the initial idea for a Salem Mutual Aid was hers, it is in many ways a collective and only possible because of those around her who facilitate and assist in the organizing efforts of the fund. “Although this [issue] isn't exactly new, and is largely the result of systemic issues, the COVID-19 Pandemic has made it even more clear that a localized and grassroots approach will be necessary to reach more vulnerable/marginalized folks,” said Joe Paquin, 21, another member of the collective.

The collective meets weekly via Zoom to discuss their plans and outreach. This is typically done by going through GoFundMes in the area and donating where applicable, no need is more important than another. The collective also looks for recipients through Twitter occasionally. “People are not particularly forthcoming or comfortable with reaching out to say, “please help me,” so we have to do a lot of searching,” said Ortiz, “but if there is a financial need, we are sending money.” The collective is currently trying to stick to NH and MA for outreach, but are also looking to collaborate with other mutual aids to build solidarity and take on bigger projects. “I hope as we grow and become better known in the area, we will be able to raise more funds to reallocate to people, organize get-togethers to better unite the community (once we have a way to safely do that), and become a group people know they can turn to if they need help in some way,” said Olivia Foster, 22, who is also involved with the Salem Mutual Aid Fund. Currently, the collective is working on their first major campaign, “Erase The Debt.”

“Erase The Debt” is focused on paying off the debt of current Salem High School students who receive free lunches. If the school lunch debts are not paid, the students will not receive diplomas, and cannot graduate. Ortiz, who herself received free lunches in her four years at Salem High, reached out to the school to see just how much debt students had accrued and learned that the Senior Class was over $700 in debt, and the Junior Class was over $2000. This of course does not mean that every student has a few dollars they must pay off, but instead implies that several students have many hundreds of dollars of debt to pay off if they hope to graduate. In fact, the highschool treasurer said that three students collectively make up $1400 of the total debt. This amount of debt hanging over a teenager’s head is exactly what Ortiz and the people at the Salem Mutual Aid Fund are hoping to solve.

Mutual Aid is not a universally accepted concept, many find fault in its Marxist roots, or in the concept of the “collective rising up” against political institutions and structures that are in place. Ortiz describes the Catch-22 of emotions as the Fund becomes more popular. This notoriety affords a greater reach to the organization and more opportunities to fundraise and reach out to those in need, but the greater visibility is also like a magnifying glass. “Mutual aid is inherently anti-capitalist,” said Ortiz, “it is inherently going against the government, because the government is what allowed these conditions to exist, and by us going in and fixing these problems it just ruffles feathers when all we are doing is trying to help people.” Ortiz references the events of a fellow Kansas Mutual Aid fund and the involvement and intervention from the Kansas City Police Force. On November 4, home-cooked chili, stacks of foil-wrapped sandwiches, vats of soup, and other food prepared by volunteers with Free Hot Soup Kansas City were dumped in bags and soaked in bleach to make sure no one went back to try to recover them. This food was intended for the homeless population of the city, but due to a lack of proper permits and complaints about the gathering, police intervened on these picnics. Health inspectors knew where to find the group after monitoring its social media feeds, which allowed city officials and police to show up at all four locations in what seemed to be a coordinated sting.

Although nothing to that scale has occurred yet for those working with the Salem Mutual Aid Fund, it is a concern for the collective, who try to be as transparent with all their work as possible. This includes keeping detailed records of transactions and donations. The Salem Mutual Aid Fund is not listed as a public Non-Profit, which to some may discredit its purpose. To this Ortiz says, “Our goal is to help. We are volunteers, we are just normal people, I have never done something like this before, but it was important, so I was like let’s figure out how to do this.” In the few short months since its inception, the Salem Mutual Aid Fund has done many services for those within the community. In fact, it has raised enough to cover the lunch debt for the Senior Class, and has already started to provide some relief to students in the Junior Class as well.

If you would like to help you can donate directly to Venmo: @whosmichelle PayPal: salemmutualaid@gmail.com​, or contact the collective for more information at salemmutualaid@gmail.com​.