The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted movements in Massachusetts. But as groups like Movimiento Cosecha have responded to the crisis, they’ve adjusted to new realities and adopted new organizing tactics — including mutual aid.
In the face of COVID, many socialists and working-class activists have turned to “mutual aid” — grassroots organizing to meet immediate needs in communities facing crisis. But how can we use grocery drop offs and emergency funding to not just offer solidarity and charity, but build stronger movements?
Movimiento Cosecha, a movement of undocumented immigrants fighting for permanent protection and dignity, provides an example in Massachusetts for other activists to follow.
Across the state, Cosecha has organized mutual aid teams, individual follow-up, and an undocumented worker fund. They have both distributed tens of thousands of dollars and drawn new people into the movement.
A Pandemic Meets Apartheid
When the pandemic hit Massachusetts, undocumented immigrants were already living on a knife’s edge.
Like many other Massachusetts workers, undocumented immigrants were put at risk of infection. Like many other workers, they were left adrift, without a way to pay for utilities, rent, or groceries. But unlike certain other workers, these immigrants had to navigate a capitalism that’s doubly stacked against them. They face both the dominating power of capital and a form of anti-immigrant apartheid.
This system has forced this community into the lowest-paying and most-dangerous jobs. Detention centers are hotbeds for COVID and other infections. Where capitalism isn’t forcing immigrants to work or jailing them, it is denying them the far-too-meager stimulus offered to other workers. With the pandemic multiplying America’s brutality against them, undocumented workers had nowhere to turn but their own community.
Thankfully, Movimiento Cosecha’s immigrant leaders have jumped in to meet those immediate needs. In spite of the severe crisis, this mutual aid work is also helping to strengthen their movement.
“There’s a strong sense of community, of family, of Cosecha being a movement of the people and for the people, and stepping in to support the people when the government does not,” Jake, one Cosecha activist playing a leading role in their pandemic response efforts, told me over Zoom.
Building on Scaffolding
For over a year and a half, Movimiento Cosecha had been organizing immigrants and their allies to fight for driver’s licenses for the undocumented. Hundreds marched across Massachusetts, put pressure on legislators, and got a bill through the State House’s Transportation Committee (a first in the fifteen-year licenses fight).
How to Stand in Solidarity with Undocumented Workers
In cities across Massachusetts, Cosecha built local chapters (what they call “circles”) of immigrants leading the fight for dignity, permanent protection, and respect for all 11 million undocumented. Now, they’ve had to adjust to new realities.
“It’s definitely hard to stay organized,” Jake, a consistent member of Cosecha’s “allies” solidarity circle, admitted. “It doesn’t feel the same without the week to week meetings or statewide retreats.”
But despite the challenges of the moment, Cosecha’s years of work set them up to respond quickly and powerfully. As Jake told me:
“We already existed. We already had principles and values and goals. Everything we’re doing now is consistent with that, and that has made it so much easier in a very, very disorganized, and confusing, and challenging time. We had so much of that structure already laid out for us, whereas in many of the mutual aid networks they’ve had to start all of that from scratch…
“The work [other mutual aid networks] have done to go from zero to where they are now is mind-boggling. They have accomplished so, so much. We [as Cosecha] were fortunate to have already had a lot of that legwork done for us.”
What Cosecha’s Mutual Aid Looks Like
To organize mutual aid in their communities, each of the local circles has a mutual aid team led by an immigrant leader. An online intake form records individuals’ needs, then each team personally contacts people seeking aid in their locale.
“At first we were thinking of ourselves more as resource navigators. Who are the Cosecha folks living in Worcester? How do we connect people to the Worcester mutual aid network or local food pantries?” Jake shared. The mutual aid teams focused on “having accurate information that’s relevant to people in the various communities where we have circles, and providing that to people, and connecting people to the resources that are out there.”
But as the pandemic continued, Cosecha activists realized they couldn’t stop there. Over 500 people put in requests for aid, and money for groceries and rent were the most common demands. In mid-April, Cosecha Massachusetts shifted to launch its own Undocumented Worker Fund, raising over $50,000 so far.
“Very early on in March people were saying ‘I can’t pay April rent’ and now for May rent, they still haven’t paid for April,” Jake continued. “We were giving people the info they weren’t going to get evicted from non-payment of rent, their utilities weren’t going to get shut off. And most of what we’re hearing is ‘yeah, but I don’t want to be in debt three months from now when I haven’t been working for three months’
People’s anxieties are pretty high, and people are legitimately concerned about their financial wellbeing.”
Different Areas of Massachusetts: Different Pandemics
Beyond their own fund, Cosecha’s mutual aid teams are consciously trying to link up with other mutual aid networks across the state, and provide deeper social support depending on the needs in each community. Even where the virus hasn’t struck widely in certain communities, needs are still high:
“In East Boston, Chelsea, and Revere that’s where we’re seeing more people who are sick with the virus, who are needing someone to do grocery shopping for them, needing someone to buy medicine, or supplies, or whatever it is. Fortunately East Boston and Chelsea have their own mutual aid network that is able to respond to that on the ground.” (Immigrant leaders from Cosecha are spearheading that network.)
“In more rural communities, in Central Mass, Western Mass, Nantucket, the Cape that’s where we’re seeing more food insecurity and less access to food pantries and food resources in general, but far fewer cases of the virus.”
As Cosecha’s mutual aid grows, the activists are refining their methods too. “It’s not at all a smooth process but it’s heading in the direction we want it to. Every week when our big state team gets on a call, it feels like we have a little bit more clarity about what we’re doing and a little bit more sense of direction going into each week.”
From Mutual Aid to Movement Organizing
Though Cosecha has turned to mutual aid, that doesn’t mean it has abandoned protest. They have hosted car caravans in local circles and have joined others to demand the release of immigrants from jails. If anything, their mutual aid work has fed into and expanded their movement building at a time when in-person organizing can’t happen.
“Ultimately at its core, what Cosecha does is community building and consciousness raising. That we’re fundraising and supporting people in these practical ways is one means to do this.
We want to do personal outreach to everyone who’s filling out our form so there’s not just some vague impersonal interaction with the Internet that ends with a check on your doorstep. We want it to be a more holistic check-in that has people feel like they’ve interacted with a human being that introduces them to who Cosecha is and what they do. We want conversations that both invite people to join a circle that already exists in their community or maybe creates the idea that there’s an opportunity to build circles in so many more communities, like Nantucket or Framingham.
Several of the people I have called, have asked me how to get involved. One of them just joined the mutual aid team. There’s very much a base sense of camaraderie, of ‘I don’t feel great needing this support right now, what can I offer in return?’ That’s not everybody and that’s not an expectation, but it’s cool to see.”
Not only does mutual aid bolster Cosecha’s organization, but its campaign for licenses too. Across the state, undocumented immigrants without licenses
“are forced to make this decision between ‘do I stay home, socially distance, keep myself safe, or do I hop on the bus so I can get to the place across town that does have a food drop today, or to get myself to the grocery store if I have some money to buy food…’ Even the people I was talking to in more rural communities, if they were relying on bus services, bus services have been cut down and they were even still hesitant to be on the bus, particularly if they had kids.
Being able to do this organizing as a movement both gave us things to fallback on as we were first figuring things out, and will also give us a direction to head, a place to take this momentum afterwards. It feels like even if this crisis has interrupted the momentum of our licenses campaign we were so focused on, then I can only imagine how the campaign will resurge down the line once we have built more community and once we have connected with more people.”
Cosecha’s work leading mutual aid in immigrant communities across Massachusetts provides ample lessons for the left trying to take mutual aid in a more political direction. But as we learn from these dynamic organizers, we must stand in solidarity with them, too.