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How to feed a protest

Amid police targeting, strenuous days, and COVID-19, mutual aid networks provide vital support

A volunteer watches protesters from a mutual aid van on August 14, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.
Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images
Monica Chin a senior reviewer covering laptops and other gadgets. Monica was a writer for Tom's Guide and Business Insider before joining The Verge in 2020.

On May 28th, three nights after George Floyd’s death, Minnesota’s national guard deployed over 500 soldiers to Minneapolis and St. Paul. Protesters set fire to the Third Precinct headquarters. Police fired rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray into the crowds, which was all documented extensively by smartphone footage.

Mitch Gayns watched from the basement of his girlfriend’s parents’ house in the Twin Cities area, trying not to scream as he saw it unfold. He felt like he had to do something. So he tweeted. “Heading to Costco to buy protester & community aid supplies. If you’re one of the 20,000 white people in my mentions who ‘just wish they could do something’ venmo or cash app me a few bucks.”

When Gayns got to Costco 20 minutes later, he’d received over five thousand dollars. He loaded his truck full of water, beef stix, turkey jerky, band aids, goggles, and medical supplies, and then delivered the goods to mutual aid sites around the city — street medic groups, churches, popup tables, and other networks serving the front lines. Over the next two weeks, that became his routine: scour Facebook and call around to figure out who needed what, make a shopping list, drive to Costco, purchase the supplies, deliver them, and repeat. Two to four runs, 6 to 10 thousand dollars each day. In between, he’d go to protests.

Gayns’s operation eventually became the Twin Cities Diaper Drive, a network of drivers who now deliver baby supplies and other household items to mutual aid sites across the region.

Personal photos by Mitch Gayns

“Our original plan was ‘Alright, I feel trapped. Here, let me go buy some shit, drop some shit off, feel better about myself, go turn on the news,’” Gayns said. But after the first week of protests, he realized he’d accidentally started something bigger. “I’ve been to plenty of protests and given out some water, but this felt different. I knew this wasn’t going to be a day or two-day thing.”

Mutual aid isn’t new. The philosophy dates back to the labor movements of the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, when “fraternal societies” provided orphanages, hospitals, and other community-based services to their members. It was the core of the Black Panther Party’s massive free-breakfast program in the ’60s, and it fueled the organizing around Occupy Wall Street in 2011.

But the term exploded into the mainstream in March, when organizers around the country began establishing and publicizing support networks for communities impacted by COVID-19. Since the end of May, mutual aid has taken on another task: distributing food and supplies to the front lines of Black Lives Matter protests. Gayns’s Twin Cities Diaper Drive is one of the many organizations that have sprung up around the country to do just that.

Technology and social media have given organizers like Gayns a bigger, broader reach than they’ve had in decades past. During the first weeks of protests, Google Docs listing hundreds of mutual aid funds spread across the internet. Media, from local news to national outlets, directed their readers to donate to sprawling lists of causes: victim memorial fundraisers, bail funds, clean-up efforts, food drives, and more. Large publications profiled the largest organizations: The People’s Bodega and Sikh gurdwaras in New York, Riot Ribs in Portland, and Pimento Jamaican Kitchen in Minneapolis.

Many collectives are not 501(c)(3) organizations. (“My taxes are going to be a fucking mess,” Gayns says.) They rely on Venmo, CashApp, and GoFundMe to collect contributions, which they solicit through social media and word of mouth; some even bring QR code printouts to rallies, which protesters can scan to quickly donate. Groups communicate informally in large Slack channels, trading supplies and services on the ground. They publicize upcoming events on Twitter and Instagram, sharing photos of their tables and tents and inviting followers to come. They retweet each other.

Gayns, who has worked for tech startups in the past, made heavy use of Google Sheets to compile drivers’ information and contact volunteers. “These weren’t crazy innovative things. They were easy and readily available,” Gayns says. The Diaper Drive, he says, “is very much a popup thing that happens to be happening online, and has support from all around the world.”

At its root, mutual aid largely encompasses horizontal networks of local support where community members work to meet each other’s needs, which are often ones that the state has neglected. It’s an expression of solidarity. What mutual aid isn’t is charity, which traditionally involves more privileged individuals giving to those who have less.

Which is a key distinction, according to Gayns and other organizers I spoke to. Mutual aid comes with the expectation that if you need it, you’ll be supported in return. “I’m not showing up to give handouts,” Gayns says. “I’m showing up because I am these people, and these people are me.”

That ethos is baked into the organizing principles of these groups. “For me this isn’t a trending topic — this is my life,” says Nikeisah Newton, the founder of Meals 4 Heels, a business she opened last January to serve late-night food to Portland’s sex worker community. “The continued oppression and neglect for Black women, Black trans community doesn’t go away when the media decides it is not newsworthy.”

Founder of Meals 4 Heels, Nikeisah Newton.
Photo by FLI Social
Founder of Meals 4 Heels, Nikeisah Newton.
Photo by FLI Social
Photo by FLI Social

Food is “one of the biggest ‘Fuck You’s to the oppressive, racist system,” says Newton. Since early June, Meals 4 Heels has expanded: they’ve worked with mutual aid groups to serve meals, including vegan noodle bowls, to protesters and volunteer groups downtown. “As I was told by a local sex-worker advocate, ‘Feeding people is a form of activism.’”

Some organizers were spurred to action after witnessing protest brutality firsthand. “I saw these two young girls...and they were in shorts and spaghetti straps, and they were very unprepared for the gas and for the projectiles,” says R. of her experience at an early Portland protest, who also asked to remain anonymous. “They had mascara running down their faces, they must have been about 15 years old, and they were screaming and crying. And they were running from the police and trying to hide in little alcoves of buildings,” she said. “I remember seeing that and knowing with every fiber of my being that what was happening to them was wrong.”

R. is a member of The Witches, another Portland-based collective that delivers water, food, and safety equipment to protesters. The Witches has been operating for over two years with a broad focus on spirituality, art, and activism. But after R. and other members witnessed police violence during the first few nights of protests, the group decided to focus on supporting Black Lives Matter protesters.

At first, The Witches wended through the crowds with backpacks full of water bottles and first aid supplies. Those backpacks soon became grocery carts full of snacks. “We were the snack people,” R. says. Eventually, the group began operating out of a tent downtown, with signs that read “The Witches Against White Supremacy.” Here, they were able to provide food, water, protective gear, and medical supplies, coordinate volunteers, and collect donations in one place.

It wasn’t only violence that drove organizers to create mutual-aid groups — some were inspired by acts of solidarity they witnessed at early demonstrations. “I’ve been going to protests for a while and I have never seen this level of mutual aid and community support,” says Gary, a cofounder of PDX Resistance Assistance, who asked to remain pseudonymous due to concerns about online targeting and harassment.

Resistance Assistance provides pizza, burritos, water, protective gear, and first aid to protesters in Portland. They got started after Gary and a cofounder saw a group of college-aged women handing out pizza at a downtown rally in May. The group has grown to encompass 10 core members and around 20 volunteers, operating popup tents and fold-up tables.

Supplying protests can be a scary and dangerous job. Groups have to navigate hostile spaces, both at protests and online, and some have faced harassment from white supremacists and trolls. Multiple groups I approached for this story told me that due to the risk of targeting by police, they were no longer publicizing their work.

Even larger aid organizations have had to adapt to an increased police presence and the subsequent escalation in violence. A high-profile example is Riot Ribs, a pop-up 24-hour kitchen that served ribs, chorizo tacos, and Beyond sausages to hundreds of protesters per day in downtown Portland throughout July, withstanding tear gas, pepper spray, raids, and police attempts to arrest team members and confiscate food — they were being targeted.

Riot Ribs continuously rebuilt its kitchen, and had planned to transfer its funds and leadership to a local nonprofit, but announced at the end of July that it was disbanding because of a bad actor within the organization. The group said it witnessed that volunteer attempt to steal money, abuse other volunteers, and intercept donations with fake Twitter and Cashapp handles that impersonated theirs. It’s now Revolution Ribs, a mobile version of Riot Ribs that is feeding people down the west coast in Sprinter vans. The group plans eventually to head east, and is considering forming an LLC to better separate its members’ names from the group’s donations and vehicles.

The presence of federal forces in Portland has forced other groups to adapt. The feds trashed The Witches’ downtown tent daily, R. says, overturning bins and shelves and removing supplies. In response, the Witches moved their tables to other avenues, and removed any identifying signs. Members have stopped wearing their trademark witch hats.

Police presence can also make supply runs difficult. Ella Gagne, who delivered medical supplies throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul during the first month of protests, sometimes had trouble getting into the cities because tanks were blocking the roads. Gayns was once rushing home from his final delivery run to make an 8 p.m. curfew when he found the bridge to the main highway blocked by police. He had to turn over the median and drive the wrong way down the highway to get home. “It was fucking terrifying,” he said. “The rest of your day was uplifting... Then at the end of the day you’d see what you were up against, and that was really deflating.”

As the Black Lives Matter protests continue in cities across the country, support for some mutual aid groups seems to be dying down. “There was a huge outpouring support for mutual aid, and it is still greater than it normally is in Minneapolis, but at the moment it’s starting to dwindle in ways that are very concerning to all of us on the ground,” says Gagne, who began volunteering at the Minneapolis sanctuary camp Powderhorn West in June. Earlier this summer, Powderhorn was overwhelmed by a large number of volunteers; by early August, interest had slowed, and there was a smaller group who worked more consistently.

Even so, many of the groups formed in May say they’re here to stay. And they’re staying flexible. Gary says Resistance Assistance is considering expanding to a food truck, to service protests for other civil rights, anti-brutality, and environmental causes — they’re even considering feeding people in voting lines on election day. For her part, Newton says that Meals4Heels will continue to serve protesters as long as they’re protesting — they’re now serving local farmers’ markets, black and BIPOC wellness events, Pride rallies, and food banks. “I’m going to keep taking space,” says Newton. “I’ll stop when all the bullshit ends.”

Other groups hope to serve as models for organizing in the years to come. The Diaper Drive is now in the hands of an established Minneapolis co-op, which will continue to operate it through August — and hopefully longer, if the donations keep coming. “What I’m trying to prove to people is that I took the resources at my disposal and used them to help people, and you can do that too,” said Gayns, who modeled parts of his early supply runs on footage he’d seen of protests in Hong Kong. “There’s so many things you can do that really don’t take any effort. But people need to see the steps. They need to see the documentation.”

R says that as long as there are protesters to help, The Witches will keep serving them. “We plan to continue to help out whoever is the most in need, whoever is the most vulnerable population in our society,” she says. “If that turns into someone else or some other group, we will find them and we will help.”

“I have worked with nonprofits before and I have worked with aid organizations ... and seeing the power of community, I think I’ll never forget that,” R says. “That’s one of the highlights of all of this. Seeing how a couple of young kids could get together and make a lot of lasting difference and save lives.”