EDITOR’S NOTE: Because mutual aid work is a direct response to systemic oppression, it is often criminalized. Many of the individuals named in this story have asked for initials or pseudonyms to be used in order to protect the work that they do and maintain their capacity to continue doing that work. This article contains explicit language.
In the days following the murder of George Floyd, and during the subsequent uprising, the evening time was often filled with terror and anger. At night, community members were expressing their grief and horror about the murder of another unarmed Black man through protest. A military occupation occurred in Saint Paul and Minneapolis in an effort to stop the uprising. Provocateurs had also made their way to the Twin Cities as they attempted to inflame chaos. A curfew was enforced and dozens were arrested while hundreds protested and thousands more furiously watched their Twitter feeds and local media for updates.
Meanwhile, community defenders and fire fighters, as well as medics, all sprung into action; responding to the injured, putting out fires where the Minneapolis Fire Department was not allowed to go, and protecting spaces like neighborhoods, community hubs, and even George Floyd Square. The measures taken by these defenders was a turn in a chaotic tide.
The uprising was different in the daytime. George Floyd Square had become a protected space, a memorial site claimed by the community, where mass resource-sharing also occurred. Many would go to protest areas, cleaning up damaged or burned stores, and helping to board up broken windows. Food and household supplies were being distributed on street corners. Amid the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder, the seeds of a mutual aid movement that has since begun to transform Minneapolis-Saint Paul was beginning to take shape.
Mutual aid does not have a single definition, but every explanation of the term is meant to define the relationship between community members engaged in a process of collective healing and political education.
“It’s also about being able to receive. Mutual aid doesn’t work if you don’t both give and receive, otherwise it’s just charity or it’s just taking, and taking is a lot like colonizing,” said Jeanelle Austin, one of the Community Defenders at George Floyd Square and a lead caretaker of the George Floyd Global Memorial (GFGM). The memorial can be found at the Square and was co-founded with Floyd’s aunt, Angela Harrelson, alongside other members of the Floyd family.
Austin grew up just a few blocks from George Floyd Square and moved back home, from California, during the uprising to be with her community.
“You have to understand that this has been going on for over 11 months and so it’s a way of life,” Austin explained. “It’s not just systems set up to function. But it’s the way in which people engage each other from day to day, every day looks different. It’s a living Memorial.”
The Square is home to a medics organization named 612 M*A*S*H (Minneapolis All Shall Heal), as well as community defenders who protect the square through a “behavior based response to people who are not living into community in the way that the cultural rules of George Floyd Square exist, or that have developed,” said Austin. The Square is also home to a People’s Closet that provides clothes and shoes, and is organized by a local student who is studying fashion and sustainability, and Fuck 12: The People’s Kitchen, which feeds people regularly, also distributes meals as needed to GFS.
Fuck 12: The People’s Kitchen plans menus, cook meals, and distributes hundreds of meals each week to unhoused people across the Twin Cities. They have also taken care of community members diagnosed with COVID-19 and distributed food at the memorial site and at protests. The group is largely comprised of queer and trans-identified service workers who stepped up to “feed the movement.” They’ve become known for their “protest burritos” that were distributed in Brooklyn Center during the protests that occurred after the killing of Duante Wright.
“Mutual aid is the act of providing care, not to create a hierarchy, but because you understand your own needs are wrapped up in the needs of the people around you in your community,” said FP, one of the F12 cooks. “And that until the needs of the people around us are met, we will never fully have our needs met.”
There are over 20 people involved in the operation, including the administrative and distribution work, as the group also researches and seeks to become a cooperative.
Another F12 member, GF, believes that the mutual aid work of F12 is equally about how the organization operates internally and how it fits into the larger mutual aid dynamics occurring externally.
“People in general aren’t doing mutual aid because they are receiving a monetary reward,” said GF. “It’s something much more than that. It’s the educational aspect, the camaraderie, showing that capitalism isn’t the focus, that there are other things in life that make life whole. This shows all the different ways that we can take care of each other. So for me, mutual aid defines what caring for each other looks like outside of a capitalistic viewpoint.”
Some members of F12 were also engaged in the work at the “Sanctuary Hotel”, a brief occupation of an evacuated Sheraton Hotel on Lake Street in South Minneapolis, during the uprising and in the days after.
The Sanctuary Hotel housed hundreds of unhoused people and was organized in just a few hours.
“I would say that there was a kind of transformative way in which we sought to create, for both residents and volunteers, a kind of radical autonomy that centered our ability to make collective decisions together, rather than to wait for the State to do that for us,” said C, an abolitionist and volunteer who did community defense for The Sanctuary Hotel.
The Sanctuary Hotel was meant to be a harm-reduction space with medics on-call to “support people’s choices” and an abolitionist framework — something that has been key to much of the mutual aid work occurring across the Twin Cities.
“I think there were thousands of people who would wake up every morning, and whose first thought was, ‘What can I do to help?’, said C. “That felt unprecedented and humble in the sense that mutual aid doesn’t involve taking the mic or taking a hero position; it requires showing up over and over again. As I look at what can change about how a city imagines both what community means and what community is capable of, it changed my mind about the mobilizing power that mutual aid can have.”
Hotel organizers and residents were forced to discontinue their work at Sanctuary Hotel when the hotel owner evicted the residents after having allowed the organizers and residents to stay on the property for nearly two weeks. C notes that keys to rooms stopped working, which made it impossible for the group to administer aid to people in need and therefore unsafe for residents.
The Sanctuary Hotel has now been closed down for just under a year, but the work of Fuck 12: The People’s Kitchen and at George Floyd Square continue. Much of Minneapolis is still recovering from the uprising. In Minneapolis, Mayor Jacob Frey is working with members of the Minneapolis City Council and the local Chamber of Commerce as plans for re-building Lake St. emerge.
George Floyd Square, at 38th and Chicago, remains shut-down to traffic and the community continues to gather there. Community members presented a list of twenty demands to the City Council that they wanted to be met before reopening the Square. It’s since become a space for healing, for grief, and for reflecting- like when people came together after the announcement that former MPD Officer Derek Chauvin would be found guilty on all three charges in the murder of George Floyd.
The mutual aid work in the Twin Cities continues and the uprising remains rooted.
“Mutual aid is really about radically re-envisioning what radical change can look like when we rely on ourselves to take care of each other, to redistribute material resources, to practice democracy, and to mobilize people for ongoing struggle,” said C. “I would say that two years ago, my understanding of mutual aid was at a smaller scale. I understood it in serving cookies and having a “Coffee Not Cops” with unhoused folks, or I understood it in terms of more irregular forms such as mothers taking care of each other’s children. “I think what I saw in Minneapolis was that massive scale that mutual aid can take place in and it’s a reminder of just what we can do when we’re mobilizing towards all of our needs at the same time.”
To make donations to George Floyd Square visit, George Floyd Global Memorial.
To support or access on-the-ground mutual aid efforts, visit: Twin Cities Mutual Aid Map.
Cirien Saadeh, PhD is an Arab-American community journalist, community organizer, and college professor teaching Social Justice and Community Organizing at Prescott College. Saadeh believes that journalism can be a tool that can be used to build power in historically-marginalized communities.