“Find the means that work best for you and the people you’re in community with, and grab hold of what is yours. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
It is a time of uncertainty and panic in the world due to COVID-19. In the United States, these problems are exacerbated by the fact that we simply cannot and should not rely on the government to solve our most serious problems. It is an essential time to invest in our communities through mutual aid, neighborly assistance, and other forms of radical care.
When I began writing this series, I didn’t know how fast it was going to become evident how desperately we needed to move away from relying on a state that refuses to provide safety for all of its inhabitants. I am glad that I was able to talk to folks who have already been living this politic. It gives me hope that, through the care of our communities, we will survive this hard moment and other hard moments to come.
Though I don’t see electoral politics as the source of our liberation, elected officials do owe us something. When the government has money for things like war and pumping $1.5 trillion into loans to “protect profits of big banks and wealthy investors,” it should certainly have enough money to house all homeless people during a pandemic.
For the last of this series, I spoke with organizers and activists about how we can care for and help each other, either outside of electoral politics or by pressuring those with political power.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Kim Kelly (she/her) is a freelance journalist covering labor, politics, and working-class resistance. You can read her work in Teen Vogue, The Baffler, the New Republic, and many more.
How are you involved in the labor rights movement?
I’ve worn a few different hats in this space, usually simultaneously. During my time at VICE, I was heavily involved with the VICE Union organizing and bargaining committees; by the time I was laid off in early 2019, we had bargained multiple contracts, and organized over 500 workers throughout the company.
In 2017, I was elected to my union’s council to represent the hundreds of digital media workers who were flocking to our movement. I’m currently in my second term as a councilperson, and am on the union council’s organizing committee, as well as being involved in ongoing efforts to build solidarity throughout our industry. I’m also an outspoken advocate for the rights of freelancers, and for the past year, have been traveling to conferences to speak on these issues and spent time interacting with various city and state officials, unions, and grassroots organizations to ensure that any upcoming legislation addresses our unique concerns.
Beyond that, I work as a freelance journalist with a focus on labor; I’m Teen Vogue‘s labor columnist, contribute regular columns on the subject to the Baffler and the New Republic, and contribute to a number of other publications on the subjects of labor, politics, antifascism, and working-class resistance.
On a more personal note, I’m a third-generation union member, and am fiercely proud of that; being raised by a family of blue-collar construction workers, steelworkers, and teachers taught me the value of hard work, of supporting your people, of sticking together in the face of adversity—and of telling your boss to go fuck himself. It feels like I’m never doing enough, but I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to push workers’ issues to the fore. As one of my idols, Mother Jones, once said, “If they want to hang me, let them. And on the scaffold, I will shout, ‘Freedom for the working class!'”
How can I get involved?
Organize your workplace! That’s the single most important step you and your coworkers can take to seize power and demand better working conditions. Most industries have existing unions ready to provide training and resources to workers who are seeking to organize their workplaces, and that will be happy to help you get started! If, like many people, you’re freelance or part of the gig economy, see what kind of organizing projects are happening already, and connect with other workers in that space. Traditional labor unions are only one way to build collective power; the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), worker centers, immigrants’ rights organizations, grassroots coalitions, local anarchist collectives, and local tenant unions are all options, too. Find the means that work best for you and the people you’re in community with, and grab hold of what is yours. We have nothing to lose but our chains.
Prison System Impacted LGBTQ+ Support
Dominique Morgan (they/them) is the Executive Director of Black and Pink, Inc.
What is Black and Pink? How are you involved in abolition work?
Black and Pink is the largest prison abolitionist organization in the US centering the needs of LGBTQ+ people and people living with HIV (PLWH) who are system impacted. For 15 years, we have worked to dismantle the systems that coalesce with the intention to marginalize our community.
Our organization addresses these issues through advocacy, policy, and development of system impacted individuals.
How can I get involved?
And as always financial support is huge. Funding our work through community investment allows us to be independent in thought as we develop groundbreaking programs to meet the needs of our currently and formerly incarcerated family.
Mordecai Cohen Ettinger (he/they) is the Founding Director of Health Justice Commons (HJC). As a survivor of medical torture, and serious environmental injury from radiation and heavy metal poisoning, and as a long time community organizer, radical scholar, grassroots educator, peoples’ scientist, and healer, Mordecai puts their full self, his whole heart, and all his life’s lessons into nourishing the vision, power, and impact of the HJC.
What is Health Justice Commons? How are you involved in the disability justice space?
The Health Justice Commons works at the intersections of disability, climate, gender, racial, and economic justice to uplift and organize communities most harmed and marginalized by the Medical Industrial Complex (MIC)–disabled/ crip and chronically ill people, especially BIPOC, trans/gender non-binary people, and/or low-income people–to lead in disrupting and transforming the MIC and to build our collective capacity to create sustainable alternatives to our current healthcare system.
HJC engages in:
1) strategic grassroots political education centering an intersectional social justice, abolitionist, and peoples’ science lens, including the first-ever national Know Your Medical Rights campaign and our Understanding and Transforming the MIC courses.
2) Movement building with radical healthcare workers, scientists, disability and climate justice leaders and organizations.
3) Direct community-defense work with our Medical Abuse Hotline – also the first in the nation.
Our organizational leadership and members are nation-wide (with some folks in Canada and other countries) which enables people from all over the country to get involved. The vast majority of our members are disabled/ crip. Many of us work from our beds or even hospital rooms. In the past, movements for social justice have viewed sick and disabled people as disposable or incapable of being powerful agents of change. As a growing movement of survivors of medical injustice—many of whom continue to have frequent interactions with the Medical Industrial Complex out of medical necessity—we are best positioned to take leadership to transform the MIC and spearhead the creation of alternatives that can better serve all of us, and we are now doing so with unstoppable determination.
We know, our collective futures depend on it. Gendered and racialized medical ableism lie at the root of what we’re organizing to transform. Not confined to the MIC, this form of intersectional ableism pervades US society and fuels the climate crisis because it views people and the planet as disposable. Through groundbreaking grassroots education, HJC trains our communities to look deeply at the historic roots of the MIC, and the entanglements of many core MIC institutions such as big pharma corporations with major corporate polluters and chemical companies, like Bayer-Monsanto. These mega-corps are actually directly profiting from the illnesses they cause, while the US healthcare system remains the most expensive of ‘developed countries’ and is literally allowing our communities to die. The recent deeply racist and ableist response to COVID-19 (the novel coronavirus) further exposes how crucial intersectional health justice is right now for our collective survival.
If you are seeking resources for yourself and communities to stay healthy and resilient in the face of the novel coronavirus, check out this podcast, Coronavirus: Wisdom from a Social Justice Lens of which HJC was a co-sponsor!
How can I get involved?
There are multiple ways to get involved with the Health Justice Commons and join our growing movement to disrupt and transform the Medical Industrial Complex in our lifetimes.
- Become a member! There are 3 HJC movement-building crews folks can join: Curriculum Development, Movement Building and Communications, and Resources and Resilience. The Curriculum Development crew coordinates the creation of our core curriculum for our Know Your Medical Rights, Hotline Advocate and Understanding and Transforming the MIC for healthcare providers and worker trainings. The Movement Building and Communications crew coordinates the crucial work of honing our message, getting it to our communities and accomplices, and building indispensable cross-sector social justice movement relationships and alliances. The Resources and Resilience crew enables us to shine and thrive through coordinating and supporting grassroots, major donor, and foundation fundraising efforts. As an all member-led organization, the gifts and skills our communities bring are what guides our work and make it possible. Whatever you bring, there is a place for you with us!
- Apply to join the first Hotline Advocate training cohort for the US’s first Medical Abuse Hotline. The training begins late summer. Applications will be available on our website in April!
- Join an online grassroots ed workshop or training. Our current course, Understanding and Transforming the Medical Industrial Complex, Part 2, has nearly 70 participants. Our special guest presenter is Harriet Washington, the renown and celebrated author of Medical Apartheid, and A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind. We’ll be offering monthly Understanding and Transforming the MIC webinars starting in May, and Understanding and Transforming the MIC, Part 1 (a 6- week course) in September. We also offer tailored trainings for community-based organizations, schools, and progressive faith-based groups. Contact us if you liked to join a course, webinar, or invite us to train at your organization!
- You can learn more on our website, follow us on social media: Twitter @hjcommons | Facebook @Health Justice Commons | Instagram @healthjusticecommons, and email us at: email@example.com with questions or to let us know how you’d like to get involved!
COVID-19 Support for Incarcerated People
K is a 25-year-old Black nonbinary organizer based in Brooklyn. You can follow them on Twitter @sheabutterfemme.
How are you involved in helping incarcerated people?
For my day job, I’m a macro social worker at a local nonprofit. Outside of work, I’m currently a member of two groups working around prison abolition. One group focuses on freeing criminalized survivors, where I primarily work on social media and communications. The other group focuses on general PIC abolition in New York. For the PIC abolition group in New York, I’ve been doing work around the novel coronavirus in a rapid response working group that primarily focuses on mutual aid projects with our incarcerated comrades that need a relatively quick turnaround.
How can I get involved?
In one day, the rapid response group that I’m a member of raised over $3,000 for a mutual aid project to get soap into New York state prisons for our comrades. We’re going to spend this weekend packaging the soap we purchase and sending them to our friends on the inside. Any additional funds will go to other abolitionist groups doing similar work. My comrades have also been working hard on a guide that will allow people to raise funds and engage in similar mutual aid projects in their own communities. We’re going to need all hands on deck.
Pandemics show just how fragile state infrastructure is, and how we really have the tools and skills we need to take care of each other. Ideally, to get involved one would already have a working relationship with people on the inside, or be a member of a group that does. If not, looking online for collectives in your area that do this kind of work would be ideal. It’s not good to just send random people random things in jail, because it’s unsafe, doesn’t build trust, and can lead to ramifications for the incarcerated person. With relationships with people on the inside, you’re able to find out what people need and what they’re being denied. If you’re able to find a group in your area doing this work, you can ask them for access to their pen pal list, or actually collaborate with them to send soap or needed supplies inside. You can also just focus on raising money and donating to groups for their own projects.
We primarily fundraise through making a cute graphic, and using social media, and collecting funds through sites. The main priority right now will actually be just raising funds so that incarcerated people can choose where the money should go, and how it can be used to support them.