Friday 10 April 2020

The stories behind Brent Mutual Aid

Thank you Robin Sivapalan for giving permission for me to republish this Facebook piece as a guest post on Wembley Matters

Only four weeks ago, on a Friday, the Brent Mutual Aid Facebook group was set up. A UCU union member living in Willesden put out a call to his Facebook friends asking who wanted to set one up in Brent. I answered “sure”, thinking “I suppose I should”. That weekend was non-stop on the phone, approving members – some 2,000 people by midweek - and these organised themselves into ward-based WhatApp groups, according to a logic from Lewisham.

The professional middle-class were straight out of the gate, leafleting Kensal Green, Mapesbury, Willesden Green, Brondesbury Park, Queens Park and Kilburn in days. Councillors in Alperton, Fryent / Queenbury, Wembley Central and Sudbury decided that they themselves were the mutual aid for their areas and their leaflets featured their names and council details. The Conservatives in Barnhill, challenging a lost by-election in the courts, launched a Tory mutual aid. Two Labour Councillors in Alperton, in a bid to undermine Brent’s one Lib Dem councillor, set up their own rival WhatsApp group. Some wards, four weeks later still have still not leafleted their wards, though in every case there is a lot of activity, often based on pre-existing community initiatives. Apart from Tory-controlled Kenton – where much of the elderly live.

In my ward, Welsh Harp, we staggered to the finish line of covering our ward only a week ago, but we benefited from the knowledge-sharing sessions that started the first Tuesday, towards making our plans; our printing was sourced free, we have cooperated with local councillors but have not been led by them, and have worked with existing neighbourhood groups. We have a multi-lingual team of 8 call-handlers, and have a volunteer group of 50 people, almost all of whom have only got to know each other through this process. But with the same emphasis in our leaflets – in English – on shopping, we can be certain we’re not doing what we might to involve and assist the migrant workers in our ward. Some honourable exceptions being Willesden Green who translated into 5 languages and Alperton into Gujerati.

Brent Council’s response to all this has been characterised by wariness and manoeuvring. The first reaction to the emergence of Mutual Aid groups was to consider them a liability. Some councillors countered this mentality with the idea of responsibility. The first meeting between the council and Mutual Aid groups took place on Monday the 30th March, 5 days after it was initially scheduled, and it was only confirmed on their part one hour before it was due to start. We were presented with a number of conditions over the weekend. I had to push back on the idea that I would be the only representative in attendance, despite a clear conversation explaining that this was not how we worked. Where the rest of the country had moved onto Zoom, we had to dial into a faceless call, chaired by a cabinet member of the council, a decision made unilaterally. Most of what this call consisted of was a briefing from the Assistant Chief Executive on the council’s emergency plan which had been met with derision by anyone who knew the voluntary sector. Organisations on their knees due to government cuts, passed on by the Labour Council, were tasked with leading the crisis, working from home, with skeleton teams. We were told what we’d already read online: that the Brent Council for Voluntary Service (CVS) - on the beg for premises all last year, subject to a year-long organisational review which started on the eve of the Covid Crisis - would be co-ordinating the Mutual Aid groups. Four weeks later, they’ve got a new director nobody knows; the 400 volunteers which the council spent weeks trying to register, undermining our volunteering pathways in the unorganised wards, are now directed back to us to organise.

The centre-piece of the council’s mobilisation – a direct counter to the government’s efforts to centralise relief – is the Food Aid “Hub” at the Bridge Park Leisure Centre. The council, before it had delivered 200 food packages, declared the capacity to deliver 10,000 a week. Its phoneline taking orders is staffed by valuable managers and staff from their main advice service. The “spokes”to the hub, the council now suggests be run by mutual aid groups, presenting this as cooperation, not organisational failure; a failed fait accompli, having sent out leaflets to every household in the borough. Within a day, before the leaflets even went out, their estimated delivery times went from 48 hours to 72. The rations they claimed would last two weeks, they now suggest a week. Nobody can give a clear answer as to who should call the council’s line or who should call for a food bank parcel – so now we’re spoilt for choice. And certainly nobody has pointed out the irony that the local Black Community – in one of the biggest mobilisations of protest in the history of Brent - is still fighting the council in the courts over the future of Bridge Park Community Centre, which the council is trying to sell from under their feet.

That is to paint too negative picture; Sufra, allocated the lead role for foodbanks in Brent, has been immensely open to cooperation, as has Elders Voice, the largest provider of services to the vulnerable in the borough. The stalemate is moving, but the main movers in the Mutual Aid network are the middle-classes who are using the semblance of borough-wide organisation to special plead for their charitable start-ups, greedy for the giants share of the council grant. Food cooked by an Indian couple on the Ealing Road, travels past Alperton, Stonebridge, Wembley and Neasden where white hands dole it out to their poor.

The Pakistan Community Centre in Willesden has been requisitioned by middle-class people who earlier in the week made people flock to collect onions and potatoes in boxes on the floor, while denying people other goods displayed on the table. That particular issue has been resolved but nonetheless it happened. The council briefs its elected members in private; councillors sit on our coordinating WhatsApp groups mainly as a conduit for the shifting council line - but conspicuously absent themselves from decision-making meetings about our structures. The council meets with us, and while purporting to be co-operating, has issued its plea for sanitary products, which are in short-supply at their hub, only through the councillor led “mutual aid” groups.

All very petty isn’t it. Off-putting. Tiring. Yes. Why can’t we all get along?

Only the affluent talk of unity – they insist it’s not political. They report on their neighbours who have the audacity to sit in their parks in large numbers, who live in overcrowded houses; they want everyone to stay at home apart from the people who serve them. The fact that 50 percent of nurses at our hospital have been confirmed with Covid will not be remedied by our weekly clap. The workers in our largest food-processing factory who are being threatened with the sack for staying at home would prefer a job than our charity. The two bus drivers in Willesden and Alperton who have died to transport the poor will not be resurrected over your Easter holiday break – which we need because we wouldn’t allow a look-in from those without a paid work-from-home job. The poor Indian worker who is bunkered in a sheltered housing scheme for the elderly in Kenton, sacked in the week of the lockdown for doing too much for the residents, will not get a callback from her Tory councillor - and the solidarity here hangs in the balance. The 19-year-old refugee, working a 24 hour shift at Northwick Park Hospital while a full time student, locked out of her home on Wednesday, and forced to move into a studio flat Alperton which costs much more than she earns, will not have her wages protected by Universal Credit. She will work cleaning our wards for next to nothing.

I am angry I know, and often unbearable. I have a tendency to lambast and storm. But I’ve pulled my weight and I weigh a lot. I’m a union organiser in this borough. My uncle is in hospital and my dad’s chemo has been cancelled. I do the shopping for my neighbour. I’m saying this to stave off attack. To be charitable is not to be good. To be compassionate and kind is not the only virtue. There are many amazing things happening under the mutual aid banner - signing up across the borough to the Open Collective banking system last night being one, an example of decentralized, cooperative mutual aid. I have no regrets in my ward and can’t wait to meet in person some of the wonderful people involved.

But an emergency response does not justify the drowning out all other considerations. Mutual aid cannot be mutual without challenging the structual injustices we face. And a scab Deliveroo army is not mutual aid. We’re only at the beginning of the crisis, so let’s take stock of more than food parcels, important as they are. And whoever will buy me my fags if I need to self-isolate, is my comrade.


Pete Firmin said...

I agree with much of this, but had to struggle to read after the early sentence "The professional middle-class were straight out of the gate, leafleting Kensal Green, Mapesbury, Willesden Green, Brondesbury Park, Queens Park and Kilburn in days." Really? Do you actually know who organised to get leaflets out in those areas, or are you just surmising? There is also a problem with the fact that the council has appointed Sufra to lead its food strategy. Good as Sufra is, it requires people to jump through various bureaucratic hurdles, whereas less favoured (by the Council) organisations like Granville Community kitchen help everybody with no questions.

Anonymous said...

This article made me uncomfortable. So what if the helping hands are white? If I criticised the helping hands for being black or brown I'd rightly be called racist.

Anonymous said...

WOW, this article has no evidence behind it, just damn right nonsense and opinions of one person. agree with Pete "The professional middle-class were straight out of the gate, leafleting Kensal Green, Mapesbury, Willesden Green, Brondesbury Park, Queens Park and Kilburn in days." Pointing fingers and discriminating certain groups with no evidence as that definitely isn't the case on who was leafleting in our ward nor reflective of our volunteers at all. Terrible read, maybe stick to your union work rather than criticising those who are actually helping their community in these times. You're anything but Mutual Aid, go point your fingers elsewhere