Mutual Aid: “We Keep Us”

By Obse Abebe

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that police brutality in America doesn’t pause, not even for a pandemic. Last year alone held over 1,000 instances of police brutality as seen in data from Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture. Police departments across the country even brutalized protestors during anti-police brutality protests that were in response to George Floyd’s murder last summer.

Despite this reality, community leaders led grassroots efforts to combat the negative impacts of over-policing in BIPOC neighborhoods. Many of the groups behind these efforts were also long-term advocates of defunding the police. I spoke with the leader of one of these groups, Divine*. He founded a D.C. mutual aid organization that distributes resources, especially books, to low-income communities.

Liberation Library is a self-described library on wheels that “melanates minds and radicalizes the masses,” and Divine had much to say on the presence of police in BIPOC communities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

*A pseudonym was used to protect the interviewee’s identity amid the threat of punishment from their local police. 

Obse Abebe: Tell me about yourself and the mutual aid work you do.

Divine: We started our work in about June of last year, in the middle of the uprising against police brutality, and on the Black Lives Matter Plaza after seeing our community experiencing all this grief, all of this pain. You saw people centering black joy, centering black love, centering the needs of the most vulnerable amongst us. And we wanted to be a part of that.

There were people out there giving mental health services, keeping each other fed, well-watered, really just sustaining themselves, sustaining others then sustaining the movement. It’s what we have always done, that is mutual aid at its core. We keep us, not just safe, but we keep one another surviving and thriving. It’s how marginalized communities, black ones especially, have done things forever.

So in the midst of all that, you see many organizations sprouting up, of which the Liberation Library was one. Liberation Library as a mutual aid library recognizes education should be accessible and should be liberating. If we’re not teaching you to be free, we’re teaching you to be bound. Our library was born out of that desire to create a world we deserve, here in D.C. We, as a library, focus our efforts in Wards 7 and 8 where educational resources are least accessible in Washington D.C.

OA: You mentioned your work was partly a response to the uprisings against police brutality, how efficient do you believe police are? 

D: You know, America as a capitalistic institution has always functioned on the exploitation of the captivity of black people. Without a policing system to enforce that violence, to keep people in line, to literally source the labor from black and brown bodies, this American Empire cannot stand. That’s my most basic understanding of what the police do. 

But on very personal levels, you also see some police on the front lines who empathize with you. You see vegan police officers talk about how murder and slaughter are wild, and I’m like, “yeah, you right and mad ironic.” It completely goes over their heads and for a good portion of police, it’s just a job. This desensitizes them and absolves them of guilt.

We’re all responsible for the business of Justice and our library does that with education. It can’t be something that we just leave in the hands of someone else. We must be ready to do this. We’ve seen time and time again that police won’t do it. They can’t do it.

OA: Many people are calling for the defunding of policing. Does your frustration with the police also extend into a desire to defund them? Would you like to see a reinvestment in community or mutual aid resources?

D: Yeah, especially when seeing the failures of policing. Just think about the January 6 [2021] insurgency on the capital. A couple hundred people were allowed to set foot inside congressional halls, something that has not been accomplished since like [the War of] 1812

And the most direct way to combat this, is to reduce the harm ourselves. By being those violence interrupters, each of us are taking responsibility for each other. Mutual aid is very important work, it has been called the basis of abolition.  We call the library our little abolitionist project and it has all these radical goals, but I want to say that the work we do, even when we just go out to distribute books and just smile with people, it is important work, it is revolutionary work. This is a protest. This is a fight, we’re fighting on all fronts. It’s not just punching and pepper-spraying cops.

OA: How can people continue to support this type of work? Especially that transition from external policing into internal community regulation by community members. 

D: If you have any disposable income, invest in mutual aid. Put a certain amount of money aside so your unhoused neighbors can at least eat comfortably and survive in these winter months. Just last week…I submitted a mutual aid request to raise like $700 so I would be able to stay in school and within a couple of hours, it was done just like that. We can take care of each other. We have been doing it and we need your help. It’s a continual thing, freedom is a constant struggle because our freedoms are inherently tied together. 

OA: What would you say to those who think a traditional police force is necessary?

D: These are things that take time. It’s not something that’s just going to happen in one sitting, the idea of police have been ingrained in us. Some of the very first things you’re seeing on TV are about how police are amazing heroes. We have years and years of unlearning to do but it really starts with doing a little reading, find out where these systems come from.

I really recommend people checking out #8toAbolition, Are Prisons Obsolete, 13th on Netflix, and more. If it doesn’t convince you right away, it’ll at least make you a little skeptical.

OA: Is there any way the public can support Liberation Library?

D: Yeah, we’re melanating minds and radicalizing the masses one book at a time and we need donations for that. Whether people are donating radical reads directly to us or giving monetary donations via our cash app, that’s how we keep going. You can also go follow us on Instagram at @libereaders for all sorts of cool projects we’re doing. But yeah, come out support us and let us support you.

OA: Of course, thank you so much.

D: Absolutely, this was so much fun. Alright Obse, stay Black, stay blessed, peace.