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Joshua Potash is an anti-capitalist abolitionist based in New York City. Joshua co-founded Washington Square Park Mutual Aid, which provides free food, clothing, and various supplies once a week in the New York City park. They also co-host events like film screenings, skillshares, and various trainings. The group was founded in response to NYPD violence with the aim of creating a counter-narrative and being a community hub for folks in the park and surrounding area.
In this episode, we explore some of the history and theory behind mutual aid and how it presents a counter-narrative to capitalist ideology and a practical path away from it. We also learn about Joshua’s work on the ground in New York City and discuss the concepts of municipalism, police abolition, and much more.
Photo courtesy of The Response podcast
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Amy Gastelum: I’m Amy Gastelum. Today, on Making Contact:
Joshua Potash: Mutual aid is the idea that we support one another freely. We give to one another freely. We provide for the needs of the people in our communities, not from profit motive, but just because. Just because, basically because that’s what we do. That’s how we should live together.
Amy Gastelum: We’ve partnered with our friends at the Response Podcast to bring you an interview with Joshua Potash. Potash is an anti-capitalist abolitionist based in New York City. In this episode, we explore some of the history and theory behind mutual aid, how it presents a counter narrative to capitalist ideology and a practical alternative path.
Here’s Robert Raymond with the interview.
Robert Raymond: [00:02:10] So, Joshua, welcome to The Response. Great to have you on.
Joshua Potash: [00:02:14] Hey, thanks, yeah.
Robert Raymond: [00:02:15] I would love it if you could maybe start by introducing yourself and Yeah, just letting us know a little bit about how you came to do the work that you’re doing.
Joshua Potash: [00:02:25] Yeah. Hey, Josh here. It’s really good to be here. Thanks for having me, Robbie. I started as a teacher in New York, and, gosh, I was always so exhausted after a day of teaching that I didn’t get as involved in this, you know, the sort of political work. But then when that ended, I really — really it was the summer of 2020 that led to to the mutual aid work, because after months and months — there’s a core group that kept going out in the streets, kept protesting, kept being attacked by the NYPD.
[00:02:57] And really, by the spring of 2021, people were tired of fewer people in the streets, smaller protests getting beat up. And I think where a lot of us instinctively turned, but also, you know, folks were reading and talking, but there was also an instinctual turn to like, okay, fine, we’ve got to build this from the ground up. And so that’s what led a lot of people to jumping into mutual aid, I think. And yeah, maybe I’ll save the Washington Square Park origin story for a second. But that’s kind of that’s where I got into this mutual aid work in general and then other community organizing type of stuff as well.
Robert Raymond: [00:03:33] Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for sharing that. And yeah, we’ll definitely get into your work with the mutual aid group in a bit, but I guess I wanted to just sort of start out kind of with a bird’s eye view. So this idea of like mutual aid, this show isn’t explicitly about mutual aid — it’s more broadly about how communities respond to disasters. Yet over and over again in our documentaries and interviews the concept of mutual aid has come up and it’s very quickly became obvious to me how important mutual aid is when it comes to organizing communities. And yeah, it’s a central pillar to the show. And so I thought it would be great to have someone on who could really dive into mutual aid and someone who does mutual aid work on the ground. And so, yeah, I think it would be great if you could maybe just walk us through like a history of like mutual aid, where it started, what it is, what it isn’t, and like why you’ve decided to focus on mutual aid in your work.
Joshua Potash: [00:04:37] Wow. I wish I was the person to give the full and total history. But, you know, I think what a lot of people know is the history of the term dating back to Peter Kropotkin and his look at how our survival, humanity’s survival wasn’t just based in this Hobbesian competition idea. It’s more complicated than survival of the fittest because we didn’t survive as individuals, we survived as groups, we thrived and got to this sort of dominant position in groups. And so the natural extension of that is that the groups that support one another and help one another survive and thrive are the groups that are going to succeed.
[00:05:17] And that’s such a necessary intervention in a capitalist world where a lot of folks will still throw the simplistic survival of the fittest that you are the strongest survivor and ignore how we still I mean — in some ways it’s it’s funny because it’s even more so instead of groups of 150 were in groups of 300 million or you know however you want to look at it but you know, community, neighborhood, city, states like this is clearly as important as it’s ever been.
[00:05:44] And so, yeah, mutual aid is the idea that we support one another freely, We give to one another freely. We provide for the needs of the people in our communities, not from profit motive, but just because — just because basically because that’s what we do. That’s how we should live together.
[00:06:03] And to fast forward to the pandemic, I think the pandemic is where it became — part of this is my own political evolution, of course — but I think the pandemic is also statistically where it went from just a large increase in the number of people practicing basically and learning and trying to do it. And it’s been around, obviously, in this country and others for way longer than that. Dean Spade writes about trans communities taking care of one another, other marginalized communities taking care of one another. You know, I’ve talked to other people about this sort of inherent mutual aid or just communities where people are struggling, helping one another. You know, as simple as that. Whether or not that name is there, the label is there. And I think recently it’s become more formalized in a lot of settings. Since the pandemic, people have seen a need and just wanted to meet it together until they form more and less formal organizations, a wide range of organizations to do that. And I certainly am a recent learner and am in kind of this more recent wave of people learning to practice mutual aid and trying it out, just doing their best to do it.
Robert Raymond: [00:07:08] One of the things that — the ways that mutual aid pops up in this show often is like I was mentioning, through disasters. And it is often — and like where you mentioned with the pandemic, it’s like this idea that it often is filling in the gaps, that the more formal structures and institutions are increasingly and woefully inadequate on. And so, I mean, we look at, for example, Occupy Sandy, which sprung up during Hurricane Sandy in New York City, and what a huge — just a huge impact that a group of people that were involved with that had on really saving a lot of lives and helping a lot of people out in really serious ways.
[00:07:52] So, yeah, it is very much just going all the way up to the pandemic. And, you know, we often talk about the pandemic as if it’s a post-pandemic, but we’re still very much in the middle of a pandemic. And yeah, I’ve seen mutual aid definitely as a concept and a practice explode in the last couple of years in a way that maybe it hadn’t as much and maybe it was a little bit more isolated to individual disasters or individual events.
[00:08:20] But yeah, So on that note, I’m wondering, do you see mutual aid as something that can actually seriously challenge capitalist ideology? And so it’s kind of this idea that mutual aid is different than charity, right? Like charity being something that has a little bit of a power dynamic imbued in it, whereas mutual aid is — it’s exactly like the word implies are some more of a mutualism involved. And so in terms of the different sort of ideological starting ground of where people approach mutual aid and also just in the ways that it sort of exists as a way to allow people to see that there are alternative ways of existing in the world. I’m wondering if you think mutual aid has that power to really challenge the current sort of economic-political system that we have now?
Joshua Potash: [00:09:14] Yeah, I really like the way you put it in terms of showing people different ways of living in the world. I think that is one of the powers of mutual aid. The group I’ve organized with — Washington Square Park mutual Aid — will be right there in the middle of Washington Square Park, which for those who don’t know, is downtown Manhattan, near NYU, near just a place known for being expensive, fancy restaurants, you know, high powered office buildings, all that stuff. And so when strangers walk by and we shout or have a sign or whatever, you know, free pizza, free clothing, free COVID tests, masks, whatever we might have, we often get this “really?” You know, like that’s a fairly common response. Like, “you sure?”
Robert Raymond: [00:09:59] “What’s the catch?”
Joshua Potash: [00:10:01] Yeah, exactly how much you know. And then some people do insist on giving us money and like, that’s that’s cool. That’s whatever. But for a lot of people, it’s a glimpse, you know, small glimpse of a way of doing things that’s very different than what we all grew up knowing. I definitely what I grew up knowing. And so that’s that’s the kind of the tip of the iceberg.
[00:10:20] And then once you get organizing in mutual aid, I think it’s that times ten, that squared, expanded and you become part of a community of people trying to give and giving of themselves, their time, their energy. You know, random people will agree to store stuff at their apartment or they’ll go, you know, they’ll leave work or they go to the storage and get things. And, you know, suddenly a collaboration with a church that you didn’t, you know, emerges and all these things where you see that people are interested in being selfless. And, you know, I think we could talk, you know, all day. I’m sure there’s podcasts that talk about altruism all the time and this and that. And, you know, who knows what it is? You know, who knows if selflessness and altruism exist in some absolute way. But there’s examples of it and people are willing to do it and take action and give of themselves their money time and often with people who like class lines or racial lines or whatever might have attempted to separate them from. And so I think that’s another way it can lead towards breaking down some of the capitalist divides that keep us separate and try to view somebody as an enemy.
[00:11:34] You know, the big thing in Washington Square Park in New York and a lot of the country is like this scapegoating of the homeless as though they are somehow the problem rather than the structures and systems that deny them housing and care and all sorts of things. And so that’s a big one that I see a lot of groups, including Washington Square Park, mutual aid, but others as well, breaking down
[00:11:55] And we could probably talk about this later more. But there’s also the power element, like you can build power with mutual aid as a component. I don’t think it’s the end all, be-all or anything, but I think it can be a component of building networks and power and gathering people who are united by anti-capitalism, kind of whether they know it or not. A lot of people don’t know it at first or don’t know it for some time. But if you’re against the system that denies people housing and food, then you’re against capitalism. So I think you can build power in the community that way as well.
Robert Raymond: [00:12:27] Yeah, no, absolutely. Thanks for that. And it might have been from a link to a tweet of yours. And for folks who don’t know, Joshua’s Twitter is pure fire, so make sure you follow him…
Joshua Potash: [00:12:42] For as long as it exists.
Robert Raymond: [00:12:44] As long as it exists. We’ll throw your Twitter account name in the show notes and all of that and shout you out at the end of this. But what I’m getting at is that there was a really interesting article I read about the difference between activism and organizing, which really made me think about mutual aid. And it’s just such a beautiful way of organizing people, you know, And you have like these protests, these sort of one-off rallies, that kind of thing. Those things are great and they have their place, but you’re not really building like, I don’t know. I feel like we’ve all had that experience where we come home from a protest and we feel this energy and like excitement and like a connection, maybe even to the people that were at the protest. But then it’s like, now what do we do? You know, and you can go out multiple times throughout a week, but it often feels like they sort of dissipate.
[00:13:35] And what I love about mutual aid and this idea that you’re talking about in the work that you do is that you’re building like longer lasting communities. Like you’re actually — you’re starting with the human element and then you’re building the politics and stuff on top of that. Whereas oftentimes it feels like, I guess like very broadly speaking, activism and like these individual protests and rallies and stuff, they kind of they start with the politics and then they sort of hope that maybe some connections are built. But yeah, so I don’t know if you had any thoughts about that or if that’s something that you’ve experienced.
Joshua Potash: [00:14:09] Yeah. I mean, I have a lot of thoughts. It’s really — I don’t want to go off too far, but I think the recent climate actions have sparked a lot of that same conversation. You know, what’s activism, what’s organizing, and how can they connect and be connected. And yeah, I agree. I really like what you said about this, like human-centric and human-first sort of thing. Like, you know, connecting as people, building relationships, which I think is the foundation of all organizing. And then when you do that to a certain degree, you have the capacity to take actions to do things that might be perceived to some as activism. But hopefully you message clearly that you are welcoming people into your organizing ultimately.
[00:14:49] And so for Washington Square Park, there was a lot of intersection between attempts to stop sweeps of homeless camps and mutual aid organizing. And to some outsiders some of these events might seem like, well, what are you going to do? They’ll just go sweep the next camp or whatever. It’s like, no, we know these people we’re building with these people. Like, these are our neighbors, friends, comrades. And ultimately, you know, networks were built, organizations were built, capacity was built to resist some of the sweeps. You know, it’s not — up against New York cops and sanitation in the city, you know, but capacity was built. And ultimately people also learned and are learning to organize, which is a big part of it. So, yeah, I love that distinction slash connection. Yeah.
Robert Raymond: [00:15:33] Yeah. Thanks for building on that. And yeah, let’s talk about Washington Square Park Mutual Aid. So how did you all get started? Sort of just give us the background and sort of what you do.
Joshua Potash: [00:15:46] Yeah, I think the origin story actually connects in ways that people might not initially think to this disaster focus. Here the disaster, there’s many, but the NYPD kind of was the disaster. It’s ongoing, of course, but there was a specific crackdown on public space in the spring, May 2021, seemingly provoked by wealthy people who lived around the park and in other parks in the city. You know, half stuff was happening in Brooklyn, in the Bronx and elsewhere. But the wealthy people who live around the park decided that they wanted a curfew in the park, specifically on the weekends.
[00:16:27] And, you know, that part of town is like I mean, Washington Square Park is iconic, you know, hippies playing there in the sixties, seventies, you know, Bob Dylan in the village, whatever, all that stuff. And now it’s a space where a lot of people who don’t have 50 bucks to blow at the bars around the corner can come and just hang out. And so that means a lot of kids. It means a lot of Black and Brown kids from uptown or Brooklyn or, you know, students, all sorts of people gather there, especially in the summer. And this is like, again, May 2021. So people are starting to gather, hang out there at night, play music, skateboard, all that good stuff.
[00:16:58] And when the police started enforcing these arbitrary curfews, the first couple times people didn’t really know what to do. But then after the third or fourth. Our people started resisting and cops started getting violent. And the sort of Black Lives Matter anti-racist antifascists like members of the community who are in those circles, really wanted to push back against clearing people out of one of the not only most well known, but also one of the really few — relative to the number of people, there’s just so few free public spaces in this city.
[00:17:29] And so we did. We started putting — a mass of people started gathering and started refusing to leave. And it got violent again, but there was a different tenor to it of resistance rather than just kind of victimhood or just police brutality. And after one of those nights that got more violent, there is a few of us at jail support for arrested comrades. And we just started talking. Really, we have to change the narrative, change the game somehow. You know, people are talking about drug use and fireworks and it’s like these wealthy people who are talking about those things aren’t talking about community or they’re not talking about solidarity — I mean, obviously they’re not, but how can we get the story out?
[00:18:08] And so we just posted up the next week on a Friday by the Arch in Washington Square Park that, you know, comes across in the media a lot. And we also asked a friend who often carries around a giant speaker to come. And so pizza and clothing and this one friend making little seed bombs and you know all kinds of crafts and a speaker and it was like people dancing, 10, 11 by the fountain — 10, 11 p.m. like hundreds of people dancing. And it went from there. We didn’t really we first, like, marketed it on social media as like a jubilee, you know, mutual aid jubilee. But then we’re like, Why? Why wouldn’t we do this next week? And then, you know, then a group wanted to meet and talk and it just went from there. And it didn’t, you know, it didn’t 100% change the narrative or whatever. But, you know, some articles were written and then the cops left — or they stopped the sweeping and the riot gear and all that. So something worked. Something happened. And yeah, that was a year and a half ago and it’s still going on.
Robert Raymond: [00:19:07] I love that story and I love that you all started in very like a specific sort of sweep defense context, but it also sounds like you have just sort of, I’m assuming, organically like expanded to like a bunch of stuff like you do reading groups, you do skill shares. I love that so much. Like the idea of marrying the sort of like activism side of stuff with like actually like learning — I don’t know what, maybe Yeah, maybe you can talk about like what you read, what kind of other programs you do, what kind of skill shares you do, and kind of maybe like paint us a bit of a picture about that.
Joshua Potash: [00:19:45] Yeah, Yeah. I think to a lot of us there, it’s very holistic. Yeah. So the reading group first it was just like an article club reading shorter things and then people wanted to read that book, Dean Spade’s book, Mutual Aid, to kind of, you know, there’s some NYU students, there’s some people who just live in the area who weren’t familiar like we talked about before, bringing people in, welcoming people in to the work, to the organizing. And so, yeah, we read that kind of foundational mutual aid book and, you know, tried to break it down together.
[00:20:16] And then after that we read some fiction because, yeah, like Joy and Ursula Le Guin and also radical author of fiction and, and kind of in a similar way where people wanted to join the organizing and join the article club, then the book club in a similar way, groups kind of just wanted to work together with us some groups because it’s such a central space and it gets tons of people. I think that’s part of it. So there’s a great group called [00:20:41] Cine Móvil, [00:20:42] which does kind of like pop-up movie screenings. They joined us twice, I think three times for some movie screenings. Some of the sweep defense organizers organizing that we talked about came to do kind of Skillshare, but also conversations, you know, different people talking, strategizing. There’s been knitting, skill shares, Narcan trainings.
[00:21:05] And yeah, that’s — I think part of the beauty of it, of holding the space in that park is that it is a communal community space and it allows for people to gather, which is kind of part of our original intention that people should be free to gather here for free. And so, yeah, living up to those initial aims and then kind of building on it and building a place for people to learn and chat and get to know each other and build a community. Yeah.
Robert Raymond: [00:21:32] I wanted to ask you, broadening the conversation out a little bit again, like this idea — I guess what I’m really curious about is like your theory of change, if you have one, and particularly like in the context of scaling the kind of work that you’re doing. And I know it’s like kind of crazy to be like talking about all of these really lofty ideas when you’re just like on the ground trying to, you know, do some work in your community, but really just like broadening it out, just to have a little bit more of a theoretical conversation again.
[00:22:06] One of the critiques that leftists commonly have around mutual aid — I don’t know if critique is actually the right idea, but like an acknowledgment perhaps of its limitations is that they often do stay local and it’s hard to — like, you may get lucky to live in an area that has an excellent mutual aid group and like in your neighborhood. But how do these things scale and truly like change systems? And I wanted to ask you this specifically, because I noticed that your current Twitter account name is “Read Jackson Rising by Cooperation Jackson.” And you often put the names of books in your account name. And I love that.
[00:22:47] And so the reason I want to ask you about that is because Jackson Rising — well, maybe just let you explain like why you brought that book into your username and specifically like this idea of federating out, right? Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson which is behind the book “Jackson Rising” talks a lot about this idea of federated hubs and municipalism and all that. So I’d love to know what you take from that and why you feel like that’s an important thing to highlight.
Joshua Potash: [00:23:21] Yeah, well, there’s a lot there.
Robert Raymond: [00:23:24] Yeah.
Joshua Potash: [00:23:25] And it’s all good. It’s all important, I think. So in terms of where to start, I think the critique of the limits of mutual aid is, you know, valid. I think that’s a good starting point. I think it’s really easy and normal and natural when we get involved in an organization or in work to, like, start identifying with it. And, you know, if you help start a group or if you view yourself as like a core member to defend it. And I think mutual aid is very worth defending. But I think some of the critiques come from this black-and-white place. And I don’t know if it’s Twitter or if leftism has always been like this, but, you know, we want to critique each other to make each other better. But how can we do so in a way that’s not black and white?
[00:24:11] So rather than like, is mutual aid good or bad? For me, it’s like, is mutual aid enough or not? And to me that leads into a slightly different place where it’s like, No, it’s not enough by itself, but it’s a piece of the puzzle. And so, yeah, Cooperation Jackson, they have many puzzle pieces or like pillars that they talk about — several. And so cooperatives — worker cooperatives, worker-owned cooperatives, political education. To me, mutual aid is one of the pieces with these other things, and that mutual aid becomes more powerful if it’s federated or working within a clear and powerful network with other mutual aid groups or related groups, they don’t have to exactly be mutual aid groups.
[00:24:57] So it’s not easy, you know, that that part of the process isn’t easy. But mutual aid groups in New York are in touch. And those sweep defense networks came largely from multiple mutual aid groups working together and collaborating. And I hope we can continue to do that. I think that what you alluded to earlier, this post-pandemic situation has also led to a decline in mutual aid work in some areas. But the capitalist crisis continues. No matter what people think of the pandemic. And so I think we are constantly being pushed towards solutions, basically, you know, the contradictions, the circumstances, conditions, whatever, push us towards — push me at least, and a lot of people I know towards finding solutions. And one of those is, I think, federating mutual aid groups and working together as mutual aid groups across the city or region and hopefully scaling up. But keeping that base, that kind of that very human center, like individual people working in small groups as the base I think is powerful.
[00:26:02] I think that’s — I guess the only other thing I would say is there’s — you know, I don’t just do mutual aid for this reason, largely. I’m a big believer in like community organizing and in my neighborhood, I also am part of like a community organizing collective because — which that group, that community organizing collective is also invested in mutual aid and partners with the local mutual aid group and stuff like that. But yeah, is intentionally building power in other ways as well beyond mutual aid.
Robert Raymond: [00:26:30] Yeah. Thank you for that. And this idea of like the social change map, you can have lots of different roles within the movement. And I think that I love how you framed that mutual aid is one important part and that there’s lots of other parts. And it’s incredible that you’re involved in a number of different aspects. So thank you very much for all the great work you’re doing. And I guess just to wrap up here, just wondering if there are any final thoughts that you’d want to share? Anything that we haven’t talked about yet, any final messages you’d like to impart for our listeners? But also any books, resources that you direct folks to or if they want to learn more about mutual aid — you mentioned Dean Spade? And any advice like on ways to plug into your community?
Joshua Potash: [00:27:20] That’s what I was just thinking about. Yeah. I mean, I definitely recommend the book Mutual Aid by Dean Spade and obviously Jackson Rising by Cooperation Jackson. But yeah, I was just thinking about how hard it can be to walk into a space where you don’t know anybody. And as simple as it is, I think that’s one of the single biggest barriers just social distance, a different form of social distance, just feeling alone or, you know, disconnection.
[00:27:48] So the advice I always give, which sometimes works sometimes doesn’t, is just to talk to that one most radical or progressive or involved organizy, activisty, friend and tag along. If you can’t do that, you know, I talk to some of us too sometimes who are in the middle of nowhere and like jump on a Zoom call. There’s so many organizations having great Zoom conferences and speeches or talks, book talks or whatever. You know it. It’s out there. Look on Instagram, look on Twitter, one day, take the plunge. You know, you don’t need to jump right into an organizing meeting. If a mutual aid group is hosting a giveaway, go to the giveaway and like or the distro distribution or whatever. In Washington Square Park people who I’ve never met before, sometimes just hop behind the table and are giving out pasta or chicken or pizza or vegetables, you know?
[00:28:39] Yeah, I think this is the actual last thing I’ll say unless you ask another question. One of the beautiful things about mutual aid and it’s not always true, but it should be true and often is true, is that people will treat you differently there. There people aren’t looking to get anything from you and they’ll be excited that you’re there to help. It’s different than a workplace. It’s different than, you know, a school or a competitive environment or, you know, it’s yeah, I think you’ll see the difference if you show up, whoever is listening. Yeah.
Robert Raymond: [00:29:13] Yeah. Thank you so much for that. I think that’s excellent advice and a great direction to point people in. And how about before I let you go, where can people find you and how can — if people are in New York City, if they’re in Manhattan, if they want to join in with the work that you’re doing, specifically, where should they go to find out more about that?
Joshua Potash: [00:29:34] Yeah, support WSP Mutual Aid on Twitter and Instagram. It’s great work being done. And if you’re ever in New York, Washington Square Park, can’t miss it. Fridays, 5 to 9 every Friday, rain or shine pretty much. And yeah, come get some free food. Talk to people and find the yeah, find the group on Instagram and Twitter. And obviously folks always appreciate financial contributions If you want to toss that to the mutual aid as well. But yeah, just showing up is the best. So. Yeah. Thank you.
Robert Raymond: [00:30:09] Awesome. Well, yeah, thanks for sharing all of that. And yeah, just thank you so much for coming on. This has been awesome.
Joshua Potash: [00:30:17] Yeah, it’s been great to talk. Thanks for all the thoughtful questions. Really appreciate it.