Mutual aid in times of confinement in Saint-Denis, testimony and perspectives for a social ecology in a popular neighbourhood
Written by The Bird of Passage, with the help of TRISE member Theo Rouhette
Saint-Denis, a working class city situated in the northern periphery of Paris, is facing the Covid-19 epidemic head-on, both in terms of the number of victims and the consequences of the confinement implemented throughout France on 17 March. It is at the same time here that mutual aid has become an intuitive, supportive and shared survival reflex.
“To war, we oppose care, from our loved ones to the peoples of the whole world and to the living”
I joined the Saint-Denis group following a call initiated on the independent newspaper Bastamag calling for the formation of self-help groups to oppose the logic of war and fear advocated by the government.
A virtual gathering at first, on Telegram, with a few people linked to the Black Vests movement, who are organizing in the migrant workers’ homes of Saint-Denis for their papers and dignity, with environmental activists, or simply with residents who do not envisage withdrawing of all collective space because of confinement. A diversity of anonymous neighbours, voices without faces, gradually creating a kind of complicity of action over phone meetings, then more direct as time goes by with the organisation of collections and distributions.
It was as if confinement had freed our power to act here and now by restoring the use of our time, which is otherwise alienated by the pendulum-like and humming rhythms of the daily routine and the mobility imposed from one end of the Parisian metropolis to the other. The scales of immediacy, of proximity, of the neighbourhood, and of the commune have been reconciled, all participating in the creation of new narratives and collective imaginaries. As Thierry Pacquot wrote: “the existential ecology that never separates our territorialities from our temporalities, they are always linked together, they are interdependent, whereas society does everything to separate them”. In the face of the carelessness from those who have successively managed the state apparatus, commodifying our health and our lives, the reflex for many has been to reappropriate the responsibility of our survival, in short, of care.
The collective immediately positioned itself in support of pre-existing struggle movements, while remaining open to all people and demands. We wrote a first appeal, with the initial idea that the group was there to support each other, to relay reliable information about Covid19 and its world in Saint-Denis, to make the link between needs and initiatives, to denounce and fight against repression and police blunders, which are numerous, in neighbourhoods that have been under the control of the forces of law and order for so many years. Step by step, work has begun with other collectives, such as the friends of a self-managed social centre, recently evicted; collectives of solidarity with migrants, trade unions, collectives of precarious workers and feminist activists.
In Saint-Denis, getting by without getting out
A working-class town, Saint-Denis is a place of creativity and resistance. It is also one of the last places in the inner suburbs of Paris where carers, nurses, cashiers, educators, drivers, delivery personnel and garbage collectors can still find accommodation.
Here lives a large part of the “reserve army” of the “war” against the invisible enemy decreed by Macron in his speech of 16 March.
Here the transports, whose pace has been reduced to cope with the spread of the virus, are still crowded with people going to work.
Here, the mortality rose by 130% between March 1st and April 20th. In Saint-Denis, people are already living four years less on average than in the centre of Paris. There are many chronic illnesses linked to precariousness and access to healthcare is very poor.
Here, to a foreigner that works it takes an average of one year to obtain social security and doctors are sorely lacking. The hospitals, saturated by the influx of Covid-19 patients, can only survive thanks to the commitment of the carers and the support of neighbours, associations and the municipality, who make gowns, masks, bring cakes and insure shuttle between the hospital and the train station. Caregivers are exhausted. Many have been contaminated by the virus due to the lack of sufficient protection available at the hospital. The same staff who, before the crisis, together with their trade unions, were already denouncing the working conditions and the lack of financial resources.
Here, the capacity of the hospital’s funeral home is totally exceeded and families are often unable to bury their Covid-19 victims in the appropriate conditions, depending on their cult, or to repatriate them to their country.
Here, the public space is still occupied by people who have no alternative but to make their homes there, or by those who are confined in the 20% unsanitary housing in the city, in crowded migrant workers’ hostels, or in overcrowded conditions that make the confinement impossible.
Here, a large part of the population was in temporary employment or working in the informal sector before the confinement and are now deprived of income. The dematerialized procedures for collecting unemployment benefits or family allowances leave those who cannot get to the family allowance fund and the unemployment office even more deprived.
Here, many children depended on the school kitchen to be able to eat twice a day and hunger, when it is not cracking down already, threatens many households.
Here, the neighbourhoods are checked by the national police, who, with the help of the municipal police, track down, check faces and sometimes search people’s bodies and assault them, simply because they are walking around in public spaces. In Ile-Saint-Denis, on 23 April, a man threw himself into the Seine to avoid the police, who called him a “bicot “, a racist insult directed towards people from Maghreb.
Here, where 40% of the population are immigrants (born abroad without the French nationality), undocumented people no longer dare to go out out of fear of being checked out by the police.
Here, where people live in shantytowns, in tents, access to water and sanitation is often difficult.
Here, too, the inhabitants persist in surviving, resisting and inventing a different narrative from the stigmatizing one of the dominant media, and that of recalcitrant and dangerous populations conveyed by the government.
When the last pillars of the state apparatus collapse
On the wastelands of a State whose successive rulers have destroyed all protection and commodified life with the support of the big investors and capitalist entrepreneurs, mutual aid and solidarity are pushing forward. The State has replaced protection and care with security, presenting itself as the inescapable guarantor against uncertainty, accident, risk; but under conditions. Based on this ‘security pact’, already waved during terrorist attacks, the state of health emergency proclaimed the day after 17 March is another unprecedented opportunity to control the working classes and the immigrant classes in their every move, to make fear and mistrust reign. Helicopters, drones, and specialized brigades criss-cross the city; state-sponsored surveillance capitalism surely rooting itself in practices and minds.
The dilapidated state of public health reveals in broad daylight that the last bulwark that could legitimise the state, namely redistribution and the guarantee of rights, has fallen. All the administrations are caught off guard by a crisis that all the reports of the WHO, the Inspectorate General of Administration (Confidential Report of 2005), other reports classified as confidential (such as this report of the Director General of Health, Jacques Salomon addressed to candidate Macron in 2016) had predicted. Already upstream, in the field of research, Bruno Canard, a coronavirus specialist at the CNRS, is blaming the chronic lack of funding and the deterioration of working conditions for researchers. In addition, the continuous reductions in recent years in employers liabilities under pressure from employers’ union, which have increased since the Macron government, have considerably undermined the funding of the social protection system. Then downstream, in hospitals, the logic of efficiency that dominates the new public management has sacrificed the very objective of protecting life, promoting everywhere the profitability of all medical procedures by drastically restricting expenditure.
This crisis made visible the destitution of the health care system, which was supposed to be a common good of society : it is like realizing a huge scam.
As a reaction to this hold up and refusing the passive astonishment imposed by the confinement, self-help committees, popular solidarity brigades linked to the antifascist movement and inspired by those in Milan, and all the myriad initiatives that flourish everywhere to get by without getting out, have been set up everywhere. The rise of the Covid-Entraide platform, calling for self-organisation and the formation of a national solidarity network, bears witness to this. Because when there is nothing left standing, everything has to be rebuilt.
Helping each other to survive
Banners on the windows, concerts from one building to another, the confined city takes back its face, the face-to-face becomes possible again. Neighbours worry and inform each other, solidarity organizes itself. Numerous cultural or sports associations that have contributed to transforming neighbourhood life in recent weeks have multiplied pre-existing self-help networks.
Thanks to the Saint-Denis mutual aid collective, I too have been able to survive the deafening despair of confined isolation.
I have the invigorating feeling of being part of an initiative based on the creativity and complementarity of people who are unable to cope with withdrawal. A collective action marked by small victories: we can feed about fifty families, support other collectives that prepare several hundred meals or organize marauds for people living in the street. Seamstresses make masks for families and the people making their distributions.
In a few weeks, from a group of inhabitants who did not know each other, the collective organized, without physically seeing each other, a food aid, where contacts between people allow them to collect food, diapers, and hygiene products which are then disinfected and delivered according to a rigorous protocol.
As in the health sector, and again the goal of privatization, the public authorities have discharged food aid by calling on humanitarian associations based on retired volunteers. The withdrawal of these more vulnerable people in times of epidemics and the saturation of food aid once again demonstrated the organised inability of the state to meet the most basic needs of the people. The survival of those deprived of resources now depends largely on self-help activists.
Very quickly, the collective created a pool. It is mainly used to purchase hygiene products to migrant workers’ homes in conjunction with fellow Black Vests, to buy diapers for women in emergency accommodation with their children in a hotel, supported by feminist activists, and to buy medicines for a refugee family.
On social networks, the collective has become a platform where many of the initiatives taking place in Saint-Denis are relayed: occupations, petitions, denunciations of police violence, sometimes information on health prevention in all languages, or against violence against women.
Comrades have also produced a guide on all the self-help initiatives which today enable many inhabitants to get out of the situation…
Marked by a diversity of political sensibilities, and in the midst of a period between two rounds of municipal elections where the communist barons could lose the city they have held for 70 years, we have managed to draft a text to call on the municipality to provide the means of production (the central canteen, access to water), to requisition empty housing, and to intervene in places where people are relegated to poor housing and in distress. But the town hall is overwhelmed. It seems to be confined within its palace. The food aid and the monopoly that certain associations have taken to organize it will no doubt come to feed the political clientèle of certain parties competing for the second round of municipal elections, scheduled back to the month of September 2020 (3).
But giving food, without the prospect of self-organization and self-defense, is also risking to contain the riot. Crossed by our political diversities and our desires to act, the horizon that opens up to the mutual aid collective after the confinement is still uncertain. The needs are still there, but will the forces also be there when many members will return to work? Will we still be able to store and disinfect the food collected in the school that has made its premises available after the start of the school year? Should we continue to fill in the gaps of the public authorities? How can we organise ourselves collectively without public space?
I wonder about the after-confinement knowing that we have set up food parcels and created dependencies among individuals and families. Isn’t one of the main issues of this crisis the development of food autonomy?
Many urban agriculture initiatives are developing in the Seine-Saint-Denis department, but our land is often highly polluted industrial wasteland. Difficult in this context to include social emergency (15,000 to 20,000 households have difficulty feeding themselves in Seine-Saint Denis now and after the deconfinement) within an autonomous approach to food in the long run. There are inspiring experiences like in Detroit, but how can we set up a movement of popular education and
collective appropriation of the spaces to be cultivated to feed such a dense urban population with highly diversified food habits? Often, the shared gardens at the foot of the towers rely on a few seasoned activists who end up appropriating the space. The few associations for the maintenance of a local agriculture (AMAP, which deliver directly to the members of the association) of the territory do a lot already, but it is difficult to support such a demand.
How can we continue the much-needed work on food autonomy, on the durability of the solidarity bonds that have been created, on our ability to act directly and as close as possible to support the most fragile, but also to help each other, to feel upright when everything could bring us down?
This collective has forged strong ties and nothing will ever be the same again. Finally, we are the only guarantors of our rights. It is through this enthusiasm of the inhabitants that a new way of pooling, of doing things together, is being invented. Confinement, as a break and discontinuity in daily life, is an opportunity to reaffirm use-values in the face of exchange-values, of reciprocity in the face of profit. The time freed up by the partial or total cessation of work gives us back some sovereignty, both individual and collective, and allows us to build autonomy through self-organisation. It is during this time, devoted to tasks of collective interest, that complementarity and interdependence develop, the foundations of an ecological and social society as defended by the communalism theorized by Murray Bookchin.
In a world-city like Saint-Denis, where more than 100 nationalities coexist, this new solidarity builds bridges between the multiple cultural and affinity archipelagos that often coexist without living together in the city. Developing in the interstices of a fallen state, will this unity-in-diversity be able to go beyond the moment of the health crisis to constitute itself as a sustainable political alternative?
Already, the confinement is redrawing the boundaries between the intimate and the political. In this new relationship to the self and others that is emerging, one of the greatest challenges is care. This care, which had been delegated to state institutions monopolized by the logic of profitability, is now returning to us and is undoubtedly a basis for rethinking ourselves politically, as organic communities anchored in our living spaces.
It is precisely on this confluence of “citizens” fighting against all domination in their living places that social ecology is based, which demands direct democracy and the relocation of production activities to meet the needs of each and every one of us, as defined by the community. Needs, not the injunction to unbridled consumption.
What I perceive from what we are experiencing today, in the midst of chaos, is the magnificent notion of mutual aid, which Kropotkin had shown to be one of the intrinsic principles of life, survival and reproduction of living species. Mutual aid already experienced on a daily basis by the emancipated societies of the Zapatistas of Chiapas and the Kurds of Rojava. A growing mutual aid in France since the movement of the yellow vests and active in collectives such as the one in Saint-Denis. A libertarian and collective mutual aid, prefiguring the possible paths of the next world.
Because their greed will not be able to rob us of our dignity, our multiple and combined capacities. If they put us in danger, let’s protect ourselves, let’s take care of each other …
1. Health crisis management was entrusted to the Directorate General of National Security, a military management body reporting to the Prime Minister, in 2011.
2. Link to the french mutual aid platform: https://covid-entraide.fr/
3. The first round of municipal elections took place the day before the confinement. It was marked by an extremely low turnout, around 44% at the national level. In Saint-Denis, 30% of the registered voters turned out in the evening, 14,295 people for a town of 111,000 inhabitants.