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August 5, 2020

We Need a New Mutual-Aid Group

After a series of controversies, it’s clear that the UChicago community needs a private network of support, not an anarcho-communist political organization.

If you’re plugged into UChicago’s online community, you’re probably familiar with UChicago Mutual Aid (UCMA), a Facebook group where members can offer and request assistance. The once-private group was formed in late March as a network of support for the University of Chicago community during the COVID-19 displacement and has since become a public group that anyone in Hyde Park may join . It’s been an invaluable resource where people can request a wide variety of aid such as food, housing, protective gear against police brutality, or money. But the group has recently undergone self-affiliation with anarcho-communism, and an even more alarming debacle with Soviet imagery. These incidents have revealed a pressing need for an apolitical, inclusive alternative for community support.

The most concerning development in the mutual-aid group has been its relationship with communism and anarcho-communism. On July 19, a page administrator changed the cover photo of the group to an image of black hands across the half-ring of an apparent sickle, against a bright red star. Historically, the iconography of a hammer across a sickle was used to represent the Soviet Union, whose Red Army’s military caps displayed a bright red star. In the comments section of the photo, students immediately and rightfully called for “the removal of imagery that is associated with a century of oppression and suffering.” Many took to UChicago Secrets, an anonymous forum for University community members, to reveal the pain and trauma their families had endured under these horrific symbols. The designer has since apologized for using markers of the authoritarian regime, maintaining that the resemblance to Soviet imagery was unintentional. But in a UChicago Secrets post where someone discusses their family dying in the gulags, a different UCMA administrator responds by calling the post “dumb” and telling people to “get over” the incident.

And while the page moderators have since said that they are not in favor of the USSR, the comments sections of posts are filled with individuals arguing to keep the imagery of the sickle and red star, implying its association with the concept of liberation. One of the most popular comments on an apology post by an admin dismissed the outrage as “students from the upper classes of society that look towards any movement for economic equality as threats to their very being.” Another commenter expressed their own opposition to the Soviet state, but then defended USSR symbolism as a “source of comfort…pride and ideals.” The Soviet red star was also unfairly likened to the raised fist of the Black Lives Matter movement.

This is problematic. Firstly, it is a cruel dismissal and attempt to silence those sharing their trauma. Secondly, a platform intended for individuals to help each other is not the place to argue over a symbol that is hurtful to so many people, or to assert dominance of a political philosophy. Whether or not the connotations of the since-deleted cover image were intentional, this incident has revealed that the page’s leadership has shifted its focus drastically from mere community support to a platform for anarcho-communist organization.

Despite the removal of the red star, the current logo still retains bright red coloring, which the designer has declared a nod to anarcho-communism. Additionally, upon removing the star, another administrator updated the group description. It is now linked to a webpage on the history of mutual aid as “a revolutionary and communist” philosophy. I am not a communist. Unfortunately, the deliberate anarcho-communist iconography of the logo and the use of “communist” in the group’s description make it impossible for me to avoid this association. While I respect other people’s political beliefs, I am forced to choose between whether I want to give up access to a valuable support system or affiliate myself with a philosophy that I do not support. I imagine that the dilemma is worse for individuals whose families have been personally affected by oppressive communist regimes such as the USSR.

The page description justifies this affiliation because the concept of mutual aid traditionally refers not simply to helping people, but an organizational theory of political participation with the goal of creating communist change. Such an organization is incapable of representing our politically diverse campus. A group with niche, fundamentally political goals cannot be inclusive of the larger UChicago community or make all of its members feel comfortable or safe. So, it’s worth noting that human beings supporting their community in times of crisis is not always an act of communist mutual aid. Rather, it is a manifestation of basic, altruistic human nature that has been documented across capitalists, socialists, communists, and other -ists. Keeping your roommate’s plants for the summer or participating in a food drive is not a political endorsement, nor did communists invent the concept of helping people. To survive the pandemic, housing shortages, and other difficulties, we need an apolitical community support group, not an anarcho-communist mobilization.

Finally, there is the additional disadvantage of UCMA being made public, where anyone can join. Contributors of group content can therefore be unaffiliated with UChicago. Because of this, students have expressed feeling less trust in the group as a familiar space, and have raised concerns that some posts might in fact be scams. A UChicago-only, private support system would retain the privacy and consideration of UChicago community members, many of whom do not feel comfortable interacting in a public group, and who would feel more comfortable interacting within common affiliation of the University.

A possible solution is to create a community support subgroup within the larger UChicago Facebook group, similar to the groups for Housing or Free & For Sale. Such a space would only be accessible to people with “@uchicago.edu” email addresses. It would also not need its own set of moderators. I would not ask anyone to leave or disband the current mutual-aid group because regardless of politicization, it has valuably, commendably helped a wide community. But this does not change the fact that UCMA has been politicized by its admin, and more concerningly so by apologists of USSR iconography who are dismissive of dissenting opinions. It is crucial that we check this now. We must ensure that our community has access to a safe, inclusive, apolitical support system that everyone can feel comfortable using.

Manya Bharadwaj is a second-year in the College.

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