Redistribution and World Building

A conversation with K Agbebiyi, creator of the Disability Justice Mutual Aid Fund

This past spring, emerging solidarities were forged in the anxious atmosphere of a contagious disease outbreak that took many lives and foreclosed many others. In the United States, COVID-19 and the government’s fatal response brought death along the worn paths of racial violence and flailing imperial lashings out. The season has turned to the summer of abolition. In the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and George Floyd, Minneapolis and multiple other cities erupted in the righteous rage and uncontainable love that fuels Black liberation. Care for each other and fire to the destroyers work simultaneously on the ruins of one order and the roots of another. As people flooded the streets to assert a world beyond the death spiral of white supremacy, support infrastructures also sprung up to sustain those in rebellion on the multiple fronts.

On June 3rd, a new mutual aid fund was announced: the disability justice mutual aid fund. It will be open to contributions until June 16th to distribute necessary means to disabled organizers in this moment of Black liberation protests and beyond. At its conclusion, any remaining money will be distributed to other NYC-based mutual aid projects. The New Inquiry chatted on the phone with the creator of the fund K Agbebiyi on June 5th, a Friday afternoon between early summer storms just before the 8pm curfew instated by despised Mayor Bill de Blasio in fear of the people’s power. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation about the fund and the abolitionist project.

TNI: We’re interested both in the practical aspects of organizing something like the Disability Justice Mutual Aid Fund and the larger analysis that drives you. Can you talk a little bit about the motivation for setting up the fund and how it relates to other work that you’ve done?

K: I’ve been an organizer for around six years, but I didn’t identify as disabled until about a year and a half ago when I became disabled because of chronic back pain. My whole organizing world shifted because I was unable to go to meetings in Brooklyn and Manhattan and going to actions would take me out of commission for like two weeks. So, I really had to restructure the way that I thought of myself as an organizer.

The fund was created to honor the work of disabled organizers, who might have difficulties getting to actions, and especially to protests related to the murder of George Floyd. The fund is short term because of that, and money can go to anything organizing related: a car ride to an action, a heating pad, more first aid kits, paying for someone’s inhaler, things like that.

TNI: What is the strategy behind making the fund short term, and how do you decide on a temporal strategy? Is there a diversity of temporal tactics that figure into disability justice, and how do they related to the protracted length of both chronic disability and organizing work?

K: The idea for it to be short term came from a comrade who created a fund that I worked on to raise funds for incarcerated people. That fund raised $40-50,000, and I saw how much labor it took. In the process I realized I did not have the capacity to commit to a long term fund, and in any case, there are many funds out there that are long term that we can redistribute to.

Even though chronic pain or organizing are long term, being disabled means that there are peaks when I am more aware of the fact that I’m disabled. That tends to happen especially in these high action moments when there is a protest every day. And so it is not that the movement for Black lives is going to end on the last day of fundraising (June 16th), but more that it’s important to acknowledge that it can be hard on anyone’s body to be out on the street every day. In this particular moment, there are also people who are caretakers but who might be preoccupied with the protests, and the fund is also meant to support them and the people they care for.

TNI: What is also disturbing and fucked is that people are being actively disabled in the process of protesting this past week. You touched a little bit on this already, but since redistributive efforts are at the front end of things, what is less visible to people is the world building aspect that organizers that are also involved in. What are some things that people who are learning about or donating to the fund might not be aware of?

K: A lot of my work is inspired by someone I organize with named Mariame Kaba, or @prisonculture. She organizes a lot of mutual aid projects and I watched her over the years do really well with them. The disability justice mutual aid fund started as a small individual project, but when it grew quickly, we relaunched it with a team. At that point it became a lot more organized, and we started accepting funds on different platforms. We have someone who has been making all of our graphics, which took the fund over to the next level and allowed us to go from 3,000 to almost 30,000 in three days.

Currently we have a team of around ten people working on this, and we are in constant communication on Signal! Some people handle the distributing of the funds because there are different limits on how much you can distribute. There are different people who are responding to and following up on requests for more information. Then we are all collaborating when deciding on how much money to give because there are also some smaller funds that we might want to redistribute a larger amount of money to. I’d say we spent at least 3-4 hours a day this week working on the fund and then we’re going to have a meeting this week to finish stuff out. My friend who made the graphics is also thinking about archiving all the interviews about the fund because we are planning to make a simple toolkit for people to make a fund of their own.

TNI: It seems like a lot of this work is all about the details and it’s not the photo-op ready work that people new to organizing might think of. What advice would you give people who are trying to create a fundraising project?

K: My advice is to get more people than you need and to not be afraid to delegate. For example, there’s a couple organizers in Atlanta and Oakland who are just as frustrated as I am that we can’t get our money out of Venmo. So they created a mini-campaign to target Venmo. That’s a lot of work and being able to ask my best friend to go meet with them instead of me doing so has been really helpful. It’s definitely key to recruit a lot of people. And being better at Excel than I am! I thought the fund was going to be really small, and it was hard to get things in order after launching, when the fund grew very quickly. Another thing is even if a fund is smaller, make sure you don’t download too much money from Venmo or Cash App because I forgot the number, but it’s in the thousands that will fuck with your taxes in some way.

Having a specific time limit for when the fund will end is helpful in terms of managing the funds and being real about people’s energies. When we were doing the soap fund, people thought that it would be over in a couple of days. Then when it was going on for months, people were understandably saying, “I actually have to step back from this. This is taking up a lot of my time.”

And honestly, get rid of the non-profit in your head! A lot of organizers work for non-profits, but people shouldn’t have to prove themselves worthy in order to get funds or tell their whole life story. You don’t have to check up to see how those people spent money later. A lot of mutual aid funds started in the city by people who are employed by non-profits had of a lot of paperwork involved and I just don’t believe in that. I think if you’re going to do a mutual aid fund, make sure you have the right politics behind it and understand that people don’t have to give you an entire hour-long story just to deserve funds.

The nonprofit industrial complex has specific guidelines on who they can offer aid to that are incredibly ableist or tied to the carceral state. There is often “proof of income” or “background checks,” to make sure that no one who was ever incarcerated can qualify.

While mutual aid lies outside of non-profits, that doesn’t mean that we can’t still have boundaries around who and what we give money to. Our fund is specifically for disabled organizers who are doing Black liberation work right now. This is something we are clear about from the beginning, and the only reason why we would ever ask for more clarification from someone is if they were unclear about their position. Of course, we’re a short term fund so funds are limited, and we are prioritizing people of color, particularly Black folks. But that is the only reason we would deny someone – if they don’t meet the short criteria, or if the funds are limited.

TNI: We wish we had had this conversation like two days ago because we’ve been trying to organize funds for our friend who was injured by cops in a protest a few days ago. We also ran into issues with getting money out of Venmo. And then just an hour ago, trying to budget for the coming weeks, we were asking each other, “How the hell do you do an excel spreadsheet?”

K: It’s hard! Hopefully the guide we created will be helpful for people in some way. I know it would have been helpful for me.

TNI: I have literally lied on every resume that I know how to do excel and I’m realizing how bold a lie that was.

K: I took a graduate level statistics and research methods and then when I created a spreadsheet and we had ten donations, I didn’t know how to add up all the donations…

TNI: Thinking of our friend and friends in general who have been injured, had surgery, or dealt with disabilities and have either had to have people fundraise for them or organize care schedules, etc. there seems to be the logistical component and then also a building of relationships among everyone involved in the process of caring for this person. That’s on the smaller scale of friends and community, and I wonder if you think that something similar happens in terms of building close relationships on a larger level through a mutual aid fund.

K: I definitely noticed it with the soap fund I worked on. There were some people I had been organizing with in Survived and Punished for over a year who I didn’t know anything about. In working on the fund, we got a lot of closer. With this fund, my partner, who lives in DC, has been able to finally meet and work with everyone involved, which has been really fun and special. And yeah, it’s fun to just wake up and check the chat, we were just asking “What is everyone’s day job, what is everyone eating now?” Even though the fund is short term, this random assortment of people will keep talking. I think it’s beautiful and will create a micro community even after the fund is over.

TNI: Love it. Very cute. You have a good point about the non-profit mentality that can sneak into things and how organizing work sometimes start to feel like wage labor work where we’ll all sitting in a conference room having a serious meeting. But I don’t want to feel alienated from these efforts because this is actually the work that gives my life meaning. At this time, there are so many people responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and maybe learning about mutual aid for the first time and how to build lasting infrastructure and that’s really coming into the mix with people’s emerging understanding of abolition as well. There’s a real acceleration of people’s interest and desire to know about ideas that have been around for a long time, and that people have been building connected movements around for a long time. Do you have ideas about where that’s going or concerns about directions these movements might take as they become more mainstream? And how does mutual aid relate to the larger movement for abolition?

K: It’s interesting because [last week] people were saying that “Abolition is really taking off”, and I was like, no it’s not. Then this morning I had to admit to my friend that I was completely wrong. More people than ever are talking about it, writing about it, and asking me questions in good faith. With the call to defund the police or for abolition, I don’t want it take the route of Abolish ICE. That was a case where a lot of people were saying it, but then when you interrogate it, they only wanted to abolish ICE to then create like five baby ICES or something along those lines. So when something gets really popular like this it can be exciting to see momentum for something that people have lived and breathed for a long time, but I think it’s important now that we have a lot of political education going on and that people are taking a lot of time to teach others, and to read and learn and listen. So that the people who say they are on board for abolition are actually, genuinely on board.

I’ve been trying to place where this new momentum is coming from and I know for sure the interest in mutual aid is coming from our government’s complete failure during this COVID-19 crisis. But in terms of abolition, I think that people are making the connection between the system that we have as a whole and the system of policing and understanding that anything the U.S. empire is coming up with is going to be really shit and anti-black. I’m excited for this momentum but it’s also hard and I don’t want to get my hopes up.

TNI: In the vein of trying to maintain that excitement, are there other projects or movements you’re looking to that are motivating? But also what keeps your optimism cautious?

K: Definitely the Movement for Black Lives. I mean people are calling the protests now Black Lives Matter, but there is a difference between what is happening now and what was happening closer in timeline to Ferguson. I did observe that movement as it was happening because that’s when I first really started to be an organizer, and people were latching onto that moment and using it to take really complex concepts and water them down so that white people will accept them and so they could make money off of it. I see that now when people are conflating reform with abolition. Suddenly more people are talking about police reform and it’s something my comrades and I are really suspicious of, especially in NYC because we’ve had such an intense fight around the construction of new jails that happened this past year.

So I would say the Movement for Black Lives is the main one I’m looking to and that a lot of people are activated by. But then I’m wondering again, what’s next?

TNI: I appreciated how you connected the fact of US imperialism being at its foundation anti-black [and genocidal as well to Indigenous peoples] and the inability of the US to even provide the basic necessities of life to its own citizens while actively murdering Black people is related to how the U.S. is generally in the world. A really good sign the other day said: Cops out of our cities, U.S. out of our World.

K: Yes!

TNI: But I think that often becomes a limit for the US left. So, if we are going to make abolition as a mass movement how do we work toward something that gets beyond people’s knee jerk patriotism? Because even if people don’t consider themselves patriots, they still have this attachment to the United States. I look forward to seeing abolition as an internationalist project and I’m wondering how to make that happen.

K: When you mention abolition, people say “what about the rapists and the murderers?” They say it without hesitating and without researching, of course. But there’s a strong visceral reaction when you say you’re an abolitionist; that’s something in their mind that threatens their sense of safety. It’s helpful when more people are talking about imperialism: many here might say abolish the police without understanding the connection between the prison industrial complex and the military in any way…which is confusing to me. There are also people in the military with viral tweets giving people protest advice.

TNI: As if the point of view of counterinsurgency is to be trusted to know what people should or shouldn’t be doing…

K: The connection is so clear to me! Even the term prison industrial complex. It came from the military industrial complex. I just don’t see how people can’t make connection between the two but it’s a good moment for political education to help people do so.

TNI: What are strategies for political education? I don’t know if you saw that article going around about the fallacy of anti-racist reading lists without any actual pedagogy happening as well. People can read a book, but they’ll read it with this extractive mindset about how this makes them feel like a better person instead of how it will transform their thinking. I want to contribute more to transformative pedagogy that doesn’t happen in the classroom though it can be difficult to find spaces for that to happen, especially, again to harp on the U.S., because there is such an embedded anti-intellectualism. Even if it’s not high flatulent intellectualism, but just ideas that colonized peoples around the world maybe without college degrees or access to formal higher education have been discussing for years and building their struggles around.

K: I created an FAQ about prison abolition a couple of days ago and it just came from me asking my Facebook friends what questions they have. I had made it known that I won’t be participating in any petitions or protests that ask for the cops that murder people to be charged. That’s something that gets a strong reaction from a lot of people. In response, I got a lot of really good questions and then I took it to Twitter and it blew up. It was a free resource and one that directed people to more resources. I typed it the way that I talk, it wasn’t like writing a book or a school paper. It’s interesting for me because I’m not an academic even though sometimes I’m referred to as one. I also do see the anti-intellectualism that people turn to, it takes the form of “If you ask people to read, then you are being elitist.” This is especially misguided when it comes to abolition because if you look to those committed abolitionists who do the most reading, they are often incarcerated people who might not have access to formal education inside.

I do want to make the information and analysis accessible, but I also don’t want people to think that because you read this two-page guide on prison abolition you know all there is to know about it.

TNI: It’s such a weird thing about people accusing you of not making materials accessible, but not thinking about the time and the space and material resources that you need for study, which is what is lacking, not the material in itself. People need the space and the time and the ability to sit down and learn and think together, and to have access to study spaces which are not necessarily university spaces. We need to be able to think together in various ways.

K: There’s a lot of shame in admitting that you don’t know something or that it took you a long time to learn about something. For me that what’s exciting, the opportunity to learn. But I think for a lot people that shame comes up, so when a concept new to them arises, they want someone to teach everything about it really quickly. Some people are not willing to sit down and struggle with a text, which I’ve had to do numerous times. Or like re-read things or talk about things and admit you don’t know things to your comrades. That causes a lot of people a lot of discomfort. When it comes to prison abolition and other movements, you have to do the reading or listen to the work. It’s not just something you can read in 200 characters and understand.

TNI: It sounds like a lot of organizers are total nerds.

K: That’s my opinion! My best friend Jamie has taught me so much about imperialism and anti-war efforts. Her and I are extremely committed to doing the readings. I look at the things I said even a year ago before reading certain book and I’m like, Ugh, you should not talk! There are so many conversations that are cyclical and that keep happening because people refuse to read. I’ve gotten a lot of flack for saying people should read, but I really really think that they should. And they shouldn’t just rely on those liberal reading lists. They should read Black radicals and not just read things that already affirm what they know.

This moment is really important but what we do after is also extremely important. I hope that people who were not previously activated take the time to find a political home. That’s what I would call Survived and Punished for me. We have to do something after this too.