Scene From a Pandemic: 56

14 06 2021

by S. Eudora Smith

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

(photo: S. Eudora Smith)

Democracy on a Ventilator

Washington, DC

I wore two masks this past year—one to guard against Covid-19, another to hide my fear of the political violence that infected the nation’s capital.

Eleven thousand people died from the coronavirus in DC. Nearly 50,000 were diagnosed with Covid out of a population of more than 710,000. And at the US Capitol, five people died when a white mob incited by then-President Donald Trump ransacked the building in an attack on democracy and the sanctity of the vote. As Washington reopens, it’s easy to celebrate survival, though it’s hard to claim real security from Covid and the other virus that has left American democracy on a ventilator. Even if the source of only one of those will be formally investigated—leaving prosecutions the only hope for answers about the unprecedented attack on the Capitol and capital—what happened mustn’t be forgotten.

District residents endured what no other place in the country has—a lockdown for a public health crisis and a crisis of democracy. After January 6, tanks had rolled into town. Twenty-six thousand National Guard troops were amassed. Surrounding waterways were patrolled by federal marshals. Armed soldiers and military vehicles mingled with the monuments and symbols that tell the official story of America, the postcard version that visitors from across the country and the world take home with them. Shortly before the inauguration of Joe Biden, I wrote a friend: “At the request of the Secret Service, the bridges leading to Virginia will be closed from the 19th-21st. (A main bridge has already been closed.) I immediately thought of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. Manhattan is a penal colony, and all the bridges out are wired to explode if anyone tries to escape.”

We got a taste of living in a state of siege. I’d imagined the nearby on-ramp to the interstate as my escape route in the event of armed conflict … tanks blocked the ramp.

We got a taste of what it’s like to live in a state of siege. I had to go no further than the corner. My home was on the periphery of a sweeping secured zone that included the Capitol and the National Mall, which were cordoned off by a massive chain-link fence. To the south this zone included the offices of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is bordered by a major interstate. I had imagined the nearby on-ramp to the interstate as my escape route if the capital descended into armed conflict, but National Guard tanks blocked the ramp.

Like other Washingtonians, I looked at the troops and worried, “Will Trump leave without a fight? Will there be blood in the streets before it’s all over?” And, as important, “Should we even trust the Guard to oppose the insurrectionists? Might they turn on one another, and then on We the People?”

The first night I drove home from the grocery store, two young Guard members stopped me as I tried to turn at the light to enter my complex. “I live there,” I said, pointing at the complex, ready to provide proof of address. After a brief pause, I was let through, though I didn’t understand why I would be questioned in the first place. As a black woman, I wasn’t the reason the Guard has been deployed to the city.

Today the soldiers are gone. The last of them departed a few weeks ago. The metal fences that cordoned off the National Mall following the insurrection are gone too. I am leaving as well, for an ordinary reason, a different job. It strikes me, though, at this moment of reflection, that so much of what I love about DC has been eclipsed by memories of contagion and these multiple and still-uncertain efforts at containment.

Covid-19 cases have been reduced here. More than 42 percent of residents have been fully vaccinated. People talk of a return to normal, as if the crises we have experienced were just random interruptions in an otherwise predictable stream of events, not the movie trailer of disruptions to come. Health care experts anticipate a rise in cases in the fall and winter among unvaccinated people, and there are likely to be more variants, more pandemics in the future.

But for now, joggers leave puffs of dirt in their wake on the paths along the National Mall. Friends lounge on the bright green grass by the Washington Monument. Tourists pack the sidewalks on Independence and Pennsylvania avenues. People are out, masks off, while our democracy remains in critical condition.

S. Eudora Smith (a pen name) is a writer and editor. She is an advisor to Kopkind and was a mentor in 2009 and 2017.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on June 9, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: Mimi Morton, a Memory

On Memorial Day weekend people gathered at Packer Corners in Guilford, Vermont, just up the road from Tree Frog Farm, to celebrate the life of Mimi Morton, a longtime friend of Kopkind, who died of cancer on January 10. Mimi had come to Guilford in the ‘old days’, visiting from Montreal—where she was a college professor, print and radio journalist—and living for a time at Tree Frog when Andy was alive. Many years later, she moved permanently to Guilford, married Rick Zamore, and the two have been great supporters of our project, regularly gracing public events with their presence, raising incisive points or questions and bringing great dishes to every potluck. Before she died, Mimi completed Before the Age of Reason: A Memoir of Racism, a series of autobiographical vignettes tracing the obvious and not-so-obvious strands of racism growing up white and middle class in Riverton, New Jersey. Below, a lightly edited vignette. The book is available from Onion River Press/Phoenix Books.

Catholics on my mother’s side, Baptists and agnostics on my father’s side, constituted the religious diversity of my family until my paternal cousin and his wife took the trajectory from Agnosticism to Unitarianism to Amyway to AA to Born Again Christianity and the conservative politics that went with it. Eventually they dropped off the family roster beyond holiday emails.

Economic diversity was inevitable during the Depression and the 1950s, when my father quietly supported his indigent mother and brother and a few divorced sisters before more solvent marriages got them back on their feet. 

Racial diversity would have been unlikely had this not been America, where many families identified Native Americans somewhere in their rural nineteenth-century background. By the twenty-first, some families identified African Americans in their genealogy, but my family was not one.

My father was of Scots descent. He spent his adolescence in Jockey Hollow, a nearly unpopulated locale in the Southern Tier of New York State which I have never been able to find on a map. He spoke of Clifford Cellam, a cousin who was, according to family lore, “crazy headed,” my father’s way of alluding to behaviors, particularly drunkenness, which indicated to my father and other relatives that Clifford carried Native American blood. Were alcoholism the mark of First Nation identity, nearly every man and woman in my father’s family could be identified as Indians.

Unlike now, the early twentieth century was relatively easy to ascend in class. My mother’s family was Methodist English until my grandmother married my Irish grandfather and converted to Catholicism. My grandfather worked his way up from bricklayer’s apprentice to carpenter and finally to a partner in a building firm that he ultimately passed on to my father. Like my father, my grandfather supported his sisters when they were out of seamstress work or abandoned in marriage. The exception was his sister Mary, who married above herself, to a dentist. The dentist was South American; the grown-ups never said which country, much as Americans have referred to Africa as a country rather than a continent. Dr. Andrade and his Irish-American wife lived in a four-story brownstone on East 95th Street in New York, where my mother spent several magical Christmases (servants, lighted candles on a towering fir tree, midnight mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, transported in a hansom cab).

But there was the case of Natalie, Great Aunt Mary’s only child, a squat, dark girl with, according to my mother, “Indian blood” via her father from a nameless South American tribe. My mother’s stories of Natalie depicted her as the family scapegoat. “Oh mother, I’d rather die,” Natalie wailed when her mother insisted she wear every one of her three winter coats so as to lighten her suitcase as they returned from a trip to her father’s homeland.

After Dr. Andrade died, the family would never again order additions to their mono-grammed Tiffany flatware and Limoges dinnerware. But appearances must be kept up, and it fell to Natalie to cull the lesser of the family possessions for Christmas presents for my grandmother, such as poultry shears with remains of a fowl still stuck to the blades, and a pair of desiccated men’s suspenders (her father’s?) which, when stretched out, stayed that way. 

I saw the interior of Aunt Mary’s 95th Street house as a small child after she died. We stood in the foyer, the smoke from my father’s and grandfather’s cigarettes swirling in the shaft of sunlight between heavy window drapes. I couldn’t read the funny papers splayed on the floor, but I was fascinated by an object on the newel post at the bottom of the stairs: a plaster camel, draped in fringed and tasseled velvet, atop which sat a little turbaned black boy similarly dressed in velvet and holding in each hand a round white electric globe. This object suggested wealth, in dwindling supply now that Natalie’s father and mother were gone. Years later my mother interpreted for me: “The neighborhood was changing for the worse into Spanish Harlem.” I pictured an elderly Natalie sitting on her stoop with neighborhood women. “She says the neighbors steal from her but where else can she go? She speaks their language.” A non-English language, a language of the conquered. “She was a throwback,” my mother explained. “Not our blood.”





Scenes From a Pandemic: 55

7 06 2021

by Zia Jaffrey

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

(photo: Igor on Unsplash)

A Prisoner Videotaped Covid Conditions Last Year. Where Is He Now?

New York City

Out of one dream, another dream is born:

Yesterday, I heard someone from the West Bank say that denying Palestinians the vaccine is another act of genocide.

I thought of you, Dion, and the video you posted from federal prison last year, in Michigan.

Are you alive? I don’t know what happened to you.

In a green knitted cap, a white mask, and your dreads, you took us around with that contraband phone, saying: 

I fear retaliation for doing this. I’m putting my life on the line

You pleaded for our help, showing us bunk bed after bunk bed, in close proximity; suits and ironed clothes hung neatly on hangers from any rim they could find.  

I got a few little symptoms, but I don’t know if I’m gonna make it—they just sittin’ on us, waiting for us to die.

And the mattress, covered in clear plastic, where somebody had been really sick.

They ain’t sprayed the bed off, or nothing. They just left it like that.

Dion, is that your real name? I have looked for you everywhere. Are you alive? 

Look at these conditions? How can we practice social distancing when they got us all on top of each other like this?

You showed us the nearby area where men lay covered in thin blankets, shivering. The sick area. The men, barely responding. The checkered floor.

Did you meet the fate of the others?

Another image, now: a young man, whose sentence was two years, for possession; eyes closed; on the upper deck of a bunk bed. “Felon.” 

I can’t breathe

The price he will pay.  

Or did I dream that, Dion, from another video? Not from FCI Milan, but FCI Elkton, or Gaza? 

(photo: Phakphoom Srinorajan on Unsplash)

We need you all to be a voice for us.

Your deep vibrato. That cough. The mask.

Had to have a hunger strike to get these masks.

Heads of young people pop in and out of the frame—one, two, in sky-blue knitted caps; matching scarves, covering noses and mouths.

You take us into the bathroom: the unwashed windows, with unknown splatter—beige, the color of who knows what—the few sinks, the few shower stalls. Three stalls, to be precise. For eighty-plus men. Maybe ten sinks.

The showers—look how nasty and filthy it is—they ain’t sprayed it down with no bleach.

We see leftover scum, soap, rivers of it, overflowing from the neighboring stall, and sitting idly around a drain.

We had to go on a hunger strike just to get these masks—and get these little cleaning supplies that we do got.

You show us the SHU, outside the window:

People in there just waitin’ to die.

Out of one dream, another dream is born:

A different video, now. A journalist in Gaza. She explains that everyone was given an hour to leave the media building. Twelve stories high. “Hamas intelligence” target. Lawyers’ offices. Doctors’ offices. The journalists made way for the residents and their children who lived on the six floors below. Two warning missiles, fifteen minutes apart. Time’s up. So they took nothing. Building obliterated.

On the road, the next morning, the car in front of hers is destroyed suddenly. Had her driver not paused to answer his phone, she would not have survived.

What is the name of that thing? A drone? A hellfire missile?

We need y’all help out here, man.

Dion, where are you? 

And what will she tell her children, should anything happen to her? 

“Forgive me … this is my duty … I have to deliver this message to the world.

Another video, now, of a little girl in Gaza. She was sleeping beside Mama, she says. When she woke up, she was surrounded by ash. 

Where the Jay-Z’s at, man? I thought black lives matter.

Ain’t no disrespecting this. This is lasting genocide. 

“We are just an ordinary Palestinian couple. Between us, we have lost thirty relatives.”

I fear retaliation. I am putting my life on the line.

Dion? 

Dion, where are you? 

Are you alive?

I don’t benefit from any of this. My mom always told me, sacrifice is greater than blessing.

Zia Jaffrey is writing a book about the Holy Land Foundation case. The form of this piece is an homage to Mahmoud Darwish‘s Memory for Forgetfulness. Zia is a friend of Kopkind.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on June 2, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: There Is Still Beauty in the World

From California, Kopkinder Josh Wilson sent us some pictures (above and below) that he took in the mountains and at Bassi Falls. “I find myself continually amazed,” he writes, “by the water cycles of California and the West. The snow, the melt, the water rushing in clear, cold sheets and carving out these stream and riverbeds, and tumbling down waterfalls. This in contrast to the incredible drought of the present moment, and the dependence and vulnerability of human civilization in relation to these cycles. Being here, far beyond the city, makes us more aware of our place in these cycles. Observing the infrastructure built to control and channel this water is to glimpse marvels of engineering and hubris. … Bassi Falls, there are two of them, one 130’ high, and fed by Lake Tahoe. It was cold and clear the day we were there, even as the temperatures climbed, hitting 106 degrees just fifty miles west in Sacramento. Even with the water so low, it was early enough in the season that the flow was strong. During a high-water year the whole area would have been submerged.”





Scenes From a Pandemic: 54

31 05 2021

by Hira Nabi

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

View of the Ravi from inside Kamran’s Baradari. (photo: Hira Nabi)

News From Home, and Other People’s Homes

Lahore, Pakistan

I write to friends in India and receive from them messages of fear, of fatigue, narrating incidents of death and helplessness. I write to friends in Palestine, and they tell me that they are not okay, not safe, and they want the world to do something. I receive news from a friend who used to live in Kabul, and he tells me that the school bombings took place in his old neighborhood. I have become an antenna, receiving news of heartbreak and destruction, and the collapse of all sense of order. I transmit what I receive back into the world, not sure who might be listening.

Where there were homes in Deir Yassein, you’ll see dense forests—

That village was razed. There’s no sign of Arabic.



I too, O Amichai, saw the dresses of beautiful women


And everything else, just like you, in Death, Hebrew, and Arabic.



They ask me to tell them what Shahid means—


Listen: it means ‘The Beloved’ in Persian, ‘witness’ in Arabic
.

Agha Shahid Ali made an art form of writing ghazals in English. It isn’t lost on his audience that he, an exiled Kashmiri poet, was writing about disappearances and occupation elsewhere—in Palestine. Witnessing becomes a charged act, filled with radical possibility. 

There is nothing else to talk about but Palestine. There is nowhere else to look but Palestine.

There is everything in the world but hope. There is nothing in the world without hope.

* * *

Eid was marked in this way. It wasn’t an occasion to celebrate, and I didn’t leave my house to visit with friends, but perhaps it was enough to be grateful to receive food, and be together with my immediate family. The weather was kind, and we took our tea in the garden. To preserve some shade of normalcy, my mother prepared kheer—made with milk, sugar, vermicelli, khoya, cardamom and slivered almonds. The trick is to keep stirring without stopping while it cooks. The constant movement prevents the milk from curdling; instead, it thickens, letting the sugar bind with it, absorbing and sweetening. 

* * *

(photo, detail: Mariam Tareen)

* * *

A friend recently remarked about the recurrent loop of history: it is doomed to repetition, yet it erases itself at the same time. Is there a way out?

Pondering his question, I went to the oldest known monument of the Mughal Empire in Lahore—Kamran’s Baradari, which was built by Kamran Mirza, son of Babur, the first Mughal emperor, in 1540. Although some accounts state that its cusped arches allude to a later construction date, possibly the seventeenth century. 

What is known for certain is that it was originally built at the edge of the Ravi, but over time as the river changed course, the land on which this pavilion stands became an island, accessible only by boat. BaraN means twelve, and dar means door, hence a pavilion with twelve doors. Its ancient method of ventilation allows air currents to pass freely through those twelve portals, refreshing and cooling the structure during the summer months. Its inner walls have been covered with graffiti. I glimpsed candlewicks on ledges, and blackened arches where smoke from burning candles had risen. A funeral of wishes, I thought idly. 

I stood on the banks of the Ravi waiting for a boatman to ferry me across. A maximum of two passengers: we had our masks on. Even beneath it, I could smell burnt rubber coming off the water. The river allowed a city to rise up on its banks, and swallow it up. 

* * *

Most of Pakistan is currently in a semi-lockdown. My brothers went to buy flowers on Mother’s Day, and it was the most bizarre exchange: formally, the florist had closed his shop, but his assistants crawled beneath the partial shutter bringing out flowers, showing customers images of the inventory on their phones, and illicitly selling bouquets. I had ordered some books to gift my nephews on Eid, but the delivery is delayed. I don’t think they mind; over this past year, long pauses entered our lives and readjusted our expectations. Days and nights pass with nowhere to go. In the midst of this, I try to grow a garden on my windowsill: I watch for signs of overwatering, and underwatering. I am trying to learn plants, to understand them. 

What kind of times are these? Adrienne Rich’s poem comes to mind:

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled

this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,

our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,

its own ways of making people disappear.



I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods

meeting the unmarked strip of light—

ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:

I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.



And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you

anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these

to have you listen at all, it’s necessary

to talk about trees.

It is not just the trees, the land, villages, rivers and fish that are disappearing at an alarming rate. So are people. Families of missing persons (mainly from Baluchistan, but increasingly journalists from all over the country, and young Pashtun men) continue their vigil outside press clubs in cities across Pakistan, plan long marches to the capital to demand the return of loved ones or their appearance in a court trial. In Karachi, informal settlements at GujjarNala and OrangiNala are being demolished, the people evicted, to make way for new developments. It is a universally established tale of land grabbing and dispossession. The Supreme Court has ordered a stay order until June 1. 

(photo, detail: Awami Workers Party & Karachi Bachao Tehreek)

And so we wait, and watch. But solidarity is not a passive state of being. It is a ringing call to action. Demolitions in Karachi, demolitions in Sheikh Jarrah, and now Gaza being razed to the ground. I recall Mahmoud Darwish’s writing, poetry turned prose—broadcasting pain from Gaza.

The enemy may defeat Gaza. (The stormy sea might overwhelm a small island.)

They might cut down all her trees.

They might break her bones.

They might plant their tanks in the bellies of her women and children, or they might toss her into the sand, into the sea, into blood.

But:

Gaza will not repeat the lies.

Gaza will not say yes to the conquerors.

And she will continue to erupt.

It is not death, and it is not suicide, it is Gaza’s way of announcing she is worthy of life.

Hira Nabi is an artist and filmmaker currently based in Lahore. She was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp in 2011.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on May 26, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: ‘Ah, the Good Old Days…’

Things are pretty terrible, it’s true, but here, as an antidote to any creeping notion that once upon a time, the children were all good, the families all safe and the country not in a state of obsession, scandal and ‘alternate facts’, we present a clip from a short documentary by former Film Camper Immy Humes, about Lizzie Bordenmore aptly, the legions who have done their own research and must tell the tale.

Immy just got a grant from the NEA for her continuing work on a full-length documentary on avant garde filmmaker Shirley Clarke—”one of the great undertold stories of American independent cinema,” according to the NYTimes.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 53

24 05 2021

by Gina Womack

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

Improvising in the shadow of man-made disaster, black residents memorialize the history of what was once the commercial and green-space heart of Tremé and use the underpass of Highway 10 for gatherings and parties. (photos: Gina Womack)

‘We Shouldn’t Have to Be so Resilient’

New Orleans

I have been working at home since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in 2005. So has the rest of the staff at Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), the organization I co-founded in 2001. One man-made disaster was followed by another, as gentrification raked the city. The building FFLIC was renting in a historically black community was sold, and we were forced to do what has become commonplace everywhere since Covid-19 was allowed to run wild. We telecommuted, since much of our work involved outreach and out-of-office meetings. To maintain connection to the community, we rented a small office in a neighborhood building with co-working space, so staff and families could meet in its conference room. At first, working this way was emotionally and logistically difficult: not to see everyone’s face, to catch up on one another’s life, or pop in for a quick question or support; not to have the physical space that, for many youth and families, had become not just a place to address an immediate need but a home away from home. The chatter, laughter and freedom of our own space were lost, transformed suddenly, just as life had been after the flood, when the streets went silent because people were displaced, some never to return. As native New Orleanians, we are constantly forced to be resilient; true to our saying Laissez les bons temps rouler (“Let the good times roll”), we made “gumbo,” something out of not very much. We used group texts and plenty of emojis and memes to bring levity to working remotely. We scheduled more staff retreats and utilized other community spaces to meet with youth and families. It’s still not the same; “our lives were forever changed.” People say that a lot now.

Some 230 youths, aged 13 to 20, are held in state prison in Louisiana today. More than 90 percent of them are black or brown, and more than 40 percent are there for nonviolent offenses. Typically, they are poor and were burdened by social inequities, lack of quality education, and mental health care, meaning shrunken opportunities and support. (In the pandemic, a Save the Children study ranks Louisiana last in the nation in protecting children from hunger, educational disparities and family economic insecurity.) Parents and other caregivers seek help from government and find none due to systemic disinvestment. Their children feel ignored and invisible, and end up acting out: fighting, stealing, breaking into cars, things not at all unique to these children. If they were the children of elected officials or of white parents of means, they would probably never see the inside of a prison. Such infractions would be regarded as acting out; the youngsters would be sent to diversion programs and kept at home. For children incarcerated for violent offenses, being locked in a cage doesn’t lead to rehabilitation. Prison is a violent environment. Eventually, they will return home, again to little or no support. The cycle is made, and often continues.

* * *

Bottom line: “Try imagining a place where it’s always safe & warm.”

Working virtually over the past year was an easy transition for me. Personally, I am an introvert, so the worst period of the pandemic gave me an unusual opportunity not to worry about going out of the house. It gave me the chance to slow down and hang up my superwoman cape. The March 23, 2020, stay-at-home order allowed me to spend more time with my elderly mother, who lived with me; to care for her safely at home until her death, unrelated to Covid, on December 20.

A month before the lockdown, I had some friends in town. Mardi Gras was early last year, February 25, and my friends wanted the full experience. I took them to all the parades; we walked from uptown St. Charles Avenue to the Faubourg Marigny area, which is on the other side of the French Quarter, about four miles away. At every opportunity, we grabbed good food, took in the scenes, and drank hand grenades—a specialty cocktail served frozen or on the rocks at only two licensed nightclubs. We had a blast. Not long after that, I was blessed to be able to hang out with my daughter, who had flown home from Philadelphia. Little did any of us know then, or even after the lockdown order came, how long it would be before we could see friends and family again, or enjoy the city’s pleasures, or even spend some quality girl-time together, but at least we had those experiences.

* * *

When Governor John Bel Edwards put the state on lockdown, emphasizing that to stay safe we had to stay home, the order should have applied to the children incarcerated in state and private facilities. Ironically, when Covid-19 took over our lives, FFLIC was beginning to examine how our children were doing 15 years post-Katrina. In our assessment, it’s as if the laws and policies that were put in place in 2003 to reduce incarceration and treat children humanely were never passed. Despite all the work of advocates, fighting so that our children’s youthful mistakes might be met with programs and treatment in their communities, not with shackles and cages, it’s as if reform were never promised. Promises and reforms don’t seem to transfer from one administration to the next. During the pandemic, we have continued to hear loved ones’ cries for their children, who, instead of being with their families, were held in isolation, unable to see visitors for a year.

On March 25, 2020, we learned that three youths locked in Louisiana prisons under the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) had tested positive for Covid-19. Our children literally had no way to protect themselves from infection, no way to avoid contact with others. By the summer, Louisiana ranked fourth in the country per capita for all children in prison who had tested positive, almost twice the national average. In juvenile prisons, workers were testing positive as well. They were replaced by inexperienced probation officers, who often resorted to tasing children (an illegal practice) to calm their outbursts of anxiety. Because counseling and education services were canceled, children were, in addition, left with nothing to do. “I don’t want to die here, not in here,” one said.

FFLIC joined with the Youth First Initiative and more than 22 organizations across the country to call for Freedom for Our Youth. We wrote letters to the governor and other elected officials demanding that they follow the CDC’s best practices. We petitioned the governor and made phone calls, lots of phone calls. We organized an emergency town hall meeting to hear parents’ concerns. We continued to provide support and advocacy for parents, who were desperate to hear from their children.

The governor never budged. Children were not sent home. To date, 61 youths tested positive for Covid-19, according to the OJJ’s website, and 61 have recovered; 105 staff tested positive, and 102 recovered.

We shouldn’t have to be so resilient, but we are. Our organization and families continue to love and care for each other. We continue to find places to meet and ways to socialize. We continue to educate our lawmakers. We continue to build leadership of our youth and families. We continue to be community, no matter how many man-made disasters try to separate us.

Gina Womack is a mother of three children, and co-founder and executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. She was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp in 2010.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on May 19, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: A Pre-Pandemic Scene From Iraq

Faisal Laibi Sahi, The Cafe 2, 2014Acrylic on canvas, 124 x 315 cm. (Image courtesy of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah)

A few installments ago (No. 50), we ran a piece by Vijay Prashad, in which he recounted a phone conversation with a journalist friend in Baghdad, wherein news of the day, of personal situations and the pandemic, quickly turned to news of global affairs. Vijay had suggested this image as an illustration for that piece, but it wasn’t possible to get permission in time. The good people at the Barjeel Art Foundation did reply, though, allowing us to reprint The Cafe 2, which, with thanks, we are happy to share with you now. Barjeel is an independent UAE-based foundation dedicated to the exhibition and appreciation of Modern and contemporary Arab art. You can peruse Barjeel’s extensive collection from throughout the Arab world at its website, linked above.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 52

17 05 2021

by Thomas McKean

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

The morning after: remnants of barflies’ casual violence upon the author’s sunflower garden in summer (photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)

Sometimes I Miss the Lockdown’

New York City

I feel guilty about it, but I still feel it: there’s a part of me that misses the darkest days of the lockdown.

I live in Manhattan, in the East Village. And, no, I don’t miss the wail of ambulances threading their way up First Avenue, day long, night long, rushing north, carrying the stricken to nearby hospitals. I don’t miss walking by portable morgues and their makeshift barriers, erected so we wouldn’t see bodies being brought out a hospital’s side exit.

I do miss the quiet, the strange peace, the empty streets, the feeling of solidarity among those of us who stayed, who don’t have country houses or parents or fancy friends with guest rooms. Perhaps this is because it reminds me of the East Village I moved into forty years ago, when streets were deserted at night; when you could make out on your doorstep for an hour and not a soul would pass to catcall; when you knew your neighbors, knew the shopkeepers. We’re all in this together, that was the feeling. Despite the dirt, the rampant crime (one block west boasted one of the city’s highest murder rates, as drug gangs fought for turf), we were a community. Just by buying bread at the bakery around the corner (sturdy semolina, nothing fancy), I was invited to dinner at Phyllis’s, the counterwoman’s, house and later to her granddaughter’s wedding. The block was bustling with seemingly indestructible old women—Polish, Sicilian, Irish, Spanish—who would, before sunset, drag folding chairs to the sidewalk to watch another day dwindle. Just by befriending one of them, my downstairs neighbor Marie, I was invited to her sister Annie’s for dinner, out in Jackson Heights.

This is how it felt during lockdown. Passers-by might be few, but those of us remaining, we were in it together. Fear of crime might be replaced by fear of contagion, but if fear doesn’t drive people apart, it can drive them together.

There was one figure who brought us together just by his very essence: Ali. He was our pharmacist, and like shopkeepers from years past, he knew and greeted every customer by name. Ali would give advice, deal with recalcitrant insurance companies, unresponsive doctors. It was to him we went for home remedies and preliminary diagnoses. As I said, he knew our names.

It was early days in the pandemic. We were rushing around in a panic, desperate to buy gloves, masks, hand sanitizer. So it was that one Saturday afternoon I went to Ali’s for acetaminophen. None was on the shelves. “I knew there’d be a rush on this,” he said. “But I ordered a massive bottle! It came today. Come back Monday and bring an empty bottle, and I will fill it up for you for free.”

On Monday the pharmacy was shuttered. It was shuttered the next few days, too. Then we heard the impossible: Ali, our wonderful Ali Yasin, had been stricken with Covid. His sons sounded optimistic. He was on a ventilator, but he was strong, he would make it. At 68, his energy had never seemed to flag before. He was in the hospital for months—at one point well enough to go off the ventilator.

But then he was put back on.

He died in May.

A neighbor broke the news. We stood in my apartment crying, too afraid to hug.

Perhaps Ali’s death was symbolic, because life felt harder after that. A new landlord, intent on renovating and increasing rents, emptied half the apartments in my building and commenced dusty renovations as soon as indoor construction was allowed again. Most of my other neighbors fled for more peaceful pastures.

(MetroCard collage: Thomas McKean)

In August the noise from the street began. This had been the bright light of lockdown in a loud city—the relative quiet: fewer cars and trucks, fewer shrieking-into-cell-phone throngs of bar-hoppers stampeding at all hours. By necessity, we were spending more time at home, so at least our homes really were a refuge (if one ignored that endless stream of ambulances). I could sit in my living room, gazing north at the Empire State Building (my calm watchtower for decades), and after banging pots at 7, feel cocooned in quiet, safe in silence.

But, as I said, then the noise began. From across the street. A newly reopened restaurant decided to have a live band play full-blast in its open storefront four hours a night, six nights a week. I couldn’t even make a phone call. The electric guitarist might as well have been on my fire escape: the racket echoed back and forth across the narrow side street, and by the time it stopped I’d be frantic.

I was trapped in the city, trapped in my apartment, cornered by relentless racket. I told myself that being blasted out of my apartment was better than being on a ventilator, the way Ali had ended, but that’s a false choice. We shouldn’t have to fear an invisible foe, a sneaky virus. We shouldn’t be driven insane when home. We shouldn’t have to teach people how to be neighbors. Adding to the feeling of helplessness was the fact that the police, the mayor’s office, our councilwoman, did nothing.

After four months of this, the restaurant had to shut down (Covid clusters). Now reopened, it seems to have got the message: play all the music you want, but keep your doors shut so a few hundred people aren’t forced to listen.

But that feeling of helplessness has not gone. Part of this is due to Covid: although vaccinated and cautious, I see crowds of the merrily maskless tromp by and wonder how long it will be before, as in Mumbai and Marseilles and Montreal, our rates rise again. And I wonder how long it will be until the doors of the restaurant open and our apartments are no longer our own. And I know Ali will never return.

It’s like walking on thin ice, trying to convince myself that those aren’t cracking sounds I hear.

Thomas McKean is a writer, artist, and musician, living in New York. His most recent book is A Conversation with Ruth Pitter (HappenStance Press, Glenrothes, Scotland). He is a friend of Kopkind.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on May 12, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: ‘Music Is the Only Language That Needs No Translator’

On May 14 the new documentary Los Hermanos/The Brothers, by former Kopkind/CID Film Campers Marsha Jarmel and Ken Schneider, began being screened live in theaters and streaming online. The film tells the story of two Cuban-born virtuosos, Ilmar and Aldo López-Gavilán, brothers separated when Ilmar went to Moscow to study violin and then immigrated to New York, where later he became a founder of the Grammy-winning Harlem Quartet. The younger Aldo studied music in England and returned to Havana to teach and play, becoming an internationally renowned pianist and com-poser. The two reunited and played together for the first time in decades as a result of the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba, a policy reversed by Trump. The film tells their personal stories and follows their electrifying performances in New York and on their US tour. Below, a video about the brothers and the film. Click here for more information about the film, including, how to watch it live or virtually, and for the official trailer.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 51

10 05 2021

by Elizabeth Emma Ferry and Stephen Ferry

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

David Ferry, poet. (photos: Stephen Ferry)

Hello, Poetry, You ‘Lamenting Pleasure’

Brookline, Massachusetts

For years before the pandemic, our father, the poet David Ferry, accepted invitations to read in public on any pretext: an academic conference, a bookstore benefit, indoors, outdoors, for large groups and small. He organized family poetry readings, and had lunch so often at Matt Murphy’s, a pub in Brookline, accompanied by friends and a glass of whiskey, that the place saw him as a kind of bard-in-residence. Lines from his poem “Lake Water” are stenciled on the wall.

Then Covid came galloping, and with it came extreme isolation. Things changed so abruptly, just as family and friends were preparing to celebrate his 96th birthday at Matt Murphy’s. We canceled the party, the pub shut down, and our father was sequestered in his retirement home, allowed almost no in-person contact. That was in March of 2020. We were relieved that his place took the danger seriously—in a state where one in seven residents of elder care facilities died of Covid as the months passed, it lost no one to the virus—but we were anxious too. Reading poetry over the phone became our father’s antidote to loneliness.

He reads constantly with family and friends: Stephen and he read every day; grandchildren and three nieces, every week; and Elizabeth and her husband and kids, also each week. He reads with his good friend the poet George Kalogeris, with other pals and former students. Old-school, our father prefers the telephone to video calls. At first, we wished we could meet him over Zoom, but the phone concentrates our attention to the sound of our voices and the rhythm of the lines.

Before the pandemic, in 2019, David Ferry with grandson Sebastian Wood.

Covid has made us all think a lot about mortality. In his poetry, David Ferry often faces the unbargainability of death, as in these lines from his translation of Horace’s Ode ii.14, “To Postumus”:

Behaving well can do nothing at all about it.
Wrinkles will come, old age will come, and death,
Indomitable. Nothing at all will work.

Sometimes he has fun with the fact of his own mortality. In one of his “found single-line poems” published in Bewilderment, he wrote:

Turning Eighty-Eight, a Birthday Poem
It is a breath-taking, near-death experience.

The next one-line poem on the page reads:

You ain’t seen Nothing yet.

That wry attitude recalls an incident in his life at the age of 93. Dad choked on a piece of meat in a restaurant, fell to the floor, and both his heart and breathing stopped. Fortunately, there was a doctor in the house who revived him. Afterward, he had a good time shocking his friends by asking, “Hey, did you know I died last week?” In the next beat he’d say, “And I’m here to report, there is nothing there.”

In our own family’s history, we have seen how the writing and reading of poetry has provided a way for our father to grieve. Our mother, Anne Davidson Ferry, was a scholar of poetry who often edited and guided David’s work. For almost half a century, they were inseparable. After her death, in 2006, friends who knew them would remark with amazement at how, despite such a loss, our father was able to go on with seemingly the same energy. Perhaps such resilience came from a lifetime of looking death in the face.

While she was suffering from the illness that would take her life, he translated Virgil’s poem about Orpheus descending into Hades to rescue his wife, Eurydice (Georgics IV). Here, Eurydice speaks the moment after Orpheus looks back, causing her to have to return to the realm of the dead:

“The cruel Fates already call me back,
And sleep is covering over my swimming eyes,

Farewell; I am being carried off into
The vast surrounding dark and reaching out

My strengthless hand to you forever more
Alas not yours.” And saying this, like smoke

Disintegrating into air she was
Dispersed away and vanished from his eyes

And never saw him again, and he was left

Clutching at shadows, with so much still to say.

He alludes to these lines in “Lake Water,” on the death of our mother. The last stanza reads:

When moments after she died, I looked into her face,

It was as untelling as something natural,
A lake say, the surface of it unreadable,
Its sources of meaning unfindable anymore;

Her mouth was open as if she had something to say;

But maybe my saying so is just a figure of speech.

In an interview published as “A Conversation with Poet David Ferry on the Occasion of His 96th Birthday,” our father talked about writing and reading poetry in relation to grief:

I do think [poetry] is therapeutic as long as one doesn’t think it provides easy answers to taking away the pain. A poem about a real-life painful situation is therapeutic because it actually intensifies the pain by confronting it directly, but talks about it by, so to speak, singing about it, and therefore the pain is presented to oneself and to others as a kind of pleasure, not happy pleasure, but often a lamenting pleasure, often very dark, but transformed into art.

More than a year into the pandemic, our father is now vaccinated and we can see him in person, but we keep reading together, still mostly on the phone.

We’ve asked our Dad about how poetry can help us think about death. “We are always knocking on the door of the dead,” he replied, “but there is no one there to answer.” On the other hand, “communicating with the living is really something.”

David Ferry is an acclaimed American poet, professor and translator. In addition to his translations of the Gilgamesh epic, the Odes of Horace, and Virgil’s EcloguesGeorgics and Aeneid, Ferry’s own poetic works include On the Way to the Island, Strangers, Dwelling Places and Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations. Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2013.

Elizabeth Emma Ferry is an anthropologist and teacher. Stephen Ferry is a nonfiction photographer. They are co-authors of La Batea (Icono/Red Hook Editions). The Ferrys are friends of Kopkind.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on May 5, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: A Note From Scot Nakagawa

Our friend, adviser and two-time Kopkind mentor turned 60 on May 7. To get himself organized to stay in the fight, Scot has started a Substack subscription newsletter called We Fight the Right. He’s been loading work produced between 2016 and now (by bits; you can see that content for free as a visitor). He will be producing new content at least twice a month, including short essays, video presentations and interviews. It will be, Scot says, “an online peek into my process of learning as I attempt to sharpen my analysis of the right and create strategic organizing and communications frameworks. If you feel moved to subscribe, it’s $5 a month. Subscription fees go to ChangeLab, my activist home. Please subscribe! I would love to have you in my little Substack community.”  Happy (belated) birthday, Scot! Below, some thoughts he sent along on the far right and political life as a forest ecosystem.

(photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)

My obsession with finding easy ways of helping people understand the threat of authoritarianism and the far right while promoting the bigger matrix of strategies needed to win genuine economic and social equity led me to forest ecosystems. It’s a subject that I’ve been teaching myself about recently that is endlessly fascinating … but to me. I’ll spare you the details.

Sans all the detail, it may be helpful to think of the far right as a bunch of powerful toxic elements in a managed forest ecosystem that was originally designed to cause those elements to flourish. That makes them dangerous for a lot of obvious reasons, including the harm they can do to the more beneficial elements of the forest. But they also constitute a constant threat to the survival of the whole ecosystem. History shows that those toxic elements—fascists and authoritarians, especially of the ethnic nationalist variety—cannot survive alone. Left alone, they choke each other out, and the whole forest fails. But history also shows that scorched earth attempts to eliminate everything that’s considered toxic, in fact, scorches the earth and leads to autocratization, a ten-dollar word for sliding into authoritarianism. And that slide leans, again, in the direction of failure.

Put more explicitly, authoritarianism is, at its core, limited pluralism, so attempts to deploy law enforcement, say, to eliminate dangerous right-wing radicals often create martyrs of some rightists while contributing to the conditions that radicalized them in the first place. The work of winning equity and justice is the work of creating the conditions that favor the best elements of the forest so they flourish in ways that shade out the bad stuff until those bad elements die out or at least can’t compete effectively anymore and are contained.

But just doing that work of promoting the good stuff is not enough, because the forest is, at base, a favorable environment for those particular toxic ideas. They have a natural advantage, and sometimes, actually pretty regularly, broader circumstances will cause those toxic elements to gain an even stronger advantage, causing them to surge. And, again, both the surge and the most likely reactions to it may threaten to destroy the ecosystem. Constant vigilance is necessary.

We need people who are watching those elements specifically, making sure we all know what they are. That’s a tracking and reporting function. Then we need people who are keeping us from accidentally spreading the seeds or eating the toxic fruit. That’s mostly a political education project. And we need those who are dedicated to containing the bad stuff through counter-organizing. The overall goal is to cause those toxic elements to die out eventually. But that work keeps getting baffled by the toxins getting out of control because we’re not investing enough in the specific work that is required to keep them at bay all the time, including when they aren’t surging as strongly. I could go on about mother trees and fungi and … but I like you, so I’ll be kind and keep it to myself. The point is, we need a more robust way of understanding how we’re doing this work, and ecosystems may provide a good way to get there.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 50

3 05 2021

by Vijay Prashad

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

In the pandemic year, artists from 30 countries have created posters reflecting the defining crises of our time. (collage: Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, from its Hybrid War poster series with International Week of Anti-Imperialist Struggle)

Waiting for Catastrophes

Chatting with a friend in Baghdad

I’ve been calling friends around the world to ask them how they are doing in the pandemic. Abbas, a veteran reporter in Baghdad, says that there have been over a million confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Iraq, and he does not know anyone who has been vaccinated. Journalists, we joke, using Trump’s phrase, are “enemies of the people” and not essential workers. “Not sure when I’ll get a vaccine,” Abbas said.

Conversations with Abbas meander into the necessary topics. US troops are pulling out from Afghanistan. There are only 2,500 of them left. What will remain when they’re gone are all kinds of mysterious assets: trainers, private contractors, ghost advisers (namely, from the CIA). No one knows how many of those there are, and few talk about it. Abbas tells me that after the Iraqi Parliament refused to let US troops linger in Iraq, such contractors (and the CIA) remained, many of them in the Kurdish-dominated north. This past February, a missile strike that hit Erbil airport was directed at these US assets. “Two strategic defeats for the United States,” Abbas says. In Iraq’s case, the advantages of the US withdrawal certainly went immediately to Iran, which has close relations with a large section of the Iraqi government; but the advantage also came to Iraq, whose confoundingly compromised government is nonetheless trying to exert some sovereignty over the fractured country. In Afghanistan, who will be in charge? Certainly not the titular leader of the country, Ashraq Ghani, who is—as they used to say about Hamid Karzai—merely the mayor of Kabul. There is a lot of jockeying for influence: among the Muslim Brotherhood states of Qatar and Turkey, and of course India and Iran. There’s been little mention of China, but it has an interest in a stable Afghanistan so as to build its Belt and Road Initiative linking China’s Pacific coastline to Europe. “These are the Vietnams of our time,” Abbas says.

Nothing is so clear. As we talk, the muezzin from the Razavi Mosque calls the faithful to prayer, his loudspeaker jarringly near. Abbas lives in what used to be called Saddam City, the bulwark of the old Iraqi Communist Party. It is now largely beholden to forces loyal to the Sadr movement and its many factions. Older left orientations have dwindled away over the past two generations. There is a 1951 report written by Haji Yousuf Chang to the US government asking Washington to finance an insurgency against communism not only in China but across Asia. I quote it in my book Washington Bullets. A decade later, Saudi Arabia’s royal family would do just this (with CIA backing) through the World Muslim League. There was large-scale attraction to left-wing ideas then. The promotion of a Saudi variant of Islam was used to divert it. This is exactly what undermined the communist movement from Lebanon to Iraq, and now into the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

Two friends on the phone talking, their ‘how are you doings’ sliding into politics, the world, Afghanistan, war and the dangers of ‘falling for it’.

The muezzin’s call, beautiful in its resonance, carries our conversation along, to the new information war about Xinjiang. Abbas laughs, “Never thought I would see the day when the United States becomes the defenders of Muslims.” I remind him that Ronald Reagan called the Mujahideen “freedom fighters.” These are the worst elements in Afghanistan. “Yes,” he says, “we fell for it then, and we keep falling for it over and over again.”

Falling for it. Yes. During one of my first conversations with Abbas, more than a decade ago, we spoke about an event that has receded from public consciousness. The Human Rights Caucus of the US Congress held a hearing on October 10, 1990, on the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. The most powerful testimony came from a young girl named Nayirah. She spoke about seeing babies removed from incubators, left on the cold floor, as the incubators were whisked to Iraq. It was a searing image. The story was repeated by the press and by politicians to drum up support for bombing Iraq in 1991. A year after the Gulf War, John MacArthur revealed that the young woman, Nayirah al-Sabah, was the daughter of Kuwaiti Ambassador Saud al-Sabah—and the entire atrocity had been cooked up by a Kuwaiti government front group called Citizens for a Free Kuwait and the pr firm Hill & Knowlton (with help from the CIA). There was good reason to oppose Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, but this was not one of them. This was a pack of lies.

Something in the story about atrocities in Xinjiang smells like that public relations operation in 1990. The man at the center of the latest “information” is connected to the US-backed Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and to the Jamestown Institute, which has links with US intelligence. His evidence looks detailed and rational, but even a slight inspection shows great anomalies. Whereas until yesterday no one in the West knew anything about Xinjiang—the world’s largest cotton producer, two and a half times the size of France—now everyone spits out ‘genocide’ and ‘forced labor’ without hesitation. Abbas and I think about the shallowness of media concern for the way information is managed. “Remember the time when they said Qaddafi was doing genocide in Libya?” he says. After the Libyan war, human rights groups studied the facts on the ground and said there was no evidence for that. Words like ‘genocide’ are routinely weaponized in the wars of our time.

The United States is notionally pulling its troops out of Afghanistan at the same time as it seems to be deepening its commitment to military action against China. Abbas laughs. “If they could not subdue us,” he says, meaning Iraq, “how will they fare against China?” It is true. But we are dealing with callous people who have contempt for world health. If they want a war, they might get a war.

Vijay Prashad is chief correspondent for Globetrotter, director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, and chief editor of LeftWord Books. His most recent book is Washington Bullets: A History of the CIA, Coups, and Assassinations, with a foreword by Evo Morales Ayma. He was a speaker at Kopkind in 2010.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on April 28, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: After May Day

Our dear friend Peter Linebaugh wrote an appreciation of the late Noel Ignatiev, a steel worker and scholar, for May Day. It’s also a story about steelmaking and consciousness, elemental things, and unfinished business.You can read the full story, “In the Smithy of His Soul,” on CounterPunch. Below, a bit of it.

Iron ore. (detail: Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals)

The archaeologist and historian V. Gordon Childe explains that the metal worker was the first crafts person in human history preceding even the potter and the weaver. The craft involved discoveries of geology and chemistry and transformation under heat. Smelting and casting were not simple procedures. The abstruse knowledge or craft lore was bound with magic, and eventually the workers formed a “mystery” or guild.

Iron ore originating in the Mesabi of range of northern Minnesota was shipped from Duluth in freighters upon Lakes Superior and Michigan. Here I must make another digression. Well so it seems. Actually it gives us two clues as to our unfinished business.

Many of the miners in the Mesabi range were Finnish, specifically ‘forest Finns’ who migrated at the beginning of the last century. Oral poetry maintained the memory of the mythic origins of the world. My colleague, Mikael Lövgren, explained to me that in Finland these became the Kalevala, the national saga. And were brought to the Mesabi iron range of Minnesota by Finnish miners and metal workers. A blacksmith and shaman, the archetypal artificer, named Ilmarinen forges Sampo, a wealth-making machine, or talisman, often interpreted as the sun. Ilmarinen is akin to Daedalus. There are many stories of his search for a wife and his failure, until he forges a woman of gold! With bellows, forge, and ore he fashions cross bow, skiff, heifer, and plow. These creations do not please. He then creates Sampo, solar like source of energy and power.

The eternal magic artist,
Ancient blacksmith, Ilmarinen,
First of all the iron-workers,
Mixed together certain metals,
Put the mixture in the caldron,
Laid it deep within the furnace,
Called the hirelings to the forging.
Skilfully they work the bellows,
Tend the fire and add the fuel,
Three most lovely days of summer,
Three short nights of bright midsummer,
Till the rocks begin to blossom,
In the foot-prints of the workmen,
From the magic heat and furnace.

….

Leave my native fields and woodlands,
Never shall I, in my life-time,
Say farewell to maiden freedom,
Nor to summer cares and labors,
Lest the harvest be ungarnered,
Lest the berries be ungathered,
Lest the song-birds leave the forest,
Lest the mermaids leave the waters,
Lest I sing with them no longer.

The clues here are first, gender, and second, meaning myth. The steel worker for all his brawn, bravery, and bull cannot have whatever woman he chooses. Certainly not if she must leave the harvest and the birds. He may be allied with the fire, she is allied with earth and air. The problem of climate change will not be solved without smashing the patriarchy. She simply will not have it. Such is the meaning supplied by the tale of Ilmarinen. Superstition or class consciousness? It was part of the lore of the Finns. The other clue may also be found in West Africa.

The Yoruba deity, Ogun, was the orisha, or spirit of iron and metal working. Among the Mande of West Africa the forge was an altar and sanctuary as well as a place of craft. Iron smelting was active in Dahomey and Benin cultures from six centuries B.C.E. Children were apprenticed to learn the nyama, an axiom that knowledge is power if property articulated. The weapons and the agricultural implements upon which material subsistence depended were made by these iron workers. They are also strict gender regimes. Robert Farris Thompson writes, “Thus, across the Atlantic, iron instruments are all, in the end, the children of Ogun, carried on his broad and mighty shoulders…. Oguin marches only with the spiritually vital and the quick of hand.” It was Ogun who throughout African America, Bahia to Haiti, accompanied the liberation fighters against slavery.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 49

26 04 2021

by Daisy Cockburn

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

Portico (photos: Daisy Cockburn)

Letter From Italy

Florence

It’s been more than a year since Florence locked down for the first time, and the rate of Covid infection has increased by a factor of four. A family friend has been moved from the Santa Maria Nuova hospital to a hotel out of town to continue his recovery. He’s too weak to talk, but his daughter tells me that he wants P.G. Wodehouse novels: anything “non-Jeeves.” (He’s read those.) Or anything funny, for that matter. It proves harder than expected; put on the spot, my books have never seemed less capable of raising a laugh.

I am an outsider in Florence, here because of my husband’s teaching gig. As a voice actor, I am used to working remotely from a home studio set-up. Silence is good for that, but this is eerie. It’s as quiet in our street as it was a year ago. The university opposite used to mean reliable bouts of victory cries from laurel-crowned students, four times a year no less, which is when they graduate. The café on the corner used to cater to a stream of regulars with its affordable lunch menu of homey pasta dishes. Gone also are the students of love—those painfully breaking up in our dark side street. No more agonized crying, shouting, and huffing off over the cobblestones.

For a broader soundscape, 100 yards away is Piazza Santissima Annunziata, former home to megaphoned protest speeches, tourist groups of 50 in matching baseball caps topped with swirly helicopter blades, dubious brides posing for the camera, Santa conventions, etc. When the pandemic kicked in, the square became home to a soup kitchen set up under the porticos at the top of the steps. People waited to be called up by ticket number to receive their bag of food. It was quiet, apart from the sound of a small transistor radio belonging to a few gentlemen living on the other side of the square, under the portico of the old foundling hospital, now a building owned by UNICEF.

One of the paradoxes of the lockdown has been that Florence, a city of interiors, has had to play out some of its secret games in public. UNICEF has traditionally held a grand, exclusive ball. Last July, the ball was in the piazza, a perfectly socially distanced al fresco affair, with white-clothed tables spaciously placed and cordoned off with plush rope, where bodyguards checked names.

As a consequence of this ball, the wolves were kettled. Just a few days earlier, Chinese artist Liu Rouwang’s installation The Wolves Are Coming, 100 bronze castings of wolves, appeared in Piazza Santissima Annunziata and Piazza Pitti. In various attitudes of rapacious intent, the wolves encircled a statue of a cartoonish hero wielding a paddle-shaped sword, no match for the beasts. Exploding the stereotype of wolves as bad guys in fairy tales, here the hero was a caricature and the wolves looked like natural, powerful free beings. People interacted with them playfully, sitting on them, posing for selfies.

This encounter with the wild had an unexpected parallel in newly uninhabited spaces in Florence and other parts of Italy. Dolphins appeared in the Grand Canal in Venice, ducks waddled into malls in Florence, and actual wolves are having a major comeback, with as many as 2,000 of them presumed to be roaming the countryside. (The first national census of the Italian wolf was initiated last October.) As ball-goers celebrated in the piazza, the wolves were caged for the night. The men under the porticos also disappeared, but were back the next day. I asked what I could bring them. More triple-A batteries; that’s all.

During the initial lockdown, when we were allowed out one at a time for a valid purpose only, Matteo and I took turns going to the supermarket. Walking under the deserted porticos gave me the sense I was in a de Chirico painting, as if I were part of the city for the first time, inside its body, closer to the famously icy Florentine heart. Without people, each architectural detail is more vivid. The bas-relief sculptures of busts on plinths take on the appearance of figures pressing themselves into the walls, as if trying to socially distance from passers-by. The Duomo, the mothership, has seen it all before. In the summer of 1347, when the plague that would wipe out a third of the population here broke out, it was just being built. Despite the catastrophic blow to the city, construction wasn’t abandoned. Once more the Duomo is a silent witness. A local actor offered his take on a be-plagued and still Florence in a YouTube video of him questing through the streets, stopping to chat with statues of Dante, Brunelleschi, and others, looking for answers.

So much remains uncertain a year later. For stores and small businesses in Florence, the hardship is incalculable. Of the 3,000 restaurants in Tuscany that have closed permanently since the beginning of the lockdown, 100 have been in the province of Florence. A 44-year-old restaurateur in Santa Croce took his life in his restaurant before a restricted evening shift.

I wonder about Rocco, the owner of an after-hours teahouse in the center of Florence. His business appears not to have folded, but I haven’t seen him since the pandemic struck. Back when his cozy cafe was a beacon on the way home, a place to lounge for hours chatting—often with Rocco himself—Rocco purveyed the theory that some Florentines shuffle along under the unbearable weight of the city’s past, kept from new discoveries as if by a transparent domed ceiling. Any idea that flies too high hits the dome and comes crashing back to earth.

Walking through the subdued city the other day, I watched a crane crew’s final effort to secure a 90-foot trompe l’oeil photocollage by French artist JR to the front of Palazzo Strozzi. Called La Ferita (The Wound), it creates the illusion of a gash through the building’s shuttered facade.

Daisy Cockburn is a voice actor (under the name Daisy Tennant) based in Petrolia, California. She was confined to Florence during the long lockdown. Daisy, who spent many girlhood summers at Tree Frog Farm, is a longtime friend of Kopkind.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on April 21, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: From Brazil — The Sounds of Life

“O Que é Que a Baiana Tem?”, written in 1939 by composer Dorival Cayymi, is one of the most beloved sambas in the world. A former Kopkind/CID Film Camper, São Pãolo native Daniela Broitman, has made a documentary on Cayymi, titled Dorival Cayymi The Sounds of Life. Daniela talked about making the film earlier this year with Sounds and Colours, around the time the film was being shown virtually for a limited time:

Daniela: Culture and art are seen today by a good part of society as something expendable, and what these people do not realise is that they live culture and breathe art for a large part of their day: during their entire leisure time, or even on a journey to work, or while waiting in a doctor’s office. Imagine the world without art, without culture, can you imagine people’s despair?! So, imagine Brazil without [artists from Bahia] Dorival Caymmi, João Gilberto, Caetano [Veloso], [Gilberto] Gil, Gal [Costa] and [Maria] Bethânia?

Caymmi revealed Bahia to the world in the voice of Carmen Miranda; he contributed to making Brazilian music known worldwide. He revolutionized Brazilian song-writing and influenced generations of musicians, paving the way for movements such as Bossa Nova and Tropicália. He is the symbol of a powerful, diverse, creative, exuberant, sensual, avant-garde, charismatic and affectionate Brazil. It is the image that I want to convey about our country, which has suffered a lot with so much political greed. I want Brazil to be remembered again for all this beauty and cultural richness, and I hope that Dorival Caymmi – The Sounds of Life will be able to show this.

See the full interview here. Daniela’s beautiful trailer is below.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 48

20 04 2021

by Suchi Branfman

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

Dancing in the gym at Norco prison, before lockdown. (photo: William Short)

Undanced Dances

Santa Monica, California

My solo starts off with my arms out-stretched towards the sky, trying to touch the rafters, stretching on tip-toe, reaching, head up to the sky.

Terry Sakamoto, Jr., is describing a dance he calls “The Mountain.” He wrote the choreography from his bunk while in Covid lockdown last spring at the California Rehabilitation Center, a medium-security men’s prison located in Norco, California, about 65 miles from my home.

Before March 2020, when the state prison system shut down all programming and visitation due to the coronavirus, Terry was among the folks inside the prison with whom I had the remarkable opportunity to dance, make dance, and converse every Monday night for years. The project, called Dancing Through Prison Walls, began in December of 2016. The work took many forms, whether teaching credit-bearing college courses or Rehabilitative Achievement Credit workshops, collaborating on choreographies, bringing in guest artists, or simply spending hours dancing with folks inside the prison gym.

We were still dancing when the work was abruptly ended. I was given 48 hours to send in guidance as to how we might continue to dance together, apart. It was a rich challenge. I ended up writing prompts for ways that dance might be imagined/written, without actually moving. Although not a common way of making dances, there is a history of this kind of work in the dance world. And it turns out that writing dance is actually a liberating way of making dances. There are no financial, gravitational, technical, or locational limitations. Anything is possible.

Almost immediately, the dancers began sending out their choreographies for these undanced dances.

From “‘Safety and Security’: Two Nations’ Borders,” by Terry Sakamoto:

She’s slowly backing out of the driveway into the still quiet streets of Mexico, heading toward a day filled with check-points, questions, searches, and persons’ attitudes sometimes empty of human kindness and empathy.

From “I Wait,” by Carlos Rivas:

I start to feel the power of my dance as I empty out my thoughts and feelings on the dance floor. I always feel free when I dance.

From “Arm Leg Leg Arm Head,” by Landon Reynolds:

I see people gliding on water as they move fluidly across the landscape.

From “From In Here,” by Yusef Lamont Pierce:

Slide the top hand over the bottom palm from wrist to fingertips. You’re imitating the act of sliding bills off the top of a stack. This dance is called “The Hittem’ Where It Hurt$!”

More than a choreographic residency, for me the project has been a commitment to learning from and with folks inside; to making work grounded in their stories and ideas; to examining mass incarceration, its deeply racist roots grounded in the legacy of slavery, and the prison industrial complex. Prison abolition has become my North Star in the work, what gives the work context and location.

Last fall I began the process of embodying the dances to share them with the “free world.” Highlighting six, written between March and May by Brandon Alexander, Richie Martinez, Landon Reynolds and Sakamoto, I entrusted them to some dear dance colleagues who had joined me in dancing inside the prison over the years. Bernard Brown, Jay Carlon, Irvin Gonzalez, Kenji Igus, Bri Mims and Tom Tsai are steeped in hip hop, tap, breaking, performance art, Quebradita, spoken word, Bhutto, and contemporary dance forms. In these dances, movement is accompanied by the resonant narration of formerly incarcerated movers and organizers with whom I have worked inside: Marc Antoni Charcas, Ernst Fenelon, Jr., and Romarilyn Ralston.

One choreographer, Richie Martinez, was released last summer during the prison’s largest Covid wave; to our joy, he is now narrating and performing “Richie’s Disappearing Acts”:

I close my eyes and I’m somewhere else.

He calls his latest dance, written in 2021, “Richie’s Reappearing Acts.”

Richie Martinez dancing on Santa Monica pier. (photo: Suchi Branfman)

I have been overwhelmed by all of this profoundly personal yet wildly radical work. We still can’t dance in the prison, but people inside continue to send out their undanced dances, and they are always astonishing to receive. Meanwhile, the embodied work, dubbed Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic, has been performed publicly. It is currently part of the City of Santa Monica’s Art of Recovery project, examining the school-to-prison nexus. A film of the dance and a conversation with the artists was presented virtually at the 18th Street Arts Center on April 16.

Conversations among the artists have highlighted the multiple realities of mass incarceration: the imprisoned loved ones not previously spoken of, the difficulty in getting parole during Covid, the restrictions that make it impossible for people on parole to see children in other counties, the unexpected in-home police inspections even many years after parole ends.

From “Internal Battle: Negative and Positive,” by Brandon Alexander:

Every move I make, every transition, every expression is reflecting the inner conflict within me.

In December, Sming Sming Books published Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic. The book is a sort of message in a bottle (or in an envelope, so to speak), sent from people who are so profoundly invisibilized on the inside, to live in plain sight in people’s living rooms, altars, desks, kitchen tables on the outside.

From “Mapping a Journey to Visit Me,” by Landon Reynolds:

As the journey descends into Southern California with the clear skies and sunny weather, the dance transforms to a more relaxed style. A lot of open gestures which allow the sun to shine down on the body as if one is sunbathing.

Reading dances allows us to imagine them, much as abolitionists strive to reimagine society. Embodying them mirrors the act of bringing deep, well-grounded imaginings for justice into the streets. Writing and dancing itself, Richie Martinez once said, is an exercise in creating some “freedom time.” Back in 2018 a dancer at Norco, named Kamasi, told us, “You may not be able to get us out of here immediately, but you can take us out of here.” We are doing our best.

Suchi Branfman is a choreographer and prison abolition activist. A second edition of Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic is forthcoming from Sming Sming Books. Suchi is a longtime friend of Tree Frog Farm and Kopkind, having known Andy and John from the early days. For more information on her project: dancingthroughprisonwalls@gmail.com

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on April 14, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: One Night and a Fight in Miami

Site of the historic meeting in Liberty City following the Clay-Liston fight in 1965, the subject of One Night in Miami.

Those who follow the Oscars will know that on April 25, One Night in Miami is up for best adapted screenplay, original song and supporting actor (Leslie Odom, Jr.). For most of the action, the film takes place in a room at the Hampton House, where Malcolm X, Sam Cooke (Odom) and Jim Brown gather with Muhammed Ali, then Cassius Clay, to celebrate his victory over Sonny Liston. The motel is in the historically black community of Liberty City, which, though neglected by public officials and private developers for decades, is today hot property for one reason: it is ten feet above sea level. Liberty City, the public housing project long at its heart, Liberty Square, and the fight over displacement and climate gentrification are the subject of a documentaryin-progress by a filmmaking team including two former Kopkind/CID Film Campers. In 2019, Katja Esson (co-writer/director) and Ann Bennett (producer) came to Tree Frog Farm to workshop Razing Liberty Square. Katja had to leave abruptly that summer because bulldozers were about to level the low-rise housing project that had been home to generations of black Miamians. In its place, a $300 million development called Liberty City Rising. As a local resident, Valencia Gunder, tells the filmmakers: “My grandfather always would say: They’re going to come to take Liberty City because we don’t flood.” Here is a contemporary story about history and a fight in Miami, which keeps on going. Click here for a work sample.

A boy sits in ruin of his former home; in the background, the gentrifying development. (still from Razing Liberty Square)





Scenes From a Pandemic: 47

12 04 2021

by Lillian Osborne

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

The ubiquity was always about more than just mittens.

A Common Love Lost

Chicago

Loss is the story of the pandemic. For me, over the past year, that has meant losing a relative to Covid, losing a job, an apartment, health insurance, and a romantic relationship. But there was another loss, a common love lost on the American left, that we haven’t fully grieved. I am reminded of that now because April 8 marks the anniversary of the end of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign.

Around the time that the first Covid case appeared in Seattle, some friends and I packed a car and drove four hours to Muscatine, Iowa, to campaign for Bernie in the Democratic caucuses. It was January. At a makeshift field office—a detached garage warmed by space heaters—three women volunteers arranged piles of yard signs, canvassing scripts, and clipboards on a plastic folding table. As her mom trained us, a toddler waddled across the cement floor in a blue Bernie onesie and stretched her arms out to us, total strangers. Hours later when, exhausted and frozen, we returned from door-knocking, it was dark. The women were still there, the mom and her baby, too.

That scene, both mundane and remarkable, warmth in the dead of winter, will stick with me forever. It symbolized the depth of commitment and shared connection of ordinary people who joined the campaign in the millions under the banner of “political revolution” and “Not Me. Us.” As the campaign crescendoed, the unity of purpose, the high stakes, and electricity of the campaign made it feel like falling in love for the first time, only with millions of other people.

Love is about reminding us we’re alive. And what was Bernie’s campaign about if not an affirmation of life and human dignity? Bernie’s campaign was fundamentally about feelings—feelings of loss, anger, and insecurity; feelings of being stuck in alienating and undemocratic workplaces and political systems. Better than any other candidate, he grasped working people’s realities, affirmed our frustrations, and channeled those feelings toward a common project and a common enemy: capitalism. The campaign genuinely was about “us” and taking control of our lives.

For my generation, the left had never felt like this. Then it was over. Bernie dropped out on April 8, 2020. Those of us who’d worked on the campaign suffered the loss alone, huddled in our houses, playing Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ About a Revolution” on repeat, sobbing at the line “‘Cause finally the tables are starting to turn.”

For once, we felt we were in the driver’s seat, making the road as we sped across it. For my generation, the left had never dreamed of gaining popular support for socialist ideas, let alone coming within arm’s reach of winning with them. The day AOC’s endorsement became public, my boyfriend recorded a video of me with freshly showered hair, wearing his too-big sweatshirt, dancing and singing, “I’m having the time of my life, and I owe it all to AOC.” For the first time in a very long time, the left felt confident.

Then it was over. None of us that night in Iowa could have imagined the rapid spread of Covid over the following weeks, the political and economic crises in its wake, the Democratic Party’s resilience in unifying around Joe Biden, and Bernie’s subsequent drop-out. For those in the campaign, it was like watching a car crash in slow motion. We were powerless to stop it.

To make matters worse, we suffered the loss alone, huddled in our houses. The night Bernie announced the end of his campaign, I listened to Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ About a Revolution” on repeat, sobbing at the line “’Cause finally the tables are starting to turn.” We had gotten so close, it seemed, to turning the tables.

But we had to move on, quickly. People were sick and dying. Essential workers were organizing and striking. Mass protests against police killings and racism erupted. There was work to do, and many of us threw ourselves into it. There wasn’t time to take stock and reflect.

Now politics feels different, like falling out of love. Organizers from the campaign told me that afterward they felt numb; some cried. We had “debriefs”; people posted on social media about the campaign; some wrote articles about its lessons; but nothing came close to “closure.” Maybe nothing will. I don’t know. But it feels as if we’re each carrying a box around alone, afraid to open it together for what might come out. Not the lessons or failures, but the emotions that we packed away. The grief. Dealing with what it felt like. I don’t want to carry that unopened box forever.

Before Bernie, the left was like a sleepy Rust Belt town. We organized and marched, but acceptance of dilapidation was a basic part of living there after decades of defeat. After Bernie’s 2016 run, tens of thousands of people came flooding through the doors of the Democratic Socialists of America. Organizing meetings became standing-room-only. The usual faces, now stunned by the explosion of new political energy, were few and far between. The left wasn’t just revived; it was reborn.

After four years of organizing, Bernie’s 2020 campaign became a patchwork quilt of movement struggles. Our coalition in Chicago had more than a dozen grassroots organizations, including Chicago DSA, Sunrise Movement, progressive ward-level organizations, and socialist aldermen. I was repeatedly struck by the level of political unity among so many people I had never worked with before, and by our collective clarity that the campaign was about both electing Bernie and, most important, building a mass working-class movement through the campaign.

We packed away the yard signs a while ago, but my heart still leaps when I see Bernie signs in my neighbors’ windows. The movement continues, but the relative silence on the sheer depth of what we all lost—not just the race but pieces of our lives—makes it hard to reconcile with what we have gained, advances the left hasn’t experienced in decades.

We need to grieve the loss so that we can celebrate what we’ve won: a reborn left whose ideas resonate with millions of people. We’ve built real political will that has forced the establishment to abandon talk of “tough choices” or balancing the budget on workers’ backs amid the current crisis. The point of mourning is to get back to living—to recover the conviction, together, that we can win a better world.

Lillian Osborne is a union researcher in Chicago. She was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp in 2018.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on April 7, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: ‘… and Your Little Dog, too!’

No, that’s not Toto; it’s Li’l Bro at Tree Frog Farmand now that we’ve got your attention…

On Monday, April 19, PBS will broadcast American Oz, as part of its “American Experience” series. The documentary, co-produced by former Kopkind/CID Film Camper Tracy Heather Strain, tells of the life and times of L. Frank Baum, who wandered in the arcade of life’s endeavors until, in his 40s, he began writing children’s stories—most famously and fabulously, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. While in Film Camp, Tracy workshopped her marvelous film Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, the first feature documentary on the great Lorraine Hansberry, which won the Peabody Award in 2018. Click on image below to watch an extended trailer for American Oz.

Detail of original 1900 edition of Baum’s book.