Scenes From a Pandemic: 41

1 03 2021

With this we resume our collaborative series with The Nation—weekly dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends from around the country and the world on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it. Scroll down to read all the pieces this project has published since April 1, 2020, in descending order, plus Bonuses and other material particular to this site.

by Angela Ards

(photo: Angela Ards)

Yappy Hour: or, Pawing Our Way Toward Community

Newton, Massachusetts

During lockdown last March, one of the few approved excuses for being outside was to walk your dog. In Newton, a suburb outside of Boston, stir-crazy folks with the requisite pet in tow began congregating, six feet apart, at Braceland, one of our local parks

We were educators, health care workers, and nonprofit executives; musicians, engineers, and entrepreneurs—alongside a mix of designer doodles and rescues. There was early talk that the rescues all came from Southern states, where yahoos are dumping pups in garbage bags by the roadside on the regular, so say the shelters. I find the narrative suspect, serving to feed my Northeastern neighbors’ sense of regional superiority, but then again I’m a Texan, with a Standard Poodle, Zuri, and a superiority complex of my own.

At first, we knew the dogs’ names better than one another’s. We knitted neighborly bonds with small talk. Once a week, at least one person would declare that the inventor of the Chuck-it Launcher should receive a Nobel Prize. The rod’s aerodynamic curves and cup allow you to throw a tennis ball like Tom Brady, tiring out young pups and cutting stupefying rounds of fetch in half. We had running jokes. The dad of two Shih Tzus would ask, “How’s Father Leahy?”, the president of the college where I teach, who frequents his Brookline shop. I wouldn’t know, and the Shih Tzus’ dad really didn’t care; the query was more about the two of us, connecting. In time we all started sharing tips about the neighborhood, passing on recommendations for good repairmen—our exchanges like the Nextdoor app come to life, but without the casual racism. Out from behind the anonymity of screens, people have to face one another and actually think about their words.

Eventually, the oak trees overlooking a long field sloping toward the Charles River became an office watercooler of sorts, where we talked politics and the pandemic while watching the dogs play. Like barking, though, mindless banter can turn edgy if you miss the cues. There were some tense moments as job loss and quarantine and boredom wore on us.

When stock markets initially tanked, would-be titans of enterprise parroted maxims about buying low, selling high. “That’s how you build wealth,” touted a salesman, owner of a gorgeous young Vizsla, invoking Warren Buffet as a liberal shield. A nonprofit executive and an entrepreneur agreed. They were trying not to sound crass, like capitalists preying on disaster. I walked away to renew a round of fetch with Zuri.

Around the election, the regular “How’s Father Leahy?” turned into an incredulous “You’re voting for Biden? He’s so old.” A retort I didn’t even know I had ready landed hard and on target: “Well, he’s not a white supremacist.” We both stood silent, stunned, and turned on our heels.

Mostly, though, the only irreparable breaches have been disagreements over whose dog started it. Now that handshakes and hugs are out, the need to be held in community keeps bringing us back, even if at a distance. On the occasional weekend, when weather permits, our resident “mayor” organizes “yappy hours,” featuring Milk-Bones for the pups and festive drinks for the humans. There was spiced apple cider at Halloween and a sweet peach tea to celebrate the Georgia Senate races. One sunny Saturday last fall, a retired principal wrote a funny ballad in honor of our accidental community, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar:

Elvis had Graceland
But we’ve all got Braceland
If we want, we can stay here past dark
Because it’s Yappy Hour here at the park.

Sunset at Braceland with dogs. (photo: Sarah Hildebrand)

As the days of the pandemic lengthened, with less travel and day-to-day business, the skies cleared and wildlife came out. We did too. Neighbors came to rely on one another in a pinch as neighbors do: dog-sitting for a few hours or a weekend; sharing hand-me-downs for new pups; celebrating milestone birthdays with cupcakes and banners. From such neighborliness real friendships grew. For Zuri and me, a standing playdate at the park with a couple and their two Standards led to other get-togethers as we discovered affinities beyond poodles. On our group chat, the common thread among all the cute dog pics is gratitude for the community we’ve built to keep each other sane through constant uncertainty. “The silver lining,” we say.

It’s been almost a year. Wildlife is back in hiding; smog in New Delhi and Los Angeles has returned; yet, we still gather. A few streets surrounding Braceland are named after states: Ohio Avenue, Indiana Terrace. On the night of the inauguration, we met at the white house at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue, letting the serendipitous address speak of our hopes for us and the nation. Our resident mayor embraced Biden’s theme of unity, serving champagne with grenadine or cassis to spike it red or blue.

The Vizsla’s dad, who was laid off and then rehired at a much lower salary, says the pandemic has changed his mind about a lot. Perhaps “building wealth” sounded more like a scam after losing his job. Following the January 6 insurrection, he asked if I thought Trump supporters would have a change of heart having seen the violence. I doubt it. I think it’s more like the Shih Tzus’ dad. He does work harder now to make small talk, to connect, but he persists in showing up without a mask despite a statewide mandate. Standing on the hill by the oak trees, he wishes “Good morning” to the rest of us, masked, standing below. He seems to want to show us that he’s not like those people who stormed the Capitol.

Angela Ards is an associate professor of English and the director of journalism at Boston College. She is the author of Words of Witness: Black Women’s Autobiography in the Post-Brown Era. She was a Kopkind participant in 2000, a mentor in 2015, and has been an adviser since the early 2000s.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on February 24, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Tell Me a Memory

Jon Crawford, a participant in Kopkind/CID Film Camp (2018, 2019), began interviewing people in Memphis last year about their lives, their loves and memories, the small and large pieces of experience that together form the beginnings of an archive of the lgbtq community. You can view all the videos to date and learn more about Jon’s reason for starting the series at Tell Me a Memory. Below is one Memphian’s story.





Kopkind: a brief audio history, pt. 2

20 01 2021

Last week we posted Part 1 of a brief audio history that our dear friend and comrade Maria Margaronis volunteered to make for The Brattleboro Words Project, which is compiling an audio archive linking the geography of southern Vermont with writers who’ve lived in the region and their work. Part 1 is about Andy the man. Part 2 is about Tree Frog Farm and this eponymous living memorial, which we launched in 1998 and which began summer seminar/retreats at the farm in 1999 to spark, connect and nourish left writers, media makers, political organizers and filmmakers. Both parts are now up on the Words Project website. Herewith, Part 2.

(“Can I Live,” linoleum block print with leaves: Nicólas Gonzalez Medina, Kopkind 2018)

A Note From JoAnn

“Scenes From a Pandemic” will return soon. We’re so glad that The Nation has extend-ed this collaborative series; I’m building up a bit of an inventory now. As always, we thank Katrina vanden Heuvel and Don Guttenplan, but I also want to acknowledge the Nation staff who’ve worked with me in production since last spring, and who have been terrific: Ricky D’Ambrose, Robert Best, Sandy McCroskey, Anna Hiatt–thank you.

Meanwhile, on February 2 at 5 pm Mountain Time, the independent Boulder Book Store is hosting a Zoom conversation between Nathan Schneider (Kopkind 2012) and me. Among other things, we will be talking about “habits of thought [that] reinforce and sustain the habits of power,” a great line by James Baldwin and a theme running through my recently published collection of essays. Nathan is a wonderful writer, thinker and human being, who helped organize Kopkind’s 2012 camp on the Occupy movement. He’s written a number of marvelous books dealing with everything from anarchy to the commons to god, and contributed #24 in our pandemic series. (Click here to see that.) For details on the event, see or click on the image below. We’d love to see you there!





Scenes From a Pandemic: 40

8 01 2021

This was the final installment for 2020 in our continuing series with The Nation. We will resume the series soon, for 2021. We hope you have been enjoying these weekly installments and our Bonuses, and we ask, if you can, please support us for the year ahead by pressing the Donate button (above) on this site. New Year wishes, and thank you all!

by John Scagliotti

Sister Act 3: pre-Covid edition (photo: John Scagliotti)

Sniffing Our Way Back

Dade City, Florida

The last time I kissed a man was almost a year ago, just before the virus closed the country. The gentleman caller standing outside my trailer had been giving me that look over the previous few days in the pool that serves as a gathering spot at our winter gay campground. On the day before I was to leave for the trip back north, this handsome chap mustered the courage to knock at my door. Since I would be gone before the gossip at the pool would undoubtedly identify me as a slut, I gave in to his advances.

I am no virgin, but when he touched me, I felt like Madonna descending those tiny aluminum steps. Then he laid into me with one of those enveloping kisses, the kind where your foot magically rises upward to the sun. I mostly remember his juicy-fruit taste and musky smell.

There I was back to my roots with that primal move. It was the calling that began 50 years ago for me when I joined the Gay Liberation Front. Although hardly anyone in the lgbtq movement mentions it these days, the desire to have sex without police, state, and church interference had brought us together in the first place, and the GLF was a consciously left group that saw ending this thousands-of-years-old oppression of same-sexers as part of the big radical project for self-determination. We certainly were not aiming to ape heterosexual marriage or collect a lover’s Social Security (though I wouldn’t mind a few reparations thrown my way for my suffering). We wanted to change the world. Many of us still do.

Woozy as I was from that kiss, I managed to climb into my three-quarter-ton truck pulling the trailer back home to Vermont. On the Interstate, the radio began crackling out the horror. Shelter at home!… Stay six feet apart… Wash your hands… Don’t eat out… The death toll today is 300… Experts say 100,000 will die by April.

How ironic that Covid attacks the ultimate tools we have for intimate connection—smell, taste, closeness—and also for the human, political connections we need to rebuild the left.

Desire is political, like hunger. Closeness, sexual or not, is political; its opposite is alienation.

By the time I got to the farm in Vermont, it was clear that 2020 would interrupt a 45-year tradition of hosting gangs of people who’ve dreamed freedom dreams. The tradition began at the farm in the 1970s with my partner Andrew Kopkind, a brilliant journalist—whom I met in Boston’s cruising grounds one happy day in 1971 when the Vice Squad chased us out of the Fens—and continued after his death, in 1994, with the living memorial whose participants have been contributing to this series.

There are some things that Zoom just cannot replace. How do you Zoom a tasty meal of garden produce being served around a large table of comrades discussing Black Lives Matter tactics? Or extended conversations about works-in-progress, a problem of politics, or any subject that can be only scratched in a workshop? How do you Zoom the play of imagination that emerges from among people together? Or the fecund aroma of Chinese chestnut blooms begging to be compared to something you shouldn’t talk about? Or the sumptuous touch of your new lover slinking into the hot tub as Bruno Mars sings from speakers on the deck: “If you’re freaky, then own it!”

Now, nine months after the beginning of this new plague, there’s a baby bust. As I chugged into our campsite this year, things looked the same, but quickly the changes added up. Old mates keep their distance, and the bear hugs are gone. On the “trails,” the outdoor cruising sites, instead of little group trysts one sees the loner, and instead of that look, eyes are filled with caution. A neighbor who almost died of Covid says that three months after surviving the worst symptoms, he still can’t smell or taste; he fears those senses might never fully return. The pool has a quota now, and the drag queens at bingo are forced to lip-synch in the outdoor chill. In a campsite that always celebrated the realm of the senses, will this second plague be the one that sends us back into the closet, sexually speaking? We’ve all seen the attacks on social media about gay folks packed in bars or campsites, with claims that gays are creating spreader events. Same-sexers have always been high on the list of blame for spreading contagion.

Desire is political—like hunger—and not just because the right has exploited it for strategic gain. Closeness, sexual or not, is political; its opposite is alienation. One of the amazing features of Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park was this “elation just to feel, talk, press against another shoulder, hear one’s own voice with others echoing, We are… we are… we are…,” as my dear friend JoAnn Wypijewski wrote here in 2011. A young man had told her and Kopkinder Prerna Sampat, “You know, if you count it up, the average college senior has spent two years of his life playing video games.” That fellow was 21. Like others they spoke with, he was drawn first by curiosity or protest, and kept coming because after so much solitude as a cyberborg, being close to others smelled like freedom.

The Trumpsters brayed that if Biden and Harris won, socialist guerrillas would overrun the government, and Cory Booker would move into your white neighborhood. To this, I borrow the language of the cyberborgs: LOL. Sadly, most Democrats are not of the left, certainly not the left of the 1930s, which inspired Social Security and, throughout much of the world, nationalized health care; or the New Left of the 1960s, which drove fundamental change like civil rights for blacks, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, and the sexual revolution. The left started those movements, and its agenda for peace, international solidarity, and liberation from forms of oppression that are interconnected excited millions toward positive change.

Now begins the era of the vaccine. Eventually, the new-new left, led by many young lgbtq black folks and their allied comrades in hundreds of radical organizations, who have struggled valiantly in this economic and health crisis, will gather together, get close, smell, taste, and love one another to bring history another step forward. And I cannot wait for my next kiss.

John Scagliotti’s films include Before StonewallAfter Stonewall and Before Homosexuals. He is Kopkind’s administrator and, with Susi Walsh of the Center for Independent Documentary, programs the Kopkind/CID Film Camp.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on December 30, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Andy Kopkind, a brief audio history

From Andy’s scrapbook, summer 1984 at Tree Frog Farm. L to R, Kathryn Kilgore, Andy Kopkind, John Scagliotti, Will K. Wilkins, Daisy Cockburn, Alexander Cockburn

Andy Kopkind contained multitudes: at once a profoundly radical political analyst, gorgeous writer, savvy reporter, nature lover, gardener, cook, cultural aficionado, measure of sense and sensibility, master of puns, generous host, mentor and source of tremendous fun. The Brattleboro Words Project, which is compiling an audio archive linking the geography of southern Vermont with writers who’ve lived in the region and their work, asked our dear friend and comrade Maria Margaronis to make short pieces on Andy and the Kopkind Colony. They will soon be on the Words Project website. We bring you Part 1 here. Part 2 to come!





Sniffing the Zeitgeist

30 12 2020

Kopkind’s annual year-end newsletter, “Sniffing the Zeitgeist,” takes a different form in Covid-time. As always, it’s a window on what the organization and its wide circle of alumni and friends have been up to the past year. As always, it offers something new. This year especially we’re asking for your support. And we’re wishing everyone a common love, solidarity, so we all get through this thing. (Anyone who would like a pdf of this newsletter laid out in its usual form, please write jwyp@earthlink.net.) With thanks from everyone at Kopkind.

Goodbye, 2020

(photo: Vasia Markides, Kopkind/CID Film Camp, 2018)

There is no template for this. This newsletter, this year, this moment in politics and the world.

The spirit of the time is uncertainty. So it was in March, when it seemed likely that the coronavirus would foreclose Kopkind’s annual seminar/retreat sessions, or “camps,” this summer. So it was in May, when people were broke or worrying about going broke, some still waiting for their pandemic relief benefits, waiting to hear about unemployment insurance or a forgivable loan or whatever they’d cobbled up in hopes of getting by. So we canceled the camps, and we didn’t do our annual spring appeal or our Harvest fundraiser. We took a risk that you, our members and friends, would not forget us. This is a digital appeal. We need you now. 

Risk and improvisation having displaced the ordinary, this year of uncertain life has also been one of radical hope—unsettling strange, like the image above, which actually captures a joyful moment.

Kopkind’s 2020 improvisation has been a weekly storytelling project with pictures, “Scenes From a Pandemic,” a collaboration with The Nation, where Andy Kopkind was the chief political analyst and reporter from 1982 till his death, in 1994. Something’s happening everywhere, we thought. Something we don’t know. And everywhere our people, mostly precarious journalists, organizers, filmmakers, could probably use a little paid work. What are they witnessing, experiencing?

El Paso: At the prosecution table, an Assistant US Attorney coughed explosively, then exited, a hand pushing open the half-doors that separate the administrative side from the rest of the courtroom. Another prosecutor, with a Van Dyke-ish beard, approached the doors and put his hand on the place his coughing colleague had just touched. Van Dyke then leaned on one besuited hip and schmoozed for a few minutes with a public defender—all the while caressing the half-door. With the same hand, Van Dyke then stroked his beard. The hand soon migrated from beard to mouth. Across the room, a court-appointed defense lawyer huddled with a middle-aged woman in jail clothes. The huddle left a few inches distance between them. The woman would plead guilty for driving two undocumented immigrants to a Border Patrol checkpoint. The lawyer collated papers, repeatedly licking his index finger. He picked up a pen with his licked hand and signed the papers. He gave the pen and papers to the client. She signed, and the lawyer walked over to Van Dyke’s table. Van Dyke took the papers, then patted his beard and mouth. The woman was sent back to jail to await sentencing. (Debbie Nathan, Kopkind mentor 2013, 2016)

What are they feeling?

Nashville: None of us knows how to pivot between crises, and online agitation doesn’t feel like enough. … A friend from Brooklyn calls, concerned, knowing that I’ve been in the street for weeks. “The virus isn’t a tornado,” she says; “your neighbors don’t carry the tornado in their lungs.” But the tornado is still here, and the gentrifiers and the landlords aren’t taking a break. Church pews and family photos still litter the street on 21st and Formosa, fading in the rain as city workers set up the new Covid-19 treatment tents outside General Hospital a few blocks away. As I drive home at dusk, the flashing blue-and-red marquee in front of the neighborhood church is the only visible activity. The words march past in three-foot-tall letters, announcing to no one at all that GOD IS STILL IN CONTROL. God or the virus or the tornado or the landlords, or all four, because it damn sure isn’t us yet. (Tristan Call, Kopkind 2013)

Sirens were wailing in New York City. The Empire State Building was rotating a red emergency light in the fog. Death and shortages filled the news, but so much was invisible. Debbie had been in federal court, watching the casual consignment of desperate people to fate. Days before The Nation posted her dispatch, the first in our series, the Guatemalan government announced that a deportee on an ICE flight from Phoenix to El Paso to Guatemala City had tested positive for Covid-19. It was the first documented case on an ICE flight. Outside the borderlands, almost no one else had paid attention.

Common emergencies, the silent shrieks resulting from other systems overloading, failing or working as designed—indifferent to human needs—had been pushed to the periphery, unless you were like so many living the reality of compound crises. Tristan wrote in the wake of a tornado the press quickly forgot. From Salt Lake City, Kate Savage wrote after an earthquake. Taté Walker wrote from Indian Country, where contaminated water or no running water made hand-washing a hardship. This was before the national media noticed that the Navajo Nation had the highest infection rate after New York and New Jersey.

In South Dakota, the white man was rejecting masks and social distancing while the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, where Taté is enrolled, enforced a curfew, required travel permits and controlled traffic in and out of the 1.4 million-acre reservation at checkpoints. Governor Kristi Noem complained, but the tribe contained contagion while meatpacking plants in Sioux Falls became a national hot spot. Later, the biker extravaganza in Sturgis would paint the Midwest map red with infection.

(drawing: Alex Melamid, Kopkind speaker 2016)

Indian Country: For Indigenous people there are two viruses. One has been killing us for centuries. The novel coronavirus is biological and blameless, while colonialism is a man-made cocktail of historical and political toxicity. For the sake of metaphor, work with me here, because you cannot discuss the wildfire that is Covid-19 and the disparities it uncovers without recognizing how colonialism has fueled the blaze. (Taté Walker, Kopkind 2015)

(drawing: Alessandra Moctezuma, friend of Kopkind)

“This is a season of wild contrasts,” said Makani Themba, an advisor, friend and mentor to Kopkind from the start. Protests against police violence and racism had filled the streets of the nation by the time Makani wrote. But something else was happening, too, akin to the Cheyenne River Sioux’s mobilization for care in a careless land.

Jackson: Covid is revealing all of the cracks and fissures in our systems—of care, of connection, in our economy. As cities like Jackson are left to fend for ourselves, Covid is also revealing how “we keep us safe.” In my South Jackson neighborhood, masked volunteers sweat under the Mississippi sun as they hand out food and toilet paper. Many of the folk in line brave the heat hoping to be among the lucky ones to get a mobile Covid test before kits run out. Volunteers have stepped up as part of the Jackson Covid Response. It’s a local coalition that includes Jackson State and Tougaloo College students; organizing groups like Poor People’s Campaign, Mississippi One Voice, People’s Advocacy Institute, Mississippi Immigrant Coalition, Democratic Socialists of America, and Black Youth Project 100; neighborhood groups and businesses like Operation Good, Strong Arms of Jackson, MOVE Church and Bad Boy Tree Services; social service projects like Clean Slate Behavioral Health Collective; multimedia outlets like the local branch of Black With No Chaser, which has a popular podcast in the community. This coalition is one of the hundreds of mutual-aid networks springing up across the country to fill the gaps that the state refuses to address. (Makani Themba, Kopkind mentor 1999, 2017)

(photo: Gilbert Thompson in Jackson, Mississippi)

New Orleans: We have stepped into the gap of the state, because the state would kill us. There is no benevolent daddy! Although, Benevolent Daddy would be an excellent drag name.” (Aesha Rasheed, quoted by Kara Lynch, Kopkind 2019, and the New Orleans Plague Pod)

Hurdle Mills, NC: What’s happening here is a new community-supported agriculture service, the Tall Grass Food Box, featuring the produce of black farmers. It was an idea among friends, who hustled to organize the CSA as the crisis hit: Gabrielle Eitienne, a cook and cultural preservationist; Gerald Harris, a university administrator interested in food sovereignty; and Derrick Beasley, an artist, co-founder of Black August, an annual showcase for black food producers, business and creativity in Durham. “We were asking ourselves, Who’s taking care of black farmers? How can we support them?” (Cynthia Greenlee, Kopkind 2007)

Gloucester, MA: Home-grown efforts to keep people in local fish can’t match the collapse of an industry; direct-to-consumer sales are a small fraction of what fishermen sell to restaurants. Still, the seaside solidarity that the crisis has brought to Gloucester matters. …  “You get a bucket of lobsters, I get cheaper rent. A grocery store gives out a gift card, basically saying ‘Here’s money for a couple of weeks.’ It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a huge thing, helping each other out.” (Jennifer Berkshire, Kopkind 1999, speaker 2013)

Phoenix: Dear Landlord, … Are you home with your pets, with your family? I’m rationing my brothers’ faces because they’re not on Facebook or a wifi plan, and the US-Mexican border, like many others, is closed to non-essential travel. … Many of us have made a commute across that frontier, now a metal carcass with restless K9s and masked agents. Here, instead of ordering N95 masks, we are trying to ensure a roof over our heads. We have come together to represent our interests as people who give you money to claim a place to sleep. (Anna Flores, Kopkind 2018)

Solidarity isn’t exactly contagious; it’s the remembrance of “things you didn’t know you’d forgotten,” as Robin Wall Kimmerer, the Anishinabekwe botanist, writes in Braiding Sweetgrass. A deep memory of the commons, as historian Peter Linebaugh (Kopkind mentor 2014, speaker 2019) wrote in our series, quoting from that book, one of many that have accompanied him in lockdown.

(photo: Peter Linebaugh)

The New Orleans Plague Pod was modeled on hurricane evacuation resource groups that have existed for years. Its affective sources, though, were older, multiple, “born in songs, storms, newsrooms, prayers, dyke bars, DIY Mardi Gras krewes and dark moon rituals.” It and those other collective actions are variations on ages-old human survival efforts.            

Food, shelter, contact, the sharing of ideas and materiel, care, humor… Basic for humanity, these are also central to Kopkind’s project, which blends politics, culture and an appreciation of the sensuous world.

So it is fitting that Peter shared a reading list in “Scenes From a Pandemic: 38.” That people from Hurdle Mills had tips on sweet potato soup and pie in No. 4. That Scot Nakagawa discussed the social meaning of kimchee and gave a full recipe in No. 12. That Kweku Toure helped us laugh in No. 34. That Alex Halkin shared a dream of a four-eyed dog with artistic collaborators in Cuba, who made a beautiful short video: a Bonus to No. 5. That Jon Crawford talked about training a dog, actually and metaphorically, in No. 11. (All of those are below on this blog site.) That John Scagliotti talks about a kiss in the final installment for 2020, No. 40, coming up.

We’ve been so grateful for this collaboration with The Nation, and we’ll pick up this series in January. We hope we can resume the camps in the summer. In uncertain times, though, as our board member Kweku joked, “If you want to make the gods laugh, tell them your plans.” Still, about a few things we are certain: that we need one another; that the pandemic has exposed the bankruptcy of neoliberalism, of privatization, financialization and a corporate state; that we need a rigorous, organized left that also needs space to breathe. We are certain that years ago when a former camper, Jen Soriano, said “You have created a political paradise on earth,” we were doing something necessary. We are absolutely certain that we cannot resume, cannot maintain the infrastructure and replenish our drained resources, without you. We are asking for your support. (Please click the DONATE button at the top of this site.)

The pandemic has brought the struggle over the state into high relief, a struggle that a US left cannot afford to ignore. In the series or our site’s Bonuses we’ve had material from South Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Gdansk, Liberia, Okinawa, and radical efforts internationally (via our friend Vijay Prashad and comrades at Tricontinental) to organize for a humane future. What we weren’t able to publish was the view of a longtime friend of Kopkind from inside the state at ground level, where workers toil to serve the people. Bureaucratic concerns prevented it. Here is an excerpt (which must be anonymous).

How does one cope with so much displacement, disorder, discord? And how equipped am I, really, for this sort of work? Over three decades, I rolled with the journalism bones. The work was satisfying, but I always felt it was a placeholder while I figured out what the heck I was supposed to do. I came here in 2014 without a job or a place to live and found both within a few miraculous days, in a charming town and at the regional alt-weekly chain. This is where we queue the one and only great scene from Godfather III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” Now that I’m really out and working for the Deeply Concerned State, I admit there are some days I’ve felt like Fredo in the rowboat.

The basic tenet of journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, but rare is the day when humanity is served because of a story you wrote. From the inside now, while the boss works the latter mandate, I focus on the former. It’s enormously rewarding to bigfoot some bureaucratic snafu and politely get an agency to resolve an issue in a constituent’s favor—like one of those “7 On Your Side” local TV segments where a citizen is stuck until they call the station. It’s absurd but underappreciated that the same government that creates so much red tape also created congressional case-workers to help cut through it.

I work mostly with far more experienced people, and find myself wanting what they have, or at least what they reveal: a calm determination to slog through the pandemic casework without letting it get to them. So I triage the escalating caseload, plucking out cases for immediate attention. I do this while contemplating a ruling-class culture that’s hell-bent on eliminating the administrative state and replacing it with cruelty. I try not to take it personally. Any social worker will tell you—and my social worker friend told me this early in the Covid crisis—listen to people’s problems, but don’t listen too deeply; you’ll get wrecked.

We are all acquainted with sorrow now. And angst. The world reels with suffering. But a time of crisis is also dynamic; things change, forces clash. As Andy Kopkind once wrote, don’t forget “that politics is history, not philosophy; that revolutions are responses to reality, not to theory; that the nature of all things is contradiction, not equilibrium.” Nothing is all bad for all time, because history proceeds dialectically; how things turn out at any given time is a question of politics, fought out among real people in the real world. Kopkind lives to raise the spirit and the intellectual firepower for the fight. Be well. Be ready. Thank you.

For love, valor and compassion—   JoAnn Wypijewski

(selfie: Jamilah King, Kopkind 2009)

Donations to Kopkind are tax-deductible to the full extent of the law. If you can swing it, please Click Here to support us. And from all of us, best wishes in 2021.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 39

28 12 2020

We hope you have been enjoying this series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it. With each week’s Bonuses during this long, gray season, we have featured about 80 stories, songs, art works, videos, photographs, radio shorts, excerpts or notes from across the country and the world. We hope you are safe and ready. And we ask that, if you can, please press the Donate button (above) on this site—because we’re also hoping to survive this thing, to flower again on the green grass of Vermont; and we could really use a little help from our friends. Thank you all.

by Kevin Alexander Gray

Pit master Marco Brito with ribs (photos: Kevin Alexander Gray)

Smoking Meat, Hoping to Survive

Columbia, South Carolina

Yeah, it is hard as hell operating a restaurant in the midst of a pandemic. Very f-ing hard.

Last week around 7:30-ish in the morning I was awakened by a phone call. The voice on the other end said, “Mr. Gray, this is Officer So-and-so with the City of Columbia Police Department.” I didn’t get his name, as the call caught me off guard. Without hesitation I asked, “Is there something wrong at the restaurant?”

“No,” he said, “I was just checking in to see if everything is all right with you.” Turns out he was one of the community relations officers.

I’m not used to connecting police with a morning howdy-do except on reruns of The Andy Griffith Show—the black-and-white episodes. Most of my life I’ve spent in political struggles, which have involved burning the Confederate flag on statehouse grounds, organizing electoral defeats of racist sheriffs, defending free speech, and resisting violence, be it at the hands of police or presidents or individuals who themselves are often familiar with systems of economic or physical meanness. Some of the history of those struggles—and, really, a sampling of black political and social history of South Carolina over the past 60 years—is represented on the walls of this barbecue restaurant, which seemed like a simple idea when my friend Keyur Naik and I came up with it six years ago. Keyur was the businessman. We were going to run it together, as I knew nothing about the restaurant business. Then he moved to Dallas to work with his brother.

Barbecue is comfort food. History isn’t exactly comfort but, traditionally, gathering over food is. Of course, where you eat, what you eat, and whether you even can eat are weighty with historical and political meaning. It should tell you a lot that a barbecue restaurant is the closest thing to a museum of civil rights history in South Carolina’s state capital.

We opened Railroad BBQ officially in February, and the virus shut us down in March. Generally speaking, the experience of the past few months has made me hopeful about people. Especially when they work cooperatively versus competing on even the smallest things. Or when return customers say, “We’re here for you” and “we’re going to spread the word.” The other side is the higher cost of everything. I call it the “Covid surtax.” And because we profess to try to do the right thing in our business practices, we’re often held to a standard that folk don’t hold themselves to. That depresses me.

Since “reopening” with take-out, delivery, and patio seating only, we’ve built a base of regular customers, probably a 50-50 racial mix. First, the firemen started coming, then the police, then EMTs. We give a first-responders discount. It’s a matter of pride that county health department workers are regulars, but many other employees from the county administration building across the street, our anticipated lunchtime base, have been working from home because of Covid. We were set to cater the police department’s Thanksgiving affair; they wanted brisket, 300 meals. Canceled because of Covid. We had a catering contract with the Census Bureau. Canceled because of Covid. People come in to take pictures; many have wanted to do events—anniversary dinners, even a wedding reception. Impossible because of Covid.

Still, we’re trying to keep people working, and when you’re smoking meat that means every day. Our Houston-born pit master, Marco Brito, often works through the night, as it takes 12 hours to smoke brisket and seven hours for ribs. We use peach and hickory wood. I believe we have some of the best “que” in the state thanks to Marco and our sous-chef, Keshaun Boulware. Those fellows love to cook. We have seven workers. Linous, and our lead hostess, Sharon, were hired as wait staff; they’re cashiers now. Yet folk leave tips. Linous was supposed to return to college at St. John’s in New York this fall, but he missed the New York State quarantine requirement, so he does school work between shifts.

About two-thirds of US restaurant workers were unemployed in April, and 8 million more were fired or forced to quit. Now it’s estimated that half the restaurants in some cities will go under. Almost 25 percent in this state don’t expect to be around in six months without government help. As good as our food, workers, and community support are, we know we survive by chance. Having renovated an old gas station, we’re not burdened by an extortionate landlord. We have a partner, Francie Close, who’s been our financial backbone from the start. Without her support, we’d be closed down. We didn’t apply for a PPP loan; Francie said, “There are other people who really need it.”

Covid is a test of everybody’s solidarity, but this is South Carolina, and that means something too. I won’t lie, it is not fun to wear masks and gloves all day long. We do it because we know that if one person gets sick, we have to shut it all down. Beyond our doors, not everyone has got the memo. My running joke has been that Republicans and poor black folk got the memo and ripped it up. Trump Republicans see Covid as a Democratic plot, and poor blacks are skeptical of a government that didn’t care about them before, so why should they believe it now?

Signs upfront require masks, and one says, “We reserve the right to refuse service to mean people.” We’ve had more than a few white men come in, then balk when told to wear a mask. One guy came in with his family; gave a speech about wanting to patronize us but he wasn’t going to wear a mask while ordering. I wasn’t at work the day a white couple with Florida tags stopped by. The man kept calling Linous “boy” This isn’t the first, second, or third time that we’ve had to deal with such slights. One morning as I was getting out of my truck a delivery man addressed me as “Bo.” When I was growing up if someone called you “bo” (short for “boy”) or “buddy,” the common response was, “Bo and Buddy are a white man’s hunting dogs.”

I write off the bo, boy, mask thing to the Trump effect, whereby overtly racist people feel even freer to be overtly racist. But you can’t run a business on the black side of town without constant reminders of subtler racism. Our monthly hospitality tax payments go primarily to the “hospitality districts,” which are overwhelming white. There, “yellow shirts” ride around in golf carts or on Segways keeping the areas clean. We have to pick up trash on the streets and sidewalks ourselves. We’ve had to clean up by the county building to keep trash from traveling our way. We’re located by the railroad tracks; when it rains, the ditch beside the track along the potholed gravel lane fills with water. Both our city and county councils are majority black, but drive around the city and you see where the money and effort go.

We’re not yet at break even, but Railroad BBQ will survive, we think. Our other partners, my older sister Doris and her husband, Elliott, have saved my sanity, although I’m sure many would argue that point. They do all the admin work, taxes, payroll, keeping up with sales, and such.

I’m looking forward to the time when our place runs itself. Back at the start, we faced a stream of mostly white male vendors or government petty tyrants who suspected us of being drug dealers trying to wash money. We faced workers who were so used to being exploited that they seemed to be waiting for us to mistreat them. Then there were those who saw Covid testing as another form of discrimination. Our next challenge is to convince people that a vaccination is important to our survival; it may be a job requirement if we want “butts in seats,” which is the goal. So there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, but then you never know. I hope it’s not the kind in Jesse Jackson’s old line, “We always thought that it was light at the end of the tunnel, but nobody told us it was a train coming at us.”

Kevin Alexander Gray was Jesse Jackson’s South Carolina campaign manager in 1988. The author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics, he is co-owner of Railroad BBQ in Columbia. He was a mentor at Kopkind in 2002 and 2008.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on December 23, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Another Seasonal Pleasure

Duke Ellington and his band give a taste of their Nutcracker Suite




Scenes From a Pandemic: 38

22 12 2020

We hope you have been enjoying this series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it. With each week’s Bonuses during this long, gray season, we have featured about 80 stories, songs, art works, videos, photographs, radio shorts, excerpts or notes from across the country and the world. We hope you are safe and ready. And we ask that, if you can, please press the Donate button (above) on this site—because we’re also hoping to survive this thing, to flower again on the green grass of Vermont; and we could really use a little help from our friends. Thank you all.

by Peter Linebaugh

(photos: Peter Linebaugh)

The Most Vital Transition Is Ours

Ann Arbor, Michigan

We’re at a historical pause far deeper than the interregnum between Trump and Biden. Amid planetary warming, the pandemic has forced us to slow down if not to stop in our tracks.

Locked in, I read a lot. So when JoAnn Wypijewski, author of a terrific new book about gender, sex, and silences, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo, asked for a dispatch on the pandemic and Michigan from my experience this year, it was books I had to write about.

First, about pandemics then.

At the end of the 1790s, Charles Brockden Brown wrote Arthur Mervyn; Or, Memoirs of the Year 1793. It tells the tale of the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in the context of merchant capitalism. While the “founding fathers” evacuated the diseased capital city, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, formerly enslaved men, nursed the sick and buried the dead. They were “essential workers” of the day, the “heroes.” From their deeds the AME church was formed, the chief good that resulted from that year, unless you accept the installation of the Cult of Reason and the revolutionary calendar in France. Otherwise in the USA that year, the Fugitive Slave Act made it a crime to help a slave escape to freedom, and cotton mill owners found the small hands of compliant children to be profitable resources. Slave labor and child labor went together as a new mode of production, industrial capitalism, spun bonds of global servitude.

On Michigan—so much in the news, so divorced from history—I asked a friend (he’s in his 80s) what I should read. With the libraries closed, he went to his garage and picked a couple of volumes. The first, Michigan: A Guide to the Wolverine State, was compiled by workers of the Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. These writers, the book’s introduction says, were “forgotten men—slightly frayed and sometimes hungry.” They had pencil stubs and wastepaper to record what they learned. “Thinly clothed and with belts pulled in,” they were without cars and “thumbed their way to their rendezvous with their source materials.”

What is a Michigander? The worker/writers hitchhiking and writing with pencil stubs in the mid-1930s couldn’t really tell. Michigan consists of two peninsulas amid the Great Lakes and is without uniform statewide geographic characteristics. If the WPA guide was only lightly touched by history from below, it was bold in another radical sense, its materialist periodization of history. This matters for us today.

A couple musty treasures from a friend’s garage spark remembrance in the flat Zoom time of pandemic. What new composition of our “we” can make the earth move?

The land was taken, stolen, over a cask of rum. “The dignity of the savage,” write these frayed, forgotten men, “was shaken by the white man’s most potent bargaining asset”—booze—and “the rape of the Michigan forests was on.” The joists and rafters, the posts and beams of the big Midwest cities were composed of Michigan lumber, from which timber barons amassed vast fortunes. Meanwhile, wood lodged deep in the cultural consciousness, evoked by the Mackinaw plaid shirt and the smell of a fireplace. The economy based on wood went, and the state’s next economy “for contribution, exploitation, and, perhaps, error was in its minerals.” I like that choice of words, “perhaps, error.”

The material basis of capitalist dynamics, or its human and ecological catastrophes called “investment/development,” was first in the fur trade, then in timber, third in minerals, fourth in automobiles. We can see aspects of these different property regimes stretching from the communal life of indigenous folk in the 17th century to the lumber camps for the expropriation of the forests of the 19th century to the boarding houses of remote mining towns to the massive mechanics of the auto assembly line in Dearborn, River Rouge, Detroit in the 20th century.

The working-class composition in each of these periods was different as far as the work was concerned (trappers, lumberjacks, hard rock miners, auto workers). It was also different as far as its reproduction was concerned: In the 17th century bands of indigenous Ojibway and Potawatomi; in the 18th century colonial settlers from New York and New England; migrants from Scandinavia, Ireland, and southern and Slavic Europe in the 19th century; African Americans in the Great Migration from the South in the 20th. Just as one period was replaced rather than destroyed by another, so it was with the composition of the Michiganders. After these constellations of the labor market pass away, their experience as culture and ideas may persist. What’s left over is Hemingway’s subject.

My friend’s second recommendation was Ernest Hemingway’s The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. During the summers of his first 20 years (1899–1920), this son of a Chicago doctor vacationed in Michigan’s north woods. His Nick Adams stories, published in 1938, tell about it. These coming-of-age tales were part of my own adolescent reading back in the 1950s. One of them, “Up in Michigan,” I thought, taught me about sex, though 66 years later the stories are a testament to growing up with the privileges and silences of a white man during successive recompositions of capitalist relations. Prison, the hobo jungle, the woods, the prize ring, are the locations where lost, wandering, traumatized people meet in transition times.

In “The Light of the World,” a couple of guys thrown out of a bar go down to the train station waiting room, “five whores waiting for the train to come in, and six white men and four Indians.” Two of the women argue about who slept with the champion African American boxer Jack Johnson. “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” contrasts views on private property of white man and Ojibway:

“Well, Doc,” [the Ojibway hired hand] said, “that’s a nice lot of timber you’ve stolen.”

“Don’t talk that way, Dick,” the doctor said. “It’s driftwood.”

Nick Adams learns a way of love, and why not to kill a rival, from an Ojibway woman. His neighbors called her “skunk.” Hemingway’s style works by what the characters don’t talk about. The woman’s name is Prudence Mitchell. She breaks his heart. Suddenly, the famous declarative reticence of the prose bursts with seeds of possibility. In the last story, “Fathers and Sons,” he writes:

Could you say she did first what no one has ever done better and mention plump brown legs, flat belly, hard little breasts, well holding arms, quick searching tongue, the flat eyes, the good taste of mouth, then uncomfortably, tightly, sweetly, moistly, lovely, tightly, achingly, fully, finally, unendingly, never-endingly, never-to-endingly, suddenly ended, the great bird flown like an owl in the twilight, only it was daylight in the woods and hemlock needles stuck against your belly. So that when you go in a place where Indians have lived you smell them gone and all the empty pain killer bottles and the flies that buzz do not kill the sweetgrass smell, the smoke smell and that other like a fresh cased marten skin.

The cascade of adverbs falls into a disappearing world. The tragedy of this intersectional intercourse was, to express it in the lazy slang of the present, that it was not sustainable, not transparent, not resilient. But pay attention to what he says.

Skunk, marten, beaver, wolverine: These are creatures from that first period of Michigan history, that early phase. Even now, they’re not quite finished off. Anishinabekwe botanist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer explains the fragrance of sweetgrass in her scientific and spiritual book, Braiding Sweetgrass:

Its scientific name is Hierochloe odorata, meaning the fragrant, holy grass. In our language it is called wiingaashk, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth. Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.

Yes, that would be the commons. The earth to share, with delight, not ravage yet again in the sequence of error: That is what Hemingway’s love-making was trying to get at. Talk about “what we don’t talk about”!

Hemingway had a geological reference for orgasm, “the earth moves.” Actually, he violates the known laws of physics when he writes, “time having stopped and he felt the earth move…” You find that in For Whom the Bell Tolls, his novel of “premature anti-Fascism,” as he’d later say. In adolescent insecurity I learned from the mystery of such phrases and later learned to mock them.

As yet another catastrophe looms, a new era is laboring to birth some world that might avert it. This is the vital interregnum. A couple musty treasures from a friend’s garage spark remembrance in the flat Zoom time of pandemic. What new composition of our “we” can make the earth move? We start by talking it. The soulful descendants of Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, Prudence Mitchell, and those forgotten, “with belts pulled in,” have something to say.

Peter Linebaugh, a historian, is the author, most recently of Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons & Closure, of Love & Terror, of Race & Class, and of Kate & Ned Despard (University of California Press). He was a Kopkind mentor in 2014, and a guest speaker in 2019.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on December 16, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Happy Solstice Season





Scenes From a Pandemic: 37

14 12 2020

We hope you have been enjoying this series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it. With each week’s Bonuses during this long, gray season, we have featured more than 70 stories, songs, art works, videos, photographs, radio shorts, excerpts or notes from across the country and the world. We hope you are safe and ready. And we ask that, if you can, please press the Donate button (above) on this site—because we’re also hoping to survive this thing, to flower again on the green grass of Vermont; and we could really use a little help from our friends. Thank you all.

by Jamilah King

The author on a stop in Rock Springs, Wyoming (photo: Jamilah King)

What I Learned Moving Cross-Country Twice in Four Months

On the Road, and home again

It was June, three months into the pandemic, and I was stranded on Interstate 80 a few hours outside of Salt Lake City when I started to think that all of this was maybe a bad idea. Something had happened miles ahead, and both lanes of westbound traffic were at a standstill. Ten minutes ticked by. Then 20. People turned off their engines, climbed out of their cars, and started stretching. I’d been in rapid, manic motion for weeks.

Stillness was not part of the plan.

The plan, to the extent that one existed, went something like this: I was on a mission to save my mother, who at the time was withering away all alone on the third story of a Victorian apartment building in San Francisco.

Her physical health had been in decline, but her mental health was what worried me the most. So much time spent alone, isolated, with only her ghosts and bottles of Hennessy to keep her company. In May, her calls had begun to become more frequent, more desperate. They were monologues of regret. I should’ve bought a house, she’d say, with the unmistakable lisp that always lets me know when she has been drinking. On especially bad days, she would call and berate me for being so far away. I would never do to my mother what you …

In two weeks’ time, I did what no sane New Yorker would ever do: I broke the lease on my rent-stabilized one-bedroom apartment, and I bought a car. The stretch of Crown Heights between Schenectady and Utica Avenues became ground zero for a biblical flood of my belongings. Clothes, bedding, shoes, went to men’s and women’s shelters. Books, magazines, pamphlets, went to park benches and the fronts of stoops. I was on a mission. To do what? I didn’t know yet.

I pictured myself back in the Bay Area surrounded by family members who’d put aside their decades-long feuds to come together in Covid-safe normalcy. I thought that the ruptures between my mother and me could be paved over with proximity. I’d forgive her for her not-so-subtle guilt-tripping and periodic slide into narcissism, and she’d make peace with having a divorced lesbian daughter who preferred life a continent away. I’d have my own apartment, but we’d order a delicious Christmas dinner and do something hopelessly normal, like watch A Christmas Story on TV. I’d have proof that my sacrifice, the great burden of inconvenience for which I’d given up everything and driven across the country, was worth it. People all around me were making similar, life-altering decisions. Certainly, there was a reason for it all.

Here’s what I did instead: I tried to force-feed my own brand of healing onto my mother. I did so pompously, outrageously, endlessly. Every phone call was a check-in about progress: Did she make that doctor’s appointment? Would she be okay with me calling her doctor? Maybe she should drink more water. Every visit was a chance for me to say what was wrong and offer, unprompted, ideas for making it my definition of right. I was the prototype of the know-it-all millennial, badgering my mother as if I were the parent, pushing her closer to a casket than any virus ever could.


Sometimes you make big, costly decisions during global pandemics just to feel a little bit more alive.


I’m back in New York City now. My mother and I both agree, on some level, that it’s for the best. The Christmas thing is definitely not going to happen. I’m in a new apartment with new roommates and a car that’s already earned me two parking tickets and a speeding violation in rural Illinois that I can’t figure out how to pay online. I am deeply in debt from the summer’s excursions, and as I write this, I’m still trying to figure out how to get a studio apartment’s worth of brand new furniture shipped from San Francisco to Brooklyn at a rate that’s less than my monthly salary.

My mother and I are both physically healthy, no better or worse than we were in June. We talk several times a week, and though they’re superficial conversations about the weather or the election, I’ve found them to be small joys. My mother still drinks too much and tells me that she doesn’t. I still offer unsolicited advice, sometimes based on dumb inspirational quotes I’ve favorited on Instagram. And you know what? That’s okay. Because the summer taught me this: Sometimes the world is falling apart and all you want is your mom, and you better take what you can get while she’s still around. And sometimes you make big, costly decisions during global pandemics just to feel a little bit more alive.

Sometimes I wish I could go back to that gridlocked road outside of Salt Lake City and warn myself of what was to come, of the tens of thousands of dollars that I did not have but somehow spent, of the arguments my mother and I would have, of the sheer hubris in thinking I knew better than a woman who’s lived twice my age. I would take a moment to think about the fact that two hastily arranged cross-country moves in four months is, in fact, batshit crazy and definitely not a good look on my credit score.

And then I would do it all over again.

Jamilah King is a writer based in Brooklyn who is also host of the Mother Jones podcast. She participated in Kopkind’s political camp in 2009.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on December 9, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: The Social Contract, Cuban Style

Young Cuban doctors at a national graduation ceremony in 2005 in Havana. (photo: AFP PHOTO/Antonio Levi)

Cuba has more doctors per capita than the United States and an expansive system of community health workers. ‘The family doctor’ is alive and well. To date, 137 Cubans have died of Covid-19, a rate of 1.5/100,000 population. By contrast, Covid deaths in the US and the UK are 91.03/100,000 and 96.44/100,000, respectively. Cuba’s famed traveling medical corps, whose some 4,000 members have visited more than three dozen countries since early in the pandemic, helping them care for their sick, has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. From Albany, Jon Flanders, a retired railroad worker, longtime internationalist and Kopkind supporter, sent the link below to a documentary on the role of The Henry Reeve International Medical Contingent and, more broadly, on the coordination of the Cuban health system in prioritizing public health. The film is a collaboration between Dr. Helen Yaffe of the UK and Dr. Valia Rodriguez of Cuba.





7 12 2020

We hope you have been enjoying this series, which, with each week’s Bonuses during this long, gray season, has featured about 70 stories, songs, art works, videos, photographs, radio shorts, excerpts or notes from Kopkind’s extended family across the country and the world. We hope you are safe and ready. And we ask that, if you can, please press the Donate button (above) on this site—because we’re also hoping to survive this thing, to flower again on the green grass of Vermont; and we could really use a little help from our friends. Thank you all.

Scenes From a Pandemic: 36

by Verandah Porche

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

Portraits of a moment from Great River Terrace. (Lauren Watrous)

“Thanks Forgiving,” a Poem

Guilford, Vermont

Once the Lamplighter Inn, a motel that had fallen into disrepair on the edge of Brattleboro, Great River Terrace is a permanently affordable housing community of people who have experienced homelessness. It is a “housing first” residence, the first of its kind in Vermont. There is no obligation to be “clean and sober” to live there. Senator Bernie Sanders wrote at its opening that the residence “will allow Vermonters struggling with complex challenges to live with stability and dignity.” I have been visiting and writing with residents since the spring of 2019. As an “embedded writer,” I listen, encourage, write, collaborate, and share my own poems.

Our project “Faces of Home” began spontaneously when a resident saw a portrait painted by a local artist. She invited the artist and her friends to paint at Great River Terrace. Each week, while the artists painted, a resident would sit and talk with me in the common room. I typed in a rough shorthand, and in the weeks following we edited the text together.

I got here in September. I get choked up talking about it.
I got used to losing everything, and finally, I lost my hope.
After living in other people’s houses and sleeping outside,
I had a hard time saying,
Meet at my apartment.
It seemed weird, awkward, unfamiliar.
It took practice.
Come to my place.
It was like learning a new word: HOME.
–Joe S.

Covid-19 interrupted this project. Spring and summer, we stayed away. In September, we arranged to meet, masked, outside until the cold made it impossible to paint and type. 

My friends at Green River Terrace are striving to reinvent their lives after traumas that led to homelessness and their existence in survival mode, sometimes for years. We try to stay in touch, “liking” and commenting on Facebook memes and sorrows. Below, a drawing from the courtyard by Ralph DeAnna.

In the common
room, your portraits
bloom, alive and
warm.
 
Little did we know
how long the longing
would go
on.
 
Dry wind blew.
The garden
pulled through,
giving and
forgiving.
 
I landed on your
Timeline
to ask how you
were living.
 
In autumn,
masked, on the
patio,
the artists drew,
we spoke.
 
I memorized your
faces
and stories,
wreathed by
smoke.
 
             *
 
That regal tree on
the lawn
with a name
nobody knew
 
stays rooted here,
and strong
though her gold
leaves shook and
flew.
 
Be easy now,
belong.
Let her mom-arms
shelter you.

Verandah Porche is a poet and writing partner based in Guilford, just up the hill from Kopkind Road. She and singer Patty Carpenter, both longtime supporters of the project, have performed many times at Kopkind. The two have just launched a Patreon site to share their new songs and poems.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on December 2, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: ‘Trump’s Worst Crime’

Kurdish kids versus Turkish military (photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty)

Somehow, even some people on the left labor under the illusion that Donald Trump, terrible domestically, was not too bad a force in the world. On December 1 our friend Patrick Cockburn, the great war correspondent and author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso), published an article in CounterPunch reminding us of the horror the Trump administration visited upon the Syrian Kurds: first, in 2018, by countenancing the Turkish occupation of Afrin, where Kurds were displaced by Syrian Arab jihadis; then, in October 2019, by abandoning the US-Kurdish alliance and green-lighting Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria, leading to the murder, rape and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Kurdish inhabitants. “Tragedy on this scale blurs in people’s minds because they do not comprehend atrocities beyond their personal experience,” Patrick writes in “Trump’s Worst Crime Must Not Be Forgotten.” Here, an extract, condensed.

Rohilat Hawar, a 34-year-old Kurdish woman with three children, had worked as a mathematics teacher in Afrin City before the Turkish attack. She fled in February 2018 “because there were Turkish airstrikes every day,” but she was unable to reach the Kurdish-controlled autonomous region.

She returned to Afrin, where her house had been looted, where her former neighbors had been dispossessed, and where she is now trapped. She says that Turkish-backed Syrian jihadi militias shoot anybody trying to leave: “A friend of mine was killed with her 10-year-old child last year while trying to flee.” At the same time, the Kurds who stay are preyed upon.

She does not dare speak Kurdish in the street. The Turkish army, she says, considers all Kurds to be “terrorists”; the militiamen are even more dangerous, regarding “Kurds as pagans, disbelievers who should be killed on orders from God.”

Rohilat has had to put on a hijab, which Kurdish women normally do not wear. When going to the market earlier this week, she saw two Kurdish girls walking in the same direction. Two militiamen with guns on a motorcycle cruised slowly beside them. “Suddenly the motorcycle came close to the girls and the militiamen sitting on the back grabbed the breast of one of them.” The militiamen got off their motorcycle and started kissing them and fondling their breasts, leaving only when a crowd gathered and Rohilat took the girls to her home.

In the two formerly Kurdish zones in Syria, Arab militiamen, mostly jihadis from elsewhere in Syria, are the cutting edge of the Turkish occupation. The Kurds in Afrin were largely farmers, cultivating fruit and vegetables and, above all, olives. The new settlers, Rohilat says, “cut down the olive trees and sell them as firewood.” Foodstuffs have to be imported now and are sold at a higher price.

By turning over effective control of Kurdish-populated areas to anti-Kurdish Islamist gunmen, the Turkish government ensures ethnic cleansing, but without appearing to be directly responsible. Until recently, the militiamen were paid $100 a month by Turkey. They supplemented this by looting and confiscating Kurdish property. Since August the militiamen’s pay has been reduced, and Turkish army patrols are clamping down on looting. The aim here is to persuade the militiamen to volunteer to fight as Turkish proxies in Libya and against the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Many have been killed.

Since August, the coronavirus has spread rapidly in Afrin. Rohilat herself tested positive at a Turkish medical facility, but says she and many others will not go to a military hospital for treatment because few people who do go return alive. Instead, they stay at home, taking paracetamol and eating lentil and onion soup. Rohalit cannot afford to buy face masks, and can buy bread only because her children do odd jobs in the market, and relatives in Turkey send her a little money every couple of months. Grim though life is, Rohilat is one of the survivors. Other Kurds live in unsanitary camps, have been killed, held for ransom or disappeared.

On this theme of downplaying the US violence policy over the past four years, Janine Jackson of FAIR, a Kopkind mentor in 2000, recently did an interesting interview on her show “CounterSpin” with journalist Murtaza Hussain on the “trail of civilians dead in Yemen” and the siege of Iran under the Trump administration. Listen here.





Sister, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

1 12 2020

We hope you have been enjoying this series, now in its 35th installment, which, with each week’s Bonuses during this long, gray season, has featured about 70 stories, songs, art works, videos, photographs, radio shorts, excerpts or notes from Kopkind’s extended family across the country and the world. We hope you are safe and ready. And we ask that, if you can, please press the Donate button above on this site—because we’re also hoping to survive this thing, to flower again on the green grass of Vermont; and we could really use a little help from our friends. Thank you all.

Scenes From a Pandemic: 35

by Roberto Lovato

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

(photo: Roberto Lovato)

Good Times, End Times on 26th and Folsom

San Francisco

I’m standing near the sunny corner of 26th and Folsom, two blocks from my writer’s cave, across the street from the projects and down the block from my birthplace, in San Francisco’s Mission district.

The projects are surrounded by apartments that used to house big immigrant families—up to a dozen members in my family’s case—apartments that now house the DINC (dual income, no children) people, who also own the Victorian duplexes priced from $1 million on up.

Two men, Seyfu and Ricky, are kicking back smoking a blunt in front of the small gray apartment building that houses Iglesia Arca de Dios, the Pentecostal church that’s been reviving the Holy Spirit three to four days a week since I left the Mission for wartime El Salvador in 1990.

I approach them, hoping they can give some small sense of how Covid-19 has hit the old hood. The most visible indicator: It’s 3 pm and there are no people on the street—no kids coming home from school, no Mexican and Salvadoran moms pushing baskets with food or laundry, no groups of men hanging out on the corner. Just Seyfu and Ricky, standing next to the church.

I look at the church. Images of the Salvadoran and Guatemalan migrants who once packed it rush to mind. They first came to the Iglesia seeking solace from the apocalyptic ravages of war. These days, immigrants come for other reasons. Clients at the Clínica Martín-Baró mental health center, founded by my friend Felix, tell social workers their main fear is that they will be uprooted because they can’t make the rent. Local children echo this sentiment in a poetry collection filled with stories of being pushed out, or of robots protecting their families from evil landlords. At the church, the booming voice of the 5’2″ pastor provides succor.


The weed is legal and sweet smelling, the virus is spiking, homicides are down but kids write poems about being pushed out, or dream of robots protecting their families from the landlord.


“Who are you, bro?” Seyfu asks hesitantly, his muscular body tightening as if getting ready to light me up, if necessary. Ricky stands quietly, looking more chill and pretty high. Their eyes move up and down my leather-jacketed body to see if I’m friend, foe, or fucking cop. Neither of them is wearing a mask. I am. The wondrous perfume of the legal kush they’re smoking wafts through the air with a freedom I never knew back when I dealt joints and nickel bags of Colombian and skunk weed that, by comparison, smelled like dirty tube socks.

“I grew up down the street, near the corner of 25th,” I quickly respond.

“So, where’d you go to school at?”

“Horace Mann.”

“Yeah? So, if you went to Horace Mann, who was Mr. Sullivan?”

“You mean Sullineck?” I say, referring to the nickname some of us gave Horace Mann’s truant officer because of the blob of pinkish white flesh that occupied the space where his neck may once have been.

“Aw, fuck!” Seyfu exclaims, as he steps back and cocks his head, laughing in a gesture of surprise. “This dude is the real Horace Mann deal! What up, bro? Whatdyu need?”

“I’m just here trying to understand what daily life is like now, especially with Covid.”

“Well, there been a few cases in the projects, but it’s been chill.”

In February, San Francisco became the first US city to declare a state of emergency in response to the virus, thanks to Mayor London Breed, who grew up in a Western Addition housing project. Breed’s model Covid response is guided by veteran doctors and scientists who garnered great experience back when the AIDS epidemic ravaged the projects down the street. Sadly, Breed’s housing, policing, and other policies are guided by Big Real Estate, Big Finance, and Big Silicon, whose greed has gentrified the Mission, exacerbated homelessness, and defined the city’s inhumanely shitty response to these and other crises that are hollowing out gorgeous San Francisco, exiling poor black and brown people.

“The thing that hasn’t been chill are the cops,” Seyfu continues. “They still on everybody’s ass.”

“For what?”

“They can’t bother us about weed anymore,” he says before taking a hit off his joint. “But they goin’ crazy about crack, heroin—and guns.”

“Has Covid slowed down the pace of people getting shot?”

“Nah. People dealin’ and shootin’; people still doin’ their thing.”

I think on how relative the ideas about violence and calamity are as I walk around to look at the church founded by Central American war refugees.

Homicides in San Francisco are down. Way down. On the very day Donald Trump and William Barr were raging in the Oval Office against MS-13 last July, escalating the rhetoric and legal persecution by labeling its members “terrorists,” I interviewed members of the SFPD’s gang unit. They told me that MS-13 in the Mission had killed two people in 2019. Zero this year. Meanwhile, Covid has killed 154 in San Francisco County since March, low for a population this size, though there’s a spike in new cases now. In the city, the Mission has endured the highest number of those since mid-October, and the hottest spot in the district is three blocks from 26th and Folsom.

In front of the church dozens of ancient pieces of discarded bubble gum are embedded into the concrete, blackened from years. The sidewalk there has the misfortune of being next to Rubin’s Market on the corner. I remember when kids and adults would come out of Rubin’s chewing gum, hang out in front of the church and spit out their gum. I remember when the gum was fresh pink and purple, cuz I was one of those kids.

Rubin’s was also one of the major centers of the black market in the Mission. Rubin was my father’s black market mentor.

I look at the church and see myself as a deacon who turned to Jesus as a way to redeem myself from the shame of my father’s—and my—criminal dealings.

“They just started havin’ services again,” Seyfu tells me. “Things gettin’ loud around here.” Apocalyptic preaching became a sign of better days under loosened Covid restrictions. Since the spike in infections, things have tightened up. The church meets less frequently, but, when it does, the high-volume voice on the hulking loudspeakers rages about End Times every Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday, as it has for decades.

Roberto Lovato is the author of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas (Harper Collins), a New York Times “Editor’s Choice,” which the paper hailed as a “groundbreaking memoir.” He is also an educator, journalist, and writer based at The Writers Grotto in San Francisco. He was a Kopkind participant in 2005.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on November 25, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Music Video From Canada

Still from “RISE” — click to play (photo: Jesse Freeston)

Jesse Freeston, a Montreal-based filmmaker who participated in Film Camp, Kopkind’s collaboration with the Center for Independent Documentary, in 2011, brings this new music video which he made with Malika Tirolien, singer/songwriter/pianist, of her just-released single “RISE”. You can find all the lyrics translated on the YouTube page linked above; here, a sampling:

We ain't here to ask anymore
We ain't got chains anymore
We are free in our countries, we are free in our minds
It is not only in movies that we steal the show
Everyday day we create some Marielles Ninas and Malcolms
The pyramid is falling, we're changing the game
We rise
We rise yeah
We rise

Tirolien, originally from Guadeloupe and long part of the Montreal jazz scene, fuses the musical influences of the Caribbean and Latin America, North America, Europe and East Africa. For more of the pleasure of her sound, here is another song, “I’m Not the One”, from her collaboration with the Grammy-winning instrumental group Snarky Puppy.

At Kopkind, Jesse workshopped an early version of his powerful documentary Resistencia: The Fight for the Aguan Valley, which tells the story of Honduran farmers who took over the plantations following the US-backed coup. Recently he has been in the woods of northern Canada, documenting the resistance of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, defending their land and law against construction of an oil pipeline. For more of his work, go to jessefreeston.com.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 34

23 11 2020

by Kweku Toure

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

photos: all on Unsplash.com. L to R top (detail), Gayatri Malhotra, Press Features, Big Dodzy; L to R bottom (detail), Gift Habeshaw, Tinashe Mwaniki, Utopia by Cho.

If You Want to Make the Gods Laugh, Tell Them Your Plans

Atlanta

This is a story, two actually, about expectations and the chance that even the most reasoned plan is at risk of surprise. One involves elections, the other love, during Covid-19.

Before working as a nonpartisan election protector in Georgia this November, I took a training that stressed the importance of making a visual inspection of people’s faces and physical demeanor as they exited the polls. Did they look distressed? If so, maybe something had happened inside to obstruct their vote: Check it out and report any irregularity. On Election Day, as I floated between Dacula and Suwanee, in Gwinnett County, things turned out to be less straightforward. Be mindful, I’m doing this split-second visual inspection while social distancing, trying to read people’s eyes, looking for stress above their face mask as they walk at a steady pace to get to work or home, or simply go about their day.

Where people wore masks, visual observation was virtually impossible. In one large polling place in Suwanee, traffic was nonstop. People got out of their vehicles, put on their masks, entered the community center, and hurried out when they were done. For a minute, my fellow protectors and I thought about stopping people who weren’t wearing an “I voted” sticker to ask if they’d had difficulty. If they were anything like me, though, they would have rejected the sticker, a clear problem with this strategy. Where people didn’t wear masks, like the mostly white voters at an elementary school out in the sticks in Dacula, I didn’t spot signs of distress. Did that mean no one was distressed?

I didn’t find any major irregularities, and as of November 9, Biden lead Trump in Gwinnett County 241,827 votes to 166,413. As I write, Georgia is doing a recount; the news is focused on that and the latest spike in coronavirus infections and deaths. But people always have a lot more going on in their lives.


I’d planned to read people’s facial expressions for signs of distress at the polls on Election Day. I’d planned when packing my silk pillowcases and fully stocked bar to move in with my lady, at the start of the pandemic, that we were a match.


Late last year, around the same time that we in the United States started hearing news about Covid-19, I rekindled a relationship with a love interest. I had fallen ill with flu-like symptoms during December and felt sick the entire month of January. In February, the relationship evolved as we articulated to each other that at our age we are in the autumn of our lives, with winter rapidly approaching. We thought it would be a good idea to pool our resources and cohabitate, especially because we spent so much time together on weekends. We thought we matched.

Until then, I had lived as a true bachelor in D.C., with satin pillowcases for the ladies and a fully stocked bar, with no children or pets in the house. My lady lived in Baltimore, with her young daughter.

The plan! I would move to Baltimore and start living and working in “Charm City.” So around the second week of February I rented out my house, packed my belongings, including the satin pillowcases and fully stocked bar, and moved.

Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out. For anyone who doesn’t catch the reference, that’s the line in I, Claudius where Claudius, the Roman emperor, lets his court know that he has decided to marry for a third time. My lady and I discovered we had fundamental differences early on. I mean, try living with someone who does not believe in the thing that has forced everyone in the country into isolation. I am a news junkie. She avoids the news like the plague and relies on Instagram and Facebook. I vote, and planned to work with an election protection civil rights organization. She does not vote, mainly because of her citizenship status; however, I get the feeling that if she could vote, she would not.

I love her free spirit, “Grand Central Station,” social butterfly attitude. That is what so attracted me to her, right? But now, it’s a pandemic, and people have died, and her personality is a liability. Her favorite phrase is that the pandemic is a “Plandemic.” I am sure she got the phrase from her Instagram feeds.

I took the pandemic seriously from the start, and gave her daily updates. The city and the entire country were heading for shutdown, I said; we should stock up on supplies and wait this out. At first, I commuted to my law office in D.C., which was occupied by me and my associate. We had separate offices, and when meeting clients, we wore face shields as well as masks. When we stopped allowing clients to visit, I was, for the most part, alone all day; then I would return home to Baltimore.

Contrariwise, my lady felt she was not going to be “mind controlled,” as she would often say. “We are all operating out of fear.” On occasion, when I would return home, she would be entertaining guests—no one wearing a mask, no social distancing. Lesson: You never know someone until an emergency hits. What a way to discover differences!

I am in Atlanta now, waiting to start work as a public defender in Macon, Ga., expecting, as any criminal lawyer must, that nothing is a sure bet. What can be said is that no matter the best-laid arrangements, if you want to make the gods laugh, just tell them your plans.

Kweku Toure is an attorney and a member of the Kopkind board.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on November 18, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: David v. Goliath, Then & Now

In 1984, Jesse Jackson (with whom Kweku once worked) spoke about electoral power and participation, using the metaphor of “Little David” to urge nonvoters to “pick up your slingshot, pick up your rock.” In 2020, people did just that, as US voter turnout was the highest in 120 years. But as Jackson well knew, politics is about more than voting. Watch part of that famous speech here.

“Don’t cry about what you don’t have; use what you got!”

Goliath takes many forms. In this post-election discussion on The Laura Flanders Show, Laura (a former Kopkind mentor) speaks with activists from around the country, including Scot Nakagawa, another former Kopkind mentor, about the meaning of the 2020 election and the struggle for a humane future.