Sniffing the Zeitgeist, Winter 2021

21 12 2021

Again, Kopkind is bringing its annual end-of-year newsletter to you digitally.

Jasmine, Toronto (photo: Asam Ahmad, Kopkind 2014)

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Let’s start with Forward. As 2021 comes to a close, Kopkind is looking ahead to resume our signature summer seminar/retreats at Tree Frog Farm. We’re not under illusions that we’ll wake up one day and the coronavirus will have disappeared; having put the summer project on pause for the past two years of the pandemic, we’re simply determined to deal with new realities. Like the incongruous flowering in Asam Ahmad’s garden, above, we’re pushing up jasmine; like the rocky soil or soft woodlands of southern Vermont, we’re pushing up forsythia and forget-me-not, pushing up morels, anything but metaphorical daisies. Nature is real for Kopkind, part of why the project is not Zoomable. Kopkind is a social and sensory experience as much as an intellectual, political and creative one. Embedded in life, embedded in history and a feeling for freedom. So, to regeneration! That is our wish, for Kopkind, for you our friends and supporters, for our collective radical energies and our world. Come July and August of 2022 we expect to welcome back our ‘camps’ of political journalists, activists and documentary filmmakers, as we have done for twenty years. Please help us make that happen. There’s a Donate button at the bar up top on this site; we welcome every gift with open arms.

As to looking back, Kopkind wasn’t idle this year, and the hundreds of people who have been participants in or guests of the project since 1999, along with our network of members and advisers, are rocking in the world. Some of them contributed to “Scenes From a Pandemic,” the weekly series of short essays that Kopkind commissioned and edited, a collaboration with The Nation that was manifest on the magazine’s website and this blog from 2020 into ’21. Some of them released films, including one that was workshopped ten years ago at Film Camp and had its Vermont premier at an outdoor public screening at Tree Frog Farm in August. One alumna made national headlines.

India Walton (Kopkind 2019)

In June, India Walton and her campaign stunned a four-term incumbent and the broader political establishment by winning the Democratic Party primary for mayor of Buffalo. A lot of people said she came out of nowhere, but they hadn’t been paying attention. When she came to Kopkind in 2019, she had recently started a community land trust aiming to secure permanent affordability in a black neighborhood threatened by gentrification. Long before that, a social movement infrastructure had been growing in Buffalo that helped her find her people and add to the struggle for a more equitable city. Our theme in 2019 was Democratizing the Economy. The experience, she says, made her feel like a “wild woman,” which is another way of saying a free woman: it helped build political and personal confidence. This year she put together a new kind of rainbow coalition to contest electorally. The subsequent general election campaign was long and ugly, and India didn’t prevail. (For more on the background and aftermath, see here and here, respectively.) Her campaign did succeed, though, in putting inequality at the center of the table in a city whose media and dominant political class have been too busy touting ‘Renaissance’ to bother much about the people left out. (Now the mayor is talking about them.) The campaign cross-pollinated with the young workers in Buffalo who in December won the first union drive in the country at Starbucks. It provided a real-world testing ground for Our City Action Buffalo, a new multiracial organization that aims to build power through electoral change. It created a sense of possibility, and drew in new people, breaking longstanding barriers. Those are themes close to Kopkind’s hearthow the left engages in every area of struggle, and how it expands the realm of participation, thought and action.

* * *

Some primary voters in Buffalo said it was the pandemic that convinced them there needed to be a change in priorities at the top. As the crisis hit, the city’s social movement infrastructure had organized to meet people’s needs when little else would. That was a familiar story around the country.

Two years in, the pandemic continues to structure the spirit of the time. Somehow it seems darker now, the uncertainties of last year compounded by the normalization of distance and the gulf between social solidarity and bloody-mindedness. (Let alone the latest variant.) “Scenes From a Pandemic” continued with songs of experience, but the tone seemed different. Endurance formed the base line, the improvisations of the period conveying hopes for regeneration refracted in multiple ways across time.

Asam: On the cusp of another surreal spring, I have never felt simultaneously more at home and more afraid of being unmoored.

At the start of the pandemic, Asam and his boyfriend had been evicted. They’d found a place far from the center of prohibitive Toronto and planted a garden, whose bounty Asam catalogued lavishly, the flower and vegetable names cascading one on top of another like poetry, the garden revealed as, at once, a balm, a distraction, a point of connection with neighbors, an anchor and warning amidst precarious life. The day his story appeared on The Nation’s site, Asam learned that the landlord was selling the house, and they were being evicted again.

At the start of the pandemic, Angela Ards, who was a Kopkind camper in 2000, a mentor in 2015 and has been an ongoing adviser, made a local dog park a respite from isolation together with other dog owners in Newton, Massachusetts. Diversion became something deeper, both nourishing and more complicated in 2021.

Angela: It’s been almost a year. Wildlife is back in hiding; smog in New Delhi and Los Angeles has returned; yet, we still gather … 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.

Sticker, New York City (photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)

Globally, a year with Covid coincided with the tenth anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. From Kyoto, Lisa Torio (Kopkind 2016) began with the image of a spring market, lush, luscious; and the hushed manner in which some continued to speak of calamity.

Lisa: Coming of age in the years following the nuclear disaster, I learned from the way adults spoke in measured tones, from their pauses and awkward glances, that talking about tragedies has an expiration date. On March 11, at 2:46 pm, people across the country prayed in silence, remembering those who lost their lives in the Tohoku earthquake-tsunami and those still missing … The government’s promise of recovery in the wake of that disaster meant erasure. It meant covering up the full extent of radiation and lifting evacuation orders without proper evaluation and evidence. It meant cutting subsidized housing for tens of thousands of people who were simply dropped from the “official count” of evacuees. Two years after the disaster, the Japanese prime minister declared, “Japan is back.” With that, mourning became something reserved for official days only. We traded reflection for a version of recovery that requires a finite past. Fukushima became a tragic thing that once happened but that we overcame, a testament to our resilience as a nation. Such recovery requires us to reconstruct our lives around the official narrative, to draw a line between those who bore the brunt of the disaster and the rest of us, their world and ours. It requires our silence—we repress the dismay, fear, rage and sorrow we feel to go on as if everything is back to the way things were, the way things always are. It becomes harder and harder to remember—what is happening, what it feels like, what is being erased. The current of all the unsaid things running beneath the silence

Another spring with Covid coincided with more agony in Gaza. Writing from Lahore, Hira Nabi (Kopkind 2011): “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.”

Another September with Covid, another hurricane season, another year since an uncle of Joël Díaz (Kopkind 2015) had gone missing after trying to escape devastation in Dominican Republic by sea.

Joël: No one is certain about what actually unfolded. The tale goes that, either begrudged or wary of his companions, my uncle split from the group once he reached shore. Unfamiliar with that part of the island, he went into the forest to make his way toward the closest inhabited town. During one of the police searches, a pair of shorts were found. They are believed to be his. When I asked for updates, all details amounted to nothing, some wispy trace, deteriorating in an instant … One rumor was that he’d been taken by Haitian kidnapés, who would soon request ransom, said to be stalled because of police searches. It is uncertain if those claims are rooted in anti-blackness or in the realities of the kidnappings plaguing Haiti and neighboring towns in Dominican Republic. Legend will say that there is a man who roams the town in his underwear, searching for his family. And there he stays, neither fully clothed nor whole. Just a memory. A rumor. A hope.

Murk, between Dominican Republic and the world (photo: Joël Díaz)

* * *

To paraphrase Andrew Kopkind, then writing of the war in Vietnam, what the pandemic has done to the societyquite apart from the cost in lives and healthis only beginning to be understood. Its presence as background rather than subject in so many stories speaks less to the ways that Covid is becoming endemic than to a pattern of crises in the neoliberal order that made that inevitable. How the roots of this reality are perceived and what anyone does with the knowledge is a point of politics. That in the US some see a cabal of Satanic pedophiles and others see systems of exploitation, that the elite are split between advancing versions of the welfare state and hoarding the goodies while they can, indicate the volatility of the situation. On one level, the nonchalance toward mass death (1 out of 100 elders cut down) is stunning, though we’ve been throwing granny away for some time now, not to mention soldiers and foreign populations. Yet the shock of Covid remains so profound on an individual and systems level that however much one might want to turn away from the numbers, and however normalized some pandemic routines may have become (working from home, alone, wearing pajamas all day), the now-ordinary incapacitations (of bodies, hospitals, supply chains) call into question so much else that’s been taken as normal. Disposability is hardly new, just harder to ignore.

Worker revolts (including the wave of resignations), uprisings against police violence, electoral campaigns like Walton’s, all represent a rejection of devalued life. In different ways, Malkia Devitch-Cyril (Kopkind 2002) and Bri M. (Kopkind 2018) wrote about this.

Malkia: It was the fact that before the pandemic ever hit, complex and long-term bereavement resulting from a pattern of premature and traumatic death was already an utterly routine experience for the 46.8 million people who identified as black in the 2019 census. As the pandemic heightened the overlapping crises of resurgent white nationalism, unfettered police violence and the discriminatory distribution of climate disaster impacts, it also split open a vein deep in our collective body politic to reveal a truth black folks have been living with for generations: grief is endemic to the black experience in America, and the effects of living inside a shared context of grief, one in which loss is not simply an experience but a mechanism of racial disadvantage, are often disregarded. The injury is profound—socially, economically, culturally; it can accelerate your own death. In the pandemic, we have started to talk more about it.

Bri: I have never been normal. As a black, disabled trans person, my life exists on the margins of society. So when I hear people talking about “getting back to normal” I want to ask, What exactly are we expecting to return to? … I long ago gave up on the idea of being conventionally employed. As with so many disabled people, that hasn’t stopped me from doing cultural work … tell[ing] the rich stories of disabled people of color through my podcast, “Power Not Pity.” When doing that work, I feel I am never alone. Yet the experience of the pandemic leaves me with a bitter question: Would I have been more employable if accessibility had been prioritized in the same way it is today? Virtual spaces are now more easily accessible because they have to be. It only took a pandemic to change the way we conduct accessible communication. It only took a pandemic to realize that our collective survival is wrapped up in societal change. Normal has always been controlled by the systems that keep my communities without the resources that we need to live and thrive. “Going back to normal” would mean going backward.

Work, Bri, Los Angeles (photo: Prerna Sampat, Kopkind 2009)

Malkia’s and Bri’s stories were ultimately about culture as a necessitypersonally, politically, reflecting and shaping the Zeitgeist.

* * *

As noted, a couple films that were workshopped in Kopkind’s Film Camp, a collaboration with the Center for Independent Documentary, premiered this year. WBCN and the American Revolution, by Bill Lichtenstein (Kopkind/CID, 2014), aired on PBS in the fall, documenting the relationship between left media and left movements through the story of a radio station that grew out of the sixties-era counterculture in Boston. (John Scagliotti and Andy Kopkind, who both appear in the film, worked in the news department at BCN in the 1970s and also created the first gay and lesbian commercial radio show there, “The Lavender Hour.”) The Faithful, by Annie Berman (Kopkind/CID 2010), was released in March, taking an innovative approach to open streaming sponsored by Grant for the Web, which aims to seed a digital ecosystem that is equitable, inclusive, attentive to privacy and creative control. (It’s notable that Malkia, as the founding executive director and now senior fellow of MediaJustice in Oakland, has spent more than twenty years fighting for digital rights, conscious of the Internet’s “troubled terrain” but also of its connective power, using it in the pandemic to create a weekly meeting place called Pandemic Joy, among other online groups.) We screened Annie’s film, a meditation on cultural icons and popular devotions, along with a sneak peak of Chuck Light and Daniel Keller’s Far Out: Life On & After the Commune, under a late summer sky, in an open tent, after a repast of marvelous dishes brought by community members whose delight at gathering again in person was palpable.

The Bonuses or main posts on this site from across the year contain many samples of the cultural work of some of Kopkind’s alums and friends: Daniela Broitman’s doc on the great Brazilian composer Dorival Cayymi. Jon Crawford’s archive of lgbtq experience, Tell Me a Memory. Tracy Heather Strain’s PBS film on The Wizard of Oz. Marsha Jarmel and Ken Schneider’s doc on two Cuban-born virtuosos, Los Hermanos/The Brothers, now up for Oscar consideration. Suchi Branfman’s account of making Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic and, as a bonus to the same post, Katja Esson and Ann Bennett’s film-in-progress on the struggle over Miami’s historic Liberty City. Divad Durant’s account of transnational collaboration in making his short film Goodnight Sun. David Ferry’s haunting translations and observations on the “lamenting pleasure” of writing and reading poetry in relation to grief.

Alex Halkin (Kopkind/CID 2014), whose wonderful collaborative work with Cuban artists we featured as a Bonus to Nos. 5 and 19 of “Scenes From a Pandemic,” in May and August of 2020, respectively, has sent along a new collaborative video. Like the earlier works, this one is part of the Americas Media Initiative (AMI), which Halkin directs and which is focused on community-based media in the hemisphere. We gladly share it here:

As Alex writes: “To this date there are still no means for Cubans living in the US to send money to their loved ones on the island. AMI Is sending royalty payments to Cuban filmmakers with two friends who are traveling there.” Behind the lighthearted form of superhero animation is serious business: the obligation of US citizens to object to our government’s proclivity to wield suffering as a weapon.

* * *

“What kinds of coalitions, of we‘s, are possible in this protracted, still expanding historical moment of catastrophe?” Asam asked in closing his dispatch from Toronto. “What kinds of routes are available to make one another’s lives less vulnerable? Like Gramsci, I keep reminding myself that it is painful to be alive at the time of a new birth; that it is painful to witness newness being born.”

India Walton called her experience at Kopkind “transformational.” We’ve heard that a lot over twenty years from people who work every day to change conditions, to change consciousness, and we think it has to do with the combination of people, political discussion, setting, history, culture, pleasure. Finding pleasure in ideas, in human company, in nature and attention. It has to do with everyone who believes in this project and has contributed to it in any waywith appreciation for all that it means to love life, as our chef Mary Lewis suggested in her post to “Scenes From a Pandemic.”

Mary: I think of myself as Kopkind’s culinary artist, but the art of the meal involves more than the balance of flavors, nutrients and visual pleasures. It has to do with the truest meaning of sustenance, a holding up of what’s needed to be fully alive. Andy Kopkind, The Nation’s brilliant political writer from the 1980s and early ’90s for whom Kopkind is a living memorial, could whip up a fragrant pesto as deftly as he delivered a canny pun in print. His kitchen table swirled with lively conversation, amusing banter; ideas were born there, for stories and projects. Deep in the pandemic, when friends or family texted me photos of a dish they’d just made, I recalled the pictures and menus pasted in scrapbooks that Andy and John had made; the handwritten recipes left by their friends, some, like Alexander Cockburn’s chicken bastilla, complete with drawings; the digital images of dinners prepared by Dave Hall or me and memorialized by new generations of guests engaged in the political life of their communities.

Andy, Tree Frog Farm (photo: John Scagliotti)

“We love life whenever we can,” as the poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote. Every word captures the truth of the thing: there’s nothing fainthearted about love.

“Scenes From a Pandemic” has been a series of love offerings, written under trying circumstances, with intention. For a holiday treat, you can find Mary’s salmon recipe here, and can scroll down for all sixty-one essays from the pandemic series (including Scot Nakagawa’s 2020 kimchee recipe here, for another treat) plus Bonuses. We are so grateful to everyone who put in the effort. We are grateful to The Nation‘s Katrina vanden Heuvel and Don Guttenplan, our friends, who made it possible for people to earn a little money while opening windows onto experience. (And to everyone at the magazine who worked to put it up every week, especially Robert Best, Ricky D’Ambrose, Anna Hiatt and Sandy McCroskey.) We are grateful to our readers, to you right now, and we really need your help. The Donate button is a click away.

The political moment presents challenge and opportunity, and we’re going forward, baby.

Here’s to you, with every warm wish. Here’s to a new year. Here’s to solidarity.

JoAnn Wypijewski, for everyone at Kopkind

PS: anyone who would prefer to write a check may surely do so. Please make it out to Kopkind and mail to John Scagliotti, 158 Kopkind Road, Guilford, VT 05301. John is having the mail forwarded to his winter HQ, so it may take a bit longer to receive an acknowledgment. Gifts to Kopkind are tax-deductible to the full extent of the law. Thank you!





Socialism, a Story in Fragments

15 12 2021
Mural of India Walton (Kopkind 2019) on Eugene V. Debs Hall, Buffalo (photos: JoAnn Wypijewski)

This piece, by JoAnn Wypijewski, first appeared on New Left Review‘s blog, Sidecar, for December 7, 2021. It is reprinted here with a different title and additional photos.

Socialism is a story on the streets of the twenty-first century city. A lot depends on the teller. There was a mayor’s race here on November 2. One of the candidates called herself ‘a proud socialist’, a ‘democratic socialist’. Her opponents called her a ‘radical leftist’ and ‘dangerous’. An editorial cartoon in the daily newspaper in June, shortly after she upset the four-term incumbent mayor of this Democratic city in the Democratic Party primary, depicted her benevolently extending City Hall to a throng of outstretched arms. By October, the incumbent having decided to run a write-in campaign premised on the unique peril posed by this upstart, the newspaper decided that it too found her a ‘threat’. She is four feet eleven inches tall. In her pitch to voters, socialism amounted to advocating an economy and society that worked for everyone; she seldom used the term. Leftish commentators nationally rhapsodized about socialism taking the reins of power in Buffalo, and got almost everything wrong. The Erie County Democratic Party chair said talk of radicalism was ridiculous: ‘she sounds like FDR’. ‘Write-In’ came out ahead on November 2, an indistinguishable heap that didn’t officially return the incumbent mayor to City Hall until late November, once his votes were separated out from those for Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, the Buffalo Bills’ quarterback and a few candidates who also ran as write-ins, though mostly invisibly. Election night returns were robust enough, though, to relieve some contributors to the newspaper’s letters section that Buffalo had been spared from becoming North Korea on Lake Erie.

Words are pesky when they have no agreed-upon meaning.

Young woman waiting for the bus: ‘Socialism? I heard that word back in school, in history class, but …  I can’t remember.’

Young man waiting for the bus: ‘I know exactly what it means. To be sociable, you know, just socializing, talking with people, over the internet, just everywhere, everywhere.’

Old man getting on the bus: ‘I wish you’d asked me first. [gruffly] I’ll tell you: Joe Biden.’

* * *

Socialism is a history in fragments in a fragmented city. Walking distance from my natal home there is an empty lot. There are many, actually, but 1644 Genesee Street, next to Ike and BG’s BBQ and across from Island Food Mart, a bodega defenced by door and window grates, once denoted the East Side Labor Lyceum. The building is said to have survived until 1991, though I don’t remember it. A stone’s throw away, a small but handsome brick structure where I checked out books as a girl has not been a library for decades, but the central library downtown yielded a few details. A Sanborn map from 1939 is allusive: a deep, narrow building; a ‘Hall’ on the second floor. A squib from the Buffalo Courier in 1915 announces that the lyceum’s cornerstone would be laid on April 11 of that year, a Sunday. ‘Preceding the ceremony there will be a parade of children and men and women interested in the project.’ A ‘Socialist organizer of Buffalo’ got top billing among the speakers, who also included a Presbyterian clergyman and Mrs. Frank J. Shuler, representative of the Woman Suffrage party. A reminiscence in the Courier Express from 1950 mentions ‘the old time Socialist soapboxes … They used to hold forth regularly, orating from improvised stands at Main and Mohawk, Main and Genesee and other points throughout the city’. The card catalogue in the local history reference room discloses little more, but the librarian found regular announcements of meetings, socialist lectures and card parties at the East Side Labor Lyceum while scrolling through a news database. A dissertation on the role of interior spaces in the formation of working-class consciousness reports that Buffalo had a kind of floating lyceum, a regular lecture series or salon under various roofs, as early as 1904. A sentence in a Daily Worker story from 1924 mentions a Labor Lyceum in another part of the city’s East Side, this one at 376 William Street, near Jefferson, the commercial drag of black Buffalo by the time of my youth. That address today is also an empty lot.

1644 Genesee Street (part of the lot in distance) today

Nothing marks the radical past. Labor Lyceums, typically the undertakings of socialist German immigrants, replaced saloons as primary spaces for union meetings, educational events and working-class entertainments in many industrial cities around the US in the early twentieth century, but I hadn’t thought about their existence in Buffalo until I stepped into a saloon, sort of – the Eugene V. Debs Hall, a former Polish bar, beautifully restored last year and, once the state approves its liquor license, one of two taverns that remain in an East Side neighbourhood that used to be thick with them. People, some my relatives, once crowded the streets of this area; wildlife is common now. A deer loped across the street toward my car the night I visited the Debs Hall to talk with its founder and principal manager, Chris Hawley. The flock of wild turkeys that also frequent the neighbourhood must have been sleeping or shy.

Hawley is a senior planner for the City of Buffalo. He lives in the back of the tavern with a cat named Sputnik, whom he rescued from certain death on the street, and bikes to City Hall, fifteen minutes away. As an avocation he researches the histories that have been erased in what, in so many other ways, is a landscape of memory. Ten years ago, thousands of preservationists from across the country gathered for a conference in Buffalo, marvelling at the works of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, at the daylight factories and grain elevators that had inspired Le Corbusier but, even in those cases, abstracting the architecture from the lives that had built and animated it. Hawley wasn’t in his present job at the time. He was born here forty years ago, into a family that, on one side, traces its early twentieth century heritage to skilled work and upward mobility from the beginnings of the once-gargantuan Bethlehem Steel works; and that, on the other side, preserved the silences of a working class left to fend for itself – the railroad worker killed on the job, his widow with eleven children, the rough boarders to whom she’d rent out the children’s beds, the violence of everyday life. Hawley’s parents were part of the migration out of Western New York to the Sun Belt. He began unearthing labour histories when he moved to Buffalo after university, piecing together the shards of experience that help decipher a project like the Eugene V. Debs Hall today.

Workers associations were numerous when the building was erected in the Broadway/Fillmore district not far from the city’s vast railyard and stockyards in 1899. It was always a bar, and because, according to a 1901 report by Temperance advocates, all but six of Buffalo’s sixty-nine labour organizations met in saloons or halls connected to saloons, it’s possible that the proprietors of this place augmented their income by renting space to unions. In any event – even allowing for the contradictions of the saloon as a male space, a white ethnic (here specifically Polish) space, a drinking and so potentially disabling space – the bar would have been a communal hearth, locus for workers to forge bonds against the fragmenting processes of industrial capitalism. Especially once it was spruced up in 1914, it likely played the social role of so many taverns, as a site for small wedding parties or funeral repasts, christening fetes and other celebrations. By then, Hawley says, ‘Buffalo was a hotbed of the Socialist Party. Debs had come here in 1898 to form the first local. There were twelve locals in the city, several in the outlying towns; mainly they met in taverns or other halls.’ The East Side Labor Lyceum was a step up, built by the Socialist Party specifically for socialists. He has a picture of its drum corps, a cartoon from 1917 of ‘The Regular Meeting of the Branch’, a reproduction of its mission statement: ‘Dedicated to intellectual advancement of working people and to prepare them for the abolishment of the system of exploitation and profit.’

Graduate student, political philosophy, 30-ish [coolly]: ‘Socialism is the first stage of state control of all means of production and distribution. It’s command central … Socialists are communists.’

Firefighter, middle-aged: ‘Socialism is the practice – the practice – of equality.’

* * *

Whatever else it was, the recent mayor’s race was a public confrontation with inequality. The dominant boosterist story of contemporary Buffalo is abbreviated as ‘Renaissance’. In the miserablist press the story is typically abbreviated ‘disaster’. Neither suits the whole.

Deer are not wandering everywhere in the city, and even where they tread, the grassy plots represent progress from the thousands of firetraps, shooting galleries and condemned hulks that a working class stripped of its livelihood – by the collapse of steel and then domino-like deindustrialization – had once called home. Buffalo’s population was 532,759 in 1960; it is now 278,349, a bit higher than in 1890. The latest census reflects an uptick, driven most dramatically by new migrants. On the East Side, which for decades has been predominantly black with a Polish remnant, the newcomers include at least 10,000 (possibly 20,000) Bangladeshis, many who fled the high costs of New York City and then encouraged relatives from the old country to join them, transforming some abandoned Catholic churches into mosques and community centers. Not far from the Debs Hall, a Spanish-speaking enclave has taken root, climate refugees from Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Rita.

East Side landmark, the Central Terminal, with the author’s 1963 Valiant

The bones of the walkable city have not been obliterated. Housing is typically two-story, two-family wood-frame residences, ‘the Buffalo double’ in the vernacular, like my grandfather built a bit farther east in 1924; or the lower profile, extended ‘telescope cottage’. Until the pandemic-fueled real estate price boom, a house could be had here for $25,000 to $50,000, often less. Residential lots tend to be long and narrow, and as in every poor urban district I know, what people call ‘good blocks’ might be a cross-walk away from blight; ‘good houses’, alongside vacant or tumble-down properties; side streets intact with contiguous houses whose owners are trying, bracketed on each end by broad stretches of near-nothingness – the radial commercial streets that lead downtown and are mute testimony that for sixteen years the city’s first black mayor, incumbent Byron Brown, has not tried very hard for what is considered the black side of town.

Supporters of his challenger, India Walton, pointed out that the mayor’s enthusiasm for bulldozing vacant buildings was excessive (his five-year plan of ‘a thousand a year’ ultimately totaled 8,000); in any case, it had no second act beyond some incongruous suburban-style housing here and there. The city’s poverty rate – about 30 percent, persistent across his tenure – is most starkly visible on the East Side (though hardly unique to it). Among black city residents the rate is 35 percent, three points higher than their rate of home ownership. A stinging report by the University of Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies comparing the state of black Buffalo in 1990 and the present, called ‘The Harder We Run’, concludes: ‘Everything changed, but everything remained the same.’ For some of us crossing town on broken pavement or riding laggardly buses, low-boil rage is a familiar emotion.

And yet, and yet …

Man in a wheelchair, on disability, in front of his group home off Broadway: ‘I don’t know about socialism, but I think the mayor’s done a good job. You look at the Medical Campus, it’s beautiful. Look at the waterfront, it’s beautiful.’

Retired housing cop, East Side homeowner: ‘I’ve got nothing against India Walton or her campaign. I’m for the mayor for three reasons: affirmative action (I remember what the police department was like before, okay?); property values (I bought my house fifteen years ago for $30,000, someone offered me $170,000 the other day, that’s $140,000 of wealth); and the waterfront (I mean, it’s beautiful).’

Less than two miles from the Debs Hall, the university’s Medical Campus and the expansion of hospitals and other medical facilities have generated jobs, optimism and angry battles over displacement and disrespect in the nearest, largely black residential community. On Main Street and its downtown environs, long-abandoned hotels, department stores and office buildings have been repurposed or are in the process, with apartments priced and designed mainly to attract a niche public: empty-nesters sick of their suburban baggage, young professionals attracted to the city’s craft beer and arts scene, medical workers and students, a few pro football players, notable because they’ve long been associated with suburban residency. The transformation is by turns welcome and aggravating: welcome because no one yearns for the time when a plastic bag blowing across Main Street could symbolize downtown; aggravating because of the revivalists’ apparent contentment with the clichés of inequity. Years of official rhetoric notwithstanding, there remains the reality of the child growing up in a landscape of destitution, crossing over to one of increasing plenty. Farther west on the lakefront, the Canal district offers the city a glimpse of its long-obscured Erie Canal history along with myriad pass-times. The Outer Harbor is for now a relatively unspoiled stretch of nature trails, parkland, marina and beach where on any given summer weekend Buffalo shows up in rainbow streaks: women in plaid shirts and cutoffs towing boats from the water, latin families grilling skirt steak, mixed couples kissing, black elders watching the sun set from folding chairs, women swathed in black reclining under trees with their children.

All of this development has been accomplished with public money on what in large part was or is public land. ‘Socialism for the rich’, Walton’s supporters sometimes said breezily. The bon mot is inadequate when socialism for everyone is ill defined; it seemed especially counterproductive here, given its note of derision in a political context where ‘socialism’ was deployed most often only to deride.

What the phrase discounted, grievously, was not only the full experience of people and place but also the shape-shifting emotional aspect of urban life, the feeling for the city, which doesn’t resolve the contradiction represented by the man in the wheelchair exalting the nice new things while foot-padding along a street deprived of any of them, but does help explain it. ‘I’m Josh’, he said twice to be sure I remembered his name. His friend Marcus was more critical of the incumbent mayor but similarly admiring of the waterfront. What their expressed pride tacitly acknowledged was a sense of ownership: the lake as ‘the wealth of the people’, in Chris Hawley’s phrase, once befouled, effectively privatized by steelworks, now recovered as a zone of pleasure.

Disconcertingly, this store of collective wealth did not figure much in anyone’s electioneering – even though grass-roots action had been critical in determining the shape of the waterfront’s recovery as a public asset; and developers, who’ve already taken their bites, are perched to take more and ruin it.

Kelly, campaign volunteer for Brown, middle-aged: ‘A free for all, that’s what I think when I hear the word, just unrealistic … I think some of it is very fair, like universal health care. But it’s undefined; I think enough people when they use the word don’t know what they’re talking about, including me.’

* * *

A column inch in the Buffalo Morning Express for November 6, 1919, reports that in the steel company town of Lackawanna, just south of the city line, the Socialist ticket’s candidate scored a surprise victory as mayor amidst heavy repression against striking steel workers; his first order of business, ‘re-establish free speech’. Until India Walton’s surprise primary victory, no one remembered John H. Gibbons. Few know anything about Anna Reinstein, whose name graces another library I used as a child, in a town just east of the city line – Anna, a Polish Jew, politically radical, a doctor who came to Buffalo in 1891 and began practicing gynaecology. When she was honoured in 1941 by the Erie County Medical Society for fifty years of practice, a local paper noted: ‘Incidentally, she is the wife of Boris Reinstein, a former Buffalo druggist, now a commissar in Russia.’ Chris Hawley has a photograph of Boris seated at Lenin’s elbow. ‘Incidentally’ is a nice touch. Boris left Buffalo to serve the revolution in 1917, and never returned. Anna was a member of Buffalo’s Communist Party when she was arrested with forty-two other party members in an anti-Red roundup in 1920. When, at the same time, eighty-three mostly immigrant alleged anarchists were arrested on the East Side and in surrounding towns, a left-wing paper ridiculed them for ‘phrase-radicalism’. Confusion about aims and definitions, an undisciplined language, only encouraged a crackdown, it argued. Clarity would unlikely have deterred police raids. The first Red Scare … The second Red Scare … Decoupling words from meaning is a tactic and legacy of hysteria. Anna and Boris’s children climbed the social ladder, the son buying up land and getting into development; they secured her name on the library, but sealed the archive of her letters and papers, which became available only in the 1990s.

From a library scrapbook of local newspaper clippings

Socialism, in the deceptively mystic serenity of the Eugene V. Debs Hall’s setting, is a reclamation project. Of place, first, and, with it, confidence in the neighbourhood’s future; of social bonds, frayed by post-industrial fragmenting processes; of local labour history for workers largely unmoored from it. The professed goal is to make a social space, a political and cultural space. In conviviality – the exchange of knowledge, the appreciation of experience, the practice of economic cooperation and mutual aid – the class might see itself, and begin to act for itself if only, as a start, through that act of seeing. Much depends on who will be seeing whom, and how.

The hall itself has a spare elegance. A high tin ceiling, a leaded glass transom across big front windows hand-painted with the hall’s name and Debsian red banner, the original dark-panelled wainscoting, the original patinaed bar and tables, a refinished floor which Hawley and friends uncovered from beneath layers of asbestos tile whose evidence is burned into a diamond pattern on the wood, the ghost of ages of spilled beer and dirty mop water seeping through the seams. Above the barback mirror a photograph of Debs is flanked by small black busts of FDR and Marx. Atop the gleaming Art Moderne cash register, a purely decorative effect, sits an unassuming cast iron bust of Debs in his prison clothes.

Try not to get nostalgic, I thought. Balancing past and present is a delicate business, not unique in a city where memory has been a balm against so much loss. ‘Sentimentality is the only reason we exist as a city’, Hawley says. ‘There’s no reason it’s survived except that people love the place.’ That is simultaneously true and not. Love may be a bet on the future, but all bets are not equal.

This part of the East Side, where some people clawed to stay alive and others settled because property was a bargain, is now an area ‘in transition’ because others volunteered to save one remarkable architectural landmark – the Central Terminal, whose 1929 Art Deco tower looms above the grassy flats – and still others have drawn up a redevelopment plan around it. After decades in the dark, the tower now lights up the night sky in dramatic colours. The plan for creating a Civic Commons around it strikes all the right notes until you get to the word ‘destination’. If history is a guide, the commons will be contested. Ironically, but that feels like the wrong word, in his official capacity Chris Hawley authored a new rezoning plan for the city that does not have inclusionary mandates for affordable housing. That was supposed to be worked out by the mayor, he says. ‘Development without displacement’, the cry of poor and working-class residents everywhere, may well be raised within shouting distance of the Debs Hall. Stripped of its disguise as a mark of shame, vacant land is also the wealth of the people.

Alexandria, activist, 19, immigrant from southern Sudan: ‘You know the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child”; socialism means this to me. Buffalo is the child, and the people are the village who must raise it.’

* * *

Formally, the Debs Hall is a social club. Unlike taverns, Hawley discovered, non-profit social halls tend to survive their founders; he and the 250 founding members – who each contributed $250 to buy the property and, for that, get $1 off beer for life – take the long view. Membership is $10, ‘open to anyone who has an interest in the labour history of Buffalo or the United States’. There is no political litmus test. Hawley is a member of Democratic Socialists of America, as is India Walton – the plainest explanation for how socialism entered the discourse this political season. An outside wall of the building bears her portrait. (As the only member of city administration who’d backed her publicly, Hawley figured his support ought to be big so that if he were fired that would be big too.) The local DSA chapter meets there, as have the Buffalo Lighthouse Association and neighbourhood koi pond enthusiasts. Any community-based organization can book the hall for free. Walton’s canvassers converged there during the campaign. Volunteer bartenders encourage their networks to come out. Hawley has made presentations around the city about labour history and the hall to groups as obscure as the Greater Western New York Bottle Collectors Association.

Floor, Debs Hall

It is, he says, an explicitly socialist hall (the Connolly Forum in Troy, NY, may be the country’s only other) ‘because the ideas are still relevant … how to empower everyday working people to better their lives collectively.’ But ‘if you look at the old socialist halls, they weren’t sitting around all the time talking about socialism; they were interested in whatever the working class was interested in’.

Segregation, and not just by colour, splinters the nominative singular. It always has. The Walton campaign lost the election (out of inflated fears of socialism, ‘defund the police’ and inexperience), but in spotlighting poverty, land use and uneven development it succeeded in organizing a coalition that crossed barriers of colour, ethnicity, age, income, geography, education, national origin. It did not juice turnout on the East Side or ‘win the working class’, as some have reported, unless one wants to write out most of the city’s unions and all of Brown’s working-class voters, including the firefighters, police and other city workers in historically Irish South Buffalo, which powered his victory. But it felt like something new, as if the ground might be shifting. The Debs Hall is in a majority-white slice of a district that, overall, is 48 percent Asian (mainly Bangladeshi), 24 percent black, 8 percent latin and 13 percent white. Walton lost the district by about 650 votes. Almost 17 percent of the people in that white slice are officially poor, and as in the rest of the district, and the East Side, and the city, or anywhere actually, what it means to be poor is as open for political redefinition as what it means to be a socialist or even working class.

Back when John Gibbons became the region’s first and only Socialist mayor, to be a steel worker meant all the things it means to be poor today: to live always on edge and to die young, your housing substandard, the rent too high for your income, your education inadequate, your psychic and physical environment unhealthy. At the time of the great strike of 1919, steel work meant compulsory twenty-four hour shifts every other day. Organized labourers changed what it meant to be a worker by challenging and ultimately changing factory conditions. Henry Louis Taylor of UB’s Center for Urban Studies argues that the point of attack now is the set of ‘conditions that make some neighbourhoods the factories that produce low-wage workers’: change the conditions and so too what it means to be poor.

People tend not to recognize that workers died to change their conditions, died to ‘bring you the weekend’, as an old union slogan once put it. Maybe because work still leaves them poor, running behind, or because it’s absurd to think ‘dying for the weekend’ might ever have been meant literally. Maybe because, as for so many in this region who are linked by ancestry to vanished industry, death was normalized but collective struggle was not. My father’s father, who built the house not so far from the Labor Lyceum, was a railroad machinist: his lungs gave out in early middle age; his daughter died at 4 of diphtheria; a son was stillborn. I grew up with pictures of the dead, knowing my father assumed responsibility for the family at 17; it didn’t seem weird. My grandmother seemed happy. I think she was: my father became a tool and die maker and didn’t die young, and nor did his wife or his children, and nor did my grandmother, who was never alone. No one talked about historical context.

A century after the heyday of Labor Lyceums, socialism is fetishized, like democracy. As words, like any other, even the most abstract – ‘God’ comes to mind – they are animated only in practice, experience. It would be interesting to observe an election that prompted discussion about democracy. In Buffalo the incumbent mayor, so intimate with cronyism, might have had a problem with that one.

Hawley often begins telling people about Debs the man by saying he was imprisoned in 1920 for giving an anti-war speech and ran for president from behind bars. He begins telling about the Debs project’s first labour history memorial with the story of Casimer Mazurek, a 26-year-old decorated World War I veteran shot to death when Lackawanna Steel guards opened fire on 5,000 men, women and children on a picket line in the opening days of the great steel strike. In both cases, he reports, listeners are amazed. The many whose family histories intersect in some way with steel often know almost nothing beyond that convergence. A plaque, sponsored by the Debs Hall and the Area Labor Federation, sits propped against a wall in the tavern, awaiting deployment. When it is finally erected to commemorate the violence, the failed strike, and the success, twenty-two years later, of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee at Bethlehem Steel, it will be the first public historic marker to recognize the labour history of Western New York.

Lola, university student, political science/pre-law, 19, at a picket line of striking hospital workers: ‘Socialism? It means you’re for the people.’

Jackie, her mother, gift shop manager: ‘I think the word, … I think it’s evolving.’





Pick Up the Stone

6 10 2021

October 7, 2021, marks twenty years since the US invasion of Afghanistan. Revenge and vigilantism, as discussed below, have formed the spine of politics abroad and at home for decades, a cord linking that lost war to deputizing bounty hunters against abortion in Texas to an earlier lost war and its aftermath. That cord is not unbreakable. On October 2 women across the country marched for reproductive justice. On October 7, a peace coalition in New York will protest continuing US violence abroad.

From the first San Francisco march against the impending war in Afghanistan, September 29, 2001. (photo: David Bacon, from a recent photo-essay in The Progressive)

by John Scagliotti and JoAnn Wypijewski

“Vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord, and for this reason there is a peculiar perversity to the spectacle of fanatical Christians embracing vigilantism and de facto bounty hunting to “save the children,” punish the women, avenge the fetuses consigned by law to limbo ever since Roe v. Wade allowed women a measure of bodily autonomy in 1973. The Lord, after all, did not say, “Vengeance is yours; go get ’em!”

The fundamentalists and their opportunistic secular brethren, for whom oppression has always been primarily a political organizing project, are not unused to playing God, but with the Texas law they have abandoned even the trappings of civic petition for a refinement on freelance violence. Today’s enraged righteous might not get to bomb abortion clinics, shoot down or physically threaten doctors and other workers, as their co-religionists have since the 1990s. But there is more than one way to pick up the stone. The rock is in a million hands—legally this time. We’re not so far removed from Afghanistan, after all.

And yet, notwithstanding Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s vehement dissent to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the law, what seems a departure from legal and political norms is really an extension.

Courts consider cases in light of their particulars, legal process, and precedent; hence Sotomayor’s ire and the Justice Department’s new challenge. But law or abortion—or anything, actually—doesn’t exist in such a tight box; it exists in, and is shaped by, the flows and eddies of culture. That bears remembering, because for decades now what has suffused the common law of the culture, the reigning ideas and practices indulged across the political spectrum, is the thrill of revenge—along with an accommodation to what we don’t call vigilantism but which bears its stink.

The coincidence of this latest battle in “the culture wars” with the twentieth anniversary of the War on Terror is more than an accident of the calendar. Talk about picking up the stone… Marred as this year’s commemoration of the 9/11 attack was by recriminations for the US defeat in Afghanistan, the essential features of the ritual—the God-bothering, the claims of unique suffering, the beams of pure blue light piercing the night sky—again reinscribed the idea of America as innocent victim who deserved to be avenged. The Global War on Terror, which was officially announced on September 20, 2001, had many causes beyond the suffering and death on 9/11: imperial fantasies, beclouded imaginations, fear, corruption, money, and the opportunities war presents for greasing many wheels. But the reason proffered to the public always played to Americans’ sense of virtue: the victim-nation would make the world safe, secure justice for its dead, and free Afghani girls, to boot.

How easily vengeance was called justice. The declaration seemed so bold, but only because shreds of decorum prevented a more brutal honesty. Bush and Cheney could hardly have told the people: “Look, Smedley Butler was right: War is a racket. Halliburton is on the line!” Working alongside the regular armed forces, private contractors and subcontractors supplied mercenaries, translators, and torturers. They supplied services and equipment that were shoddy or worse. They reorganized Abu Ghraib as an American prison in Iraq, and supplied spoiled food that sickened US soldiers and prisoners alike. They assisted the CIA’s metastasis into a shadow army and torture operation. And they have profited mightily.

That public-private vengeance campaign was prosecuted under a wisp of law—and by kidnapping, by rendition to foreign dungeons, by deals with local death squads, by bounties, by drone, by Republicans and Democrats. Legitimized violence, contract violence, freelance violence, they all have rubbed shoulders. Presidents weren’t vigilantes, exactly; they had legal memorandums and special exceptions devised by their hirelings, if not a formal declaration of war. In the Oval Office they were Dirty Harry. Bush kept kill lists. Obama expanded the geographic kill zone. He invited The New York Times to report how he picked targets for assassination every Tuesday, and to advertise his moral agita. “Turns out I’m really good at killing people,” he is said to have told his staff. Under Bush, Saddam Hussein was hanged by the puppet Iraqi government at a joint military base called Camp Justice. Obama had Osama bin Laden executed rather than arrested and then pronounced:

Justice has been done…. tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to…. we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

(photo: Ken Cedeno / Corbis via Getty Images)

Pick up the stone… “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said, shortly before a US drone fired a missile at a car full of children in Afghanistan on August 29, killing them and the adults nearby, 10 civilians in all, as the US army beat its final retreat.

The United States didn’t need 9/11 or the War on Terror to become vengeful, or to outsource havoc round the world, or to prod Americans into public-private exercises of cruelty and call it good. History groans with our pretenses to innocence. Now that the war is soundly lost (though hardly over), and we clearly cannot do “whatever we set our mind to,” we confront, again, the prospect of derangement in defeat.

And so full circle to the Texas law, a pivot point, coming as it does in the wake of one lost war while rooted in the political backlash that defined the aftermath of the first major defeat, in Vietnam.

Marsha P. Johnson pickets Bellevue Hospital for mistreatment of street people and gays (photo: Diana Davies, New York Public Library digital collections, 1968-75)

Pick up the stone… Someone had to pay. Back then, antiwar and civil rights actions that made the connections between systems of oppression had bloomed into a bouquet of movements that saw the beginnings of fundamental change reaching into every institution of America. Who knew that these advances were also creating an opportunity for the right? A new power base would be built from new threats with a new story line. “Save the unborn!” cried holy warriors, caring nothing for the born, exploiting every opening in Roe’s spongey reasoning to constrain women’s autonomy legally, and stoking the violent passions that would, at their extralegal extreme, lead to hit lists and blood. “Save our children!” cried those same warriors bent on strangling the post-Stonewall gay rights baby in its cradle. Their leader, an orange juice pitchwoman and former beauty queen, sang “Glory, glory, hallelujah” rallying voters to deny homosexuals civil rights, while vice squads raided cruising spots around the country and entrapped gay men and teenagers. “Save the family!” cried legions of women organized to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, roused by the specter of loneliness, lost status, and unisex public lavatories. Their leader, an anticommunist hawk, didn’t believe any of it; she recognized a ripe constituency that would support Ronald Reagan and, willy-nilly, a proxy army in the Hindu Kush that brought on bin Laden and the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Black people and poor people paid the most. The War on Crime, the War on Drugs, the roundups of young black men, prison as a rite of passage. The war on sex, on porno and sex workers and single mothers. Liberal politicians joined the vengeance game partly to capture the flag from the right, partly out of a futile politics of accommodation, partly out of their own prejudices. Clinton’s end of “welfare as we know it” also entailed the forced contraception of women receiving public benefits, and shackles clapped on pregnant women addicted to crack. Panic begot legislation by pitchfork. Spineless Democrats, caving to religious fanatics, passed the Defense of Marriage Act. Although sex-crazed strangers had been killing children for centuries, an extreme rarity, devastated parents forced a series of laws named for their dead children, which with every iteration have elaborated and expanded the machinery of punishment. That machinery has so transformed criminal prosecutors into advocates for aggrieved individuals or their families under the banner of victims’ rights that collectively we no longer remember why the state still claims to be representing “the people.”

Through it all there were real social dislocations and real fears, real frustrations and harms and material effects that were almost never honestly addressed, and real resistance. But bookended as we are at this moment between two imperial defeats—Vietnam and Afghanistan—it’s clear how much punch the idea of Victim America has had. All this and still we’re not safe? No wonder people pick up a gun, or a stone.

The Texas state guardians of fetal heartbeats abdicate responsibility not only for the people—the society of beating hearts from whose consent the government ostensibly derives its power—but for their own law enforcement. Of course, they’re cynical, as are the justices whose failure to enjoin a law designed to evade federal review undermines their very reason for being. All of which suggests that either abortion is a threat to the republic so grave that the Supreme Court might slash its own wrists to stop it—or this is really about something else.

War hawk and right-wing power maven Phyllis Schlafly campaigns against the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978. (photo: Bettmann/Corbis}

Pick up the stone… “Remember the Ladies,” Abigail Adams wrote her husband, John, shortly before the founding fathers threw them out of “We the People.” Abigail insisted, “Your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical,” but John’s response—“We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems”—admits that patriarchal subjugation is a choice. Like offensive war. Like the police state. Like stoning women literally or figuratively. If oppression were immutable in men’s nature, why would anyone resist? (And why would women join in the fun?)

But just because something is a choice doesn’t mean that persistent tutelage can’t make it seem like nature. Imperial aspirants and their cultural appendages have historically had to work at welding “masculinity” to glorified violence and disdain for womanish things. (Even now, China’s government is campaigning against “sissies” and conscious slackers to man up for its future as global top dog.) Part of the 1960s counterculture was a rejection of that tutelage. Though halting and not without contradictions, the changes brought on by the counterculture were destabilizing to some men who’d identified with male headship, militarism, and brutalizing work—especially once women rebelled, Vietnam was lost, and industrial jobs disappeared. All the reasons these guys might feel “stiffed”— in Susan Faludi’s term—could be buried in payback for the Feminazis who’d magically turned them into girly men, forcing them to be bottoms. In the right-wing culture war paradigm, all routes to male emancipation led to Fight Club—right on up to January 6 and the explosion of vigilantes (overwhelmingly men) screaming “Where’s Nancy?” as they clobbered cops with flag poles.

(photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

They were losers. It seems important to underscore that. Losers who’d been promised that they would “get so tired of winning.” Now they and their cohort have been enlisted in another battle, to spy on their neighbors, snitch on their kin, pick up the stone. It’s not very dignified. In common parlance, people engaged in such activity aren’t soldiers but rats. Dignity, though, and even “protection of innocent life” aren’t the main points in the opportunistic politics of setting people at one another’s throats.

As with the War on Terror, the culture war has a machine to grease. It’s a racket, too. This past summer our friend Jeff Sharlet, who’s long been reporting on the Christian right, returned from a tour of churches that have largely whisked Jesus away. In one, the Lamb of God didn’t get a mention and Jeff couldn’t spy a cross. The preacher had an altar made of swords. Wherever Jeff went, he recounted with some mixture of awe and dread, the talk was of civil war.

Christians deprived of Christ, Oath Keepers naming names, baby-savers reduced to rats: there’s something desperate about it all. The backlash machine that had kept its troops in order for 50 years seems to be sputtering. There’s danger here; when hasn’t there been? But the old paradigm has shaken loose, a new one is not yet clear, and we are at the fulcrum.

John Scagliotti and JoAnn Wypijewski founded the Kopkind Colony in 1998. John is an Emmy Award–winning producer of documentaries exploring lgbtq history. His latest film, Before Homosexuals, can be found here. JoAnn is the author of What We Don’t Talk About: Sex and the Mess of Life, now in paperback from Verso. This story originally appeared in The Nation on September 22, 2021.





Films and Picnic on the Farm, August 28

22 08 2021

TIME

5:30 pm: Potluck Barbecue

7-ish: Film screenings

PLACE

Tree Frog Farm, 158 Kopkind Rd. Guilford, Vermon

Elvis died on August 16, 1977, and as the Memphis Flyer said in advance of the premier of The Faithful in the city he made his home just a few days before the anniversary, it’s a wonderful surprise after so long to “encounter an angle that allows us to see him in a new light. So it is with the work of filmmaker Annie Berman, whose remarkable documentary … is a fascinating examination of cultural icons and how they are remembered”.

Kopkind and the Center for Independent Documentary are proud to have played a part in the early development of the documentary when Annie came to Film Camp, and are thrilled to be presenting it now, as the feature presentation of our late-summer gathering on Saturday, August 28, at Tree Frog Farm.

The event will begin with a potluck barbecue at 5:30. We’ll provide the grilled fare; bring a covered dish! We’ll raise a toast to Andy’s birthday (August 24) and to his living memorial which since 1999 has been a source of inspiration, information, intellectual stimulation and rest for hundreds of people who are making a difference in the world today. These are hard times for imagining the joy of politics, but imagine we must. It’s what people have done throughout history to make change.

After the repast, we’ll start off the screening (outdoors) with a sneak peak of Far Out, Chuck Light and Daniel Keller’s work-in-progress about life on and after the commune days in Vermont and Massachusetts — an exploration of not just an era’s history but broad themes of how we grapple with idealism, relationships, morality, spirituality, civic engagement and finding home.

Chuck will be on hand, as will Annie. In true Kopkind style, along with good food, good films, there will be lively banter with the filmmakers.

Annie’s film examines the popular allure of not only Elvis but also Pope John Paul II and Princess Diana, and the rites of their devotees. “The words we express for grief, or the messages you see written on the wall of Graceland or in messages to Diana, can sound cliché”, Annie has said. “Like ‘We’ll never stop loving you,’ ‘We’ll never forget you,’ ‘You’re always in our heart.’ But in that moment when it’s happening to you, it’s not cliché at all. It just feels true.” As the Flyer‘s reviewer put it: “More than interviews with the faithful, Berman’s documentary delves into the quality of perceptions of fame. There are insights into how these global figures appeared to the public, the things they said, the expressions on their faces in unguarded moments. You may believe you know who they were, but it takes an artist like Berman to show you something you hadn’t imagined.”

Please join us on Saturday, the 28th. RSVP to John Scagliotti at stonewal@sover.net; or to JoAnn Wypijewski at jwyp@earthlink.net.

And let’s remember everyone, past and present, friends and lovers and comrades, who ever made us feel lucky to be alive.

Andy at his birthday party, 1984, with Kathryn Kilgore, Alexander Cockburn and John





Marking Andy’s Birthday & Kopkind’s Work

8 08 2021

Saturday, August 28

Place: Tree Frog Farm, 158 Kopkind Rd., Guilford, Vermont

5:30 pm: Potluck Barbecue

7-ish: Film screenings

Late afternoon on Andy’s birthday, a late summer past.

The pandemic is not done with us, but we’re not done either. We’re cautious—no camps for the second consecutive summer—but not cocooned. So we’re celebrating persistence. We’re celebrating survival and solidarity. Recalling Gramsci: “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions, without becoming disillusioned”.

To live.

No cut-and-dried business that, as the “Scenes From a Pandemic” that ran here and in The Nation between April 2020 and concluded a couple of weeks ago attest. Those 61 pieces—scroll down if you missed them—along with Bonuses, which highlighted what some of our people were doing and thinking during this long, strange time, were a means for Kopkind to live in the present when objective conditions foreclosed our traditional work. John Scagliotti likes to say, “The best way to deal with change is to become part of it”: the reports, observations, analyses, emotions, musings, etc. that we published each week stand as a record of people dealing with change, or trying to. A huge thanks to The Nation for being our collaborator on this project.

Still, there’s tradition. So, as promised, we’re having a late-summer party—outdoors, in the great green of Tree Frog Farm, on Saturday, August 28, four days after what would have been Andy’s 86th birthday.

We’ll supply the grilled fare; you can bring a covered dish!

After the feast, we’ll have a very special film screening—also outdoors, under a tent.

(In an earlier post here, we promised a talk on the same weekend, but decided it’s more prudent to scale back.)

Film screenings have become a Kopkind tradition, and this one’s a knock-out. Please come!

We’ll start with a sneak peak of Charles Light and Daniel Keller’s work-in-progress, Far Out: Life On & After the Commune. 

Blending contemporary interviews, remarkable archival footage collected over decades and documentary material from the time, the film traces a period from 1968, when Total Loss Farm and its sister commune Montague Farm, were founded, to the present, exploring not just an era’s history but broad themes of how we grapple with idealism, relationships, morality, spirituality, civic engagement and finding home. Chuck will be there (as, we hope, will be some folks featured in the film), and we’ll pass the hat to help him get the film to the finish line.

Our feature presentation is Annie Berman’s new film, The Faithful, which explores the public’s connection to and veneration of pop icons (in this case Elvis, John Paul II and Diana); what such enthusiasm says about memory, identity, culture, modernity. More than 20 years in the making, The Faithful was workshopped in 2010 at Film Camp, Kopkind’s collaboration with the Center for Independent Documentary, and we are thrilled to welcome Annie back with us to show it to you now in its full fabulousness. “Ruminative, haunting, and strange”, said the Boston Globe. Strange as life, as faith, as almost all human efforts to make meaning when so much seems absurd.

Still image from The Faithful. It all began with a lollipop.

So please join us on a late summer’s eve for these great films—and of course great food and camaraderie!

RSVP to stonewal@sover.net; or to jwyp@earthlink.net.

Let’s love life whenever we can. For Kopkind,

JoAnn Wypijewski





Scenes From a Pandemic: 61

21 07 2021

This is the final installment of what, since April of 2020, has been our continuing series with The Nation on life as experienced and observed in pandemic times. We are so proud of and grateful to everyone who has contributed, and our thanks go also to everyone at the magazine who every week helped make the series happen, especially Ricky D’Ambrose, Robert Best, Sandy McCroskey, Anna Hiatt; and to Don Guttenplan and Katrina vanden Heuvel, who gave this collaboration a go. We hope you have enjoyed these weekly installments and our Bonuses. If you can, please support us by pressing the Donate button (above) on this site. The pandemic is not finished, but neither are we. (See Bonus.) Thank you all!

by Patricia J. Williams

(photo: Brianna Santellan on Unsplash)

Untethered, or The Year of Living Virtually

New York City

When baseball legend Ted Williams died in 2002, it came to light that he had directed that his body be cryogenically frozen so he and his children would “be able to be together in the future, even if it is only a chance.” At the time, it seemed strange to me, a desire for immortality so intense that one would slow the body’s decomposition to molecular silence, the breath held in wait for the perfect cure.

Global pandemic has helped me better understand that determined longing for biostasis. In mid-March of 2020, friends began to die, and I began to lose my mind. Today, post-vaccination, and nearly 4 million global deaths later, I am slowly waking up, like Rip van Winkle, much more than merely a year older, and not at all the same. I feel as though I have been preserved by a shock of flash-freezing, and I am thawing now—slushy and watery and uncertain in my body.

It was the sensory deprivation I found hardest to bear. Early on in this plague, as my contacts with the outside world had retreated into the numbed realm of the “remote,” I vowed to try to find grace in isolation. I would meditate and listen to what I imagined might be some lost store of poetic inner quiet. Like so many, I was determined to “make the best of it”; I would gussy it up as a writing retreat, a prolonged snow day, a space to hibernate for a bit.

But the sequence of death derailed the project. More people sickened, more friends passed, more relatives of friends, more acquaintances I no longer thought of as “casual” but essential. How are you? became an existential question. I Zoomed, I Skyped, I learned to use Teams. Images of other human beings were delivered in digitized boxes, algorithmic animations with sharp rectangular edges recalling The Hollywood Squares, the flesh tones odd, and no smells of the living. I watched the incense at a Zoomed funeral; I watched the bitter herbs at a Zoomed seder; I watched a bouquet of white roses tossed at the livestream of a Zoomed wedding.

I experienced all of this as fictional, surreal, perhaps because my sense of reality depends on the echo of how a real voice in a real room hits the ear. Or how a happy person smells. Or how a handshake or a hug stimulates the nervous system. Or how looking directly into someone’s eyes reveals small inflections that enhance the meaning of words as they are spoken.

The architecture of Zoom requires that in every encounter I had to watch my own face. It was the material enactment of double consciousness: watching myself as I watched others watching me.

I make my living as a teacher. In a bricks-and-mortar classroom, I rely on the presence of students to read the room, on subtle expressions—a head tilted in questioning, a slouch of boredom, an excited buzzing among ones who’ve made an important connection… On Zoom, their tiny heads were lined up like figures on an Advent calendar. When they wished to speak, their little yellow hands, like cartoon Mickey Mouse mittens, went up and down. Their voices were muted and unmuted, on and off, like a sound faucet. When I divided students into problem-solving subgroups, there was no collegial hum. Using the chat feature, everyone just dropped out of sight, out of sound and existence, a timer at the bottom of the screen blipping down the seconds till they would reappear, bursting to the surface like divers from the deep. (I have a friend who, while his students disappeared into their 15-minute chat-worlds, would hop on his treadmill for a refreshing workout.)

I felt diminished by the disconnection. In order to perform myself, I had to stand within an exoskeleton of myself, a prosthetic, a platform, to translate myself, to project the three-dimensionality one takes for granted intra personas. I felt as though I were manipulating a marionette of myself, trying to get my limbs to work just right, to avoid getting tangled or lost in the strings and buttons, the lighting, the filters. Worst of all, the architecture of Zoom requires that in every encounter I had to watch my own face, sallow and flattened, in a constancy of self-regard. It was the material enactment of double consciousness: watching myself as I watched others watching me.

Yes, it was better than nothing, and we all made do. But a year of such mediation was disembodying in all those literal ways.

The word “parasocial” occurs to me as I survey this year of lost-minded time. Parasociality is a one-sided relationship with another who exists at a distance—most often a celebrity. The relation is not only one-sided but illusory, an attributed sense of intimacy or proximity, such as a crush on a pop star, or the daydream of an imaginary friend. Parasociality is the projection one places on someone who does not reciprocate, or who may not even know you exist. I am co-opting the word, I suppose—it’s a technical term in media studies—but there is something powerful about the idea of life imagined as living among others, while without them in reality. In that way, a year on Zoom was sometimes like talking to the dead. Some days navigating the geography of our miniature screen-world was like floating through gardens of computer-generated ghosts. Sealed in my home office, I would toss a bottle of my ideas into that imaginary sea, trusting that it would find shore, and be released like a religious revelation upon the screens of extant others. A clutching neediness sustained my reaching out to partial people through this ritual Zoom communion. I call them “partial people”; I mean people who exist somewhere in the present tense but whom I could apprehend only as bumblebees captured in a jar; wings beating against the glass, they buzzed with the threat and the promise to break through as real.

As the days grew darker, as the economy spiraled downward, as the political scene grew more disordered, I too grew scattered, anxious, sad. I bought a stationary bike. I wore masks and plastic gloves to collect the mail. I studied the instructive dictates of astronauts, and hermits, and Oprah Winfrey. I forced myself out of bed in the morning, I updated my will, made wish lists and to-do lists—things that are supposed to inspire a sense of purpose. I counted my many blessings. I wrote down what I had eaten, and what I should be eating. Too much Twitter was in my head to think, to feel, so I switched off all electronics for five hours a day.

Of course, it’s impossible to turn off the world entirely; the sounds of catastrophe leaked through the walls. Ambulances streaked through the streets; I wore earplugs to dull the overhead thwumping of medical helicopters. As the months rolled by, medical helicopters were joined by police helicopters, and chanting filled the streets. The National Guard materialized, and personnel carriers mustered round the city.

To the extent that there is the promise of vaccination, at least for now, I am aware of how much my watery, pulsing interior rejoices at having survived to see this moment.

Last June, I hung a picture of Nelson Mandela’s stone room of a prison, where he passed some 25 years in solitary confinement. If he could do it, maybe I would make it to whatever future lay beyond. In September, I added a portrait of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And after January 6, I completed the gallery with a drawing I made of a bright happy balloon that was well-tethered to a stake in the ground. This was in response to a dream that I was a balloon that had lost its mooring. A child had let go of my string, and I was being carried away by a strong, angry wind—blowing away from everything I knew, disappearing higher and higher into a dense fog, the sky around me a grey and endless opacity. I woke up with the need to draw myself down to solid ground.

The whole world will need a lot of mooring post-pandemic. I fear that one of the costs of sustained parasociality is inability to come back down to earth, to stop and listen to what real others are really saying. Perhaps the perpetual state of emergency has unhinged us all. Awakening into a changed world, I am wobbly and in need of repair. I fear the wobbliness of others—particularly the great and growing numbers of lives given over to slushy accumulated moral panic. The pandemic has been a horrendous rupture of time, a trauma requiring reinvention of purpose. We will need some link between the fear-pod of deadliness and the redemptive reassurance of regeneration.

The threat of contagion is far from over; the virus mutates and disperses itself inequitably through the lacunae of bad public policies and cultivated fears. But to the extent that there is the promise of vaccination, at least for now, I am aware of how much my watery, pulsing interior rejoices at having survived to see this moment. I open my door early each morning. I look up at the dawn sky and remember how big and how beautiful and how unimaginable the world truly is. I taste the air. I set the table and reheat the uneaten dinner that has been waiting for you, my friends; I have missed you all. I settle anew into an embodiment of vulnerable exposures, pain points, and joy, a body absolutely certain that she, this lover of life, this I, this infinite ontography, will carry on and on and on without end.

Patricia J. Williams, a regular contributor to The Nation, is University Distinguished Professor of Law and Humanities, and director of Law, Technology and Ethics Initiatives at Northeastern University. She was a guest speaker at Kopkind in 2000 and 2009. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on July 14, 2021.

Bonus: We’re Having a Party…

Save the Dates: August 27-29.

Kopkind has not been like the parrot tulip above, wide open with our usual activities, but at summer’s end (a few days after Andy’s birthday, traditionally a high time at Tree Frog Farm) we’re having a festival of free outdoor events in celebration of life, wonder, meaningful work, social solidarity and carrying on. Here’s what’s planned:

  • What We Don’t Talk About: Sex and the Mess of Life, a talk by JoAnn Wypijewski, in coordination with Everyone’s Books, on her “daring essay collection…thrilling and cathartic” (TLS), just out in paperback.
  • Potluck barbecue at Tree Frog Farm!
  • Film screening of The Faithful: The King, the Pope and the Princess, a fantastic new documentary on pop icons, fandom and memory“ruminative, haunting, and strange” (Boston Globe) — with filmmaker and Kopkind/CID Film Camp alum Annie Berman.

More information, precise details, coming soon!





Scenes From a Pandemic: 60

12 07 2021

by Mary Lewis

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

The author’s honey-roasted salmon (photo: Becky Rinehart)

The Art of the Meal

Martinsburg, West Virginia

Laughter, good conversation and by all means good food nourish the soul. I learned everything about that, along with setting a lovely table and entertaining, from my mother and paternal grandmother. In adult life, I maintain this passion for effervescence at the dinner table whether in an intimate setting or among large groups of 100-plus.

Of course, not everyone loves to cook, and pandemic times have raised a series of questions and contrasts. Are people grabbing anything simply to eat, or have they embraced culinary invention? Do families take their plates and dine at separate workspaces? No talking, only texting? The eternal optimist, I want to believe many folks took advantage of these times to try something, anything, creative and soulful.

I realize it’s not so easy. My friend Satish recently texted me a picture of boiled confetti new potatoes in a bowl, asking, “Do these look done?” They looked beautiful (though slightly overcooked). “How long will they last?” he queried quite seriously.

Satish is a doctor. He, his wife, Sujaya, and I have become quite close over our shared love for our hometown Buffalo Bills, food, flowers, flowing conversation and politics. When he fretted about the potatoes, Sujaya was stuck in India; she’d gone to be with her ailing mother but then, though vaccinated, she tested positive for Covid and was, with the rest of the country, on lockdown. Satish was stuck for a very different reason, namely, what to prepare for dinner as Sujaya’s one-month absence stretched to two.  

The whole dining experience had become a distant snapshot in time—the social aspect of exchanging ideas or simply enjoying food dissolving with his darling far away. His attempts to line up weekly meals from his freezer and refrigerator, good in theory, became difficult to coordinate with his fluctuating hospital schedule. Food frustration was building for my friend. 

The potato quandary spurred regular phone conversations between us about what to cook—usually while I was concocting dinner myself, oftentimes toasting fennel seed, coriander, cumin, turmeric; or a Mediterranean blend of basil, oregano, rosemary, sage; whatever struck my mood and would coordinate with what my pantry or refrigerator held. Legumes figured prominently; garlic, onion, shallots, scallions, played supporting roles. To me this is just habit: the aromas alone are fantastic, and welcoming. “What’s cooking?” I’m often asked by neighbors out on their exercise walks. Toasting spices, roasting nuts, were not Satish’s strong suit, though he liked and missed them terribly. Ham, sauerkraut and potatoes were more like it. My suggestion once of a quick sauté of kale from his garden met with laughter, as Satish could only imagine yet another pan to clean. Plus, he’d be reminded of how Sujaya prepared kale using spices and nuts. One night as we chatted, I was making a marinade for salmon. Satish perked up; he wanted the recipe.

Voila! This one is also good for chicken, tempeh or pork tenderloin. The marinade keeps in the refrigerator. Quantities can be multiplied as needed.

Honey-Roasted Salmon

• 2-4 salmon fillets or 1 piece (I prefer skin-on unless serving a large group)

• 6 Tbsp. low-sodium soy sauce

• 4 Tbsp. rice vinegar (seasoned or plain)

• 3 squeezes honey (adjust according to taste)

• 2 cloves garlic, minced

• 2-4 scallions, chopped, white & green parts

• 1-2 Tbsp. fresh ginger, minced (or 1/4 – 1/2 tsp. powdered ginger)

• 2 additional scallions, sliced, for garnish 

• 1-2 lemons, cut in wedges, for garnish 

Combine soy, vinegar, honey, garlic, ginger and scallions in a glass jar and shake. Place salmon in glass or ceramic dish. Pierce with fork. Spoon marinade to cover salmon, reserving remainder in the jar for later. Marinate 30 minutes. 

• Preheat oven to 450-500, moving rack to upper position.

• Prepare baking sheet with foil (easy cleanup) and spray with grill spray.

• Place salmon, skin side down, on baking sheet.

• Roast 10 minutes (for moist, luscious texture).

• Remove from oven and cool 5 minutes; remove skin.

Toss some peppery lettuce like arugula (or baby kale, an assortment of spring greens) with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Plate that, and top with fish. Using a clean spoon, sprinkle the reserved marinade from jar over the salmon and greens. Garnish with lemon wedges and scallions.

Accompany with Satish’s boiled potatoes, or with black japonica rice with mango, diced red onion, EVO, the zest and juice of fresh lime and orange, salt and pepper and chopped cilantro. Experiment!

This recipe has been a favorite among Kopkind “campers” in Vermont, where, until the pandemic, I had lovingly prepared summer meals since 2011. I think of myself as Kopkind’s culinary artist, but the art of the meal involves more than the balance of flavors, nutrients and visual pleasures. It has to do with the truest meaning of sustenance, a holding up of what’s needed to be fully alive. Andy Kopkind, The Nation’s brilliant political writer from the 1980s and early ’90s for whom Kopkind is a living memorial, could whip up a fragrant pesto as deftly as he delivered a canny pun in print. His kitchen table swirled with lively conversation, amusing banter; ideas were born there, for stories and projects.

Deep in the pandemic, when friends or family texted me photos of a dish they’d just made, I recalled the pictures and menus pasted in scrapbooks Andy and his partner, John Scagliotti, had made; the handwritten recipes left by their friends, some, like Alexander Cockburn’s chicken bastilla, complete with drawings; the digital images of dinners prepared by Dave Hall or me and memorialized by new generations of guests engaged in the political life of their communities.

From a Tree Frog scrapbook (original photo: John Scagliotti; page photo: Christopher Dawes)
From Tree Frog recipe book (photo: Christopher Dawes)

I will miss Vermont again this year, and look forward to summer 2022. Here, the fog is lifting as we begin to enjoy life again, whatever form that takes. Sujaya is back. Her surprise arrival relieved Satish of his dilemma over her homecoming dinner: bucatelli and meatballs? goat curry? 

As vaccinations progress, I am more hopeful. I liken our re-emergence to the arrival of Brood X, the cicadas that lived underground for 17 years and appeared in profusion in our town square in May. Each of us cracks our pandemic shell individually, at our own pace, and also together, quite similar to cicadas shedding their exoskeletons. Imagine if humans had the cicadas’ lifecycle. “Cicadas,” my amateur entomologist brother texted, “are here to eat, sing and find love during their short lives.” As we cautiously embrace what we hope is the post-pandemic era, find bits of joy through laughter, loved ones and all that can come from the deeply human art of cooking and sharing food. Bon Appétit!

Mary Lewis is closely involved in the political and social life of the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. As noted above, she has nourished Kopkinders with beautiful meals since 2011.

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

Bonus: Summertime … — a Picture Gallery

Since the subject this week is food, and it’s summer, our thoughts run to all the summers, the tastes and talk, the people and radical relaxation, that have made the magic at Tree Frog Farm. Here, some photos of summers past, as we look forward! (All photos of the scrapbook pages were taken by Christopher Dawes. Thank you, Chris!)

“Something delicious to eat!…” (photo: Alexander Cockburn)
Birthday feast (photo: John Scagliotti)
Mary Lewis presents lunch, Kopkind, August 2019 (photo: Susi Walsh)
Dave Hall presents shrimp! August 2017 (photo: Susi Walsh)
Cheers from Film Camp, Kopkind, August 2017
A dip at Green River and now on to dinner! Kopkind, July 2018 (photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)
Gregg DeChirico and Andy with fish from Weatherhead Hollow Pond (photo: John Scagliotti)
Angela Ards and Darnell Moore, pre-dinner games, Kopkind, July 2015 (photo: Taté Walker)
Make a wish, August (photo: John Scagliotti)
La dolce vita, Carla Murphy, Kopkind, July 2018 (photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)

Next week will feature the last installment of the Kopkind/Nation series, “Scenes From a Pandemic.” If you have been enjoying the series and would like to support Kopkind’s work of bringing people together for seminars, workshops, free public lectures, movies and more for summer 2022 and beyond, please click the DONATE button at the top of this site. Thank you!





Scenes From a Pandemic: 59

5 07 2021

by Bri M.

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

(photos: Prerna Sampat)

Maybe We Shouldn’t Go Back to Normal

Los Angeles

I have never been normal. As a black, disabled, trans person, my life exists on the margins of society. So when I hear people talking about “getting back to normal” I want to ask, What exactly are we expecting to return to as things continue to open up? Understandably, so many of us want to return to some semblance of what once was before the pandemic started. Normal, however, has always been a perilous reality for me. 

Normal birthed me, yet normal actively wants to extinguish me. My day-to-day life before the pandemic was marred by inaccessibility: a series of doctor’s appointments, unending piles of bills, the complex map of phone numbers to services I desperately needed. In New York City, where I used to reside, navigating life was extremely difficult. Many times I would stand at the bottom of a series of subway stairs, feeling frozen at the thought of not only the impending physical pain I would experience but the many layers of oppression I had to shoulder to get to where I needed to go. The stress of it all led me to move across the country to Los Angeles.    

In the early days of the pandemic, as a person with an autoimmune disorder that is treated with immunosuppressants, I feared the worst. If I got Covid, would I end up in a crowded emergency room (a place rife with medical trauma for me)? Would the virus trigger another relapse of my MS? I started quarantining a month before the official lockdown was ordered, feeling lost and confused about how the world was going to prepare for being isolated for an unknown amount of time.

Luckily, I am part of a community of brilliant people who know what it is like to live in isolation, who support one another and actively envision a world where everyone’s needs are accommodated. That’s not to say people weren’t also anxious. On social media, many feared that the needs of disabled people would come last, that we would watch our friends and loved ones die. As that very thing happened, I pleaded with others to do the minimum for our safety: just wear a mask and practice social distancing. Members of the community did the work of alerting people to our struggles, but it often felt as if we were screaming into the ether.   

In December, my partner and I were diagnosed with Covid. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although we meticulously took precautions, others did not. In the late fall and winter, Los Angeles became the US epicenter of the virus. Analysts said people had just got tired of being careful. We watched, incredulous, as the property management company’s electrician entered our apartment without a mask. I ended up with a mild case, and rested as the virus ran its course in my body. My partner was not so fortunate. She had all the typical symptoms: chills, fever, a loss of taste and smell. For days, she was nauseous; she vomited. I remember looking down at her on the bathroom floor one night—seeing my tall, usually vivacious caregiver the smallest she has ever been. For what seemed to be the first time, she was in need of physical support.  

Role reversals with my partner weren’t the only changes that rocked my world. As the virus wracked the country, and corporations and schools began adopting virtual spaces, I felt resentful thinking about the times I was unable to work because I was refused accommodations around my disability. I’ve been without a salaried job for seven years and receive government benefits. I long ago gave up on the idea of being conventionally employed. As with so many disabled people, that hasn’t stopped me from doing cultural work. Knowing that society deems us both dangerous and fraudulent, alternatively weak, needy and unworthy, has emboldened me to flip the script: to tell the rich stories of disabled people of color through my podcast, “Power Not Pity.” When doing that work, I feel I am never truly alone.

Yet the experience of the pandemic leaves me with a bitter question: Would I have been more employable if accessibility had been prioritized in the same way it is today? Virtual spaces are now more easily accessible because they have to be. It only took a pandemic to change the way we conduct accessible communication. It only took a pandemic to realize that our collective survival is wrapped up in societal change. Normal has always been controlled by the systems that keep my communities without the resources that we need to live and thrive. “Going back to normal” would mean going backward. As if on cue, just last week LA County registered its highest daily rate of Covid infection since May.

This pandemic has turned so many facets of my life on its head, and I can never look back and desire what was deemed societally important only a year and a half ago. Being sequestered at home gave me so many chances to be introspective. Like many people during this time, I began coming home to myself. I began to understand my own priorities and values as significant and non-negotiable. I came out as trans during this pandemic. I finally felt open enough to accept the language that described my spirit.  

I find myself bringing my whole self to everything I do more often. The pandemic has upended the meaning of authenticity in my life and has made me reconsider my own resilience in the face of hardship. I used to hide who I was, trying my hardest to fit into the boxes that systems of oppression savagely created. Now, I lead with my identities first. I am a podcaster. I am a disability justice advocate. I am a loyal community member and your favorite hype prince. I am very black and very trans. Every day I wake up and I choose to reimagine and shape what future worlds will look like. I don’t want a new normal; I want a new era.


Bri M. (pronouns: ze/zir) is a podcaster and political agitator with a fierce desire to change the way disabled people are regarded in mass media. As the executive producer of “Power Not Pity,” Bri has contributed to many conversations about disability, race and gender. Ze was the 2019 Stitcher Breakthrough Fellow, a 2019 Werk It! Festival presenter, and was featured at the Afros and Audio Festival 2020. Bri is and will always be a proud Jamaican-American, queer, nonbinary, disabled alien-prince from The Bronx. Ze was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp in 2018.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on June 30, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: Mmm…

Kopkind party table (photo: John Scagliotti)

Summer’s here, and the eating’s al fresco! Although we won’t be doing camps again this year ‘out of an abundance of caution’, watch this space for news of a Kopkind events-and-outdoor-barbecue weekend in late August. In the meantime, next up in our pandemic series with The Nation, Mary Lewis, who has been preparing beautiful food for Kopkind campers since 2011, writes about ‘The Art of the Meal’, complete with a fabulous recipe! Check it out at thenation.com on Wednesday, July 7, and on this site the following Monday, July 12.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 58

28 06 2021

by Divad Durant

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

Still image from the author’s film Goodnight Sun. (photo: Yera Dahora, iPhone timer)

Work in Progress

Or, Making a film together, alone, on two continents, in two languages, in a pandemic

Sunset Park, Brooklyn

Who hasn’t come to terms with their own mortality over the past year and a half? So many people had life-changing realizations. Like others, I made a decision based purely on impulse. I went back to school. I hated the idea, in a way. Don’t get me wrong; I left undergrad with a deep appreciation for learning but understood that education can’t be bounded within an academic institution. The pandemic shifted my perspective. I needed a safe space to learn. My job with the New York Fire Department allowed me to stay home with my family for longer stints as I attended school virtually. Most important, I had something to do besides worry. I entered the screenwriting track at CUNY’s Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema. I was processing what was happening in the world, and what was happening with me, and my family. And though communications about our works in progress were remote, I wasn’t alone.

February 22, 2021, 6:13 pm

Divad: I think the father should cry tears when he calms himself down. Not like happy tears or sad tears, more like repressed tears that have escaped. Like one or two tears.

Yera: I tend to think less is better in general. I think when we try to enhance, to point out that there is an emotion going on, it might kind of take the emotion out because the emotion is already there and it’s too much…

Divad: I was just thinking about masculinity and the performance of hiding emotion, but you’re right; the story makes that apparent in the last scene. There’s no reason to double down. I’ve also been listening to a lot of sad songs today, which may be influencing my judgment. [Insert: Kansas, “Dust in the Wind”]

Yera: Laughing out Loud with your depression song.

Yera Dahora is a talented director from São Paulo. For one of my classes, I wrote a short script that got thrown into a metaphorical hat from which first-year directors had to choose a story. Luckily, Yera chose mine.

[Insert: picture of the beach] Yera: Yes, you should be jealous that I am working on the beach.

Divad: You read my mind. I am jealous.

[Insert: picture of a mound of dirty snow] Divad: Greetings from New York.

Yera was based in Brazil and couldn’t travel to the United States. The film would be shot in Brazil, with Brazilian actors and crew. Almost all of our discussion took place via WhatsApp.

March 18, 2:41 pm

Yera: Things are tough in here. Really bad … we are not shooting on April 2 and 3. Lockdown is supposed to end on March 30 but they might extend it. We don’t know. The thing is, we can’t go on with preproduction while we are in the red phase in lockdown. We have to wait to get back to the yellow phase…. I don’t want to be pessimistic … we may not be able to shoot it within this term. On Friday I was like OMG OMG OMG lol, but in case we cannot do it this term we are going to do it, OK. Because I’m super into it, you’re super into it, the little girl [actor] is super into it, the cinematographer is super into it, the production designer is super into it. Everybody. The editor is super into it. He just read the script. So, we are going to do it. Eventually. I just don’t know if I’m going to do it in April, May, or maybe June, July…. So good news. But it’s bad news and good news at the same time. I don’t know what you think about it, but we’re going to do it.

I gave Yera the nickname Captain. She had control of the ship and was leading us to shore on the stormiest of nights. But before I received that message from her, I was a little shook. I had listened to harrowing reports on NPR. Doctors from Brazil spoke of the shortage of oxygen supplies. People with Covid were dying of asphyxiation. The new strain in Brazil was more contagious. I asked myself questions like, Is this right? Is it really possible to execute this safely? Am I the mayor from Jaws right now? We weren’t the only students experiencing setbacks. Scores of Feirstein students were not able to finish their thesis films. CUNY protocols enforced far more restrictions than film industry standards. All of the students experienced a collective anguish. From the outside looking in, these preoccupations seem kind of childish in the context of a pandemic. But creating art is more than just producing an object. I had a cathartic experience writing the script. The story was inspired by a conversation with my daughter—when I was trying to put her to sleep, and accidentally gave her an existential crisis while answering her questions about the universe. I called it Goodnight Sun.

FATHER: The star light we see comes from distant suns in galaxies far, far away.

OCTAVIA: Cool.

FATHER: Another cool thing is some of those suns no longer exist.

OCTAVIA: How do we see the light?

Back when I was starting to transform the story, I contracted Covid-19. During my recovery and isolation, I lost my aunt Hope Johnson. She had health issues from serving as a chaplain during 9/11; those health issues were exacerbated by quarantining. I had to wait several weeks to mourn with my family. I didn’t need more time to worry. I remembered that Hope and her twin sister, Janice, had borne witness to my transformation into fatherhood. Hope had always shared with me stories of her late father. My favorite was about how he made sure to let his daughters know there was no Santa Claus. “He wanted us to know that a black man bought these gifts,” Hope said, with a cackle. All of these things had been in my head and heart as I wrote.

March 28, 12:31 am

Yera: The governor has extended the lockdown period until April 11…. Two weeks ago we had about an average of 2,000 deaths per day and now we have nearly 4,000 deaths per day which is just crazy. But I’m rehearsing with the kid via Zoom. It is not ideal … but we are having a good time and she’s advancing.

Yera shared casting videos and pics. We talked through each tension in a scene. The script was translated into Portuguese. I worked with my friend Michi Osato, who helped me read through the translated version so that I could continue to share notes with Yera.

May 15, 11:09 pm

Michi: The father says, “You used the bathroom, right? I don’t want you to pee the bed from a tickle attack.” In the translation, it says, “I don’t want anyone peeing the bed.” I don’t know if it matters to you.

The film was finally shot. It is currently in post-production. Yera will be traveling to the US soon. My first year of grad school is over, and even as I rummage through WhatsApp messages, all of it feels unreal. What we managed to do together…

I told Yera that I felt like crying after seeing this.

Divad Durant is a father, partner, screenwriter/director, social media strategist, and a community organizer with Justice Committee. He’s currently obtaining his MFA at Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema at Brooklyn College/CUNY. To keep posted on the development of Goodnight Sun follow the film’s Instagram account, @goodnightsunfilm. Divad 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 June 23, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: Kopkind Alum Buffalo’s Likely Next Mayor

India Walton outside Buffalo City Hall (photo: Derek Gee for The Buffalo News)

Two years ago, India Walton was at Tree Frog Farm, a ‘camper’ in Kopkind’s summer session for political journalists and activists. The theme that summer was Democratizing the Economy, and India, deeply involved with organized sectors working to establish land trusts and permanent affordable housing in Buffalo, New York, came with the rest of that year’s crew to exchange ideas, learn from one another and experience the combination of intellectual stimulation and radical relaxation that are Kopkind’s hallmarks. On Tuesday, June 22, 2021, she made headlines all over the country and the world, upsetting Buffalo’s four-term incumbent mayor in the Democratic primary—a victory fueled by a plain-talking grassroots campaign, the combined experience of those organized sectors, the Working Families Party, the teachers union, 1199, DSA, a host of newer organizations and the considerable savvy and charisma of the candidate herself. Leader writers have been emphasizing the fact that India calls herself a socialist; more central to her victory, she is also a coalition builder, an organizer, a passionate advocate. This was a low-turnout election won by retail politics. There’s an old saw in politics that never dulls: ‘People want to be asked for their vote.’ India and her team asked and got their voters out. With a mind-boggling combination of arrogance and error, the incumbent mayor did not. (He’s thinking about doing that now, contemplating a write-in campaign being encouraged by an unalluring claque.) Neither the Republicans nor any independents will be on the November ballot, so India is on the cusp of becoming the first woman to lead the Queen City. See indiawalton.com for more. Go India!





Scenes From a Pandemic: 57

21 06 2021

by Malkia Devich-Cyril

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

(photos: Naomi Ishisaka)

Loss Runs Like a River Through My Life

Oakland

Dedicated to my mother, Janet Cyril; my wife, Alana Devich-Cyril, my aunts Sandy and Marion, my godsister Kafi, my Uncle Tony, my cousins Javana, Njuzi and BJ; my friends Margo, Sia, Art, Yulanda, Elandria, Lana, Rahwa; and all those lost but here, unnamed.

Before the bodies overflowed the morgues and required trucks to house our dead, before the ventilator shortages and the mask of vulnerable witness worn by journalists and medical professionals alike, loss ran like a river through my life. It wasn’t just my young adult experience of watching my mother die from sickle cell anemia or, thirteen years later, holding my beloved wife in my arms as she died, at 42, from cancer. It wasn’t just that the pandemic struck only one year after Alana’s death, and one month after I left my organizational role of twenty years as founder and director of the Youth Media Council and MediaJustice. It wasn’t even that in the eighteen months before the Covid-19 virus became one of the ten deadliest pandemics in history, I had somehow weathered the death of seven close friends and family members, with another five dead during 2020, not one from Covid. No, it was about so much more than my dead alone.

It was the fact that before the pandemic ever hit, complex and long-term bereavement resulting from a pattern of premature and traumatic death was already an utterly routine experience for the 46.8 million people who identified as black in the 2019 census. As the pandemic heightened the overlapping crises of resurgent white nationalism, unfettered police violence and the discriminatory distribution of climate disaster impacts, it also split open a vein deep in our collective body politic to reveal a truth black folks have been living with for generations: grief is endemic to the black experience in America, and the effects of living inside a shared context of grief, one in which loss is not simply an experience but a mechanism of racial disadvantage, are often disregarded. The injury is profound—socially, economically, culturally; it can accelerate your own death.

In the pandemic, we have started to talk more about it. One bright afternoon during quarantine, when I finally tired of my failed attempts to cut my own hair, my barber and I claimed the back porch to fade me up. As usual, we got to talking politics. We got to talking about feeling pressed and violated from every direction. As he readied to leave, the conversation turned toward grief. I asked how he felt. Many things from the past year are hazy, but I remember how he shook his head, slowly, and said, “Bottom line, there really ain’t no justice for us.”

There’s no justice in the fact that in April 2020, a month into lockdown, 70 percent of the deceased in Louisiana were black; or that, nationally, black, Native and Pacific Islander Americans have suffered the greatest per capita death tolls. Black people were up to four times more likely to die from the disease, when adjusted for age. For every death to Covid or related complications, at least nine additional people are affected. Nearly one in three black Americans knows someone who has died. Grief could jeopardize black health for years to come. Yet now, in 2021, as we attempt to stem the wave of Covid deaths, disinformation targets black communities, exploiting our long history with medical racism by comparing lifesaving vaccines to eugenics atrocities, such as forced sterilization. Despite our disproportionate deaths, we’re told to reject science, medicine and journalism and to embrace conspiracy theories.

Covid aside, black people are exceptionally acquainted with death. By the time we turn 60, we are 90 percent more likely than our white counterparts to experience at least four deaths of family members. By age 10, according to one study, black children born in the United States were three times more likely than white children to have lost their mothers and twice as likely to have lost their fathers. Debra Umberson’s research concludes that “exposure to death is a unique source of adversity for black Americans that contributes to lifelong racial inequality.”

Malkia (left) embraced at Alana’s memorial by Lateefah Simon, also widowed by cancer.

My pandemic experience has taught me that our collective grief is a morbid symptom of racial capitalism; that the mechanisms of grief’s racial disadvantage are structural, widespread and historic; that deep in our living bones we know that when it comes to grief’s unequal racial burden, there can be no comfort without connection, no relief without reparations, no healing without justice. It also pushed me to move closer to the hollowed-out loneliness of the grief that had become my familiar, to welcome the shadow I couldn’t shake instead of running from it.

In February 2020, when news of the pandemic spread across the country, my wife’s death was so fresh, one year gone; I could still smell her life in our silent apartment. I already knew how the internet could connect people. Our wedding had been livestreamed. Our renewal of vows and Alana’s last time outside were broadcast on Facebook Live. So was her funeral. I knew from the two years that we had spent fighting for her life that the internet could provide isolation’s antidote. That it could democratize care. That it had helped me survive the death of the person I loved most in the world. I turned to it again.

At first obsessively, my fingers and eyes hunted for facts, for deaths, for escape, protection, something. Then I got more intentional. Sitting in the room where Alana died, my silver laptop open and glowing, I remembered how the internet had joined us to a beloved community. To my right, atop the dresser we bought to hold Alana’s hospice supplies, was the altar that held her sparkling red slippers, her ashes, the corsage she gave me on our wedding day. To my left, a wall of family photos, mine and hers. Ours. It was there, suspended in mid-life, six feet from everything I loved, that I decided the internet would help me negotiate survival through the current of black death and resulting collective grief that seemed to shock every community Covid touched.

With the light fading, I upgraded my Zoom account and created a weekly series that would later be known as Pandemic Joy. The third Sunday in March 2020 was our first meeting, just a few squares of people I trusted and loved.

I acknowledge that the internet can be indecipherable to those who haven’t committed themselves to its study; scary and unmerciful when unregulated and unrestrained. On one hand, I experience it as this amorphous place with no definite rules or rights. It is, in a particular light, a brutal place where my black activist self, my black queer self, our many black selves, are frequently doxxed, harassed and discriminated against; a place where my dignity has been violated, and all the data that comes with me exposed or exploited for profit. As an avid user, especially of social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, etc., I am, in some ways, a digital resident without citizenship in an invisible nation without democracy, owned by distant corporations and some of the richest people in the world.

And yet, less than a month after the pandemic went viral, there I was, at a kitchen table littered with unread books, my hands a poised arc above my laptop, rocking and clapping on a Sunday morning. Singing. What do you know about how a heavy song can lighten a load? My ancestors knew it: homegrown work songs torn from the diaphragm, pushed like a breath from the throat. And there it was, a song bleeding from the mic of my headphones. A red river of music refusing to clot. A melody bled out over computer speakers, across a video platform. And we were somehow together, pandemic survivors, quarantined and huddled each around our own bright screens. Despite the contradictions and dangers, in the chaos of those early days of confinement, we used an often-unaffordable internet to find ourselves and sing—defying the isolation called in by contagion and state neglect. We moved, as escapees often do, through troubled terrain to arrive at one another.

Despite a media ecosystem that drowns us in information but denies us insight, despite the fact that one in three African Americans and latinx people still doesn’t have home access to computer technology, the internet opened a channel through which hidden bereavement was transformed into a visible public health crisis. But to amplify our collective voice, we need the work of organizations: like MediaJustice, Free Press and others in the Change the Terms Coalition that confront Facebook’s failure to restrain violent white supremacists. Like Oakland’s Anti Police-Terror Project, whose livestreamed car caravan protests helped transform our grief into grievance. Like Marked by COVID, which uses social media to lift up the faces of our dead and hold the state accountable. We need the powerful leadership of Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, which create space for us to mobilize collective loss into collective action.

Quarantined, we sang together, we cried, we remembered. Using digital apps, I created a socially distant swim team, launched online grief groups, an online Freedom Cleanse. This creativity, wielding what cultural tools are on hand in simultaneous service to grief and freedom, is part of a lineage of black radical resilience. Just as enslaved Africans once went to the “meeting place” to build community and plan rebellions, we found our pandemic meeting places. The internet, the one I spent decades fighting for, helped accompany me in loss and to turn toward grief, and turn grief toward life.

Malkia Devich-Cyril is an award-winning activist, a writer, and a public speaker on the issues of digital rights, narrative power, black liberation and collective grief. Devich-Cyril, now a senior fellow at MediaJustice and the organization’s founding executive director, was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp in 2002.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on June 16, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: Oh, ‘Tis Love, ‘Tis Love …

Costume Ball, Berlin (detail), Jeanne Mammen, one of many depictions of the lives and loves of queer women made by the artist before she was banned by the Nazis and much of her work destroyed.

As we near the close of June and the fifty-second anniversary of the Stonewall Riot, which began June 28, 1969, we celebrate not just the pioneers and present-day activists of the modern lgbtq freedom movement but all those who for all time, in all parts of the world, followed their heart’s same-sex desire. Here, below, a few clips from John Scagliotti’s wonderful film Before Homosexuals: From Ancient Times to Victorian Crimes, a prequel to Before Stonewall. For more information about the film, to arrange educational or other screenings and to view the trailer, click here. (Because these clips are high resolution, you may have to pause for a bit after pressing play to allow for buffering.) And now, the clips!

Click here: on Astypalaia’s ancient erotic graffiti.

(photo: Helen Smith)

Click here: on lesbian love spells in ancient Rome.

Still from Before Homosexuals.

Click here: on Florence and the verb ‘to Florence’.

‘I don’t think we’re in Florence anymore’: John with fig-leafed replica of David in Reno, Nevada (photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)