Scenes From a Pandemic: 30

26 10 2020

by Nadia Maria Mohamed

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

(photo: Nadia Maria Mohamed)

Something’s Happening Here

Jersey City, New Jersey

Our diasporic family lives between three places, at least figuratively: the United States, Ecuador, and Egypt. Ecuador was hit hardest by the pandemic in regions where migrants had returned home from Spain, bringing the virus with them. Images of dead bodies deserted in the streets of Guayaquil made my mom’s anxiety about Covid-19 soar. For weeks, my parents would not even walk Pechochito, their feisty Pomeranian, around the block. And so, I did what any loving (and newly unemployed) first-generation daughter would do: I took care of their grocery shopping and their business; I became an interim landlord.

When I collect the rent at their walk-up buildings in the Heights, I use my staccato Spanglish and the smattering of Arabic phrases I am likely butchering. I try to make small talk with the tenants. How are they doing? Some are willing to chat, others not. Not everyone wears a mask when they hand me cash, which I am terrible at counting. Sometimes they look at my gloves with a smirk. Can they see the uneasy smile that’s hidden behind my mask? Does it show in my eyes? Does it matter?

My first day on the job, a tenant I’ll call Eduardo told me he could pay April but likely not May, and from there, who knows? He lost his job at a local restaurant, and his wife, a few months pregnant with their first child, had also been laid off. When he handed me a wad of cash—singles, 20s, a few 50s to count—I asked him first if they had enough for food. He assured me they did, for now.

* * *

My parents met while learning English in the 1970s, beneficiaries of the 1965 Hart-Cellars Act, which lifted longstanding racist quotas on emigration from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. My Ecuadorian mom swore my Egyptian dad was Puerto Rican and too proud to speak Spanish, while he thought she was Filipina. He worked as a busboy at Knickerbocker restaurant; she, as a secretary at a ribbon factory. Barely 20 years old, they married secretly within a few months’ time, much to my abuelita’s chagrin. They managed to learn a second language together without sharing a first. And over 40-plus years built a family, and a few small businesses—between, around, and through those pregnant pauses anyone using a second language knows well.


My immigrant parents started out with a greasy spoon restaurant, Our Place, which would be hurting in this crisis. Now they are landlords to small businesses like it, and to the people who work in them — a step (or staircase) removed from the front line of this economic crisis, but a part of it no less. Since Covid hit, it’s been my job to collect the rent.


Our Place was one of those businesses, a greasy spoon that never knew the luxury of a separation between work and home life. Regular customers like Ralph and Neil would scoop up my siblings from school and walk them to the back of the restaurant, where I entertained myself in a makeshift playpen while my parents served up generously portioned meals for $5 or less. Our Place would be hurting in this crisis. The response of local and federal governments to protect the small immigrant-run businesses that are the lifeblood of Jersey City has been anemic. Many have closed permanently.

Now, we are the landlords of those small businesses, a step (or staircase) removed from the front line of this economic crisis, but a part of it no less. My parents became landlords after experiencing the powerlessness of being displaced tenants. A new landlord didn’t renew the lease to their restaurant, a coffee shop in New York City called Straw Place, on 23rd and Lexington. They never wanted to be in the “pocket” of a landlord again—so they became one, eventually, where it was more within their means: Jersey City. There’s empathy that comes from similar lived experiences. It informs how my parents have handled the peculiar profession of owning and managing the property where other people make their homes and livelihoods.

* * *

Eduardo started working again. His wife—call her Amelia—is due any day now. She mentioned that Christ Hospital, which is within walking distance, is no longer accepting maternity patients because of Covid concerns. She said she’ll have to go to the Medical Center instead. I gave her my phone number in case she needs a ride.

Some of our tenants are essential workers at tiny produce shops. Others have been on Section 8 or disability as long as they’ve been our tenants, and the pandemic has yet to affect their ability to make rent. Others are furloughed or, worse, unemployed. Not all are eligible for government support.

For those who’ve had trouble making rent, we’ve set up payment plans. Some people have used their security deposits; and are set to pay that back, little by little. Others are getting by with help from their family or friends. Thus far, everyone has been managing with this piecemeal solution to a systemic problem. And if it at some point it stops “working,” it means that we can’t pay our insurance, property repairs, taxes, or incomes.

* * *

My father may sell one of the buildings. The other day he led interested parties up the long narrow stairway, leaning on his cane for support. Nearly every tenant opened the door and exchanged niceties with him, but they refused to allow the prospective owner in.

Sometimes, my dad is direct about his desire for me to take over the family business. Before the pandemic, I had never seriously considered it. I had preferred to observe, to make films, to protest, to write and fundraise for social justice nonprofits imagining alternatives to the rat race that is late-stage racial capitalism. That’s how we make change, right? By raising awareness? I had never considered myself to be a responsible party, an agent, someone to be held to account. Yet, what becomes more possible when we bring ourselves into the frame?

Arundhati Roy urges us to understand the pandemic as a “portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” Families at the front line of this crisis are taking urgent direct action to protect themselves and their loved ones by organizing rent strikes and occupying vacant homes. The calls to cancel the rent continue.

As Jersey City edges further toward the unaffordable, violent blandness synonymous with gentrification by the Trumps and Kushners of real estate, it is the mom-and-pop landlords who, at their discretion, keep the city vaguely affordable for working-class immigrants and people of color. Systemic solutions to the speculative market and displacement, like community land trusts, are sorely needed.

Now, I wonder: for those of us with a modicum of privilege and power, what’s our place, our cross-class contribution to opening this “pandemic portal”? Which “dead ideas” will we try to shoehorn through? What new can we grow in the shell of the old? Can we apply the imagination we often only talk about, and usher in a new phase in our relationship to land and ownership? What can we make of our labor and legacy?

Nadia Maria Mohamed is a Jersey City–born and –based media maker. She participated in Kopkind’s 2019 camp on the theme of democratizing the economy. This is her first published article.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared October 21, 2020, on The Nation’s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Photograph From West Virginia God Is on the Ballot

(photo: Tina Burns)

Mary Lewis, who has been Kopkind’s chef, creating beautiful meals for most of our summer sessions since 2011, sent us the picture above, which a friend took, of an ad that covered a full page of their local newspaper in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Mary’s next message, a day later, reported that someone had unlatched her front gate, stolen her oppositional political sign, and smashed her fall tableau pumpkin.

Martinsburg, Berkeley County, is in the state’s eastern panhandle. Across the river from Wheeling, on the western border, is Ohio, where shifting politics and demographics inspired this interesting pre-election analysis from our friends at Working-Class Perspectives.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 29

19 10 2020

by JoAnn Wypijewski

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

(photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)

Buffalo, New York

In memory, my Aunt Dolor is a big woman. Big hair, big sunglasses, big jewelry, big bold colors, with geometric shapes in the 1960s and ’70s especially, when our families saw each other most. Her husband, my mother’s brother, called her Doll.

We buried her this week. She came to an ordinary end in this now-ordinary time: sick from Covid-19 in a nursing home, alone and aged, with a disintegrating mind, transferred to a hospital, dead within hours. We can’t know what she really knew of her circumstances or condition in the lead-up; whether she understood the peril of the time or recognized her youngest daughter waving from the car when she looked out her window; whether she registered, on her last day, that it was this daughter’s voice coming from the space-suited figure whose gloved hand held hers in the hospital as she expired.

Everyone has heard this story countless times since the pandemic descended. I have heard it countless times, usually without the gloved hand, the small mercy of this particular death, which came too late to be included in the latest Covid data reported by nursing homes to the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network: 58,481 residents dead as of September 27; 245,912 confirmed cases; 141,744 suspected cases. It becomes terribly familiar after seven full months, this raking of the old, the infirm, the enfeebled—about 8,354 nursing home deaths from the virus every month since March.

Naturally, perspective shifts when the number being contemplated is one.


Since my aunt’s death, I have thought about all the women whose work is not recognized, and who themselves are socially invisible in nursing homes, counted in bulk as “vulnerable populations” or “victims of the virus”—as if they had never labored to produce a generation, loved difficult men (or women), invented themselves when the space for that was narrow.


My aunt came of age when a woman’s ordinary destiny was marriage and children. And so she married, and so she had children. And moved to the suburbs, to a ranch house with a reinforced and well-equipped fallout shelter. The children had a collie and a big back yard, and then one of them died.

He was her youngest, her only son, 8 years old. They laid him out in his white communion suit. His skull was fractured when a car plowed into the side of his father’s Buick, and the child’s head was dashed against the inside frame of the backseat. I think it was a Buick. My uncle and the oldest daughter were in the hospital in traction with broken femurs for months without proper healing. Then they had surgery and body casts, and lay for weeks in rented hospital beds set up facing each other in the family room.

And there was Aunt Dolor suddenly in charge, laden with grief and the needs of two who were incapacitated, striving to be cheerful for them, nursing them once home, cooking and cleaning and dreaming up treats, comforting the other child, the little girl who was scared and sad and who decades later would be with her as she ran out of breath. A child myself at the time, riveted by death and injury in the family, I didn’t fully appreciate all that this cost my aunt. She bore it with an often comic sense of fate, as she did her own multiplying health problems as the years progressed, reaching for joy in the service of love, making “a life of abundance every day,” as her granddaughter said—“Grandma Doll.”

Dolor, Dolores; the name means ‘sorrow.’

Since her death, I have thought about all the women whose work is not recognized in “Those We’ve Lost” newspaper features. Women who spent down their hours home-making, as it used to be called, and who themselves are socially invisible now that they are 80 or 90 or more, in nursing homes, counted in bulk as “vulnerable populations” or “victims of the virus”—as if they had never labored to produce a generation, loved difficult men (or women), cared for aged relatives, mourned a child lost or mutilated, invented recipes and entertainments, invented themselves when the space for that was narrow, had their hand on history’s wheel simply by being.

It isn’t death that’s so terrible; it’s the eclipse of the courage and creativity of living. “At least she didn’t suffer,” people have said, learning that my aunt died within hours of reaching the hospital. It’s what people often say about death, shortchanging the immense undertaking of life.

JoAnn Wypijewski is a co-founder and president of the board of Kopkind. Her book What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life was published earlier this year.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on October 14, 2020, on The Nation’s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: If You’re Wondering About QAnon, Wonder No More

Jeff Sharlet, a terrific journalist and author who has been a mentor at Kopkind (2005), guest speaker, friend and supporter, has just published a riveting story in Vanity Fair about Trumpism’s transition to belief that pedophiliac cannibals are trying to control America. Below the beginning, excerpted.

(photo: Gregory Halpern/Magnum Photos, detail)

She saw shadows. She always had. She was spiritual, not Christian—she’d left that behind when she’d left Waco, in her early 20s. She got into Wicca, “super witchy,” says a friend. “She was fun, happy, a little wild. Just a normal girl.” I’ll call her Evelyn, because she’s in a sense a hostage now, a captive of her beliefs. There are Evelyns everywhere. This Evelyn was in Austin. She worked when she could, sometimes she danced, stripped. She had a boyfriend who took care of her. She’d never had much luck holding on to a job. She’d bounce back and forth between her family in Waco and her friends in the city, right to left, red to blue. She was bright—a good listener, says one friend, a liberal lawyer whom Evelyn called “freedom fighter.” She was gullible, says another friend, the one who introduced Evelyn to QAnon not long into the pandemic, “for shits and giggles.”

Which is how Evelyn came to believe that the shadows she’d seen within Wicca as the nuances of life were actually the satanic forces that Q—thought by devotees to be a government insider “dropping” cryptic clues via chat forums about Donald Trump’s decades-old plan to destroy the deep state—believes control the Democratic Party. She “followed the white rabbit,” as QAnon believers put it, she “went down the rabbit hole.” 

Click here to read on: “How QAnon Crept Into the Mind of Donald Trump and Turned Conspiracy Into Reality”.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 28

14 10 2020

by Matthew Gossage

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

Matthew Gossage with his new baby. (photo: Abby Batko-Taylor)

Something’s Happening Here

On the Road, Austin to Metro DC

Before. “Nope. You’ve now just infected your other clean hand with germs,” my wife’s OB/GYN dryly instructed. She then put on her own latex gloves and demonstrated how to put them on and take them off while keeping your hands sterile.

We were in my wife and newborn son’s hospital room the day after his birth, on Leap Day, February 29. CNN, muted on the TV above us, was showing the same three b-roll shots of ambulances in front of a nursing home in King County, Washington, outside of Seattle; over and over again.

My wife had given birth to our son a week before all hospitals in Austin closed to visitors. I had been able to be in the delivery room and attempt to sleep in their room with them. Our doctors were on daily calls about the pandemic and preparing for it: Get ready. This is going to be serious.

“Yeah, you should probably just stay home and not leave the house,” the OB/GYN recommended in her usual inconclusively sarcastic tone, which previously had always been reassuring.

Three days later, people at the supermarket glanced at my purple latex gloves, not wanting to make eye contact afterward. He’s brought the germs. Or maybe my hands were simply another reminder that unforeseen change was coming. Ordinary life was unraveling. Or fleeting.

There were no reported cases yet in Austin. Yet the sense was It’s coming…

It was 3 AM, and the grocery store was busier than a Saturday afternoon. Going to the store at that hour had always been so relaxing for me. I had been able to take my time, getting stoned beforehand and going slowly through the aisles. This night carts were everywhere. Family members and college roommates yelled at one another across other carts.

“They got baked beans.”

“Yeah! Get ’em all.”

Freshly printed signs from the customer service desk were Scotch-taped to some shelves: Limit 2.

I had a detached perspective, still ecstatic over the healthy birth of our second son.

No diapers. OK.

No wipes. OK.

My family had entered a nurturing and joyous bubble that was about to overlap with a global and collective bubble of sickness, hundreds of thousands of deaths, a foreseeable yet unstoppable economic depression, disruption, and anxiety.

I strolled down the aisles away from the shelves that formerly held canned goods and pasta and toilet paper, and tried out the produce section. I crossed paths with a fellow bemused middle-aged man, and we shared a smile.

“Time to get creative,” I said as we both looked on a large shelf with nothing but cucumbers.

* * *

(photo: Matthew Gossage)

The composting toilet got here! Another brown box had arrived on our porch.

Months into the pandemic now, I felt I should be getting an honorary mention from Jeff Bezos for doing my part to get him to $200 billion in wealth. (I know he’s been busy, so a Christmas card would be fine.)

I opened the Luggable Loo ® box and put the portable toilet in our “Front of moving truck” pile in our moving staging area. It shared a plastic bin with gloves, hand sanitizer, wipes, and granola bars, so it wouldn’t get mixed up with our stuff that would be packed into the back of the moving truck.

We were leaving Austin after 15 years, moving outside Washington, D.C., to be close to family who could help with our domestic chaos, which had yet to become normalized. To minimize “sharing germs” (as our oldest son, a 4-year-old, understood this new world), we planned our driving route to avoid going inside, anywhere.

* * *

Well, there are some unintended benefits to this now. Somewhere between Texarkana and Little Rock, this crossed my mind as I sat with my pants down at my ankles, using our new toilet in an empty parking lot behind a permanently closed Mexican restaurant: There are a lot of closed businesses now to privately take a shit outside of.

I am not alone in finding time on the john to be one of the more relaxing and thought-provoking daily activities. (In this case, the john is a seat on a bucket, with a bag, which you seal and then keep in the bucket until it can be disposed.) It was an unseasonably cool afternoon. A thunderstorm had passed, and I watched as a portly raccoon stumbled out of the dumpster across the lot from me. Maybe the place had just closed…

The swirl of recent events went through my head again on that toilet outside the restaurant. A new healthy son, a global pandemic, shutdowns, working from home with no day care for our oldest son, a cross-country move with no one helping, so my wife and I could try to stay healthy and be able to take care of young children.

After I had my turn on the toilet, it was my wife’s turn, and I took over holding the baby. I thought of the people we knew and worked with in Austin who had had Covid-19 already. A young woman with two children had just come out of a fever that kept her on the couch for days. Her oldest son is 12, and had been taking care of the baby while the mom lay prostrate. He kissed his mother on her forehead when she got up for the first time. “I thought you were dying,” he told her through tears.

I kissed my son’s forehead, then his cheeks, knees, and belly, I said to him, “Well, I knew we were heading for interesting times,” before handing him back, packing up the Luggable Loo®, and buckling up for the drive.

Matthew Gossage is a documentary filmmaker and media consultant to nonprofits. He participated in Kopkind’s camp for journalists and activists in 2013, and in the Kopkind/CID Film Camp workshop in 2009.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on October 7, 2020, on The Nation’s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Love Song…

Anyone who wasn’t paying close attention might have missed that 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the success of the womens suffrage movement. ‘Oh, you know, Covid…’ somehow doesn’t feel satisfactory as an explanation for the diminishment. Patty Carpenter and Verandah Porche, our friends and neighbors in Guilford, Vermont, have written a new song called Precious Right (Vote).” They call it a love song for voters and a musical appeal to people who feel disenfranchised, not included, or alienated from the electoral system.They ask you to share it as widely as possible.

Precious Right (Vote)




Scenes From a Pandemic: 27

5 10 2020

by James E. Garcia

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

(photo: James E. Garcia)

Something’s Happening Here

Phoenix

In 2010, after the passage of the most punitive anti-immigrant law in the nation, Arizona Senate Bill 1070, I stood up at a meeting of mostly white community and business leaders and angrily lamented: “My people are being hunted.” No one in the room said a word, but I’m sure most knew it was true.

The lead sponsor of that infamous “show us your papers” bill, then–State Senate President Russell Pearce, the self-described head of the Arizona’s Tea Party Republicans, had made it clear that no matter how many immigrant families were terrorized and separated or how much it cost the state’s economy, which relied heavily on the cheap labor of undocumented immigrants, he was determined to get as many of my immigrant brothers and sisters as possible deported and as soon as possible. My wife and I are US citizens, but the insidious nature of the legislation hit home when my 7-year-old daughter, near tears, asked me one evening if we were going to be arrested. I held her and assured her that was not going to happen, though I knew tens of thousands of immigrant parents statewide could not say the same.

A lot has changed in 10 years. Arizona’s SB 1070 and the Trump administration’s persecution of immigrants and refugees have inspired a wave of grassroots resistance here and nationwide that’s helped elect more progressives to Congress and will likely turn Arizona blue in November. But for the time being at least, my people are still being hunted by federal immigration authorities and complicit local police—and now a deadly coronavirus.


In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, about 50 percent of the 141,000-plus Covid cases have been among Latinos. In Phoenix, almost every city block of our Latino neighborhoods, could be dotted with shrines for the sick and the dead.


As of this writing, more than 42,000 Latinos have died of Covid-19, perishing at a rate one and a half times that of whites, according to the COVID Tracking Project. More than 39,000 black people have died of the coronavirus—at an even worse rate, nearly two and a half times that of whites. Latinos and blacks are hospitalized with the virus more than four and a half times times as often as whites, and both communities have been crushed by the pandemic’s economic fallout. Asked at press briefings in early April about the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on people of color, Trump called it “terrible,” insisted that his administration is “doing everything in our power to address this challenge,” and rambled on about how low unemployment rates were for blacks and Latinos before the pandemic. Over the past five months, the president has pushed to keep low-wage-earning Latinos in agriculture, the restaurant and hotel industry, and in meatpacking plants nationwide on the job.

In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, about 50 percent of the 141,000-plus Covid cases have been among Latinos. (We make up 31 percent of the county population.) In Phoenix, almost every city block of our Latino neighborhoods, could be dotted with shrines for the sick and the dead.

All this comes in a national context, also, of a spike in bias crimes against Latinos in recent years, according to FBI data. The most heinous example of anti-Latino hate came in August 2019 when a white supremacist gunned down 46 people at an El Paso Walmart. The shooter killed 22 people, almost all Latinos. (A 23d victim died in April.) The killer, who confessed, told police he had driven 10 hours from his Dallas suburb to the border to “kill Mexicans” and stop “the Hispanic invasion”—echoing words President Trump had repeated more than 20 times in the eight months leading up to the shooting. El Paso left me feeling that Latinos had gone from being hunted to massacred. Little did we know a scourge was looming just around the corner.

Given Trump’s punishing attacks on immigrants, including a policy that separated thousands of migrant children from their parents, a shutdown of all asylum requests by refugees at the US-Mexico border, and the likelihood that the president’s woefully negligent response to the pandemic will lead to the deaths of another 80,000 to 90,000 people of color by January, I can’t help wondering if Trump’s real goal is to ethnically cleanse Latinos and other people of color from this country. After his repeated refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election, I believe Trump is capable of almost anything.

Still, I believe Trump will lose re-election. His core supporters will stick with him, but most Americans have had their fill of the president’s chaos, bullying, and chicanery. He won’t go quietly, and he certainly won’t shut up once he’s out, but this presidency will end. And despite all that’s happened, the caging of our children, the denigration of our culture, the horrendous death toll wreaked by the virus, I believe the Latino community will emerge stronger than ever from these devastating times.

The community’s spirit, resilience, and its more recent momentum in US society is too strong and deeply rooted. There are now more than 60 million Latinos in the United States, nearly 80 percent of whom are US citizens, with an estimated economic impact of more than $2.6 trillion, a figure equal to the GDP of Brazil or Australia. This year, more than 32 million Latinos will be eligible to vote, an increase of about 4 million people since the last election, and grassroots groups have been working feverishly to register hundreds of thousands of them by November. More importantly, Latinos today are better educated, more politically engaged and influential than ever before. So, no matter what Trump and many of his followers may think, we’re here to stay. In Arizona, our growing clout helped recall Senator Pearce, oust the odious Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and elect Senator Kirsten Sinema in 2016. The state’s blue wave, which is being driven in great part by a rising brown tide, will almost certainly help usher in victories in November for Democratic US Senate candidate Mark Kelly, former vice president Joe Biden, and a wave of young Democratic Latino and non-Latino candidates in the state legislature. I’m not a Democrat, but trends like these give me hope, which we all so desperately need, that mi gente, my people, could soon go from being hunted to helping lead this state and, yes, this country out of one of its darkest periods in modern times to better days.

James E. Garcia is a journalist and playwright based in Phoenix. He was a mentor at Kopkind in 2013.

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

Bonus: A Glimpse of 7th Grade

(illustration: Lorena Mondragón, for The Intercept)

Debbie Nathan, an El Paso-based journalist who wrote #1 in our pandemic series, has been virtually accompanying a 12-year-old refugee while the child struggles with online learning in an apartment by herself, often supervising another Latina child, 8, whose mother also works and who has her own school computer with headphones. Génnezys, a pseudonym, is one of the thousands of children who were torn from their parents in 2018 under the Trump administration’s family separation policy and ultimately reunited. What follow are excerpts from Debbie’s observation of pandemic-era middle school, published in The Intercept on October 4. Debbie was a mentor with James Garcia in 2013.

“Know that I see you. I hear you. I’m with you,” one young teacher intoned to the kids right after introducing herself. They had names like Hassan, Rasheeda, Yennifer, and Travis. “Black Lives Matter,” the teacher added. She was met by silence from her new students, and she could not see their reactions either. She asked them to turn on their mics and cameras, but getting them to comply was harder than pulling their teeth.

The kids are alone. They have no books. The only class that resembles normal school is math. As in times past, the teacher writes figures on a board and explains what they mean. The other classes are a mishmash of hyperactive YouTube science videos with men who speak too fast, and a woman with a white coat and test tubes performing experiments — work the students normally would be absorbed with in a classroom lab, but which they can only stare at now from afar, wall-eyed. An art class features hip-hop music, whose teaching intention is muddled, and digital choose-and-drag stickers and emojis. Strange, sci-fi cartoon people in Génnezys’s American History class purport to recount the high points of the antebellum human bondage, the Civil War, and the Black Codes. After that lesson, I asked Génnezys if she understood what a slave was. She still didn’t know — though she did remember the cartoon guy saying that a man named Frederick Douglass had been forcibly separated from his mother. She knew what that meant, from firsthand experience, but didn’t mention it in class. With me, she minimized her experience. She’d learned that Frederick Douglass was an infant when he was taken. “But, um, I was 10 when it happened,” she said. “I was a big kid, not a little kid.”

On the second day of school, a teacher asked, “What is your favorite thing to do?” Amid the mass silence, Génnezys activated her mic and bravely answered: “Play with slime,” she said. . . . “Slime” is a faddish kid product that’s been around since the 1970s. Back then, it was valued by boys for its gross-out appeal. Now it’s prettier, smells nice, and is all the rage among preteen and teen girls. Many make it from a home recipe involving glue, borax, food coloring, and plastic beads from craft stores like Michael’s. . . . “I love YouTube slime videos,” Génnezys told me. The site has a plethora of young girls extolling their slime collections, as well productions with sexy women’s voices doing ASMR routines, and images of long, manicured fingernails digging languorously into the goo. . . . If Génnezys were to activate her camera for her classmates and teachers, they might see her furiously and endlessly twisting, pulling, and punching her strange doughs as she fidgets at the computer and tries hard to do her schoolwork. A few months ago, Wired magazine interviewed a neuroscientist and psychologist who suggested that people might be gravitating toward slime during the Covid-19 crisis to simulate the feeling of touching actual people.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 26

28 09 2020

by a New Orleans Plague Pod

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

Something’s Happening Here

New Orleans

We have stepped into the gap of the state, because the state would kill us. There is no benevolent daddy! Although Benevolent Daddy would be an excellent drag name.

Aesha RasheedNew Orleans / Bulbancha

In March, just after Mayor Latoya Cantrell issued a stay-at-home order, Aesha Rasheed convened the first Zoom call among members of eight households who have formed a mutual-aid pod. In part, this is modeled on hurricane evacuation resource share groups that have existed here for years. The group does not meet in physical space. We live in multigenerational, blended family households, work in essential services, have deep friendships outside this configuration, own small businesses, are immuno-compromised, etc. What follows are extracts drawn from Zoom check-in calls on the new and full moon, interviews, and a WhatsApp group thread.

The place we begin is constantly shifting land, shifting waterlines, change, cyclical upheavals. We come from people who have moved and/or been moved. The lies of permanence that colonialism tried to feed us we choke on, spit out. The pod was born in songs, storms, newsrooms, prayers, dyke bars, DIY Mardi Gras krewes, and dark moon rituals. We are many streams converging. We are queers migrating to be in community. We are a community formed in relationship to shifting ecologies. There is no model; we are able to meet our own needs.

Aesha Rasheed: One of the threads of the origin of this pod is an awareness that change will come. We draw upon a hurricane disaster plan that acknowledges that historic forces of change would wash over our lives—into what is unknown. This is an avenue for putting into practice the ethos that nobody will be left behind.

Naima: Family potluck dinners on Wednesdays, introspective pod calls once a month, backyard hangs with our breasts out, telling stories of our queer youths, of our families, of our dreams…. With all of the uncertainty around time and space, and forward progress, our abundance house, our pod, held me together when I was stuck in my head, when I missed friends in Brooklyn or family in California. They were there to share their soaps, salads, breads, laughter, and stories, and it made everything feel a little less lonely.

Does anyone have a tall ladder and a way to transport it?
Our AC is acting up and I’m going to try to change the filter
and see if that helps.

(posted by Cherry)

Kris has a ladder

(posted by Steeby)

Akua: Reciprocity as daily ritual has held me together. Practicing exchange rather than transaction, trade rather than extraction, all with the ease of breathing. Oxygen in, carbon out: a need, an offering.

Steeby: We are an affiliated network of care. A channel that we can always tune into… It is organic, drawing from a default trust that comes from the particular configuration of our affiliations and a deep queer kinship.

Aesha: New Orleans is a broke city; everybody has a job and two hustles. People are figuring out how to get around the reality of capitalism because it’s not working for them. What lineage do we call in? The legacy of making it up, doing it for ourselves. We are building upon muscle memory of collective leadership and interdependence.

Costco call in. Holler by 9pm tonight if you want
anything from tomorrow’s Costco run. Also I am up for
splitting some fruits and veggies and other stuff,
hit me up!

(posted by Shana)

AH: It’s been helpful to have a structure for food resources and navigating this scary time. And I would like it to be more explicitly a political resource. I would be interested in how this will translate politically.

RC: This is a practice and possibility. Yes, sure, we can talk about the fall of capitalism and new emergences in broad terms. But then there is the human reality of what we do in the moment. This is the fluid, psychic, and literal connection with y’all. Praxis meets flesh on the other side of the screen.

Shana: On a personal level the pod has offset natural tendencies of self-isolation both logistically and emotionally. Our Zoom calls have been a mix of: collective prayer/ritual, fun silly games, check-ins, and logistics. In this way we speak of what we want to use our force for together…

Roses and watermelon, an offering at the tomb of the unnamed slave at St. Augustine Church in Treme

Hi friends! I’m excited about our virtual gathering
this week for full moon in Scorpio!
Shall we gather Wednesday evening at our usual 9pm time?
As a reminder, we are gonna discuss the question Akua
posed on the new moon: What are a few values you hope
we will practice together this summer?
N
**Read “this summer” as a summer of Global Pandemic plus
Hurricane Evacuation 1.0
aka Visions for Collective Navigation of “the Waters”

(reposted by Ron)

Ron: The pod experience is a window into envisioning what we need without police, without the system. At the root: dreaming; make ‘the system’ obsolete; a network of care and support. I have felt supported in the midst of collapse. I haven’t had to go to the grocery store. Our conversations have been thoughtful and explicit. I’m not usually a “hope person”—I can see what is possible!

Hurricane Prep June 4 ACTIONS:
Gas up cars, go bags, cash stacked, people checked on!
By Friday night: Drop addresses and info
for gathering places—evac and safety spots. phone numbers.
emergency contacts.
Print this out on Saturday!
Altar work tomorrow night with
full moon and a lunar eclipse.
Harness energy for visions we want.

(posted by Aesha, as Tropical Storm Cristobal was heading to New Orleans)

Kris: The structure of the pod radiates out. It has been a grounding space and a spiritual resource.

Kara: Alongside the pod, these texts have sustained me: Development Drowned and Reborn: The Blues and Bourbon Restorations in Post-Katrina New Orleans, by Clyde Woods; The Yellow House, by Sarah Broom; Marking Time Making Place: An Essential Chronology of Blacks in New Orleans since 1718, by James B. Borders IV, ed.; Roadside Geology of Louisiana, by Darwin Spearing; Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor.

Selma: A spell for this moment—or my invitation for dreaming together—draws from an Islamic prayer. Any time I’m washing my hands my intention is to cleanse all irritations and invite them to go down the drain. I’ve done that while washing my hands for 20 seconds—y’know, to get off the physical germs; and understanding that the virus of corona is fear, I would like to cleanse those vibrations off as well. So I speak into a drain—may this water be a healing water. Speak what you want into the water. You have to build trust with the water.

Sarah: I have gratitude for being woven into something that already existed before my participation. Friendships and relationships have been fragmented and disjointed through Covid. It’s a community of abundance and visioning.

Aesha: What is survival? Something about the surrender. The Hopi prayer says: Let go of the shore, flow to center, and then look to see who is around you. You can’t rely on the same things. Release attachment to outcome, and center joy.

Hey
C’mon
Come out
Wherever you are
We need to have this here meeting
At this tree
Ain’ even been
Planted
Yet
—June Jordan

(posted by Steeby)

This word collage by a New Orleans Plague Pod was initiated by kara lynch, a media artist, educator, and collective practitioner who participated in Kopkind’s camp on democratizing the economy in 2019. The other main writers/editors are Rosana/RC Cruz, Abram Himelstein, Aesha Rasheed, and Elizabeth Steeby.

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





Scenes From a Pandemic: 25

21 09 2020

by Aja Beech

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

In the distance, La Bella Taína mural by Tameartz; painted by the TNS Krew—Tameartz, Desil, Imse, Busta, and Bark—at Sunflower Philly Community Park. (photo: Aja Beech)

Something’s Happening Here

Philadelphia

Philadelphia has always been my home. “Born and raised” is what we say.

I’d like to imagine that there is something about this area that has always acted as a magnet for cultural and social revolution. Our nation was partly born here. Over hundreds of years, there have been many moments of explosive clarity and solace in this city.

We are no strangers to armed revolt and violent government oppression. We also have more art and natural open space than most cities. Thousands of murals adorn walls, more than any city in the world, and two rivers run through it, the Schuylkill and the Delaware.

The area around the Delaware River is one of the largest estuaries in the United States, where many waters meet and funnel out into the sea—an environmental transition zone where, even now, there is sailing and shipbuilding along the waters.

The life of the city has changed during the pandemic. There are more murders; there are more overdoses; there is more death. There is also somehow more hope, more brotherly love, and sisterly affection.

It is dangerous to be near one another.

Yet still, we comfort those in need, we feed one another, we rely on one another. The importance of the connections we make every day anchor us to this place and to each other.

Philadelphia has always had its confines and places of refuge. Mine is the New Jersey shore. I know I’m luckier than most. Though we all live less than an hour’s drive from the beckoning shore of the Atlantic Ocean, some of my fellow Philadelphians will go their entire lives without setting foot on the beach.

In good years, I’ve gone to the ocean more than once. Floating in the saltwater, I am adrift, but at peace.

Once there was a time when boatloads of people came to our ports, looking upon this land after being out to sea for so long. That port became a destination of restaurants and newly designed piers. Now, some places are nearly abandoned while others thrive.

The same is true for the people. We must remake connection before any more get caught up in the currents and swept out to sea.

(photo: Aja Beech)

In the 1960s, Paul Robeson moved to Philadelphia. He was ill and came to live here in the care of his sister, Marian Forsythe, with whom he stayed in relative seclusion for the remainder of his life.

“Artists are the gatekeepers of truth.” Robeson once said. “We are civilization’s anchor. We are the compass for humanity and conscience.”

Last week, I was asked: What are you connected to? My answer was water, and the peace I feel floating.

Then I was asked: What is your anchor? I was not sure. Being held down with too much weight has never been enticing.

But I thought of Robeson’s meditation on art, and the words I use to set my place. And I thought of this city, the volatile fragility, the intense beauty. The place I have called home my entire life.

Stability has so often escaped me. Yet there is something that makes me feel as if, even in the depths, I have an anchor within me; as if I was always being prepared for where we all are right now, alone at sea, lighting up signals in the dark.

Aja Beech is an author and organizer. Her poetry, journalism, commentary, short stories, and other works can be found internationally. A mother of two, she currently works as the campaign coordinator for the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Labor 2020 program. Beech attended the Kopkind Colony in 2011. Her current work featuring labor organizing can be found at unionhall.aflcio.org/pennsylvania-afl-cio..

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

Bonus: Portraits of Fire

Salmon-colored sun and smoke, Beaver Creek, Oregon (photo: Jeffrey St. Clair)

Our friend Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of CounterPunch, wrote a striking diary from Oregon last week of life in a time of fires, illustrated with many more haunting photos. An extract of it is below.

We awoke to choking smoke on Thursday. I visited the evacuation center at the local community college a couple of miles from us, bringing coffee and pastries, and was surprised to see more than 500 people camped out, along with their animals: dogs, cats, horses, llamas, alpaca, two cows, ducks, chickens and several pigs. I returned home with the news that we needed to be ready to leave at any moment. Kimberly, Zen and the enfant terrible, packed a week’s worth of clothes, diapers, food and left for Astoria on the Oregon coast at the mouth of the Columbia River, about 110 miles away. My mission was to find the missing half-feral cat, Graymalkin, capture her and drug her or drug her and capture her or entice her into the house. And to find some way to edit and post weekend edition using my one bar of cell coverage as a hotspot and write my column. I spent most of the night working, under a glowing sky, with bonewhite ashes drifting on the porch, like the fatal snows of Judgment Day. Around three in the morning, I heard the imploring pleas of the cat at the backdoor.

Smoke on the water, Tongue Point (photo: Jeffrey St. Clair)

For the full CounterPunch column, click here.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 24

15 09 2020

by Nathan Schneider

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

University of Colorado urges students to “Be a Buff” and be safe, as mascot welcomes students back to school. (photo: CU Boulder Today)

Something’s Happening Here

Boulder, Colorado

The call to action my generation received, during our first moment of inflection, was to get back to business. I was in my last year of high school on September 11, 2001, when an airliner slammed into the Pentagon a few miles away. Later that month, while visiting O’Hare International Airport, President George W. Bush implored the American people to “do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.”

Don’t soul-search or undertake shared sacrifice. Don’t learn Arabic or better under-stand the wider world. Take a picture with Mickey Mouse, where Jeb Bush was governor. To someone young and looking to find a calling and a purpose, such leadership was crushing. It was an invitation to waste the best energy of youth.

In 2006, as President Bush’s delusional wars in Afghanistan and Iraq raged on, he told us much the same thing: “I encourage you all to go shopping more.”

Back to shopping, back to school—we are there once again.


As after 9/11, another generation of youth at a moment of inflection is being encouraged to get back to business. We ought to be teaching a different lesson, one that addresses students as “moral beings rather than desiring consumers.”


I teach at the University of Colorado now, and my students are coming of age in another moment of inflection. They are entering adulthood during a pandemic, an economic collapse, and a historic uprising for justice. What calls to action have they received?

The virus, their president told them, is no cause for change: “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.” That was in February. He said everything would be back to normal by April. Trump’s delusions exceed those of his predecessor. But I don’t want to focus on presidents any more than they deserve, for they are not the only ones teaching the young.

I have had delusions of my own. Until the very last minute, I thought I could still make it to long-planned engagements in Europe in late February. I let myself believe the assurances that, somehow, our kids would be impervious to the virus at school. I keep imagining I can go back to business as usual.

Now my university is opening again, behind plastic shields and face masks. Students are repopulating the dorms and roving around town in partially masked flocks. Since we receive only an infinitesimal part of our budget from the state, we’re told, institutional survival requires business as usual. I am refreshing an old syllabus. Vast bureaucratic expertise has gone into establishing the fiction that such a thing is reasonable, that we can continue to provide the experience that students and their families are paying so much for. Perhaps, if we taught a different lesson, we could.

Earlier in the summer, a group of my colleagues published an open letter arguing that the return to campus would be not only a medical danger but also poor pedagogy. “It is the responsibility of the leadership to tell them,” these professors wrote, “to put public health first, and not to make false promises about a meaningful on-campus experience, when health and lives are on the line.” I didn’t sign. I was still waiting and seeing.

NYU anthropologist Angela Zito has diagnosed higher education’s failure of imagination especially pointedly:

Colleges missed the chance to directly address our students as moral beings rather than desiring consumers, and invite them to join us in a time of grieving perseverance in order to save ourselves together. Will never get over that. Intend to teach that way myself.

She reminds me of two lines from a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson. At some old colleges, these lines are carved into monuments to students killed in the Great War (and, surely, the concurrent influenza pandemic):

’Tis man’s perdition to be safe,
When for the truth he ought to die.

As a student at Brown University, I walked by those words almost daily, hearing their call to sacrifice in grating opposition to what President Bush was asking of us at the time. The words themselves invert Angela Zito’s lament: “man” rather than all of us together; an adventure of death as opposed to the struggle for collective safety. Yet Zito and Emerson are united in their embrace of a morality that embraces non-normal times, that invites the young to take history upon themselves and act in it—not merely for the sake of approximating their earlier expectations but in order to raise their expectations and live lives that mean something.

Can we teachers “address our students as moral beings” behind the institutional pretense (and masks and screens) of normal education delivery? As Zito says, we need to grieve. Then we can get down to the non-normal work of reshaping our world out of this cataclysm.

I hope my students will hear the call to put their best selves into this moment. It’s their time. Those who most want to rush back to normal are probably those who most fear the opportunity for change that the young now have before them.

Nathan Schneider is a journalist and assistant professor in media studies. He is the author, most recently of Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition That Is Shaping the Next Economy. His current project is an exploration of models for democratic ownership and governance for online platforms and protocols. He is founder of the Media Enterprise Design Lab. In 2012 he helped organize Kopkind’s camp focused on the aftermath of Occupy.

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

Bonus: Grief in Philadelphia

(photo: Aja Beech)

Before writing her dispatch for “Scenes From a Pandemic,” Aja Beech walked her neighborhood of Philadelphia, taking pictures. This one was among the many she sent our way. Her piece will appear at The Nation on Wednesday and here next week.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 23

7 09 2020

by Laura Flanders

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

The author interviews a local farmer using a social distancing selfie stick. (photo: Sabrina Artel)

Something’s Happening Here

Sullivan County, New York

It’s a myth that people in small-town America know one another. I’ve had a cabin in this place for 30 years and never knew that a foie gras factory sits high above Ferndale, a hamlet I’ve driven through hundreds of times. I found out one sunny Sunday this spring, when 40 flag-festooned cars filed up to La Belle Farm past blooming forsythia and a white-picket-fenced farmhouse, part of an appreciation drive for farm and factory workers.

The drive kicked off at Murray’s Chickens, a packing plant 15 minutes away in South Fallsburg, and weaved through a housing project where workers and their kids smiled and waved, sprawling out onto concrete stoops in the spring warmth as we honked our horns.

No one waved in Ferndale. Not a soul could be seen. Only row after row of workers’ trailers, exposed on a hilltop, perpendicular to an enormous, low, windowless barn. When New York City banned the sale of foie gras, a few years ago, no one stopped this place or nearby Hudson Valley Foie Gras from force-feeding and slaughtering enough ducks, ducklings, and geese to make these the nation’s premier producers of the sickening pâté. Who knew?

* * *

We left Manhattan and drove up here in March. A pocket of hanging-on farms, scrubby woods, and defunct hotels, Sullivan Valley is neither Hudson Valley rich nor Delaware Valley airy. From its heyday as the Catskills’ famous Borscht Belt in the 1950s, it is home now to 75,000 souls in winter. Social distance comes with the territory. As the snow fell late and wet, and lines at the supermarket got better organized, it was possible to imagine that nothing new was coming, not spring or Covid-19.

The novel coronavirus came quietly to the country, prowling the backroads of poor health, poor health care, lack of attention and clout. Facts took time to come into focus, as inconspicuous places with tucked-away poultry plants started showing up in county statistics, followed by obscure villages fronting off-road meat packers and down-by-the river dairy processors.

By late April, people were realizing that, just like the city, their patch of country was powered by a pool of poorly paid, poorly documented, mostly latinx and black workers. Some were dead, and more were falling sick.

Thirty-eight-year-old Luz (not her real name) worked in a cold, crowded factory wrapping luncheon meat around cheese sticks for sale at deli counters around the country. Twenty-five workers toiled bunched up at three tables, and ate together at mealtimes. She learned about the virus through the Internet, then on Facebook, and didn’t believe it posed a threat here. All spring, Luz kept working. Still, she’d undress as soon as she returned home and shower before greeting her children.

“She went nowhere, just from her job to home; home to Walmart or ShopRite to get what we needed; then home again,” explained teenage Marisol, speaking on Zoom from the home her mother forbade her to leave.

Then a co-worker died. Luz left work that day and hasn’t been back: “How could they do such a thing, to not tell us what’s happening?”

* * *

Two months into the lockdown in Manhattan, Sullivan County had the highest positive test rate, and the most new cases per capita, in New York State.

Ad from Sullivan County’s Silver Age (1890-1915) of therapeutic tourism. (image: John Conway/The River Reporter)

The county’s public health director, Nancy McGraw, raised concerns about farm and factory workers at her weekly briefings, which were face-timed on a press officer’s cell phone. Local media picked up the story, and with bad broadband and little elbow room, activists got busy.

By early May, Rotary clubs were delivering food to essential workers, piling station wagons full of Monticello’s famous bagels in the morning and cooked meals from grateful restaurants at night. At the entrance to the senior care center in Liberty, nurses put on superhero costumes to greet a rain-drenched solidarity drive-by. Nurses thanking drivers, drivers thanking nurses, everyone getting wet.

Meanwhile, Juanita Sarmiento and members of the Rural and Migrant Ministry set up signs at the entrance to Murray’s Chickens: FREE MASKS. Across from the bank and the kosher butchers, they handed out boxloads of protective masks to blue-apron-clad workers at shift change.

“We could have seen it coming. I saw it coming,” says Sarmiento, a former biology student.

“What’s coming into its own is new leadership,” purrs Sandy Oxford through a red chili-pepper face mask. Director of the Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation, Oxford joined Sarmiento at Murray’s one Friday to support workers and berate the bosses: “If the workers have all the masks they need, why are they rushing over here to get more?”

* * *

Crowds rallied for black lives in June: half a dozen on the bridge in Narrowsburg; several hundred in Monticello, demanding release of prisoners from the town’s ancient jail.

Notice for June 21 Black Lives Matter rally in Roscoe.

In Roscoe, at the foot of Catskill State Park, the Black Lives Matter rally took place on Railway Avenue, a broad, empty block, home of the Trout Town Inn.

Organizer Ashlee Perez straddled a wooden ranch fence to be seen. “Yes, we have racism here in Roscoe,” she told the mostly white, mostly young group of protesters. Along with half a dozen other African Americans, she told her neighbors about their town—about school bullies, bureaucratic bigots, absurd arrests, and too-many-to-count traffic stops, about silence and threats.

The group clustered around two vintage train carriages, a perky red caboose, and a long, sea green “trout car,” reminders of the railway platform that once occupied this block. One hundred years ago, people in long dresses and high hats, mostly white, mostly Christian, spilled off the trains of the O & W line, drawn by Roscoe’s fish and fresh air. Only the train cars and the trout remain.

The future will look different, says Perez. Demographics demand it. “But right now, people like me aren’t going to want to stay here.” Waving her arms for balance, Perez seemed to gesture down the invisible tracks. “This place is going to have to change.”

* * *

I have seen every day of spring and summer here for the first time. I’ve discovered that those trout, millions of them, were city transplants, shipped from Long Island hatcheries in the 1880s and ’90s. They rode the rails as people did. From the crowded city, many people came with tuberculosis, seeking fresh air, a cure, relief.

For 30 years, Sullivan County boomed. That was its Silver Age. It ended in the 1920s, when people began to understand that human contact could spread disease.

One red hot Saturday in July, strolling down a long former track, now a wheelchair-accessible walkway, with county historian John Conway, I learned more. TB killed the passenger trains, an entire network of spidery rail lines that had brought generations of city-dwellers north. But TB also brought a Jewish immigrant and his family here, seeking escape from city smog and anti-Semitism. The Grossingers bought a failing farm at a bargain price and helped usher in Sullivan County’s next big boom, its Golden Age. Grossingers Catskill Resort Hotel had 35 buildings, its own airport, and a post office until it closed, in 1986.

Ruins of Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel (photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

What’s coming next? Connection or contagion? Coming together or coming apart? History surprises, but it doesn’t predict.

Laura Flanders was a Kopkind mentor in 2018 and 2019. She is the host of The Laura Flanders Show, a TV and radio program which for years has covered the people and places other media miss. As of September 6, The Laura Flanders Show is broadcast every Sunday at 11:30 AM ET on the World Channel and on more than 90 PBS stations across the week. Check local listings. If your station isn’t airing The Laura Flanders Show, contact them! For information: lauraflanders.org.

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

Bonus: Remembrance of Summer Past

Behind the waterfall at Green River in Guilford, Taté Walker (Kopkind 2015) and JoAnn Wypijewski. Taté, a writer, photographer and activist, contributed ‘Scenes From a Pandemic: 6’ in May. (photo: Taté Walker)

We look forward to the return of Kopkind summer in 2021.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 22

31 08 2020

by Kristin R. Pak/ 이영숙

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

Government–supplied provisions for any person in quarantine in South Korea because of Covid-19. (photo: Joey Weinman / Courtesy)

Something’s Happening Here

Seoul

Masks have always been common in Korea. People wear loose ones to avoid tanning their faces or to cover makeup-less mugs. Instead of calling in sick with a cold, they are expected to work with a mask to protect their coworkers. Terrible air pollution prompts about half the people to wear masks, and since antiquity, masks have come out every spring, when the Gobi Desert blankets east Asia with fine sand during Yellow Dust Season. Since the onset of the pandemic, masks have been mandated on all public transportation, including taxis, in Seoul and its suburbs. Nearly everyone complies, with drivers and other riders reminding maskless passengers of the requirement. No one takes violent offense; people are always in your business in Korea. Until late August, following a right-wing rally that caused a spike in infections, masks weren’t mandated here in most other settings. It was largely unnecessary, since almost everyone already wears them, although some establishments had posted signs requiring them.

This past spring, after returning to Seoul from a visit to New York, I’d sit with friends in restaurants and parks discussing reports from the United States about mask fury and toilet paper hoarding and fights over hand sanitizer. Although Korea was “on pause,” we never locked down like US cities. After the crisis began in Daegu, with a member of a secretive Christian church who was a “super spreader,” the government response here and the public’s trust in that response made the difference.


Masks are commonplace. Test results within 24 hours are the only acceptable standard. Everyone in quarantine receives government provisions, including non-citizens. People accept contact tracing because it’s in everyone’s interest — and, we love drinking and socializing with friends.


Besides long-established mask wearing, other aspects of Korean culture and history helped contain Covid-19. The 2015 MERS outbreak had put disaster plans in place, and also activated a sense of solidarity among Koreans. As during the 1997 IMF crisis, when faced with existential threats, Koreans shift from competitiveness to a “together we can overcome” approach. Furthermore, as the national and local governments’ policies proved effective, public trust in the official response soared. In April elections, the incumbent party won by a landslide.

In May, Korea fell out of the top 10 countries worst hit by the virus. By the end of July, we were ranked number 74, with six deaths per million. In contrast, the United States was number one, with 465 deaths per million. While the US had about 70,000 new cases per day, here we’d get panicky if 60 arose. By August, US fatalities exceeded 170,000; in Korea the dead number just over 300. Even with the great difference in population, there’s no comparison.

South Korea, historically in a highly paternalistic relationship with the United States, is not looking to the US to show the way anymore. In some scenarios, like the run-up to the November elections, the US should take cues from the ROK. Here, elections were held with an extended early voting period to curtail waiting and crowding. At polling stations, floor markings made social distancing easy, and both temperature monitoring and disposable gloves were provided. As a Korean American, I know that differences in cultural norms and values would make some of the other ways Koreans have stemmed the pandemic much harder to transfer to the US.

In addition to the two-week pause, involving intense social distancing, the government has tackled the pandemic aggressively with public education campaigns and extensive contact tracing. Text messages inform people about the routes newly diagnosed patients took for several days leading up to diagnosis. Anyone who had been in the same places as a confirmed patient can get tested for free. Testing centers have been set up across the country. True to the cliché of South Korea’s “hurry-up” culture, results within 24 hours by text message are the only acceptable standard.


South Korea isn’t looking to the US to show the way anymore.


People who test positive, or who have been in close contact with someone positive, are quarantined at home with provisions delivered to their door by the government: rice, ramen, Spam, masks, garbage bags for biohazard, water, vegetables, disinfectant, toilet paper. Those under quarantine are also assigned a case worker who checks in on them several times a day to monitor their mental health during isolation. This occurs regardless of the patient’s immigration or citizenship status. The government understands that the virus also disregards these legal distinctions. Such measures help residents who are threatened by disease feel that they haven’t been abandoned, plus it’s in everyone’s interest to contain the virus, even if it means extensive contact tracing.

Contact tracing uses smartphone GPS, security cameras, credit and bank card purchases, and transit card usage. (When a Covid cluster in a foreigner- and gay-friendly neighborhood was sensationalized by a right-wing Christian media outlet, some identifying information was not sent out anymore, like people’s age and citizenship, which could stigmatize foreigners.) Recently, people have been compelled to scan QR codes with their phones, thus sharing their contact information (name, phone number, address) when they enter an establishment that has been known to be the source of outbreak clusters like nightclubs, hostess bars, karaoke rooms, and churches.

Why do people tolerate such surveillance? In so densely populated a country, it’s impossible to do much without someone watching you, even more so in the Seoul metro area, where half of the country’s population lives. South Korea is the most cashless country in the world, and we aren’t going to start using cash again anytime soon. Some purchases are even done through contactless transactions using our phones, whose user agreements allow collection of data. Virtually everyone has a smartphone, and Koreans love convenience. The only thing Koreans love more is drinking and socializing with coworkers and friends, so the high-tech tracing is accepted. Finally, there is the necessary relationship between effective, trustworthy leadership and public commitment to the idea of a shared fight and a shared fate.

Kristin R. Pak/이영숙 has returned to live in Korea after immigrating to the United States. She co-founded and served as the policy director of Solidarity and Political Engagement of Adoptees in Korea (SPEAK), which educates society about the adoption industry to foster critical analysis with the aim of ending intercountry adoption. She is an English professor at Seokyeong University in Seoul. In the US, she had taught English to adult immigrants in New York. She was a Kopkind participant in 2013.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece appeared on thenation.com on August 26, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Poster From Vietnam

Ở nhà là yêu nước! (‘To stay at home is to love your country!’), Vietnam, 2020. (graphic: Hiep Le Duc)

“Vietnam, with a population of 100 million, has had no fatalities from COVID-19 as of early July,” write the authors of “CoronaShock and Socialism,” the third in a multi-part series of studies on international responses to the pandemic from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, directed by our friend Vijay Prashad. The whole report is fascinating and handsomely illustrated. An excerpt:

On March 30, … the [Vietnamese] government announced a national pandemic. The Ministry of Health posted a music video to explain the concept of physical distancing and hand washing; this video went viral on Tik Tok, where young people created a dance to go with it. The message was broadcast within days. Telecommunications firms – including private companies – sent three billion messages about COVID-19 to those with mobile phones. Masks were mandated in public and alcohol-based hand sanitisers were distributed and made available for sale everywhere. Schools and religious sites were all immediately closed.

The government directed public sector units to produce necessary equipment, including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and ventilators, as well as hand sanitizer and medicines. There was enough industrial capacity that could be directed to produce these goods without any concerns about price gouging, since these are public sector enterprises. On 8 April, the government of Vietnam sent 450,000 units of PPE to the United States in an act of solidarity.

Vietnam recorded its first Covid deaths on July 31. In total, 34 people have died there. The US death toll is 183,000.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 21

24 08 2020

by Aaron Talley

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

The author’s new middle school classroom (photo: Aaron Talley)

Something’s Happening Here

Chicago
Jamila had never officially been my student.

I’ll call her Jamila. In September 2017, she had marched into my classroom because she wanted to meet “the new black English teacher,” a rarity at my school, where the staff is predominately white, despite being on the South Side of Chicago in one of its “toughest” neighborhoods.

In my mind, she was ready for college. At the age of 16, she was already adept at making jokes about “toxic masculinity,” and already had a catalogue of her favorite black feminist poets. Over the course of the next three years, she and I held several discussions about family, her future, race, gender, and writing.

She was intentional about performing her existence as an act of defiance. She opted for bold short haircuts, wore oversize thrift store clothes, and was popular in school for her slam poetry. She was the type of student who gave you hope for the future. She was charming and bombastic, with a voice that you could hear long before you saw her.

And it’s beautiful to see a child grow via her relationship to art. In the 10th grade, she just wanted to share her poetry. Now in her senior year, she talked about the intention of her poems. These intentions began to bleed into her own decision making. Decisions like choosing to stay at home for college rather than going away. Or choosing whether to accept her mom’s discomfort with her gender performance. Once an angsty teenager full of complaints, she was growing into an assertive adult who made adult decisions. Like many teachers, I wanted to see her growth as a reflection of my own energy and attention as well. I felt that seeing her walk across the stage would be a culminating moment.

I didn’t imagine my last time seeing her would be as it was in June of 2020—she, riding alongside her mom in a small, bare brown car; me, masked, distant on the sidewalk alongside other teachers cheering at the car-parade graduation. Covid had led to Chicago Public Schools officially closing in mid-March, so it had been approximately three months since I had last heard from her, and in a rush of excitement I ran toward the car, thinking to myself that an “air high five” would be the best I could offer at that moment.

As I got midway to the car, her mother’s smiling face dissolved into a frown, and sense swarmed back into my brain. Why would you run toward the car during Covid? Of course, Mom doesn’t know you were just gonna give an air high five. I halted and threw my palms in the air, in a gesture that was now equal parts high five and surrender. Jamila threw hers up as well and smiled. I retreated to the sidewalk to continue cheering on the other graduating students. The brown car moved on.


This is what dystopia looks like. Nothing is clear-cut. No one has the answers. There are no real endings or beginnings, just a procession of limbos… It’s back-to-school, and remote learning.


It was gorgeous outside. It was the type of sunny that makes you aware of the silhouettes of the trees against the concrete. Despite being prepared to be sad, I found the car graduation to be a beautiful moment of innovation. Cars in procession, most accented with maroon and gold balloons and paint, or Class of 2020, or my students’ names spiraling along the windows. Amid the noise of celebration, my students looked out from the car windows, popped up through sunroofs, rode on the back of pickup trucks. What I had thought would be a bland substitute was a rather regal event. My students had turned their cars into chariots. Some soaked the moment in fully, with their shoulders erect, their hair flapping in the wind.

I left the graduation early. My car was parked on a crowded street, and I didn’t want to be trapped when the procession finished. Inwardly I was embarrassed for my earlier impulse, since there’s no room to be impulsive during a pandemic. When everything stops rather than finishes, you have no choice but to be intentional.

This month, Chicago Public Schools rolled back its idea of a “hybrid” model of schooling, a concept that had been initially announced with a tone of certainty that anyone actually working within CPS knew not to trust. In that model, students would’ve spent part of their time in remote learning and part of their time at school, with parents able to opt out of in-person learning altogether. I wonder about what exactly would have been hybridized, since this model would’ve had my time split between a computer screen and an ill-ventilated building, with students split six feet apart, with split resources, and split investment. And despite CPS’s deciding to go fully remote beginning September 8, because of the lack of clear direction I still feel split, like I’m still alone midway in that street between a frowning face and cheering.

I start every year teaching a unit on dystopia, where the joy is meant to be found in realizing how dystopic our society really is. The irony is palpable in this moment. In fictional dystopias, however, clarity is abundant. There is a clear social ill that plagues society, a clear sense of past and present, a clear enemy; and it’s clear when the revolution needs to happen. There is a beginning and an end. In a real-life dystopia, no one really has the answers, so there are no real endings or beginnings. Just a procession of limbos. In a real-life dystopia, apocalypse still hits, and sometimes it comes in a familiar form: an explosion, a natural disaster, or a revolution. Sometimes, the apocalypse is just an air high five instead of a hug. Nevertheless, you have to keep going.

I set up my new makeshift workspace in the corner of my living room. It consists of a small circular table sitting by the largest windows in the house. I prepare for the year. I think of my students. I reflect on what I want to do differently. I flirt with the idea of starting a YouTube channel. I brainstorm how to teach a novel over the computer. I groan at work e-mails. I worry, and then I don’t. And when I remember, I take a deep breath.

Aaron Talley, a writer, activist, facilitator, and educator, teaches middle school on Chicago’s South Side. His writing has been featured in various news outlets, including Colorlines, the Feminist Wire, The Advocate, Education Post, and Chicago South Side Weekly. An alumni of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Fellowship (VONA), he is currently pitching a speculative fiction novel for young adults. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @Talley_Marked and read more of his work on his blog Newer Negroes. Aaron was a participant in Kopkind’s 2015 political camp.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on August 19, 2020, on The Nation‘s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Remembering Andy & His Birthday

Andy and John Scagliotti, his life partner and the administrator of Kopkind (photo: Gregg DeChirico)

Andy Kopkind would have been 85 today, August 24. Andy contained multitudes: an extraordinary writer and thinker, with a radical politics, a gay sensibility, a perfect style, a seemingly boundless store of knowledge (and curiosity about what wasn’t known), he was also a consummate cook and gardener, a source of puns and fun. To anyone who experienced the joy of Andy’s birthday at Tree Frog Farm, the occasion is unforgettable—the convergence of people who came to celebrate, stayed for days, cooked great food (or just ate it), swam and danced, and talked about all things under the sun and stars.

So, a treat! A memento of Andy from a long-ago summer in Guilford, Vermont, when he played the Duchess in a community performance of Alice in Wonderland. Also featured in clips from this rough vintage home movie are John as the Brown Mouse, Verandah Porche (our neighbor and a Kopkind advisor) as the Caterpillar, our longtime friend Will Wilkins, and other members of the Monteverdi Players. (With thanks to our friend and Kopkind alum Christopher Dawes for editing this little montage.)

Please click on image above to watch video.

The convergences that marked Andy’s birthday inspired the Kopkind Colony. Covid-19 has prevented us from holding what would have been our 21st year of seminar/retreats, weeklong sessions in which political journalists and activists or documentary filmmakers share ideas and insights, eat well, revel in nature—think and breathe and recharge for the work ahead. For 21 weeks now, members of the extended Kopkind family have, instead, been sharing stories of this long suspended season. Scroll down through the Scenes and the Bonuses. Share this site with your friends. And, brother, sister, if you can spare a dime, please click on DONATE at the top of the page or click here. Thank you!