Scenes From a Pandemic: 13

30 06 2020

by Jewelle Gomez

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

(photo: D. Sabin)

Something’s Happening Here

Oakland

I am deeply urban. My shoes, clothes, eyeglasses, are all assembled with an understanding of how they relate to pavement, changeable weather, and the glare bouncing off city buildings. From Boston to New York City to San Francisco and Oakland, I’ve felt perfectly attuned to the cityscape. But with quarantine, everything went askew, as if I turned a corner into the Twilight Zone.

We’d lived in Oakland for only several months before I left in January for New York City, where my play about Alberta Hunter was enjoying a successful run—an engagement that ended just before the coronavirus landed with both feet in the US. I returned to Oakland as the city was gearing up for lockdown. I thought this would be fortuitous; I’d write endlessly, perhaps in all genres. We had masks. We had access to food. I could read books for unending hours and watch movies and television shows til dawn. The money we previously spent on eating out, going to plays and movies we’d donate to relief efforts.

I have friends who have been teetering on the edge not of armed rebellion but of despondency. I restricted myself to one broadcast news show, allowing my anxiety to be channeled through the erudite rantings of Rachel Maddow as I pondered who cut her hair. I felt a warm spark at seeing other people’s homes in Zoom interviews of political/medical/legal experts. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s vast freezer of ice cream! Stacey Abrams’ bookshelf with a copy of The Night Tiger, a novel I’d been on the verge of ordering! I felt connected to them.

I couldn’t, however, reconnect with myself. Inertia settled around me like the fog I’d left behind in San Francisco—I couldn’t see the pen in my hand in front of my face. Sunny weather filled my days as camelia blossoms burst forth in the backyard. Birds trilled safely as if they knew they could mesmerize our indoor cats.

But if I read for more than three hours my eyes went blurry. My back rebelled from sitting, although I was only halfway through 10 seasons of the British detective series Vera. Even with my totally non-green thumb I was rewarded by my verdant backyard, a profusion of calla lilies, birds of paradise, and the struggling fuchsia I’d rescued from a plastic bin bag. After dutifully watering, though, I couldn’t just sit and watch them grow.

Something was missing: the ebb and flow of traffic; voices and laughter when people walked by, and any number of sounds that had underscored my life in the city. I enjoy the click of a cricket as much as the next person, but the roll of tires slowing for the STOP sign at the corner had always been the click track of my life.

So, I retreated to the little cottage office in our backyard in search of my own rhythms. I fell into them almost by accident. I’ve been a longtime fan of the British radio soap opera “The Archers,” so I tuned in and was immediately soothed by various English accents, the evocation of a world continuing on. I couldn’t write anyway, so I used listening to the radio online as a time to clear out the boxes still cluttering my office since we’d moved. And here’s where I found what was missing.  

A fragment of history tumbling out of the author’s archive

In the little cottage, once I’d disposed of the recycling that we humans tend to box up and lug from home to home, I dove into a large box of photographs. There I was aged 9 in my tap-dancing costume; there was the past tumbling out: my youthful great grandmother; my best friend and I looking unbelievably dewy at our high school graduation; a group of feminist poets after a benefit reading; my first publisher and I when we were young enough to stand up all day at the American Booksellers Association; a clipping from the fight against the New York Times over its coverage of AIDS; and a kaleidoscope of handsome women with whom I’d been lovers over the previous 40 years.

Nancy Bereano, founder of Firebrand Books, and Jewelle at the American Booksellers Association

That was what had been missing—being deeply sunk into myself and a history that had always been sweet and dangerous, creatively rebellious and persistent in the face of grief and greed. I started to feel the heartbeat emerging from within. The city sounds, my natural (or learned) soundtrack, were really only the background, like elevator music. The faces and memories were pulses reconnecting me to the well of emotion and ideas that sparked my life and my writing. They were the jumpstart I had needed. 

The author’s great grandmother, Grace, 1897

Once the engine turned over, I figured out how to divide my day into past, present, and future. Now I spend some time continuing to organize old treasures whose roots in last century’s battles against oppression keep me upright. For the future I investigate what nonprofits could use my support to defeat voter suppression—again, as we did in the 1960s; or to find safe places for those without shelter; or gather food for out-of-work parents. (I also plan what to wear when I do return to those urban sounds, and finally get to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first gay liberation march on its 51st anniversary.) With the past and the future regular parts of my day, the now feels more compelling; change seems more possible. Now I’ll get back to my new play if it still wants me.

Jewelle Gomez is the author of The Gilda Stories, now in its 27th year in print and recently optioned for a TV miniseries. Her plays about James Baldwin and about Alberta Hunter have been produced on both coasts. She is a member of Kopkind’s honorary board.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared June 24, 2020, on The Nation site. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Letter From Peter Linebaugh (Archival)

On June 29 the Supreme Court declined to hear a death penalty case, thus allowing the government to proceed with the legalized killing of four men in July, the first federal executions in 17 years. What follows is an excerpt from a letter by Peter Linebaugh, written at another crossroads of epidemic, police violence and execution. The letter originally appeared in Socialist Review No. 177, July/August 1994. With thanks to the Socialist Review Archive.

Protesters in front of the Supreme Court, right before their arrest, 2017 (photo: JP Keenan/Sojourners)

When the state kills one person, it is preparing the killing of two. When it kills two, it is preparing the way to kill three. And with three, it prepares to get ready to kill many. Perhaps these changes are not arithmetic; perhaps they are geometric. Or perhaps they are without a mathematical pattern at all. But what is clear is that the death of one leads to the death of many by hook or by crook.

Those who favoured the Vietnam War argued by analogy with a line of upright dominoes. We may put forward a domino theory of the death penalty. One domino knocks over another, and then another and another in a clattering series of collapses, until none are left standing. The death penalty is the first domino. It is followed by another. This second domino might be, let us say, the more frequent informal shoot outs by the police. A third might be a public health disaster where certain populations are deliberately left to die. A fourth might be a massacre for purposes of terrorising a city or a region. A fifth might be the slow enervation of wage reductions and unemployment that inescapably leads to fatal wasting away. Life is devalued.

We might also compare the death penalty to the thin edge of a wedge. A small tap with the hammer is enough to lodge that thin edge into the thick section of the toughest tree trunk. Another blow of the hammer finds a space among the fibres, and a third blow widens it. Afterwards it is only a question of the number of blows from the sledge required to split the trunk in twain. The death of one leads to the death of many.

In Hitler’s Germany the Reichstag Fire Decree of 1933 imposing the death penalty led to others, like the Law for the Protection of German Blood, the Law on Dangerous Habitual Criminals, or the Decree on Asocial Elements which culminated in the death camps of the 1940s. The wedge widened, from the death of one, to a genocide, all in a decade.

Looking at the US states which have reinstituted the death penalty, can we not see that subsequent to the death penalty is the growth of other forms of social morbidity – gang violence, family violence, police violence, tuberculosis, AIDS?

The US Congress is about to make a mighty turn of the screw as it begins hearings on the expansion of the Federal Death Penalty. They are considering 50 new capital offences.

. . .

The state’s brief [in a case] at the Supreme Court of Connecticut … proposed a truly loathsome sentiment. ‘When we lose the collective “nerve” to act, however unpleasant the action required, we sow the seeds of anarchy.’ This notion is profoundly foul. It is the idea that lay behind President Clinton’s personal attendance upon the execution of Ricky Ray Rector in February 1992, and which prepared so directly his victory in the New Hampshire primaries. It is the notion of blood sacrifice. The politician must prove his readiness to kill. It is revolting in every possible way. It is the law of the tyrant; it is the practice of the bully.

Peter Linebaugh is a radical historian. His books include The London Hanged, The Many Headed Hydra and, most recently, Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He was a mentor at Kopkind in 2014 and a guest speaker in 2019.





Scenes From A Pandemic: 12

23 06 2020

by Scot Nakagawa

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

Kimchee & carnitas taco with crema; add cilantro and slivers of fresh pineapple, if you like. Mmm. (Photo: Jon Pollock)

Something’s Happening Here

Brooklyn

Quarantine has been a shock to our systems that will continue to reverberate in many ways. It has shocked me to mindfulness, especially about my consumer habits. I marvel at old restaurant receipts and wonder, how did I become the person who casually spent so much for this cocktail or that itty bitty plate of fried something or other? How did I come to discard aluminum foil after one use, to waste nourishing foods like broccoli stems or onion skins (great in stock, providing color and flavor), and toss perfectly good leftovers in the trash? Those who raised me would be appalled.

I grew up in Hawai’i on the edge of a sugar plantation in its declining years, the sweetheart trade deals cut between the US government and missionary agribusiness oligarchs  having finally expired. Life wasn’t exactly lux. We scraped by on what we cobbled up – hand-me-down clothes, bicycles built from spare parts, and home haircuts (scissors, bowl, one straight line around during the winter, a buzz cut in summertime). One of my older cousins, a family success story as a schoolteacher, would joke that if the little ones were lined up for a picture in front of my grandmother’s house, we could caption it “Save the Children” and make money placing an ad in the back of tabloid magazines. 

Only we didn’t need saving. We were never without the things we needed, especially food, and mainly because we took nothing for granted. We were mindful. Now, with anxiety rising all around, the memory of that kind of care has been a comfort, not to mention a means of stretching my shrinking bank account.

Among the many foods of the beloved poverty kitchen of my Hawai’i is kimchee, a staple eaten almost daily, even by children. Some people write it ‘kimchi.’ I do not. That spelling is derived from the Japanese kimuchi. Given Japan’s historical atrocities against Korea, I defer to Koreans about the transliteration of their national dish.


Food – cooking and sharing food – was a delight for Andy Kopkind, and has always been central to the experience of the Kopkind ‘camps’. Hard times are upon us, so here’s a recipe for economy and pleasure too!

Scot calls it Kimchee Out of Anything because read on!


This recipe isn’t traditional. My grandmother’s is lost to time and death. Making really traditional kimchee takes ingredients harder to find, and a lot more time and effort. Over years of living in the continental US, I pieced this together from tips gleaned from the internet and shared by friends. I find it totally satisfying. I use kimchee in the syncretic food tradition of Hawai’i, which is to say in lots of unconventional ways, fusing it with the cuisines of Puerto Rico, Portugal, the Philippines, Samoa, indigenous Hawai’i, Japan, China, and on across the diversity of cultures that make up the islands’ population. I suggest you do, too. My favorite is kimchee chopped up like coleslaw on Portuguese sweet rolls with mayo and spicy linguica or grilled teriyaki chicken thighs, deboned, of course. 

Kimchee is the easiest of all fermentation processes. The less familiar ingredients aren’t hard to find in Asian groceries or online; once purchased, they’re pantry basics. Western foodies embrace them for a reason – they’re delicious. Think of shrimp paste and fish sauce as umami bombs to make foods like packaged ramen or, seriously, cream soups taste new. 

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium Chinese cabbage (though see below, and use your imagination) 
  • 3 smallish daikon radishes, julienned
  • ½ cup green onions, julienned
  • ½ cup carrots, julienned
  • 2 Tbsp. salt (for curing the cabbage)
  • ½ cup superfine sugar (out of which, reserve one Tablespoon for preparing your cabbage)
  • 20 cloves garlic, grated
  • ½ cup fresh ginger, grated
  • ½ cup gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes) 
  • 1/3 cup fish sauce
  • 3 Tbsp. low-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tsp. bagoong (Filipino fermented shrimp paste)
  • 1 tsp. bagoong alamang (Filipino salted, preserved whole small shrimp)
  • 1 cup cold water

Cut the cabbage in half by length, and then again across by width into approximately 1½ -inch chunks. Toss with 2 tablespoons of salt and the 1 tablespoon of sugar in a large bowl. Put a weight on the cabbage (I nest a smaller bowl filled with fresh water inside of the bigger bowl, on top of the vegetable), wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap, and place it in the refrigerator or other cool place. Let it sit this way for an hour, or overnight if you like. 

While your cabbage is pickling (and weeping a lot of water), make the kimchee paste. Blast garlic, ginger, gochugaru, sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, and bagoong in a blender until well combined. Remove the paste from the blender to a bowl and add some water, a few tablespoons at a time and no more than a scant cup, until the paste is smooth, about the texture of a creamy salad dressing. 

Drain the cabbage of excess water; give it a squeeze to really get the water out. Then mix in the sliced radishes, carrots, and onion. Add the kimchee paste. Make sure you coat the cabbage well. Transfer to jars and refrigerate. Your kimchee will be ready in about two days, though it will be better in a week. 

I call this Kimchee Out of Anything because, to me, kimchee really can be made out of almost anything edible. Fruit, like green mangos, can make delicious kimchee. Even fresh or dried fish works. One favorite of my childhood is bacalao, or salt cod, rehydrated and then squeezed dry before being shredded and bathed in kimchee paste, then cured for a day or two. Don’t stop there. Chard (stems lightly blanched before being added to the greens), carrot tops minus the tough ribs, blanched cauliflower, cucumbers, and lots of other vegetables can be made into kimchee. The rule in my kitchen is if you have vegetables that look like they’re on their last legs, pickle or ferment them. Kimchee expands your eating possibilities, and your pleasure, too.

Scot Nakagawa is senior partner in Changelab, a national racial justice think/act lab, and is Race Forward’s senior fellow on nationalism, authoritarianism, and race. He was a mentor at Kopkind in both 2014 and 2017.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared June 17, 2020, on The Nation site. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Speaking of Pleasure & Hard Times, an Excerpt From JoAnn Wypijewski’s New Book

This month Verso published What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life, by Kopkind’s board president and program director. Here are some extracts from the book’s Prologue.

The little girls next door are playing school. The teacher barks, and the students get detention. There are so many ways to detention: being late, being wrong, being poor in math, wanting to be popular, “with your hair all fine and your nails painted and pretty clothes—I like pretty clothes and painted nails, too, but you aren’t all that.” The teacher threatens them all, “good or bad,” if they make her raise her voice again. She raises her voice. They are silent. She threatens to call their imaginary mothers. She threatens to take the imaginary money she’s been given to get them food. It is summer, hot, late afternoon. Detention is supposed to last four hours, three months, a year. A half hour, and the teacher flags. It’s not much of a game with one player. Okay, she announces, everyone can go to gymnastics. “Get in a line, class! No talking! Straight line!” The others obey. She arranges rolling garbage carts for them to jump off of onto the black-tar driveway. Happy shrieks conjure heaven for the first time, as a breeze comes up and an ice cream truck plays its wistful tune and a rat, which none of them sees, scuttles from one yard to the next. “Do it again,” the teacher shouts. “You. Are. In. Training!”

Let’s leave the little girls alone for now with their game, the meanings of which and the elaborate circuits of example, accommodation and rebellion it reflects are, in a sense, the pursuit of this book. I will return to them.

. . .

I didn’t start writing about sex to write about crime. Not all the pieces in this collection concern it, though many do. The first time I wrote on sex and culture, in an essay about Madonna, I was drawn to pleasure in the midst of danger, danger manifest physically in the AIDS epidemic and politically in persistent attacks on sexual freedom, sexual expression, homo- and other sexuality in the rule-breaking category. Desire is the subject there.

Pleasure—the possibilities for it, the absolute necessity of attention to it as part of any radical politics, the meaning of and conditions for it, the substance of intimate life—continues to be my interest. But sexual danger is at the fore in public discourse. Not since the height of the AIDS crisis has sex been so prominently welded to menace, except this period’s version of safe sex, rather than emerging from a community’s erotic sensibility, is a checklist of yes or no questions drafted to standardize consent and, primarily, to avoid legal action. Scandal, the context for many of the pieces here, has become the background noise of life, a thrum that’s stripped the word of its original meaning. Anticipating retribution enlivens people regardless of ideology, and has accelerated into ordinary, terrible fun. Mercy is the scandal now. Reason almost is. Eros is a suspect, and satisfaction in the humiliation of enemy-others is so everyday that as a culture we seem incapable of recognizing it as an extension of the violence we deplore. What we don’t talk about is the red thread running through this book. What are the reasons, what are the causes and complications beneath the roar of the crowd, the stories we think we all know? I don’t pretend to have exhausted such questions, and I still hold out for a future where we are not handmaids of punitive authority but authorities over our own bodies, pleasures and risks.

This brings me back to the little girls at the start, playing school. The games of children are typically symbolic tests of the limits of their authority and autonomy. Often, the games involve fear, indulging it as a way of displacing it, gaining mastery, discovering Ah, this is life despite real or imagined danger. That is why the games of children are frequently risky (and sometimes go terribly wrong) or are simply heart-racing, involving fantasies of witches and monsters. When I was a little girl, playing in the yard across the fence from where these new little girls were playing, my brother and I made a game with neighborhood kids which he called Come, Little Children. It was basically a game of tag, but we ratcheted up the thrill factor by making whoever was It a witch. The witch sang a weird little song, creepy and enticing—Come, little children, come, come, come…—accompanied by luring hand gestures and gyrations, trying to tempt the other children, lined up along a safe zone against the front of the garage, to step off and run for their lives, imaginatively speaking, either outwitting the witch to get to the next post of safety, or coming under Its thrall. This was in the 1960s, but it could have been centuries earlier, so traditional is the extraction of joy from the sensation of fear.

The little girls’ leaps from wheeled garbage bins onto the blacktop, and their peals of laughter, reflect this age-old practice of pleasure-seeking through defiance of fear. Their wild risk-taking, though, exploded in a context of repression. Training games are customary, the child’s Let’s pretend enacting grown-up behavior—preparing them for the world they will inherit while also rehearsing, in rough form, their relationship to authority. As Marina Warner shows in her fantastic book No Go the Bogeyman,the mimicry of such games is often madcap, comically exaggerated in the anarchic spirit of play, metaphorically robbing the authority figure of some of its power. The teacher in this game, the oldest of the bunch at maybe ten or eleven, did not seem to be poking fun at her model, and except for a few groans, the littler ones in detention did not challenge her—the whole exercise less an imaginative enactment than a reproduction of reality, as numerous schools have determined that what best suits working-class children are the regimens of prison. On first impression, then, this was a game of obedience, not autonomy. Yet the rigors of improvised gymnastics gave loft to the leader’s own dreams of performance even while intensifying her responsibilities. Instructing the smaller ones on discipline and technique as they prepared to leap, and leap again, protected them from injury and brought them joy in the afternoon. It could have gone otherwise, of course. There is nothing simple about play.


A little-boy violin player especially likes the “Ode to Joy.” It has been called a balm for things he doesn’t want: anxiety and nightmares, disabling grief over his father’s murder. As for what he wants… How much unarticulated desire is bundled in that choice? How long will he, will any children but especially boys, be allowed to be sensitive?


Long before any of us learn about sex, we learn about authority: our parents’ over us, the wider world’s over our parents, their response to that wider world’s power, and the costs of any yes or no. The game of school was one game by one group of little girls on one leafy afternoon on the hard side of a hardish town, what used to be the black and Polish East Side of Buffalo, New York, and is now the mostly black, latinx and Bangladeshi East Side. The girls appear to be loved, well cared for, polite, curious. I know almost nothing about their family’s relationship to the landlord, the tax man, the bill collector, the policeman, the boss or social service agent. I know that at a nearby health clinic, adults drop in to talk sometimes about the stigma of being from the East Side, which, as everyone plainly sees, the city’s leadership doesn’t know what to do with. In this particular neighborhood about half the people are officially poor, reports of violent crime are among the highest in the city, and at least a third of the boys and girls in middle school and high school have seen someone shot, stabbed or assaulted—meaning almost every child knows a child who has witnessed violence, and the victim might be a parent, a sibling, a neighbor or friend. The kids learn to hit the ground when they’re told to, and in school what they don’t talk about is often what they can’t talk about. Over the past couple of years, the city’s grown-ups have sought ways to unburden children of the things they carry. One little boy has found a way, sort of, through playing the violin. It is necessary that the community come together to talk about violence. Violence is what nobody wants, not even, perhaps, the stick-up boys who, once upon a time, not long ago, may have been labeled “emotionally disturbed” in school because of the things they carried, and were then put on the short bus or in detention or suspended. Violence is a subject that doesn’t wear out, but its most insidious forms don’t require a weapon.

That little-boy violin player especially likes the “Ode to Joy.” It has been called a balm for things he doesn’t want: anxiety and nightmares, disabling grief over his father’s murder. As for what he wants… How much unarticulated desire is bundled in that choice? How long will he, will any children but especially boys, be allowed to be sensitive? How do they talk about wanting when they want so much? When they might be afraid of their wanting, or the paths to it are obscured? 

Listening to the little girls across the fence, I wondered what would be their blossoming pear tree, the emblem that stirs them in their bodies and their souls, as it did Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie:

“like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness.”

I wonder at all that must quest about the consciousness of these children, and all that will, and the distance between lived experience on an ordinary day and the rote political language of essences and -isms that is too straitened to contain it. By way of analogy, it is maybe not incorrect to say, as one high school teacher’s guide to Their Eyes Were Watching God does, that the book “explores sexism, race and class discrimination, and the disappointment of loveless marriages,” but then it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that the book explores a black town, the Everglades, a hurricane and what to do when your man has rabies. Either way, Hurston is spinning in her grave, because the language is insufficient and the optic narrow. Janie’s story is about getting free, about a woman coming to know her own body and mind, and daring, along the stony road and against the common sense of the time, to live and love authentically. Sexual politics cannot ignore the many forms that danger and domination take, else how could it be called politics, but it is nothing without freedom as its star, and the effort to change the common sense of the time, for the sake of every mother’s daughter and son. I try to remember that.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 11

15 06 2020

by Jon Crawford

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

(photo: Jon Crawford)

Something’s Happening Here

Mountain View, California

It turned out to be an Arkansas-sized dog in a California-sized apartment, so I asked my landlord to pull up the remains of last season’s tomato bushes to ease the recreations of the foster hound. I didn’t plant the tomatoes. The patio’s concrete had stopped at a freshly tilled plot, but they grew—volunteers—from generations of fertile farmland.

“Distraction,” says the dog trainer, who is standing six feet away from me, the scent of Purell bathing her fingers. “Distraction. It is one of three key elements to training a dog.”

I understand distraction. It’s California’s biggest product, along with food. Social media has perfected distraction. TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, even the news, pinged directly to your phone, snapping your focus away from what’s in front of you. I live in Santa Clara County, the first US epicenter for Covid-19, and have a job in Silicon Valley. Until the crisis, with my three meals usually served at work, I didn’t venture much outside the work-to-home routine. Then suddenly the place felt as if everyone and the redwood trees were holding their breath. BARK! The dog at the end of the leash has seen the only other dog and is entranced with a desire to say hello.

“No pulling,” the trainer commands. The dog had gone too far. “Distance,” the second rule to training a dog.

Distraction helps curb bad behavior in a dog. Say it sees a squirrel; it becomes excited, even anxious, therefore it cannot concentrate on your request. Because we want to control the dog, for its safety and our peace of mind, we lure its attention away with a high-value treat, cheese or sausage, something special. We make sure a dog understands distance because the dog knows when you can’t see it, and if not properly trained, when your back is turned it might become unreliable.

An affluent county, we listened to the experts, the scientists, and prepared for the curve even before state mandates. At first, sheltering in place felt like a cozy day inside. Almost like one of those looping low-fi music videos, mellow beats with an illustrated fox in a sweater doing homework filling the screen, anxiety curated away. Until, RING! My parents call. The virus hit Arkansas. There is no shelter in place. The curve goes up. Doordash doesn’t deliver out there, not where they live. Wholefoods, nope; it doesn’t either. Who in the family is the healthiest and can risk going into town? RING! My sister in Toronto, asks the same question. What can I do? A simple video call, a simulation.

The leash, when tugged, is tight and choking. The dog returns, no longer chasing the scent of the other dog, or the smell of the soil between the cracks of the concrete. “Duration,” the trainer says, is the foundation of training: start small and add time.

I’ve been here over three years, in Mountain View, with predictably pleasant weather, not like Little Rock, where the humidity hangs like a comforter, both oppressive and consoling. When you live in a place designed to make the world seem closer, the city itself starts to lose its sense of regionality. Now regionality starts to matter. A sense of place, a culture made by the habits of people, gathering, cooking, watching, and holding each other, together. The feeling of being home, of knowing a spot no one else knows, knowing someone. Here, at this moment, a city full of people from all over the world, who connect the world, but whom I have rarely ever seen, can feel sterile.

The dog learned to sit nearly in an instant. But she won’t hold it. Not for long. This is because I wasn’t paying attention to when I would give her praise. Timing matters.

Training is really the study of behavior. Something this town knows well. At some point, when no one is looking, when we have waited for the appropriate time, I hope we will give chase, slip the leash, and jump up into each other’s arms—without a word of reprimand. We will remember what it felt like to be in our first bar, to see a film with others, to eat in a small diner, or hear live music, we will remember to wander off the leash and find new smells, celebrating the places and people that allow us to gather. Or, perhaps, we will remain where we are, well trained, our behavior acceptable, content with distraction, able to be left alone.

Jon Crawford is a documentary filmmaker, working in the Bay Area and often the American South. He participated in film camp, a collaboration between Kopkind and the Center for Independent Documentary, in 2018 and 2019.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared June 10, 2020, on The Nation site. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Poster From Alex Melamid

Copy, print, post (legally, of course). And kindly wear your mask, don’t throw it.

Alex Melamid is a Russian-born artist, an emigré to New York, where he has lived and worked since the 1970s. In the Soviet Union he was instrumental, with Vitaly Komar and others, in the Sots art movement (a parallel to pop art in the West). Komar and Melamid were a creative team until 2003. One of their projects, “The People’s Choice,” about popular dreams of art and the funny thing about opinion polls, was chronicled in JoAnn Wypijewski’s Painting By Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art. Alex was a virtual guest speaker at Kopkind when that was unusual, in 2016.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 10

8 06 2020

by Anna Simonton

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

Fulton County DA candidate Christian Wise Smith (photo: Miles Sager)

Something’s Happening Here

Atlanta

Christian Wise Smith’s earliest memory of police is watching helplessly as officers arrested his mother when he was 5 years old. Two years later, he witnessed his grandmother being strip-searched after she was caught shoplifting.

“I grew up in the justice system. I grew up seeing a lot of my friends and family destroyed by crime, violence, drugs,” he told me over the phone in late April. “I know from personal and professional experience what will work to make us safer and better overall.”

On June 9, Wise Smith, an attorney with seven years’ experience as a prosecutor and a background in management and policy, will be on the ballot for District Attorney of Fulton County, which Atlanta straddles. He is the first progressive candidate in recent memory to run for the office. His campaign represents the local touchdown of a nationwide movement that has seen progressive prosecutors winning elections on promises to steer their communities away from mass incarceration and the criminalization of people of color.

But Wise Smith faces an unprecedented hurdle. Georgia’s stay-at-home orders had been in effect for about three weeks when we spoke, and I was wondering how the shutdown would affect his campaign.

Local elections suffer from low voter awareness in the best of times. During the pandemic, they’ve receded even farther from public consciousness. 

How do you get the word out when you can’t knock on doors and shake hands? Smith’s Instagram is full of selfies, his black beard and glasses framing a surgical mask as he plants campaign signs all over town. Some feature supporters expressing approval from a distance. He’s participated in Zoom candidate forums and livestreamed discussions with local hip hop artists, nonprofit leaders, and elected officials.


How do you campaign in a pandemic? The Fulton County DA’s race is part of a nationwide movement of progressive prosecutors vying for office. “Justice does not equal convictions,” candidate Wise Smith says. “I want to create a system that cares more about people than conviction rates.”


The stakes of the Fulton DA race are high. “It’s about the future of criminal justice in Atlanta,” Jonathan Rapping, president of Gideon’s Promise, a public defender organization, said.

“Atlanta suffers from all of the symptoms of mass incarceration. If you walk into a courtroom in Fulton County Superior Court, you almost wouldn’t know there are white people breaking the law in Atlanta. Everyone being sent to jail is poor. And that’s under Paul Howard’s tenure.”

Howard, the incumbent, took office in 1997, and has run unopposed every election since 2004. He has maintained a tough-on-crime approach that has deepened racial disparities.

Perhaps the most egregious example is the Atlanta Public Schools cheating case. Howard charged 35 educators with racketeering and conspiracy for allegedly changing students’ answers on standardized tests: 34 were black; white teachers implicated in the initial investigation were never charged. For the first time in the nation, educators accused of cheating were slapped with charges that carry decades-long sentences.

Seven years and millions of dollars later, that case is still playing out, as seven educators appeal convictions in perhaps one of the biggest boondoggles Georgia’s criminal legal system has ever seen.

The third candidate in the DA race, Fani Willis, was a lead prosecutor on the cheating case, and her politics hew closely to Howard’s.

“Bullies,” Wise Smith said when we talked about his opponents and their role in the case. “RICO charges are for mobsters and gangsters, not teachers.”

“It still hits a nerve,” he said. “A lot of people felt that the justice system, and Paul Howard and Fani Willis specifically, abused their power. People who committed violent crimes didn’t get the treatment that those educators got.” A video he released on that theme is his most watched, with thousands of views across his social media channels.

Wise Smith is also committed to ending cash bail, a reform that officials across the country are increasingly embracing to try to level the playing field between poor people, who get stuck in jail awaiting trial, and wealthy people, who can buy their way out.


“If you walk into a courtroom in Fulton County Superior Court, you almost wouldn’t know there are white people breaking the law in Atlanta. Everyone being sent to jail is poor. And that’s under Paul Howard’s tenure.”Jonathan Rapping, president of Gideon’s Promise, a public defender organization


The County Jail and its annex have become chronically overcrowded, with deplorable conditions, prompting human rights groups to sue. Covid-19 has made the situation worse. In early April, Southerners On New Ground staged a protest demanding a mass release. Women in the jail annex, they said, had described being on lockdown with eight people to a cell, with overflowing sinks and toilets, and no masks, hand sanitizer, or soap. In an email, a spokesperson for the DA’s office said Howard recommend the release of more than 300 of the 2,600 people in Fulton County jail facilities.

Ultimately, Wise Smith said, this race is about the values behind the policies. “Justice does not equal convictions” is how he summed his up. “I want to create a system that cares more about people than conviction rates.”

That’s a major departure from the prevailing notion that a prosecutor’s job is to rack up guilty verdicts like home runs. With 2.3 million people locked up nationwide, the need for a different approach is plain.

Now, protests are rocking Atlanta, along with dozens of cities across the country, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It has been an outpouring of rage matched by police aggression. Alarmed by blazing police cars and smashed storefronts, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms made an impassioned speech Friday night, imploring protestors to go home. “If you want change in America, go and register to vote,” she said.

While national media declared Bottoms a rising star and possible Democratic vice presidential nominee, many of her constituents were angered by a directive that seemed to downplay the suffering underlying the protests. Those will take more than an election to rectify. For years, the overpolicing of black communities in Atlanta has gone hand-in-hand with gentrification, which Bottoms has championed since her days on City Council.  In the last mayoral election, many people affected by poverty and displacement rallied for a progressive candidate only to end up with two front-runners propelled by corporate backers. When it comes to the Fulton DA, voters haven’t had a real choice for 16 years. 

Protestors are rejecting the false dichotomy Bottoms presented between protesting and voting. On social media, young people in Atlanta are expressing their intent to do both. When we caught up earlier this week, Wise Smith said he hopes people who are galvanized in this moment will go further.

“These riots are a response to generations of frustration and anger built up. I echo the frustrations of people being told to just go vote. I’m taking it a step beyond and actually running for office, and I encourage other people to do the same. If we are frustrated with the only option that we have had, let’s be that next option.”

Anna Simonton is co-author, with Shani Robinson, of None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators. An editor for Scalawag and co-founder of Press On, a Southern collective of movement journalists, she was the Kopkind/Nation fellow for 2015.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on thenation.com on June 3, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: An Image From Brazil, plus…

Fora Bolsonaro! / Get out, Bolsonaro! (artist: Ingrid Neves)

Our friend Vijay Prashad, the indomitable writer and activist, who was a guest speaker at Kopkind in 2010, has been disseminating extensive international reports, research, newsletters and visual images with his comrades at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. The image above is part of a “CoronaShock Sketchbook,” a group of visual reflections made in quarantine by artists and militants from around the world, invited to accompany Tricontinental’s dossier CoronaShock: A Virus and the World. That document, published in May, deals with structural aspects of the crisis; offers a 16-point program to address the most dire needs of the global working class, based on the experience of struggle and governance by more than 200 organizations from almost 100 countries; and presents points for consideration of, and debate on, a Universal Basic Income.


“If you do not feel for humanity in this period, Vijay writes, “you have forgotten to be human.


The image here by Ingrid Neves represents the panelaços (banging of pots and pans in protest) in São Paulo, as the night fills with chants of “Get out, Bolsonaro! “Get out, Fascist! and “Not him! It is especially piquant now, with the city alone recording more than 140,500 cases of the virus, and death from the pandemic galloping in Brazil—not just in the cities but, strikingly, among indigenous people in remote areas.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 9

1 06 2020

by Dania Rajendra

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

Looking out from the inside (photo: Dania Rajendra)

Something’s Happening Here

Jackson Heights, Queens

At first, Covid descended like a slow-motion March snowstorm – the preparing, the suiting up, the slowing of traffic and quieting of city sounds. Once my husband, Ajay, got sick time stretched out. I suppose it was from staying inside a two-room apartment with an incapacitated adult, punctuated by sirens and the constant buzz of my phone.

Between Zoom calls, and then press calls, I cooked and cleaned – it was Ajay who had stocked our home with necessities in the week prior. The few things we needed, neighborhood friends provided, dropping them outside the door we didn’t open. Later, another friend dropped off more supplies, and I waved out our apartment window at her, behind her own car window. How surreal a comfort it was to see my friend’s face, as we talked on our phones, looking at each other across a street, through panes of glass. 

All of us who are suddenly non-essential and staying at home experience this crisis through many windows. There are the actual windows, and the glossy screens of our phones and tablets, our televisions and computers. As we watch, the national frames expand to include what some of us have been talking about for years – the deadly consequences of prioritizing profit over people, over planet. 

I imagined tens of thousands of people peering into their screens for Angela Davis and Astra Taylor, for Amazon strikers like Mario Crippen, who like many other workers tell the truth as corporate executives spin and spin. 

When I looked away from the screens, my perspective would shrink to the sound of Ajay’s rapid breathing. He alternated long stretches of unconsciousness with short bouts of wakefulness, when he chugged grapefruit juice and spouted lucid insights on the snapping of supply chains. Ajay is much better now. The sirens in Jackson Heights are fewer, but the mass graves are more numerous.

The sense of Covid as a threatening snowstorm reminded me of my childhood obsession with the Little House books, especially The Long Winter. I read those racist, reactionary novels constantly – something about them caught my little brown Jewish New Yorker imagination, a fantasy world of self-reliance so different from anything I knew. I can still recall the way Ma forced a rhythm inside their cabin as, outside, the blizzards began to blend into one another, days becoming weeks becoming a season. The town’s men argued about rationing the town’s store of grain against the one store owner’s profiteering, about saving the seed for spring, or distributing it to stave off starvation. 


So much about Covid-19 feels like what Mike Davis catalogs in Late Victorian Holocausts: the punitive, racist assumptions that workers are shirkers, rather than people with human, physical, social needs.


The story of climate in The Long Winter is told, in a different context, in Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts. So much about Covid-19 feels like what he catalogs: the punitive, racist assumptions that workers are shirkers, rather than community members with human, physical, and social needs. Looking at the painted squares on parking lots that our society “offers” unhoused people in lieu of homes, or hearing how Amazon workers keep themselves away from immunocompromised loved ones, I think of Davis piecing together the British authorities’ separation of families dying of famine from one another by gender in work houses. 

Outside my apartment, essential workers braved the mass transit and the virus and the small paychecks.  Inside our two rooms, Ajay would sleep and wake as his body needed, and the Zoom calls proliferated as more workers took action – their courage a bright hope against the sirens and the fog. 

Sometimes I spaced out and considered my father’s mother, R.S. Nagarathnamma, who died in December at 95. She was born in 1924, some three decades after the focus of Davis’s book, and 21 years before Winston Churchill’s choices would again starve millions of Indians. In Late Victorian Holocausts, I found her hometown’s mortality rate in charts – tiny windows that show how near a thing it is that our family survived. I know the odds of survival then depended on advantages not dissimilar to having a full fridge today while most of the country struggles with an unexpected $400 expense (like stocking a freezer in case of a pandemic). I think of the charts some future historian will make – the data visualizations, the contact-tracing like a family tree, until the branch dead-ends with someone who might, say, have a heart too weak to survive a bout of the virus. 

Hans Holbein, Death

My grandmother loved beauty and taught me to cherish it. She loved precision, and despaired that I would never learn it. (I haven’t.) She and the rest of my Indian family taught me most of what I know about how to care for others – emotionally, physically, logistically. I have leaned on those skills, both to care for my husband and to function as our world falls apart. But employing those skills carries a price. 

For twenty years, from age 17 to 35, when my father died, I flew to India often to spend time with my family there. It was always hard to leave, but my grandmother prized stoicism, something else I have never learned, and I liked to please her. Once back on the plane, buckled into a seat, surrounded by indifferent strangers and with nowhere to go for eighteen hours, I would face the tiny window and freely sob about distance and the uncertainty of who would still be there when I returned. 

I think of those feelings now from our Queens apartment, where I feel metaphorically buckled in for long hours, by a big window that looks out over an empty sidewalk. When will our city return? Who will still be here? 

For now, it is enough to take courage from the workers on my screens, and Ajay’s returning health, and the contagious solidarity spreading, onscreen and off. 

Dania Rajendra directs the US effort to reign in Amazon, as head of the Athena Coalition. A poet, essayist, former labor journalist, an adjunct faculty at CUNY’s School of Labor and Urban Studies, she participated in Kopkind’s joint camp with the Independent Press Association in 2001.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on thenation.com on May 27, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: History From Andy Kopkind

Detail from Trayvon Martin mural, Oakland (photo: Tennessee Reed, from the cover of Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence)

The protests exploding in cities and towns across the land recall those of 2012, following the killing of Trayvon Martin, whose stylized image above is from the cover of a compendium of essays, documents, poetry (edited by Kevin Alexander Gray, Jeffrey St. Clair and JoAnn Wypijewski), connecting that singular extinguishment of a life to the countless “Emmett Till moments” that recently extinguished George Floyd. The fires burning across the land have no precedent since the LA riots of another Spring, in 1992, following the not guilty verdict of police officers whose brutalization of Rodney King had also been captured on video. Andy Kopkind wrote then, also placing the uprising within the history of American violence at home and abroad. Some excerpts.

The Rodney King riot, as it is being called, is horribly perfect in its expression of the destructive elements of African-American experience: the stereotyping of an entire people, the powerlessness of even physically strong men, the prison culture of the ghetto, the cruelty of the law, the despair, discrimination and injustice. Once again shut out of the system, people in their fury took their grievances to the streets, the only place in this country where African-Americans have ever found redress, or the beginning of it.

 . . .

The riots were horrifying to many Americans who watched the live coverage on CNN. This time—contrary to the old verse—the revolution was televised. The nation’s leaders piously claim that the violence was “counterproductive,” but in fact it put the issues of race and poverty on the political agenda for the first time in many years. Clinton as well as Bush has studiously avoided even mentioning blacks or poor people this year. As LA burned it was clear that neither one has a clue what to do beyond immediate measures of crowd control, short-term damage control (retrials for the cops) and long-term studies of the “root causes,” which you can bet will have nothing  to do with the effects as seen on the streets of LA. The crisis of leadership is seen everywhere. The black mayor of LA and the traditional “leaders” of the black community seem as out of touch with the residents as the white politician downtown and in the statehouse.

It’s not polite to say so, but with their matchbooks and their expropriated VCRs, the blacks of Los Angeles and the Latinos who joined them have reordered the political priorities of the nation, if only for a short while. Without further organization, without the politicization of the rebellious outburst, without a strategy for action and a vision of that future, that order will revert to the same deadlock that has deadened progressive development since the mid-sixties. Twenty-seven years ago Watts burned. Now the rest of the LA ghetto and large tracts outside went up in flames. More than fifty people were killed in what is now officially known as the worst instance of social unrest since the Irish riots in New York City 130 years ago.

. . .

Who the “organizers” of the riots were remains a mystery. Perhaps some of them are among the 9,000 people arrested, but it is doubtful that anyone will ever know. Most of those detained were “looters,” and most of them (overwhelmingly Latino) were taking food and baby supplies, such as Pampers and purees. Although the media showed happy looters carting away expensive electronic equipment (one group pried loose an entire cash machine from the wall of a bank building), many just loaded up on staples. In any case, a society that imposes consumption-fetishism on its citizens can hardly complain when desire explodes out of the unconscious with furious force.

. . .

Slavery and cheap immigrant labor built America in the beginning. Not only blacks in the feudal South but Irish, Italians and Greeks in industrial New England, Chinese along the railroad lines of California and the river levees in Mississippi, and Mexicans in the great farmlands of the Southwest. Some of those groups have been accepted or assimilated; other will be tolerated. But the descendants of African slaves may never be truly free or legitimate in the land that they have worked for 400 years. But still they persist, and neither will they disappear. And the irony is, their anger and agony will afflict the land for as long as they must suffer.

Andrew Kopkind has been called the greatest radical journalist of his generation, chronicling and analyzing the politics, the culture, the Zeitgeist from the 1960s to his death, in 1994. These excerpts are from “LA Lawless,” included in his collected work, The Thirty Years’ Wars: Dispatches and Diversions of a Radical Journalist, 1965-1994.