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.


Actions

Information

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: