Scenes From a Pandemic: 45

29 03 2021

by Lisa Torio

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

Cherry blossoms, spring. (photos: Lisa Torio)

‘Hopefully, This Will All Be Over Soon’ and Other Evasions

Kyoto, Japan

It’s starting to feel like spring, finally. Local shoppers and tourists have begun returning to the small pedestrian arcade where I work, a covered street lined with restaurants and family-run stores selling daily goods and traditional foods of all kinds. There are shops for tofu, kelp and beans, green tea, and a small market with boxes of spring vegetables like bamboo shoots, with canola flowers laid out in front of them. Just a couple of months ago, when coronavirus cases were rising across Japan, the street was so quiet you could hear the small chatter of merchants at the end of the street; now, it’s bustling with young couples strolling, pointing at the various foods on display, and neighbors stopping to chat by the side of the narrow street.

Now and then I hear stories from a relative on the phone, from co-workers and customers at work—a local grocer is going out of business; a bankrupt business owner committed suicide to pay employees with his life insurance; an elderly woman is struggling with loneliness and depression. Calamity is conveyed in carefully hushed tones, as though such news might disrupt the surrounding peace if spoken too loudly. We exchange a few observations, a few encouraging words, the “hopefully this will all be over soon”; and life goes on.

The number of new coronavirus cases in Japan has declined drastically since reaching a peak in January; on March 21, the government lifted all “state of emergency” measures, by which people were advised to stay home. With vaccinations beginning, the country seems to be starting back up again, slowly. As headlines talk of “recovery,” I find myself wondering when the quiet conversations will dissolve into silence again. Coming of age in the years following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011, I learned from the way adults spoke in measured tones, from their pauses and awkward glances, that talking about tragedies has an expiration date.

* * *

On March 11, at 2:46 pm, people across the country prayed in silence, remembering those who lost their lives in the Tohoku earthquake-tsunami and those still missing. The day marked the tenth anniversary of the nuclear disaster, and yet, just for a moment, it felt like no time had passed. A 20-year-old student, who lost his grandparents in the tsunami, told a reporter that he keeps a broken clock—the clock that he had begged them to buy for him, and that fell off the wall when the earthquake struck and stopped time at exactly 2:46. “I don’t want to fix it,” he told the reporter, “I want to remember how I felt then.”

The government’s promise of recovery in the wake of that disaster meant erasure. It meant covering up the full extent of radiation and lifting evacuation orders without proper evaluation and evidence. It meant cutting subsidized housing for tens of thousands of people who were simply dropped from the “official count” of evacuees. Two years after the disaster, the Japanese prime minister declared, “Japan is back.” With that, mourning became something reserved for official days only.

We traded reflection for a version of recovery that requires a finite past. Fukushima became a tragic thing that once happened but that we overcame, a testament to our resilience as a nation. Such recovery requires us to reconstruct our lives around the official narrative, to draw a line between those who bore the brunt of the disaster and the rest of us, their world and ours. It requires our silence—we repress the dismay, fear, rage, and sorrow we feel to go on as if everything is back to the way things were, the way things always are. It becomes harder and harder to remember—what is happening, what it feels like, what is being erased. The current of all the unsaid things running beneath the silence.

* * *

Government officials dubbed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics—which were postponed to this summer—the “Reconstruction Olympics and Paralympics.” The Games were meant to display Japan’s recovery from the Tohoku/Fukushima disaster—or in the words of former Prime Minister Abe, to show the world a Japan “born anew” against the “backdrop of splendidly reconstructed streetscapes of Tohoku.”

In a recent op-ed titled “History shows the importance of holding the Tokyo Olympics in 2021,” Hisashi Sanada, a professor at Tsukuba University, writes that the Olympic Games in ancient times “sprang from the very idea of overcoming wars and epidemics” and that “this Olympics will bear a strong message that humanity is united in confronting the challenges that threaten its very existence.” He goes on to explain that the first Tokyo Olympics, to be held in 1940 but canceled because the world was at war, was intended to showcase the nation’s recovery from the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Two decades later, the Tokyo Olympics were held in 1964 to “show how Japan had risen from the ashes of World War II.”

Sanada says recovery has a “double meaning” now. The 2021 Games will signify “the world’s recovery from the pandemic” and show that “the pandemic has not defeated humanity.”

What I really, desperately need, though, is not triumph but healing.

* * *

Healing requires confrontation. It demands that we face a national crisis that has seen more death due to suicide than to Covid in the past year, with a surge in the number of women and children taking their own lives. Healing prods us to reckon with the ongoing nuclear disaster during this pandemic: the fact that more than 40,000 people are still displaced; that 337 square kilometers of land where towns used to be are uninhabitable; that it will take many decades to decontaminate the region, and we don’t know what to do with the more than 1 million tons of radioactive water stored in the nuclear plants. The government plans to dump it into the Pacific Ocean.

Healing requires a change of plans. It requires us to recognize our cycle of denial, to listen to people and their experiences, to understand that the root of the wounds we carry go much, much deeper in our history. The gaslighting of evacuees from Fukushima, especially women who continue to voice concerns over health effects and demand accurate information from the government, is reminiscent of Minamata, where officials dismissed the dire impacts of mercury poisoning. When it was discovered in 1956 that a chemical factory had been dumping methylmercury into the bay of the fishing village for decades, the government did little. The dumping, and the dying of people and animals, continued for another twelve years. Like the survivors of Minamata, evacuees from Fukushima are mistreated and stigmatized by a society invested in forgetting.

As part of its pledge to go “carbon neutral” by 2050, the government is looking to restart the more than thirty operable nuclear reactors scattered across the archipelago that had been put to sleep since the disaster. At the memorial ceremony on March 11, Prime Minister Suga declared that the “reconstruction” in the Tohoku region is “now entering its final phases,” even though rebuilding has been significantly delayed due to the pandemic. The government’s efforts to restart the nuclear reactors have been obstructed by opposition from local residents, spurring lawsuits and nationwide protests.

It feels like we’re at a familiar crossroads. We can choose Kako-ka, literally “to make past.” We can file away the nuclear disaster, the pandemic, in the cabinet of historical challenges we “overcame,” and continue on our same tired path. Or we can choose to remember, to mourn together, and to start on a path of reflection to repair our world.

Lisa Torio, a former Nation intern, was the Kopkind/Nation fellow in 2016.

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

Bonus: From ‘Dancing Through Prison Walls’, a Preview

In 2016 Suchi Branfman, choreographer, educator and longtime friend of Andy, John and others in the early days at Tree Frog Farm, began a five-year residency inside a medium-security state men’s prison in Norco, California. The project, dubbed “Dancing Through Prison Walls,” developed into a critical dialogue about freedom, confinement and ways for surviving through the act of dancing. The dancing abruptly ended when the California state prison system shut down programming and visitation last year due to Covid-19. The incarcerated dancers began sending out written choreographies from their bunks to the outside world. The resulting collection of deeply imagined choreographic pieces, written between March and May of 2020, became “Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic.” We will hear more from Suchi and the dancers in a future installment of “Scenes From a Pandemic.” In the meantime, there for two upcoming virtual events! On April 2 and April 16, both at 6:30 pm Pacific time, 9:30 Eastern time. Click on the link below for details and free tickets.

2 virtual events centering 6 dances written inside Norco Prison, a 35-minute dance film, 11 artists conversing on dancing in the carceral spaces (7 choreographic interpreters, 4 formerly incarcerated narrators) https://www.eventbrite.com/e/undanced-dances-through-prison-walls-during-a-pandemic-premiere-screening-tickets-145390469809





Scenes From a Pandemic: 44

22 03 2021

by Asam Ahmad

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

Last garden’s bounty (photos: Asam Ahmad)

Growing Things

Toronto

Two months before it all started, we moved out of the downtown core to a residential cul-de-sac ten miles away, near the city’s western edge. At the time, having to move unexpectedly felt like a nightmare, but now, a year into the pandemic, this place feels like a gift. It is a beautiful home: the living room has large south-facing windows that let in light as soon as the sun rises in the morning. Along the perimeter of the backyard there are steps leading down to a terrace-sized ledge that overlooks a creek surrounded by trees and lush foliage.

We’d moved because we had to: We were being illegally evicted through a “renoviction” order. Toronto is one of the most expensive real estate markets in North America, with a housing bubble and a crisis of unhoused people, where renovations are just one excuse to push tenants out. Our new neighborhood is not far from Jane/Finch and Brampton, high-density communities of mostly black and brown service workers and many newcomers, neighborhoods known in the media largely for gun violence and thus for being dangerous. Visiting us soon after the move, a friend remarked on feeling unsafe, as if the nightly news’ scare stories had any bearing on the vast majority of lives in this part of the city, where the most common experience was reflected in buses full of our neighbors, mostly middle-aged and young people, riding to work early in the mornings.

Then it started, the contagion, the lockdown, the anxiety. I stopped letting light into the living room. What was the point? The living room is where we watch the news, where the ledgers of the dead kept growing. Outside, our neighbors, now called essential, still filled buses in the morning. Ontario still refuses to mandate paid sick days for all essential workers.

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

Last May we planted a garden, the first I could call my own. It is still thrilling to think about how much we were able to plant, and how much grew. The names themselves are a delight: zucchini, delicata, butternut, spaghetti squash; heirloom and red, blue, and white cherry tomatoes; black beauty and pink stripe eggplant; habanero, sweet, and red lipstick peppers; blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, golden raspberries, golden gooseberries; chives, sage, cilantro, basil, spear and black peppermint, pennyroyal; brocade and French marigolds; calendula, climbing nasturtium, velvet queen sunflower; snap peas; sampaguita, or jasmine; St. John’s wort, white yarrow, English lavender, sweetgrass, white spruce; radishes; gifted blue corn; brown bear beans; dinosaur and Red Russian kale, arugula, spinach, purslane, butter lettuce; yellow gold and blueberry kush; baby watermelons; hydrangea. It felt like a small miracle to escape the news and sit with things that needed our help. Tending to the seedlings and the plants was enough; for a time, just to keep them alive was enough to keep ourselves going.

Our garden let our neighbors peer a little into our lives. Some of their stiff coldness thawed. Catherine, a university admin worker, makes beautiful soaps and enjoys a good pastry. Adeline, a flight attendant, loves to grow things almost as much as we do. The Jewish adage “My neighbor’s material concerns are my spiritual needs” has never felt more resonant. We are learning to check in on one another in hesitant but kind ways. Yet we are still cautious about how honest we are about our needs; my partner and I still don’t know how much of our politics to share.

Near the end of 2020, when a second lockdown loomed and new Covid variants were emerging, I started going for long walks along the Humber River. Being outside before dawn and breathing the cold air reminds me that I am still alive. On every walk I meet some new fauna: cardinals, thrush, hawks, egrets, hares, even a small fox who scurries near the creek behind our house. Walking is a new and comforting ritual. I have only recently realized that I am doing a kind of cartography: learning the routes of this place, figuring out which are the easiest, which the most joyful. One imagines building a politic like this: knowing the routes that work, knowing the ones that are clogged, knowing which ones will never yield.

This moment, awaiting spring, feels less like an ending or a beginning than a respite: a brief moment until another downturn. Clearly, for some the downturn has never fully stopped. As I walk for pleasure, others are forced to leave their homes so they don’t lose their homes (while still risking their health in order to do so). The emergency benefits of 2020 have ended for many who relied on them. Eviction orders ceased for a couple months in Ontario before kicking back into high gear; thousands of people are camped out in public parks in Toronto, and instead of designating enough adequate housing or hotel spaces, the city has chosen to take a carpenter who was building tiny shelters for the homeless to court. The unresolved contradictions of capitalism keep accruing; whose lives matter and whose don’t becomes more glaringly obvious under the pandemic’s harsh, bare light. I cannot shake the feeling that we are not through this yet, even though using the generalized we, as in “we’re all in this together,” feels more obscene every day.

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

Coda: The day this article appeared on The Nation’s site was bittersweet. We found out that the landlord is selling the house, and we are being evicted again.

Asam Ahmad is a writer living on Treaty 13 land in Tkaronto, the original Mohawk name for the lands around Lake Simcoe, now known as Toronto, Ontario. He was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp for writers and organizers in 2014.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on March 17, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: An Interview From Kerala, India

Our friend the indefatigable Vijay Prashad writes from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research about upcoming elections in Kerala (population 35 million), where the Left Democratic Front has been in the government for the past five years. In that time it has confronted the aftereffects of Cyclone Ockhi in 2017, the Nipah virus outbreak of 2018, the floods of 2018 and 2019, and the pandemic. Kerala’s health minister, K.K. Shailaja, has earned the nickname the ‘Coronavirus Slayer’ because of the state’s rapid and comprehensive approach to breaking the chain of infection. All polls indicate that the left will return to the government.

Junaina Muhammed (India), Green Kerala, 2021

In the engaging interview below, Vijay speaks with Kerala’s finance minister, Thomas Isaac (also a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), about the development strategy that Kerala has charted and intends to extend; one that, within the terms of Indian federalism, has managed to meet the needs of the people and show, as Isaac says, that “another world is possible”.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 43

15 03 2021

by Jason Kotoch

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

(photos: Jason Kotoch)

Postcards From Restaurant-Land

Northampton, Massachusetts

Front of the house. I’m sitting in the empty bar section of a Western Massachusetts restaurant, the kind of place where you can count on finding a Buffalo chicken Caesar salad and a Friday night fillet special on the menu. I’m not here to eat—I haven’t eaten inside a restaurant since the pandemic started a year ago. I’m here to talk to Taylor Kall, one of two people managing the front of house tonight, mostly taking phone orders. 

Taylor stands tall. Above the mask, her eye makeup is perfect. A seasoned restaurant worker, having supported herself through college working in restaurants, studying part-time while carrying 40 hours a week at diners and bars, she learned to love the hectic environment of the industry. Mixing drinks became a manual skill, a social skill, and a source of financial stability that has since vanished. Bartenders will always have work, she thought. Tonight, the laugh track of a sitcom echoing from a wall-mounted television into the barroom amplifies the quiet that has settled over the once bustling townie haunt. Taylor has been on shift for three hours and hasn’t mixed a drink yet.

At around 7, an older couple walks in and takes a corner booth. The two quickly unmask and sink into vinyl seats that squeak as they wrestle themselves into position, not saying a word to each other. Taylor walks over, greeting them with menus and that familiar tone all practiced front-of-house workers quickly master, a sort of customer service code-switching that when performed just right, yields better tips. The man orders a hot tea, the woman orders water with no ice and a cocktail, and asks to have a moment to look over the menu—neither one remasks. The man wipes his nose with the back of his wrist and coughs a little smoker’s cough just as Taylor walks away. 

Early in the pandemic she might have said something. She says she doesn’t have the energy to play the game anymore. She stands mixing her first drink of the night behind a row of plexiglass shields, and no amount of eye makeup can distract you into thinking she’s smiling under her black surgical mask.


* * *

Back of the house. I’m standing in an alleyway on another night at a different restaurant, between a dumpster and a graffiti covered steel door, waiting for Javier behind a popular pizza shop in a dilapidated industrial town that has been left to rust ten minutes north of Springfield. 

At around 5:30, the door screeches open and Javier emerges, carrying two big clear bags of trash to the dumpster. A dirty white apron hangs off his waist. Before we greet each other, he yells over the sound of the compactor to tell me that he wants to use the name Javier for this story because it belonged to his father, a Mexican migrant worker who died two summers ago on a farm in California. 

The air is cold and carries the warning of a winter storm, so we both rush back inside. The door slams heavy behind us, ominously, like we are locked in. Javier is the only person working tonight in the brightly lit stainless-steel kitchen. His only co-worker is taking phone orders. Those print out in the kitchen with a kind of rhythmic timing that occasionally matches step with the bachata music playing from a small WiFi speaker at the front counter. Javier has been the keeper of the kitchen night after night since last March when the pandemic swept the state.

He is a young-looking 37, with short dark hair and lean limbs. He is the father of two children, both born in the United States. His wife was recently let go from her two jobs. A year ago, he says, they had just moved into a two-bedroom apartment. The relative financial stability they relied on then is gone now, and you can hear the stress in his voice when he talks about this.

Undocumented workers are always navigating difficult decisions, but the choices facing them now are extreme. Work, get a paycheck, but risk contracting the virus. Without access to testing or healthcare, Covid could be a death sentence. Stop working and die another way, as those without work authorization generally don’t qualify for unemployment or other government aid. 

As Javier slips a pizza into the oven, he catches the bottom of his wrist on the door. It sears his skin, but he responds as if he hardly notices the burn. It will become one more old cooking scar among the many covering the inside of his right wrist. Walking to the counter to grab a pre-folded pizza box, he looks past a few vacant tables and out a big pane glass window with the words “NEPO ERA EW” painted in big, bold red-and-white letters.

A new order comes through the printer. He begins to shape and smooth another ball of dough into a large pizza, and I ask him what he thinks of the term “essential worker.”

“To them, my work is essential, yeah, but my life, I’m not sure.”  

Jason Kotoch is a photographer and filmmaker living in Western Massachusetts. He was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp for journalists and organizers in 2018.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on March 10, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Virtual Life, a Short Film From New York, plus…

Long before the pandemic, in 2013 to be precise, Annie Berman made a short about virtual travel in a virtual city—there but not really, except as recorded in a moment via Google’s Street Views App, and ‘visited’ the way we have come to visit so much now, remotely. You can watch the film, Street Views, which won Best Experimental Film at the Rome Independent Film Festival of 2014, by clicking on the image below. Annie was a participant in the Kopkind/CID Film Camp in 2010. The documentary she workshopped in camp, The Faithful, is about to premier, on March 19. It explores the public’s connection to and veneration of cultural icons—Elvis Presley, Pope John Paul II and Princess Diana—and what this enthusiasm means in terms of memorabilia, copyright law, memory and identity. The new film (see the green box below for information about how to see it) is also an experiment in independent film distribution. With film festivals and small theaters largely foreclosed or restricted because of Covid, and with behemoths like Netflix and Amazon dominating home entertainment, it’s even harder out there for independent filmmakers. Annie and her team are pioneering alternative modes of connecting directly with audiences to strengthen the ecosystem for indie film producers and their work.

About Street Views, Annie writes: “I started making a series of ‘cameraless films’ beginning in 2011. This is the second. It was my antidote to The Faithful, a project that had inadvertently made me an archivist. I was feeling the burden of the weight of my archive and questioning why photograph when the world I lived in had already been imaged by humans and machines alike. It was also my way of grappling with disconnectivity. I was feeling nostalgic for a time when people asked one another for directions, rather than their devices.”

The Faithful premieres live at www.The-Faithful.com Friday, March 19, 7 pm EDT, with additional live showtimes through the weekend at 2 pm and 7 pm daily, and will be available on streaming services March 22. To join the live premiere event, viewers pay, watch and interact with Annie and company on the filmmaker’s own screening platform, the-faithful. Check out the trailer and reserve tickets here: The-Faithful.com. The first 25 people to reserve tickets with the promo code KPKD50 at checkout will get tickets at half-off the standard price.

Counterclockwise from bottom, The King, The Pope and The Princess (detail: The Faithful film poster)




Scenes From a Pandemic: 42

8 03 2021

by Matt Nelson

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

(photo: Julian Leshay / Shutterstock)

American Carnage

Oakland

On January 20, 2017, in a chilling inaugural address, Donald Trump declared, “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” As white supremacists stormed the Capitol on January 6, it struck me that the exact opposite had transpired during his term as president. A large proportion of the 500,000 Covid deaths in the United States can be attributed to his executive negligence and incompetence. It is horrific; the coronavirus, though, is a pathogen, in the realm of science and medicine. The effects of rising violence and vitriol represent a carnage of Trump’s, his allies’, and enablers’ own making. These too are matters of public health, but there is no medical vaccine for the white-supremacist and fascist ideology that festers in our body politic.

Watching the violence that transpired on January 6, replayed with new intensity during the impeachment trial, I had a visceral memory of my own dangerous encounter with a rageful white man. In June of 2018, someone who came to be known as “Jogger Joe” attacked an unsheltered man by throwing his scarce belongings into Oakland’s Lake Merritt. He said he was “taking out the trash.” After I confronted him, Jogger Joe, now with an accomplice, attacked me, dragging me in a moving vehicle and striking me repeatedly in the head (thankful for my hard head!).

As I reflect on that day, it’s clear that such spasms of violence should figure in the toll of American carnage under Trump. Reported hate crimes increased by around 20 percent during his tenure, while bias-related murders rose to their highest peak in 28 years. Jogger Joe’s rapid escalation of what seemed to be a benign conversation to a life-threatening situation is frighteningly similar to the politics of today. Personal violence, like state violence, is encouraged and leveraged by elected leaders and their corporate enablers—and encouraged by a culture that does not respect human rights. The consequences are tragic to individuals but also systemic.

Back in 2015, the organization I direct, Presente.org, recognized the gravity of Trump’s corruption and the threat that he posed. Our #ArrestTrump campaign called for a criminal investigation of bribery (about which he’d boasted in the first televised Republican primary debate), inciting violence, and defrauding students of Trump University out of millions of dollars. Our critics called us alarmists, but we always knew how high the stakes were. Trump represented a danger to our existence.

Fortunately, many more Americans now see the reality. As we re-emerge from the Trump years, we have a formidable task to embody solidarity amidst the pandemic and shift the culture toward creating an inclusive, equitable, and sustainable way of life. Concurrently, it is our duty to challenge and change the structures and decisions that equip oppressive systems.

Undoing the ethos of American carnage and changing the culture is not just a political project. As the pandemic has made dramatically clear, it is relational, social, massive, and deeply individual.

Consider immigration. “American carnage” is an apt description for one of the Trump administration’s most sadistic moves: separating infants and children from their parents and locking them in cages. While detention and deportations preceded Trump’s presidency, this humanitarian nightmare would not have been possible without the private prison industry, which in turn depends on banks and large investors, who are essentially complicit in the atrocities supported by their dollars. Under Trumpism, we witnessed how human rights abuses can have a cascading effect, leading to unspeakable acts like the forced sterilization of migrants.

In 2018, a newly formed corporate accountability committee of the umbrella #FamiliesBelongTogether coalition demanded an end to the financing of detention centers that feed off human suffering. Now, Presente and our partners have been calling on the Biden-Harris administration to step up and safeguard the full human rights of all immigrant families. We were cautiously encouraged by President Biden’s early executive orders to cut off funding for the border wall, nix the Muslim ban, and end Department of Justice contracts with private prison companies. The next behemoth he must address is the broader federal government’s use of the private immigrant detention industry. More than eight in 10 people in ICE custody are incarcerated in privately owned prisons. Executive orders can go only so far, and must give way to bold legislation and governance—dramatically changing course not just from the last five years, but from the last five presidents.

Biden can furthermore embrace a pro-migrant tone to begin exorcising the racism and xenophobia that has long tainted national discourse around immigration. By using his authority to protect immigrants in vulnerable situations and reorient the way asylum law and other forms of humanitarian protection are applied, Biden could demonstrate that he intends to transform US foreign policy. Will he? Biden has his work cut out for him. We hope he’s up to the task, and we will hold him to account. His administration’s recent decision to reopen a child detention facility reeks of complacency and belies the morality he promised to restore. But undoing the ethos of American carnage and changing the culture is not just a political project. As the pandemic has made dramatically clear, it is relational, social, massive, and deeply individual.

When the case with Jogger Joe went to trial, the court—including the public defender—asked me how many years in prison defendant Henry Sintay should face. I said that prison would likely make Henry a more violent and racist person, which would not benefit anyone. He had to apologize to the unhoused man and me, and to face consequences that would make him less belligerent. This came in the form of lengthy probation, strict travel restrictions (staying away from me and Lake Merritt for several years), anger management work, and restitution payments. After the judge approved these alternatives to incarceration, a top-level staffer in the district attorney’s office told me that while he had believed in restorative justice throughout his career, it was the first time he had seen it in practice.

The culture of white supremacy and the carnage it creates will not disappear overnight. These often materialize at the neighborhood level, through encounters with people like Jogger Joe/Henry and situations where we fall short of acknowledging one another’s humanity. This period demands more than a sigh of relief that Trump is gone. There are structures to rebuild based on a broad and deep understanding of public health and social justice. Now is the time to seize this movement moment, and co-create what comes next.

Matt Nelson is executive director of Presente.org, the nation’s largest national Latinx digital organizing hub, advancing social justice with technology, media, and culture. He was a participant in Kopkind’s camp for journalists and organizers in 2008.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on March 3, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: From the Streets of Buffalo

(photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)

The motto—”I’m for Truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for Justice, no matter who it’s for or against.” Malcolm X—pops up on machine-printed signs in front of houses in a section of the city’s East Side. This one is unlike all the rest. The full quote continues: “I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”





Scenes From a Pandemic: 41

1 03 2021

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

by Angela Ards

(photo: Angela Ards)

Yappy Hour: or, Pawing Our Way Toward Community

Newton, Massachusetts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus: Tell Me a Memory

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