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.”


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