Scenes From a Pandemic: 47

12 04 2021

by Lillian Osborne

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

The ubiquity was always about more than just mittens.

A Common Love Lost

Chicago

Loss is the story of the pandemic. For me, over the past year, that has meant losing a relative to Covid, losing a job, an apartment, health insurance, and a romantic relationship. But there was another loss, a common love lost on the American left, that we haven’t fully grieved. I am reminded of that now because April 8 marks the anniversary of the end of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign.

Around the time that the first Covid case appeared in Seattle, some friends and I packed a car and drove four hours to Muscatine, Iowa, to campaign for Bernie in the Democratic caucuses. It was January. At a makeshift field office—a detached garage warmed by space heaters—three women volunteers arranged piles of yard signs, canvassing scripts, and clipboards on a plastic folding table. As her mom trained us, a toddler waddled across the cement floor in a blue Bernie onesie and stretched her arms out to us, total strangers. Hours later when, exhausted and frozen, we returned from door-knocking, it was dark. The women were still there, the mom and her baby, too.

That scene, both mundane and remarkable, warmth in the dead of winter, will stick with me forever. It symbolized the depth of commitment and shared connection of ordinary people who joined the campaign in the millions under the banner of “political revolution” and “Not Me. Us.” As the campaign crescendoed, the unity of purpose, the high stakes, and electricity of the campaign made it feel like falling in love for the first time, only with millions of other people.

Love is about reminding us we’re alive. And what was Bernie’s campaign about if not an affirmation of life and human dignity? Bernie’s campaign was fundamentally about feelings—feelings of loss, anger, and insecurity; feelings of being stuck in alienating and undemocratic workplaces and political systems. Better than any other candidate, he grasped working people’s realities, affirmed our frustrations, and channeled those feelings toward a common project and a common enemy: capitalism. The campaign genuinely was about “us” and taking control of our lives.

For my generation, the left had never felt like this. Then it was over. Bernie dropped out on April 8, 2020. Those of us who’d worked on the campaign suffered the loss alone, huddled in our houses, playing Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ About a Revolution” on repeat, sobbing at the line “‘Cause finally the tables are starting to turn.”

For once, we felt we were in the driver’s seat, making the road as we sped across it. For my generation, the left had never dreamed of gaining popular support for socialist ideas, let alone coming within arm’s reach of winning with them. The day AOC’s endorsement became public, my boyfriend recorded a video of me with freshly showered hair, wearing his too-big sweatshirt, dancing and singing, “I’m having the time of my life, and I owe it all to AOC.” For the first time in a very long time, the left felt confident.

Then it was over. None of us that night in Iowa could have imagined the rapid spread of Covid over the following weeks, the political and economic crises in its wake, the Democratic Party’s resilience in unifying around Joe Biden, and Bernie’s subsequent drop-out. For those in the campaign, it was like watching a car crash in slow motion. We were powerless to stop it.

To make matters worse, we suffered the loss alone, huddled in our houses. The night Bernie announced the end of his campaign, I listened to Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ About a Revolution” on repeat, sobbing at the line “’Cause finally the tables are starting to turn.” We had gotten so close, it seemed, to turning the tables.

But we had to move on, quickly. People were sick and dying. Essential workers were organizing and striking. Mass protests against police killings and racism erupted. There was work to do, and many of us threw ourselves into it. There wasn’t time to take stock and reflect.

Now politics feels different, like falling out of love. Organizers from the campaign told me that afterward they felt numb; some cried. We had “debriefs”; people posted on social media about the campaign; some wrote articles about its lessons; but nothing came close to “closure.” Maybe nothing will. I don’t know. But it feels as if we’re each carrying a box around alone, afraid to open it together for what might come out. Not the lessons or failures, but the emotions that we packed away. The grief. Dealing with what it felt like. I don’t want to carry that unopened box forever.

Before Bernie, the left was like a sleepy Rust Belt town. We organized and marched, but acceptance of dilapidation was a basic part of living there after decades of defeat. After Bernie’s 2016 run, tens of thousands of people came flooding through the doors of the Democratic Socialists of America. Organizing meetings became standing-room-only. The usual faces, now stunned by the explosion of new political energy, were few and far between. The left wasn’t just revived; it was reborn.

After four years of organizing, Bernie’s 2020 campaign became a patchwork quilt of movement struggles. Our coalition in Chicago had more than a dozen grassroots organizations, including Chicago DSA, Sunrise Movement, progressive ward-level organizations, and socialist aldermen. I was repeatedly struck by the level of political unity among so many people I had never worked with before, and by our collective clarity that the campaign was about both electing Bernie and, most important, building a mass working-class movement through the campaign.

We packed away the yard signs a while ago, but my heart still leaps when I see Bernie signs in my neighbors’ windows. The movement continues, but the relative silence on the sheer depth of what we all lost—not just the race but pieces of our lives—makes it hard to reconcile with what we have gained, advances the left hasn’t experienced in decades.

We need to grieve the loss so that we can celebrate what we’ve won: a reborn left whose ideas resonate with millions of people. We’ve built real political will that has forced the establishment to abandon talk of “tough choices” or balancing the budget on workers’ backs amid the current crisis. The point of mourning is to get back to living—to recover the conviction, together, that we can win a better world.

Lillian Osborne is a union researcher in Chicago. She was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp in 2018.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on April 7, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: ‘… and Your Little Dog, too!’

No, that’s not Toto; it’s Li’l Bro at Tree Frog Farmand now that we’ve got your attention…

On Monday, April 19, PBS will broadcast American Oz, as part of its “American Experience” series. The documentary, co-produced by former Kopkind/CID Film Camper Tracy Heather Strain, tells of the life and times of L. Frank Baum, who wandered in the arcade of life’s endeavors until, in his 40s, he began writing children’s stories—most famously and fabulously, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. While in Film Camp, Tracy workshopped her marvelous film Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, the first feature documentary on the great Lorraine Hansberry, which won the Peabody Award in 2018. Click on image below to watch an extended trailer for American Oz.

Detail of original 1900 edition of Baum’s book.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 46

5 04 2021

by Joël Díaz

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

(photos: Joël Díaz)

Contact Tracing

Between Dominican Republic and the world

We’ve yet to find my uncle.

On September 18, 2020, my stepfather’s elder brother boarded the yola. It was the tail end of hurricane season, which had left 700,000 people without electricity and a reported 1.5 million without safe, drinkable water. Painted an auspicious ocean water blue, the boat, said to be undetectable at night by La Armada de Repùblica Dominicana, held within its interior a gaggle of men who’d paid thousands of dollars in hopes of fleeing the island for the United States.

Not long into the journey, the yola was ambushed by coastal pirates. Aware of the financial investments in migrations out of Dominican Republic, they attempted to steal the boat and seize its resources. The captain, avoiding the armed attacks, jettisoned from the boat, with the key fob in his pocket. No longer in range of its signal, the engine shut off.

Stunned, the men decided to chance their way to shore. Perhaps it was the adrenaline that minimized the distance, or the ecotone indecipherable in the dark, but ambition is most cruel under these circumstances. It was clear my uncle did not possess the physical endurance to reach the shoreline.

As chance would have it, they flagged a fisherman, who at first was reluctant to help because of the impending dawn and the risk of being named an accomplice by authorities, if caught.

* * *

I learned of his disappearance in a text from my mother, as an aside to a larger conversation: “…fyi, your uncle has been missing since 5 days. Daddy is very upset and anxious.”

Following the news, my father coped with the idleness of the pandemic and the unknown whereabouts of his brother by restlessly cleaning the Bronx apartment. My mother recounted his projects, among them patching and painting a ceiling that the landlord had neglected for years. During one of the city’s heavy downpours, the ceiling had collapsed. What remained was hanging plaster and water stains that, at first, had turned yellow, then a molded brown.

* * *

When I had visited my family months earlier, on March 4, 2020, before heading out on a trip to London, concern about the coronavirus was heightening, but not enough to stall movement.

“Yo no se po’que tu ’ta viajando,” my dad said, from a gray reclining chair, his worry masked in judgment.

“I’ll be fine,” I said.

Accustomed to withholding relationship details from my family, I told them only that I was traveling to visit a friend. What I didn’t say is that I was going to seek closure—though I really wanted continuance—after a severance. I had placed many hopes in this courtship. Up until that point, I had spent nearly a year and a half in Saint Louis in a graduate program that was stifling. Our six-month romance had been a balm for so much disappointment.

I don’t know why you’re traveling.

Later I wondered about how I’d dismissed my father, which I’m sure, at first, was a casual response but now mirrored the disregard many migrants to this country, like him, experience.

* * *

I was in London, spun wild with naiveté and optimism. We had spent much of that week in lengthy and redundant conversations about desire, aspirations, and life goals, attempting to make sense of our severance. On March 11I ventured to Battersea Park, trying aimlessly to fill the time. Staring out toward the Thames River, British flags made ecstatic by the wind beside the Albert Bridge, I wondered, How did I get here?

That evening, Trump announced a travel ban to and from Europe. I was overwhelmed at the prospect of being stuck in a non-native country with someone who’d just broken up with me.

Sensing my worry, he encouraged me to call the airline to find a flight. Those calls were long, arduous, and in vain. I feared I was marooned.

* * *

My mother was the first to contract the virus. She downplayed her symptoms while we were on a FaceTime call, diverting my attention toward the line of taxis that were working in tandem with local pantries to deliver food to families who had difficulties making ends meet or traveling to grocery stores. This aguante, the carrying of the load, I have known intimately over the years.

Days later, I received word that she had a fever, difficulty sleeping, and tightening pain in her chest. She had called a hotline to see where she could receive a Covid test; they weren’t as ubiquitous then as they are now. If you aren’t having difficulty breathing, don’t come in was the verbiage used to discourage people from visiting hospitals. The care afforded to Bronx patients is notorious for being insufficient, subpar.

Health is a luxury; it is most often easier to endure than it is to chance care.

We assumed that she had contracted the virus from my sister, who might have brought it home from the hospital where she worked. “We’re being given one disposable surgical mask per week”: I recall the paranoia in my sister’s voice. She had lost two colleagues to Covid-related complications. When my sister inquired about how or if the hospital would sanitize her station regularly, she was reprimanded. There was no sense of safety. Unlike other health professionals who didn’t have to come into contact with many who entered the hospital, as the front intake and billing receptionist she had to receive each one. She has asthma.

My dad got tested for Covid in a makeshift, outdoor clinic erected at a Bronx reservoir. He couldn’t remember the identification number they had assigned him and assumed that the adhesive label placed on his windshield for contactless testing had flown off in the wind on the drive home. He was distracted, sick, and never able to confirm his symptoms.

* * *

No one is certain about what actually unfolded. The tale goes that, either begrudged or wary of his companions, my uncle split from the group once he reached shore. Unfamiliar with that part of the island, he went into the forest to make his way toward the closest inhabited town. During one of the police searches, a pair of shorts were found. They are believed to be his.

When I asked for updates, all details amounted to nothing, some wispy trace, deteriorating in an instant. My father and my uncle’s wife in the United States were investing all their resources into getting information on his whereabouts. One rumor was that he’d been taken by Haitian kidnapés, who would soon request ransom, said to be stalled because of police searches. It is uncertain if those claims are rooted in anti-blackness or in the realities of the kidnappings plaguing Haiti and neighboring towns in Dominican Republic.

* * *

Legend will say that there is a man who roams the town in his underwear, searching for his family. And there he stays, neither fully clothed nor whole. Just a memory. A rumor. A hope.

Joël Díaz is a writer and educator currently based in Savannah, Georgia. His work has been featured in The Feminist WireInterviewing the Caribbean, and Peregrine. He is the director of the Walter O. Evans Center of African American Studies at SCAD Museum of Art. He was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp in 2015.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on March 31, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: Not Working 9 to 5

Filmmaking, an art form that historically has been an on-site group activity, has required creative approaches in the pandemic, from filmmakers going it alone to collaborating remotely while leveraging various technologies. Ari Rossen, who was part of the Kopkind/CID (Center for Independent Documentary) CineSLAM workshop in 2017, and Christopher Dawes, assistant programmer and projectionist for the Kopkind/CID Film Camp for the past decade, have made three short films together without being in the same room, let alone the same borough of New York City.

For your enjoyment, here is one of Ari’s creations, made remotely during quarantine: “Not Working 9 to 5”, written and performed by Ari himself. Check out his other creations on his YouTube page, including his most recent, an homage to Dolly Parton.

Click on image above to watch “Not Working 9 to 5”

We also congratulate Ari on his film “Lost + Found” (a modern twist on Milton’s “Paradise Lost”), being the most recent viewer chosen film to screen on PBS’ Reel 13 Shorts, winning the competition with 237 votes out of 254. Congratulations Ari!

Click on image above to watch “Lost + Found”