Scenes From a Pandemic: 3

20 04 2020

by Tristan Call

This post continues a series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe it. The series is a collaboration between Kopkind and The Nation.

First a tornado, then Covid-19 (photo: Tristan Call)

‘Gentrification Is NOT an Essential Industry’


It rained all day yesterday. My neighbor down the street called to ask if I’d help him move some boxes once the rain stopped; his roof caved in during the tornado that hit weeks ago, and now the tarps had failed, dumping deep piles of loose, wet insulation throughout the house. All along the half-mile-wide scar that the tornado had left through North Nashville (and then for 60 continuous miles across three counties), yesterday’s rain trickled through puddling and straining tarps, echoing on the floors of abandoned homes and soaking into the mattresses and drywall of those still occupied. The mayor has issued a “safer at home” order requiring us to stay in to prevent the catastrophic spread of coronavirus. “What home?” my neighbor grunted, as we lifted the boxes into my truck. The tornado scattered us, and the virus bottles us back in.

The night after the March 3 tornado, we mobilized, thousands of us, cutting apart the hundreds of mammoth hackberry trees whose roots had given way to the wind, crushing roofs and cars and knocking out every electric line in nine ZIP codes. We rented or borrowed every chainsaw in the county, as the tireless young people from the Sunrise Movement set up a mutual aid hub across from the corner market. Neighbors pulled out ladders and hammers to tarp one another’s roofs; the racial justice crew Gideon’s Army mobilized volunteers to provide humanitarian supplies and clear roads. The same day that the governor announced the first confirmed Covid-19 case in Middle Tennessee, city officials opened up the downtown farmers’ market and neighborhood community centers as emergency shelters for hundreds of homeless families. Over the following days we didn’t talk much about the virus except as an explanation for why we couldn’t find gloves or masks for work crews starting to gut houses. 

“A friend from Brooklyn calls, concerned, knowing that I’ve been in the street for weeks. ‘The virus isn’t a tornado, she says; ‘your neighbors don’t carry the tornado in their lungs. But the tornado is still here, and the gentrifiers and the landlords aren’t taking a break.” 

The tornado hit on Super Tuesday and I took a half hour out to vote for Bernie, but there was no line at the gymnasium that day. We didn’t get power back for eight days. Some homes are still without it. As temperatures dipped toward freezing, rumors spread that house flippers were prowling the block offering black homeowners cash for a fraction of their property’s worth. We made agreements with strangers on the street that if we caught house flippers, we’d slash their tires and run them out of the neighborhood. We gathered generators to keep peoples’ space heaters going; even now, you can hear generators running at night. 

After the first grim days, the streets started filling with people, great floods of volunteers, now with pale skin and sunglasses and joking about “taking lumberjack selfies.” The crowd disappeared as coronavirus moved into the headlines: dozens were dead in Seattle; Italy’s medical system was overwhelmed; African nations were denying entrance to their northern neighbors. Now I walk through North Nashville and the streets are empty. The bartenders and housekeepers and restaurant workers who had brought the volunteers work gloves and hot meals in early March are home now, researching unemployment programs, trying to figure out how they’re going to make the rent. The city is bipolar: the Honky-Tonks on Second Avenue are closed by decree, but construction sites are still bustling. The house flippers managed to get some properties in North Nashville after all, and a friend who is organizing with construction day laborers agitates on Facebook: “Gentrification is NOT an essential industry.” 

But none of us knows how to pivot between crises, and online agitation doesn’t feel like enough. When I do run into a neighbor, we talk about a citywide rent strike. He thinks it might just work; he stays on the sidewalk with his dog while I talk from the porch, 20 feet away. A friend from Brooklyn calls, concerned, knowing that I’ve been in the street for weeks. “The virus isn’t a tornado,” she says; “your neighbors don’t carry the tornado in their lungs.” But the tornado is still here, and the gentrifiers and the landlords aren’t taking a break. Church pews and family photos still litter the street on 21st and Formosa, fading in the rain as city workers set up the new Covid-19 treatment tents outside General Hospital a few blocks away. As I drive home at dusk after dropping off the last load of my neighbor’s boxes at a storage unit, the flashing blue-and-red marquee in front of the neighborhood church is the only visible activity. The words march past in three-foot-tall letters, announcing to no one at all that GOD IS STILL IN CONTROL. God or the virus or the tornado or the landlords, or all four, because it damn sure isn’t us yet.

Tristan Call, based out of the Nashville Greenlands urban farming community, is an organizer with working-class groups in Tennessee and Mississippi. Tristan participated in Kopkind in 2013. This piece appeared on on April 15, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and all our collaborators in The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Garden Tour From Palestine

In 2003, Mazin Qumsiyeh and his wife, Jessie, were dinner guests during Kopkind’s collaborative session with the Eqbal Ahmad Initiative at Hampshire College. Mazin, who describes himself as “a bedouin in cyberspace, a villager at home,” is the co-founder (with Jessie) and (volunteer) director of the Palestine Museum of Natural History at the Palestine Institute of Biodiversity and Sustainability, Bethlehem University, Occupied Palestine. The other day he sent this:

In these days of staying at home we offer you a tour of our gardens, museum exhibits and much more. This first part is the garden, which is in its peak now. Enjoy.

April 17, Mazin noted, was Prisoners Day: When complaining about being stuck at home for six weeks, we should think of them. Over 5,000 Palestinians are in Apartheid Israeli prisons in crowded and unsanitary conditions. Hundreds are in administrative detention not even allowed to see a lawyer or go to court and most are denied proper medical care in time of coronavirus. As both a Palestinian and US citizen and fellow human being, I also think about the 2.3 million people crowded in US prisons. Here is something I wrote on the occasion nine years ago (still valid).

The olive and citrus trees were blooming all over Palestine on Prisoners’ day. Pink irises, red puppies, and yellow flowers weave interesting patterns among the endless green carpet underneath the fruiting almonds, fig, and loquet trees. Green almonds are eaten with a pinch of salt and are addictive. There are already some ripening loquots. We harvest new green grape leaves (waraq dawali) to make a most amazing dish. Amid this beauty and abundance of nature, there is also beauty and abundance among those of us humans who are still connected to nature and partially free. But we remember the nearly 7,000 political prisoners.

Scenes From a Pandemic: 1

6 04 2020

by Debbie Nathan

This post begins a series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe it. The series is a collaboration between Kopkind and The Nation, where each dispatch initially appears online.

Display window of a photo shop in El Paso (photo: Debbie Nathan)

Something’s Happening Here

El Paso, Texas

Last Thursday morning an ICE plane flew from Phoenix to El Paso, then El Paso to Guatemala City. The flight held at least 40 people—far more than the maximum 10 that our new “social distancing” rule allows to be together. The passengers were undoubtedly shackled; that’s how deportees travel on ICE planes. On Sunday, March 29, three days after the trip, the Guatemalan government announced that a passenger had just tested positive for Covid-19. This was the first documented case on an ICE flight. The director of our airport told City Council it was no big deal for us locals. The infected person must have got on in Phoenix, she said.  

Here in El Paso and our Mexican sister city, Juarez, the numbers are still low—57 cases as of March 30, in a binational community of 2 million people—but coronavirus has created a special foreboding, caused by the area’s longtime and lately intensified use as a law-and-order punching bag. In the guard and punishment economy, social distancing is farcical where it’s not terrifying.

Both sides of the border are nests of infection risk created by US laws and their enforcers. One bug house is the federal court downtown, where immigration cases are heard. Judges are still working. Most defendants are charged with petty smuggling (of drugs or people), trying to cross the border with false documents, or simply traversing the Rio Grande and getting caught.

3/26/20: an ICE plane flew from Phoenix to El Paso, then El Paso to Guatemala City. It marked the first recorded instance of an ICE flight deporting a person with the virus.

In one courtroom last week, three shackled inmates, wearing orange and blue uniforms of the county jail, waited on benches. Two sat a foot apart. They were guarded by two U.S. Marshals. One wore a mask and gloves. The other didn’t. 

At the prosecution table, an assistant US Attorney coughed explosively, then exited, a hand pushing open the half doors that separate the administrative side from the rest of the courtroom. Another prosecutor, with a Van Dyke-ish beard, approached the doors and put his hand on the place his coughing colleague had just touched. Van Dyke then leaned on one besuited hip and schmoozed for a few minutes with a public defender—all the while caressing the half door. With the same hand, Van Dyke then stroked his beard. The hand soon migrated from beard to mouth. 

Across the room, a court-appointed defense lawyer huddled with a middle-aged woman in jail clothes. The huddle left a few inches distance between the two. The woman would plead guilty for driving two undocumented immigrants to a Border Patrol checkpoint. The lawyer collated the papers, repeatedly licking his index finger. He picked up a pen with his licked hand and signed the papers. He gave the pen and papers to the client. She signed, and the lawyer walked over to Van Dyke’s table. Van Dyke took the papers, then patted his beard and mouth. The woman was sent back to jail to await sentencing.

A very young Honduran woman, charged with illegal entry, also pleaded guilty. The judge told her she could have got months in prison, but the public defender had made a deal with Van Dyke to lower the charges from felony to misdemeanor. The woman, who had been locked in jail for almost eight weeks already, got time served plus one day. “Be very grateful,” the judge said. “We hardly ever see this happen.” 

El Paso’s county jail holds hundreds of border crossers, there because of a lucrative contract with the feds. Four additional detention centers hold immigrants for ICE. Every few days there are ICE flights. For years those have earned airport-use commissions for the city.

Meanwhile, in Juarez, immigrants seeking asylum in the United States languish under the Orwellian-named Migrant Protection Protocols. Denied due process, they wait, stuffed by the thousands into crumbling apartments and crowded shelters. In one shelter I know, a family of six lives on a jungle of bunk beds in an 8’ by 10’ room. In another, people sleep on dirty mats, on and under church pews.

A person who’d been working in the court told me the feds are trying to empty the jail. That’s helter-skelter, but business goes on as usual in detention centers. At one, according to a declaration filed by a local immigration attorney, “A member of my team asked a guard…on 3/17/2020 about Covid protocols and he [said] that they had not received any special training on how to keep themselves or detained individuals safe during the pandemic, and then said ‘if it happens, it happens.’”

The Honduran woman was sent from the bug house courtroom back to jail for a day. From there, she would be remanded to a crowded ICE detention center, where she would wait for deportation on a crowded ICE plane, or for Covid-19, whichever comes first. 

Debbie Nathan lives in El Paso. She is the author of Women and Other Aliens: Essays from the US-Mexico Border. Debbie was a mentor at Kopkind in 2013 and 2016. This piece appeared on on April 1, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and others from The Nation crew who make this collaboration possible.

Kopkind’s 14th Annual Harvest Late Brunch

7 09 2011

Celebrating the 250th birthday of Guilford & the contributions of Verandah Porche

Sunday, October 9th @ 2PM

The Organ Barn at Tree Frog Farm

Kopkind Rd., Guilford, VT 05301

Please join us on this 250th anniversary of our town, Guilford, as we celebrate an important chapter in its history, commemorating the commune movement that brought Andy Kopkind to Vermont and honoring our friend, neighbor and community conscience, poet Verandah Porche.

Not long after the town’s bicentennial, young people began coming to this area, first in a sprinkling, then in a wave: dreamers and artists and drop-outs from a mad world, people with utopian visions or just looking for something, something else. By the 1970s many were, as Andy said, “refugees from the New Left”. He himself packed a bag in 1970, left most all he owned on a street corner in DC, and drove his motorcycle to a commune in Guilford. Verandah had come here two years earlier, to Packer Corners Farm just up the road from the Organ Barn, which has been standing almost as long as Guilford but which owes its name and peculiar feature to those days. The people who came changed Vermont, and were changed by it. Andy came out as a gay man, left, and returned a few years later to spend every summer at Tree Frog Farm, the reason we are here today. Verandah made Packer Corners her permanent home, enchanted Guilford with the creations of the Monteverdi Artists Collaborative, and has been telling the stories of people’s lives in poetry here and throughout the country ever since.

We are therefore honoring Verandah and this special moment in our town’s history at our annual Harvest Late Brunch benefit. There will be a delicious Tapas Feast. Afterward: a video tribute, a reminiscence of commune life by Verandah, and a screening of The Stuff of Dreams, which documents Monteverdi’s magical production of The Tempest, on an island in Sweet Pond.

Tickets are $35, $25 for students. With your support, the Kopkind Colony will weather the storms of nature and politics, preserving its connection to the past while developing ideas for the future. 10% of the proceeds will go to the campaign to resurrect Sweet Pond, a place once as pleasant as its name, recently drained and now the locus of community action. Reserve tickets now!

For more information or directions, contact 802.254.4859, or email at


29 06 2011

Learning From the World
Sunday, July 17 – Movie Night
5:30 – Potluck barbecue
7:00 – Screening

“LIVE FROM THE MEDIA REVOLUTION”, a selection of videos shot in the midst of the thrilling Arab Spring among some of the people who made it,
with filmmaker Greg Berger  Email John Scagliotti, Administrator of Kopkind for directions for the Organ Barn..  You can see more about this with this local article from the Brattleboro Reformer


Greg Berger will be at Tree Frog Farm July 17

Our Lives, Our History – Celebrating 40 Years since the Stonewall Riots

4 06 2009

Kick off Pride in Vermont with the grand opening on Gallery Walk Night, Friday, June 5th (5pm to 7pm) of a special art installation:

“Our Lives, Our History – Celebratin

g 40 years Since the Stonewall Riots.”

Includes a special historical visual remembrance by David M. Hall of some of the famous LGBT pioneers like Audre Lorde, Barbara Gittings and Amistead Maupin. Also the opening of the GrassRoots Wall “We Were Here!” with memorabilia from LGBT people, their families and friends in the local area.

It takes place at the Hooker Dunham Theater and Gallery, 139 Main Street. Brattleboro, VT (refreshments will be served).

Sponsored by The Kopkind Colony’s CineSlam

“I don’t think such a thing has been presented before in the area. My hope is that this presentation will get some folks in the archive preserving local history field in our local towns to begin to see GLBT lives and stories in rural America and all the great things they have done as something worthy of preserving in a serious manner.

It is my belief that we are still considered somewhat marginal when it comes to what is important to be saved and honored in rural America. I would say that GLBT marginalization is not only a symptom in the straight community but also part of the GLBT community itself. It is hard even in these times to break that feeling that our history and lives are not quite that important when it comes to saving our legacy. After so many hundreds of years of being invisible and dishonored by the major institutions of our societies, it is a very difficult task to rebound. But many are doing it.

In big cities we do have major archives like the Hormel Center in SF, the New York Public Library, Lesbian Herstory Archives, One Institute at UCLA, and Homodok in Amsterdam’s Public Library. But those took a determined effort by the many employees and activists and historians in those areas. As Audre Lorde said, “Everything we do must contribute to the struggle, because everything they do is grinding us into dust, and we will not be ground.”

So we start somewhere here in Brattleboro with this presentation and I appreciate all the folks who contributed and helped make the exhibition so wonderful. As well as the hard work that David M. Hall put into designing the historical posters.

I hope everyone reminds their friends to come and see it on Opening Night.”
-John Scagliotti

John Scagliotti, creator of In the Life.

John Scagliotti, creator of In the Life.

Kopkind Harvest Event w/ Laura Flanders

4 06 2009

Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride in the stretch ahead – and no one has been tracking the political mood and the balance of forces more closely than the sparkling Laura Flanders, the featured speaker at Kopkind’s annual harvest fundraiser, a “late brunch” tapas feast, on Sunday, October 12, at 2 pm at the Organ Barn at Guilford, 158 Kopkind Road.

A longtime print and broadcast journalist, Flanders is the voice of “RadioNation” on Air America, and the host of Her latest book, Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics From the Politicians, follows the trail of small ‘d’ democrats across the country battling for social and economic justice, political representation, human rights and people’s power. She has been following the electoral campaigns and the economic crises through all their twists and turns, bringing a unique perspective from the grassroots to the commanding heights.

In her previous work on WBAI in New York and on Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting’s radio show “CounterSpin”, she covered everything from Reaganism to gay liberation, the wars in Central America to the wars in Iraq, labor, feminism, sex, media and more. Her books include Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species and Real Majority, Media Minority: The Cost of Sidelining Women in Reporting. She has written in numerous publications, from The San Francisco Chronicle to The Nation.

The first Harvest event, in October 1998, launched the Kopkind Colony as a living memorial to the late journalist and Guilford resident Andrew Kopkind, who wrote on politics and culture with a matchless style and depth for national and international publications until his death, in 1994. The project, which brings together journalists, activists, documentary filmmakers and the broader public, puts on summer retreat/seminars for its resident participants and hosts film screenings and lectures for the community.

This year’s event will celebrate ten summers of political and creative exchange at Kopkind, and will also honor the project’s founder and administrator, John Scagliotti, on his sixtieth year. Scagliotti, a documentary filmmaker who was Andrew Kopkind’s longtime companion, has been a pioneer in news radio and gay media, the creator of public TV’s “In the Life” and the maker of such landmark historical films as Before Stonewall and After Stonewall.

“We are so glad to have Laura with us this year to bring sense to this exciting-dangerous-maddening time”, said JoAnn Wypijewski, president of the Kopkind board. “But also sensibility, because she has the kind of radical energy that is fundamental to our project here, a spirit of resistance but also passionate, playful engagement, which John embodies and for which we are so grateful, especially in times like these.”

Tickets for the Harvest Late Brunch tapas feast are $30 which will help Kopkind begin its work for the another decade.

For reservations and directions, e mail or call 802.254.4859.