Scenes From a Pandemic: 24

15 09 2020

by Nathan Schneider

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

University of Colorado urges students to “Be a Buff” and be safe, as mascot welcomes students back to school. (photo: CU Boulder Today)

Something’s Happening Here

Boulder, Colorado

The call to action my generation received, during our first moment of inflection, was to get back to business. I was in my last year of high school on September 11, 2001, when an airliner slammed into the Pentagon a few miles away. Later that month, while visiting O’Hare International Airport, President George W. Bush implored the American people to “do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.”

Don’t soul-search or undertake shared sacrifice. Don’t learn Arabic or better under-stand the wider world. Take a picture with Mickey Mouse, where Jeb Bush was governor. To someone young and looking to find a calling and a purpose, such leadership was crushing. It was an invitation to waste the best energy of youth.

In 2006, as President Bush’s delusional wars in Afghanistan and Iraq raged on, he told us much the same thing: “I encourage you all to go shopping more.”

Back to shopping, back to school—we are there once again.


As after 9/11, another generation of youth at a moment of inflection is being encouraged to get back to business. We ought to be teaching a different lesson, one that addresses students as “moral beings rather than desiring consumers.”


I teach at the University of Colorado now, and my students are coming of age in another moment of inflection. They are entering adulthood during a pandemic, an economic collapse, and a historic uprising for justice. What calls to action have they received?

The virus, their president told them, is no cause for change: “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.” That was in February. He said everything would be back to normal by April. Trump’s delusions exceed those of his predecessor. But I don’t want to focus on presidents any more than they deserve, for they are not the only ones teaching the young.

I have had delusions of my own. Until the very last minute, I thought I could still make it to long-planned engagements in Europe in late February. I let myself believe the assurances that, somehow, our kids would be impervious to the virus at school. I keep imagining I can go back to business as usual.

Now my university is opening again, behind plastic shields and face masks. Students are repopulating the dorms and roving around town in partially masked flocks. Since we receive only an infinitesimal part of our budget from the state, we’re told, institutional survival requires business as usual. I am refreshing an old syllabus. Vast bureaucratic expertise has gone into establishing the fiction that such a thing is reasonable, that we can continue to provide the experience that students and their families are paying so much for. Perhaps, if we taught a different lesson, we could.

Earlier in the summer, a group of my colleagues published an open letter arguing that the return to campus would be not only a medical danger but also poor pedagogy. “It is the responsibility of the leadership to tell them,” these professors wrote, “to put public health first, and not to make false promises about a meaningful on-campus experience, when health and lives are on the line.” I didn’t sign. I was still waiting and seeing.

NYU anthropologist Angela Zito has diagnosed higher education’s failure of imagination especially pointedly:

Colleges missed the chance to directly address our students as moral beings rather than desiring consumers, and invite them to join us in a time of grieving perseverance in order to save ourselves together. Will never get over that. Intend to teach that way myself.

She reminds me of two lines from a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson. At some old colleges, these lines are carved into monuments to students killed in the Great War (and, surely, the concurrent influenza pandemic):

’Tis man’s perdition to be safe,
When for the truth he ought to die.

As a student at Brown University, I walked by those words almost daily, hearing their call to sacrifice in grating opposition to what President Bush was asking of us at the time. The words themselves invert Angela Zito’s lament: “man” rather than all of us together; an adventure of death as opposed to the struggle for collective safety. Yet Zito and Emerson are united in their embrace of a morality that embraces non-normal times, that invites the young to take history upon themselves and act in it—not merely for the sake of approximating their earlier expectations but in order to raise their expectations and live lives that mean something.

Can we teachers “address our students as moral beings” behind the institutional pretense (and masks and screens) of normal education delivery? As Zito says, we need to grieve. Then we can get down to the non-normal work of reshaping our world out of this cataclysm.

I hope my students will hear the call to put their best selves into this moment. It’s their time. Those who most want to rush back to normal are probably those who most fear the opportunity for change that the young now have before them.

Nathan Schneider is a journalist and assistant professor in media studies. He is the author, most recently of Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition That Is Shaping the Next Economy. His current project is an exploration of models for democratic ownership and governance for online platforms and protocols. He is founder of the Media Enterprise Design Lab. In 2012 he helped organize Kopkind’s camp focused on the aftermath of Occupy.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on thenation.com on September 9, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Grief in Philadelphia

(photo: Aja Beech)

Before writing her dispatch for “Scenes From a Pandemic,” Aja Beech walked her neighborhood of Philadelphia, taking pictures. This one was among the many she sent our way. Her piece will appear at The Nation on Wednesday and here next week.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 23

7 09 2020

by Laura Flanders

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

The author interviews a local farmer using a social distancing selfie stick. (photo: Sabrina Artel)

Something’s Happening Here

Sullivan County, New York

It’s a myth that people in small-town America know one another. I’ve had a cabin in this place for 30 years and never knew that a foie gras factory sits high above Ferndale, a hamlet I’ve driven through hundreds of times. I found out one sunny Sunday this spring, when 40 flag-festooned cars filed up to La Belle Farm past blooming forsythia and a white-picket-fenced farmhouse, part of an appreciation drive for farm and factory workers.

The drive kicked off at Murray’s Chickens, a packing plant 15 minutes away in South Fallsburg, and weaved through a housing project where workers and their kids smiled and waved, sprawling out onto concrete stoops in the spring warmth as we honked our horns.

No one waved in Ferndale. Not a soul could be seen. Only row after row of workers’ trailers, exposed on a hilltop, perpendicular to an enormous, low, windowless barn. When New York City banned the sale of foie gras, a few years ago, no one stopped this place or nearby Hudson Valley Foie Gras from force-feeding and slaughtering enough ducks, ducklings, and geese to make these the nation’s premier producers of the sickening pâté. Who knew?

* * *

We left Manhattan and drove up here in March. A pocket of hanging-on farms, scrubby woods, and defunct hotels, Sullivan Valley is neither Hudson Valley rich nor Delaware Valley airy. From its heyday as the Catskills’ famous Borscht Belt in the 1950s, it is home now to 75,000 souls in winter. Social distance comes with the territory. As the snow fell late and wet, and lines at the supermarket got better organized, it was possible to imagine that nothing new was coming, not spring or Covid-19.

The novel coronavirus came quietly to the country, prowling the backroads of poor health, poor health care, lack of attention and clout. Facts took time to come into focus, as inconspicuous places with tucked-away poultry plants started showing up in county statistics, followed by obscure villages fronting off-road meat packers and down-by-the river dairy processors.

By late April, people were realizing that, just like the city, their patch of country was powered by a pool of poorly paid, poorly documented, mostly latinx and black workers. Some were dead, and more were falling sick.

Thirty-eight-year-old Luz (not her real name) worked in a cold, crowded factory wrapping luncheon meat around cheese sticks for sale at deli counters around the country. Twenty-five workers toiled bunched up at three tables, and ate together at mealtimes. She learned about the virus through the Internet, then on Facebook, and didn’t believe it posed a threat here. All spring, Luz kept working. Still, she’d undress as soon as she returned home and shower before greeting her children.

“She went nowhere, just from her job to home; home to Walmart or ShopRite to get what we needed; then home again,” explained teenage Marisol, speaking on Zoom from the home her mother forbade her to leave.

Then a co-worker died. Luz left work that day and hasn’t been back: “How could they do such a thing, to not tell us what’s happening?”

* * *

Two months into the lockdown in Manhattan, Sullivan County had the highest positive test rate, and the most new cases per capita, in New York State.

Ad from Sullivan County’s Silver Age (1890-1915) of therapeutic tourism. (image: John Conway/The River Reporter)

The county’s public health director, Nancy McGraw, raised concerns about farm and factory workers at her weekly briefings, which were face-timed on a press officer’s cell phone. Local media picked up the story, and with bad broadband and little elbow room, activists got busy.

By early May, Rotary clubs were delivering food to essential workers, piling station wagons full of Monticello’s famous bagels in the morning and cooked meals from grateful restaurants at night. At the entrance to the senior care center in Liberty, nurses put on superhero costumes to greet a rain-drenched solidarity drive-by. Nurses thanking drivers, drivers thanking nurses, everyone getting wet.

Meanwhile, Juanita Sarmiento and members of the Rural and Migrant Ministry set up signs at the entrance to Murray’s Chickens: FREE MASKS. Across from the bank and the kosher butchers, they handed out boxloads of protective masks to blue-apron-clad workers at shift change.

“We could have seen it coming. I saw it coming,” says Sarmiento, a former biology student.

“What’s coming into its own is new leadership,” purrs Sandy Oxford through a red chili-pepper face mask. Director of the Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation, Oxford joined Sarmiento at Murray’s one Friday to support workers and berate the bosses: “If the workers have all the masks they need, why are they rushing over here to get more?”

* * *

Crowds rallied for black lives in June: half a dozen on the bridge in Narrowsburg; several hundred in Monticello, demanding release of prisoners from the town’s ancient jail.

Notice for June 21 Black Lives Matter rally in Roscoe.

In Roscoe, at the foot of Catskill State Park, the Black Lives Matter rally took place on Railway Avenue, a broad, empty block, home of the Trout Town Inn.

Organizer Ashlee Perez straddled a wooden ranch fence to be seen. “Yes, we have racism here in Roscoe,” she told the mostly white, mostly young group of protesters. Along with half a dozen other African Americans, she told her neighbors about their town—about school bullies, bureaucratic bigots, absurd arrests, and too-many-to-count traffic stops, about silence and threats.

The group clustered around two vintage train carriages, a perky red caboose, and a long, sea green “trout car,” reminders of the railway platform that once occupied this block. One hundred years ago, people in long dresses and high hats, mostly white, mostly Christian, spilled off the trains of the O & W line, drawn by Roscoe’s fish and fresh air. Only the train cars and the trout remain.

The future will look different, says Perez. Demographics demand it. “But right now, people like me aren’t going to want to stay here.” Waving her arms for balance, Perez seemed to gesture down the invisible tracks. “This place is going to have to change.”

* * *

I have seen every day of spring and summer here for the first time. I’ve discovered that those trout, millions of them, were city transplants, shipped from Long Island hatcheries in the 1880s and ’90s. They rode the rails as people did. From the crowded city, many people came with tuberculosis, seeking fresh air, a cure, relief.

For 30 years, Sullivan County boomed. That was its Silver Age. It ended in the 1920s, when people began to understand that human contact could spread disease.

One red hot Saturday in July, strolling down a long former track, now a wheelchair-accessible walkway, with county historian John Conway, I learned more. TB killed the passenger trains, an entire network of spidery rail lines that had brought generations of city-dwellers north. But TB also brought a Jewish immigrant and his family here, seeking escape from city smog and anti-Semitism. The Grossingers bought a failing farm at a bargain price and helped usher in Sullivan County’s next big boom, its Golden Age. Grossingers Catskill Resort Hotel had 35 buildings, its own airport, and a post office until it closed, in 1986.

Ruins of Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel (photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

What’s coming next? Connection or contagion? Coming together or coming apart? History surprises, but it doesn’t predict.

Laura Flanders was a Kopkind mentor in 2018 and 2019. She is the host of The Laura Flanders Show, a TV and radio program which for years has covered the people and places other media miss. As of September 6, The Laura Flanders Show is broadcast every Sunday at 11:30 AM ET on the World Channel and on more than 90 PBS stations across the week. Check local listings. If your station isn’t airing The Laura Flanders Show, contact them! For information: lauraflanders.org.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on thenation.com on September 2, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Remembrance of Summer Past

Behind the waterfall at Green River in Guilford, Taté Walker (Kopkind 2015) and JoAnn Wypijewski. Taté, a writer, photographer and activist, contributed ‘Scenes From a Pandemic: 6’ in May. (photo: Taté Walker)

We look forward to the return of Kopkind summer in 2021.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 21

24 08 2020

by Aaron Talley

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

The author’s new middle school classroom (photo: Aaron Talley)

Something’s Happening Here

Chicago
Jamila had never officially been my student.

I’ll call her Jamila. In September 2017, she had marched into my classroom because she wanted to meet “the new black English teacher,” a rarity at my school, where the staff is predominately white, despite being on the South Side of Chicago in one of its “toughest” neighborhoods.

In my mind, she was ready for college. At the age of 16, she was already adept at making jokes about “toxic masculinity,” and already had a catalogue of her favorite black feminist poets. Over the course of the next three years, she and I held several discussions about family, her future, race, gender, and writing.

She was intentional about performing her existence as an act of defiance. She opted for bold short haircuts, wore oversize thrift store clothes, and was popular in school for her slam poetry. She was the type of student who gave you hope for the future. She was charming and bombastic, with a voice that you could hear long before you saw her.

And it’s beautiful to see a child grow via her relationship to art. In the 10th grade, she just wanted to share her poetry. Now in her senior year, she talked about the intention of her poems. These intentions began to bleed into her own decision making. Decisions like choosing to stay at home for college rather than going away. Or choosing whether to accept her mom’s discomfort with her gender performance. Once an angsty teenager full of complaints, she was growing into an assertive adult who made adult decisions. Like many teachers, I wanted to see her growth as a reflection of my own energy and attention as well. I felt that seeing her walk across the stage would be a culminating moment.

I didn’t imagine my last time seeing her would be as it was in June of 2020—she, riding alongside her mom in a small, bare brown car; me, masked, distant on the sidewalk alongside other teachers cheering at the car-parade graduation. Covid had led to Chicago Public Schools officially closing in mid-March, so it had been approximately three months since I had last heard from her, and in a rush of excitement I ran toward the car, thinking to myself that an “air high five” would be the best I could offer at that moment.

As I got midway to the car, her mother’s smiling face dissolved into a frown, and sense swarmed back into my brain. Why would you run toward the car during Covid? Of course, Mom doesn’t know you were just gonna give an air high five. I halted and threw my palms in the air, in a gesture that was now equal parts high five and surrender. Jamila threw hers up as well and smiled. I retreated to the sidewalk to continue cheering on the other graduating students. The brown car moved on.


This is what dystopia looks like. Nothing is clear-cut. No one has the answers. There are no real endings or beginnings, just a procession of limbos… It’s back-to-school, and remote learning.


It was gorgeous outside. It was the type of sunny that makes you aware of the silhouettes of the trees against the concrete. Despite being prepared to be sad, I found the car graduation to be a beautiful moment of innovation. Cars in procession, most accented with maroon and gold balloons and paint, or Class of 2020, or my students’ names spiraling along the windows. Amid the noise of celebration, my students looked out from the car windows, popped up through sunroofs, rode on the back of pickup trucks. What I had thought would be a bland substitute was a rather regal event. My students had turned their cars into chariots. Some soaked the moment in fully, with their shoulders erect, their hair flapping in the wind.

I left the graduation early. My car was parked on a crowded street, and I didn’t want to be trapped when the procession finished. Inwardly I was embarrassed for my earlier impulse, since there’s no room to be impulsive during a pandemic. When everything stops rather than finishes, you have no choice but to be intentional.

This month, Chicago Public Schools rolled back its idea of a “hybrid” model of schooling, a concept that had been initially announced with a tone of certainty that anyone actually working within CPS knew not to trust. In that model, students would’ve spent part of their time in remote learning and part of their time at school, with parents able to opt out of in-person learning altogether. I wonder about what exactly would have been hybridized, since this model would’ve had my time split between a computer screen and an ill-ventilated building, with students split six feet apart, with split resources, and split investment. And despite CPS’s deciding to go fully remote beginning September 8, because of the lack of clear direction I still feel split, like I’m still alone midway in that street between a frowning face and cheering.

I start every year teaching a unit on dystopia, where the joy is meant to be found in realizing how dystopic our society really is. The irony is palpable in this moment. In fictional dystopias, however, clarity is abundant. There is a clear social ill that plagues society, a clear sense of past and present, a clear enemy; and it’s clear when the revolution needs to happen. There is a beginning and an end. In a real-life dystopia, no one really has the answers, so there are no real endings or beginnings. Just a procession of limbos. In a real-life dystopia, apocalypse still hits, and sometimes it comes in a familiar form: an explosion, a natural disaster, or a revolution. Sometimes, the apocalypse is just an air high five instead of a hug. Nevertheless, you have to keep going.

I set up my new makeshift workspace in the corner of my living room. It consists of a small circular table sitting by the largest windows in the house. I prepare for the year. I think of my students. I reflect on what I want to do differently. I flirt with the idea of starting a YouTube channel. I brainstorm how to teach a novel over the computer. I groan at work e-mails. I worry, and then I don’t. And when I remember, I take a deep breath.

Aaron Talley, a writer, activist, facilitator, and educator, teaches middle school on Chicago’s South Side. His writing has been featured in various news outlets, including Colorlines, the Feminist Wire, The Advocate, Education Post, and Chicago South Side Weekly. An alumni of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Fellowship (VONA), he is currently pitching a speculative fiction novel for young adults. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @Talley_Marked and read more of his work on his blog Newer Negroes. Aaron was a participant in Kopkind’s 2015 political camp.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on August 19, 2020, on The Nation‘s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Remembering Andy & His Birthday

Andy and John Scagliotti, his life partner and the administrator of Kopkind (photo: Gregg DeChirico)

Andy Kopkind would have been 85 today, August 24. Andy contained multitudes: an extraordinary writer and thinker, with a radical politics, a gay sensibility, a perfect style, a seemingly boundless store of knowledge (and curiosity about what wasn’t known), he was also a consummate cook and gardener, a source of puns and fun. To anyone who experienced the joy of Andy’s birthday at Tree Frog Farm, the occasion is unforgettable—the convergence of people who came to celebrate, stayed for days, cooked great food (or just ate it), swam and danced, and talked about all things under the sun and stars.

So, a treat! A memento of Andy from a long-ago summer in Guilford, Vermont, when he played the Duchess in a community performance of Alice in Wonderland. Also featured in clips from this rough vintage home movie are John as the Brown Mouse, Verandah Porche (our neighbor and a Kopkind advisor) as the Caterpillar, our longtime friend Will Wilkins, and other members of the Monteverdi Players. (With thanks to our friend and Kopkind alum Christopher Dawes for editing this little montage.)

Please click on image above to watch video.

The convergences that marked Andy’s birthday inspired the Kopkind Colony. Covid-19 has prevented us from holding what would have been our 21st year of seminar/retreats, weeklong sessions in which political journalists and activists or documentary filmmakers share ideas and insights, eat well, revel in nature—think and breathe and recharge for the work ahead. For 21 weeks now, members of the extended Kopkind family have, instead, been sharing stories of this long suspended season. Scroll down through the Scenes and the Bonuses. Share this site with your friends. And, brother, sister, if you can spare a dime, please click on DONATE at the top of the page or click here. Thank you!





Scenes From a Pandemic: 19

10 08 2020

by Judith Levine

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

Unconstrained by mask requirements, customers may pick up a handgun or a case of Covid-19. (photo: Judith Levine)

Something’s Happening Here

Hardwick, Vermont

Like a lot of people my age—pushing 68—I don’t usually feel old. Now it turns out I am. Among the ways my body is aging is its decreased production of “fresh naïve T cells” (or, probably, fresh naive anything). This makes me more susceptible to contracting Covid-19, and if I do, to dying.

This fact sensitizes me to the uneven, and politicized, state of mask wearing in my town. In the food co-op, the scoops for bulk foods—grains, granola, nuts—are used once and collected in a box. No such precautions at Rite Way Sports, where customers are free to pick up a container of night crawlers, a Beretta M9 semiautomatic handgun, or a case of Covid-19.

To many around here, the virus is an abstraction. Caledonia County, among the most rural in the state, has had 26 cases—less than one in 100,000—and no deaths. In all of Vermont, just over 1,450 people have sickened and 58 died. As elsewhere, the dying are old. Only four have been under 60.

Sidelined by rural isolation and elderly caution, I watch videos of the Black Lives Matter uprisings and police brutality and federal military invasions and feel my emotions swinging between radical hope and apocalyptic terror. Hope inspired by the diversity and militancy of the protesters; terror, by the flash-bangs and teargas and an awareness of the future these young folks face. I note they almost all wear masks, acknowledgement of their outsize vulnerability as black and brown people, but also, to my eyes, of concern for their elders. Tenderness overwhelms me.

Then I switch to videos of maskless twentysomethings crowding beaches and bars, and I seethe. The phrase Kids these days springs uninvited to mind.


We rarely list age among intersectional oppressions. But deep in the genocidal US pandemic, there it is. Age is a defining feature of Covid fatalities in prisons and jails. Senior workers are being slammed as hard as the youngest cohort in the economic shutdown. Age discrimination means most elders won’t work again. “People who are middle-class workers now will be poor or near-poor retirees for the rest of their lives.”


Such mixed feelings are not rare among my contemporaries; the rigidly disapproving oldster is a caricature. Yet how easily we can be caricatured. Here is the usually nuanced political analyst, labor and health care historian Gabriel Winant, in “Coronavirus and Chronopolitics,” in n+1:

There is a great contradiction embodied in the facts that the virus is fundamentally a threat to the old; that this threat has been magnified enormously by the incompetence and malice of the ruling regime; and that the old are the primary mass political constituency of that regime. The coincidence in time of the outbreak of coronavirus in the United States and the crushing of Bernie Sanders’s bid to democratize our health system and face the related crisis of climate change—a defeat inflicted through extreme generational polarization—intensifies this contradiction further. The young are trying to save the old, as well as themselves; the old are trying to kill the young, as well as themselves.

Emphasis mine, as in, WTF, Gabe?

Winant quotes sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen, coiner of chronopolitics: “As the necessity of financial cuts mounts, the need for trade-offs mounts.”

What “necessity” for cuts and trade-offs? You mean austerity?

Adds Winant: “The old have formed into battalions to mount a defense of the predatory and destructive capitalism we have known.”

What battalions? The AARP?

In fact, as older Americans drop dead from the coronavirus, the economic shutdown is slamming senior workers as hard as the youngest cohort. Age discrimination means most elders won’t work again. Drawing down savings or going into debt, “people who are middle-class workers now will be poor or near-poor retirees for the rest of their lives,” says economist Teresa Ghilareducci.

“Entitlements” don’t go far. In 2019, a third of Social Security recipients relied solely, or almost solely, on that benefit, which averaged $1,461 a month. Medicare, deducted from a person’s Social Security but increasingly privatized, costs more and covers less. Out-of-pocket bills consume, on average, 40 cents of each dollar of recipients’ income; by age 85, the portion rises to three-quarters. A 2013 analysis predicted that the ranks of the homeless old would swell by a third between 2010 and 2020. What now?

We rarely list age among intersectional oppressions. But deep in the genocidal US pandemic, there it is. Why are 48 of the top 50 Covid clusters prisons and jails? It’s not only racial health disparities and overcrowding, says the Marshall Project. Because of ever-longer sentences, inmates over 55 make up a larger share of state prison populations than those 24 and under. Chronic illnesses render them easy marks for Covid-19.


History makes us, not age.


“The young are not interested in reducing old-age benefits but rather increasing other ones,” says Winant. But who are ‘the young’? Paul Ryan, elected to Congress at 29, spent his career trying to feed the poor and the old into the jaws of Republican swamp creatures. Neil Gorsuch, corporate proxy on the Supreme Court, is a Gen-Xer.

Alicia Garza is the same age as Jared Kushner, 39. Angela Davis is two years older than Mitch McConnell. The young people crowding the beaches are not the young people being gassed in the streets.

Winant concludes with a call to solidarity: “Our survival depends upon resolving the antagonisms that have separated us and joining together against the regime of capital accumulation that has brought us to this precipice.” Yet having condemned his elders for starting the fight, he doesn’t absolve them.

Similarly, Vermont’s governor, amid paeans to protecting “our” elders, declares the state’s aging population a “crisis.” Voters are never told why an older populace—that is, increasingly, themselves—is the problem, especially given that in the coming de-pression their Social Security checks may be the one reliable source of state revenues.

I come not to praise, or plead for, my generation. But, younger comrades, don’t blame us for the policies that will bury us—or you. History makes us, not age. No generation holds greater claim to justice or greater responsibility for attaining it.

Judith Levine’s latest book, with Erica Meiners, is The Feminist and the Sex Offender: Confronting Sexual Harm, Ending State Violence (Verso). Judith was a special guest at Kopkind in 2006.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on August 5, 2020 on The Nation‘s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: With Love From Chicago/Cuba

From Chicago, Alex Halkin sent us another short film made with Cuban artists.

Alex and Ivette Avila, the film’s soundtrack editor (and, with Ramiro Zardoya, a central figure in the Cuban collaborative), write:

The Cuban animation series Creation Collective in Quarantine (Creación Colectiva en Cuarentena) arose, as its name suggests, amid isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. The mostly Cuban artists who have collaborated—musicians, plastic artists, dancers, filmmakers, and children—aim to document the moods, the creativity in confinement, nightmares . . . in short, what people are feeling and experiencing in these times of pain, uncertainty, reimagining, and—why not?—hopes of change To date, the group has produced six animated shorts.

Once upon a time in Chicago/Erase una vez en Chicago starts with footage shot by Alexandra Halkin of the dysfunctional and half-empty city in quarantine. The animations fill the video with lyricism, poetry, new insights, and meanings. This is the second animated collaboration Alexandra has done with the group. The first one, Ojos/Eyes, released last April (and posted on Kopkind’s site on May 4), was about a dream Alexandra had about a four eyed dog: https://vimeo.com/406941038.

Alexandra Halkin, a US documentary filmmaker, participated in the Kopkind/Center for Independent Documentary film camp in 2014. In 2010, she founded the Americas Media Initiative (AMI), a nonprofit that produces, distributes, and screens film and video made in the Americas by community media organizations and independent filmmakers, particularly Cubans living in Cuba. Her own films have been shown at film and video festivals worldwide. For more on AMI’s Cuban film catalogue, click here.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 18

3 08 2020

by Najla Said

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

Mural on the apartheid wall in Occupied Palestine. (photo: Abeer Salman)

Something’s Happening Here

New York City

March. I remember Beirut in 2005, after a car bomb went off, trying not to go near parked cars, and stopping, hyperventilating, catching my breath, and drilling into my brain: “Keep walking, keep going; you can’t control it; you have to keep going.” I need to do this now, here.

Having spent my childhood between Beirut during two wars and NYC in the 1970s–’80s, I have learned to be prepared. I tell myself, “I fear nothing and live for human solidarity.”

Half my Pilates clients are away, some are over 70 and canceled out of fear, and the rest just don’t think it’s a good idea right now. I am officially income-less. My production of Palestine in Chicago will be pushed back at least two to three weeks as of now. I have waited 10 years for a theater to want to do my play again. Now I’m pretty sure it ain’t happening.

I’m making a pink glittery unicorn T-shirt for my niece. I have no problem staying busy. I don’t feel like I have ADHD anymore, because without the confines of other people’s structure, I can do things at my own rhythm.

My shrink says that many traumas will be reactivated during this crisis and asks me how I am doing.

“This is kind of like Beirut, but easier.”

“Oh right. Well, for you it’ll be easier, then.”

I predict the return of telephone calls. I hope no one calls me. I’m an introvert; I hate the phone.

In the store the guy behind me has a cart filled with bottled water. “You must be Lebanese,” I say.

He laughs. “How can you tell?”

“The bottled water.”

There is no need to stock up on water in New York, but that is what Lebanese people do.

I tell people that niqabs (veils over the mouth and nose) were originally worn in the desert to keep sand out of people’s faces, just as masks now are supposed to keep the virus out of our mouth and nose. I explain that Arabs invented soap and the word “quarantine.” No one cares.

There were 6,000 911 calls in the city yesterday. In Beirut, I would hear bombs and artillery fire, and then the sirens. Here it is just sirens. Which is eerie, more unsettling.


Diary of a crisis: nothing is happening; everything is happen-ing. Month after month. I am income-less. I keep busy. I fear nothing, and many things. I feel I am living in a Beckett play.


April. My birthday. My cousins organized a Zoom call for me, and people rang me on the phone. I made a cake. I sang “Miss Mary Mack” with my niece, talked to my nephew, and virtually jumped on a trampoline with my goddaughter. Expect nothing, do nothing, no pressure—perfection.

I’ve knit five scarves. I make pudding, even though I don’t eat pudding.

CNN keeps saying that other countries have more beds in ICU and better medical systems to respond to the virus: “Why? It’s a long story.”

I want to scream, “Socialized medicine! Duh!”

Easter is soon. Maybe Jesus will come back and fix this mess.

For many Americans feeling unsafe is too much. But the whole world lives this way all the time. American exceptionalism needs to die and stay dead.

Meanwhile, I am living in a Beckett play, making up things to do and say so that I exist. There is something satisfying about that.

May. George Floyd is dead.

“Mama, Mama…”

My heart shatters.

My nephew changes his Instagram profile pic to one of John Carlos with his fist in the air, and shares a photo of the George Floyd mural on the wall in Palestine. The kids are alright.


I think about the importance of breath, and breadth. I worry about all that gets left out in our politics. I seem to be out of place. I’m Palestinian and Lebanese; I’m a New Yorker. I tell myself, ‘Keep walking, keep going.’


June. Between the virus and George Floyd’s death, I think about the importance of breath.

I make connections with Palestine, explaining that the IDF trains our cops, that the move used to kill Mr. Floyd is from Krav Maga. I’ve been told that expressing Palestinian solidarity is “co-opting” the black struggle. I should be quiet.

Cornel West keeps mentioning Edward Said on TV. I’m grateful, because no one seems to know that my father’s work helped us get to this point.

I’m glad people are getting radicalized, but I worry about all that gets left out. I worry about the inability to make connections.

I wonder where I fit in this new BIPOC acronym. I just got chased down the street by a nutjob who screamed that I’m a stupid white bitch who doesn’t care about Black lives.

“I’m Palestinian!” I yell, for all the Upper West Side to hear.

“Yeah, bitch, and I’m Cherokee.”

What. The. Fuck.

I am not Black. Or Indigenous. Am I POC? I never seem to have a place here.

A nice gay boy asks if I’m OK.

Happy Pride.

July. Extroverts text and call too much; they need to call other extroverts.

Outside New York, no one wants to wear a mask. Almost everywhere else in the world, people value community. Here it’s the individual, who always seems to be complaining.

We have another family Zoom call—relatives in Beirut, New York, South Carolina, Connecticut, London, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle—my mom’s generation, my generation, the kids.

My cousin, on his way to Beirut, stops at different ATMS to bring cash and medicine to family members. Lebanon is in free fall for other reasons, but still they test everyone on the plane before and after the flight; anyone who tests positive is sent to a hotel for two weeks. That seems like the proper way to do things.

I kind of loved lockdown at the beginning. Now some days the silence is too much and I just cry.

Nothing is happening; everything is happening.

I am invisible. I am exhausted.

“You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Najla Said is an actor and playwright, and the author of Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family (Riverhead Books). In 2010, Kopkind presented a staged reading of her one-woman play, Palestine.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on July 28, 2020, on The Nation‘s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Song by and for Nurses

A nurse on a Covid ward in Teheran. (photo: Mohammad Ghadamali/AP Photo)

In New York the 7 pm clapping for nurses and other health care workers stopped months ago. It was always more a ritual for the benefit of those in lock-down; it told us we weren’t alone. Nursing has become symbolic, but let’s honor the work. The WHO, the International Council of Nurses (INC), and Nursing Now recently reported that worldwide there is a shortage of six million nurses–especially affecting the Global South–and deep income disparities. The INC has made a music video in recognition of the work and the people everywhere who do it. In Kopkind’s immediate family, one of those people is Dave Hall, our longtime operations manager and cook, John Scagliotti’s partner, our brother, and a psychiatric nurse in Vermont. For Dave and all nurses of the world: “I Am a Nurse.”





Scenes From a Pandemic: 16

19 07 2020

by Renee Bracey Sherman

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

We Testify abortion storytellers rally at Supreme Court for June Medical Services v. Russo oral arguments, March 2020.  (photo: We Testify)

Something’s Happening Here

Washington, D.C.

Last November, I drove more than 12 hours for an abortion. It wasn’t mine (I had mine in 2005); I picked up a young woman in rural Pennsylvania whom I’ll call Raquel. She needed a ride to a clinic in Maryland to get some pills that she would take back at her home to have a medication abortion. As we drove to the clinic, I told Raquel about what to expect during the appointment; after I finished I paused and said, “As much as I love getting to know you on this drive, did you know you could safely do this at home but the government won’t let you?” She was surprised. Like many people, she knew about limitations on abortion but didn’t know that very safe and basic methods are being restricted because of outdated FDA regulations on how they can be dispensed. The drive bonded us—we still keep in touch, and she approved the inclusion of her story here—but it was an unnecessary exercise, one that antiabortion politicians created to make yet another constitutional right as inaccessible as possible. The cruelty of the barricades along the journey is the point.

Since Covid-19 hit, I’ve thought a lot about that drive with Raquel, particularly as people have reached out needing abortions. States have limited travel, issued stay-at-home orders, and required people to quarantine for at least two weeks. While several states declared abortion an essential service, others exploited the pandemic to shutter clinics. The future we have worried about was upon us in an instant. Patients had appointments canceled. Those who could afford it, or who knew about abortion funds, were able to travel to other states for care. The moment was both unprecedented and familiar. The uselessness of our nation’s health care system was showing, and became even more burdensome on abortion patients.

In a just society, Raquel (or anyone wanting an abortion but anxious about contracting Covid-19) could have ordered the necessary pills via telemedicine, online, or at a pharmacy, and completed the abortion at home. That’s the way many people around the world do abortion, because it’s incredibly safe and simple. That’s how Americans once did it. Concoctions were advertised in newspapers and shipped through the mail, or herbs such as pennyroyal and black cohosh root were made into teas. But since the late 1800s, abortion has been deeply criminalized, and if Raquel had ordered the pills online, she and the person who sent them would have risked prosecution and jail.


Covid-19 has brought a taste of what life would be like if abortions were illegal, but then it always has been, in some form… What kind of nation allows people to be prosecuted for health care?


Recently, Polish abortion activists reminded me that all of our laws governing abortion actually promote criminalization. (To be sure, those are different from medical practice regulations that ensure procedures are performed correctly.) Rules dictate how, when, where, and why someone can have an abortion, and mandate a series of physical and legal barriers one must cross. Wait too long because you can’t afford the procedure? You can be criminalized. Take pills at home with a parent because you couldn’t afford a procedure? You both can be criminalized. Have a miscarriage, but a doctor thinks you self-managed an abortion? You can be criminalized. It doesn’t matter whether the rules are medically necessary or just, and of course, enforcement and punishment are significantly more severe with overpoliced communities of color and those who live in poverty.

What kind of nation allows people to be prosecuted for health care?

On July 13, just as this article was nearing publication, a federal judge issued an injunction on in-person requirements for dispensing pills necessary for a medication abortion, saying they create a “substantial obstacle” for patients, and may be an unconstitutional undue burden during a pandemic. The ruling allows providers to mail or deliver the pills to patients—an important step, however temporary, in juris-prudence and in people’s lives.

But this moment has radicalized me. I’ve never supported restrictions—I’ve ex-perienced the panic they create when I was unsure if I could afford an abortion—but I’ve realized that it’s time for us to push for decriminalization of abortion and the abolition of all abortion restrictions. There is no medical necessity for any of these laws restricting abortion. They just create a tightrope for people to fall from and then invite the police into the experience.

As Black Lives Matter protests have swept our country, we are having a national dialogue about the spaces and places police hang around to control black and brown people—schools, hospitals, grocery stores, coffee shops, and our homes. Police are heavily involved in our inability to exercise reproductive freedom; they brutalize us while pregnant; spray us with tear gas, which can affect our fertility; arrest people who choose to terminate a pregnancy outside of the narrow confines of the law; shoot our children; and shackle us during labor. We deserve police-free pregnancies. This is why the fight for reproductive justice is critical. It addresses systemic issues that have long prevented families of color from thriving on our own terms. It’s worth recalling that antiabortion white supremacists pivoted from rallying for school segregation to protesting abortion; they want to control our futures.

If we are serious about protecting abortion access, we have to become serious about the fight to abolish abortion laws. Our ancestors worked hard to ensure we had access to abortion to space our pregnancies, save our lives, and free us from the rape and violence of chattel slavery. It is in their tradition that we must continue to make abortion free and available, whenever and wherever someone needs it.

Covid-19 brought a taste of what life would be like if abortion were illegal again, but it always has been in some form through the criminalization of black and brown bodies. I hope that more people will realize that to have reproductive justice, we have to take extreme efforts to decriminalize our health care, defund the police, and create communities that love people who have abortions, unapologetically.

Renee Bracey Sherman is a reproductive justice activist, abortion storyteller, strategist, and writer. She is the founder and executive director of We Testify, an organization dedicated to the leadership and representation of people who have abortions and share their stories at the intersection of race, class, and gender identity. She is also executive producer of Ours to Tell, an award-winning documentary elevating the voices of people who’ve had abortions. She was a participant in Kopkind’s 2015 political camp.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on July 15, 2020, on The Nation‘s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: ‘I Know the Price of Life’, a Radio Short From Gdansk

Maria Margaronis writes from London, with another in her series of shorts about women making masks; a slightly different version of this radio piece was broadcast on Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4, on May 14.

Khedi Alieva (l) and her sister Amina (r) in Poland, amid the forsythia. (photo: Dorota Jaworska)

I spoke to Khedi Alieva this spring with the help of translator Joanna Dabrowska, and also to her friend, psychologist Dorota Jaworska. Khedi is a Chechen refugee in Poland. She and her sister Amina are members of Fundacja Kobiety Wedrowne, which roughly translates as Foundation for Women on the Road. Khedi and Amina were welcomed to Gdansk by Pawel Adamowicz, the city’s mayor for 20 years, who was fatally stabbed on January 13, 2019, while speaking at a charity event. Adamowicz’s support for migrant, minority and lgbt+ rights ran directly counter to the policies of Poland’s increasingly reactionary Law and Justice Party, which squeaked back to power this month on the back of a nasty campaign in which President Andrzej Duda attacked gay people, Jews, and liberals, who he says are undermining Poland’s security and traditions. 

Khedi, “making masks to slow down death.” (photo: Anna Rezulak / KFP)

But Khedi and her sisters are all about solidarity, gratitude, joy, and life. When the pandemic hit, they began sewing face masks and scrubs to protect their Polish friends, taking breaks to dance to the wild rhythms of Chechen music, a sampling of which Khedi chose for this piece. “The most important thing in life is just life.”

Maria Margaronis, a writer and radio maker, is a longtime neighbor and member of the Kopkind family. She is part of Kopkind’s honorary board. Click here to listen to her documentary about the Singer sewing machine. 





Scenes From a Pandemic: 15

14 07 2020

by Makani Themba

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

(photo: Gilbert Thompson)

Something’s Happening Here

Jackson, Mississippi

Before Covid-19, I would travel around the country, listening to people’s stories as we walked their block, or plotted the “beautiful next” in some center or meeting room. Now we are all in little boxes, trying to connect, trying to make it more human. People with wild virtual backgrounds or cute hats. It reminds me of freshman year moving into the dorms. There you are with your teddy bears and your posters to make your room feel a little less like the drab, institutional rectangle it is.  

The truth is, it’s crazy hard out here for so many of us. Covid has shifted racism and inequity into hyperdrive. Shuttered hospitals and limited testing in communities hardest hit. The intentional delay in distributing “stimulus” checks to indigenous nations while slashing funds for health services. A young black woman tells me a story – from her box to mine – about how the white children in her trailer park, not far from Chicago, come by her family’s home to spit and chant, “Covid is a n***a killer!” These children were taught that our disproportionate death related to Covid is an opportunity for ethnic cleansing.

This is a season of wild contrasts. The joyful exuberance of seeing our movements on the precipice of so many significant victories. It’s beautiful. I am breathless and giddy to live to see this moment that I had every confidence would come. And I am also anxious that, as the nation is riveted by global protests to address black lives taken by police violence, we have normalized the deaths of the many others who are also victims of state violence but in a different form.  


Police shootings are a gun to the head of Black America. Covid is the bomb. As cities like Jackson are left to fend for ourselves, Covid is also revealing how “we keep us safe”.


Police shootings are literally a gun to the head of Black America, while the government’s use of the pandemic to facilitate black and indigenous death is a full-on carpet bombing. And although they don’t exhibit the glee of those children in the trailer park, much of government appears to be on the same team.

I’ve watched testimony in city councils around the country against local ordinances to require protective masks in public. I’m struck by how often progressive frames are appropriated for conservative use: phrases like “crime against humanity” or “human rights violation,” along with the old tropes opposing public health protection as a matter of “freedom.” 

On May 19, the birthday of Malcolm X ironically, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves gave churches explicit permission to reopen. They were never officially closed in Mississippi, but this bit of grandstanding was part of the governor’s pandering to support Trump in solidifying his right-wing faith base. The governor insisted on lifting restrictions for businesses, too. There were 535 new Covid cases and 42 deaths that day. On June 22 there were 1,646 new cases and 40 deaths. Progressive mayors had instituted public protection rules in an attempt to “flatten the curve,” but as Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said in a recent interview about the “reopening” of the state: “It was clear that we [Jackson] are becoming an island. And if you’re on an island, it’s hard not to get wet.” On June 30, with new cases spiking, the mayor announced that wearing face masks would be mandatory in the city.

Covid is revealing all of the cracks and fissures in our systems – of care, of connection, in our economy.  As cities like Jackson are left to fend for ourselves, Covid is also revealing how “we keep us safe.”  

In my South Jackson neighborhood, masked volunteers sweat under the Mississippi sun as they hand out food and toilet paper. Many of the folk in line brave the heat hoping to be among the lucky ones to get a mobile Covid test before kits run out. The volunteers are friends and neighbors who have stepped up as part of the Jackson Covid Response. It’s a local coalition that includes Jackson State and Tougaloo College students; organizing groups like Poor People’s Campaign, Mississippi One Voice, People’s Advocacy Institute, Mississippi Immigrant Coalition, Democratic Socialists of America, and Black Youth Project 100; neighborhood groups and businesses like Operation Good, Strong Arms of Jackson, MOVE Church, and Bad Boy Tree Services; social service projects like Clean Slate Behavioral Health Collective; and multimedia outlets like the local branch of Black With No Chaser, which has a popular podcast in the community. This coalition is one of the hundreds of mutual aid networks springing up across the country to fill the gaps that the state refuses to address.   

The work is hard but it’s also adaptive, innovative, and generous. There’s deep grief in the face of rising Covid-related death as young and old die needlessly in prisons and detention centers. There is also vision as organizers move progressive District Attorneys to release “nonviolent offenders” by the thousands. In Jackson, Mayor Lumumba enacted an agreement to end arrests for misdemeanors and nonviolent offenses that activists believe will keep hundreds out of jail. Yet, hundreds more languish in detention centers and jails throughout the state. Activist Rukia Lumumba told me about a man bailed out by the Mississippi Bail Out Collective. He had spent two months in a DeSoto jail because he didn’t have $150. Thanks to the collective’s efforts, he is out now.

These are a just a few examples of the silo-busting work on the ground that makes the connections between culture, policing, health, immigration rights, and so much more. It’s a politic for our whole lives.

This work, these victories, are sunbursts in the midst of storms. We breathe. We listen. We plot. We dream. And we remember that it takes both the sunburst and the storm to make rainbows.

Makani Themba is an organizer, writer and strategist based in Jackson. Currently she serves as chief strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies. Makani is a long-time adviser to Kopkind and was a mentor in our first camp, in 1999, and then again in 2017.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on July 8, 2020, on The Nation‘s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Moonlight in Vermont

On Lake Champlain (photo: Jon Flanders)

Jon Flanders, a steadfast supporter of Kopkind, sent us this picture from the northern reaches of Vermont, where he’s visiting family. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Jon has been sending messages about the importance of Vitamin D, the latest good news from Cuba, the latest hair-raiser from New York, the latest protest in Troy, where he lives, the latest bulletin on global solidarity (here a wonderful talk by our friend Vijay Prashad on Che and a socialism of love), an upcoming concert for Cuba and so on. Jon is a retired railroad worker, an internationalist, an organizer of political events (here a recent discussion of labor history with JoAnn Wypijewski and others around Mike Stout’s new book about Homestead Steel, via a Zoom variant of the Connolly Forum), a photographer.

In any other July, we would be in the midst of a Kopkind camp right about now, at Tree Frog Farm in Southern Vermont. Jon’s moonlight photograph is from the opposite end of the state. It bears a message that also imbues Kopkind’s project: there is still beauty in this world; soak it in.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 14

6 07 2020

by Vasia Markides

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

(photos: Vasia Markides)

Something’s Happening Here

Stillwater, Maine

Biking through my neighborhood, I notice a new Trump/Pence sign on the lawn strewn with Americana ornaments. A far cry from the rainbow animal sculptures down the road celebrating LGBT pride. Our small community on the Stillwater River is sandwiched between the progressive college town of Orono, headquarters to the University of Maine, and the working-class paper mill community of Old Town, near the home of the Penobscot Nation and the world-famous canoe. These disparate places are connected by the river, which I am fortunate to have winding along my backyard. It was this river that offered sanctuary to my parents after a war divided our country, Cyprus, in 1974. This river was my companion as a child who spent most of her time outdoors. This river urged me to move with my family back to Maine from New York when, after eight years, the apple started to sour. This river, a small artery in the web of life, offers me relief today as humanity cries, I can’t breathe.

* * *

It may be hard for urbanites to understand the impact of nature’s elixir on those of us who choose a more rural existence. It is also hard here to maintain equilibrium kayaking down a lush river, say, knowing that tear gas and batons await so many who are dear as they take to city streets to demand basic human rights.

Over Zoom calls and driveway check-in sessions, I have heard friends struggle with depression and anxiety, crippled by fear.

Why am I at peace? 

At the risk of sounding detached, it struck me why my response feels different from what it perhaps should. The past two decades have dealt some First World blows. Financial hardship, physical injury, and professional disappointment were the start, but it was the two miscarriages and the premature death of seven people I adored that made the Grim Reaper more of a sidekick than a boogie monster.

At the same time, over those years, my anxiety about the state of the planet festered in the form of dystopian nightmares. Those nestled in my waking brain with the 2016 election. I knew nature would be sacrificed. Looking at my then-1-year-old, this felt like a hand around my throat.

Now, as human lungs labor across the globe, Earth has a reprieve. The Himalayas peek, unobscured by curtains of city smog. For a brief moment in the continuum of human destruction, a virus hit a pause button on us. The lonely filling station in town advertises gas at $1.48 a gallon. How low could the prices go? I wonder. Cars remain in the driveway, and billions of years of fossilized matter remains in the ground. Fewer particles choke the air.    

The planet’s future feels less grim, and in my tiny bubble this relieves more anxiety than Covid-19 produces. Could we collectively imagine that future without the suffering? Transfixed by the river, I have watched islands of ice break apart and thaw with each passing day, the geese announcing their victorious arrival in flying V formations. In the forest, seedlings take root around decaying birch trees, frogs croak sounds of a new season. With death comes life.

By confining us, the virus sends us inward. The killer becomes the universal muse, cracking open our minds and offering us new stories to tell. Anyone who has the luxury to reflect must at least acknowledge this moment of opportunity.

* * *

By month three of quarantine, those here who have yet to suffer a devastating personal loss appear to be adjusting. Like Alice falling down Wonderland’s well, we recognize our shattered reality. Familiarity with the Reaper offers us each a chance to start anew. As hibernation wanes, we can put one foot in front of the other and build a mosaic out of the shards. New projects arise; movements are born. People talk about revolutions.

In the forest, my now 4-year-old daughter finds a message, a painted rock hidden inside a dead tree trunk. On it is written the word breathe. She tells me she is going to leave it there, for nature. Yes, nature does need to breathe. She is our ventilator, after all. 

After years meandering this river’s edge, mosquitoes gnawing at my neck, ticks crawling up my scratched, muddy calf, I begin to understand the difference between living inside fear and living alongside it. Reassurance arrives in simple moments. A song lyric spontaneously crystallizes a thought and releases me from worry. Two bald eagles soar overhead just as, in the midst of a conversation, I mention my two late cousins, one having died of AIDS, the other of cancer. Timed just right, such occurrences stop me in my tracks, leave me dumbfounded. They remind me in the darkest hours that nature—this force that exists both inside and outside of us—hands us a kaleidoscope to see reality differently. Enables us to imagine what we cannot yet see, but might co-create. I walk, one foot in front of the other, soaking in the infinite hues of green.

Vasia Markides is a Cypriot-American artist, filmmaker, and activist. A painter by origin, Vasia is now director of the documentary Waking Famagusta and founder of The Famagusta Ecocity Project, an internationally recognized effort that aims to unite Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots in reclaiming the occupied ghost town of Famagusta, and reviving it as a model ecocity. She also freelances as a video producer in the US and abroad. Vasia participated in the Kopkind/Center for Independent Documentary Film Camp in 2018.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on July 1, 2020 on The Nation magazine’s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Truth in Every Joke

Lauren LoGiudice, an actor and comedian, typically creates characters from life experience. Below, “Spoiled Brat on the Beach”.

Lauren was a participant in Kopkind’s 2009 CineSlam mini-camp, organized around lgbtq film shorts. You can check out her characters and varied projects here. For the past few years she has also been doing impressions of Melania Trump in darkly comic short videos, public performances, and shows. She has a new book out: Inside Melania: What I Learned About Melania Trump by Impersonating Her.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 13

30 06 2020

by Jewelle Gomez

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

(photo: D. Sabin)

Something’s Happening Here

Oakland

I am deeply urban. My shoes, clothes, eyeglasses, are all assembled with an understanding of how they relate to pavement, changeable weather, and the glare bouncing off city buildings. From Boston to New York City to San Francisco and Oakland, I’ve felt perfectly attuned to the cityscape. But with quarantine, everything went askew, as if I turned a corner into the Twilight Zone.

We’d lived in Oakland for only several months before I left in January for New York City, where my play about Alberta Hunter was enjoying a successful run—an engagement that ended just before the coronavirus landed with both feet in the US. I returned to Oakland as the city was gearing up for lockdown. I thought this would be fortuitous; I’d write endlessly, perhaps in all genres. We had masks. We had access to food. I could read books for unending hours and watch movies and television shows til dawn. The money we previously spent on eating out, going to plays and movies we’d donate to relief efforts.

I have friends who have been teetering on the edge not of armed rebellion but of despondency. I restricted myself to one broadcast news show, allowing my anxiety to be channeled through the erudite rantings of Rachel Maddow as I pondered who cut her hair. I felt a warm spark at seeing other people’s homes in Zoom interviews of political/medical/legal experts. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s vast freezer of ice cream! Stacey Abrams’ bookshelf with a copy of The Night Tiger, a novel I’d been on the verge of ordering! I felt connected to them.

I couldn’t, however, reconnect with myself. Inertia settled around me like the fog I’d left behind in San Francisco—I couldn’t see the pen in my hand in front of my face. Sunny weather filled my days as camelia blossoms burst forth in the backyard. Birds trilled safely as if they knew they could mesmerize our indoor cats.

But if I read for more than three hours my eyes went blurry. My back rebelled from sitting, although I was only halfway through 10 seasons of the British detective series Vera. Even with my totally non-green thumb I was rewarded by my verdant backyard, a profusion of calla lilies, birds of paradise, and the struggling fuchsia I’d rescued from a plastic bin bag. After dutifully watering, though, I couldn’t just sit and watch them grow.

Something was missing: the ebb and flow of traffic; voices and laughter when people walked by, and any number of sounds that had underscored my life in the city. I enjoy the click of a cricket as much as the next person, but the roll of tires slowing for the STOP sign at the corner had always been the click track of my life.

So, I retreated to the little cottage office in our backyard in search of my own rhythms. I fell into them almost by accident. I’ve been a longtime fan of the British radio soap opera “The Archers,” so I tuned in and was immediately soothed by various English accents, the evocation of a world continuing on. I couldn’t write anyway, so I used listening to the radio online as a time to clear out the boxes still cluttering my office since we’d moved. And here’s where I found what was missing.  

A fragment of history tumbling out of the author’s archive

In the little cottage, once I’d disposed of the recycling that we humans tend to box up and lug from home to home, I dove into a large box of photographs. There I was aged 9 in my tap-dancing costume; there was the past tumbling out: my youthful great grandmother; my best friend and I looking unbelievably dewy at our high school graduation; a group of feminist poets after a benefit reading; my first publisher and I when we were young enough to stand up all day at the American Booksellers Association; a clipping from the fight against the New York Times over its coverage of AIDS; and a kaleidoscope of handsome women with whom I’d been lovers over the previous 40 years.

Nancy Bereano, founder of Firebrand Books, and Jewelle at the American Booksellers Association

That was what had been missing—being deeply sunk into myself and a history that had always been sweet and dangerous, creatively rebellious and persistent in the face of grief and greed. I started to feel the heartbeat emerging from within. The city sounds, my natural (or learned) soundtrack, were really only the background, like elevator music. The faces and memories were pulses reconnecting me to the well of emotion and ideas that sparked my life and my writing. They were the jumpstart I had needed. 

The author’s great grandmother, Grace, 1897

Once the engine turned over, I figured out how to divide my day into past, present, and future. Now I spend some time continuing to organize old treasures whose roots in last century’s battles against oppression keep me upright. For the future I investigate what nonprofits could use my support to defeat voter suppression—again, as we did in the 1960s; or to find safe places for those without shelter; or gather food for out-of-work parents. (I also plan what to wear when I do return to those urban sounds, and finally get to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first gay liberation march on its 51st anniversary.) With the past and the future regular parts of my day, the now feels more compelling; change seems more possible. Now I’ll get back to my new play if it still wants me.

Jewelle Gomez is the author of The Gilda Stories, now in its 27th year in print and recently optioned for a TV miniseries. Her plays about James Baldwin and about Alberta Hunter have been produced on both coasts. She is a member of Kopkind’s honorary board.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared June 24, 2020, on The Nation site. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Letter From Peter Linebaugh (Archival)

On June 29 the Supreme Court declined to hear a death penalty case, thus allowing the government to proceed with the legalized killing of four men in July, the first federal executions in 17 years. What follows is an excerpt from a letter by Peter Linebaugh, written at another crossroads of epidemic, police violence and execution. The letter originally appeared in Socialist Review No. 177, July/August 1994. With thanks to the Socialist Review Archive.

Protesters in front of the Supreme Court, right before their arrest, 2017 (photo: JP Keenan/Sojourners)

When the state kills one person, it is preparing the killing of two. When it kills two, it is preparing the way to kill three. And with three, it prepares to get ready to kill many. Perhaps these changes are not arithmetic; perhaps they are geometric. Or perhaps they are without a mathematical pattern at all. But what is clear is that the death of one leads to the death of many by hook or by crook.

Those who favoured the Vietnam War argued by analogy with a line of upright dominoes. We may put forward a domino theory of the death penalty. One domino knocks over another, and then another and another in a clattering series of collapses, until none are left standing. The death penalty is the first domino. It is followed by another. This second domino might be, let us say, the more frequent informal shoot outs by the police. A third might be a public health disaster where certain populations are deliberately left to die. A fourth might be a massacre for purposes of terrorising a city or a region. A fifth might be the slow enervation of wage reductions and unemployment that inescapably leads to fatal wasting away. Life is devalued.

We might also compare the death penalty to the thin edge of a wedge. A small tap with the hammer is enough to lodge that thin edge into the thick section of the toughest tree trunk. Another blow of the hammer finds a space among the fibres, and a third blow widens it. Afterwards it is only a question of the number of blows from the sledge required to split the trunk in twain. The death of one leads to the death of many.

In Hitler’s Germany the Reichstag Fire Decree of 1933 imposing the death penalty led to others, like the Law for the Protection of German Blood, the Law on Dangerous Habitual Criminals, or the Decree on Asocial Elements which culminated in the death camps of the 1940s. The wedge widened, from the death of one, to a genocide, all in a decade.

Looking at the US states which have reinstituted the death penalty, can we not see that subsequent to the death penalty is the growth of other forms of social morbidity – gang violence, family violence, police violence, tuberculosis, AIDS?

The US Congress is about to make a mighty turn of the screw as it begins hearings on the expansion of the Federal Death Penalty. They are considering 50 new capital offences.

. . .

The state’s brief [in a case] at the Supreme Court of Connecticut … proposed a truly loathsome sentiment. ‘When we lose the collective “nerve” to act, however unpleasant the action required, we sow the seeds of anarchy.’ This notion is profoundly foul. It is the idea that lay behind President Clinton’s personal attendance upon the execution of Ricky Ray Rector in February 1992, and which prepared so directly his victory in the New Hampshire primaries. It is the notion of blood sacrifice. The politician must prove his readiness to kill. It is revolting in every possible way. It is the law of the tyrant; it is the practice of the bully.

Peter Linebaugh is a radical historian. His books include The London Hanged, The Many Headed Hydra and, most recently, Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He was a mentor at Kopkind in 2014 and a guest speaker in 2019.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 11

15 06 2020

by Jon Crawford

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

(photo: Jon Crawford)

Something’s Happening Here

Mountain View, California

It turned out to be an Arkansas-sized dog in a California-sized apartment, so I asked my landlord to pull up the remains of last season’s tomato bushes to ease the recreations of the foster hound. I didn’t plant the tomatoes. The patio’s concrete had stopped at a freshly tilled plot, but they grew—volunteers—from generations of fertile farmland.

“Distraction,” says the dog trainer, who is standing six feet away from me, the scent of Purell bathing her fingers. “Distraction. It is one of three key elements to training a dog.”

I understand distraction. It’s California’s biggest product, along with food. Social media has perfected distraction. TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, even the news, pinged directly to your phone, snapping your focus away from what’s in front of you. I live in Santa Clara County, the first US epicenter for Covid-19, and have a job in Silicon Valley. Until the crisis, with my three meals usually served at work, I didn’t venture much outside the work-to-home routine. Then suddenly the place felt as if everyone and the redwood trees were holding their breath. BARK! The dog at the end of the leash has seen the only other dog and is entranced with a desire to say hello.

“No pulling,” the trainer commands. The dog had gone too far. “Distance,” the second rule to training a dog.

Distraction helps curb bad behavior in a dog. Say it sees a squirrel; it becomes excited, even anxious, therefore it cannot concentrate on your request. Because we want to control the dog, for its safety and our peace of mind, we lure its attention away with a high-value treat, cheese or sausage, something special. We make sure a dog understands distance because the dog knows when you can’t see it, and if not properly trained, when your back is turned it might become unreliable.

An affluent county, we listened to the experts, the scientists, and prepared for the curve even before state mandates. At first, sheltering in place felt like a cozy day inside. Almost like one of those looping low-fi music videos, mellow beats with an illustrated fox in a sweater doing homework filling the screen, anxiety curated away. Until, RING! My parents call. The virus hit Arkansas. There is no shelter in place. The curve goes up. Doordash doesn’t deliver out there, not where they live. Wholefoods, nope; it doesn’t either. Who in the family is the healthiest and can risk going into town? RING! My sister in Toronto, asks the same question. What can I do? A simple video call, a simulation.

The leash, when tugged, is tight and choking. The dog returns, no longer chasing the scent of the other dog, or the smell of the soil between the cracks of the concrete. “Duration,” the trainer says, is the foundation of training: start small and add time.

I’ve been here over three years, in Mountain View, with predictably pleasant weather, not like Little Rock, where the humidity hangs like a comforter, both oppressive and consoling. When you live in a place designed to make the world seem closer, the city itself starts to lose its sense of regionality. Now regionality starts to matter. A sense of place, a culture made by the habits of people, gathering, cooking, watching, and holding each other, together. The feeling of being home, of knowing a spot no one else knows, knowing someone. Here, at this moment, a city full of people from all over the world, who connect the world, but whom I have rarely ever seen, can feel sterile.

The dog learned to sit nearly in an instant. But she won’t hold it. Not for long. This is because I wasn’t paying attention to when I would give her praise. Timing matters.

Training is really the study of behavior. Something this town knows well. At some point, when no one is looking, when we have waited for the appropriate time, I hope we will give chase, slip the leash, and jump up into each other’s arms—without a word of reprimand. We will remember what it felt like to be in our first bar, to see a film with others, to eat in a small diner, or hear live music, we will remember to wander off the leash and find new smells, celebrating the places and people that allow us to gather. Or, perhaps, we will remain where we are, well trained, our behavior acceptable, content with distraction, able to be left alone.

Jon Crawford is a documentary filmmaker, working in the Bay Area and often the American South. He participated in film camp, a collaboration between Kopkind and the Center for Independent Documentary, in 2018 and 2019.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared June 10, 2020, on The Nation site. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Poster From Alex Melamid

Copy, print, post (legally, of course). And kindly wear your mask, don’t throw it.

Alex Melamid is a Russian-born artist, an emigré to New York, where he has lived and worked since the 1970s. In the Soviet Union he was instrumental, with Vitaly Komar and others, in the Sots art movement (a parallel to pop art in the West). Komar and Melamid were a creative team until 2003. One of their projects, “The People’s Choice,” about popular dreams of art and the funny thing about opinion polls, was chronicled in JoAnn Wypijewski’s Painting By Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art. Alex was a virtual guest speaker at Kopkind when that was unusual, in 2016.