Scenes From a Pandemic: 30

26 10 2020

by Nadia Maria Mohamed

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

(photo: Nadia Maria Mohamed)

Something’s Happening Here

Jersey City, New Jersey

Our diasporic family lives between three places, at least figuratively: the United States, Ecuador, and Egypt. Ecuador was hit hardest by the pandemic in regions where migrants had returned home from Spain, bringing the virus with them. Images of dead bodies deserted in the streets of Guayaquil made my mom’s anxiety about Covid-19 soar. For weeks, my parents would not even walk Pechochito, their feisty Pomeranian, around the block. And so, I did what any loving (and newly unemployed) first-generation daughter would do: I took care of their grocery shopping and their business; I became an interim landlord.

When I collect the rent at their walk-up buildings in the Heights, I use my staccato Spanglish and the smattering of Arabic phrases I am likely butchering. I try to make small talk with the tenants. How are they doing? Some are willing to chat, others not. Not everyone wears a mask when they hand me cash, which I am terrible at counting. Sometimes they look at my gloves with a smirk. Can they see the uneasy smile that’s hidden behind my mask? Does it show in my eyes? Does it matter?

My first day on the job, a tenant I’ll call Eduardo told me he could pay April but likely not May, and from there, who knows? He lost his job at a local restaurant, and his wife, a few months pregnant with their first child, had also been laid off. When he handed me a wad of cash—singles, 20s, a few 50s to count—I asked him first if they had enough for food. He assured me they did, for now.

* * *

My parents met while learning English in the 1970s, beneficiaries of the 1965 Hart-Cellars Act, which lifted longstanding racist quotas on emigration from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. My Ecuadorian mom swore my Egyptian dad was Puerto Rican and too proud to speak Spanish, while he thought she was Filipina. He worked as a busboy at Knickerbocker restaurant; she, as a secretary at a ribbon factory. Barely 20 years old, they married secretly within a few months’ time, much to my abuelita’s chagrin. They managed to learn a second language together without sharing a first. And over 40-plus years built a family, and a few small businesses—between, around, and through those pregnant pauses anyone using a second language knows well.


My immigrant parents started out with a greasy spoon restaurant, Our Place, which would be hurting in this crisis. Now they are landlords to small businesses like it, and to the people who work in them — a step (or staircase) removed from the front line of this economic crisis, but a part of it no less. Since Covid hit, it’s been my job to collect the rent.


Our Place was one of those businesses, a greasy spoon that never knew the luxury of a separation between work and home life. Regular customers like Ralph and Neil would scoop up my siblings from school and walk them to the back of the restaurant, where I entertained myself in a makeshift playpen while my parents served up generously portioned meals for $5 or less. Our Place would be hurting in this crisis. The response of local and federal governments to protect the small immigrant-run businesses that are the lifeblood of Jersey City has been anemic. Many have closed permanently.

Now, we are the landlords of those small businesses, a step (or staircase) removed from the front line of this economic crisis, but a part of it no less. My parents became landlords after experiencing the powerlessness of being displaced tenants. A new landlord didn’t renew the lease to their restaurant, a coffee shop in New York City called Straw Place, on 23rd and Lexington. They never wanted to be in the “pocket” of a landlord again—so they became one, eventually, where it was more within their means: Jersey City. There’s empathy that comes from similar lived experiences. It informs how my parents have handled the peculiar profession of owning and managing the property where other people make their homes and livelihoods.

* * *

Eduardo started working again. His wife—call her Amelia—is due any day now. She mentioned that Christ Hospital, which is within walking distance, is no longer accepting maternity patients because of Covid concerns. She said she’ll have to go to the Medical Center instead. I gave her my phone number in case she needs a ride.

Some of our tenants are essential workers at tiny produce shops. Others have been on Section 8 or disability as long as they’ve been our tenants, and the pandemic has yet to affect their ability to make rent. Others are furloughed or, worse, unemployed. Not all are eligible for government support.

For those who’ve had trouble making rent, we’ve set up payment plans. Some people have used their security deposits; and are set to pay that back, little by little. Others are getting by with help from their family or friends. Thus far, everyone has been managing with this piecemeal solution to a systemic problem. And if it at some point it stops “working,” it means that we can’t pay our insurance, property repairs, taxes, or incomes.

* * *

My father may sell one of the buildings. The other day he led interested parties up the long narrow stairway, leaning on his cane for support. Nearly every tenant opened the door and exchanged niceties with him, but they refused to allow the prospective owner in.

Sometimes, my dad is direct about his desire for me to take over the family business. Before the pandemic, I had never seriously considered it. I had preferred to observe, to make films, to protest, to write and fundraise for social justice nonprofits imagining alternatives to the rat race that is late-stage racial capitalism. That’s how we make change, right? By raising awareness? I had never considered myself to be a responsible party, an agent, someone to be held to account. Yet, what becomes more possible when we bring ourselves into the frame?

Arundhati Roy urges us to understand the pandemic as a “portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” Families at the front line of this crisis are taking urgent direct action to protect themselves and their loved ones by organizing rent strikes and occupying vacant homes. The calls to cancel the rent continue.

As Jersey City edges further toward the unaffordable, violent blandness synonymous with gentrification by the Trumps and Kushners of real estate, it is the mom-and-pop landlords who, at their discretion, keep the city vaguely affordable for working-class immigrants and people of color. Systemic solutions to the speculative market and displacement, like community land trusts, are sorely needed.

Now, I wonder: for those of us with a modicum of privilege and power, what’s our place, our cross-class contribution to opening this “pandemic portal”? Which “dead ideas” will we try to shoehorn through? What new can we grow in the shell of the old? Can we apply the imagination we often only talk about, and usher in a new phase in our relationship to land and ownership? What can we make of our labor and legacy?

Nadia Maria Mohamed is a Jersey City–born and –based media maker. She participated in Kopkind’s 2019 camp on the theme of democratizing the economy. This is her first published article.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared October 21, 2020, on The Nation’s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Photograph From West Virginia God Is on the Ballot

(photo: Tina Burns)

Mary Lewis, who has been Kopkind’s chef, creating beautiful meals for most of our summer sessions since 2011, sent us the picture above, which a friend took, of an ad that covered a full page of their local newspaper in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Mary’s next message, a day later, reported that someone had unlatched her front gate, stolen her oppositional political sign, and smashed her fall tableau pumpkin.

Martinsburg, Berkeley County, is in the state’s eastern panhandle. Across the river from Wheeling, on the western border, is Ohio, where shifting politics and demographics inspired this interesting pre-election analysis from our friends at Working-Class Perspectives.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 28

14 10 2020

by Matthew Gossage

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

Matthew Gossage with his new baby. (photo: Abby Batko-Taylor)

Something’s Happening Here

On the Road, Austin to Metro DC

Before. “Nope. You’ve now just infected your other clean hand with germs,” my wife’s OB/GYN dryly instructed. She then put on her own latex gloves and demonstrated how to put them on and take them off while keeping your hands sterile.

We were in my wife and newborn son’s hospital room the day after his birth, on Leap Day, February 29. CNN, muted on the TV above us, was showing the same three b-roll shots of ambulances in front of a nursing home in King County, Washington, outside of Seattle; over and over again.

My wife had given birth to our son a week before all hospitals in Austin closed to visitors. I had been able to be in the delivery room and attempt to sleep in their room with them. Our doctors were on daily calls about the pandemic and preparing for it: Get ready. This is going to be serious.

“Yeah, you should probably just stay home and not leave the house,” the OB/GYN recommended in her usual inconclusively sarcastic tone, which previously had always been reassuring.

Three days later, people at the supermarket glanced at my purple latex gloves, not wanting to make eye contact afterward. He’s brought the germs. Or maybe my hands were simply another reminder that unforeseen change was coming. Ordinary life was unraveling. Or fleeting.

There were no reported cases yet in Austin. Yet the sense was It’s coming…

It was 3 AM, and the grocery store was busier than a Saturday afternoon. Going to the store at that hour had always been so relaxing for me. I had been able to take my time, getting stoned beforehand and going slowly through the aisles. This night carts were everywhere. Family members and college roommates yelled at one another across other carts.

“They got baked beans.”

“Yeah! Get ’em all.”

Freshly printed signs from the customer service desk were Scotch-taped to some shelves: Limit 2.

I had a detached perspective, still ecstatic over the healthy birth of our second son.

No diapers. OK.

No wipes. OK.

My family had entered a nurturing and joyous bubble that was about to overlap with a global and collective bubble of sickness, hundreds of thousands of deaths, a foreseeable yet unstoppable economic depression, disruption, and anxiety.

I strolled down the aisles away from the shelves that formerly held canned goods and pasta and toilet paper, and tried out the produce section. I crossed paths with a fellow bemused middle-aged man, and we shared a smile.

“Time to get creative,” I said as we both looked on a large shelf with nothing but cucumbers.

* * *

(photo: Matthew Gossage)

The composting toilet got here! Another brown box had arrived on our porch.

Months into the pandemic now, I felt I should be getting an honorary mention from Jeff Bezos for doing my part to get him to $200 billion in wealth. (I know he’s been busy, so a Christmas card would be fine.)

I opened the Luggable Loo ® box and put the portable toilet in our “Front of moving truck” pile in our moving staging area. It shared a plastic bin with gloves, hand sanitizer, wipes, and granola bars, so it wouldn’t get mixed up with our stuff that would be packed into the back of the moving truck.

We were leaving Austin after 15 years, moving outside Washington, D.C., to be close to family who could help with our domestic chaos, which had yet to become normalized. To minimize “sharing germs” (as our oldest son, a 4-year-old, understood this new world), we planned our driving route to avoid going inside, anywhere.

* * *

Well, there are some unintended benefits to this now. Somewhere between Texarkana and Little Rock, this crossed my mind as I sat with my pants down at my ankles, using our new toilet in an empty parking lot behind a permanently closed Mexican restaurant: There are a lot of closed businesses now to privately take a shit outside of.

I am not alone in finding time on the john to be one of the more relaxing and thought-provoking daily activities. (In this case, the john is a seat on a bucket, with a bag, which you seal and then keep in the bucket until it can be disposed.) It was an unseasonably cool afternoon. A thunderstorm had passed, and I watched as a portly raccoon stumbled out of the dumpster across the lot from me. Maybe the place had just closed…

The swirl of recent events went through my head again on that toilet outside the restaurant. A new healthy son, a global pandemic, shutdowns, working from home with no day care for our oldest son, a cross-country move with no one helping, so my wife and I could try to stay healthy and be able to take care of young children.

After I had my turn on the toilet, it was my wife’s turn, and I took over holding the baby. I thought of the people we knew and worked with in Austin who had had Covid-19 already. A young woman with two children had just come out of a fever that kept her on the couch for days. Her oldest son is 12, and had been taking care of the baby while the mom lay prostrate. He kissed his mother on her forehead when she got up for the first time. “I thought you were dying,” he told her through tears.

I kissed my son’s forehead, then his cheeks, knees, and belly, I said to him, “Well, I knew we were heading for interesting times,” before handing him back, packing up the Luggable Loo®, and buckling up for the drive.

Matthew Gossage is a documentary filmmaker and media consultant to nonprofits. He participated in Kopkind’s camp for journalists and activists in 2013, and in the Kopkind/CID Film Camp workshop in 2009.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on October 7, 2020, on The Nation’s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Love Song…

Anyone who wasn’t paying close attention might have missed that 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the success of the womens suffrage movement. ‘Oh, you know, Covid…’ somehow doesn’t feel satisfactory as an explanation for the diminishment. Patty Carpenter and Verandah Porche, our friends and neighbors in Guilford, Vermont, have written a new song called Precious Right (Vote).” They call it a love song for voters and a musical appeal to people who feel disenfranchised, not included, or alienated from the electoral system.They ask you to share it as widely as possible.

Precious Right (Vote)




Scenes From a Pandemic: 27

5 10 2020

by James E. Garcia

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

(photo: James E. Garcia)

Something’s Happening Here

Phoenix

In 2010, after the passage of the most punitive anti-immigrant law in the nation, Arizona Senate Bill 1070, I stood up at a meeting of mostly white community and business leaders and angrily lamented: “My people are being hunted.” No one in the room said a word, but I’m sure most knew it was true.

The lead sponsor of that infamous “show us your papers” bill, then–State Senate President Russell Pearce, the self-described head of the Arizona’s Tea Party Republicans, had made it clear that no matter how many immigrant families were terrorized and separated or how much it cost the state’s economy, which relied heavily on the cheap labor of undocumented immigrants, he was determined to get as many of my immigrant brothers and sisters as possible deported and as soon as possible. My wife and I are US citizens, but the insidious nature of the legislation hit home when my 7-year-old daughter, near tears, asked me one evening if we were going to be arrested. I held her and assured her that was not going to happen, though I knew tens of thousands of immigrant parents statewide could not say the same.

A lot has changed in 10 years. Arizona’s SB 1070 and the Trump administration’s persecution of immigrants and refugees have inspired a wave of grassroots resistance here and nationwide that’s helped elect more progressives to Congress and will likely turn Arizona blue in November. But for the time being at least, my people are still being hunted by federal immigration authorities and complicit local police—and now a deadly coronavirus.


In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, about 50 percent of the 141,000-plus Covid cases have been among Latinos. In Phoenix, almost every city block of our Latino neighborhoods, could be dotted with shrines for the sick and the dead.


As of this writing, more than 42,000 Latinos have died of Covid-19, perishing at a rate one and a half times that of whites, according to the COVID Tracking Project. More than 39,000 black people have died of the coronavirus—at an even worse rate, nearly two and a half times that of whites. Latinos and blacks are hospitalized with the virus more than four and a half times times as often as whites, and both communities have been crushed by the pandemic’s economic fallout. Asked at press briefings in early April about the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on people of color, Trump called it “terrible,” insisted that his administration is “doing everything in our power to address this challenge,” and rambled on about how low unemployment rates were for blacks and Latinos before the pandemic. Over the past five months, the president has pushed to keep low-wage-earning Latinos in agriculture, the restaurant and hotel industry, and in meatpacking plants nationwide on the job.

In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, about 50 percent of the 141,000-plus Covid cases have been among Latinos. (We make up 31 percent of the county population.) In Phoenix, almost every city block of our Latino neighborhoods, could be dotted with shrines for the sick and the dead.

All this comes in a national context, also, of a spike in bias crimes against Latinos in recent years, according to FBI data. The most heinous example of anti-Latino hate came in August 2019 when a white supremacist gunned down 46 people at an El Paso Walmart. The shooter killed 22 people, almost all Latinos. (A 23d victim died in April.) The killer, who confessed, told police he had driven 10 hours from his Dallas suburb to the border to “kill Mexicans” and stop “the Hispanic invasion”—echoing words President Trump had repeated more than 20 times in the eight months leading up to the shooting. El Paso left me feeling that Latinos had gone from being hunted to massacred. Little did we know a scourge was looming just around the corner.

Given Trump’s punishing attacks on immigrants, including a policy that separated thousands of migrant children from their parents, a shutdown of all asylum requests by refugees at the US-Mexico border, and the likelihood that the president’s woefully negligent response to the pandemic will lead to the deaths of another 80,000 to 90,000 people of color by January, I can’t help wondering if Trump’s real goal is to ethnically cleanse Latinos and other people of color from this country. After his repeated refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election, I believe Trump is capable of almost anything.

Still, I believe Trump will lose re-election. His core supporters will stick with him, but most Americans have had their fill of the president’s chaos, bullying, and chicanery. He won’t go quietly, and he certainly won’t shut up once he’s out, but this presidency will end. And despite all that’s happened, the caging of our children, the denigration of our culture, the horrendous death toll wreaked by the virus, I believe the Latino community will emerge stronger than ever from these devastating times.

The community’s spirit, resilience, and its more recent momentum in US society is too strong and deeply rooted. There are now more than 60 million Latinos in the United States, nearly 80 percent of whom are US citizens, with an estimated economic impact of more than $2.6 trillion, a figure equal to the GDP of Brazil or Australia. This year, more than 32 million Latinos will be eligible to vote, an increase of about 4 million people since the last election, and grassroots groups have been working feverishly to register hundreds of thousands of them by November. More importantly, Latinos today are better educated, more politically engaged and influential than ever before. So, no matter what Trump and many of his followers may think, we’re here to stay. In Arizona, our growing clout helped recall Senator Pearce, oust the odious Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and elect Senator Kirsten Sinema in 2016. The state’s blue wave, which is being driven in great part by a rising brown tide, will almost certainly help usher in victories in November for Democratic US Senate candidate Mark Kelly, former vice president Joe Biden, and a wave of young Democratic Latino and non-Latino candidates in the state legislature. I’m not a Democrat, but trends like these give me hope, which we all so desperately need, that mi gente, my people, could soon go from being hunted to helping lead this state and, yes, this country out of one of its darkest periods in modern times to better days.

James E. Garcia is a journalist and playwright based in Phoenix. He was a mentor at Kopkind in 2013.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on September 30, 2020 on The Nation’s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Glimpse of 7th Grade

(illustration: Lorena Mondragón, for The Intercept)

Debbie Nathan, an El Paso-based journalist who wrote #1 in our pandemic series, has been virtually accompanying a 12-year-old refugee while the child struggles with online learning in an apartment by herself, often supervising another Latina child, 8, whose mother also works and who has her own school computer with headphones. Génnezys, a pseudonym, is one of the thousands of children who were torn from their parents in 2018 under the Trump administration’s family separation policy and ultimately reunited. What follow are excerpts from Debbie’s observation of pandemic-era middle school, published in The Intercept on October 4. Debbie was a mentor with James Garcia in 2013.

“Know that I see you. I hear you. I’m with you,” one young teacher intoned to the kids right after introducing herself. They had names like Hassan, Rasheeda, Yennifer, and Travis. “Black Lives Matter,” the teacher added. She was met by silence from her new students, and she could not see their reactions either. She asked them to turn on their mics and cameras, but getting them to comply was harder than pulling their teeth.

The kids are alone. They have no books. The only class that resembles normal school is math. As in times past, the teacher writes figures on a board and explains what they mean. The other classes are a mishmash of hyperactive YouTube science videos with men who speak too fast, and a woman with a white coat and test tubes performing experiments — work the students normally would be absorbed with in a classroom lab, but which they can only stare at now from afar, wall-eyed. An art class features hip-hop music, whose teaching intention is muddled, and digital choose-and-drag stickers and emojis. Strange, sci-fi cartoon people in Génnezys’s American History class purport to recount the high points of the antebellum human bondage, the Civil War, and the Black Codes. After that lesson, I asked Génnezys if she understood what a slave was. She still didn’t know — though she did remember the cartoon guy saying that a man named Frederick Douglass had been forcibly separated from his mother. She knew what that meant, from firsthand experience, but didn’t mention it in class. With me, she minimized her experience. She’d learned that Frederick Douglass was an infant when he was taken. “But, um, I was 10 when it happened,” she said. “I was a big kid, not a little kid.”

On the second day of school, a teacher asked, “What is your favorite thing to do?” Amid the mass silence, Génnezys activated her mic and bravely answered: “Play with slime,” she said. . . . “Slime” is a faddish kid product that’s been around since the 1970s. Back then, it was valued by boys for its gross-out appeal. Now it’s prettier, smells nice, and is all the rage among preteen and teen girls. Many make it from a home recipe involving glue, borax, food coloring, and plastic beads from craft stores like Michael’s. . . . “I love YouTube slime videos,” Génnezys told me. The site has a plethora of young girls extolling their slime collections, as well productions with sexy women’s voices doing ASMR routines, and images of long, manicured fingernails digging languorously into the goo. . . . If Génnezys were to activate her camera for her classmates and teachers, they might see her furiously and endlessly twisting, pulling, and punching her strange doughs as she fidgets at the computer and tries hard to do her schoolwork. A few months ago, Wired magazine interviewed a neuroscientist and psychologist who suggested that people might be gravitating toward slime during the Covid-19 crisis to simulate the feeling of touching actual people.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 26

28 09 2020

by a New Orleans Plague Pod

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

Something’s Happening Here

New Orleans

We have stepped into the gap of the state, because the state would kill us. There is no benevolent daddy! Although Benevolent Daddy would be an excellent drag name.

Aesha RasheedNew Orleans / Bulbancha

In March, just after Mayor Latoya Cantrell issued a stay-at-home order, Aesha Rasheed convened the first Zoom call among members of eight households who have formed a mutual-aid pod. In part, this is modeled on hurricane evacuation resource share groups that have existed here for years. The group does not meet in physical space. We live in multigenerational, blended family households, work in essential services, have deep friendships outside this configuration, own small businesses, are immuno-compromised, etc. What follows are extracts drawn from Zoom check-in calls on the new and full moon, interviews, and a WhatsApp group thread.

The place we begin is constantly shifting land, shifting waterlines, change, cyclical upheavals. We come from people who have moved and/or been moved. The lies of permanence that colonialism tried to feed us we choke on, spit out. The pod was born in songs, storms, newsrooms, prayers, dyke bars, DIY Mardi Gras krewes, and dark moon rituals. We are many streams converging. We are queers migrating to be in community. We are a community formed in relationship to shifting ecologies. There is no model; we are able to meet our own needs.

Aesha Rasheed: One of the threads of the origin of this pod is an awareness that change will come. We draw upon a hurricane disaster plan that acknowledges that historic forces of change would wash over our lives—into what is unknown. This is an avenue for putting into practice the ethos that nobody will be left behind.

Naima: Family potluck dinners on Wednesdays, introspective pod calls once a month, backyard hangs with our breasts out, telling stories of our queer youths, of our families, of our dreams…. With all of the uncertainty around time and space, and forward progress, our abundance house, our pod, held me together when I was stuck in my head, when I missed friends in Brooklyn or family in California. They were there to share their soaps, salads, breads, laughter, and stories, and it made everything feel a little less lonely.

Does anyone have a tall ladder and a way to transport it?
Our AC is acting up and I’m going to try to change the filter
and see if that helps.

(posted by Cherry)

Kris has a ladder

(posted by Steeby)

Akua: Reciprocity as daily ritual has held me together. Practicing exchange rather than transaction, trade rather than extraction, all with the ease of breathing. Oxygen in, carbon out: a need, an offering.

Steeby: We are an affiliated network of care. A channel that we can always tune into… It is organic, drawing from a default trust that comes from the particular configuration of our affiliations and a deep queer kinship.

Aesha: New Orleans is a broke city; everybody has a job and two hustles. People are figuring out how to get around the reality of capitalism because it’s not working for them. What lineage do we call in? The legacy of making it up, doing it for ourselves. We are building upon muscle memory of collective leadership and interdependence.

Costco call in. Holler by 9pm tonight if you want
anything from tomorrow’s Costco run. Also I am up for
splitting some fruits and veggies and other stuff,
hit me up!

(posted by Shana)

AH: It’s been helpful to have a structure for food resources and navigating this scary time. And I would like it to be more explicitly a political resource. I would be interested in how this will translate politically.

RC: This is a practice and possibility. Yes, sure, we can talk about the fall of capitalism and new emergences in broad terms. But then there is the human reality of what we do in the moment. This is the fluid, psychic, and literal connection with y’all. Praxis meets flesh on the other side of the screen.

Shana: On a personal level the pod has offset natural tendencies of self-isolation both logistically and emotionally. Our Zoom calls have been a mix of: collective prayer/ritual, fun silly games, check-ins, and logistics. In this way we speak of what we want to use our force for together…

Roses and watermelon, an offering at the tomb of the unnamed slave at St. Augustine Church in Treme

Hi friends! I’m excited about our virtual gathering
this week for full moon in Scorpio!
Shall we gather Wednesday evening at our usual 9pm time?
As a reminder, we are gonna discuss the question Akua
posed on the new moon: What are a few values you hope
we will practice together this summer?
N
**Read “this summer” as a summer of Global Pandemic plus
Hurricane Evacuation 1.0
aka Visions for Collective Navigation of “the Waters”

(reposted by Ron)

Ron: The pod experience is a window into envisioning what we need without police, without the system. At the root: dreaming; make ‘the system’ obsolete; a network of care and support. I have felt supported in the midst of collapse. I haven’t had to go to the grocery store. Our conversations have been thoughtful and explicit. I’m not usually a “hope person”—I can see what is possible!

Hurricane Prep June 4 ACTIONS:
Gas up cars, go bags, cash stacked, people checked on!
By Friday night: Drop addresses and info
for gathering places—evac and safety spots. phone numbers.
emergency contacts.
Print this out on Saturday!
Altar work tomorrow night with
full moon and a lunar eclipse.
Harness energy for visions we want.

(posted by Aesha, as Tropical Storm Cristobal was heading to New Orleans)

Kris: The structure of the pod radiates out. It has been a grounding space and a spiritual resource.

Kara: Alongside the pod, these texts have sustained me: Development Drowned and Reborn: The Blues and Bourbon Restorations in Post-Katrina New Orleans, by Clyde Woods; The Yellow House, by Sarah Broom; Marking Time Making Place: An Essential Chronology of Blacks in New Orleans since 1718, by James B. Borders IV, ed.; Roadside Geology of Louisiana, by Darwin Spearing; Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor.

Selma: A spell for this moment—or my invitation for dreaming together—draws from an Islamic prayer. Any time I’m washing my hands my intention is to cleanse all irritations and invite them to go down the drain. I’ve done that while washing my hands for 20 seconds—y’know, to get off the physical germs; and understanding that the virus of corona is fear, I would like to cleanse those vibrations off as well. So I speak into a drain—may this water be a healing water. Speak what you want into the water. You have to build trust with the water.

Sarah: I have gratitude for being woven into something that already existed before my participation. Friendships and relationships have been fragmented and disjointed through Covid. It’s a community of abundance and visioning.

Aesha: What is survival? Something about the surrender. The Hopi prayer says: Let go of the shore, flow to center, and then look to see who is around you. You can’t rely on the same things. Release attachment to outcome, and center joy.

Hey
C’mon
Come out
Wherever you are
We need to have this here meeting
At this tree
Ain’ even been
Planted
Yet
—June Jordan

(posted by Steeby)

This word collage by a New Orleans Plague Pod was initiated by kara lynch, a media artist, educator, and collective practitioner who participated in Kopkind’s camp on democratizing the economy in 2019. The other main writers/editors are Rosana/RC Cruz, Abram Himelstein, Aesha Rasheed, and Elizabeth Steeby.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on thenation.com on September 23, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 22

31 08 2020

by Kristin R. Pak/ 이영숙

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

Government–supplied provisions for any person in quarantine in South Korea because of Covid-19. (photo: Joey Weinman / Courtesy)

Something’s Happening Here

Seoul

Masks have always been common in Korea. People wear loose ones to avoid tanning their faces or to cover makeup-less mugs. Instead of calling in sick with a cold, they are expected to work with a mask to protect their coworkers. Terrible air pollution prompts about half the people to wear masks, and since antiquity, masks have come out every spring, when the Gobi Desert blankets east Asia with fine sand during Yellow Dust Season. Since the onset of the pandemic, masks have been mandated on all public transportation, including taxis, in Seoul and its suburbs. Nearly everyone complies, with drivers and other riders reminding maskless passengers of the requirement. No one takes violent offense; people are always in your business in Korea. Until late August, following a right-wing rally that caused a spike in infections, masks weren’t mandated here in most other settings. It was largely unnecessary, since almost everyone already wears them, although some establishments had posted signs requiring them.

This past spring, after returning to Seoul from a visit to New York, I’d sit with friends in restaurants and parks discussing reports from the United States about mask fury and toilet paper hoarding and fights over hand sanitizer. Although Korea was “on pause,” we never locked down like US cities. After the crisis began in Daegu, with a member of a secretive Christian church who was a “super spreader,” the government response here and the public’s trust in that response made the difference.


Masks are commonplace. Test results within 24 hours are the only acceptable standard. Everyone in quarantine receives government provisions, including non-citizens. People accept contact tracing because it’s in everyone’s interest — and, we love drinking and socializing with friends.


Besides long-established mask wearing, other aspects of Korean culture and history helped contain Covid-19. The 2015 MERS outbreak had put disaster plans in place, and also activated a sense of solidarity among Koreans. As during the 1997 IMF crisis, when faced with existential threats, Koreans shift from competitiveness to a “together we can overcome” approach. Furthermore, as the national and local governments’ policies proved effective, public trust in the official response soared. In April elections, the incumbent party won by a landslide.

In May, Korea fell out of the top 10 countries worst hit by the virus. By the end of July, we were ranked number 74, with six deaths per million. In contrast, the United States was number one, with 465 deaths per million. While the US had about 70,000 new cases per day, here we’d get panicky if 60 arose. By August, US fatalities exceeded 170,000; in Korea the dead number just over 300. Even with the great difference in population, there’s no comparison.

South Korea, historically in a highly paternalistic relationship with the United States, is not looking to the US to show the way anymore. In some scenarios, like the run-up to the November elections, the US should take cues from the ROK. Here, elections were held with an extended early voting period to curtail waiting and crowding. At polling stations, floor markings made social distancing easy, and both temperature monitoring and disposable gloves were provided. As a Korean American, I know that differences in cultural norms and values would make some of the other ways Koreans have stemmed the pandemic much harder to transfer to the US.

In addition to the two-week pause, involving intense social distancing, the government has tackled the pandemic aggressively with public education campaigns and extensive contact tracing. Text messages inform people about the routes newly diagnosed patients took for several days leading up to diagnosis. Anyone who had been in the same places as a confirmed patient can get tested for free. Testing centers have been set up across the country. True to the cliché of South Korea’s “hurry-up” culture, results within 24 hours by text message are the only acceptable standard.


South Korea isn’t looking to the US to show the way anymore.


People who test positive, or who have been in close contact with someone positive, are quarantined at home with provisions delivered to their door by the government: rice, ramen, Spam, masks, garbage bags for biohazard, water, vegetables, disinfectant, toilet paper. Those under quarantine are also assigned a case worker who checks in on them several times a day to monitor their mental health during isolation. This occurs regardless of the patient’s immigration or citizenship status. The government understands that the virus also disregards these legal distinctions. Such measures help residents who are threatened by disease feel that they haven’t been abandoned, plus it’s in everyone’s interest to contain the virus, even if it means extensive contact tracing.

Contact tracing uses smartphone GPS, security cameras, credit and bank card purchases, and transit card usage. (When a Covid cluster in a foreigner- and gay-friendly neighborhood was sensationalized by a right-wing Christian media outlet, some identifying information was not sent out anymore, like people’s age and citizenship, which could stigmatize foreigners.) Recently, people have been compelled to scan QR codes with their phones, thus sharing their contact information (name, phone number, address) when they enter an establishment that has been known to be the source of outbreak clusters like nightclubs, hostess bars, karaoke rooms, and churches.

Why do people tolerate such surveillance? In so densely populated a country, it’s impossible to do much without someone watching you, even more so in the Seoul metro area, where half of the country’s population lives. South Korea is the most cashless country in the world, and we aren’t going to start using cash again anytime soon. Some purchases are even done through contactless transactions using our phones, whose user agreements allow collection of data. Virtually everyone has a smartphone, and Koreans love convenience. The only thing Koreans love more is drinking and socializing with coworkers and friends, so the high-tech tracing is accepted. Finally, there is the necessary relationship between effective, trustworthy leadership and public commitment to the idea of a shared fight and a shared fate.

Kristin R. Pak/이영숙 has returned to live in Korea after immigrating to the United States. She co-founded and served as the policy director of Solidarity and Political Engagement of Adoptees in Korea (SPEAK), which educates society about the adoption industry to foster critical analysis with the aim of ending intercountry adoption. She is an English professor at Seokyeong University in Seoul. In the US, she had taught English to adult immigrants in New York. She was a Kopkind participant in 2013.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece appeared on thenation.com on August 26, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Poster From Vietnam

Ở nhà là yêu nước! (‘To stay at home is to love your country!’), Vietnam, 2020. (graphic: Hiep Le Duc)

“Vietnam, with a population of 100 million, has had no fatalities from COVID-19 as of early July,” write the authors of “CoronaShock and Socialism,” the third in a multi-part series of studies on international responses to the pandemic from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, directed by our friend Vijay Prashad. The whole report is fascinating and handsomely illustrated. An excerpt:

On March 30, … the [Vietnamese] government announced a national pandemic. The Ministry of Health posted a music video to explain the concept of physical distancing and hand washing; this video went viral on Tik Tok, where young people created a dance to go with it. The message was broadcast within days. Telecommunications firms – including private companies – sent three billion messages about COVID-19 to those with mobile phones. Masks were mandated in public and alcohol-based hand sanitisers were distributed and made available for sale everywhere. Schools and religious sites were all immediately closed.

The government directed public sector units to produce necessary equipment, including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and ventilators, as well as hand sanitizer and medicines. There was enough industrial capacity that could be directed to produce these goods without any concerns about price gouging, since these are public sector enterprises. On 8 April, the government of Vietnam sent 450,000 units of PPE to the United States in an act of solidarity.

Vietnam recorded its first Covid deaths on July 31. In total, 34 people have died there. The US death toll is 183,000.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 20

17 08 2020

by Gregg DeChirico

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

Kayaker facing the storm (photos: Gregg DeChirico)

Something’s Happening Here

’Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind…

—William Shakespeare

Fort Myers, Florida

The term 2020 is associated with visual acuity, but chronologically 2020 has been a year of blindsiding trauma. I have witnessed and survived a plague before, that one ignored by Reagan’s White House when I lived in Greenwich Village from 1977 to ’88. AIDS took 34 friends, lovers, and colleagues before I stopped counting and fled the city in grief.

Now the plague’s name has changed, but the circus of obfuscation for political gain remains the same. That and death, as the US toll from Covid-19 exceeds 170,000.

With death comes grief, and its stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—a cycle I see distorted in the chaos around me.

This time, I live in the great state of denial… Florida. Denial offered a sublime state of bliss in March, when the kids came down for Spring Break, and Governor DeSantis held off shutting down beaches and bars until it was almost over, conceding to community leaders and medical experts as Covid cases were starting to multiply. And so the kids went home—to Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York… The rest is history.

Except, Florida didn’t let go of denial; it reopened for business on May 4. When the filter of rose-colored glasses finally fell away to the harsh light of reality, blissful ignorance turned to anger.

Anger takes various irrational forms. I live in a working-class neighborhood in Lee County. Here the roads and strip mall lots are dominated by pickup trucks. Some are shiny, though rarely new. Others are battered, rusted, their beds littered with McDonald’s packaging, crushed cans, tools, everything pushed to a corner and held in place by a tire. Virtually all bear insignia—the flag, the Christian fish, Trump/Pence 2020, the badge of some branch of the armed services, an AK47 decal, if not a fully stocked gun rack mounted inside across the rear window. Subtlety having taken a back seat to bold statement in recent months, Confederate symbols, also common, have graduated from four-by-six-inch decals to four-by-six-foot flags, snapping crisply in the wind.


Grief in Florida: Doctors Without Borders sent a triage unit to Immokalee to treat migrant farm workers and track the viral spread. This was not widely publicized. The governor, like the president, blames the workers for spiking infections. In the great state of denial, blissful ignorance turned to anger.


This is still an agricultural region. Tomatoes are a prime commodity, with other warm-weather crops. Harvesting depends on migrant workers, the majority of them Mexican. Despite their intimate connection to Ag profit and the state’s economy, DeSantis publicly echoes Trump in blaming farm workers for Florida’s spiking infections.

Most of the estimated 150,000 to 200,000 migrants converge in or near Immokalee, in neighboring Collier County, surrounded by cypress swamps. They live in tight quarters, often in complex multigenerational families, and ride to work in groups. Hand sanitizer and masks were not made available to them. Maligned as “illegals,” they were denied testing and treatment. It is no wonder the virus spiked here. More surprising is that Doctors Without Borders (MSF) sent a triage unit to Immokalee to help treat patients and track the viral spread. This was not widely publicized. I learned of it while inquiring about volunteer opportunities. Had I volunteered with MSF, I would likely have been recruited to accompany the triage unit on to the Democratic Republic of Congo to assist with ongoing Ebola outbreaks. If I were 20 years younger, I’d have gone.

Out of economic and psychological necessity, I took a job with one of the Big Box Essential Businesses, but I am a naturalist at heart, most content when immersed in a wild setting, captivated by most anything that crosses my path. I love snakes, even the venomous species, among the most highly evolved of all reptiles. However, most people react to snakes with a compulsion to kill. Case in point, my co-worker, Joe Z., ordinarily humble, helpful, affable beyond measure. Joe and I were talking casually about local wildlife when he declared that he will drive his truck onto the sidewalk if necessary to kill any snake he sees.

I tried reasoning, most snakes are benign unless provoked…, but a sentence scarcely passed my lips when his face contorted and he flew into a rant. “They” are… “snakes! They are evil.” Something about Adam and Eve, and how “we” lost everything. “Remember the apple, she got it from the snake!” Faced with his conviction, all I could manage to say was, “Oh, Joe, I used to like you.” To which he laughed agreeably, because he thought I was joking.

It struck me later that Joe is deeply mad. Spiritually, he feels he has been robbed. He blames snakes and seeks retribution through their wanton execution, but the enemy could be anything: face masks, BLM, Democrats, Republicans, Confederate flags, libtards, Muslims, migrants, vote by mail. Everywhere across the country, fear and uncertainty opens a Pandora’s box of festering vitriol, with causes both real and imagined, crossing all communities, in all directions, and becoming amplified as we approach November’s elections.

Anger having failed to resolve grief, elections—our flawed collective bargaining session where winner takes all—is unlikely to, either.

Bargaining of this sort is more likely to prime the losing side to retaliate. At work, I have overheard several break-room conversations about how many guns and what types people have, and where they buy ammunition—prices skyrocket weekly—specifically in preparation for the election. I told a co-worker that I don’t own a gun. Shocked, he later texted me an ad for a $359 Smith & Wesson .38: “Good deal!” The text wasn’t as unsettling as his apparent certainty that armed resistance is imminent. How can we bargain for fairness in a democratic process when civility is off the table, each side bludgeoning the other with demands and threats? It is depressing to think about.

Depression is something most of us know in this grief-struck time. My neighbor burst into tears the other day, standing 10 feet from me, both of us masked. “I can’t take it anymore,” she kept saying, before disappearing behind her door. Who isn’t depressed about a total disruption of life, many unemployed, facing economic ruin, others shut off from ailing relatives and friends? We have become a housebound, home-shopping, home-schooling, Door-Dashing, day-drinking society, castaways from the past, without a clear plan for the future.

Acceptance is the final stage of grief. But is it in this case? Especially when there is a constant flux of people experiencing different stages in different ways, with varying frequencies. When the mere idea of having to accept this as “the new normal” sets the cycle anew.

It is no longer a cycle but a perpetual state of social grief.

As a counter to its weight, I retreat to the natural wild, a world I understand, where the laws are fixed, cyclical, seeking balance. Through the eye of nature, I look for renewal, for calm, and hope to be spared from another hurricane. Speaking of denial…

Gregg DeChirico is a specialist in exotic plants. He is a member of Kopkind’s board of directors, a longtime dear friend, who once lived at Tree Frog Farm.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on August 12, 2020 on The Nation‘s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Photo From a Teacher

(photo: Aaron Talley)

Back to school? Aaron Talley, who participated in Kopkind’s political camp in 2015, sent this photograph of his old middle-school classroom in Chicago. In the next installment of the Kopkind/Nation pandemic series, he will have a dispatch from the limbo state of remote learning. Watch for it! August 19 on thenation.com. August 24 here, plus a very special bonus.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 17

27 07 2020

by Maria Espinoza

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

(photo: Maria Espinoza)

Something’s Happening Here

Cuernavaca, Morelos

They say that a person can get used to anything, except not eating. I guess that’s true. After five months of exercising extreme caution as a doctor, it all seems comfortable and easy now compared with those distant days of late February, when the pandemic had just begun to dawn on us all.

Back then, I was getting ready to go to the Mexico City airport to travel to the annual meeting of a group of sexual and reproductive health specialists when a rumor was spreading online that the first case of Covid-19 had been documented in Mexico. It swiftly became clear that the rumor was fact. A colleague, who coordinates training for our loose and vulnerable national network of abortion providers, reported that her husband, an internist at one of Mexico’s most exclusive private hospitals, was treating that first Covid case.

Some of us had surgical masks with us. In the airport, virtually no one used them. Nor do most people use them today, even as the curve of contagion and death bends continually upward.

Our group was divided at first on the seriousness of the threat. In the leftist circles within which I move, most people believed it was a false flag to control Mexico’s poorest and most vulnerable classes. Soon, though, I would see patients in my own clinic in Morelos with respiratory symptoms who would die before they were tested. In New York City, people I know and love would be hospitalized. It was clear that a national emergency was on the horizon, and that, like health workers throughout the world, I would be on the front lines.

With little and conflicting information on how to operate during a fast-arriving crisis, we were all confused. Some colleagues told us to dress like astronauts, basically to armor up, when seeing patients. This would prove difficult when even N95 face masks were sold out or resold online for ridiculous prices. I made do with face masks from the local hardware store, the kind that house painters use.

I was afraid to see my patients, and yet I felt more committed than ever, given the other never-ending health emergency for women who wish to end their pregnancies in a state where it is prohibited. As Covid took hold, my patients also were afraid. When they came to appointments, they brought what protective gear they could, simple face masks or cloth bandanas. We spaced out appointments. My assistants and I used what safeguards we had at our disposal: boots, a double layer of gloves, hairnets, and surgical gowns, along with face shields we purchased from the same guy who sells pirated DVDs in the pueblo.


I used face masks from the local hardware store. My face shield came from the same guy who sells pirated DVDs. I struggled to see what I was doing as my breath fogged up the plastic shield. Anxiety took hold as the risk of making a mistake increased. And yet, everything turned out fine, every time. I kept waiting for my luck to run out.


The medical procedures continued, as they had to, even as my breath fogged up my plastic face shield, and I struggled to see what I was doing. The risk of making a mistake increased, even when conducting this simple outpatient procedure. Anxiety took hold, and I had to fight the impulse to tear off my uncomfortable and unwieldy gear. The goggles cut so deeply into my face that I sometimes started seeing double. I controlled my fear with deep breathing exercises, which served only to fog up my face shield more.

And yet, everything turned out fine, every time. I kept waiting for my luck to run out. That, or an end to the pandemic. None of this seemed humanly possible, and the working conditions I and the other providers in our network imposed on ourselves seemed similarly inhuman.

Combing my hair became a luxury, so I shaved my head. I began to dress in an improvised version of that space suit others had recommended. The time I had used to take care of my hair was now used to suit up.

Today, the challenge for my risky line of work is getting some of my patients used to telemedicine when possible. While many of my younger patients couldn’t be happier at the chance to treat their problems without leaving their room, others don’t trust it, especially older women who are used to making eye contact, judging me, and feeling my presence.

Yet telemedicine is a necessity now. The script I use to start my calls has become second nature: “My name is Maria Espinoza. Everything we discuss will be absolutely confidential. Everything I ask you is with the aim of getting enough information to make a diagnosis that helps me provide you with the best treatment possible. The main objective of this consultation is to allow you to exercise your rights as a woman. That’s why you should feel free to interrupt me whenever you feel the need to, and so that you can participate actively in this process. I’m here to listen to you, and you have my complete attention.”

I had always started patient conversations this way, but when the phone is our only link, it has become the key to getting close to the lives of the women I treat, gently.

This crisis within a crisis has taught me that responding to change with agility makes us stronger. Looking for solutions is what I have always done. It’s what we’ve always done, as women, as doctors, mothers, neighbors, daughters, sisters, and partners. The pandemic brought paralysis to my work at the beginning, but it didn’t last long. Women began to knock at my door, as they always have, and always will. I had to respond. Fear, commitment, responsibility, propelled me forward. But above all, the will to live and help other women live.

It is with this will, emanating from every solid beat of my joyful heart, that I hope that solidarity continues to fortify us, so that the many-colored hands of the earth can build a better future, in spite of the virus. To do it, we just have to look below and toward the left. That’s where our heart is, and I’m grateful to it.

Maria Espinoza (pseudonym) is a Mexican physician specializing in women’s sexual and reproductive health in a state where abortion is prohibited with some exceptions. For more than 20 years she has helped women assert their rights to make decisions regarding the “autonomous territory” of their bodies. Under her own name, she was a mentor at Kopkind in 2011.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on July 22, 2020, on The Nation‘s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Poem for the Dead, & the Living

Alexander Cockburn, with his dog, Jasper (photo: Tao Ruspoli)

Eight years ago, just hours before members of the Occupy movement arrived at Tree Frog Farm for a special camp beginning July 21, 2012, our beloved friend Alexander Cockburn died. A brilliant journalist, cook, fancy man, Alex had once spent summers at the farm. With Andy Kopkind, his oldest friend in the US, John Scagliotti and others, he was part of the vivid, gamesome world that inspired so many of us who were young with the joy of politics, the joy of writing and doing—of living at an angle to the settled universe. One night during that camp, with torches blazing and flowers gathered from the garden and the field, people from the area came to tell and hear stories of their friend. At the end, one of the campers, Amin Husain, who’d been deeply involved in Occupy Wall Street, offered a poem by Nazim Hikmet. Called “On Living,” it goes, in part, like this:

Living is no laughing matter:

            you must live with great seriousness

                        like a squirrel, for example—

I mean, without looking for something beyond and above living,

                        I mean living must be your whole occupation.

. . .

I mean you must take living so seriously

            that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees—

            and not for your children, either,

            but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,

            because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

II

Let’s say we’re seriously ill, need surgery—

which is to say we might not get up

                                    from the white table.

Even though it’s impossible not to feel sad

                                    about going a little too soon,

we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told,

we’ll look out the window to see if it’s raining,

or still wait anxiously

            for the latest newscast . . .

Let’s say we’re at the front—

            for something worth fighting for, say.

There, in the first offensive, on that very day,

            we might fall on our face, dead.

We’ll know this with a curious anger,

            but we’ll still worry ourselves to death

            about the outcome of the war, which could last years.

Let’s say we’re in prison

and close to fifty,

and we have eighteen more years, say,

                                    before the iron doors will open.

We’ll still live with the outside,

with its people and animals, struggle and wind—

                                    I mean with the outside beyond the walls.

I mean, however and wherever we are,

            we must live as if we will never die.

This excerpt of “On Living” is from Poems of Nazim Hikmet (Persea), translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk. Hikmet, born in 1902 in what was then the Ottoman Empire, was in a Turkish prison in 1948 when he wrote these lines. Turkish sailors had been reading and discussing his poems, and for that he, a well-known radical, was charged with inciting revolt in the armed forces, and sentenced to 28 years in 1938. Following a hunger strike and a national campaign, he was released in 1950. His work was banned in Turkey from 1938 to 1965. He died in Moscow in 1963. “Read and write without rest,” he advised those who will spend time in prison: weave, make mirrors, anything so that “the jewel on the left side of your chest doesn’t lose its luster.”





Scenes From A Pandemic: 12

23 06 2020

by Scot Nakagawa

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

Kimchee & carnitas taco with crema; add cilantro and slivers of fresh pineapple, if you like. Mmm. (Photo: Jon Pollock)

Something’s Happening Here

Brooklyn

Quarantine has been a shock to our systems that will continue to reverberate in many ways. It has shocked me to mindfulness, especially about my consumer habits. I marvel at old restaurant receipts and wonder, how did I become the person who casually spent so much for this cocktail or that itty bitty plate of fried something or other? How did I come to discard aluminum foil after one use, to waste nourishing foods like broccoli stems or onion skins (great in stock, providing color and flavor), and toss perfectly good leftovers in the trash? Those who raised me would be appalled.

I grew up in Hawai’i on the edge of a sugar plantation in its declining years, the sweetheart trade deals cut between the US government and missionary agribusiness oligarchs  having finally expired. Life wasn’t exactly lux. We scraped by on what we cobbled up – hand-me-down clothes, bicycles built from spare parts, and home haircuts (scissors, bowl, one straight line around during the winter, a buzz cut in summertime). One of my older cousins, a family success story as a schoolteacher, would joke that if the little ones were lined up for a picture in front of my grandmother’s house, we could caption it “Save the Children” and make money placing an ad in the back of tabloid magazines. 

Only we didn’t need saving. We were never without the things we needed, especially food, and mainly because we took nothing for granted. We were mindful. Now, with anxiety rising all around, the memory of that kind of care has been a comfort, not to mention a means of stretching my shrinking bank account.

Among the many foods of the beloved poverty kitchen of my Hawai’i is kimchee, a staple eaten almost daily, even by children. Some people write it ‘kimchi.’ I do not. That spelling is derived from the Japanese kimuchi. Given Japan’s historical atrocities against Korea, I defer to Koreans about the transliteration of their national dish.


Food – cooking and sharing food – was a delight for Andy Kopkind, and has always been central to the experience of the Kopkind ‘camps’. Hard times are upon us, so here’s a recipe for economy and pleasure too!

Scot calls it Kimchee Out of Anything because read on!


This recipe isn’t traditional. My grandmother’s is lost to time and death. Making really traditional kimchee takes ingredients harder to find, and a lot more time and effort. Over years of living in the continental US, I pieced this together from tips gleaned from the internet and shared by friends. I find it totally satisfying. I use kimchee in the syncretic food tradition of Hawai’i, which is to say in lots of unconventional ways, fusing it with the cuisines of Puerto Rico, Portugal, the Philippines, Samoa, indigenous Hawai’i, Japan, China, and on across the diversity of cultures that make up the islands’ population. I suggest you do, too. My favorite is kimchee chopped up like coleslaw on Portuguese sweet rolls with mayo and spicy linguica or grilled teriyaki chicken thighs, deboned, of course. 

Kimchee is the easiest of all fermentation processes. The less familiar ingredients aren’t hard to find in Asian groceries or online; once purchased, they’re pantry basics. Western foodies embrace them for a reason – they’re delicious. Think of shrimp paste and fish sauce as umami bombs to make foods like packaged ramen or, seriously, cream soups taste new. 

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium Chinese cabbage (though see below, and use your imagination) 
  • 3 smallish daikon radishes, julienned
  • ½ cup green onions, julienned
  • ½ cup carrots, julienned
  • 2 Tbsp. salt (for curing the cabbage)
  • ½ cup superfine sugar (out of which, reserve one Tablespoon for preparing your cabbage)
  • 20 cloves garlic, grated
  • ½ cup fresh ginger, grated
  • ½ cup gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes) 
  • 1/3 cup fish sauce
  • 3 Tbsp. low-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tsp. bagoong (Filipino fermented shrimp paste)
  • 1 tsp. bagoong alamang (Filipino salted, preserved whole small shrimp)
  • 1 cup cold water

Cut the cabbage in half by length, and then again across by width into approximately 1½ -inch chunks. Toss with 2 tablespoons of salt and the 1 tablespoon of sugar in a large bowl. Put a weight on the cabbage (I nest a smaller bowl filled with fresh water inside of the bigger bowl, on top of the vegetable), wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap, and place it in the refrigerator or other cool place. Let it sit this way for an hour, or overnight if you like. 

While your cabbage is pickling (and weeping a lot of water), make the kimchee paste. Blast garlic, ginger, gochugaru, sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, and bagoong in a blender until well combined. Remove the paste from the blender to a bowl and add some water, a few tablespoons at a time and no more than a scant cup, until the paste is smooth, about the texture of a creamy salad dressing. 

Drain the cabbage of excess water; give it a squeeze to really get the water out. Then mix in the sliced radishes, carrots, and onion. Add the kimchee paste. Make sure you coat the cabbage well. Transfer to jars and refrigerate. Your kimchee will be ready in about two days, though it will be better in a week. 

I call this Kimchee Out of Anything because, to me, kimchee really can be made out of almost anything edible. Fruit, like green mangos, can make delicious kimchee. Even fresh or dried fish works. One favorite of my childhood is bacalao, or salt cod, rehydrated and then squeezed dry before being shredded and bathed in kimchee paste, then cured for a day or two. Don’t stop there. Chard (stems lightly blanched before being added to the greens), carrot tops minus the tough ribs, blanched cauliflower, cucumbers, and lots of other vegetables can be made into kimchee. The rule in my kitchen is if you have vegetables that look like they’re on their last legs, pickle or ferment them. Kimchee expands your eating possibilities, and your pleasure, too.

Scot Nakagawa is senior partner in Changelab, a national racial justice think/act lab, and is Race Forward’s senior fellow on nationalism, authoritarianism, and race. He was a mentor at Kopkind in both 2014 and 2017.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared June 17, 2020, on The Nation site. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Speaking of Pleasure & Hard Times, an Excerpt From JoAnn Wypijewski’s New Book

This month Verso published What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life, by Kopkind’s board president and program director. Here are some extracts from the book’s Prologue.

The little girls next door are playing school. The teacher barks, and the students get detention. There are so many ways to detention: being late, being wrong, being poor in math, wanting to be popular, “with your hair all fine and your nails painted and pretty clothes—I like pretty clothes and painted nails, too, but you aren’t all that.” The teacher threatens them all, “good or bad,” if they make her raise her voice again. She raises her voice. They are silent. She threatens to call their imaginary mothers. She threatens to take the imaginary money she’s been given to get them food. It is summer, hot, late afternoon. Detention is supposed to last four hours, three months, a year. A half hour, and the teacher flags. It’s not much of a game with one player. Okay, she announces, everyone can go to gymnastics. “Get in a line, class! No talking! Straight line!” The others obey. She arranges rolling garbage carts for them to jump off of onto the black-tar driveway. Happy shrieks conjure heaven for the first time, as a breeze comes up and an ice cream truck plays its wistful tune and a rat, which none of them sees, scuttles from one yard to the next. “Do it again,” the teacher shouts. “You. Are. In. Training!”

Let’s leave the little girls alone for now with their game, the meanings of which and the elaborate circuits of example, accommodation and rebellion it reflects are, in a sense, the pursuit of this book. I will return to them.

. . .

I didn’t start writing about sex to write about crime. Not all the pieces in this collection concern it, though many do. The first time I wrote on sex and culture, in an essay about Madonna, I was drawn to pleasure in the midst of danger, danger manifest physically in the AIDS epidemic and politically in persistent attacks on sexual freedom, sexual expression, homo- and other sexuality in the rule-breaking category. Desire is the subject there.

Pleasure—the possibilities for it, the absolute necessity of attention to it as part of any radical politics, the meaning of and conditions for it, the substance of intimate life—continues to be my interest. But sexual danger is at the fore in public discourse. Not since the height of the AIDS crisis has sex been so prominently welded to menace, except this period’s version of safe sex, rather than emerging from a community’s erotic sensibility, is a checklist of yes or no questions drafted to standardize consent and, primarily, to avoid legal action. Scandal, the context for many of the pieces here, has become the background noise of life, a thrum that’s stripped the word of its original meaning. Anticipating retribution enlivens people regardless of ideology, and has accelerated into ordinary, terrible fun. Mercy is the scandal now. Reason almost is. Eros is a suspect, and satisfaction in the humiliation of enemy-others is so everyday that as a culture we seem incapable of recognizing it as an extension of the violence we deplore. What we don’t talk about is the red thread running through this book. What are the reasons, what are the causes and complications beneath the roar of the crowd, the stories we think we all know? I don’t pretend to have exhausted such questions, and I still hold out for a future where we are not handmaids of punitive authority but authorities over our own bodies, pleasures and risks.

This brings me back to the little girls at the start, playing school. The games of children are typically symbolic tests of the limits of their authority and autonomy. Often, the games involve fear, indulging it as a way of displacing it, gaining mastery, discovering Ah, this is life despite real or imagined danger. That is why the games of children are frequently risky (and sometimes go terribly wrong) or are simply heart-racing, involving fantasies of witches and monsters. When I was a little girl, playing in the yard across the fence from where these new little girls were playing, my brother and I made a game with neighborhood kids which he called Come, Little Children. It was basically a game of tag, but we ratcheted up the thrill factor by making whoever was It a witch. The witch sang a weird little song, creepy and enticing—Come, little children, come, come, come…—accompanied by luring hand gestures and gyrations, trying to tempt the other children, lined up along a safe zone against the front of the garage, to step off and run for their lives, imaginatively speaking, either outwitting the witch to get to the next post of safety, or coming under Its thrall. This was in the 1960s, but it could have been centuries earlier, so traditional is the extraction of joy from the sensation of fear.

The little girls’ leaps from wheeled garbage bins onto the blacktop, and their peals of laughter, reflect this age-old practice of pleasure-seeking through defiance of fear. Their wild risk-taking, though, exploded in a context of repression. Training games are customary, the child’s Let’s pretend enacting grown-up behavior—preparing them for the world they will inherit while also rehearsing, in rough form, their relationship to authority. As Marina Warner shows in her fantastic book No Go the Bogeyman,the mimicry of such games is often madcap, comically exaggerated in the anarchic spirit of play, metaphorically robbing the authority figure of some of its power. The teacher in this game, the oldest of the bunch at maybe ten or eleven, did not seem to be poking fun at her model, and except for a few groans, the littler ones in detention did not challenge her—the whole exercise less an imaginative enactment than a reproduction of reality, as numerous schools have determined that what best suits working-class children are the regimens of prison. On first impression, then, this was a game of obedience, not autonomy. Yet the rigors of improvised gymnastics gave loft to the leader’s own dreams of performance even while intensifying her responsibilities. Instructing the smaller ones on discipline and technique as they prepared to leap, and leap again, protected them from injury and brought them joy in the afternoon. It could have gone otherwise, of course. There is nothing simple about play.


A little-boy violin player especially likes the “Ode to Joy.” It has been called a balm for things he doesn’t want: anxiety and nightmares, disabling grief over his father’s murder. As for what he wants… How much unarticulated desire is bundled in that choice? How long will he, will any children but especially boys, be allowed to be sensitive?


Long before any of us learn about sex, we learn about authority: our parents’ over us, the wider world’s over our parents, their response to that wider world’s power, and the costs of any yes or no. The game of school was one game by one group of little girls on one leafy afternoon on the hard side of a hardish town, what used to be the black and Polish East Side of Buffalo, New York, and is now the mostly black, latinx and Bangladeshi East Side. The girls appear to be loved, well cared for, polite, curious. I know almost nothing about their family’s relationship to the landlord, the tax man, the bill collector, the policeman, the boss or social service agent. I know that at a nearby health clinic, adults drop in to talk sometimes about the stigma of being from the East Side, which, as everyone plainly sees, the city’s leadership doesn’t know what to do with. In this particular neighborhood about half the people are officially poor, reports of violent crime are among the highest in the city, and at least a third of the boys and girls in middle school and high school have seen someone shot, stabbed or assaulted—meaning almost every child knows a child who has witnessed violence, and the victim might be a parent, a sibling, a neighbor or friend. The kids learn to hit the ground when they’re told to, and in school what they don’t talk about is often what they can’t talk about. Over the past couple of years, the city’s grown-ups have sought ways to unburden children of the things they carry. One little boy has found a way, sort of, through playing the violin. It is necessary that the community come together to talk about violence. Violence is what nobody wants, not even, perhaps, the stick-up boys who, once upon a time, not long ago, may have been labeled “emotionally disturbed” in school because of the things they carried, and were then put on the short bus or in detention or suspended. Violence is a subject that doesn’t wear out, but its most insidious forms don’t require a weapon.

That little-boy violin player especially likes the “Ode to Joy.” It has been called a balm for things he doesn’t want: anxiety and nightmares, disabling grief over his father’s murder. As for what he wants… How much unarticulated desire is bundled in that choice? How long will he, will any children but especially boys, be allowed to be sensitive? How do they talk about wanting when they want so much? When they might be afraid of their wanting, or the paths to it are obscured? 

Listening to the little girls across the fence, I wondered what would be their blossoming pear tree, the emblem that stirs them in their bodies and their souls, as it did Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie:

“like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness.”

I wonder at all that must quest about the consciousness of these children, and all that will, and the distance between lived experience on an ordinary day and the rote political language of essences and -isms that is too straitened to contain it. By way of analogy, it is maybe not incorrect to say, as one high school teacher’s guide to Their Eyes Were Watching God does, that the book “explores sexism, race and class discrimination, and the disappointment of loveless marriages,” but then it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that the book explores a black town, the Everglades, a hurricane and what to do when your man has rabies. Either way, Hurston is spinning in her grave, because the language is insufficient and the optic narrow. Janie’s story is about getting free, about a woman coming to know her own body and mind, and daring, along the stony road and against the common sense of the time, to live and love authentically. Sexual politics cannot ignore the many forms that danger and domination take, else how could it be called politics, but it is nothing without freedom as its star, and the effort to change the common sense of the time, for the sake of every mother’s daughter and son. I try to remember that.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 10

8 06 2020

by Anna Simonton

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

Fulton County DA candidate Christian Wise Smith (photo: Miles Sager)

Something’s Happening Here

Atlanta

Christian Wise Smith’s earliest memory of police is watching helplessly as officers arrested his mother when he was 5 years old. Two years later, he witnessed his grandmother being strip-searched after she was caught shoplifting.

“I grew up in the justice system. I grew up seeing a lot of my friends and family destroyed by crime, violence, drugs,” he told me over the phone in late April. “I know from personal and professional experience what will work to make us safer and better overall.”

On June 9, Wise Smith, an attorney with seven years’ experience as a prosecutor and a background in management and policy, will be on the ballot for District Attorney of Fulton County, which Atlanta straddles. He is the first progressive candidate in recent memory to run for the office. His campaign represents the local touchdown of a nationwide movement that has seen progressive prosecutors winning elections on promises to steer their communities away from mass incarceration and the criminalization of people of color.

But Wise Smith faces an unprecedented hurdle. Georgia’s stay-at-home orders had been in effect for about three weeks when we spoke, and I was wondering how the shutdown would affect his campaign.

Local elections suffer from low voter awareness in the best of times. During the pandemic, they’ve receded even farther from public consciousness. 

How do you get the word out when you can’t knock on doors and shake hands? Smith’s Instagram is full of selfies, his black beard and glasses framing a surgical mask as he plants campaign signs all over town. Some feature supporters expressing approval from a distance. He’s participated in Zoom candidate forums and livestreamed discussions with local hip hop artists, nonprofit leaders, and elected officials.


How do you campaign in a pandemic? The Fulton County DA’s race is part of a nationwide movement of progressive prosecutors vying for office. “Justice does not equal convictions,” candidate Wise Smith says. “I want to create a system that cares more about people than conviction rates.”


The stakes of the Fulton DA race are high. “It’s about the future of criminal justice in Atlanta,” Jonathan Rapping, president of Gideon’s Promise, a public defender organization, said.

“Atlanta suffers from all of the symptoms of mass incarceration. If you walk into a courtroom in Fulton County Superior Court, you almost wouldn’t know there are white people breaking the law in Atlanta. Everyone being sent to jail is poor. And that’s under Paul Howard’s tenure.”

Howard, the incumbent, took office in 1997, and has run unopposed every election since 2004. He has maintained a tough-on-crime approach that has deepened racial disparities.

Perhaps the most egregious example is the Atlanta Public Schools cheating case. Howard charged 35 educators with racketeering and conspiracy for allegedly changing students’ answers on standardized tests: 34 were black; white teachers implicated in the initial investigation were never charged. For the first time in the nation, educators accused of cheating were slapped with charges that carry decades-long sentences.

Seven years and millions of dollars later, that case is still playing out, as seven educators appeal convictions in perhaps one of the biggest boondoggles Georgia’s criminal legal system has ever seen.

The third candidate in the DA race, Fani Willis, was a lead prosecutor on the cheating case, and her politics hew closely to Howard’s.

“Bullies,” Wise Smith said when we talked about his opponents and their role in the case. “RICO charges are for mobsters and gangsters, not teachers.”

“It still hits a nerve,” he said. “A lot of people felt that the justice system, and Paul Howard and Fani Willis specifically, abused their power. People who committed violent crimes didn’t get the treatment that those educators got.” A video he released on that theme is his most watched, with thousands of views across his social media channels.

Wise Smith is also committed to ending cash bail, a reform that officials across the country are increasingly embracing to try to level the playing field between poor people, who get stuck in jail awaiting trial, and wealthy people, who can buy their way out.


“If you walk into a courtroom in Fulton County Superior Court, you almost wouldn’t know there are white people breaking the law in Atlanta. Everyone being sent to jail is poor. And that’s under Paul Howard’s tenure.”Jonathan Rapping, president of Gideon’s Promise, a public defender organization


The County Jail and its annex have become chronically overcrowded, with deplorable conditions, prompting human rights groups to sue. Covid-19 has made the situation worse. In early April, Southerners On New Ground staged a protest demanding a mass release. Women in the jail annex, they said, had described being on lockdown with eight people to a cell, with overflowing sinks and toilets, and no masks, hand sanitizer, or soap. In an email, a spokesperson for the DA’s office said Howard recommend the release of more than 300 of the 2,600 people in Fulton County jail facilities.

Ultimately, Wise Smith said, this race is about the values behind the policies. “Justice does not equal convictions” is how he summed his up. “I want to create a system that cares more about people than conviction rates.”

That’s a major departure from the prevailing notion that a prosecutor’s job is to rack up guilty verdicts like home runs. With 2.3 million people locked up nationwide, the need for a different approach is plain.

Now, protests are rocking Atlanta, along with dozens of cities across the country, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It has been an outpouring of rage matched by police aggression. Alarmed by blazing police cars and smashed storefronts, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms made an impassioned speech Friday night, imploring protestors to go home. “If you want change in America, go and register to vote,” she said.

While national media declared Bottoms a rising star and possible Democratic vice presidential nominee, many of her constituents were angered by a directive that seemed to downplay the suffering underlying the protests. Those will take more than an election to rectify. For years, the overpolicing of black communities in Atlanta has gone hand-in-hand with gentrification, which Bottoms has championed since her days on City Council.  In the last mayoral election, many people affected by poverty and displacement rallied for a progressive candidate only to end up with two front-runners propelled by corporate backers. When it comes to the Fulton DA, voters haven’t had a real choice for 16 years. 

Protestors are rejecting the false dichotomy Bottoms presented between protesting and voting. On social media, young people in Atlanta are expressing their intent to do both. When we caught up earlier this week, Wise Smith said he hopes people who are galvanized in this moment will go further.

“These riots are a response to generations of frustration and anger built up. I echo the frustrations of people being told to just go vote. I’m taking it a step beyond and actually running for office, and I encourage other people to do the same. If we are frustrated with the only option that we have had, let’s be that next option.”

Anna Simonton is co-author, with Shani Robinson, of None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators. An editor for Scalawag and co-founder of Press On, a Southern collective of movement journalists, she was the Kopkind/Nation fellow for 2015.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on thenation.com on June 3, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: An Image From Brazil, plus…

Fora Bolsonaro! / Get out, Bolsonaro! (artist: Ingrid Neves)

Our friend Vijay Prashad, the indomitable writer and activist, who was a guest speaker at Kopkind in 2010, has been disseminating extensive international reports, research, newsletters and visual images with his comrades at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. The image above is part of a “CoronaShock Sketchbook,” a group of visual reflections made in quarantine by artists and militants from around the world, invited to accompany Tricontinental’s dossier CoronaShock: A Virus and the World. That document, published in May, deals with structural aspects of the crisis; offers a 16-point program to address the most dire needs of the global working class, based on the experience of struggle and governance by more than 200 organizations from almost 100 countries; and presents points for consideration of, and debate on, a Universal Basic Income.


“If you do not feel for humanity in this period, Vijay writes, “you have forgotten to be human.


The image here by Ingrid Neves represents the panelaços (banging of pots and pans in protest) in São Paulo, as the night fills with chants of “Get out, Bolsonaro! “Get out, Fascist! and “Not him! It is especially piquant now, with the city alone recording more than 140,500 cases of the virus, and death from the pandemic galloping in Brazil—not just in the cities but, strikingly, among indigenous people in remote areas.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 9

1 06 2020

by Dania Rajendra

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

Looking out from the inside (photo: Dania Rajendra)

Something’s Happening Here

Jackson Heights, Queens

At first, Covid descended like a slow-motion March snowstorm – the preparing, the suiting up, the slowing of traffic and quieting of city sounds. Once my husband, Ajay, got sick time stretched out. I suppose it was from staying inside a two-room apartment with an incapacitated adult, punctuated by sirens and the constant buzz of my phone.

Between Zoom calls, and then press calls, I cooked and cleaned – it was Ajay who had stocked our home with necessities in the week prior. The few things we needed, neighborhood friends provided, dropping them outside the door we didn’t open. Later, another friend dropped off more supplies, and I waved out our apartment window at her, behind her own car window. How surreal a comfort it was to see my friend’s face, as we talked on our phones, looking at each other across a street, through panes of glass. 

All of us who are suddenly non-essential and staying at home experience this crisis through many windows. There are the actual windows, and the glossy screens of our phones and tablets, our televisions and computers. As we watch, the national frames expand to include what some of us have been talking about for years – the deadly consequences of prioritizing profit over people, over planet. 

I imagined tens of thousands of people peering into their screens for Angela Davis and Astra Taylor, for Amazon strikers like Mario Crippen, who like many other workers tell the truth as corporate executives spin and spin. 

When I looked away from the screens, my perspective would shrink to the sound of Ajay’s rapid breathing. He alternated long stretches of unconsciousness with short bouts of wakefulness, when he chugged grapefruit juice and spouted lucid insights on the snapping of supply chains. Ajay is much better now. The sirens in Jackson Heights are fewer, but the mass graves are more numerous.

The sense of Covid as a threatening snowstorm reminded me of my childhood obsession with the Little House books, especially The Long Winter. I read those racist, reactionary novels constantly – something about them caught my little brown Jewish New Yorker imagination, a fantasy world of self-reliance so different from anything I knew. I can still recall the way Ma forced a rhythm inside their cabin as, outside, the blizzards began to blend into one another, days becoming weeks becoming a season. The town’s men argued about rationing the town’s store of grain against the one store owner’s profiteering, about saving the seed for spring, or distributing it to stave off starvation. 


So much about Covid-19 feels like what Mike Davis catalogs in Late Victorian Holocausts: the punitive, racist assumptions that workers are shirkers, rather than people with human, physical, social needs.


The story of climate in The Long Winter is told, in a different context, in Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts. So much about Covid-19 feels like what he catalogs: the punitive, racist assumptions that workers are shirkers, rather than community members with human, physical, and social needs. Looking at the painted squares on parking lots that our society “offers” unhoused people in lieu of homes, or hearing how Amazon workers keep themselves away from immunocompromised loved ones, I think of Davis piecing together the British authorities’ separation of families dying of famine from one another by gender in work houses. 

Outside my apartment, essential workers braved the mass transit and the virus and the small paychecks.  Inside our two rooms, Ajay would sleep and wake as his body needed, and the Zoom calls proliferated as more workers took action – their courage a bright hope against the sirens and the fog. 

Sometimes I spaced out and considered my father’s mother, R.S. Nagarathnamma, who died in December at 95. She was born in 1924, some three decades after the focus of Davis’s book, and 21 years before Winston Churchill’s choices would again starve millions of Indians. In Late Victorian Holocausts, I found her hometown’s mortality rate in charts – tiny windows that show how near a thing it is that our family survived. I know the odds of survival then depended on advantages not dissimilar to having a full fridge today while most of the country struggles with an unexpected $400 expense (like stocking a freezer in case of a pandemic). I think of the charts some future historian will make – the data visualizations, the contact-tracing like a family tree, until the branch dead-ends with someone who might, say, have a heart too weak to survive a bout of the virus. 

Hans Holbein, Death

My grandmother loved beauty and taught me to cherish it. She loved precision, and despaired that I would never learn it. (I haven’t.) She and the rest of my Indian family taught me most of what I know about how to care for others – emotionally, physically, logistically. I have leaned on those skills, both to care for my husband and to function as our world falls apart. But employing those skills carries a price. 

For twenty years, from age 17 to 35, when my father died, I flew to India often to spend time with my family there. It was always hard to leave, but my grandmother prized stoicism, something else I have never learned, and I liked to please her. Once back on the plane, buckled into a seat, surrounded by indifferent strangers and with nowhere to go for eighteen hours, I would face the tiny window and freely sob about distance and the uncertainty of who would still be there when I returned. 

I think of those feelings now from our Queens apartment, where I feel metaphorically buckled in for long hours, by a big window that looks out over an empty sidewalk. When will our city return? Who will still be here? 

For now, it is enough to take courage from the workers on my screens, and Ajay’s returning health, and the contagious solidarity spreading, onscreen and off. 

Dania Rajendra directs the US effort to reign in Amazon, as head of the Athena Coalition. A poet, essayist, former labor journalist, an adjunct faculty at CUNY’s School of Labor and Urban Studies, she participated in Kopkind’s joint camp with the Independent Press Association in 2001.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on thenation.com on May 27, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: History From Andy Kopkind

Detail from Trayvon Martin mural, Oakland (photo: Tennessee Reed, from the cover of Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence)

The protests exploding in cities and towns across the land recall those of 2012, following the killing of Trayvon Martin, whose stylized image above is from the cover of a compendium of essays, documents, poetry (edited by Kevin Alexander Gray, Jeffrey St. Clair and JoAnn Wypijewski), connecting that singular extinguishment of a life to the countless “Emmett Till moments” that recently extinguished George Floyd. The fires burning across the land have no precedent since the LA riots of another Spring, in 1992, following the not guilty verdict of police officers whose brutalization of Rodney King had also been captured on video. Andy Kopkind wrote then, also placing the uprising within the history of American violence at home and abroad. Some excerpts.

The Rodney King riot, as it is being called, is horribly perfect in its expression of the destructive elements of African-American experience: the stereotyping of an entire people, the powerlessness of even physically strong men, the prison culture of the ghetto, the cruelty of the law, the despair, discrimination and injustice. Once again shut out of the system, people in their fury took their grievances to the streets, the only place in this country where African-Americans have ever found redress, or the beginning of it.

 . . .

The riots were horrifying to many Americans who watched the live coverage on CNN. This time—contrary to the old verse—the revolution was televised. The nation’s leaders piously claim that the violence was “counterproductive,” but in fact it put the issues of race and poverty on the political agenda for the first time in many years. Clinton as well as Bush has studiously avoided even mentioning blacks or poor people this year. As LA burned it was clear that neither one has a clue what to do beyond immediate measures of crowd control, short-term damage control (retrials for the cops) and long-term studies of the “root causes,” which you can bet will have nothing  to do with the effects as seen on the streets of LA. The crisis of leadership is seen everywhere. The black mayor of LA and the traditional “leaders” of the black community seem as out of touch with the residents as the white politician downtown and in the statehouse.

It’s not polite to say so, but with their matchbooks and their expropriated VCRs, the blacks of Los Angeles and the Latinos who joined them have reordered the political priorities of the nation, if only for a short while. Without further organization, without the politicization of the rebellious outburst, without a strategy for action and a vision of that future, that order will revert to the same deadlock that has deadened progressive development since the mid-sixties. Twenty-seven years ago Watts burned. Now the rest of the LA ghetto and large tracts outside went up in flames. More than fifty people were killed in what is now officially known as the worst instance of social unrest since the Irish riots in New York City 130 years ago.

. . .

Who the “organizers” of the riots were remains a mystery. Perhaps some of them are among the 9,000 people arrested, but it is doubtful that anyone will ever know. Most of those detained were “looters,” and most of them (overwhelmingly Latino) were taking food and baby supplies, such as Pampers and purees. Although the media showed happy looters carting away expensive electronic equipment (one group pried loose an entire cash machine from the wall of a bank building), many just loaded up on staples. In any case, a society that imposes consumption-fetishism on its citizens can hardly complain when desire explodes out of the unconscious with furious force.

. . .

Slavery and cheap immigrant labor built America in the beginning. Not only blacks in the feudal South but Irish, Italians and Greeks in industrial New England, Chinese along the railroad lines of California and the river levees in Mississippi, and Mexicans in the great farmlands of the Southwest. Some of those groups have been accepted or assimilated; other will be tolerated. But the descendants of African slaves may never be truly free or legitimate in the land that they have worked for 400 years. But still they persist, and neither will they disappear. And the irony is, their anger and agony will afflict the land for as long as they must suffer.

Andrew Kopkind has been called the greatest radical journalist of his generation, chronicling and analyzing the politics, the culture, the Zeitgeist from the 1960s to his death, in 1994. These excerpts are from “LA Lawless,” included in his collected work, The Thirty Years’ Wars: Dispatches and Diversions of a Radical Journalist, 1965-1994.