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.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 8

25 05 2020

by Jennifer C. Berkshire

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

Gloucester Harbor (photo: Hallie Baker)

Something’s Happening Here

Gloucester, Mass. 

On a recent locked-down day, cars snaked nose-to-tail through downtown. The destination: a seafood “shop,” popped up on a local commercial fishing wharf. For those who made it in time, $15 bought a pound of scallops, or two pounds of haddock, fresh caught, and delivered in vacuum-sealed bags to the car window, exact change please. For the city’s hard-hit fisher folk, here was a rare bit of good news. The pandemic’s shuttering of restaurants has left those who fish, scallop, clam, and lobster for a living without a major market. Boats are docked, crewmembers let go, pain rippling through a web of marine-related businesses. 

“A whole big system is falling apart. It’s not just the fishermen but the people who support them,” says Donna Marshall. Marshall heads up Cape Ann Fresh Catch, like a community-supported agriculture program, or CSA, but for local seafood. These days her group is dropping off locally caught haddock, hake, cusk, and lobster to customers’ doorsteps. The work of turning whole fish into neat fillets is being done by laid-off workers from area restaurants, the only paying work they have right now. 

Home-grown efforts to keep people in local fish can’t match the collapse of an industry; direct-to-consumer sales are a small fraction of what fishermen sell to restaurants. Still, the seaside solidarity that the crisis has brought to Gloucester matters. “You’re paying your neighbor’s mortgage,” Marshall says. “This person has a family. It’s not some faceless conglomerate.”

*          *          *

On the same day that the WHO deemed Covid-19 a global pandemic, a bill was introduced in the US Senate to expand industrial fish farming. Known as the AQUAA Act, the measure has strong support among US farmers, eager to offload a glut of soybeans, rebranded as aquafeed, into fledgling salmon and tilapia bred in pens. Think of it as the industrial seafood supply chain: complex, convoluted, and best not viewed up close. “It’s all driving toward a high-volume, low-value global commodities market,” says Brett Tolley, a fourth-generation fisherman turned community organizer for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, a Gloucester-based group that advocates for fishers across the country.

Like all global supply chains right now, this one feels unstable and unsustainable. Most of the seafood we eat in America, even in Gloucester, the country’s oldest seaport, comes from overseas. Most of what local fishermen catch is sent elsewhere. “The models aren’t designed to feed local and regional markets,” Tolley says. Those famous fish sticks bearing the logo of a Gloucester fisherman? By the time they reach your frozen foods section, they’ve made an exhausting global journey, exported for processing, then reimported. 

Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial, with bird (photo: Jeri Williams, Yankee magazine)

Nearly 500 commercial boats fished out of Gloucester a decade ago. Today, there are two dozen. This reflects both the decades-long collapse in groundfish stocks—the cod and haddock that once abounded in the cold waters off of Cape Ann—and ever-more aggressive federal measures limiting who can fish and for how much. Privatizing a natural resource has been the governing principle of fisheries management for a decade, the idea being that privatization gives people a greater stake in preservation. Fisheries have thus been carved into slices that can be bought, sold, or traded, pricing out small fishermen and rewarding deep-pocketed investors—“slipper skippers,” who don’t fish but own the boats and the rights to the catch. 

*          *          *

“The price went to hell” even before Covid-19, says lobsterman Larry Stepanuk, who fishes between 200 and 300 lobster traps in the waters off of Rockport, Mass. Tariffs imposed by Europe and China made lobsters prohibitively expensive. Then came the collapse of the Chinese market, where lobsters are—or were—a coveted luxury among the burgeoning middle class. Lobstermen, who had a bumper fall season, now have nowhere to sell their catch. No restaurant diners tying on lobster bibs; no cruise ships, the largest purchaser of processed tails, the ‘surf’ in surf and turf.

“To go and get ‘bugs,’” the local endearment for lobsters, “and sell them for what they can be sold for right now would net you enough to buy a six-pack or two,” Stepanuk says. He spends his days painting buoys and waiting to see if he gets what he calls “a gift” from the president.

Lobstermen at the Inner Harbor (photo: Hallie Baker)

The entire US fishing industry was promised only $300 million in the $2 trillion stimulus package. Massachusetts, which harvests more lobsters than any state besides Maine, is set to receive just over $28 million. The size of the state’s haul—the third-largest allocation behind Alaska and Washington—is partly due to the strength of the lobster industry here. But lobsterers are just one contingent in a vast workforce that depends upon the sea. “It could always just end up being a money grab,” says Mark Ring of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.

If any of that money makes its way to Stepanuk he plans to invest in maintenance—his wooden boat, the Aimee, could use a scrape and a paint. After lobstering for 50 years, Stepanuk is practiced at weathering crises; so is his extended community. 

“There’s this whole thing with mutual aid in a place like Gloucester. You get a bucket of lobsters, I get cheaper rent. A grocery store gives out a gift card, basically saying ‘Here’s some money for a couple of weeks.’ It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a huge thing, helping each other out.”

Jennifer C. Berkshire lives in Gloucester and hosts the education podcast “Have You Heard.” Her book, with co-author Jack Schneider, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, will be published by New Press in December. She was one of Kopkind’s inaugural campers, in 1999, and has been an adviser and occasional guest to the project ever since.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on thenation.com on May 20, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Radio Short From New Zealand

Maria Margaronis writes from London:

Here’s another radio piece in the series I made about women sewing masks around the world for BBC Woman’s Hour. I wish I could meet Sara Fitzell—tattooist, make-up artist, youth facilitator, mother. She’s Maori, from Lake Rotoiti (full name Te Roto-whaiti-i-kite-ai-a-Ihenga-i-Ariki-ai-a Kahumatamomoe), and she lives in the town of Rotorua, in a volcanic caldera on New Zealand’s North Island. She’s made more than 500 free masks for carers and others who need them, and she also sells them from a basket by her front gate. She chose the music track that accompanies her voice: Maggie Lindemann’s “Pretty Girl.” 






Scenes From a Pandemic: 7

18 05 2020

by José Orduña

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

Baby Joaquín, at night, with his father, and his grandfather’s photograph. (José Orduña)

Something’s Happening Here

Las Vegas/Chicago

My dad works at a grocery store in Chicago. He’s 57 years old. He was born in Acapulco, Guerrero. He likes to play the guitar for his 10-month-old grandson, Joaquín, and me, his 35-year-old son, over FaceTime. When my son smiles at the screen, it soothes the hurt caused by the 2,000 miles between us. My dad is quite fit, but he takes a pill every day to lower his blood pressure—a gift inscribed in his genes by his biological father, who abandoned him as a child. When the pandemic hit full stride, he and my mom began gaming out a series of bad “choices,” likely catastrophic “choices,” amid a moment of world-historic crisis that’s been 40-plus years in the making. 

They’ve been trying to “figure things out,” he says. My mom works at a rehabilitation hospital as an interpreter, but her hours have been drastically reduced. My dad can’t work from home, and they’re “on his insurance.” Whenever we video chat, I can see that he’s scared but trying to look, for me, as if he’s not. When he showers, puts on his uniform, and goes to work, he’s forced to make a wager with fate: Today I won’t contract the virus. I won’t die alone, intubated, in an overburdened hospital. I’ll watch Joaquín grow into the toddler clothes I sent him on his 6-month birthday. 

He does this for $14 an hour and the health insurance. The wager he makes every day is a version of one he’s been making his whole working life, which began before he was 10. When he left Mexico, during what historians now call the lost decade—an economic crisis fueled by unscrupulous lending by US commercial banks, World Bank- and IMF-imposed austerity, and the liberalization of the Mexican economy—he lost. He paid in the form of estrangement from everything and everyone he knew, but especially his mother, and the man who helped raise him, whom he called his father. He was able to see my grandmother only a handful of times before her death, and he never saw his dad again, not even when he was laid to rest. When I was a toddler, and he worked 12-hour shifts as a dishwasher at a stadium, he lost again. This time, the price was the permanent disfigurement of his right hand, which was left with thickened, dead skin that comes off in scales. When I was in my 20s, he worked at an industrial food packaging facility about an hour’s commute from where we lived. He worked the night shift. My mother talked to him on the phone for the duration of his drive to make sure he didn’t fall asleep. His blood pressure was the worst it’s ever been then. When he came home at dawn, he looked dazed, like he was sedated or sick, and although it was never diagnosed, he sunk into a slow-burning depression that made him prone to bouts of anger and despair.

With the pandemic raging, my father was “allowed” to take his two weeks of personal time. The other day he decided he’ll stay home without pay, and without the ability to collect unemployment benefits. For the time being, he’s “allowed” to keep his medical insurance, but he and my mother can’t absorb the cost of lost wages for long.

At night, when my wife and I are trying to get our baby to sleep, I take him on little walks through our darkened house. We call these whisper safaris, because I point to things with a dim headlamp and whisper stories to Joaquín as he swivels his head from the objects to my moving lips and back to the objects. One of our stops is a photo of my father and me laughing and embracing at my wedding. Joaquín stares at the photo and then at me. I can see him working out that what he’s seeing is some version of me. He looks at his grandfather’s face, then at mine, and I imagine that he somehow knows the three of us contain one another, that we’re bound by more than blood. When I look at the photo I try to hide what I feel, but sometimes I can’t, and I see Joaquín sensing that something is terribly wrong. This pandemic has laid bare a system that is casual in its cruelty—one that would rather pay workers to die than pay them to live; that absorbs certain kinds of people’s deaths in its cost-benefit analysis; that would think nothing of making my son’s grandfather a memory he never had.

José Orduña is the author of The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration and Displacement (Beacon Press). Information about his writing can be found at joseorduna.com. He was a Kopkind camper in 2013.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on thenation.com on May 13, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Song for Kids. Plus… Another Story Behind Your Dinner

Our dear friends and supporters Patty Carpenter and Verandah Porche in Guilford, Vermont, have sent a song they wrote to make hand-washing more fun. It’s called “Every Which Way,” and was produced as an animated music video by Kim Murton and our neighbors Charles Light and Michael Hanish.

Click here to play the music video (drawing: Kim Murton)

A second version of the song–with more animals!–can be found here.

Patty Carpenter, a singer/songwriter, is lead vocalist and pianist of The Dysfunctional Family Jazz Band. Verandah Porche is a poet, a pioneer in the commune movement, an inventor of “told poetry,” a collaborative form of literature she has been practicing with people far and wide. Patty and Verandah have been writing songs together for the past few years.


This week’s top dispatch, about José’s father, a grocery store worker, is also a story about what lies invisible behind our dinner. There are many such stories. An unforgettable one is told by Frank Bardacke, a Kopkind mentor in 2008, in his magnificent book Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (Verso, 2012). Here are three excerpts from Chapter 2, “The Work Itself.”

Behind every fruit and vegetable for sale in the supermarket lies an unknown world of toil and skill. Broccoli is one of the easiest vegetables to harvest because it grows on plants that are about waist-high, so workers don’t have to bend over completely to cut the unopened, densely compacted flower buds that people eat. The plants grow two rows to a bed in lush fields that extend for hundreds of acres. From a distance, workers, organized into crews of a few dozen, clad in bright yellow rain slickers to ward off the morning dew, seem to be plodding through the plants, hunched over, tiny specks of gold too few to make an impact on so much green. Up close, any illusion of sluggishness dissolves before the athletic spectacle of the cut.

The heads of green compacted buds, three to six inches in diameter, shoot off the main stalk of the plant, sheltered by the broad leaves at the top and hidden among the long leaves that surround the buds before they flower. Not all the heads mature at the same time, and only through keenness of sight can the harvesters—most of them are men—quickly find the ones that are ready to cut. The harvester grabs the head with one hand while with the other he thrusts the short, broad knife downward, cutting the leaves away from the stalk. Then with a sideways stroke of the knife he cuts the head off the plant, leaving just the right length of stalk below the wide unopened flower. He stretches his fingers to grab another head with the first still in his grip and cuts a second stalk. Depending on his quick judgement of the size of the heads and the proximity of the next one ready to cut, he may even grab and cut a third head while holding the other two in his extended hand. Finally he throws the heads onto a conveyer belt moving through the fields, or onto a small platform pulled by a tractor, or into a metal-framed basket on his back, as he looks ahead for the next bud mature enough to be harvested. Each cut takes about three seconds; in an average eight-hour day he might cut 11,000 head of broccoli.

Early days in the life of food, El Centro, California (photo: Gretchen Laue)

Physical labor has received bad reviews since people began to write. It is Adam’s curse in the Old Testament. Aristotle contended that “occupations are … the most servile in which there is greatest use of the body.” The dynamic relationship between the brain and the hand was ripped asunder by early philosophers, leaving two separate activities: valued intellectual labor (suitable for free men) and devalued manual labor (suitable for women and slaves). The philosophical predisposition against the work of the body had its greatest worldly triumph in the development of capitalism and the factory system. As Marx so passionately chronicled, English factories destroyed English handicrafts. What he called “modern industry”—machines built by other machines strung together in a continuous process of production where laborers are “mere appendages” to the machinery—replaced the earlier system of production that “owed its existence to personal strength and personal skill, and depended on the muscular development, the keenness of sight, and the cunning of the hand.”

The cunning of the hand, what farmworkers call maña, remains the basis of California’s farmwork as surely as it is the basis of a major league pitcher’s job or a skilled craftsman’s. Many farmworker jobs are not only hard to do but hard to learn, often requiring years to master, and skills typically are passed from one generation to the next. Farmworkers use hand tools: knives, hoes, clippers, pruners.

Apieros, aka celery workers, harvesting (photo: Nick Oza, The Arizona Republic)

Apieros talk a lot about their knives. They discuss the differing qualities of the steel, the feel of the handle, and the correct angle of the lift at the end of the knife. When a new man is learning how to cut, people come over to help him out, to teach him how to do it right…. New men might buy more than a few different celery knives (some from the very pros who are giving them instructions), trying to get the perfect one that will make them good cutters. “Es el cuchillo,” those trying to learn jokingly tell each other. “It’s all in the knife.”

Celery is planted only inches apart, and unlike lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, and many other vegetables, the worker cuts every piece. Usually the celery is cut with three strokes. For the first cut the apiero grabs the celery with his non-knife hand at about midstalk. He bends the plant back slightly and, with a short thrust of the knife, cuts the piece of celery at the root, using the angled, fan end of the knife. Just where to cut it, and the exact angle of the first thrust, is part of the skill. Every piece of celery is a little different, so where the first cut lands varies. Cut it too high, and all the individual stalks will separate; it will no longer be a whole piece of celery. Cut it too low, and the next stroke will be more difficult. Cut it at the wrong angle, and some of the outside stalks will be lost.

If the first cut is made correctly, the worker lifts the celery to a horizontal position parallel to the ground and makes the second cut, a sharp downward thrust with the straight edge of the knife, squaring off the first cut at the root. As he finishes this cut he loosens his hold of the knife to make a circular motion with his hand at the just squared-off root, trimming away the remaining loose strands and tendrils. While trimming these “suckers” he turns the piece of celery over with his other hand and then makes the third cut, which trims the top edge of the piece of celery and leaves it about fourteen inches long. Then he drops the celery on top of all the trimmed stalks that protect it from the dirt. When a worker is learning, he masters the strokes, develops his own style, and takes his time. An experienced apiero does the whole operation in one fluid motion, at a rate of about one piece of celery every three to five seconds.

People who can do it well are a sight to behold.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 6

11 05 2020

by Taté Walker

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

photos and masks: Jana Schmieding

Something’s Happening Here

Indian Country

For Indigenous people there are two viruses. 

One has been killing us for centuries. The novel coronavirus is biological and blameless, while colonialism is a man-made cocktail of historical and political toxicity. For the sake of metaphor, work with me here, because you cannot discuss the wildfire that is Covid-19 and the disparities it uncovers without recognizing how colonialism has fueled the blaze.

Indian Country, the legal term for the 574 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations of the US mainland and Alaska, is disproportionately affected. Our communities tend to be in isolated rural areas with the least Internet access. Big extended families often live together in small homes. Basic medical care and social services are limited and always underfunded, if they exist at all. Poverty and chronic diseases are rampant. Some of our relatives have no running water—or contaminated water, the fallout of extractive industries—so washing hands can be a hardship.

This double virus explains why some headlines shout that Covid-19 could “wipe out” Natives. As of May 9, the Navajo Nation had 2,973 cases and 98 confirmed deaths, the highest infection rate after New York and New Jersey. With a total Native population of just over 5 million, Indian Country can’t sustain numbers like that.


Proud as I am our our resiliency, I await the day Natives are no longer applauded for surviving. Living in a constant state of “what kind of colonizer bullshit will we have to endure now?” is not OK.


Many tribes have instituted strict measures to limit contagion.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, where I’m enrolled and many of my relatives live, enforces curfew, requires travel permits, and has checkpoints to control traffic in and out of its 1.4 million-acre reservation. Gov. Kristi Noem—notorious for snubbing tribes before greenlighting pro-pipeline legislation—now complains that the tribe did not first consult the state, though it’s indisputable the safety measures work. Cheyenne River announced its first Covid-19 case on April 29, and our tribal chairman credited the checkpoint system for tracing the source of the virus to the victim’s travel outside the reservation. Across the state, communities of color aren’t faring as well. Noem disdained statewide collective protection as “herd mentality,” and Sioux Falls became a virus hot spot, the worst in the country from a single source. But that’s just a coincidence, right?

People with a history of surviving state-led genocide are intimately aware of the power of a well-aimed germ—ask Natives about smallpox. Government inaction is thus not surprising, nor is its boundless opportunism. With public attention focused on the biological virus, the Interior Department decided to rescind the reservation designation of the Mashpee Wampanoag (of Thanksgiving fame) and strip them of their lands. When the tribe’s chairman got the call from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he’d expected the discussion to be about FEMA relief. A federal judge will hear the tribe’s case on May 20.

To say Indian Country distrusts the government is an understatement. We rely instead on culture and relationships—to one another, to our languages, to the land. The concept is foundational to Indigenous ways of being, passed down through ancestral knowledge—or what science calls epigenetics. Call it what you like; it has prepared Indigenous people to weather whatever the plural of apocalypse is. Surviving the very systems built without us in mind, or to destroy us, has forced us to expect and adapt to change. 

This capacity for creative thrivance gives me hope, and examples of it shine through in today’s bleak viral landscape—a reminder that medicine comes in many forms.

  • Social Distance Powwow emerged on Facebook after stay-at-home orders shuttered two of Indian Country’s largest powwows, Denver March and the Gathering of Nations. Now 170,000-strong and growing (not without some pains), this online space provides daily inspiration and prayer, and serves as a digital classroom and marketplace. This is especially meaningful to the artists, dancers, and revelers who depend on the powwow season both economically and culturally.
  • Native storytellers—especially journalists at Indian Country Today—have been vital fonts of news, resources, and data in the crisis. They include educators helping our people reclaim Indigenous food and other wellness knowledge.
  • Artists showcase innovation via tradition. A Mniconjou Lakota television writer and educator in Los Angeles, Jana Schmieding learned to bead as a girl from her elders. She calls the bold face mask pictured here “NDN Quarantine Couture.” For Schmieding and other artisans, beading is a near-ceremonial process; it steadies them in a chaotic world. 

Proud as I am of our resiliency, I await the day Natives are no longer applauded for surviving. Living in a constant state of “what kind of colonizer bullshit will we have to endure now?” is not OK. To overcome this, we need accomplices

Now that privileged populations are experiencing the bitter taste of being confined to homes, blocked from earning money or going to worship, facing police action if you gather in groups, feeling the pressure of not having enough, and fearing contagion, maybe you’ll support Indigenous and other marginalized communities and help us demand accountability. And when you learn, as we have always known, that the government is the problem, perhaps you’ll go a step farther and join us in dismantling this colonial sys-tem and rebuilding communities of holistic well-being.

Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota) is a Two Spirit storyteller and was a participant in Kopkind’s 2015 Freedom to Be camp. See www.jtatewalker.com. Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on thenation.com on May 6, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

 

Bonus: A Radio Short From Liberia

Humpheretta Reid in her workroom in Freetown

Maria Margaronis sent us a radio short (click on photo below to listen), first broadcast April 30 on BBC 4’s Woman’s HourFrom London, Maria writes:

A few years ago I took my mother’s jammed electric Singer (made in 1949 at the company’s great Clydebank factory) to Tony’s Sewing Centre near where I live in London for repair. My visit to his Aladdin’s cave of old and new technology opened up a world of stories about women and sewing machines, which Gandhi called “one of the few useful things ever invented” and Marx saw as a means of extracting more labor from fewer workers. Intimate and industrial, creative and coercive, the sewing machine has been both a liberation and a curse. In these pandemic days, women across the world are using it to make masks—alone and in groups, for family and friends, for front-line workers, for refugees. Something like a movement has spontaneously sprung up, loosely linked by social media. I’ve been collecting some of their stories over dodgy Internet connections for broadcast on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour, with a piece of music chosen by each maker. Here’s community activist HumphEretta Reid of Freetown, Liberia, who’s adapted a pattern used to make reusable sanitary towels. 

 

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





Scenes From a Pandemic: 5

4 05 2020

by Anna Flores

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

illustration: Piersten Doctor

Something’s Happening Here

Phoenix. May Day

The days are screaming at the tops of their lungs, coming from the center of somewhere far away and deep inside. 

I have been trying to write this letter to you.

Dear Landlord, 

Due to Covid-19, our anxieties are constellating into clusters of moonlit shock and bracing splendor. Outside, a pair of shiny elevator doors hangs from a white crane, an abandoned pendulum in the sky. Under the swaying, many of us are able only to hallucinate the act of sending you a check on the 1st. I think of dates and time as the evening’s mountains in silhouette, a consecutive line. I imagine scaling the dips and peaks into a Morse-coded message but, today, the hiking trails are packed with people who all had the same idea, and every body becomes a hatch mark in a throbbing line graph. As a precaution to prevent further spread, and to cling to as much of our current health as we can, many of us have chosen, been strongly advised to stay, or been sent home. Are you home with your pets, with your family? I’m rationing my brothers’ faces indefinitely because they’re not on Facebook or a wifi plan, and the US-Mexican border, like many others, is closed to nonessential travel: a desperate expression of divine entry, an imagined, immunological edge, but border cities are not clean cut. Many of us have made a commute across that frontier—now a metal carcass with restless K9s and masked agents. Here, instead of ordering N95 masks, we are trying to ensure a roof over our heads. We have come together so we may represent our interests as people who give you money to claim a place to sleep.

We are writing to request three things:

1. That you refuse to evict tenants from any of your properties.

2. That you suspend rent in full for any tenants who are unable to pay.

3. That you turn toward a humming red regard for other human beings by denying a life contorted into stacks of possessions on your shelves.

On March 30, the State of Arizona issued a shelter-in-place order: an official, on-record gasp stamped with a golden seal and signed by a nervous politician. In an unprecedented statement, the same governor who had previously tried to cement a ban on sanctuary cites that help protect undocumented immigrants from being torn from their communities said this: “Nobody should be forced out of their home because of Covid-19.” A recent news article read, “The Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” Many of us are scared for our health, let alone our means of living. We hope you will do what is right, and this hope is a hope that does not rely on a virus to wake people up. No virus can sustain a revolution in anything other than a human body. We are prepared to know your true name, to stand six feet apart in solidarity, to stream together like an outburst of laughter in a new world’s throat.

Signed,

Anna Flores

Anna Flores is a poet and graduate student researcher in Phoenix. Her debut collection, Pocha Theory, explores the experience of mixed-status families in the US. She was the Kopkind/Nation fellow for 2018. For more of illustrator Piersten Doctor’s work, see him on Instagram. This piece originally appeared on thenation.com on April 29, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and all our collaborators in The Nation crew.

 

 

Bonus: A Short Film From Cuba

still from Ojos/Eyes (animation: Ivette Avila and collaborators)

From Chicago, filmmaker Alexandra Halkin, who participated in the 2014 Kopkind/Center for Independent Documentary film camp, sent an update in late April about the Americas Media Initiative, which she directs:

Last month I had an unusually vivid dream about a four-eyed dog.  I told the dream to my friend the Cuban animator Ivette Avila, and sent her my rudimentary drawing of the dog’s head.  

A few days later Ivette got in touch with a number of talented Cuban artists and musicians to produce the animated film, Ojos/Eyes, which I wanted to share with you in hopes of brightening your day.

I wrote an article for OnCuba about my friendship with Ivette and how the animation came to life. We have agreed to create more video collaborations between Chicago and Cuba over the next month,  which you can follow by visiting AMI’s Facebook page.

In Cuba, the US trade embargo appears to be stopping much-needed shipments of medical supplies. Our colleague Peter Kornbluh wrote an article about the effects of the embargo now on Cuban citizens. Our on-the-ground work there has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but we continue to work remotely, staying in touch with Cuban filmmakers and continuing our collaboration with Cuban film critic Juan Antonio Garcia on the ENDAC (Cuban Digital Audiovisual Encyclopedia) website. I hope you are well and taking good care during this very stressful time.

Alexandra Halkin founded the Chiapas Media Project in 1998, a binational organization that has trained over 200 indigenous people in video production in Chiapas and Guerrero, Mexico. In 2010 she founded AMI, a nonprofit that produces, distributes and screens film and video made in the Americas by community media organizations and independent filmmakers, particularly Cubans living in Cuba. Her own films have been shown at film and video festivals worldwide. For more on AMI’s Cuban film catalogue, click here.

 





May Day Special

1 05 2020
illustrations: Alessandra Moctezuma

“Something is afoot,” our friends Peter Linebaugh (past Kopkind mentor) and David Roediger write today in CounterPunch. Let us “grasp the spirit of the time.” As workers continue to wildcat throughout the country and the world against systems of death and disposability, from meatpacking houses to hospitals, grocery stores to digital services, construction sites to warehouses, herewith: posters from our friend Alessandra Moctezuma in San Diego, and verse from the great Jamaican poet Claude McKay (1889-1948).

If We Must Die

If we must die—let it not be like hogs,
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed 
In vain; then even the monsters we defy 
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like [wo]/men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
                                                                         Claude McKay




Scenes From a Pandemic: 4

27 04 2020

by Cynthia Greenlee

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

Gabrielle Eitienne with mint (photo: Derrick Beasley)

Something’s Happening Here

Hurdle Mills, North Carolina 

Linda Leach wears a mask as much for the pollen that’s whipping through the air as coronavirus. Sticking her head out her pickup-truck window, she checks the progress in the shed on the farm she owns with husband Stanley Hughes.

Gloved and intent, Gabrielle Eitienne and Gerald Harris pull apart tangles of herbs. They sort them into piles, determining what’s what by smell and sight: cilantro, oregano, sage, mint. Soon, the scent in the Pine Knot Farms shed is an olfactory cocktail, as Hughes peels an orange and the wind picks up, blowing empty boxes off the truck bed a few steps away. Those boxes will soon each hold a dozen fresh eggs and Pine Knot’s trademark sweet potatoes, then gradually fill up with the vegetables of this in-between season: kale, mustard greens, bundles of collards, leaves as broad as fans—the bounty from five farms, ready for pick-up. 

What’s happening here is a new community-supported agriculture (CSA) service, the Tall Grass Food Box, featuring the produce of black farmers around the state’s Triangle region. It was an idea among friends, who hustled to organize the CSA in about a week and a half as the coronavirus crisis hit: Eitienne, a cook and cultural preservationist; Harris, a university administrator interested in food sovereignty; and Derrick Beasley, an artist and co-founder of Black August, a showcase for black food producers, business, and creativity held annually in Durham. “We were asking ourselves, Who’s taking care of black farmers? How can we support them?” says Harris. 

Leach and Hughes didn’t blink when asked to participate. Sitting in the couple’s gleaming kitchen, Hughes estimates that 50 percent of their sales comes from farmers markets, now disallowed under North Carolina’s stay-at-home order. 

But Pine Knot specializes in survival. It’s a rare “century farm,” acreage bought in 1912 by Hughes’s grandfather. As Hughes puts it, “I’ve been farming as long as I’ve been black”—all of his 71 years. Pine Knot is among the best-known small farms in North Carolina, and the first black-owned one in the state to be certified organic, in 1996 — when few farmers of any race earned the designation. Hughes became one of the country’s pioneers of organic tobacco. Gourmet proclaimed his collards a national treasure in 2003, and his sweet potatoes draw competitors’ envy. 

“Everybody wants to know how he cures his sweet potatoes,” says Leach with an emphatic nod, speaking of the process that makes the vegetables storable for months. “He won’t tell it to anybody—except for me.”

Pine Knot’s longevity is also unusual in a state where black land dispossession is a century-long and ongoing tale. Hurdle Mills was once dotted with African-American homesteads. Driving the verdant route there, about 30 minutes from Durham, I saw more than a few rural-gentrifying McMansions. “You can hardly find a black full-time farmer here for the next 10 miles,” says Hughes.

As we speak on a sunny day, rain has delayed spring planting by two weeks. That’s not an insurmountable problem, and workers are now “cutting the land,” prepping the fields. 

Hughes epitomizes the farmer as working-class scientist. He reels off the soil sugar levels tobacco needs to thrive, the names of sweet potato varieties beyond the orange Beauregards in a supermarket near you, and the price a 40-pound box of his favorite tubers is fetching (about $30). Leach handles paying the bills and other business matters. Together, they’re always looking for new revenue streams. 

Eitienne is thrilled that the Tall Grass Food Box will contain Pine Knot’s Murasaki white sweet potatoes. If people talked about sweet potatoes like they talk about wine, the Murasakis would be described as having “notes of brown sugar.”

Partially filled Tall Grass Food Box (photo: Derrick Beasley)

Food can comfort and connect in hard times. Eitienne shares her favorite sweet potato soup recipe: “I’ll soften up some leeks with butter, maybe some carrots. Then I put in the boiled sweet potatoes, or I’ll roast them depending on how much time I have. I’ll puree and thin it out with beef stock. And then I’ll finish it with a little good olive oil or chive oil. Maybe I’ll use wild yard chives or some fresh thyme.” 

Leach shares her tip for sweet potato pie: Use the Murasakis and a packet of instant vanilla pudding to hold it together. Imparting that knowledge, she smiles at Beasley, Etienne, and Harris, lined up in front of her. “I appreciate what you’re doing,” Leach says. “I’m looking at millionaires now, and you’re going to do it with black farmers.” 

The CSA sold 30-odd boxes in its inaugural week, and there’s room to expand. Beasley defines success in material and community terms, and the current crisis as an opportunity beyond accumulation: making sure black farmers are visible, paying them fair retail prices upfront, getting fresh produce to people, helping consumers think outside grocery stores, creating new markets that are friendly and beneficial to both producers and customers of color. “There’s enough for all of us,” he says. 

“Oh, there’s enough for all,” agrees Leach. And shouldn’t black farmers and small businesses have a bigger share? The Lord wants us to speak success, she says. “Everybody can get a slice of the pie. The sweet potato pie.”

Cynthia Greenlee is an independent historian, writer, and editor based in Durham. She was a participant in Kopkind’s 2007 camp for political journalists and activists. This piece appeared on thenation.com on April 22, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and all our collaborators in The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Photo From the Bay Area

San Francisco, April 24. I took a bike ride last Saturday up to Hill 88, a former Nike missile site in the Marin Headlands, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from here. It’s one of the highest and westernmost peaks in the Headlands, at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The military installation up top, a series of stripped-out bunkers and truck-sized concrete brackets and platforms, once part of the US nuclear-capable Cold War air-defense network, is surreally abandoned. It’s been heavily tagged and painted by graffiti writers. The art is often gorgeous, and totally present tense.Josh Wilson

(photo: Josh Wilson)

Josh Wilson is a journalist and a founding member of the Northern California Media Co-op, a collective of local, regional and advocacy news organizations from San Francisco to Mendocino, including a number of Bay Area neighborhood newspapers, as well as leading publications representing the lgbtq and black communities. Josh was a participant in Kopkind’s 2019 camp.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 2

13 04 2020

by Kate Savage

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

photos: Kate Savage

Something’s Happening Here

Salt Lake City

When the earth starts shaking, you’re not supposed to run to a doorframe. The doorframe is no safer than anywhere else, and rushing there is dangerous. 

It doesn’t matter. When the largest earthquake in Salt Lake City’s recorded history hits—as it happens, early on Wednesday morning, March 18—and at every heavy aftershock, we still run to the doorframe. Education doesn’t help; the allure of the wood of the doorframe is inescapable. Gripping it is a plan. A goal. Something to do amid the uncontrollable.

From the doorframe I learn that the first stage of an earthquake is chaos-shaking; the second stage is rocking, forward and back, as if the earth finally finds its rhythm. I learn the noise of it, a low raspy hum right at the lowest frequency my ear can detect. 

Our city sprawls at the foot of the Wasatch Range. These are absurdly beautiful mountains, ready-made for brochures. Only now do we remember the Wasatch Range was built by catastrophe, bit by bit.


It confuses me, all the small kindnesses of this place, and all the big cruelties. All the catastrophes past, present, and future.


The day of the quake, our city is at the foot of another slope, the exponential rise of Covid-19 cases. We refresh websites all day. One tab shows the latest aftershocks, so we can determine whether the earth moved underneath us or we just imagined the tremor. Another tab shows the latest case count for the virus in Utah. 

The numbers don’t help us. They are doorframes, a useless handhold amid the uncontrollable.

* * *

I live in a small community house. There are just four of us, all climate justice and immigration rights organizers. All introverts. Here we call this the Crone Virus, and embrace the life we hope to have when we are old. We tend to our hens and our sprouting garlic. We make big batches of soup and herbal tea. We feel a secret relief that we are ethically obligated to stay home.

But we’re still stumbling over this new moral calculus, trying to sustain a network of families facing deportation and detention, using phone calls and texts and awkward porch drop-offs. I cherish my time with two kids during a food delivery as they describe their favorite TikTok videos and tease each other about their crushes. They are so lively and normal. But we all grow silent when their mom asks what will happen to her husband in immigration detention. 

Throughout the day I remember; I forget; I remember. The cold chill of it. The people we know in detention, the people we don’t know. Even in non-pandemic times, diseases hit detention centers hard. Last year mumps and chickenpox roared through Colorado’s Aurora Detention Center. In expensive phone calls to their families living here, detainees described the nightmare: whole wings locked down in quarantine, the aches and fevers and fainting. They said it felt like they had been left to die.

* * *

When my ancestors first settled this place, they brought all their dreams and all their diseases. Both their dreams and diseases eradicated whole peoples. The part of Utah Mormon culture that feels so safe and stable to me was, like the mountains, built by catastrophes.

Today, a woman from the suburbs left boxes of fancy food-storage meals on our porch for us to redistribute to immigrant families. The food comes from her Mormon neighbor, part of his two-year End Times supply that he wants to share with those who need it more. 

It confuses me, all the small kindnesses of this place, and all the big cruelties. All the catastrophes past, present, and future.

Salt Lake City is built around a Mormon temple, with all the street numbers counted out from this ground zero. At the top spire stands a 12-foot-tall Angel Moroni, hammered out of copper and covered in 22-karat gold leaf. He faces east and holds a trumpet to his mouth. When I was a kid, my mom told me the statue would blow the trumpet to announce the End Times. 

In the earthquake, Moroni’s trumpet clattered out of his grip and fell to the ground, and now we have to wait here within time, unsure what’s beginning and what’s ending.

Kate Savage lives in a collective house in Salt Lake City. For money she writes about legal technology. For no money she works at local immigration rights organizing. Kate participated in Kopkind’s Occupy camp in 2012. This piece appeared on thenation.com on April 8, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and all our collaborators in The Nation crew.

 

Bonus: A Note From Tariq Ali

London, April 11. For your Kopkind short reads? Cao Zhi, son of Cao Cao and one of the best-known poets of the late Han/Three Kingdoms period, wrote this piece, below, about a plague. Here in the UK, 1,000 deaths a day, and this is not counting care homes, where a holocaust of the elderly is in process all over Europe. The nuns near Valencia fled from a home, leaving people to agonising deaths… T.

The Plague Airs 
Cao Zhi (192-232 CE)

In 216, the 22nd year of Establishing Peace, the contagion spread, bringing sorrows over corpses in every family, tears of lament in each abode. They died behind shuttered doors or perished by the clan. Some said this was the work of ghosts or spirits. Yet the fallen were the rag-wearers and bark-eaters, in hovels of bramble and sedge. Among those who dwelt in great halls and supped from bronze cauldrons, cloaked in marten fur, on plush cushions… it was rare. The cosmic forces were out of balance; winter and summer had turned around: this was its cause. Some tried to drive it away with far-fetched spells. That was laughable too.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Triumph of Death. Circa 1562. Oil on panel. Prado Museum.

曹植,“说疫气”

建安二十二年,疠气流行。家家有僵尸之痛,室室有号泣之哀。 或阖门而殪, 或覆族而 丧。或以为疫者,鬼神所作。人罹此者,悉被褐茹藿之子,荆室蓬户之人耳!若夫殿处鼎 食之家,重貂累蓐之门,若是者鲜焉。此乃阴阳失位,寒暑错时,是故生疫。而愚民悬符 厌z之,亦可笑也。

(Translated by Chris Connery)

Tariq Ali’s latest book, co-edited with Margaret Kunstler, is In Defense of Julian Assange (O/R Books). Tariq was a guest speaker at Kopkind in 2003.