Scenes From a Pandemic: 39

28 12 2020

We hope you have been enjoying this series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it. With each week’s Bonuses during this long, gray season, we have featured about 80 stories, songs, art works, videos, photographs, radio shorts, excerpts or notes from across the country and the world. We hope you are safe and ready. And we ask that, if you can, please press the Donate button (above) on this site—because we’re also hoping to survive this thing, to flower again on the green grass of Vermont; and we could really use a little help from our friends. Thank you all.

by Kevin Alexander Gray

Pit master Marco Brito with ribs (photos: Kevin Alexander Gray)

Smoking Meat, Hoping to Survive

Columbia, South Carolina

Yeah, it is hard as hell operating a restaurant in the midst of a pandemic. Very f-ing hard.

Last week around 7:30-ish in the morning I was awakened by a phone call. The voice on the other end said, “Mr. Gray, this is Officer So-and-so with the City of Columbia Police Department.” I didn’t get his name, as the call caught me off guard. Without hesitation I asked, “Is there something wrong at the restaurant?”

“No,” he said, “I was just checking in to see if everything is all right with you.” Turns out he was one of the community relations officers.

I’m not used to connecting police with a morning howdy-do except on reruns of The Andy Griffith Show—the black-and-white episodes. Most of my life I’ve spent in political struggles, which have involved burning the Confederate flag on statehouse grounds, organizing electoral defeats of racist sheriffs, defending free speech, and resisting violence, be it at the hands of police or presidents or individuals who themselves are often familiar with systems of economic or physical meanness. Some of the history of those struggles—and, really, a sampling of black political and social history of South Carolina over the past 60 years—is represented on the walls of this barbecue restaurant, which seemed like a simple idea when my friend Keyur Naik and I came up with it six years ago. Keyur was the businessman. We were going to run it together, as I knew nothing about the restaurant business. Then he moved to Dallas to work with his brother.

Barbecue is comfort food. History isn’t exactly comfort but, traditionally, gathering over food is. Of course, where you eat, what you eat, and whether you even can eat are weighty with historical and political meaning. It should tell you a lot that a barbecue restaurant is the closest thing to a museum of civil rights history in South Carolina’s state capital.

We opened Railroad BBQ officially in February, and the virus shut us down in March. Generally speaking, the experience of the past few months has made me hopeful about people. Especially when they work cooperatively versus competing on even the smallest things. Or when return customers say, “We’re here for you” and “we’re going to spread the word.” The other side is the higher cost of everything. I call it the “Covid surtax.” And because we profess to try to do the right thing in our business practices, we’re often held to a standard that folk don’t hold themselves to. That depresses me.

Since “reopening” with take-out, delivery, and patio seating only, we’ve built a base of regular customers, probably a 50-50 racial mix. First, the firemen started coming, then the police, then EMTs. We give a first-responders discount. It’s a matter of pride that county health department workers are regulars, but many other employees from the county administration building across the street, our anticipated lunchtime base, have been working from home because of Covid. We were set to cater the police department’s Thanksgiving affair; they wanted brisket, 300 meals. Canceled because of Covid. We had a catering contract with the Census Bureau. Canceled because of Covid. People come in to take pictures; many have wanted to do events—anniversary dinners, even a wedding reception. Impossible because of Covid.

Still, we’re trying to keep people working, and when you’re smoking meat that means every day. Our Houston-born pit master, Marco Brito, often works through the night, as it takes 12 hours to smoke brisket and seven hours for ribs. We use peach and hickory wood. I believe we have some of the best “que” in the state thanks to Marco and our sous-chef, Keshaun Boulware. Those fellows love to cook. We have seven workers. Linous, and our lead hostess, Sharon, were hired as wait staff; they’re cashiers now. Yet folk leave tips. Linous was supposed to return to college at St. John’s in New York this fall, but he missed the New York State quarantine requirement, so he does school work between shifts.

About two-thirds of US restaurant workers were unemployed in April, and 8 million more were fired or forced to quit. Now it’s estimated that half the restaurants in some cities will go under. Almost 25 percent in this state don’t expect to be around in six months without government help. As good as our food, workers, and community support are, we know we survive by chance. Having renovated an old gas station, we’re not burdened by an extortionate landlord. We have a partner, Francie Close, who’s been our financial backbone from the start. Without her support, we’d be closed down. We didn’t apply for a PPP loan; Francie said, “There are other people who really need it.”

Covid is a test of everybody’s solidarity, but this is South Carolina, and that means something too. I won’t lie, it is not fun to wear masks and gloves all day long. We do it because we know that if one person gets sick, we have to shut it all down. Beyond our doors, not everyone has got the memo. My running joke has been that Republicans and poor black folk got the memo and ripped it up. Trump Republicans see Covid as a Democratic plot, and poor blacks are skeptical of a government that didn’t care about them before, so why should they believe it now?

Signs upfront require masks, and one says, “We reserve the right to refuse service to mean people.” We’ve had more than a few white men come in, then balk when told to wear a mask. One guy came in with his family; gave a speech about wanting to patronize us but he wasn’t going to wear a mask while ordering. I wasn’t at work the day a white couple with Florida tags stopped by. The man kept calling Linous “boy” This isn’t the first, second, or third time that we’ve had to deal with such slights. One morning as I was getting out of my truck a delivery man addressed me as “Bo.” When I was growing up if someone called you “bo” (short for “boy”) or “buddy,” the common response was, “Bo and Buddy are a white man’s hunting dogs.”

I write off the bo, boy, mask thing to the Trump effect, whereby overtly racist people feel even freer to be overtly racist. But you can’t run a business on the black side of town without constant reminders of subtler racism. Our monthly hospitality tax payments go primarily to the “hospitality districts,” which are overwhelming white. There, “yellow shirts” ride around in golf carts or on Segways keeping the areas clean. We have to pick up trash on the streets and sidewalks ourselves. We’ve had to clean up by the county building to keep trash from traveling our way. We’re located by the railroad tracks; when it rains, the ditch beside the track along the potholed gravel lane fills with water. Both our city and county councils are majority black, but drive around the city and you see where the money and effort go.

We’re not yet at break even, but Railroad BBQ will survive, we think. Our other partners, my older sister Doris and her husband, Elliott, have saved my sanity, although I’m sure many would argue that point. They do all the admin work, taxes, payroll, keeping up with sales, and such.

I’m looking forward to the time when our place runs itself. Back at the start, we faced a stream of mostly white male vendors or government petty tyrants who suspected us of being drug dealers trying to wash money. We faced workers who were so used to being exploited that they seemed to be waiting for us to mistreat them. Then there were those who saw Covid testing as another form of discrimination. Our next challenge is to convince people that a vaccination is important to our survival; it may be a job requirement if we want “butts in seats,” which is the goal. So there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, but then you never know. I hope it’s not the kind in Jesse Jackson’s old line, “We always thought that it was light at the end of the tunnel, but nobody told us it was a train coming at us.”

Kevin Alexander Gray was Jesse Jackson’s South Carolina campaign manager in 1988. The author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics, he is co-owner of Railroad BBQ in Columbia. He was a mentor at Kopkind in 2002 and 2008.

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

Bonus: Another Seasonal Pleasure

Duke Ellington and his band give a taste of their Nutcracker Suite




Scenes From a Pandemic: 38

22 12 2020

We hope you have been enjoying this series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it. With each week’s Bonuses during this long, gray season, we have featured about 80 stories, songs, art works, videos, photographs, radio shorts, excerpts or notes from across the country and the world. We hope you are safe and ready. And we ask that, if you can, please press the Donate button (above) on this site—because we’re also hoping to survive this thing, to flower again on the green grass of Vermont; and we could really use a little help from our friends. Thank you all.

by Peter Linebaugh

(photos: Peter Linebaugh)

The Most Vital Transition Is Ours

Ann Arbor, Michigan

We’re at a historical pause far deeper than the interregnum between Trump and Biden. Amid planetary warming, the pandemic has forced us to slow down if not to stop in our tracks.

Locked in, I read a lot. So when JoAnn Wypijewski, author of a terrific new book about gender, sex, and silences, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo, asked for a dispatch on the pandemic and Michigan from my experience this year, it was books I had to write about.

First, about pandemics then.

At the end of the 1790s, Charles Brockden Brown wrote Arthur Mervyn; Or, Memoirs of the Year 1793. It tells the tale of the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in the context of merchant capitalism. While the “founding fathers” evacuated the diseased capital city, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, formerly enslaved men, nursed the sick and buried the dead. They were “essential workers” of the day, the “heroes.” From their deeds the AME church was formed, the chief good that resulted from that year, unless you accept the installation of the Cult of Reason and the revolutionary calendar in France. Otherwise in the USA that year, the Fugitive Slave Act made it a crime to help a slave escape to freedom, and cotton mill owners found the small hands of compliant children to be profitable resources. Slave labor and child labor went together as a new mode of production, industrial capitalism, spun bonds of global servitude.

On Michigan—so much in the news, so divorced from history—I asked a friend (he’s in his 80s) what I should read. With the libraries closed, he went to his garage and picked a couple of volumes. The first, Michigan: A Guide to the Wolverine State, was compiled by workers of the Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. These writers, the book’s introduction says, were “forgotten men—slightly frayed and sometimes hungry.” They had pencil stubs and wastepaper to record what they learned. “Thinly clothed and with belts pulled in,” they were without cars and “thumbed their way to their rendezvous with their source materials.”

What is a Michigander? The worker/writers hitchhiking and writing with pencil stubs in the mid-1930s couldn’t really tell. Michigan consists of two peninsulas amid the Great Lakes and is without uniform statewide geographic characteristics. If the WPA guide was only lightly touched by history from below, it was bold in another radical sense, its materialist periodization of history. This matters for us today.

A couple musty treasures from a friend’s garage spark remembrance in the flat Zoom time of pandemic. What new composition of our “we” can make the earth move?

The land was taken, stolen, over a cask of rum. “The dignity of the savage,” write these frayed, forgotten men, “was shaken by the white man’s most potent bargaining asset”—booze—and “the rape of the Michigan forests was on.” The joists and rafters, the posts and beams of the big Midwest cities were composed of Michigan lumber, from which timber barons amassed vast fortunes. Meanwhile, wood lodged deep in the cultural consciousness, evoked by the Mackinaw plaid shirt and the smell of a fireplace. The economy based on wood went, and the state’s next economy “for contribution, exploitation, and, perhaps, error was in its minerals.” I like that choice of words, “perhaps, error.”

The material basis of capitalist dynamics, or its human and ecological catastrophes called “investment/development,” was first in the fur trade, then in timber, third in minerals, fourth in automobiles. We can see aspects of these different property regimes stretching from the communal life of indigenous folk in the 17th century to the lumber camps for the expropriation of the forests of the 19th century to the boarding houses of remote mining towns to the massive mechanics of the auto assembly line in Dearborn, River Rouge, Detroit in the 20th century.

The working-class composition in each of these periods was different as far as the work was concerned (trappers, lumberjacks, hard rock miners, auto workers). It was also different as far as its reproduction was concerned: In the 17th century bands of indigenous Ojibway and Potawatomi; in the 18th century colonial settlers from New York and New England; migrants from Scandinavia, Ireland, and southern and Slavic Europe in the 19th century; African Americans in the Great Migration from the South in the 20th. Just as one period was replaced rather than destroyed by another, so it was with the composition of the Michiganders. After these constellations of the labor market pass away, their experience as culture and ideas may persist. What’s left over is Hemingway’s subject.

My friend’s second recommendation was Ernest Hemingway’s The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. During the summers of his first 20 years (1899–1920), this son of a Chicago doctor vacationed in Michigan’s north woods. His Nick Adams stories, published in 1938, tell about it. These coming-of-age tales were part of my own adolescent reading back in the 1950s. One of them, “Up in Michigan,” I thought, taught me about sex, though 66 years later the stories are a testament to growing up with the privileges and silences of a white man during successive recompositions of capitalist relations. Prison, the hobo jungle, the woods, the prize ring, are the locations where lost, wandering, traumatized people meet in transition times.

In “The Light of the World,” a couple of guys thrown out of a bar go down to the train station waiting room, “five whores waiting for the train to come in, and six white men and four Indians.” Two of the women argue about who slept with the champion African American boxer Jack Johnson. “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” contrasts views on private property of white man and Ojibway:

“Well, Doc,” [the Ojibway hired hand] said, “that’s a nice lot of timber you’ve stolen.”

“Don’t talk that way, Dick,” the doctor said. “It’s driftwood.”

Nick Adams learns a way of love, and why not to kill a rival, from an Ojibway woman. His neighbors called her “skunk.” Hemingway’s style works by what the characters don’t talk about. The woman’s name is Prudence Mitchell. She breaks his heart. Suddenly, the famous declarative reticence of the prose bursts with seeds of possibility. In the last story, “Fathers and Sons,” he writes:

Could you say she did first what no one has ever done better and mention plump brown legs, flat belly, hard little breasts, well holding arms, quick searching tongue, the flat eyes, the good taste of mouth, then uncomfortably, tightly, sweetly, moistly, lovely, tightly, achingly, fully, finally, unendingly, never-endingly, never-to-endingly, suddenly ended, the great bird flown like an owl in the twilight, only it was daylight in the woods and hemlock needles stuck against your belly. So that when you go in a place where Indians have lived you smell them gone and all the empty pain killer bottles and the flies that buzz do not kill the sweetgrass smell, the smoke smell and that other like a fresh cased marten skin.

The cascade of adverbs falls into a disappearing world. The tragedy of this intersectional intercourse was, to express it in the lazy slang of the present, that it was not sustainable, not transparent, not resilient. But pay attention to what he says.

Skunk, marten, beaver, wolverine: These are creatures from that first period of Michigan history, that early phase. Even now, they’re not quite finished off. Anishinabekwe botanist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer explains the fragrance of sweetgrass in her scientific and spiritual book, Braiding Sweetgrass:

Its scientific name is Hierochloe odorata, meaning the fragrant, holy grass. In our language it is called wiingaashk, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth. Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.

Yes, that would be the commons. The earth to share, with delight, not ravage yet again in the sequence of error: That is what Hemingway’s love-making was trying to get at. Talk about “what we don’t talk about”!

Hemingway had a geological reference for orgasm, “the earth moves.” Actually, he violates the known laws of physics when he writes, “time having stopped and he felt the earth move…” You find that in For Whom the Bell Tolls, his novel of “premature anti-Fascism,” as he’d later say. In adolescent insecurity I learned from the mystery of such phrases and later learned to mock them.

As yet another catastrophe looms, a new era is laboring to birth some world that might avert it. This is the vital interregnum. A couple musty treasures from a friend’s garage spark remembrance in the flat Zoom time of pandemic. What new composition of our “we” can make the earth move? We start by talking it. The soulful descendants of Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, Prudence Mitchell, and those forgotten, “with belts pulled in,” have something to say.

Peter Linebaugh, a historian, is the author, most recently of Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons & Closure, of Love & Terror, of Race & Class, and of Kate & Ned Despard (University of California Press). He was a Kopkind mentor in 2014, and a guest speaker in 2019.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on December 16, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Happy Solstice Season





Scenes From a Pandemic: 37

14 12 2020

We hope you have been enjoying this series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it. With each week’s Bonuses during this long, gray season, we have featured more than 70 stories, songs, art works, videos, photographs, radio shorts, excerpts or notes from across the country and the world. We hope you are safe and ready. And we ask that, if you can, please press the Donate button (above) on this site—because we’re also hoping to survive this thing, to flower again on the green grass of Vermont; and we could really use a little help from our friends. Thank you all.

by Jamilah King

The author on a stop in Rock Springs, Wyoming (photo: Jamilah King)

What I Learned Moving Cross-Country Twice in Four Months

On the Road, and home again

It was June, three months into the pandemic, and I was stranded on Interstate 80 a few hours outside of Salt Lake City when I started to think that all of this was maybe a bad idea. Something had happened miles ahead, and both lanes of westbound traffic were at a standstill. Ten minutes ticked by. Then 20. People turned off their engines, climbed out of their cars, and started stretching. I’d been in rapid, manic motion for weeks.

Stillness was not part of the plan.

The plan, to the extent that one existed, went something like this: I was on a mission to save my mother, who at the time was withering away all alone on the third story of a Victorian apartment building in San Francisco.

Her physical health had been in decline, but her mental health was what worried me the most. So much time spent alone, isolated, with only her ghosts and bottles of Hennessy to keep her company. In May, her calls had begun to become more frequent, more desperate. They were monologues of regret. I should’ve bought a house, she’d say, with the unmistakable lisp that always lets me know when she has been drinking. On especially bad days, she would call and berate me for being so far away. I would never do to my mother what you …

In two weeks’ time, I did what no sane New Yorker would ever do: I broke the lease on my rent-stabilized one-bedroom apartment, and I bought a car. The stretch of Crown Heights between Schenectady and Utica Avenues became ground zero for a biblical flood of my belongings. Clothes, bedding, shoes, went to men’s and women’s shelters. Books, magazines, pamphlets, went to park benches and the fronts of stoops. I was on a mission. To do what? I didn’t know yet.

I pictured myself back in the Bay Area surrounded by family members who’d put aside their decades-long feuds to come together in Covid-safe normalcy. I thought that the ruptures between my mother and me could be paved over with proximity. I’d forgive her for her not-so-subtle guilt-tripping and periodic slide into narcissism, and she’d make peace with having a divorced lesbian daughter who preferred life a continent away. I’d have my own apartment, but we’d order a delicious Christmas dinner and do something hopelessly normal, like watch A Christmas Story on TV. I’d have proof that my sacrifice, the great burden of inconvenience for which I’d given up everything and driven across the country, was worth it. People all around me were making similar, life-altering decisions. Certainly, there was a reason for it all.

Here’s what I did instead: I tried to force-feed my own brand of healing onto my mother. I did so pompously, outrageously, endlessly. Every phone call was a check-in about progress: Did she make that doctor’s appointment? Would she be okay with me calling her doctor? Maybe she should drink more water. Every visit was a chance for me to say what was wrong and offer, unprompted, ideas for making it my definition of right. I was the prototype of the know-it-all millennial, badgering my mother as if I were the parent, pushing her closer to a casket than any virus ever could.


Sometimes you make big, costly decisions during global pandemics just to feel a little bit more alive.


I’m back in New York City now. My mother and I both agree, on some level, that it’s for the best. The Christmas thing is definitely not going to happen. I’m in a new apartment with new roommates and a car that’s already earned me two parking tickets and a speeding violation in rural Illinois that I can’t figure out how to pay online. I am deeply in debt from the summer’s excursions, and as I write this, I’m still trying to figure out how to get a studio apartment’s worth of brand new furniture shipped from San Francisco to Brooklyn at a rate that’s less than my monthly salary.

My mother and I are both physically healthy, no better or worse than we were in June. We talk several times a week, and though they’re superficial conversations about the weather or the election, I’ve found them to be small joys. My mother still drinks too much and tells me that she doesn’t. I still offer unsolicited advice, sometimes based on dumb inspirational quotes I’ve favorited on Instagram. And you know what? That’s okay. Because the summer taught me this: Sometimes the world is falling apart and all you want is your mom, and you better take what you can get while she’s still around. And sometimes you make big, costly decisions during global pandemics just to feel a little bit more alive.

Sometimes I wish I could go back to that gridlocked road outside of Salt Lake City and warn myself of what was to come, of the tens of thousands of dollars that I did not have but somehow spent, of the arguments my mother and I would have, of the sheer hubris in thinking I knew better than a woman who’s lived twice my age. I would take a moment to think about the fact that two hastily arranged cross-country moves in four months is, in fact, batshit crazy and definitely not a good look on my credit score.

And then I would do it all over again.

Jamilah King is a writer based in Brooklyn who is also host of the Mother Jones podcast. She participated in Kopkind’s political camp in 2009.

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

Bonus: The Social Contract, Cuban Style

Young Cuban doctors at a national graduation ceremony in 2005 in Havana. (photo: AFP PHOTO/Antonio Levi)

Cuba has more doctors per capita than the United States and an expansive system of community health workers. ‘The family doctor’ is alive and well. To date, 137 Cubans have died of Covid-19, a rate of 1.5/100,000 population. By contrast, Covid deaths in the US and the UK are 91.03/100,000 and 96.44/100,000, respectively. Cuba’s famed traveling medical corps, whose some 4,000 members have visited more than three dozen countries since early in the pandemic, helping them care for their sick, has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. From Albany, Jon Flanders, a retired railroad worker, longtime internationalist and Kopkind supporter, sent the link below to a documentary on the role of The Henry Reeve International Medical Contingent and, more broadly, on the coordination of the Cuban health system in prioritizing public health. The film is a collaboration between Dr. Helen Yaffe of the UK and Dr. Valia Rodriguez of Cuba.





Sister, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

1 12 2020

We hope you have been enjoying this series, now in its 35th installment, which, with each week’s Bonuses during this long, gray season, has featured about 70 stories, songs, art works, videos, photographs, radio shorts, excerpts or notes from Kopkind’s extended family across the country and the world. We hope you are safe and ready. And we ask that, if you can, please press the Donate button above on this site—because we’re also hoping to survive this thing, to flower again on the green grass of Vermont; and we could really use a little help from our friends. Thank you all.

Scenes From a Pandemic: 35

by Roberto Lovato

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

(photo: Roberto Lovato)

Good Times, End Times on 26th and Folsom

San Francisco

I’m standing near the sunny corner of 26th and Folsom, two blocks from my writer’s cave, across the street from the projects and down the block from my birthplace, in San Francisco’s Mission district.

The projects are surrounded by apartments that used to house big immigrant families—up to a dozen members in my family’s case—apartments that now house the DINC (dual income, no children) people, who also own the Victorian duplexes priced from $1 million on up.

Two men, Seyfu and Ricky, are kicking back smoking a blunt in front of the small gray apartment building that houses Iglesia Arca de Dios, the Pentecostal church that’s been reviving the Holy Spirit three to four days a week since I left the Mission for wartime El Salvador in 1990.

I approach them, hoping they can give some small sense of how Covid-19 has hit the old hood. The most visible indicator: It’s 3 pm and there are no people on the street—no kids coming home from school, no Mexican and Salvadoran moms pushing baskets with food or laundry, no groups of men hanging out on the corner. Just Seyfu and Ricky, standing next to the church.

I look at the church. Images of the Salvadoran and Guatemalan migrants who once packed it rush to mind. They first came to the Iglesia seeking solace from the apocalyptic ravages of war. These days, immigrants come for other reasons. Clients at the Clínica Martín-Baró mental health center, founded by my friend Felix, tell social workers their main fear is that they will be uprooted because they can’t make the rent. Local children echo this sentiment in a poetry collection filled with stories of being pushed out, or of robots protecting their families from evil landlords. At the church, the booming voice of the 5’2″ pastor provides succor.


The weed is legal and sweet smelling, the virus is spiking, homicides are down but kids write poems about being pushed out, or dream of robots protecting their families from the landlord.


“Who are you, bro?” Seyfu asks hesitantly, his muscular body tightening as if getting ready to light me up, if necessary. Ricky stands quietly, looking more chill and pretty high. Their eyes move up and down my leather-jacketed body to see if I’m friend, foe, or fucking cop. Neither of them is wearing a mask. I am. The wondrous perfume of the legal kush they’re smoking wafts through the air with a freedom I never knew back when I dealt joints and nickel bags of Colombian and skunk weed that, by comparison, smelled like dirty tube socks.

“I grew up down the street, near the corner of 25th,” I quickly respond.

“So, where’d you go to school at?”

“Horace Mann.”

“Yeah? So, if you went to Horace Mann, who was Mr. Sullivan?”

“You mean Sullineck?” I say, referring to the nickname some of us gave Horace Mann’s truant officer because of the blob of pinkish white flesh that occupied the space where his neck may once have been.

“Aw, fuck!” Seyfu exclaims, as he steps back and cocks his head, laughing in a gesture of surprise. “This dude is the real Horace Mann deal! What up, bro? Whatdyu need?”

“I’m just here trying to understand what daily life is like now, especially with Covid.”

“Well, there been a few cases in the projects, but it’s been chill.”

In February, San Francisco became the first US city to declare a state of emergency in response to the virus, thanks to Mayor London Breed, who grew up in a Western Addition housing project. Breed’s model Covid response is guided by veteran doctors and scientists who garnered great experience back when the AIDS epidemic ravaged the projects down the street. Sadly, Breed’s housing, policing, and other policies are guided by Big Real Estate, Big Finance, and Big Silicon, whose greed has gentrified the Mission, exacerbated homelessness, and defined the city’s inhumanely shitty response to these and other crises that are hollowing out gorgeous San Francisco, exiling poor black and brown people.

“The thing that hasn’t been chill are the cops,” Seyfu continues. “They still on everybody’s ass.”

“For what?”

“They can’t bother us about weed anymore,” he says before taking a hit off his joint. “But they goin’ crazy about crack, heroin—and guns.”

“Has Covid slowed down the pace of people getting shot?”

“Nah. People dealin’ and shootin’; people still doin’ their thing.”

I think on how relative the ideas about violence and calamity are as I walk around to look at the church founded by Central American war refugees.

Homicides in San Francisco are down. Way down. On the very day Donald Trump and William Barr were raging in the Oval Office against MS-13 last July, escalating the rhetoric and legal persecution by labeling its members “terrorists,” I interviewed members of the SFPD’s gang unit. They told me that MS-13 in the Mission had killed two people in 2019. Zero this year. Meanwhile, Covid has killed 154 in San Francisco County since March, low for a population this size, though there’s a spike in new cases now. In the city, the Mission has endured the highest number of those since mid-October, and the hottest spot in the district is three blocks from 26th and Folsom.

In front of the church dozens of ancient pieces of discarded bubble gum are embedded into the concrete, blackened from years. The sidewalk there has the misfortune of being next to Rubin’s Market on the corner. I remember when kids and adults would come out of Rubin’s chewing gum, hang out in front of the church and spit out their gum. I remember when the gum was fresh pink and purple, cuz I was one of those kids.

Rubin’s was also one of the major centers of the black market in the Mission. Rubin was my father’s black market mentor.

I look at the church and see myself as a deacon who turned to Jesus as a way to redeem myself from the shame of my father’s—and my—criminal dealings.

“They just started havin’ services again,” Seyfu tells me. “Things gettin’ loud around here.” Apocalyptic preaching became a sign of better days under loosened Covid restrictions. Since the spike in infections, things have tightened up. The church meets less frequently, but, when it does, the high-volume voice on the hulking loudspeakers rages about End Times every Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday, as it has for decades.

Roberto Lovato is the author of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas (Harper Collins), a New York Times “Editor’s Choice,” which the paper hailed as a “groundbreaking memoir.” He is also an educator, journalist, and writer based at The Writers Grotto in San Francisco. He was a Kopkind participant in 2005.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on November 25, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Music Video From Canada

Still from “RISE” — click to play (photo: Jesse Freeston)

Jesse Freeston, a Montreal-based filmmaker who participated in Film Camp, Kopkind’s collaboration with the Center for Independent Documentary, in 2011, brings this new music video which he made with Malika Tirolien, singer/songwriter/pianist, of her just-released single “RISE”. You can find all the lyrics translated on the YouTube page linked above; here, a sampling:

We ain't here to ask anymore
We ain't got chains anymore
We are free in our countries, we are free in our minds
It is not only in movies that we steal the show
Everyday day we create some Marielles Ninas and Malcolms
The pyramid is falling, we're changing the game
We rise
We rise yeah
We rise

Tirolien, originally from Guadeloupe and long part of the Montreal jazz scene, fuses the musical influences of the Caribbean and Latin America, North America, Europe and East Africa. For more of the pleasure of her sound, here is another song, “I’m Not the One”, from her collaboration with the Grammy-winning instrumental group Snarky Puppy.

At Kopkind, Jesse workshopped an early version of his powerful documentary Resistencia: The Fight for the Aguan Valley, which tells the story of Honduran farmers who took over the plantations following the US-backed coup. Recently he has been in the woods of northern Canada, documenting the resistance of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, defending their land and law against construction of an oil pipeline. For more of his work, go to jessefreeston.com.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 34

23 11 2020

by Kweku Toure

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

photos: all on Unsplash.com. L to R top (detail), Gayatri Malhotra, Press Features, Big Dodzy; L to R bottom (detail), Gift Habeshaw, Tinashe Mwaniki, Utopia by Cho.

If You Want to Make the Gods Laugh, Tell Them Your Plans

Atlanta

This is a story, two actually, about expectations and the chance that even the most reasoned plan is at risk of surprise. One involves elections, the other love, during Covid-19.

Before working as a nonpartisan election protector in Georgia this November, I took a training that stressed the importance of making a visual inspection of people’s faces and physical demeanor as they exited the polls. Did they look distressed? If so, maybe something had happened inside to obstruct their vote: Check it out and report any irregularity. On Election Day, as I floated between Dacula and Suwanee, in Gwinnett County, things turned out to be less straightforward. Be mindful, I’m doing this split-second visual inspection while social distancing, trying to read people’s eyes, looking for stress above their face mask as they walk at a steady pace to get to work or home, or simply go about their day.

Where people wore masks, visual observation was virtually impossible. In one large polling place in Suwanee, traffic was nonstop. People got out of their vehicles, put on their masks, entered the community center, and hurried out when they were done. For a minute, my fellow protectors and I thought about stopping people who weren’t wearing an “I voted” sticker to ask if they’d had difficulty. If they were anything like me, though, they would have rejected the sticker, a clear problem with this strategy. Where people didn’t wear masks, like the mostly white voters at an elementary school out in the sticks in Dacula, I didn’t spot signs of distress. Did that mean no one was distressed?

I didn’t find any major irregularities, and as of November 9, Biden lead Trump in Gwinnett County 241,827 votes to 166,413. As I write, Georgia is doing a recount; the news is focused on that and the latest spike in coronavirus infections and deaths. But people always have a lot more going on in their lives.


I’d planned to read people’s facial expressions for signs of distress at the polls on Election Day. I’d planned when packing my silk pillowcases and fully stocked bar to move in with my lady, at the start of the pandemic, that we were a match.


Late last year, around the same time that we in the United States started hearing news about Covid-19, I rekindled a relationship with a love interest. I had fallen ill with flu-like symptoms during December and felt sick the entire month of January. In February, the relationship evolved as we articulated to each other that at our age we are in the autumn of our lives, with winter rapidly approaching. We thought it would be a good idea to pool our resources and cohabitate, especially because we spent so much time together on weekends. We thought we matched.

Until then, I had lived as a true bachelor in D.C., with satin pillowcases for the ladies and a fully stocked bar, with no children or pets in the house. My lady lived in Baltimore, with her young daughter.

The plan! I would move to Baltimore and start living and working in “Charm City.” So around the second week of February I rented out my house, packed my belongings, including the satin pillowcases and fully stocked bar, and moved.

Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out. For anyone who doesn’t catch the reference, that’s the line in I, Claudius where Claudius, the Roman emperor, lets his court know that he has decided to marry for a third time. My lady and I discovered we had fundamental differences early on. I mean, try living with someone who does not believe in the thing that has forced everyone in the country into isolation. I am a news junkie. She avoids the news like the plague and relies on Instagram and Facebook. I vote, and planned to work with an election protection civil rights organization. She does not vote, mainly because of her citizenship status; however, I get the feeling that if she could vote, she would not.

I love her free spirit, “Grand Central Station,” social butterfly attitude. That is what so attracted me to her, right? But now, it’s a pandemic, and people have died, and her personality is a liability. Her favorite phrase is that the pandemic is a “Plandemic.” I am sure she got the phrase from her Instagram feeds.

I took the pandemic seriously from the start, and gave her daily updates. The city and the entire country were heading for shutdown, I said; we should stock up on supplies and wait this out. At first, I commuted to my law office in D.C., which was occupied by me and my associate. We had separate offices, and when meeting clients, we wore face shields as well as masks. When we stopped allowing clients to visit, I was, for the most part, alone all day; then I would return home to Baltimore.

Contrariwise, my lady felt she was not going to be “mind controlled,” as she would often say. “We are all operating out of fear.” On occasion, when I would return home, she would be entertaining guests—no one wearing a mask, no social distancing. Lesson: You never know someone until an emergency hits. What a way to discover differences!

I am in Atlanta now, waiting to start work as a public defender in Macon, Ga., expecting, as any criminal lawyer must, that nothing is a sure bet. What can be said is that no matter the best-laid arrangements, if you want to make the gods laugh, just tell them your plans.

Kweku Toure is an attorney and a member of the Kopkind board.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on November 18, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: David v. Goliath, Then & Now

In 1984, Jesse Jackson (with whom Kweku once worked) spoke about electoral power and participation, using the metaphor of “Little David” to urge nonvoters to “pick up your slingshot, pick up your rock.” In 2020, people did just that, as US voter turnout was the highest in 120 years. But as Jackson well knew, politics is about more than voting. Watch part of that famous speech here.

“Don’t cry about what you don’t have; use what you got!”

Goliath takes many forms. In this post-election discussion on The Laura Flanders Show, Laura (a former Kopkind mentor) speaks with activists from around the country, including Scot Nakagawa, another former Kopkind mentor, about the meaning of the 2020 election and the struggle for a humane future.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 33

16 11 2020

by C. Douglas Lummis

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

The dugong, cousin of the manatee, poised for ecocatastrophe, along with its coral garden habitat, by construction of US super airbase; and …
a protester aiming to stop it. Her sign: “Okinawa Defense Bureau! The people’s will says NO! Shame!” (top photo: World Wildlife Fund stock image; protest photos: C. Douglas Lummis)

‘We Won’t Quit Until We Stop It’

Naha, Okinawa

Every day except weekends, holidays, and typhoon days, even in the pandemic, charter buses leave from Naha and other cities on this island to transport protesters to three locations in the north, where the Japanese government is trying to build a super airbase for the US Marines.

One location is Shiokawa, on the East China Sea side of the island, where the government’s Okinawa Defense Bureau is tearing down a mountain and loading it into dump trucks. There, protesters delay the work by standing in front of the trucks. The second location is the nearby Awa pier, where the mountain-become-dirt is loaded onto small cargo ships. There, by milling around on the sidewalk at the gate where there’s a traffic light, protesters reduce the number of trucks entering the area to one per green light. This reduces the number of ships that depart each day. In the water, the ships are further delayed by a brave fleet of sea-kayakers, who crowd around the bow of each ship until they are hauled away. Once free of the kayakers, the ships sail to the Pacific Ocean side of the island, to Cape Henoko, site of the US Marines’ Camp Schwab, and dump the dirt into the sea as landfill to support the airstrip that is planned to cut across the cape and stick out into the sea on both sides, wreaking ecocatastrophe on the coral garden there. Another team of kayakers meets them, delaying the process still more. 

The third charter bus destination is the gate on the inland side of Camp Schwab, where a daily sit-in slows down the huge fleets of trucks—cement trucks, trucks carrying building materials, and dump trucks carrying more dirt from nearby locations—that enter the construction site in the form of three convoys of 200-300 vehicles a day, even during the pandemic.

Trucks idle, delayed by retirees’ sit-in.

Okinawa was a peaceful independent kingdom until Japan seized it in the same historical era that the US seized Puerto Rico. Legally, Okinawans are Japanese; culturally, they are a colonized indigenous people. Occupying 0.6 percent of Japanese territory, they are stuck with more than 70 percent of US military installations in Japan, a situation they call structural discrimination. Okinawan conservatives and progressives are united in opposing the construction of yet another base.

The protesters are mostly retired people. It makes sense. Direct action targeting construction needs to be carried out during working hours. Also, people living on retirement incomes don’t need to worry about getting fired. But more than that, most of these folks remember the Battle of Okinawa or the devastation that came after, and see this as their last chance to put their hatred of war into the form of a concrete achievement. Asked why they think they can win against the combined force of the US and Japanese governments, their fixed answer is “Because we won’t quit until we do.”

Retirees at the gate (detail), Day 2,313, with private security in helmets. Large sign in foreground, left, reads: “Halt the illegal construction that is killing the coral!”

Last week I took the Wednesday bus to Henoko. Fifteen people were on it, a bit down from the previous average of around 20, probably because of Covid, but the reduced number made it easier to keep our distance. 

The mood was good, with lots of happy greetings. These people enjoy one another’s company and love having something meaningful to do each day. The 90-minute drive was spent listening to self-introductions from three who’d come down from mainland Japan (these buses have mics), discussing politics, exchanging information, and singing. H-san, who presides over the Wednesday bus, was her usual bubbly self, alternating between humor and anger as she talked about Japan’s new prime minister. Her punch line: “As for being Japanese, I resign. I’m Okinawan!” C-san, an eloquent raconteur who always sits in the left rear seat, talked (half in Japanese, half in the Okinawan language) about why he is confident the airbase will never get built: the sea bottom on the northern side of Cape Henoko is unstable slime—mayonnaise, they call it—and will never support a concrete airstrip. T-san, who specializes in irony and black humor, got lots of laughs. The Henoko action, including the bus ride, has been called Henoko University.

 A couple months ago, Covid appeared inside the construction site, and work was shut down briefly. When it resumed, the question at the gate became How could both the protesters and the riot policemen carry out their respective roles while observing social distancing rules?

This was the 2,313th day of the sit-in. Our job at the gate, together with several dozen others who’d come on different buses, was to delay the second and the third of that day’s truck convoys. In the past, the interaction between police and protesters was pretty rough, especially when most of the riot police were from mainland Japan. In those days there was a lot of anger on both sides. Nonviolence resembled that of a rugby match—no hitting but lots of pushing and shoving. Now most of the Japanese have been sent home. The remaining Okinawan riot police have probably heard more anti-Henoko-base speeches than any humans on earth. Most of those speeches are delivered by women, who must remind them of their mothers or grandmothers. That, plus the adamant nonviolence of the protesters, has had its effect. The action has come to look less and less like rugby.

Social distance: Okinawan riot police and protesters.

It’s quite something to see. With a convoy of a couple hundred trucks halted on the highway, the officer in charge of this police unit—who has become pretty friendly toward the protesters—repeats through his bullhorn that the sit-inners are violating traffic law and must move aside. From time to time, he looks at his watch. The sit-inners continue speech-making and singing. The riot police stand silently, waiting for the order. After fifteen or twenty minutes, he gives it—not to carry protesters away, but to ask them politely. This the riot police do, one by one. The protesters refuse, and refuse, and refuse again, but when the policemen make as if to pick them up, they stand up and amble to the side.  

This slow-motion, spacially distant enactment of conflict may not be exciting, and it slows down the delivery by only about 20 minutes. But repeated three times, that’s one lost hour a day. More important, the sit-in deprives the builders of free access to the gate and the efficiency of just-in-time deliveries; it forces them to organize convoys and protect them with hundreds of police. Through the repetition of these protest tactics, combined with refusal of the Prefectural Government to issue permits, refusal of the City of Nago to allow construction work on land it controls, and many lawsuits and protests from environmentalists, the cost estimate has tripled, the target date has been postponed by more than a decade, and many people—including some in the US Congress—believe (or worry, in the case of the Congresspeople) that the thing will never get done.

C. Douglas Lummis is the coordinator of Veterans for Peace—Ryukyus/Okinawa Chapter Kokusai (VFP-ROCK)—and the author of Radical Democracy. Doug was a mentor at Kopkind in 2002.

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

Bonus: ‘It’s I Give Up, or I Have Nothing to Fear’, Bill T. Jones

In the midst of the AIDS epidemic, dancers Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane created a stunning performance piece, D-Man in the Waters. Until November 19, the DOC NYC festival is screening online a film called Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters (click to watch trailer and get tickets). It chronicles the love story between Jones and Zane, the diverse dance company they founded, and the devastation of AIDS, as told through their company’s signature piece, recently reinterpreted for a new generation. The festival calls the film “an engrossing examination of … the power of art to move through pain.” The dance is also an expression of the will to fly—something Jones talked about with great feeling in John Scagliotti’s film about growing up different, Oliver Button Is a Star.

Bill T. Jones with troupe for revival of D-Man in the Waters.

With thanks to our friend Susie Day, author of The Brother You Choose, for sending notice about this new film. She calls it “one of the most moving documentaries on AIDS — and art — AND Bill T. Jones I’ve ever seen.” For the festival’s full line-up, which also includes the documentary 76 Days, made in Wuhan during lockdown, click here.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 31

2 11 2020

by Molly Bolick

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

(photos: Molly Bolick)

‘Why Tell Me That We’re Safer Here?’

Merrimack County, New Hampshire

Frost came early this year. My tomatoes hung unripe on dead vines while it was still summer. If you’re one for metaphor, this is 2020: It gives, but it also takes. The take will be swift, cold, and absolute. It happens like this sometimes, my neighbors tell me about the frost. They are resigned to the loss with a knowing headshake. None seemed as devastated by the taking as I.

I am new here, having moved to central New Hampshire a little over a year ago. Covid-19 arrived in Northern New England with—what I’ll dare to describe as—a bang. News of contagion in Wuhan had been consistent throughout the late winter, as had reports from Seattle in early March. Then, overnight it seemed, New York began to turn part of Central Park into a makeshift morgue. Manhattan is a little less than 300 miles from here. The nonprofit where I work shut down temporarily. I talked with co-workers remotely, and I was struck by the lack of concern for what I saw as the virus’s inevitable progression northward.

I listened to the reasoning for a sense of security: We are too remote, too sparsely populated, too rural, too out of reach, to be susceptible to infection on a cataclysmic scale. We aren’t at risk. Merrimack County is located along the postindustrial zone of the Merrimack River north of Manchester, about an hour northwest of Portsmouth and the sea, and roughly an hour and half southeast of the Connecticut River Valley at White River Junction, Vermont. In the 2010 census, Merrimack County had a population of 146,445 people in 955 square miles (compared with Manhattan’s 1.58 million in 22.8 square miles). It is reasonable to assume there would be fewer infections. But I am not a doctor or mathematician. I’m a folklorist. I’m trained to listen, see, observe as an outsider, and note cultural and group patterns. This is how I move through the world. There is no Off switch. It was not census data or infection modeling that struck me; rather, I noticed a specific cultural response to a pandemic threat.

I listened to people in my small circle. What emerged was a narrative of New Hampshire as able to weather the virus’s effects at the community and state level. Sometimes thoughtful, sometimes brazen, the reasoning hovered at an intersection of geography, population density, and, largely, what I can identify as central New Hampshire Yankee culture. From my perspective, this appears to be a shared sense of determined self-reliance born of generational survival on small, rugged hill farms and interaction with the natural environment for everyday survival and joy.

People had absorbed scientific information. That is not in question. The governor held press conferences with the state epidemiologist, which streamed live, aired on local TV news stations, and were highlighted in print and on radio. Safety guidelines were easily accessible online. People knew, and continue to know, the science. Whether or not it was accepted is not my point here. Scientific facts existed alongside cultural perceptions of New Hampshire as somehow safer, and this idea appeared to be shared throughout my community in everyday conversation.

As an observer and cultural outsider, I see a disconnect between science and community response. As a folklorist, I see parallels to research by Diane Goldstein, a folklorist at Indiana University, on AIDS narratives in the Canadian Maritimes. She argues that the process of telling AIDS legends—stories that distance the teller from populations identified as “at risk”—takes over and fills the gap where expert percep-tions of health do not seem to make cultural sense in context. Understanding community perceptions of risk, she writes, is essential for “understanding attitudes toward risk at the very core of health care.”

Can we see the same pattern emerging with local Covid-19 responses? When a retired neighbor tells me we’re less likely to be exposed to the virus, does she say that because a field separates our houses? Or because neither of us works at a meat processing plant, or is in a nursing home? Our risk is certainly lower, but I do not believe that is the only reason motivating her idea of safety. We both shop at the same gigantic supermarket, whose parking lot is consistently full. We both encounter people who don’t wear masks. My neighbor and I are not living on top of one another, but we are living in 2020, and that means living with the threat of viral exposure.

So, why tell me that we’re safer here? If articulating a belief about safety amidst a global pandemic fills a gap in perceptions of risk, what is the gap? Can it be explained by the trope of Yankee toughness—the dedication to self-reliance and prosperity by one’s own blistered hands? This is the “Live Free or Die” state; can the gap be attributed to a cultural aversion to state intervention?

The importance here is understanding that a gap exists, and varies by community. That may sound obvious when we consider the pushback to mask mandates and limits on large gatherings, but it is not.

We, collectively as a nation, will be forced to examine the overall cultural response to Covid-19 in the decades to come. A loss of 225,000 people (and counting) will not be swept away without a demand for answers as to why and how this happened. The lack of federal governance has ensured that the demand for answers will start at the family, community, and county level. Here, an understanding of culturally motivated actions, perceptions of risks, and the gap between community response and scientific fact will be crucial information for guiding future response to crisis. American culture is not the monolith we often assume. Our responses to Covid-19 exemplify this.

As of October 23, 2020, there have been 814 positive cases and 26 Covid-19-related deaths in Merrimack County, New Hampshire.

Molly Bolick is a folklorist; she participated in Kopkind’s political camp in 2018. Between the time she finalized this article and November 1, her rural county posted 137 more positive cases and three more deaths. The US total, meanwhile, has risen to 231,000.

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

Bonus: Days of the Dead

The image above is from Oaxaca’s famed Dia de los Muertos celebrations last year. This year, Mexico has endured more than 90,000 deaths from Covid-19 officially, with perhaps as many as 50,000 more uncounted. “We broke records [for visitors celebrating the holiday] in 2019,” Roberto Monroy, tourism secretary in Morelia, Michoacán, told The Guardian this year. “We also broke records in 2020—just the wrong records.” Below, a woman in Mexico City arranges marigold petals before a private altar in her home for a relative who died of the coronavirus.

(photo: Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images courtesy The Guardian)




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)

Our Place?

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)

You Have a New Baby, a 4-Year-Old, No Child Care, and Family Far Away

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)

We’re Here to Stay, and We’re Changing State & National Politics

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.