Scenes From a Pandemic: 44

22 03 2021

by Asam Ahmad

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

Last garden’s bounty (photos: Asam Ahmad)

Growing Things


Two months before it all started, we moved out of the downtown core to a residential cul-de-sac ten miles away, near the city’s western edge. At the time, having to move unexpectedly felt like a nightmare, but now, a year into the pandemic, this place feels like a gift. It is a beautiful home: the living room has large south-facing windows that let in light as soon as the sun rises in the morning. Along the perimeter of the backyard there are steps leading down to a terrace-sized ledge that overlooks a creek surrounded by trees and lush foliage.

We’d moved because we had to: We were being illegally evicted through a “renoviction” order. Toronto is one of the most expensive real estate markets in North America, with a housing bubble and a crisis of unhoused people, where renovations are just one excuse to push tenants out. Our new neighborhood is not far from Jane/Finch and Brampton, high-density communities of mostly black and brown service workers and many newcomers, neighborhoods known in the media largely for gun violence and thus for being dangerous. Visiting us soon after the move, a friend remarked on feeling unsafe, as if the nightly news’ scare stories had any bearing on the vast majority of lives in this part of the city, where the most common experience was reflected in buses full of our neighbors, mostly middle-aged and young people, riding to work early in the mornings.

Then it started, the contagion, the lockdown, the anxiety. I stopped letting light into the living room. What was the point? The living room is where we watch the news, where the ledgers of the dead kept growing. Outside, our neighbors, now called essential, still filled buses in the morning. Ontario still refuses to mandate paid sick days for all essential workers.

Now, on the cusp of another surreal spring, I have never felt simultaneously more at home and more afraid of being unmoored.

Last May we planted a garden, the first I could call my own. It is still thrilling to think about how much we were able to plant, and how much grew. The names themselves are a delight: zucchini, delicata, butternut, spaghetti squash; heirloom and red, blue, and white cherry tomatoes; black beauty and pink stripe eggplant; habanero, sweet, and red lipstick peppers; blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, golden raspberries, golden gooseberries; chives, sage, cilantro, basil, spear and black peppermint, pennyroyal; brocade and French marigolds; calendula, climbing nasturtium, velvet queen sunflower; snap peas; sampaguita, or jasmine; St. John’s wort, white yarrow, English lavender, sweetgrass, white spruce; radishes; gifted blue corn; brown bear beans; dinosaur and Red Russian kale, arugula, spinach, purslane, butter lettuce; yellow gold and blueberry kush; baby watermelons; hydrangea. It felt like a small miracle to escape the news and sit with things that needed our help. Tending to the seedlings and the plants was enough; for a time, just to keep them alive was enough to keep ourselves going.

Our garden let our neighbors peer a little into our lives. Some of their stiff coldness thawed. Catherine, a university admin worker, makes beautiful soaps and enjoys a good pastry. Adeline, a flight attendant, loves to grow things almost as much as we do. The Jewish adage “My neighbor’s material concerns are my spiritual needs” has never felt more resonant. We are learning to check in on one another in hesitant but kind ways. Yet we are still cautious about how honest we are about our needs; my partner and I still don’t know how much of our politics to share.

Near the end of 2020, when a second lockdown loomed and new Covid variants were emerging, I started going for long walks along the Humber River. Being outside before dawn and breathing the cold air reminds me that I am still alive. On every walk I meet some new fauna: cardinals, thrush, hawks, egrets, hares, even a small fox who scurries near the creek behind our house. Walking is a new and comforting ritual. I have only recently realized that I am doing a kind of cartography: learning the routes of this place, figuring out which are the easiest, which the most joyful. One imagines building a politic like this: knowing the routes that work, knowing the ones that are clogged, knowing which ones will never yield.

This moment, awaiting spring, feels less like an ending or a beginning than a respite: a brief moment until another downturn. Clearly, for some the downturn has never fully stopped. As I walk for pleasure, others are forced to leave their homes so they don’t lose their homes (while still risking their health in order to do so). The emergency benefits of 2020 have ended for many who relied on them. Eviction orders ceased for a couple months in Ontario before kicking back into high gear; thousands of people are camped out in public parks in Toronto, and instead of designating enough adequate housing or hotel spaces, the city has chosen to take a carpenter who was building tiny shelters for the homeless to court. The unresolved contradictions of capitalism keep accruing; whose lives matter and whose don’t becomes more glaringly obvious under the pandemic’s harsh, bare light. I cannot shake the feeling that we are not through this yet, even though using the generalized we, as in “we’re all in this together,” feels more obscene every day.

What kinds of coalitions, of we‘s, are possible in this protracted, still expanding historical moment of catastrophe? What kinds of routes are available to make one another’s lives less vulnerable to despair? Like Gramsci, I keep reminding myself that it is painful to be alive at the time of a new birth; that it is painful to witness newness being born.

Coda: The day this article appeared on The Nation’s site was bittersweet. We found out that the landlord is selling the house, and we are being evicted again.

Asam Ahmad is a writer living on Treaty 13 land in Tkaronto, the original Mohawk name for the lands around Lake Simcoe, now known as Toronto, Ontario. He was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp for writers and organizers in 2014.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on March 17, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: An Interview From Kerala, India

Our friend the indefatigable Vijay Prashad writes from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research about upcoming elections in Kerala (population 35 million), where the Left Democratic Front has been in the government for the past five years. In that time it has confronted the aftereffects of Cyclone Ockhi in 2017, the Nipah virus outbreak of 2018, the floods of 2018 and 2019, and the pandemic. Kerala’s health minister, K.K. Shailaja, has earned the nickname the ‘Coronavirus Slayer’ because of the state’s rapid and comprehensive approach to breaking the chain of infection. All polls indicate that the left will return to the government.

Junaina Muhammed (India), Green Kerala, 2021

In the engaging interview below, Vijay speaks with Kerala’s finance minister, Thomas Isaac (also a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), about the development strategy that Kerala has charted and intends to extend; one that, within the terms of Indian federalism, has managed to meet the needs of the people and show, as Isaac says, that “another world is possible”.

Scenes From a Pandemic: 43

15 03 2021

by Jason Kotoch

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

(photos: Jason Kotoch)

Postcards From Restaurant-Land

Northampton, Massachusetts

Front of the house. I’m sitting in the empty bar section of a Western Massachusetts restaurant, the kind of place where you can count on finding a Buffalo chicken Caesar salad and a Friday night fillet special on the menu. I’m not here to eat—I haven’t eaten inside a restaurant since the pandemic started a year ago. I’m here to talk to Taylor Kall, one of two people managing the front of house tonight, mostly taking phone orders. 

Taylor stands tall. Above the mask, her eye makeup is perfect. A seasoned restaurant worker, having supported herself through college working in restaurants, studying part-time while carrying 40 hours a week at diners and bars, she learned to love the hectic environment of the industry. Mixing drinks became a manual skill, a social skill, and a source of financial stability that has since vanished. Bartenders will always have work, she thought. Tonight, the laugh track of a sitcom echoing from a wall-mounted television into the barroom amplifies the quiet that has settled over the once bustling townie haunt. Taylor has been on shift for three hours and hasn’t mixed a drink yet.

At around 7, an older couple walks in and takes a corner booth. The two quickly unmask and sink into vinyl seats that squeak as they wrestle themselves into position, not saying a word to each other. Taylor walks over, greeting them with menus and that familiar tone all practiced front-of-house workers quickly master, a sort of customer service code-switching that when performed just right, yields better tips. The man orders a hot tea, the woman orders water with no ice and a cocktail, and asks to have a moment to look over the menu—neither one remasks. The man wipes his nose with the back of his wrist and coughs a little smoker’s cough just as Taylor walks away. 

Early in the pandemic she might have said something. She says she doesn’t have the energy to play the game anymore. She stands mixing her first drink of the night behind a row of plexiglass shields, and no amount of eye makeup can distract you into thinking she’s smiling under her black surgical mask.

* * *

Back of the house. I’m standing in an alleyway on another night at a different restaurant, between a dumpster and a graffiti covered steel door, waiting for Javier behind a popular pizza shop in a dilapidated industrial town that has been left to rust ten minutes north of Springfield. 

At around 5:30, the door screeches open and Javier emerges, carrying two big clear bags of trash to the dumpster. A dirty white apron hangs off his waist. Before we greet each other, he yells over the sound of the compactor to tell me that he wants to use the name Javier for this story because it belonged to his father, a Mexican migrant worker who died two summers ago on a farm in California. 

The air is cold and carries the warning of a winter storm, so we both rush back inside. The door slams heavy behind us, ominously, like we are locked in. Javier is the only person working tonight in the brightly lit stainless-steel kitchen. His only co-worker is taking phone orders. Those print out in the kitchen with a kind of rhythmic timing that occasionally matches step with the bachata music playing from a small WiFi speaker at the front counter. Javier has been the keeper of the kitchen night after night since last March when the pandemic swept the state.

He is a young-looking 37, with short dark hair and lean limbs. He is the father of two children, both born in the United States. His wife was recently let go from her two jobs. A year ago, he says, they had just moved into a two-bedroom apartment. The relative financial stability they relied on then is gone now, and you can hear the stress in his voice when he talks about this.

Undocumented workers are always navigating difficult decisions, but the choices facing them now are extreme. Work, get a paycheck, but risk contracting the virus. Without access to testing or healthcare, Covid could be a death sentence. Stop working and die another way, as those without work authorization generally don’t qualify for unemployment or other government aid. 

As Javier slips a pizza into the oven, he catches the bottom of his wrist on the door. It sears his skin, but he responds as if he hardly notices the burn. It will become one more old cooking scar among the many covering the inside of his right wrist. Walking to the counter to grab a pre-folded pizza box, he looks past a few vacant tables and out a big pane glass window with the words “NEPO ERA EW” painted in big, bold red-and-white letters.

A new order comes through the printer. He begins to shape and smooth another ball of dough into a large pizza, and I ask him what he thinks of the term “essential worker.”

“To them, my work is essential, yeah, but my life, I’m not sure.”  

Jason Kotoch is a photographer and filmmaker living in Western Massachusetts. He was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp for journalists and organizers in 2018.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on March 10, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Virtual Life, a Short Film From New York, plus…

Long before the pandemic, in 2013 to be precise, Annie Berman made a short about virtual travel in a virtual city—there but not really, except as recorded in a moment via Google’s Street Views App, and ‘visited’ the way we have come to visit so much now, remotely. You can watch the film, Street Views, which won Best Experimental Film at the Rome Independent Film Festival of 2014, by clicking on the image below. Annie was a participant in the Kopkind/CID Film Camp in 2010. The documentary she workshopped in camp, The Faithful, is about to premier, on March 19. It explores the public’s connection to and veneration of cultural icons—Elvis Presley, Pope John Paul II and Princess Diana—and what this enthusiasm means in terms of memorabilia, copyright law, memory and identity. The new film (see the green box below for information about how to see it) is also an experiment in independent film distribution. With film festivals and small theaters largely foreclosed or restricted because of Covid, and with behemoths like Netflix and Amazon dominating home entertainment, it’s even harder out there for independent filmmakers. Annie and her team are pioneering alternative modes of connecting directly with audiences to strengthen the ecosystem for indie film producers and their work.

About Street Views, Annie writes: “I started making a series of ‘cameraless films’ beginning in 2011. This is the second. It was my antidote to The Faithful, a project that had inadvertently made me an archivist. I was feeling the burden of the weight of my archive and questioning why photograph when the world I lived in had already been imaged by humans and machines alike. It was also my way of grappling with disconnectivity. I was feeling nostalgic for a time when people asked one another for directions, rather than their devices.”

The Faithful premieres live at Friday, March 19, 7 pm EDT, with additional live showtimes through the weekend at 2 pm and 7 pm daily, and will be available on streaming services March 22. To join the live premiere event, viewers pay, watch and interact with Annie and company on the filmmaker’s own screening platform, the-faithful. Check out the trailer and reserve tickets here: The first 25 people to reserve tickets with the promo code KPKD50 at checkout will get tickets at half-off the standard price.

Counterclockwise from bottom, The King, The Pope and The Princess (detail: The Faithful film poster)

Scenes From a Pandemic: 42

8 03 2021

by Matt Nelson

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

(photo: Julian Leshay / Shutterstock)

American Carnage


On January 20, 2017, in a chilling inaugural address, Donald Trump declared, “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” As white supremacists stormed the Capitol on January 6, it struck me that the exact opposite had transpired during his term as president. A large proportion of the 500,000 Covid deaths in the United States can be attributed to his executive negligence and incompetence. It is horrific; the coronavirus, though, is a pathogen, in the realm of science and medicine. The effects of rising violence and vitriol represent a carnage of Trump’s, his allies’, and enablers’ own making. These too are matters of public health, but there is no medical vaccine for the white-supremacist and fascist ideology that festers in our body politic.

Watching the violence that transpired on January 6, replayed with new intensity during the impeachment trial, I had a visceral memory of my own dangerous encounter with a rageful white man. In June of 2018, someone who came to be known as “Jogger Joe” attacked an unsheltered man by throwing his scarce belongings into Oakland’s Lake Merritt. He said he was “taking out the trash.” After I confronted him, Jogger Joe, now with an accomplice, attacked me, dragging me in a moving vehicle and striking me repeatedly in the head (thankful for my hard head!).

As I reflect on that day, it’s clear that such spasms of violence should figure in the toll of American carnage under Trump. Reported hate crimes increased by around 20 percent during his tenure, while bias-related murders rose to their highest peak in 28 years. Jogger Joe’s rapid escalation of what seemed to be a benign conversation to a life-threatening situation is frighteningly similar to the politics of today. Personal violence, like state violence, is encouraged and leveraged by elected leaders and their corporate enablers—and encouraged by a culture that does not respect human rights. The consequences are tragic to individuals but also systemic.

Back in 2015, the organization I direct,, recognized the gravity of Trump’s corruption and the threat that he posed. Our #ArrestTrump campaign called for a criminal investigation of bribery (about which he’d boasted in the first televised Republican primary debate), inciting violence, and defrauding students of Trump University out of millions of dollars. Our critics called us alarmists, but we always knew how high the stakes were. Trump represented a danger to our existence.

Fortunately, many more Americans now see the reality. As we re-emerge from the Trump years, we have a formidable task to embody solidarity amidst the pandemic and shift the culture toward creating an inclusive, equitable, and sustainable way of life. Concurrently, it is our duty to challenge and change the structures and decisions that equip oppressive systems.

Undoing the ethos of American carnage and changing the culture is not just a political project. As the pandemic has made dramatically clear, it is relational, social, massive and deeply individual.

Consider immigration. “American carnage” is an apt description for one of the Trump administration’s most sadistic moves: separating infants and children from their parents and locking them in cages. While detention and deportations preceded Trump’s presidency, this humanitarian nightmare would not have been possible without the private prison industry, which in turn depends on banks and large investors, who are essentially complicit in the atrocities supported by their dollars. Under Trumpism, we witnessed how human rights abuses can have a cascading effect, leading to unspeakable acts like the forced sterilization of migrants.

In 2018, a newly formed corporate accountability committee of the umbrella #FamiliesBelongTogether coalition demanded an end to the financing of detention centers that feed off human suffering. Now, Presente and our partners have been calling on the Biden-Harris administration to step up and safeguard the full human rights of all immigrant families. We were cautiously encouraged by President Biden’s early executive orders to cut off funding for the border wall, nix the Muslim ban, and end Department of Justice contracts with private prison companies. The next behemoth he must address is the broader federal government’s use of the private immigrant detention industry. More than eight in 10 people in ICE custody are incarcerated in privately owned prisons. Executive orders can go only so far, and must give way to bold legislation and governance—dramatically changing course not just from the last five years, but from the last five presidents.

Biden can furthermore embrace a pro-migrant tone to begin exorcising the racism and xenophobia that has long tainted national discourse around immigration. By using his authority to protect immigrants in vulnerable situations and reorient the way asylum law and other forms of humanitarian protection are applied, Biden could demonstrate that he intends to transform US foreign policy. Will he? Biden has his work cut out for him. We hope he’s up to the task, and we will hold him to account. His administration’s recent decision to reopen a child detention facility reeks of complacency and belies the morality he promised to restore. But undoing the ethos of American carnage and changing the culture is not just a political project. As the pandemic has made dramatically clear, it is relational, social, massive, and deeply individual.

When the case with Jogger Joe went to trial, the court—including the public defender—asked me how many years in prison defendant Henry Sintay should face. I said that prison would likely make Henry a more violent and racist person, which would not benefit anyone. He had to apologize to the unhoused man and me, and to face consequences that would make him less belligerent. This came in the form of lengthy probation, strict travel restrictions (staying away from me and Lake Merritt for several years), anger management work, and restitution payments. After the judge approved these alternatives to incarceration, a top-level staffer in the district attorney’s office told me that while he had believed in restorative justice throughout his career, it was the first time he had seen it in practice.

The culture of white supremacy and the carnage it creates will not disappear overnight. These often materialize at the neighborhood level, through encounters with people like Jogger Joe/Henry and situations where we fall short of acknowledging one another’s humanity. This period demands more than a sigh of relief that Trump is gone. There are structures to rebuild based on a broad and deep understanding of public health and social justice. Now is the time to seize this movement moment, and co-create what comes next.

Matt Nelson is executive director of, the nation’s largest national Latinx digital organizing hub, advancing social justice with technology, media, and culture. He was a participant in Kopkind’s camp for journalists and organizers in 2008.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on March 3, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: From the Streets of Buffalo

(photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)

The motto—”I’m for Truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for Justice, no matter who it’s for or against.” Malcolm X—pops up on machine-printed signs in front of houses in a section of the city’s East Side. This one is unlike all the rest. The full quote continues: “I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”

Scenes From a Pandemic: 41

1 03 2021

With this we resume our collaborative series with The Nation—weekly dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends from around the country and the world on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it. Scroll down to read all the pieces this project has published since April 1, 2020, in descending order, plus Bonuses and other material particular to this site.

by Angela Ards

(photo: Angela Ards)

Yappy Hour: or, Pawing Our Way Toward Community

Newton, Massachusetts

During lockdown last March, one of the few approved excuses for being outside was to walk your dog. In Newton, a suburb outside of Boston, stir-crazy folks with the requisite pet in tow began congregating, six feet apart, at Braceland, one of our local parks

We were educators, health care workers, and nonprofit executives; musicians, engineers, and entrepreneurs—alongside a mix of designer doodles and rescues. There was early talk that the rescues all came from Southern states, where yahoos are dumping pups in garbage bags by the roadside on the regular, so say the shelters. I find the narrative suspect, serving to feed my Northeastern neighbors’ sense of regional superiority, but then again I’m a Texan, with a Standard Poodle, Zuri, and a superiority complex of my own.

At first, we knew the dogs’ names better than one another’s. We knitted neighborly bonds with small talk. Once a week, at least one person would declare that the inventor of the Chuck-it Launcher should receive a Nobel Prize. The rod’s aerodynamic curves and cup allow you to throw a tennis ball like Tom Brady, tiring out young pups and cutting stupefying rounds of fetch in half. We had running jokes. The dad of two Shih Tzus would ask, “How’s Father Leahy?”, the president of the college where I teach, who frequents his Brookline shop. I wouldn’t know, and the Shih Tzus’ dad really didn’t care; the query was more about the two of us, connecting. In time we all started sharing tips about the neighborhood, passing on recommendations for good repairmen—our exchanges like the Nextdoor app come to life, but without the casual racism. Out from behind the anonymity of screens, people have to face one another and actually think about their words.

Eventually, the oak trees overlooking a long field sloping toward the Charles River became an office watercooler of sorts, where we talked politics and the pandemic while watching the dogs play. Like barking, though, mindless banter can turn edgy if you miss the cues. There were some tense moments as job loss and quarantine and boredom wore on us.

When stock markets initially tanked, would-be titans of enterprise parroted maxims about buying low, selling high. “That’s how you build wealth,” touted a salesman, owner of a gorgeous young Vizsla, invoking Warren Buffet as a liberal shield. A nonprofit executive and an entrepreneur agreed. They were trying not to sound crass, like capitalists preying on disaster. I walked away to renew a round of fetch with Zuri.

Around the election, the regular “How’s Father Leahy?” turned into an incredulous “You’re voting for Biden? He’s so old.” A retort I didn’t even know I had ready landed hard and on target: “Well, he’s not a white supremacist.” We both stood silent, stunned, and turned on our heels.

Mostly, though, the only irreparable breaches have been disagreements over whose dog started it. Now that handshakes and hugs are out, the need to be held in community keeps bringing us back, even if at a distance. On the occasional weekend, when weather permits, our resident “mayor” organizes “yappy hours,” featuring Milk-Bones for the pups and festive drinks for the humans. There was spiced apple cider at Halloween and a sweet peach tea to celebrate the Georgia Senate races. One sunny Saturday last fall, a retired principal wrote a funny ballad in honor of our accidental community, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar:

Elvis had Graceland
But we’ve all got Braceland
If we want, we can stay here past dark
Because it’s Yappy Hour here at the park.

Sunset at Braceland with dogs. (photo: Sarah Hildebrand)

As the days of the pandemic lengthened, with less travel and day-to-day business, the skies cleared and wildlife came out. We did too. Neighbors came to rely on one another in a pinch as neighbors do: dog-sitting for a few hours or a weekend; sharing hand-me-downs for new pups; celebrating milestone birthdays with cupcakes and banners. From such neighborliness real friendships grew. For Zuri and me, a standing playdate at the park with a couple and their two Standards led to other get-togethers as we discovered affinities beyond poodles. On our group chat, the common thread among all the cute dog pics is gratitude for the community we’ve built to keep each other sane through constant uncertainty. “The silver lining,” we say.

It’s been almost a year. Wildlife is back in hiding; smog in New Delhi and Los Angeles has returned; yet, we still gather. A few streets surrounding Braceland are named after states: Ohio Avenue, Indiana Terrace. On the night of the inauguration, we met at the white house at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue, letting the serendipitous address speak of our hopes for us and the nation. Our resident mayor embraced Biden’s theme of unity, serving champagne with grenadine or cassis to spike it red or blue.

The Vizsla’s dad, who was laid off and then rehired at a much lower salary, says the pandemic has changed his mind about a lot. Perhaps “building wealth” sounded more like a scam after losing his job. Following the January 6 insurrection, he asked if I thought Trump supporters would have a change of heart having seen the violence. I doubt it. I think it’s more like the Shih Tzus’ dad. He does work harder now to make small talk, to connect, but he persists in showing up without a mask despite a statewide mandate. Standing on the hill by the oak trees, he wishes “Good morning” to the rest of us, masked, standing below. He seems to want to show us that he’s not like those people who stormed the Capitol.

Angela Ards is an associate professor of English and the director of journalism at Boston College. She is the author of Words of Witness: Black Women’s Autobiography in the Post-Brown Era. She was a Kopkind participant in 2000, a mentor in 2015, and has been an adviser since the early 2000s.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on February 24, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Tell Me a Memory

Jon Crawford, a participant in Kopkind/CID Film Camp (2018, 2019), began interviewing people in Memphis last year about their lives, their loves and memories, the small and large pieces of experience that together form the beginnings of an archive of the lgbtq community. You can view all the videos to date and learn more about Jon’s reason for starting the series at Tell Me a Memory. Below is one Memphian’s story.

Kopkind: a brief audio history, pt. 2

20 01 2021

Last week we posted Part 1 of a brief audio history that our dear friend and comrade Maria Margaronis volunteered to make for The Brattleboro Words Project, which is compiling an audio archive linking the geography of southern Vermont with writers who’ve lived in the region and their work. Part 1 is about Andy the man. Part 2 is about Tree Frog Farm and this eponymous living memorial, which we launched in 1998 and which began summer seminar/retreats at the farm in 1999 to spark, connect and nourish left writers, media makers, political organizers and filmmakers. Both parts are now up on the Words Project website. Herewith, Part 2.

(“Can I Live,” linoleum block print with leaves: Nicólas Gonzalez Medina, Kopkind 2018)

A Note From JoAnn

“Scenes From a Pandemic” will return soon. We’re so glad that The Nation has extend-ed this collaborative series; I’m building up a bit of an inventory now. As always, we thank Katrina vanden Heuvel and Don Guttenplan, but I also want to acknowledge the Nation staff who’ve worked with me in production since last spring, and who have been terrific: Ricky D’Ambrose, Robert Best, Sandy McCroskey, Anna Hiatt–thank you.

Meanwhile, on February 2 at 5 pm Mountain Time, the independent Boulder Book Store is hosting a Zoom conversation between Nathan Schneider (Kopkind 2012) and me. Among other things, we will be talking about “habits of thought [that] reinforce and sustain the habits of power,” a great line by James Baldwin and a theme running through my recently published collection of essays. Nathan is a wonderful writer, thinker and human being, who helped organize Kopkind’s 2012 camp on the Occupy movement. He’s written a number of marvelous books dealing with everything from anarchy to the commons to god, and contributed #24 in our pandemic series. (Click here to see that.) For details on the event, see or click on the image below. We’d love to see you there!

Scenes From a Pandemic: 40

8 01 2021

This was the final installment for 2020 in our continuing series with The Nation. We will resume the series soon, for 2021. We hope you have been enjoying these weekly installments and our Bonuses, and we ask, if you can, please support us for the year ahead by pressing the Donate button (above) on this site. New Year wishes, and thank you all!

by John Scagliotti

Sister Act 3: pre-Covid edition (photo: John Scagliotti)

Sniffing Our Way Back

Dade City, Florida

The last time I kissed a man was almost a year ago, just before the virus closed the country. The gentleman caller standing outside my trailer had been giving me that look over the previous few days in the pool that serves as a gathering spot at our winter gay campground. On the day before I was to leave for the trip back north, this handsome chap mustered the courage to knock at my door. Since I would be gone before the gossip at the pool would undoubtedly identify me as a slut, I gave in to his advances.

I am no virgin, but when he touched me, I felt like Madonna descending those tiny aluminum steps. Then he laid into me with one of those enveloping kisses, the kind where your foot magically rises upward to the sun. I mostly remember his juicy-fruit taste and musky smell.

There I was back to my roots with that primal move. It was the calling that began 50 years ago for me when I joined the Gay Liberation Front. Although hardly anyone in the lgbtq movement mentions it these days, the desire to have sex without police, state, and church interference had brought us together in the first place, and the GLF was a consciously left group that saw ending this thousands-of-years-old oppression of same-sexers as part of the big radical project for self-determination. We certainly were not aiming to ape heterosexual marriage or collect a lover’s Social Security (though I wouldn’t mind a few reparations thrown my way for my suffering). We wanted to change the world. Many of us still do.

Woozy as I was from that kiss, I managed to climb into my three-quarter-ton truck pulling the trailer back home to Vermont. On the Interstate, the radio began crackling out the horror. Shelter at home!… Stay six feet apart… Wash your hands… Don’t eat out… The death toll today is 300… Experts say 100,000 will die by April.

How ironic that Covid attacks the ultimate tools we have for intimate connection—smell, taste, closeness—and also for the human, political connections we need to rebuild the left.

Desire is political, like hunger. Closeness, sexual or not, is political; its opposite is alienation.

By the time I got to the farm in Vermont, it was clear that 2020 would interrupt a 45-year tradition of hosting gangs of people who’ve dreamed freedom dreams. The tradition began at the farm in the 1970s with my partner Andrew Kopkind, a brilliant journalist—whom I met in Boston’s cruising grounds one happy day in 1971 when the Vice Squad chased us out of the Fens—and continued after his death, in 1994, with the living memorial whose participants have been contributing to this series.

There are some things that Zoom just cannot replace. How do you Zoom a tasty meal of garden produce being served around a large table of comrades discussing Black Lives Matter tactics? Or extended conversations about works-in-progress, a problem of politics, or any subject that can be only scratched in a workshop? How do you Zoom the play of imagination that emerges from among people together? Or the fecund aroma of Chinese chestnut blooms begging to be compared to something you shouldn’t talk about? Or the sumptuous touch of your new lover slinking into the hot tub as Bruno Mars sings from speakers on the deck: “If you’re freaky, then own it!”

Now, nine months after the beginning of this new plague, there’s a baby bust. As I chugged into our campsite this year, things looked the same, but quickly the changes added up. Old mates keep their distance, and the bear hugs are gone. On the “trails,” the outdoor cruising sites, instead of little group trysts one sees the loner, and instead of that look, eyes are filled with caution. A neighbor who almost died of Covid says that three months after surviving the worst symptoms, he still can’t smell or taste; he fears those senses might never fully return. The pool has a quota now, and the drag queens at bingo are forced to lip-synch in the outdoor chill. In a campsite that always celebrated the realm of the senses, will this second plague be the one that sends us back into the closet, sexually speaking? We’ve all seen the attacks on social media about gay folks packed in bars or campsites, with claims that gays are creating spreader events. Same-sexers have always been high on the list of blame for spreading contagion.

Desire is political—like hunger—and not just because the right has exploited it for strategic gain. Closeness, sexual or not, is political; its opposite is alienation. One of the amazing features of Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park was this “elation just to feel, talk, press against another shoulder, hear one’s own voice with others echoing, We are… we are… we are…,” as my dear friend JoAnn Wypijewski wrote here in 2011. A young man had told her and Kopkinder Prerna Sampat, “You know, if you count it up, the average college senior has spent two years of his life playing video games.” That fellow was 21. Like others they spoke with, he was drawn first by curiosity or protest, and kept coming because after so much solitude as a cyberborg, being close to others smelled like freedom.

The Trumpsters brayed that if Biden and Harris won, socialist guerrillas would overrun the government, and Cory Booker would move into your white neighborhood. To this, I borrow the language of the cyberborgs: LOL. Sadly, most Democrats are not of the left, certainly not the left of the 1930s, which inspired Social Security and, throughout much of the world, nationalized health care; or the New Left of the 1960s, which drove fundamental change like civil rights for blacks, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, and the sexual revolution. The left started those movements, and its agenda for peace, international solidarity, and liberation from forms of oppression that are interconnected excited millions toward positive change.

Now begins the era of the vaccine. Eventually, the new-new left, led by many young lgbtq black folks and their allied comrades in hundreds of radical organizations, who have struggled valiantly in this economic and health crisis, will gather together, get close, smell, taste, and love one another to bring history another step forward. And I cannot wait for my next kiss.

John Scagliotti’s films include Before StonewallAfter Stonewall and Before Homosexuals. He is Kopkind’s administrator and, with Susi Walsh of the Center for Independent Documentary, programs the Kopkind/CID Film Camp.

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

Bonus: Andy Kopkind, a brief audio history

From Andy’s scrapbook, summer 1984 at Tree Frog Farm. L to R, Kathryn Kilgore, Andy Kopkind, John Scagliotti, Will K. Wilkins, Daisy Cockburn, Alexander Cockburn

Andy Kopkind contained multitudes: at once a profoundly radical political analyst, gorgeous writer, savvy reporter, nature lover, gardener, cook, cultural aficionado, measure of sense and sensibility, master of puns, generous host, mentor and source of tremendous fun. The Brattleboro Words Project, which is compiling an audio archive linking the geography of southern Vermont with writers who’ve lived in the region and their work, asked our dear friend and comrade Maria Margaronis to make short pieces on Andy and the Kopkind Colony. They will soon be on the Words Project website. We bring you Part 1 here. Part 2 to come!

Sniffing the Zeitgeist

30 12 2020

Kopkind’s annual year-end newsletter, “Sniffing the Zeitgeist,” takes a different form in Covid-time. As always, it’s a window on what the organization and its wide circle of alumni and friends have been up to the past year. As always, it offers something new. This year especially we’re asking for your support. And we’re wishing everyone a common love, solidarity, so we all get through this thing. (Anyone who would like a pdf of this newsletter laid out in its usual form, please write With thanks from everyone at Kopkind.

Goodbye, 2020

(photo: Vasia Markides, Kopkind/CID Film Camp, 2018)

There is no template for this. This newsletter, this year, this moment in politics and the world.

The spirit of the time is uncertainty. So it was in March, when it seemed likely that the coronavirus would foreclose Kopkind’s annual seminar/retreat sessions, or “camps,” this summer. So it was in May, when people were broke or worrying about going broke, some still waiting for their pandemic relief benefits, waiting to hear about unemployment insurance or a forgivable loan or whatever they’d cobbled up in hopes of getting by. So we canceled the camps, and we didn’t do our annual spring appeal or our Harvest fundraiser. We took a risk that you, our members and friends, would not forget us. This is a digital appeal. We need you now. 

Risk and improvisation having displaced the ordinary, this year of uncertain life has also been one of radical hope—unsettling strange, like the image above, which actually captures a joyful moment.

Kopkind’s 2020 improvisation has been a weekly storytelling project with pictures, “Scenes From a Pandemic,” a collaboration with The Nation, where Andy Kopkind was the chief political analyst and reporter from 1982 till his death, in 1994. Something’s happening everywhere, we thought. Something we don’t know. And everywhere our people, mostly precarious journalists, organizers, filmmakers, could probably use a little paid work. What are they witnessing, experiencing?

El Paso: At the prosecution table, an Assistant US Attorney coughed explosively, then exited, a hand pushing open the half-doors that separate the administrative side from the rest of the courtroom. Another prosecutor, with a Van Dyke-ish beard, approached the doors and put his hand on the place his coughing colleague had just touched. Van Dyke then leaned on one besuited hip and schmoozed for a few minutes with a public defender—all the while caressing the half-door. With the same hand, Van Dyke then stroked his beard. The hand soon migrated from beard to mouth. Across the room, a court-appointed defense lawyer huddled with a middle-aged woman in jail clothes. The huddle left a few inches distance between them. The woman would plead guilty for driving two undocumented immigrants to a Border Patrol checkpoint. The lawyer collated papers, repeatedly licking his index finger. He picked up a pen with his licked hand and signed the papers. He gave the pen and papers to the client. She signed, and the lawyer walked over to Van Dyke’s table. Van Dyke took the papers, then patted his beard and mouth. The woman was sent back to jail to await sentencing. (Debbie Nathan, Kopkind mentor 2013, 2016)

What are they feeling?

Nashville: None of us knows how to pivot between crises, and online agitation doesn’t feel like enough. … A friend from Brooklyn calls, concerned, knowing that I’ve been in the street for weeks. “The virus isn’t a tornado,” she says; “your neighbors don’t carry the tornado in their lungs.” But the tornado is still here, and the gentrifiers and the landlords aren’t taking a break. Church pews and family photos still litter the street on 21st and Formosa, fading in the rain as city workers set up the new Covid-19 treatment tents outside General Hospital a few blocks away. As I drive home at dusk, the flashing blue-and-red marquee in front of the neighborhood church is the only visible activity. The words march past in three-foot-tall letters, announcing to no one at all that GOD IS STILL IN CONTROL. God or the virus or the tornado or the landlords, or all four, because it damn sure isn’t us yet. (Tristan Call, Kopkind 2013)

Sirens were wailing in New York City. The Empire State Building was rotating a red emergency light in the fog. Death and shortages filled the news, but so much was invisible. Debbie had been in federal court, watching the casual consignment of desperate people to fate. Days before The Nation posted her dispatch, the first in our series, the Guatemalan government announced that a deportee on an ICE flight from Phoenix to El Paso to Guatemala City had tested positive for Covid-19. It was the first documented case on an ICE flight. Outside the borderlands, almost no one else had paid attention.

Common emergencies, the silent shrieks resulting from other systems overloading, failing or working as designed—indifferent to human needs—had been pushed to the periphery, unless you were like so many living the reality of compound crises. Tristan wrote in the wake of a tornado the press quickly forgot. From Salt Lake City, Kate Savage wrote after an earthquake. Taté Walker wrote from Indian Country, where contaminated water or no running water made hand-washing a hardship. This was before the national media noticed that the Navajo Nation had the highest infection rate after New York and New Jersey.

In South Dakota, the white man was rejecting masks and social distancing while the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, where Taté is enrolled, enforced a curfew, required travel permits and controlled traffic in and out of the 1.4 million-acre reservation at checkpoints. Governor Kristi Noem complained, but the tribe contained contagion while meatpacking plants in Sioux Falls became a national hot spot. Later, the biker extravaganza in Sturgis would paint the Midwest map red with infection.

(drawing: Alex Melamid, Kopkind speaker 2016)

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. (Taté Walker, Kopkind 2015)

(drawing: Alessandra Moctezuma, friend of Kopkind)

“This is a season of wild contrasts,” said Makani Themba, an advisor, friend and mentor to Kopkind from the start. Protests against police violence and racism had filled the streets of the nation by the time Makani wrote. But something else was happening, too, akin to the Cheyenne River Sioux’s mobilization for care in a careless land.

Jackson: Covid is revealing all of the cracks and fissures in our systems—of care, of connection, in our economy. As cities like Jackson are left to fend for ourselves, Covid is also revealing how “we keep us safe.” In my South Jackson neighborhood, masked volunteers sweat under the Mississippi sun as they hand out food and toilet paper. Many of the folk in line brave the heat hoping to be among the lucky ones to get a mobile Covid test before kits run out. Volunteers have stepped up as part of the Jackson Covid Response. It’s a local coalition that includes Jackson State and Tougaloo College students; organizing groups like Poor People’s Campaign, Mississippi One Voice, People’s Advocacy Institute, Mississippi Immigrant Coalition, Democratic Socialists of America, and Black Youth Project 100; neighborhood groups and businesses like Operation Good, Strong Arms of Jackson, MOVE Church and Bad Boy Tree Services; social service projects like Clean Slate Behavioral Health Collective; multimedia outlets like the local branch of Black With No Chaser, which has a popular podcast in the community. This coalition is one of the hundreds of mutual-aid networks springing up across the country to fill the gaps that the state refuses to address. (Makani Themba, Kopkind mentor 1999, 2017)

(photo: Gilbert Thompson in Jackson, Mississippi)

New Orleans: We have stepped into the gap of the state, because the state would kill us. There is no benevolent daddy! Although, Benevolent Daddy would be an excellent drag name.” (Aesha Rasheed, quoted by Kara Lynch, Kopkind 2019, and the New Orleans Plague Pod)

Hurdle Mills, NC: What’s happening here is a new community-supported agriculture service, the Tall Grass Food Box, featuring the produce of black farmers. It was an idea among friends, who hustled to organize the CSA as the crisis hit: Gabrielle Eitienne, a cook and cultural preservationist; Gerald Harris, a university administrator interested in food sovereignty; and Derrick Beasley, an artist, co-founder of Black August, an annual showcase for black food producers, business and creativity in Durham. “We were asking ourselves, Who’s taking care of black farmers? How can we support them?” (Cynthia Greenlee, Kopkind 2007)

Gloucester, MA: 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 get a bucket of lobsters, I get cheaper rent. A grocery store gives out a gift card, basically saying ‘Here’s money for a couple of weeks.’ It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a huge thing, helping each other out.” (Jennifer Berkshire, Kopkind 1999, speaker 2013)

Phoenix: Dear Landlord, … Are you home with your pets, with your family? I’m rationing my brothers’ faces because they’re not on Facebook or a wifi plan, and the US-Mexican border, like many others, is closed to non-essential travel. … 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 to represent our interests as people who give you money to claim a place to sleep. (Anna Flores, Kopkind 2018)

Solidarity isn’t exactly contagious; it’s the remembrance of “things you didn’t know you’d forgotten,” as Robin Wall Kimmerer, the Anishinabekwe botanist, writes in Braiding Sweetgrass. A deep memory of the commons, as historian Peter Linebaugh (Kopkind mentor 2014, speaker 2019) wrote in our series, quoting from that book, one of many that have accompanied him in lockdown.

(photo: Peter Linebaugh)

The New Orleans Plague Pod was modeled on hurricane evacuation resource groups that have existed for years. Its affective sources, though, were older, multiple, “born in songs, storms, newsrooms, prayers, dyke bars, DIY Mardi Gras krewes and dark moon rituals.” It and those other collective actions are variations on ages-old human survival efforts.            

Food, shelter, contact, the sharing of ideas and materiel, care, humor… Basic for humanity, these are also central to Kopkind’s project, which blends politics, culture and an appreciation of the sensuous world.

So it is fitting that Peter shared a reading list in “Scenes From a Pandemic: 38.” That people from Hurdle Mills had tips on sweet potato soup and pie in No. 4. That Scot Nakagawa discussed the social meaning of kimchee and gave a full recipe in No. 12. That Kweku Toure helped us laugh in No. 34. That Alex Halkin shared a dream of a four-eyed dog with artistic collaborators in Cuba, who made a beautiful short video: a Bonus to No. 5. That Jon Crawford talked about training a dog, actually and metaphorically, in No. 11. (All of those are below on this blog site.) That John Scagliotti talks about a kiss in the final installment for 2020, No. 40, coming up.

We’ve been so grateful for this collaboration with The Nation, and we’ll pick up this series in January. We hope we can resume the camps in the summer. In uncertain times, though, as our board member Kweku joked, “If you want to make the gods laugh, tell them your plans.” Still, about a few things we are certain: that we need one another; that the pandemic has exposed the bankruptcy of neoliberalism, of privatization, financialization and a corporate state; that we need a rigorous, organized left that also needs space to breathe. We are certain that years ago when a former camper, Jen Soriano, said “You have created a political paradise on earth,” we were doing something necessary. We are absolutely certain that we cannot resume, cannot maintain the infrastructure and replenish our drained resources, without you. We are asking for your support. (Please click the DONATE button at the top of this site.)

The pandemic has brought the struggle over the state into high relief, a struggle that a US left cannot afford to ignore. In the series or our site’s Bonuses we’ve had material from South Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Gdansk, Liberia, Okinawa, and radical efforts internationally (via our friend Vijay Prashad and comrades at Tricontinental) to organize for a humane future. What we weren’t able to publish was the view of a longtime friend of Kopkind from inside the state at ground level, where workers toil to serve the people. Bureaucratic concerns prevented it. Here is an excerpt (which must be anonymous).

How does one cope with so much displacement, disorder, discord? And how equipped am I, really, for this sort of work? Over three decades, I rolled with the journalism bones. The work was satisfying, but I always felt it was a placeholder while I figured out what the heck I was supposed to do. I came here in 2014 without a job or a place to live and found both within a few miraculous days, in a charming town and at the regional alt-weekly chain. This is where we queue the one and only great scene from Godfather III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” Now that I’m really out and working for the Deeply Concerned State, I admit there are some days I’ve felt like Fredo in the rowboat.

The basic tenet of journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, but rare is the day when humanity is served because of a story you wrote. From the inside now, while the boss works the latter mandate, I focus on the former. It’s enormously rewarding to bigfoot some bureaucratic snafu and politely get an agency to resolve an issue in a constituent’s favor—like one of those “7 On Your Side” local TV segments where a citizen is stuck until they call the station. It’s absurd but underappreciated that the same government that creates so much red tape also created congressional case-workers to help cut through it.

I work mostly with far more experienced people, and find myself wanting what they have, or at least what they reveal: a calm determination to slog through the pandemic casework without letting it get to them. So I triage the escalating caseload, plucking out cases for immediate attention. I do this while contemplating a ruling-class culture that’s hell-bent on eliminating the administrative state and replacing it with cruelty. I try not to take it personally. Any social worker will tell you—and my social worker friend told me this early in the Covid crisis—listen to people’s problems, but don’t listen too deeply; you’ll get wrecked.

We are all acquainted with sorrow now. And angst. The world reels with suffering. But a time of crisis is also dynamic; things change, forces clash. As Andy Kopkind once wrote, don’t forget “that politics is history, not philosophy; that revolutions are responses to reality, not to theory; that the nature of all things is contradiction, not equilibrium.” Nothing is all bad for all time, because history proceeds dialectically; how things turn out at any given time is a question of politics, fought out among real people in the real world. Kopkind lives to raise the spirit and the intellectual firepower for the fight. Be well. Be ready. Thank you.

For love, valor and compassion—   JoAnn Wypijewski

(selfie: Jamilah King, Kopkind 2009)

Donations to Kopkind are tax-deductible to the full extent of the law. If you can swing it, please Click Here to support us. And from all of us, best wishes in 2021.

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.