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 jwyp@earthlink.net.) 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: 3

20 04 2020

by Tristan Call

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

First a tornado, then Covid-19 (photo: Tristan Call)

‘Gentrification Is NOT an Essential Industry’

Nashville

It rained all day yesterday. My neighbor down the street called to ask if I’d help him move some boxes once the rain stopped; his roof caved in during the tornado that hit weeks ago, and now the tarps had failed, dumping deep piles of loose, wet insulation throughout the house. All along the half-mile-wide scar that the tornado had left through North Nashville (and then for 60 continuous miles across three counties), yesterday’s rain trickled through puddling and straining tarps, echoing on the floors of abandoned homes and soaking into the mattresses and drywall of those still occupied. The mayor has issued a “safer at home” order requiring us to stay in to prevent the catastrophic spread of coronavirus. “What home?” my neighbor grunted, as we lifted the boxes into my truck. The tornado scattered us, and the virus bottles us back in.

The night after the March 3 tornado, we mobilized, thousands of us, cutting apart the hundreds of mammoth hackberry trees whose roots had given way to the wind, crushing roofs and cars and knocking out every electric line in nine ZIP codes. We rented or borrowed every chainsaw in the county, as the tireless young people from the Sunrise Movement set up a mutual aid hub across from the corner market. Neighbors pulled out ladders and hammers to tarp one another’s roofs; the racial justice crew Gideon’s Army mobilized volunteers to provide humanitarian supplies and clear roads. The same day that the governor announced the first confirmed Covid-19 case in Middle Tennessee, city officials opened up the downtown farmers’ market and neighborhood community centers as emergency shelters for hundreds of homeless families. Over the following days we didn’t talk much about the virus except as an explanation for why we couldn’t find gloves or masks for work crews starting to gut houses. 


“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.” 


The tornado hit on Super Tuesday and I took a half hour out to vote for Bernie, but there was no line at the gymnasium that day. We didn’t get power back for eight days. Some homes are still without it. As temperatures dipped toward freezing, rumors spread that house flippers were prowling the block offering black homeowners cash for a fraction of their property’s worth. We made agreements with strangers on the street that if we caught house flippers, we’d slash their tires and run them out of the neighborhood. We gathered generators to keep peoples’ space heaters going; even now, you can hear generators running at night. 

After the first grim days, the streets started filling with people, great floods of volunteers, now with pale skin and sunglasses and joking about “taking lumberjack selfies.” The crowd disappeared as coronavirus moved into the headlines: dozens were dead in Seattle; Italy’s medical system was overwhelmed; African nations were denying entrance to their northern neighbors. Now I walk through North Nashville and the streets are empty. The bartenders and housekeepers and restaurant workers who had brought the volunteers work gloves and hot meals in early March are home now, researching unemployment programs, trying to figure out how they’re going to make the rent. The city is bipolar: the Honky-Tonks on Second Avenue are closed by decree, but construction sites are still bustling. The house flippers managed to get some properties in North Nashville after all, and a friend who is organizing with construction day laborers agitates on Facebook: “Gentrification is NOT an essential industry.” 

But none of us knows how to pivot between crises, and online agitation doesn’t feel like enough. When I do run into a neighbor, we talk about a citywide rent strike. He thinks it might just work; he stays on the sidewalk with his dog while I talk from the porch, 20 feet away. 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 after dropping off the last load of my neighbor’s boxes at a storage unit, 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, based out of the Nashville Greenlands urban farming community, is an organizer with working-class groups in Tennessee and Mississippi. Tristan participated in Kopkind in 2013. This piece appeared on thenation.com on April 15, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and all our collaborators in The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Garden Tour From Palestine

In 2003, Mazin Qumsiyeh and his wife, Jessie, were dinner guests during Kopkind’s collaborative session with the Eqbal Ahmad Initiative at Hampshire College. Mazin, who describes himself as “a bedouin in cyberspace, a villager at home,” is the co-founder (with Jessie) and (volunteer) director of the Palestine Museum of Natural History at the Palestine Institute of Biodiversity and Sustainability, Bethlehem University, Occupied Palestine. The other day he sent this:

In these days of staying at home we offer you a tour of our gardens, museum exhibits and much more. This first part is the garden, which is in its peak now. Enjoy. https://youtu.be/7cBil5ahC6o

April 17, Mazin noted, was Prisoners Day: When complaining about being stuck at home for six weeks, we should think of them. Over 5,000 Palestinians are in Apartheid Israeli prisons in crowded and unsanitary conditions. Hundreds are in administrative detention not even allowed to see a lawyer or go to court and most are denied proper medical care in time of coronavirus. As both a Palestinian and US citizen and fellow human being, I also think about the 2.3 million people crowded in US prisons. Here is something I wrote on the occasion nine years ago (still valid).

The olive and citrus trees were blooming all over Palestine on Prisoners’ day. Pink irises, red puppies, and yellow flowers weave interesting patterns among the endless green carpet underneath the fruiting almonds, fig, and loquet trees. Green almonds are eaten with a pinch of salt and are addictive. There are already some ripening loquots. We harvest new green grape leaves (waraq dawali) to make a most amazing dish. Amid this beauty and abundance of nature, there is also beauty and abundance among those of us humans who are still connected to nature and partially free. But we remember the nearly 7,000 political prisoners.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 1

6 04 2020

by Debbie Nathan

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

Display window of a photo shop in El Paso (photo: Debbie Nathan)

Something’s Happening Here

El Paso, Texas

Last Thursday morning an ICE plane flew from Phoenix to El Paso, then El Paso to Guatemala City. The flight held at least 40 people—far more than the maximum 10 that our new “social distancing” rule allows to be together. The passengers were undoubtedly shackled; that’s how deportees travel on ICE planes. On Sunday, March 29, three days after the trip, the Guatemalan government announced that a passenger had just tested positive for Covid-19. This was the first documented case on an ICE flight. The director of our airport told City Council it was no big deal for us locals. The infected person must have got on in Phoenix, she said.  

Here in El Paso and our Mexican sister city, Juarez, the numbers are still low—57 cases as of March 30, in a binational community of 2 million people—but coronavirus has created a special foreboding, caused by the area’s longtime and lately intensified use as a law-and-order punching bag. In the guard and punishment economy, social distancing is farcical where it’s not terrifying.

Both sides of the border are nests of infection risk created by US laws and their enforcers. One bug house is the federal court downtown, where immigration cases are heard. Judges are still working. Most defendants are charged with petty smuggling (of drugs or people), trying to cross the border with false documents, or simply traversing the Rio Grande and getting caught.


3/26/20: an ICE plane flew from Phoenix to El Paso, then El Paso to Guatemala City. It marked the first recorded instance of an ICE flight deporting a person with the virus.


In one courtroom last week, three shackled inmates, wearing orange and blue uniforms of the county jail, waited on benches. Two sat a foot apart. They were guarded by two U.S. Marshals. One wore a mask and gloves. The other didn’t. 

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 the two. The woman would plead guilty for driving two undocumented immigrants to a Border Patrol checkpoint. The lawyer collated the 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.

A very young Honduran woman, charged with illegal entry, also pleaded guilty. The judge told her she could have got months in prison, but the public defender had made a deal with Van Dyke to lower the charges from felony to misdemeanor. The woman, who had been locked in jail for almost eight weeks already, got time served plus one day. “Be very grateful,” the judge said. “We hardly ever see this happen.” 

El Paso’s county jail holds hundreds of border crossers, there because of a lucrative contract with the feds. Four additional detention centers hold immigrants for ICE. Every few days there are ICE flights. For years those have earned airport-use commissions for the city.

Meanwhile, in Juarez, immigrants seeking asylum in the United States languish under the Orwellian-named Migrant Protection Protocols. Denied due process, they wait, stuffed by the thousands into crumbling apartments and crowded shelters. In one shelter I know, a family of six lives on a jungle of bunk beds in an 8’ by 10’ room. In another, people sleep on dirty mats, on and under church pews.

A person who’d been working in the court told me the feds are trying to empty the jail. That’s helter-skelter, but business goes on as usual in detention centers. At one, according to a declaration filed by a local immigration attorney, “A member of my team asked a guard…on 3/17/2020 about Covid protocols and he [said] that they had not received any special training on how to keep themselves or detained individuals safe during the pandemic, and then said ‘if it happens, it happens.’”

The Honduran woman was sent from the bug house courtroom back to jail for a day. From there, she would be remanded to a crowded ICE detention center, where she would wait for deportation on a crowded ICE plane, or for Covid-19, whichever comes first. 

Debbie Nathan lives in El Paso. She is the author of Women and Other Aliens: Essays from the US-Mexico Border. Debbie was a mentor at Kopkind in 2013 and 2016. This piece appeared on thenation.com on April 1, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and others from The Nation crew who make this collaboration possible.