Scenes From a Pandemic: 25

21 09 2020

by Aja Beech

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

In the distance, La Bella Taína mural by Tameartz; painted by the TNS Krew—Tameartz, Desil, Imse, Busta, and Bark—at Sunflower Philly Community Park. (photo: Aja Beech)

Something’s Happening Here

Philadelphia

Philadelphia has always been my home. “Born and raised” is what we say.

I’d like to imagine that there is something about this area that has always acted as a magnet for cultural and social revolution. Our nation was partly born here. Over hundreds of years, there have been many moments of explosive clarity and solace in this city.

We are no strangers to armed revolt and violent government oppression. We also have more art and natural open space than most cities. Thousands of murals adorn walls, more than any city in the world, and two rivers run through it, the Schuylkill and the Delaware.

The area around the Delaware River is one of the largest estuaries in the United States, where many waters meet and funnel out into the sea—an environmental transition zone where, even now, there is sailing and shipbuilding along the waters.

The life of the city has changed during the pandemic. There are more murders; there are more overdoses; there is more death. There is also somehow more hope, more brotherly love, and sisterly affection.

It is dangerous to be near one another.

Yet still, we comfort those in need, we feed one another, we rely on one another. The importance of the connections we make every day anchor us to this place and to each other.

Philadelphia has always had its confines and places of refuge. Mine is the New Jersey shore. I know I’m luckier than most. Though we all live less than an hour’s drive from the beckoning shore of the Atlantic Ocean, some of my fellow Philadelphians will go their entire lives without setting foot on the beach.

In good years, I’ve gone to the ocean more than once. Floating in the saltwater, I am adrift, but at peace.

Once there was a time when boatloads of people came to our ports, looking upon this land after being out to sea for so long. That port became a destination of restaurants and newly designed piers. Now, some places are nearly abandoned while others thrive.

The same is true for the people. We must remake connection before any more get caught up in the currents and swept out to sea.

(photo: Aja Beech)

In the 1960s, Paul Robeson moved to Philadelphia. He was ill and came to live here in the care of his sister, Marian Forsythe, with whom he stayed in relative seclusion for the remainder of his life.

“Artists are the gatekeepers of truth.” Robeson once said. “We are civilization’s anchor. We are the compass for humanity and conscience.”

Last week, I was asked: What are you connected to? My answer was water, and the peace I feel floating.

Then I was asked: What is your anchor? I was not sure. Being held down with too much weight has never been enticing.

But I thought of Robeson’s meditation on art, and the words I use to set my place. And I thought of this city, the volatile fragility, the intense beauty. The place I have called home my entire life.

Stability has so often escaped me. Yet there is something that makes me feel as if, even in the depths, I have an anchor within me; as if I was always being prepared for where we all are right now, alone at sea, lighting up signals in the dark.

Aja Beech is an author and organizer. Her poetry, journalism, commentary, short stories, and other works can be found internationally. A mother of two, she currently works as the campaign coordinator for the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Labor 2020 program. Beech attended the Kopkind Colony in 2011. Her current work featuring labor organizing can be found at unionhall.aflcio.org/pennsylvania-afl-cio..

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

Bonus: Portraits of Fire

Salmon-colored sun and smoke, Beaver Creek, Oregon (photo: Jeffrey St. Clair)

Our friend Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of CounterPunch, wrote a striking diary from Oregon last week of life in a time of fires, illustrated with many more haunting photos. An extract of it is below.

We awoke to choking smoke on Thursday. I visited the evacuation center at the local community college a couple of miles from us, bringing coffee and pastries, and was surprised to see more than 500 people camped out, along with their animals: dogs, cats, horses, llamas, alpaca, two cows, ducks, chickens and several pigs. I returned home with the news that we needed to be ready to leave at any moment. Kimberly, Zen and the enfant terrible, packed a week’s worth of clothes, diapers, food and left for Astoria on the Oregon coast at the mouth of the Columbia River, about 110 miles away. My mission was to find the missing half-feral cat, Graymalkin, capture her and drug her or drug her and capture her or entice her into the house. And to find some way to edit and post weekend edition using my one bar of cell coverage as a hotspot and write my column. I spent most of the night working, under a glowing sky, with bonewhite ashes drifting on the porch, like the fatal snows of Judgment Day. Around three in the morning, I heard the imploring pleas of the cat at the backdoor.

Smoke on the water, Tongue Point (photo: Jeffrey St. Clair)

For the full CounterPunch column, click here.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 21

24 08 2020

by Aaron Talley

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

The author’s new middle school classroom (photo: Aaron Talley)

Something’s Happening Here

Chicago
Jamila had never officially been my student.

I’ll call her Jamila. In September 2017, she had marched into my classroom because she wanted to meet “the new black English teacher,” a rarity at my school, where the staff is predominately white, despite being on the South Side of Chicago in one of its “toughest” neighborhoods.

In my mind, she was ready for college. At the age of 16, she was already adept at making jokes about “toxic masculinity,” and already had a catalogue of her favorite black feminist poets. Over the course of the next three years, she and I held several discussions about family, her future, race, gender, and writing.

She was intentional about performing her existence as an act of defiance. She opted for bold short haircuts, wore oversize thrift store clothes, and was popular in school for her slam poetry. She was the type of student who gave you hope for the future. She was charming and bombastic, with a voice that you could hear long before you saw her.

And it’s beautiful to see a child grow via her relationship to art. In the 10th grade, she just wanted to share her poetry. Now in her senior year, she talked about the intention of her poems. These intentions began to bleed into her own decision making. Decisions like choosing to stay at home for college rather than going away. Or choosing whether to accept her mom’s discomfort with her gender performance. Once an angsty teenager full of complaints, she was growing into an assertive adult who made adult decisions. Like many teachers, I wanted to see her growth as a reflection of my own energy and attention as well. I felt that seeing her walk across the stage would be a culminating moment.

I didn’t imagine my last time seeing her would be as it was in June of 2020—she, riding alongside her mom in a small, bare brown car; me, masked, distant on the sidewalk alongside other teachers cheering at the car-parade graduation. Covid had led to Chicago Public Schools officially closing in mid-March, so it had been approximately three months since I had last heard from her, and in a rush of excitement I ran toward the car, thinking to myself that an “air high five” would be the best I could offer at that moment.

As I got midway to the car, her mother’s smiling face dissolved into a frown, and sense swarmed back into my brain. Why would you run toward the car during Covid? Of course, Mom doesn’t know you were just gonna give an air high five. I halted and threw my palms in the air, in a gesture that was now equal parts high five and surrender. Jamila threw hers up as well and smiled. I retreated to the sidewalk to continue cheering on the other graduating students. The brown car moved on.


This is what dystopia looks like. Nothing is clear-cut. No one has the answers. There are no real endings or beginnings, just a procession of limbos… It’s back-to-school, and remote learning.


It was gorgeous outside. It was the type of sunny that makes you aware of the silhouettes of the trees against the concrete. Despite being prepared to be sad, I found the car graduation to be a beautiful moment of innovation. Cars in procession, most accented with maroon and gold balloons and paint, or Class of 2020, or my students’ names spiraling along the windows. Amid the noise of celebration, my students looked out from the car windows, popped up through sunroofs, rode on the back of pickup trucks. What I had thought would be a bland substitute was a rather regal event. My students had turned their cars into chariots. Some soaked the moment in fully, with their shoulders erect, their hair flapping in the wind.

I left the graduation early. My car was parked on a crowded street, and I didn’t want to be trapped when the procession finished. Inwardly I was embarrassed for my earlier impulse, since there’s no room to be impulsive during a pandemic. When everything stops rather than finishes, you have no choice but to be intentional.

This month, Chicago Public Schools rolled back its idea of a “hybrid” model of schooling, a concept that had been initially announced with a tone of certainty that anyone actually working within CPS knew not to trust. In that model, students would’ve spent part of their time in remote learning and part of their time at school, with parents able to opt out of in-person learning altogether. I wonder about what exactly would have been hybridized, since this model would’ve had my time split between a computer screen and an ill-ventilated building, with students split six feet apart, with split resources, and split investment. And despite CPS’s deciding to go fully remote beginning September 8, because of the lack of clear direction I still feel split, like I’m still alone midway in that street between a frowning face and cheering.

I start every year teaching a unit on dystopia, where the joy is meant to be found in realizing how dystopic our society really is. The irony is palpable in this moment. In fictional dystopias, however, clarity is abundant. There is a clear social ill that plagues society, a clear sense of past and present, a clear enemy; and it’s clear when the revolution needs to happen. There is a beginning and an end. In a real-life dystopia, no one really has the answers, so there are no real endings or beginnings. Just a procession of limbos. In a real-life dystopia, apocalypse still hits, and sometimes it comes in a familiar form: an explosion, a natural disaster, or a revolution. Sometimes, the apocalypse is just an air high five instead of a hug. Nevertheless, you have to keep going.

I set up my new makeshift workspace in the corner of my living room. It consists of a small circular table sitting by the largest windows in the house. I prepare for the year. I think of my students. I reflect on what I want to do differently. I flirt with the idea of starting a YouTube channel. I brainstorm how to teach a novel over the computer. I groan at work e-mails. I worry, and then I don’t. And when I remember, I take a deep breath.

Aaron Talley, a writer, activist, facilitator, and educator, teaches middle school on Chicago’s South Side. His writing has been featured in various news outlets, including Colorlines, the Feminist Wire, The Advocate, Education Post, and Chicago South Side Weekly. An alumni of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Fellowship (VONA), he is currently pitching a speculative fiction novel for young adults. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @Talley_Marked and read more of his work on his blog Newer Negroes. Aaron was a participant in Kopkind’s 2015 political camp.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on August 19, 2020, on The Nation‘s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Remembering Andy & His Birthday

Andy and John Scagliotti, his life partner and the administrator of Kopkind (photo: Gregg DeChirico)

Andy Kopkind would have been 85 today, August 24. Andy contained multitudes: an extraordinary writer and thinker, with a radical politics, a gay sensibility, a perfect style, a seemingly boundless store of knowledge (and curiosity about what wasn’t known), he was also a consummate cook and gardener, a source of puns and fun. To anyone who experienced the joy of Andy’s birthday at Tree Frog Farm, the occasion is unforgettable—the convergence of people who came to celebrate, stayed for days, cooked great food (or just ate it), swam and danced, and talked about all things under the sun and stars.

So, a treat! A memento of Andy from a long-ago summer in Guilford, Vermont, when he played the Duchess in a community performance of Alice in Wonderland. Also featured in clips from this rough vintage home movie are John as the Brown Mouse, Verandah Porche (our neighbor and a Kopkind advisor) as the Caterpillar, our longtime friend Will Wilkins, and other members of the Monteverdi Players. (With thanks to our friend and Kopkind alum Christopher Dawes for editing this little montage.)

Please click on image above to watch video.

The convergences that marked Andy’s birthday inspired the Kopkind Colony. Covid-19 has prevented us from holding what would have been our 21st year of seminar/retreats, weeklong sessions in which political journalists and activists or documentary filmmakers share ideas and insights, eat well, revel in nature—think and breathe and recharge for the work ahead. For 21 weeks now, members of the extended Kopkind family have, instead, been sharing stories of this long suspended season. Scroll down through the Scenes and the Bonuses. Share this site with your friends. And, brother, sister, if you can spare a dime, please click on DONATE at the top of the page or click here. Thank you!





Scenes From a Pandemic: 15

14 07 2020

by Makani Themba

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

(photo: Gilbert Thompson)

Something’s Happening Here

Jackson, Mississippi

Before Covid-19, I would travel around the country, listening to people’s stories as we walked their block, or plotted the “beautiful next” in some center or meeting room. Now we are all in little boxes, trying to connect, trying to make it more human. People with wild virtual backgrounds or cute hats. It reminds me of freshman year moving into the dorms. There you are with your teddy bears and your posters to make your room feel a little less like the drab, institutional rectangle it is.  

The truth is, it’s crazy hard out here for so many of us. Covid has shifted racism and inequity into hyperdrive. Shuttered hospitals and limited testing in communities hardest hit. The intentional delay in distributing “stimulus” checks to indigenous nations while slashing funds for health services. A young black woman tells me a story – from her box to mine – about how the white children in her trailer park, not far from Chicago, come by her family’s home to spit and chant, “Covid is a n***a killer!” These children were taught that our disproportionate death related to Covid is an opportunity for ethnic cleansing.

This is a season of wild contrasts. The joyful exuberance of seeing our movements on the precipice of so many significant victories. It’s beautiful. I am breathless and giddy to live to see this moment that I had every confidence would come. And I am also anxious that, as the nation is riveted by global protests to address black lives taken by police violence, we have normalized the deaths of the many others who are also victims of state violence but in a different form.  


Police shootings are a gun to the head of Black America. Covid is the bomb. As cities like Jackson are left to fend for ourselves, Covid is also revealing how “we keep us safe”.


Police shootings are literally a gun to the head of Black America, while the government’s use of the pandemic to facilitate black and indigenous death is a full-on carpet bombing. And although they don’t exhibit the glee of those children in the trailer park, much of government appears to be on the same team.

I’ve watched testimony in city councils around the country against local ordinances to require protective masks in public. I’m struck by how often progressive frames are appropriated for conservative use: phrases like “crime against humanity” or “human rights violation,” along with the old tropes opposing public health protection as a matter of “freedom.” 

On May 19, the birthday of Malcolm X ironically, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves gave churches explicit permission to reopen. They were never officially closed in Mississippi, but this bit of grandstanding was part of the governor’s pandering to support Trump in solidifying his right-wing faith base. The governor insisted on lifting restrictions for businesses, too. There were 535 new Covid cases and 42 deaths that day. On June 22 there were 1,646 new cases and 40 deaths. Progressive mayors had instituted public protection rules in an attempt to “flatten the curve,” but as Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said in a recent interview about the “reopening” of the state: “It was clear that we [Jackson] are becoming an island. And if you’re on an island, it’s hard not to get wet.” On June 30, with new cases spiking, the mayor announced that wearing face masks would be mandatory in the city.

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. The volunteers are friends and neighbors who 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; and 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.   

The work is hard but it’s also adaptive, innovative, and generous. There’s deep grief in the face of rising Covid-related death as young and old die needlessly in prisons and detention centers. There is also vision as organizers move progressive District Attorneys to release “nonviolent offenders” by the thousands. In Jackson, Mayor Lumumba enacted an agreement to end arrests for misdemeanors and nonviolent offenses that activists believe will keep hundreds out of jail. Yet, hundreds more languish in detention centers and jails throughout the state. Activist Rukia Lumumba told me about a man bailed out by the Mississippi Bail Out Collective. He had spent two months in a DeSoto jail because he didn’t have $150. Thanks to the collective’s efforts, he is out now.

These are a just a few examples of the silo-busting work on the ground that makes the connections between culture, policing, health, immigration rights, and so much more. It’s a politic for our whole lives.

This work, these victories, are sunbursts in the midst of storms. We breathe. We listen. We plot. We dream. And we remember that it takes both the sunburst and the storm to make rainbows.

Makani Themba is an organizer, writer and strategist based in Jackson. Currently she serves as chief strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies. Makani is a long-time adviser to Kopkind and was a mentor in our first camp, in 1999, and then again in 2017.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on July 8, 2020, on The Nation‘s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Moonlight in Vermont

On Lake Champlain (photo: Jon Flanders)

Jon Flanders, a steadfast supporter of Kopkind, sent us this picture from the northern reaches of Vermont, where he’s visiting family. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Jon has been sending messages about the importance of Vitamin D, the latest good news from Cuba, the latest hair-raiser from New York, the latest protest in Troy, where he lives, the latest bulletin on global solidarity (here a wonderful talk by our friend Vijay Prashad on Che and a socialism of love), an upcoming concert for Cuba and so on. Jon is a retired railroad worker, an internationalist, an organizer of political events (here a recent discussion of labor history with JoAnn Wypijewski and others around Mike Stout’s new book about Homestead Steel, via a Zoom variant of the Connolly Forum), a photographer.

In any other July, we would be in the midst of a Kopkind camp right about now, at Tree Frog Farm in Southern Vermont. Jon’s moonlight photograph is from the opposite end of the state. It bears a message that also imbues Kopkind’s project: there is still beauty in this world; soak it in.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 14

6 07 2020

by Vasia Markides

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

(photos: Vasia Markides)

Something’s Happening Here

Stillwater, Maine

Biking through my neighborhood, I notice a new Trump/Pence sign on the lawn strewn with Americana ornaments. A far cry from the rainbow animal sculptures down the road celebrating LGBT pride. Our small community on the Stillwater River is sandwiched between the progressive college town of Orono, headquarters to the University of Maine, and the working-class paper mill community of Old Town, near the home of the Penobscot Nation and the world-famous canoe. These disparate places are connected by the river, which I am fortunate to have winding along my backyard. It was this river that offered sanctuary to my parents after a war divided our country, Cyprus, in 1974. This river was my companion as a child who spent most of her time outdoors. This river urged me to move with my family back to Maine from New York when, after eight years, the apple started to sour. This river, a small artery in the web of life, offers me relief today as humanity cries, I can’t breathe.

* * *

It may be hard for urbanites to understand the impact of nature’s elixir on those of us who choose a more rural existence. It is also hard here to maintain equilibrium kayaking down a lush river, say, knowing that tear gas and batons await so many who are dear as they take to city streets to demand basic human rights.

Over Zoom calls and driveway check-in sessions, I have heard friends struggle with depression and anxiety, crippled by fear.

Why am I at peace? 

At the risk of sounding detached, it struck me why my response feels different from what it perhaps should. The past two decades have dealt some First World blows. Financial hardship, physical injury, and professional disappointment were the start, but it was the two miscarriages and the premature death of seven people I adored that made the Grim Reaper more of a sidekick than a boogie monster.

At the same time, over those years, my anxiety about the state of the planet festered in the form of dystopian nightmares. Those nestled in my waking brain with the 2016 election. I knew nature would be sacrificed. Looking at my then-1-year-old, this felt like a hand around my throat.

Now, as human lungs labor across the globe, Earth has a reprieve. The Himalayas peek, unobscured by curtains of city smog. For a brief moment in the continuum of human destruction, a virus hit a pause button on us. The lonely filling station in town advertises gas at $1.48 a gallon. How low could the prices go? I wonder. Cars remain in the driveway, and billions of years of fossilized matter remains in the ground. Fewer particles choke the air.    

The planet’s future feels less grim, and in my tiny bubble this relieves more anxiety than Covid-19 produces. Could we collectively imagine that future without the suffering? Transfixed by the river, I have watched islands of ice break apart and thaw with each passing day, the geese announcing their victorious arrival in flying V formations. In the forest, seedlings take root around decaying birch trees, frogs croak sounds of a new season. With death comes life.

By confining us, the virus sends us inward. The killer becomes the universal muse, cracking open our minds and offering us new stories to tell. Anyone who has the luxury to reflect must at least acknowledge this moment of opportunity.

* * *

By month three of quarantine, those here who have yet to suffer a devastating personal loss appear to be adjusting. Like Alice falling down Wonderland’s well, we recognize our shattered reality. Familiarity with the Reaper offers us each a chance to start anew. As hibernation wanes, we can put one foot in front of the other and build a mosaic out of the shards. New projects arise; movements are born. People talk about revolutions.

In the forest, my now 4-year-old daughter finds a message, a painted rock hidden inside a dead tree trunk. On it is written the word breathe. She tells me she is going to leave it there, for nature. Yes, nature does need to breathe. She is our ventilator, after all. 

After years meandering this river’s edge, mosquitoes gnawing at my neck, ticks crawling up my scratched, muddy calf, I begin to understand the difference between living inside fear and living alongside it. Reassurance arrives in simple moments. A song lyric spontaneously crystallizes a thought and releases me from worry. Two bald eagles soar overhead just as, in the midst of a conversation, I mention my two late cousins, one having died of AIDS, the other of cancer. Timed just right, such occurrences stop me in my tracks, leave me dumbfounded. They remind me in the darkest hours that nature—this force that exists both inside and outside of us—hands us a kaleidoscope to see reality differently. Enables us to imagine what we cannot yet see, but might co-create. I walk, one foot in front of the other, soaking in the infinite hues of green.

Vasia Markides is a Cypriot-American artist, filmmaker, and activist. A painter by origin, Vasia is now director of the documentary Waking Famagusta and founder of The Famagusta Ecocity Project, an internationally recognized effort that aims to unite Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots in reclaiming the occupied ghost town of Famagusta, and reviving it as a model ecocity. She also freelances as a video producer in the US and abroad. Vasia participated in the Kopkind/Center for Independent Documentary Film Camp in 2018.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on July 1, 2020 on The Nation magazine’s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Truth in Every Joke

Lauren LoGiudice, an actor and comedian, typically creates characters from life experience. Below, “Spoiled Brat on the Beach”.

Lauren was a participant in Kopkind’s 2009 CineSlam mini-camp, organized around lgbtq film shorts. You can check out her characters and varied projects here. For the past few years she has also been doing impressions of Melania Trump in darkly comic short videos, public performances, and shows. She has a new book out: Inside Melania: What I Learned About Melania Trump by Impersonating Her.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 13

30 06 2020

by Jewelle Gomez

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

(photo: D. Sabin)

Something’s Happening Here

Oakland

I am deeply urban. My shoes, clothes, eyeglasses, are all assembled with an understanding of how they relate to pavement, changeable weather, and the glare bouncing off city buildings. From Boston to New York City to San Francisco and Oakland, I’ve felt perfectly attuned to the cityscape. But with quarantine, everything went askew, as if I turned a corner into the Twilight Zone.

We’d lived in Oakland for only several months before I left in January for New York City, where my play about Alberta Hunter was enjoying a successful run—an engagement that ended just before the coronavirus landed with both feet in the US. I returned to Oakland as the city was gearing up for lockdown. I thought this would be fortuitous; I’d write endlessly, perhaps in all genres. We had masks. We had access to food. I could read books for unending hours and watch movies and television shows til dawn. The money we previously spent on eating out, going to plays and movies we’d donate to relief efforts.

I have friends who have been teetering on the edge not of armed rebellion but of despondency. I restricted myself to one broadcast news show, allowing my anxiety to be channeled through the erudite rantings of Rachel Maddow as I pondered who cut her hair. I felt a warm spark at seeing other people’s homes in Zoom interviews of political/medical/legal experts. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s vast freezer of ice cream! Stacey Abrams’ bookshelf with a copy of The Night Tiger, a novel I’d been on the verge of ordering! I felt connected to them.

I couldn’t, however, reconnect with myself. Inertia settled around me like the fog I’d left behind in San Francisco—I couldn’t see the pen in my hand in front of my face. Sunny weather filled my days as camelia blossoms burst forth in the backyard. Birds trilled safely as if they knew they could mesmerize our indoor cats.

But if I read for more than three hours my eyes went blurry. My back rebelled from sitting, although I was only halfway through 10 seasons of the British detective series Vera. Even with my totally non-green thumb I was rewarded by my verdant backyard, a profusion of calla lilies, birds of paradise, and the struggling fuchsia I’d rescued from a plastic bin bag. After dutifully watering, though, I couldn’t just sit and watch them grow.

Something was missing: the ebb and flow of traffic; voices and laughter when people walked by, and any number of sounds that had underscored my life in the city. I enjoy the click of a cricket as much as the next person, but the roll of tires slowing for the STOP sign at the corner had always been the click track of my life.

So, I retreated to the little cottage office in our backyard in search of my own rhythms. I fell into them almost by accident. I’ve been a longtime fan of the British radio soap opera “The Archers,” so I tuned in and was immediately soothed by various English accents, the evocation of a world continuing on. I couldn’t write anyway, so I used listening to the radio online as a time to clear out the boxes still cluttering my office since we’d moved. And here’s where I found what was missing.  

A fragment of history tumbling out of the author’s archive

In the little cottage, once I’d disposed of the recycling that we humans tend to box up and lug from home to home, I dove into a large box of photographs. There I was aged 9 in my tap-dancing costume; there was the past tumbling out: my youthful great grandmother; my best friend and I looking unbelievably dewy at our high school graduation; a group of feminist poets after a benefit reading; my first publisher and I when we were young enough to stand up all day at the American Booksellers Association; a clipping from the fight against the New York Times over its coverage of AIDS; and a kaleidoscope of handsome women with whom I’d been lovers over the previous 40 years.

Nancy Bereano, founder of Firebrand Books, and Jewelle at the American Booksellers Association

That was what had been missing—being deeply sunk into myself and a history that had always been sweet and dangerous, creatively rebellious and persistent in the face of grief and greed. I started to feel the heartbeat emerging from within. The city sounds, my natural (or learned) soundtrack, were really only the background, like elevator music. The faces and memories were pulses reconnecting me to the well of emotion and ideas that sparked my life and my writing. They were the jumpstart I had needed. 

The author’s great grandmother, Grace, 1897

Once the engine turned over, I figured out how to divide my day into past, present, and future. Now I spend some time continuing to organize old treasures whose roots in last century’s battles against oppression keep me upright. For the future I investigate what nonprofits could use my support to defeat voter suppression—again, as we did in the 1960s; or to find safe places for those without shelter; or gather food for out-of-work parents. (I also plan what to wear when I do return to those urban sounds, and finally get to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first gay liberation march on its 51st anniversary.) With the past and the future regular parts of my day, the now feels more compelling; change seems more possible. Now I’ll get back to my new play if it still wants me.

Jewelle Gomez is the author of The Gilda Stories, now in its 27th year in print and recently optioned for a TV miniseries. Her plays about James Baldwin and about Alberta Hunter have been produced on both coasts. She is a member of Kopkind’s honorary board.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared June 24, 2020, on The Nation site. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Letter From Peter Linebaugh (Archival)

On June 29 the Supreme Court declined to hear a death penalty case, thus allowing the government to proceed with the legalized killing of four men in July, the first federal executions in 17 years. What follows is an excerpt from a letter by Peter Linebaugh, written at another crossroads of epidemic, police violence and execution. The letter originally appeared in Socialist Review No. 177, July/August 1994. With thanks to the Socialist Review Archive.

Protesters in front of the Supreme Court, right before their arrest, 2017 (photo: JP Keenan/Sojourners)

When the state kills one person, it is preparing the killing of two. When it kills two, it is preparing the way to kill three. And with three, it prepares to get ready to kill many. Perhaps these changes are not arithmetic; perhaps they are geometric. Or perhaps they are without a mathematical pattern at all. But what is clear is that the death of one leads to the death of many by hook or by crook.

Those who favoured the Vietnam War argued by analogy with a line of upright dominoes. We may put forward a domino theory of the death penalty. One domino knocks over another, and then another and another in a clattering series of collapses, until none are left standing. The death penalty is the first domino. It is followed by another. This second domino might be, let us say, the more frequent informal shoot outs by the police. A third might be a public health disaster where certain populations are deliberately left to die. A fourth might be a massacre for purposes of terrorising a city or a region. A fifth might be the slow enervation of wage reductions and unemployment that inescapably leads to fatal wasting away. Life is devalued.

We might also compare the death penalty to the thin edge of a wedge. A small tap with the hammer is enough to lodge that thin edge into the thick section of the toughest tree trunk. Another blow of the hammer finds a space among the fibres, and a third blow widens it. Afterwards it is only a question of the number of blows from the sledge required to split the trunk in twain. The death of one leads to the death of many.

In Hitler’s Germany the Reichstag Fire Decree of 1933 imposing the death penalty led to others, like the Law for the Protection of German Blood, the Law on Dangerous Habitual Criminals, or the Decree on Asocial Elements which culminated in the death camps of the 1940s. The wedge widened, from the death of one, to a genocide, all in a decade.

Looking at the US states which have reinstituted the death penalty, can we not see that subsequent to the death penalty is the growth of other forms of social morbidity – gang violence, family violence, police violence, tuberculosis, AIDS?

The US Congress is about to make a mighty turn of the screw as it begins hearings on the expansion of the Federal Death Penalty. They are considering 50 new capital offences.

. . .

The state’s brief [in a case] at the Supreme Court of Connecticut … proposed a truly loathsome sentiment. ‘When we lose the collective “nerve” to act, however unpleasant the action required, we sow the seeds of anarchy.’ This notion is profoundly foul. It is the idea that lay behind President Clinton’s personal attendance upon the execution of Ricky Ray Rector in February 1992, and which prepared so directly his victory in the New Hampshire primaries. It is the notion of blood sacrifice. The politician must prove his readiness to kill. It is revolting in every possible way. It is the law of the tyrant; it is the practice of the bully.

Peter Linebaugh is a radical historian. His books include The London Hanged, The Many Headed Hydra and, most recently, Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He was a mentor at Kopkind in 2014 and a guest speaker in 2019.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 11

15 06 2020

by Jon Crawford

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

(photo: Jon Crawford)

Something’s Happening Here

Mountain View, California

It turned out to be an Arkansas-sized dog in a California-sized apartment, so I asked my landlord to pull up the remains of last season’s tomato bushes to ease the recreations of the foster hound. I didn’t plant the tomatoes. The patio’s concrete had stopped at a freshly tilled plot, but they grew—volunteers—from generations of fertile farmland.

“Distraction,” says the dog trainer, who is standing six feet away from me, the scent of Purell bathing her fingers. “Distraction. It is one of three key elements to training a dog.”

I understand distraction. It’s California’s biggest product, along with food. Social media has perfected distraction. TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, even the news, pinged directly to your phone, snapping your focus away from what’s in front of you. I live in Santa Clara County, the first US epicenter for Covid-19, and have a job in Silicon Valley. Until the crisis, with my three meals usually served at work, I didn’t venture much outside the work-to-home routine. Then suddenly the place felt as if everyone and the redwood trees were holding their breath. BARK! The dog at the end of the leash has seen the only other dog and is entranced with a desire to say hello.

“No pulling,” the trainer commands. The dog had gone too far. “Distance,” the second rule to training a dog.

Distraction helps curb bad behavior in a dog. Say it sees a squirrel; it becomes excited, even anxious, therefore it cannot concentrate on your request. Because we want to control the dog, for its safety and our peace of mind, we lure its attention away with a high-value treat, cheese or sausage, something special. We make sure a dog understands distance because the dog knows when you can’t see it, and if not properly trained, when your back is turned it might become unreliable.

An affluent county, we listened to the experts, the scientists, and prepared for the curve even before state mandates. At first, sheltering in place felt like a cozy day inside. Almost like one of those looping low-fi music videos, mellow beats with an illustrated fox in a sweater doing homework filling the screen, anxiety curated away. Until, RING! My parents call. The virus hit Arkansas. There is no shelter in place. The curve goes up. Doordash doesn’t deliver out there, not where they live. Wholefoods, nope; it doesn’t either. Who in the family is the healthiest and can risk going into town? RING! My sister in Toronto, asks the same question. What can I do? A simple video call, a simulation.

The leash, when tugged, is tight and choking. The dog returns, no longer chasing the scent of the other dog, or the smell of the soil between the cracks of the concrete. “Duration,” the trainer says, is the foundation of training: start small and add time.

I’ve been here over three years, in Mountain View, with predictably pleasant weather, not like Little Rock, where the humidity hangs like a comforter, both oppressive and consoling. When you live in a place designed to make the world seem closer, the city itself starts to lose its sense of regionality. Now regionality starts to matter. A sense of place, a culture made by the habits of people, gathering, cooking, watching, and holding each other, together. The feeling of being home, of knowing a spot no one else knows, knowing someone. Here, at this moment, a city full of people from all over the world, who connect the world, but whom I have rarely ever seen, can feel sterile.

The dog learned to sit nearly in an instant. But she won’t hold it. Not for long. This is because I wasn’t paying attention to when I would give her praise. Timing matters.

Training is really the study of behavior. Something this town knows well. At some point, when no one is looking, when we have waited for the appropriate time, I hope we will give chase, slip the leash, and jump up into each other’s arms—without a word of reprimand. We will remember what it felt like to be in our first bar, to see a film with others, to eat in a small diner, or hear live music, we will remember to wander off the leash and find new smells, celebrating the places and people that allow us to gather. Or, perhaps, we will remain where we are, well trained, our behavior acceptable, content with distraction, able to be left alone.

Jon Crawford is a documentary filmmaker, working in the Bay Area and often the American South. He participated in film camp, a collaboration between Kopkind and the Center for Independent Documentary, in 2018 and 2019.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared June 10, 2020, on The Nation site. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Poster From Alex Melamid

Copy, print, post (legally, of course). And kindly wear your mask, don’t throw it.

Alex Melamid is a Russian-born artist, an emigré to New York, where he has lived and worked since the 1970s. In the Soviet Union he was instrumental, with Vitaly Komar and others, in the Sots art movement (a parallel to pop art in the West). Komar and Melamid were a creative team until 2003. One of their projects, “The People’s Choice,” about popular dreams of art and the funny thing about opinion polls, was chronicled in JoAnn Wypijewski’s Painting By Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art. Alex was a virtual guest speaker at Kopkind when that was unusual, in 2016.





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.

(photo: Tristan Call)

Somethings Happening Here

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.





Kopkind’s CineSLAM 2011

6 06 2011

June 17 and 18 in VermontYou can register at our webstie for our two sessions of Kopkind CineSLAM short films. Our opening night is in Brattleboro on June 17th at 7pm and our second session is in the barn in Guilford. More information at the CineSLAM site on films and events surrounding the festival. This year we have created a special package for those coming out of town with the Latchis Hotel and you can get their telephone number at the website… so we hope people from far and near will join us for this specail Kopkind event in Vermont! http://www.cineslam.com