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)

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