Scenes From a Pandemic: 18

3 08 2020

by Najla Said

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

Mural on the apartheid wall in Occupied Palestine. (photo: Abeer Salman)

Something’s Happening Here

New York City

March. I remember Beirut in 2005, after a car bomb went off, trying not to go near parked cars, and stopping, hyperventilating, catching my breath, and drilling into my brain: “Keep walking, keep going; you can’t control it; you have to keep going.” I need to do this now, here.

Having spent my childhood between Beirut during two wars and NYC in the 1970s–’80s, I have learned to be prepared. I tell myself, “I fear nothing and live for human solidarity.”

Half my Pilates clients are away, some are over 70 and canceled out of fear, and the rest just don’t think it’s a good idea right now. I am officially income-less. My production of Palestine in Chicago will be pushed back at least two to three weeks as of now. I have waited 10 years for a theater to want to do my play again. Now I’m pretty sure it ain’t happening.

I’m making a pink glittery unicorn T-shirt for my niece. I have no problem staying busy. I don’t feel like I have ADHD anymore, because without the confines of other people’s structure, I can do things at my own rhythm.

My shrink says that many traumas will be reactivated during this crisis and asks me how I am doing.

“This is kind of like Beirut, but easier.”

“Oh right. Well, for you it’ll be easier, then.”

I predict the return of telephone calls. I hope no one calls me. I’m an introvert; I hate the phone.

In the store the guy behind me has a cart filled with bottled water. “You must be Lebanese,” I say.

He laughs. “How can you tell?”

“The bottled water.”

There is no need to stock up on water in New York, but that is what Lebanese people do.

I tell people that niqabs (veils over the mouth and nose) were originally worn in the desert to keep sand out of people’s faces, just as masks now are supposed to keep the virus out of our mouth and nose. I explain that Arabs invented soap and the word “quarantine.” No one cares.

There were 6,000 911 calls in the city yesterday. In Beirut, I would hear bombs and artillery fire, and then the sirens. Here it is just sirens. Which is eerie, more unsettling.


Diary of a crisis: nothing is happening; everything is happen-ing. Month after month. I am income-less. I keep busy. I fear nothing, and many things. I feel I am living in a Beckett play.


April. My birthday. My cousins organized a Zoom call for me, and people rang me on the phone. I made a cake. I sang “Miss Mary Mack” with my niece, talked to my nephew, and virtually jumped on a trampoline with my goddaughter. Expect nothing, do nothing, no pressure—perfection.

I’ve knit five scarves. I make pudding, even though I don’t eat pudding.

CNN keeps saying that other countries have more beds in ICU and better medical systems to respond to the virus: “Why? It’s a long story.”

I want to scream, “Socialized medicine! Duh!”

Easter is soon. Maybe Jesus will come back and fix this mess.

For many Americans feeling unsafe is too much. But the whole world lives this way all the time. American exceptionalism needs to die and stay dead.

Meanwhile, I am living in a Beckett play, making up things to do and say so that I exist. There is something satisfying about that.

May. George Floyd is dead.

“Mama, Mama…”

My heart shatters.

My nephew changes his Instagram profile pic to one of John Carlos with his fist in the air, and shares a photo of the George Floyd mural on the wall in Palestine. The kids are alright.


I think about the importance of breath, and breadth. I worry about all that gets left out in our politics. I seem to be out of place. I’m Palestinian and Lebanese; I’m a New Yorker. I tell myself, ‘Keep walking, keep going.’


June. Between the virus and George Floyd’s death, I think about the importance of breath.

I make connections with Palestine, explaining that the IDF trains our cops, that the move used to kill Mr. Floyd is from Krav Maga. I’ve been told that expressing Palestinian solidarity is “co-opting” the black struggle. I should be quiet.

Cornel West keeps mentioning Edward Said on TV. I’m grateful, because no one seems to know that my father’s work helped us get to this point.

I’m glad people are getting radicalized, but I worry about all that gets left out. I worry about the inability to make connections.

I wonder where I fit in this new BIPOC acronym. I just got chased down the street by a nutjob who screamed that I’m a stupid white bitch who doesn’t care about Black lives.

“I’m Palestinian!” I yell, for all the Upper West Side to hear.

“Yeah, bitch, and I’m Cherokee.”

What. The. Fuck.

I am not Black. Or Indigenous. Am I POC? I never seem to have a place here.

A nice gay boy asks if I’m OK.

Happy Pride.

July. Extroverts text and call too much; they need to call other extroverts.

Outside New York, no one wants to wear a mask. Almost everywhere else in the world, people value community. Here it’s the individual, who always seems to be complaining.

We have another family Zoom call—relatives in Beirut, New York, South Carolina, Connecticut, London, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle—my mom’s generation, my generation, the kids.

My cousin, on his way to Beirut, stops at different ATMS to bring cash and medicine to family members. Lebanon is in free fall for other reasons, but still they test everyone on the plane before and after the flight; anyone who tests positive is sent to a hotel for two weeks. That seems like the proper way to do things.

I kind of loved lockdown at the beginning. Now some days the silence is too much and I just cry.

Nothing is happening; everything is happening.

I am invisible. I am exhausted.

“You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Najla Said is an actor and playwright, and the author of Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family (Riverhead Books). In 2010, Kopkind presented a staged reading of her one-woman play, Palestine.

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

Bonus: A Song by and for Nurses

A nurse on a Covid ward in Teheran. (photo: Mohammad Ghadamali/AP Photo)

In New York the 7 pm clapping for nurses and other health care workers stopped months ago. It was always more a ritual for the benefit of those in lock-down; it told us we weren’t alone. Nursing has become symbolic, but let’s honor the work. The WHO, the International Council of Nurses (INC), and Nursing Now recently reported that worldwide there is a shortage of six million nurses–especially affecting the Global South–and deep income disparities. The INC has made a music video in recognition of the work and the people everywhere who do it. In Kopkind’s immediate family, one of those people is Dave Hall, our longtime operations manager and cook, John Scagliotti’s partner, our brother, and a psychiatric nurse in Vermont. For Dave and all nurses of the world: “I Am a Nurse.”





Scenes From a Pandemic: 16

19 07 2020

by Renee Bracey Sherman

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

We Testify abortion storytellers rally at Supreme Court for June Medical Services v. Russo oral arguments, March 2020.  (photo: We Testify)

Something’s Happening Here

Washington, D.C.

Last November, I drove more than 12 hours for an abortion. It wasn’t mine (I had mine in 2005); I picked up a young woman in rural Pennsylvania whom I’ll call Raquel. She needed a ride to a clinic in Maryland to get some pills that she would take back at her home to have a medication abortion. As we drove to the clinic, I told Raquel about what to expect during the appointment; after I finished I paused and said, “As much as I love getting to know you on this drive, did you know you could safely do this at home but the government won’t let you?” She was surprised. Like many people, she knew about limitations on abortion but didn’t know that very safe and basic methods are being restricted because of outdated FDA regulations on how they can be dispensed. The drive bonded us—we still keep in touch, and she approved the inclusion of her story here—but it was an unnecessary exercise, one that antiabortion politicians created to make yet another constitutional right as inaccessible as possible. The cruelty of the barricades along the journey is the point.

Since Covid-19 hit, I’ve thought a lot about that drive with Raquel, particularly as people have reached out needing abortions. States have limited travel, issued stay-at-home orders, and required people to quarantine for at least two weeks. While several states declared abortion an essential service, others exploited the pandemic to shutter clinics. The future we have worried about was upon us in an instant. Patients had appointments canceled. Those who could afford it, or who knew about abortion funds, were able to travel to other states for care. The moment was both unprecedented and familiar. The uselessness of our nation’s health care system was showing, and became even more burdensome on abortion patients.

In a just society, Raquel (or anyone wanting an abortion but anxious about contracting Covid-19) could have ordered the necessary pills via telemedicine, online, or at a pharmacy, and completed the abortion at home. That’s the way many people around the world do abortion, because it’s incredibly safe and simple. That’s how Americans once did it. Concoctions were advertised in newspapers and shipped through the mail, or herbs such as pennyroyal and black cohosh root were made into teas. But since the late 1800s, abortion has been deeply criminalized, and if Raquel had ordered the pills online, she and the person who sent them would have risked prosecution and jail.


Covid-19 has brought a taste of what life would be like if abortions were illegal, but then it always has been, in some form… What kind of nation allows people to be prosecuted for health care?


Recently, Polish abortion activists reminded me that all of our laws governing abortion actually promote criminalization. (To be sure, those are different from medical practice regulations that ensure procedures are performed correctly.) Rules dictate how, when, where, and why someone can have an abortion, and mandate a series of physical and legal barriers one must cross. Wait too long because you can’t afford the procedure? You can be criminalized. Take pills at home with a parent because you couldn’t afford a procedure? You both can be criminalized. Have a miscarriage, but a doctor thinks you self-managed an abortion? You can be criminalized. It doesn’t matter whether the rules are medically necessary or just, and of course, enforcement and punishment are significantly more severe with overpoliced communities of color and those who live in poverty.

What kind of nation allows people to be prosecuted for health care?

On July 13, just as this article was nearing publication, a federal judge issued an injunction on in-person requirements for dispensing pills necessary for a medication abortion, saying they create a “substantial obstacle” for patients, and may be an unconstitutional undue burden during a pandemic. The ruling allows providers to mail or deliver the pills to patients—an important step, however temporary, in juris-prudence and in people’s lives.

But this moment has radicalized me. I’ve never supported restrictions—I’ve ex-perienced the panic they create when I was unsure if I could afford an abortion—but I’ve realized that it’s time for us to push for decriminalization of abortion and the abolition of all abortion restrictions. There is no medical necessity for any of these laws restricting abortion. They just create a tightrope for people to fall from and then invite the police into the experience.

As Black Lives Matter protests have swept our country, we are having a national dialogue about the spaces and places police hang around to control black and brown people—schools, hospitals, grocery stores, coffee shops, and our homes. Police are heavily involved in our inability to exercise reproductive freedom; they brutalize us while pregnant; spray us with tear gas, which can affect our fertility; arrest people who choose to terminate a pregnancy outside of the narrow confines of the law; shoot our children; and shackle us during labor. We deserve police-free pregnancies. This is why the fight for reproductive justice is critical. It addresses systemic issues that have long prevented families of color from thriving on our own terms. It’s worth recalling that antiabortion white supremacists pivoted from rallying for school segregation to protesting abortion; they want to control our futures.

If we are serious about protecting abortion access, we have to become serious about the fight to abolish abortion laws. Our ancestors worked hard to ensure we had access to abortion to space our pregnancies, save our lives, and free us from the rape and violence of chattel slavery. It is in their tradition that we must continue to make abortion free and available, whenever and wherever someone needs it.

Covid-19 brought a taste of what life would be like if abortion were illegal again, but it always has been in some form through the criminalization of black and brown bodies. I hope that more people will realize that to have reproductive justice, we have to take extreme efforts to decriminalize our health care, defund the police, and create communities that love people who have abortions, unapologetically.

Renee Bracey Sherman is a reproductive justice activist, abortion storyteller, strategist, and writer. She is the founder and executive director of We Testify, an organization dedicated to the leadership and representation of people who have abortions and share their stories at the intersection of race, class, and gender identity. She is also executive producer of Ours to Tell, an award-winning documentary elevating the voices of people who’ve had abortions. She was a participant in Kopkind’s 2015 political camp.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on July 15, 2020, on The Nation‘s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: ‘I Know the Price of Life’, a Radio Short From Gdansk

Maria Margaronis writes from London, with another in her series of shorts about women making masks; a slightly different version of this radio piece was broadcast on Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4, on May 14.

Khedi Alieva (l) and her sister Amina (r) in Poland, amid the forsythia. (photo: Dorota Jaworska)

I spoke to Khedi Alieva this spring with the help of translator Joanna Dabrowska, and also to her friend, psychologist Dorota Jaworska. Khedi is a Chechen refugee in Poland. She and her sister Amina are members of Fundacja Kobiety Wedrowne, which roughly translates as Foundation for Women on the Road. Khedi and Amina were welcomed to Gdansk by Pawel Adamowicz, the city’s mayor for 20 years, who was fatally stabbed on January 13, 2019, while speaking at a charity event. Adamowicz’s support for migrant, minority and lgbt+ rights ran directly counter to the policies of Poland’s increasingly reactionary Law and Justice Party, which squeaked back to power this month on the back of a nasty campaign in which President Andrzej Duda attacked gay people, Jews, and liberals, who he says are undermining Poland’s security and traditions. 

Khedi, “making masks to slow down death.” (photo: Anna Rezulak / KFP)

But Khedi and her sisters are all about solidarity, gratitude, joy, and life. When the pandemic hit, they began sewing face masks and scrubs to protect their Polish friends, taking breaks to dance to the wild rhythms of Chechen music, a sampling of which Khedi chose for this piece. “The most important thing in life is just life.”

Maria Margaronis, a writer and radio maker, is a longtime neighbor and member of the Kopkind family. She is part of Kopkind’s honorary board. Click here to listen to her documentary about the Singer sewing machine. 





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.