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: 19

10 08 2020

by Judith Levine

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

Unconstrained by mask requirements, customers may pick up a handgun or a case of Covid-19. (photo: Judith Levine)

Something’s Happening Here

Hardwick, Vermont

Like a lot of people my age—pushing 68—I don’t usually feel old. Now it turns out I am. Among the ways my body is aging is its decreased production of “fresh naïve T cells” (or, probably, fresh naive anything). This makes me more susceptible to contracting Covid-19, and if I do, to dying.

This fact sensitizes me to the uneven, and politicized, state of mask wearing in my town. In the food co-op, the scoops for bulk foods—grains, granola, nuts—are used once and collected in a box. No such precautions at Rite Way Sports, where customers are free to pick up a container of night crawlers, a Beretta M9 semiautomatic handgun, or a case of Covid-19.

To many around here, the virus is an abstraction. Caledonia County, among the most rural in the state, has had 26 cases—less than one in 100,000—and no deaths. In all of Vermont, just over 1,450 people have sickened and 58 died. As elsewhere, the dying are old. Only four have been under 60.

Sidelined by rural isolation and elderly caution, I watch videos of the Black Lives Matter uprisings and police brutality and federal military invasions and feel my emotions swinging between radical hope and apocalyptic terror. Hope inspired by the diversity and militancy of the protesters; terror, by the flash-bangs and teargas and an awareness of the future these young folks face. I note they almost all wear masks, acknowledgement of their outsize vulnerability as black and brown people, but also, to my eyes, of concern for their elders. Tenderness overwhelms me.

Then I switch to videos of maskless twentysomethings crowding beaches and bars, and I seethe. The phrase Kids these days springs uninvited to mind.


We rarely list age among intersectional oppressions. But deep in the genocidal US pandemic, there it is. Age is a defining feature of Covid fatalities in prisons and jails. Senior workers are being slammed as hard as the youngest cohort in the economic shutdown. Age discrimination means most elders won’t work again. “People who are middle-class workers now will be poor or near-poor retirees for the rest of their lives.”


Such mixed feelings are not rare among my contemporaries; the rigidly disapproving oldster is a caricature. Yet how easily we can be caricatured. Here is the usually nuanced political analyst, labor and health care historian Gabriel Winant, in “Coronavirus and Chronopolitics,” in n+1:

There is a great contradiction embodied in the facts that the virus is fundamentally a threat to the old; that this threat has been magnified enormously by the incompetence and malice of the ruling regime; and that the old are the primary mass political constituency of that regime. The coincidence in time of the outbreak of coronavirus in the United States and the crushing of Bernie Sanders’s bid to democratize our health system and face the related crisis of climate change—a defeat inflicted through extreme generational polarization—intensifies this contradiction further. The young are trying to save the old, as well as themselves; the old are trying to kill the young, as well as themselves.

Emphasis mine, as in, WTF, Gabe?

Winant quotes sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen, coiner of chronopolitics: “As the necessity of financial cuts mounts, the need for trade-offs mounts.”

What “necessity” for cuts and trade-offs? You mean austerity?

Adds Winant: “The old have formed into battalions to mount a defense of the predatory and destructive capitalism we have known.”

What battalions? The AARP?

In fact, as older Americans drop dead from the coronavirus, the economic shutdown is slamming senior workers as hard as the youngest cohort. Age discrimination means most elders won’t work again. Drawing down savings or going into debt, “people who are middle-class workers now will be poor or near-poor retirees for the rest of their lives,” says economist Teresa Ghilareducci.

“Entitlements” don’t go far. In 2019, a third of Social Security recipients relied solely, or almost solely, on that benefit, which averaged $1,461 a month. Medicare, deducted from a person’s Social Security but increasingly privatized, costs more and covers less. Out-of-pocket bills consume, on average, 40 cents of each dollar of recipients’ income; by age 85, the portion rises to three-quarters. A 2013 analysis predicted that the ranks of the homeless old would swell by a third between 2010 and 2020. What now?

We rarely list age among intersectional oppressions. But deep in the genocidal US pandemic, there it is. Why are 48 of the top 50 Covid clusters prisons and jails? It’s not only racial health disparities and overcrowding, says the Marshall Project. Because of ever-longer sentences, inmates over 55 make up a larger share of state prison populations than those 24 and under. Chronic illnesses render them easy marks for Covid-19.


History makes us, not age.


“The young are not interested in reducing old-age benefits but rather increasing other ones,” says Winant. But who are ‘the young’? Paul Ryan, elected to Congress at 29, spent his career trying to feed the poor and the old into the jaws of Republican swamp creatures. Neil Gorsuch, corporate proxy on the Supreme Court, is a Gen-Xer.

Alicia Garza is the same age as Jared Kushner, 39. Angela Davis is two years older than Mitch McConnell. The young people crowding the beaches are not the young people being gassed in the streets.

Winant concludes with a call to solidarity: “Our survival depends upon resolving the antagonisms that have separated us and joining together against the regime of capital accumulation that has brought us to this precipice.” Yet having condemned his elders for starting the fight, he doesn’t absolve them.

Similarly, Vermont’s governor, amid paeans to protecting “our” elders, declares the state’s aging population a “crisis.” Voters are never told why an older populace—that is, increasingly, themselves—is the problem, especially given that in the coming de-pression their Social Security checks may be the one reliable source of state revenues.

I come not to praise, or plead for, my generation. But, younger comrades, don’t blame us for the policies that will bury us—or you. History makes us, not age. No generation holds greater claim to justice or greater responsibility for attaining it.

Judith Levine’s latest book, with Erica Meiners, is The Feminist and the Sex Offender: Confronting Sexual Harm, Ending State Violence (Verso). Judith was a special guest at Kopkind in 2006.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on August 5, 2020 on The Nation‘s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: With Love From Chicago/Cuba

From Chicago, Alex Halkin sent us another short film made with Cuban artists.

Alex and Ivette Avila, the film’s soundtrack editor (and, with Ramiro Zardoya, a central figure in the Cuban collaborative), write:

The Cuban animation series Creation Collective in Quarantine (Creación Colectiva en Cuarentena) arose, as its name suggests, amid isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. The mostly Cuban artists who have collaborated—musicians, plastic artists, dancers, filmmakers, and children—aim to document the moods, the creativity in confinement, nightmares . . . in short, what people are feeling and experiencing in these times of pain, uncertainty, reimagining, and—why not?—hopes of change To date, the group has produced six animated shorts.

Once upon a time in Chicago/Erase una vez en Chicago starts with footage shot by Alexandra Halkin of the dysfunctional and half-empty city in quarantine. The animations fill the video with lyricism, poetry, new insights, and meanings. This is the second animated collaboration Alexandra has done with the group. The first one, Ojos/Eyes, released last April (and posted on Kopkind’s site on May 4), was about a dream Alexandra had about a four eyed dog: https://vimeo.com/406941038.

Alexandra Halkin, a US documentary filmmaker, participated in the Kopkind/Center for Independent Documentary film camp in 2014. In 2010, she founded the Americas Media Initiative (AMI), a nonprofit that produces, distributes, and screens film and video made in the Americas by community media organizations and independent filmmakers, particularly Cubans living in Cuba. Her own films have been shown at film and video festivals worldwide. For more on AMI’s Cuban film catalogue, click here.





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.