SCENES FROM A PANDEMIC
Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration, continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe it. This piece originally appeared on July 8, 2020, on The Nation‘s website and July 14 on the Kopkind blog. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.
by Makani Themba
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.
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 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.
Kopkind is a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was The Nation’s chief political writer and analyst. For 20 years, the project, administered by Andy’s life partner, John Scagliotti, has held summer seminar/retreats to support and spark the work of political journalists, activists and, with the Center for Independent Documentary, filmmakers. “Only connect,” Andy liked to say, an idea that Kopkind fosters among groups that are diverse in identity and area of work but for whom dynamics of power and liberation, in their many forms, are always central.