June 1, 2020
As I write this Preface, it’s been over two and a half months since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.
This book already feels out of date now. It is impossible to predict what human life will be like when the book is in print. Hopefully by the time you read this, there will have been a reckoning, lessons learned about our world, our society, ourselves.
As of today, COVID-19 has infected over six million people worldwide (6,229,408) – and that’s only what we know about, people who have been tested. So far, the disease has claimed 373,973 lives. In the U.S. alone, 1,799,747 cases have been confirmed to date, killing over 100,000 people. At 104,702, this is more than all U.S. deaths – military and civilian – in all wars, both declared and undeclared, since World War II (102,684). And the number of dead keeps growing.
The virus spread as quickly as people within today’s global economy. As of this writing, neither a cure nor a vaccine has been found. The public health goal has been to “flatten the curve” by limiting contact, from what was incorrectly called “social distancing” to stay-at-home orders and shutting down all but “essential” workplaces. Experience from other countries has shown that a hands-on, active approach from a central government anchored on clear messaging and consistent enforcement, and robust and equitable testing and response, has stemmed, slowed, and in some cases all but stopped the disease, yet the United States did not (and as of this writing does not) have that sort of plan in place. We have much to learnfrom local experiences everywhere.[i] COVID-19 should have ended the “debate” on universal health care, not just out of empathy but also principled, collective self-interest: truly the best way to protect me is to protect you.
Yet even the wildly inconsistent measures taken to slow transmission to within the ability of the public emergency health response to manage it from state to state – number of hospital beds, respirators, and life support – had an immediate impact on the economy. In the past few days, the number of unemployment claims in the U.S. topped 40 million people. This impact is greater than the October 1929 stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression.
Meanwhile, as tens of millions of people were forced to drastically change their way of life quickly, turning a closet into a makeshift office, or getting creative with whatever was left in the pantry, the overindulgences of consumer capitalism seemed distant… going to grocery stores risked exposure, and the shelves were often empty of basic necessities like toilet paper or flour. Driving past malls offered eerie premonitions of what archaeologists of the future might surmise about our lifestyle: our mating rituals, our sacred objects, our sorting mechanisms.
And people did adapt… in the meantime, global carbon emissions went down 17%. Bypassing corporate food conglomerates, more people turned to cooperatives, farm shares, and “victory gardens.” Mutual aid groups, Puerto Rico’s life support after Hurricane Maria,[ii] sprouted in hundreds of communities across the country.
Even forced to stay at home with limited contact, our human lives are already connected to one another. Especially in our response to catastrophes like COVID, our consumer choices impact other families. In an effort to protect their families from exposure, many people turned to online delivery services, while meanwhile workers at Amazon protested working conditions that put them at direct risk of contracting COVID. They demanded their right to take sick time because of the pandemic without being fired. Meanwhile, in the first month of the pandemic, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s net worth climbed 24 billion dollars… and it continues to grow.
As these brief examples highlight, disasters like COVID are not the “great equalizer.” Disasters unmask social inequalities normally allowed to remain hidden to many in order to maintain ideological appearances. We need bottom-up analysis that centers specificity, building on the lived embodied, raced, and gendered experience of the people most impacted.[iii] For example, for many women confronting intimate partner violence, being shuttered at home risks their further isolation and abuse. Trans or nonbinary individuals often face greater challenges of returning “home.”
The disease, while “color blind,” has disproportionally impacted people who literally can’t afford to work at home while middle-class professionals – disproportionately white – can.[iv] Who is picking up potentially infected trash, or recycling our growing number of cardboard boxes? The people performing the most dangerous labor for companies deemed “essential” making at or near minimum wage, are disproportionately African American or Latinx, often immigrants, including undocumented people. Inequities in the health care system map onto the mortality rate, which also corresponds to patterns in residential segregation. African Americans are disproportionately getting COVID-19, and even more disproportionately dying.[v]
Blackness—more to the point, anti-Blackness—is lethal in other ways, as this book attempts to show. I am writing this Preface as the country is publicly reckoning with its legacy of racial injustice. In one incident a white woman was asked to follow the established rules for Central Park and leash her dog. Christian Cooper, an African American bird watcher and board member of the local Audubon Society, pointed out that the area was a sensitive habitat for species of rare and endangered birds. Angry at being called out for not following the rules, Amy Cooper (no relation) dialed 911 and reported a dangerous Black man, weaponizing her white supremacy. The incident, recorded, could have become violent… the NYPD has a long history of violence against Black men.
Not two days later, Memorial Day, when the U.S. COVID death toll approached 100,000, in the similarly “liberal” city of Minneapolis, police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on top of 46-year old suspect George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes, 46 seconds. This was not Chauvin’s first deadly use of force.
“I can’t breathe!”
Floyd’s words, echoing Eric Garner’s, killed six years ago by an NYPD chokehold, became a rallying cry for justice. The local community, having emerged from the pandemic stay-at-home order the previous Monday, came together to share their outrage. According to my organizer colleagues who were there, the first night’s protest was large, multi-racial, passionate, energetic, and peaceful: no one was hurt, no property damaged. The full extent and explanation about what happened next – with reports of looting and violence impacting many communities – is only becoming clear, as I am writing this just a week later. The “Minneapolis Uprising” as it is already being called has inspired solidarity protests against institutional racism within the police state in dozens of cities across the U.S. and even around the world.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frye has since confirmed that the people damaging property across the city were not residents of Minneapolis. Melvin Carter, the mayor of St. Paul, Minneapolis’s “twin” city, reported that nearly all were from out of state. The commissioner of public safety confirmed the presence of white supremacist groups, who put calls on their social media for their members to loot businesses in order to incite violence and trigger a reaction. Some even spoke of a “civil war.”
It worked. Trump tweeted, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The national guard was sent in, license to kill. And just today, the commander in chief called upon the U.S. military to intervene. The coordinated actions of the open white supremacists and the occupant of the White House have made it clear that the struggle in the U.S. right now is about humanity or profit, human lives – Black human lives – versus the police-military nexus needed to uphold the inequalities foundational to racial capitalism.
I apologize if this is too blunt to begin a book, not giving time to catch your breath. I would have loved to be wrong about the ways in which these struggles are already connected. But for people of color, particularly Black people in the U.S., it’s been about, in Floyd’s words, not being able to breathe, whether from toxic waste dumps put in their segregated neighborhoods, not having enough respirators for victims of COVID-19 because the hospitals on Chicago’s South Side were shuttered a month into the pandemic, being choked by law enforcement, or being teargassed as the tweeter-in-chief’s incitement of violence emboldened people who still say they are not racist to shoot.
This book has been the most challenging, most gut-wrenching, soul-searching, ambitious writing I have ever attempted. This was a labor of love and truly arising from a powerful community of social justice warriors.
First and foremost, this book is inspired by and dedicated to activists in a range of collectives, too many to mention in the pages that follow. Three organizations in particular, named here, are particularly inspiring. I’ve always donated royalties (while except for the documentary, they’ve never amounted to much), and never named the, as I’ve always considered it an obligation, the very least I could do. Given the urgency of this book I feel compelled to name them this time around: The Red Nation, Organized Communities Against Deportation, and Black Youth Project-100.
This has been the most difficult book I have ever written. It is ironic that when it finally goes to press, copy edited, with final changes made, the future is uncertain… will the civil war have begun? What is the role for principled solidarity in defending humanity on the other side? What is demanded of those of us who still have hope in humanity now is the courage to put our bodies, even and especially white bodies, in between those with guns – open-carry, white supremacists, and the blue line alike – and those defending Black lives. We need the courage to imagine that this new order can outlive the current crisis, that sustaining a solidarity economy is possible. That we don’t go back to business as usual “when this is all over.” An anthropolitics based on the contingent, specific, humanity in our differences, might then be possible. But first and foremost, we need the courage to love ourselves, and love one another.
[i] Bauer 2020
[ii] Vélez and Villarrubia 2018
[iii] Abebe 2020
[iv] Benjamin 2020; Chotiner and Hammonds 2020; Crenshaw 2020
[v] Taylor 2020