“The job of the writer is to make revolution irresistible” — Toni Cade Bambara
The American public is being told to get used to living with COVID-19. This means “we” are being asked to abide the inequalities that disallow a more robust challenge to the virus. On Jan 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a public health emergency, and our public health is now on life-support. As we near entering a third year into SARS-CoV-2, more than 5.5 million have died globally, with the most dispossessed dying disproportionately. And there is no unified national or global response. Why?
It is also Martin Luther King Jr. Day as I write, and I started the day listening to his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech. He implores us to not “adjust to injustice”; reminds us of the “fierce urgency of now” and that our wars create “a hell for the poor”; begs us to participate in “creative protest everywhere”; and if we do not act against militarism and corporate greed, the choice will be our own “non-existence.” He ends by quoting FDR: “the only thing to fear is fear itself.” What an ominous warning, still, all these decades later. COVID makes time seem as though it has stopped, but time blasts forward.
The climate crisis exposes the inequities that countries confront COVID with. The intensity of this time is punishing, yet also promises a greater visibility to see harms if we allow ourselves. The earth is screaming at us with fires and storms, floods and droughts. Police brutality, especially in the U.S., is exposed at such a rate that nothing less than abolition of racism is plausible. Maybe every difficult historical moment seems im/possible — but this is the one we inhabit.
It feels like each injustice implodes on the next. Everything is more interconnected and exposed than ever. The excesses of unfairness in almost every realm uncover the madness of our electoral system — voting and the electoral college — to the point that democracy can no longer be used as a workable shield. The U.S. has never been a democracy if you include the Native Americans who were massacred and resettled and Blacks who were enslaved at the start. This core, so importantly re-exposed by Nikole Hannah Jones’ “1619 Project,” demands a revisioning, once again, that liberal/legal democracy is no democracy at all. It rather encodes the racist misogyny making real equality impossible. Trump is just the symptom. Democrats who are still beholden to this corporate capitalist structuring of racist misogyny define the architecture of our present system. A simple truth: 1,700 Congressmen enslaved Black people — slave holders made our laws. This is “who we are.”
The present crisis of patriarchal/racist liberalism is expressed in the inadequate policies of Biden and the democrats. Trump’s misogynist mob and racist hooligans — the white supremacist, militarist, and aggressive combatants of January 6 — are serious challenges to our teetering system. Biden and center democrats have no alternatives to the present chaos about voting, abortion, face masks, testing, or vaccine production for the globe because they have no intention of de-stabilizing their seat of power — even though it is totally unstable.
So, many of us want an abolitionist president — and a society that will rebuild ourselves from the ground up. The work of Angela Davis, Ruthie Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, and so many others for the last four decades, have made this discovery possible.
Today it is clearer than ever that punishment derives from ableism, patriarchy, misogyny, climate disaster, land appropriation, and settler colonialism. And when the re-building is done, we won’t need prisons and punishment; we will need reciprocity and love.
How can Biden protect or create democracy when he remains beholden to the very capitalist interests that profit so egregiously from COVID? The vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna make $65,000 every minute after being subsidized by taxpayer dollars. Oxfam announced that there is an explosion of inequality during COVID. A new billionaire is created every 17 hours; there are now 56 new billionaires in the U.S. since the pandemic started. The ten richest men on the globe have doubled their fortunes while so many face hunger and eviction. The structures of exploitation must be dismantled and reconstructed in the interests of public health. But Biden evades confrontation in all he does.
Biden offered the Build Back Better bill, but then bifurcated and separated the so-called “hard” and “soft” infrastructure. “Soft infrastructure” was a first for recognizing that sexual and domestic labor of care is part of the core economy. This was a key move — to recognize women’s labor and the need for day care as essential to production and the economy. But this was quickly abandoned, and the BBB bill became the old kind of economic planning — rebuilding roads and bridges and broadband and hardwired things.
The separate soft infrastructure bill, about health care, day care, and the less recognized (but essential) part of the economy is dropped. So, both theoretically and pragmatically, patriarchy and misogyny are sidelined and kept invisible once again. How wearying this all is. When Congress votes for a bill that ignores day care, healthcare, etc., it just reproduces the old that doesn’t work. A blind eye to misogyny cannot protect it because women’s labor has always been essential to racialized capitalism, but with COVID, it has become even more essential.
Biden focuses on the Freedom to Vote Act, rather than the equality to vote. The filibuster and the electoral college that was created to protect Southern slave interests should be ended. And the vote must truly be made accessible to everyone equally — no matter race, sex, gender, or class. It is time. Remember that the electoral arena is not the starting point of democracy, people’s lived lives are. So liberal democracy covers a lie and is more exposed than ever in this COVID moment.
It is also time to stop pretending that the Supreme Court is apolitical, and that its justices, 3 of them to be exact, should have ever been appointed. Remove them for lying about their stance to Roe v. Wade. Enact the Women’s Health Protection Act! It is time to declare this truth: no country can be called democratic if its women are denied the freedom to choose what will happen to their bodies.
Our country always has been in tension with itself between equality and freedom; equality of opportunity was supposed to resolve this and didn’t, leaving in place the unequalness of it. You need both equality and freedom, and with the focus on freedom, you just have punishing individualism — and the more isolated we become, the easier it is to think about freedom and less about equality. We need a radical freedom for equal humans.
There are new truths that are more easily seen and must guide us newly. Biden sadly encodes the old — both with his body and his established commitments. He will not assist any of these political moves. Given the Court’s decisions protecting Texas’ regulations on abortion I thought: We need a massive demonstration and boycott of our daily labor and a mass dumping of coat hangers on the steps of the Supreme Court, followed by a mass demo in D.C., culminating in a work stoppage of all essential labor, which is all of it, across the nation.
I wrote “A Manifesto of Sorts for COVID-19” on March 31, 2020. I was desperately trying to think beyond the contours of the punishing surround. I was wondering what radical progressives were waiting for. I am back here again, today, almost three years later. Omicron is the new enemy with its high contagiousness — out of control, exposing us all, vaccinated and unvaccinated. And we are told that there will be more variants. At what point do we face the truth: that the only reckoning with COVID is with an alternate political vison and governing body. We are suffering the racist misogynist capitalist form of COVID. The virus, utterly democratic in a sense in that anyone can catch it, makes clear that unequal access to vaccines and testing only reproduces the disease.
As we enter a THIRD year of this pandemic, the challenges are both old and new, and maddening. Such criminality from a government that is unwilling to stand up to the corporate medical billionaires and command production for all things necessary to end the pandemic, at home and abroad. COVID makes clear — it cannot be contained on top of grave inequities that have brought us to this moment of truth. Capitalist racist misogynist domination has run its course — both for the planet’s health and ours. There is no other way than to get a hold of the out-of-control privatization and corporatization of our lives, all of it.
Revolutionary reforms are possible. Other countries are doing better than the U.S. by curtailing inequalities through and creating access, like Costa Rica, Togo in W. Africa, Argentina to name a few. Taxing the wealthiest should be an easy beginning to creating a livable wage and affordable housing, and enabling easy access to tests and vaccines.
Imagining another way
Possibilities are to be found in practice, in doing, and in trying. We find new thoughts, new possibilities as we try. The present matters so much because possibility is found in doing, not denying. Hope is not a thing; it is alive in our actions and found there.
How does one think and grieve in anti-racist feminist ways when the surround is so racist and anti-feminist? How do you make yourself think more inclusively and broadly when your life keeps getting diminished by warnings and quarantines and fear? How do you build camaraderie when you are forced to be more and more alone?
I remind myself that I constantly must think outside my immediate surrounds. I demand that I connect outside my daily interactions. I participate in multiple movement actions. It is also why reading and thinking and listening and watching — to music and artwork and theatre — are so essential today. I am constantly trying to invent and re-invent reality, and this is a process that demands curiosity and courage.
I think back to attending the theatre event “WILD,” written by V (formerly Eve Ensler) and her amazing crew of writers, musicians, and co-creators. I was out of my seat for the song: “Be afraid and/but don’t give up. We want you to panic, We want you to act, You stole our future and we want it back!” If you are still breathing, don’t give up. “Call me Wild.” The audience grabbed the energy for the planet to take with us. (The show closed 3 days early because the cast was sick with COVID but continues to mobilize nevertheless.)
Little rebellions are going off all the time: all kinds of workers, immigrants, disabled people, radical mothers, and aunties are creating imaginative possibilities and alternate political choices. The Auntie Sewing Squad (ASS) founded by Kristina Wong, made masks right at the start of the pandemic, as soon as they realized that marginalized people, Indigenous Americans, migrants, and poor people would be left out of the aid schema. They knew what needed to be done and did it.
These Asian women and other women of color cared for the most vulnerable. Women’s care work done for and by every sort of human was one of the earliest democratic models for coping with COVID. We need to model this camaraderie. And the camaraderie of the Poor People’s Campaign led by Bishop William Barber, and the commanding courage of Black Lives Matter activists, to name just a few.
We need a convening of all the many actors and groups that have started mutual aid programs, radical voting rights initiatives, public health care alliances, housing rights advocates, end student debt activists, climate/environmental rights groups, water protectors, union organizers at Starbucks, Amazon, etc., aunties organizing caring groups, Black Lives Matter (BLM) actors, AIDS activists from Act Up, reproductive rights organizers and abortion advocates, disability warriors, trans-rights health groups, airline, grocery, and restaurant workers. We need to see each other and organize together.
It is time to envision an abolitionist politics — one that creates and helps sustain another world of possibilities. This would necessitate new laws that are structurally anti-racist and feminist and non-ableist. We would be guided by reciprocity and forgiveness rather than punishment and retribution. There must be an end to corporate control of the means of producing COVID-related items like vaccines, and masks and tests. Production should be publicly controlled at least until this iteration of COVID passes.
Although I have been greeted with the response that this can never happen, my reaction is: only when we imagine and push forward with these imagined possibilities can it happen. Not believing in possibilities completely stymies change. So, the first political act is to recognize that there is no individualist answer to the collective crisis of COVID. Freedom must always be curtailed for equality.
“We” must move from our bodies to the planet and from the planet back to our bodies. Rupa Marya and Raj Patel in “INFLAMED” write that our bodies absorb the structural inequalities of colonialism and structural racism and so does western medicine. Bodies have absorbed the climate crisis — and we are all on fire. Saving our health is part of saving the earth, saving the earth is saving our health.
Fossil fuels burn and create lung disease, depression, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, auto immune disease. Pollution and health exist in tension if racism and sexism continue. In order to create this other world, we must first recognize the destruction created by it — and grieve and heal together. For them, the Green New Deal is not good enough because it still allows fossil fuels. Instead, a Red Deal is needed that ends colonial relations and establishes a caring society. Both human and plant life, with animals, soil and water must be centered.
Native women writers and activists Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katherine Wilkinson, eds. in “All We Can Save,” argue that we must see the earth for all it provides and nurtures, and grieve its losses and compost care. Hope is part of the acknowledging of grief. If as Renee Lertzman writes, “climate grief can be a doorway to love, then let us all weep for the world we are breaking apart so we can love it back to wholeness again.”
Native women were here first. They know things none of us White people knew, or fully know. Their ancestors passed on the importance of the ground, the earth, the water, the sky. There were two nations in 1776 — one made by the colonists and one made by Natives. And there were two wars during the Civil War — one against slavery and the other for the elimination/removal of Natives.
Slavery and the warring against Natives/Indians were simultaneous in the 1800s. The economic interests of slavery made Native land more valuable to white Southerners, especially of the Native economy. White supremacy was double fold. The emancipation proclamation was being written while the active destruction of the Lakota nation was in process. The Civil War is simultaneous with wars against Indians. Inequality and climate crisis are the twin challenges of our time. Do not abuse mother earth. The earth is weeping today through COVID and tornadoes and tsunamis.
Restoration and repair is needed. Winona LaDuke in “To Be A Water Protector” begs for us to care for the water, because water is life; protect the waterways and find the 1,200 murdered and missing indigenous women. Robin Wall Kimmerer in “Braiding Sweetgrass” directs us to the earth and soil and plant life to express a culture of gratitude and reciprocity. If we are kind, “the land loves us back.”
So: it is time to imagine and come together and demand what we need. An end to the accumulation of wealth protected with a system of racial and sexual violence. It is the only way to save our bodies and with it the planet.
And, so when my beloved daughter, a social medicine doctor who did her residency at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, who cares for undocumented and uninsured patients, and trains medical students, mainly students of color, at Florida International University Medical School, called me heart-broken and weary at the start of the pandemic, I just urged her forward: imagine what fabulous doctors you all will become meeting the needs of the most forgotten having been trained during COVID. Life happens and we grow if we put fear aside and disobey and let ourselves blossom.
It is time to disobey and become comrades with each other together from all the dispersed locations we inhabit. Let us take this hope to the barricades where we all belong.
Zillah Eisenstein is a noted feminist writer and has been Professor of Politics at Ithaca College. She is the author of numerous books, including “The Female Body and the Law” (UC Press, 1988), which won the Victoria Schuck Book Prize for the best book on women and politics; “Global Obscenities” (NYU Press, 1998) and, most recently, “Abolitionist Socialist Feminism” (Monthly Review Press, 2019).
Image by Evelyn Hockstein / Washington Post