“I can’t breathe”. These words, now reverberating across the world in gruesome playback, were among the last uttered by George Floyd, a devoted son, friend, and father, as he lay dying under the knee of a killer cop this week in Minneapolis.
According to his friends, Floyd was a “quiet personality and (a) beautiful spirit” who had moved to Minneapolis in search of a “new life”.
I began writing this piece prior to his death. It began as a reflection on the fragile state of Black girls’ mental health in the pandemic. I kept thinking about the irony of May being Mental Health Awareness month in an era when many of us might feel we are drowning, slowly going insane with rage.
For at least the third time in a month, Black people have heard and seen another Black person repeatedly executed on camera. We have grieved collectively with the families of the victims, written, protested in the streets, called for the prosecution and jailing of killer cops, and wondered if it will take armed resistance to change this seemingly endless death regime. These atrocities are unique to Breathing while Black in America, where the 24/7 corporate news cycle and state violence intersect in a toxic anti-blackness that inflicts deep psychic and emotional wounds.
Covid-fueled increases in surveillance, suppression, and lynching have become indelible signs of the rise of a twenty-first century Confederacy. Over the past few weeks alone, Black folks have been treated to the spectacle of whites storming state capitols demanding re-openings; whites refusing to wear masks; whites refusing to socially distance, and whites saying a collective ‘fuck you’ to public health, screaming about having their rights violated by the government as police stand idly by.
These “don’t tread on me” outbursts stand in stark contrast to the escalation in targeting of African Americans in public by the New York and Los Angeles Police Departments, as well as with the recent terrorist murders of Breeona Taylor in Kentucky, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and George Floyd. Taylor was killed while asleep in her bed. Arbery was gunned down in broad daylight on a jog. Floyd was slain face down on the ground while telling the officer who killed him that he was going to die. The family of Eric Garner, who was murdered in 2014 under similar circumstances by killer cops in Staten Island, New York, have had to relive painful memories of his death.
These violent assaults on Black bodies and Black communities have heightened the mental health trauma that many African Americans, especially youth, are experiencing in Covid times.
These violent assaults on Black bodies and Black communities have heightened the mental health trauma that many African Americans, especially youth, are experiencing in Covid times. The constant replay of videotaped arrests, beatings, and killings of Black folks elicit fear, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness in Black youth who may feel that the burden of everyday living has become too much to bear. Couple this with the closure of schools, and the elimination of the vital support services they provide, and there is virtually no quarter for youth who are suffering from the PTSD elicited by unrelenting anti-blackness.
The mental health toll of Covid suppression has also exacerbated the academic, emotional, and caregiving burdens that Black girls and girls of color have always had to shoulder. Sexism and misogynoir are intimately related in the politics of the pandemic, as Black women essential workers are simultaneously put on the line to die for their jobs and take care of their children. The U.S. is one of the few post-industrial nations without universal childcare, and its absence has had a devastating impact on the everyday lives of Black women and girls. As Covid-modified school schedules and continued “distance learning” become the norm, the childcare deficit will be even more pronounced.
Disparities in caregiving, and experiences with sexual and domestic violence, have long been unifying factors among Black and Latinx girls in South L.A. schools. Many of my students take care of younger siblings and older relatives while grappling with unaddressed trauma. During a Black feminism workshop I taught at Diego Rivera Learning Center before the Covid shutdowns, a majority of the one hundred girls who attended raised their hands when I asked whether they were expected to do caregiving duties that their male relatives were not tasked with. They rattled off babysitting and household chores as the most exhausting, time-consuming tasks they had to do. As a result, they feel stressed out from being at home, juggling schoolwork, domestic chores, babysitting, and adult care.
In the midst of the pandemic, many of them have experienced the daily trauma of seeing their loved ones succumb to the virus and hearing 24/7 coverage of pandemic-related deaths. Many of them are also anxiety-ridden about predictions that their lives may never go back to what they knew before. And many of them must grapple with parents or caregivers who are incarcerated in a jail where they’re more likely to contract the virus, on the frontlines as essential workers, or out of work, facing food insecurity and the constant threat of becoming unhoused.
These stressors are set against the backdrop of looming state and local budget cuts to education and social services. Over the past two months since the LAUSD shut down, the activist group Students Deserve has fought to protect the rights of criminalized students of color disenfranchised by the district’s transition to distant learning. In the City of L.A., Mayor Garcetti is angling to increase the LAPD’s budget by 7.1% for the new fiscal year. This move has been slammed by Black Lives Matter, Ground Game L.A. and K-town, who argue that Garcetti’s budget plan, which also proposes furloughing city workers and slash social services, will further devastate communities of color hardest hit by Covid.
Kowtowing to a contract agreement that the City Council negotiated last year with the L.A. Police Protective League, Garcetti wants to dramatically increase LAPD overtime pay, as well as provide bonuses for officers with college degrees. Garcetti’s office has defended the increases as necessary for allowing police to transition into social welfare-oriented duties such as “homeless outreach, Covid testing and working assignments at emergency shelters”.
However, any increase in police presence in L.A.’s communities automatically translates into more suppression, surveillance, and targeting of black and brown folks. Garcetti’s police state boondoggle is especially unconscionable given the multiple social welfare crises that the city’s poorest neighborhoods are facing in a city where housing is only affordable for an elite few. BLM and other community groups have spearheaded an alternative “People’s Budget” process that encourages L.A. city residents to challenge the City’s budget in an online survey and through public comment to councilmembers.
The U.S. police state is one of the most dangerous public health threats to Black wellness and mental health. Being able to breathe, to be mentally whole and healthy, in a violence and suppression free environment, has historically been a white supremacist luxury. Our children should not have to live in a nightmare America where breathing while black carries a death sentence.
When the Affordable Care Act was up for a vote during President Obama’s first term, the cry from right-wing opponents was that “Obamacare” would create “death panels.” Bureaucrats would sit in meeting rooms deciding if Grandma got to live or not. Socialized medicine, which the ACA is not, would be even worse. Only capitalism cares about Grandma’s life. It wasn’t true then—as insurance execs sat in meeting rooms determining which patients would receive treatment and which would be left to die—and it’s certainly not true now as right-wing “Re-open the economy!” advocates prove.
Several of my religious friends have strongly criticized temporary workplace closings to flatten the curve during the early part of the pandemic. Two of them, both physicians, characterized the situation as “destroying the economy to save old people who would have been dead in two weeks anyway.” But that rationale, even if it were accurate, raises an important religious/political question: if we don’t care about those last two weeks of Grandma’s life now, was it OK before the pandemic, and will it be OK again afterward, for families to euthanize Grandma when it looks like she’s getting close to the end? And if it is OK, would its acceptability be based on pain and quality of life or would it be based on economic concerns?
For the religious right, sending someone a check for just sitting at home not infecting anyone is a sin far worse than senicide or euthanizing the disabled.
One can’t always tell if an 81-year-old is going to die in the next few weeks. She could live another ten or fifteen years. Valerie Harper (Rhoda from The Mary Tyler Moore Show) was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009. Would it have been OK to write her off then? She was still alive in 2013, when the cancer spread to her brain and she was given three months to live. Surely, at that point, it would be OK to consider the remainder of her life meaningless. “No one’s giving up a haircut for you!”
But in 2016, she was still working on film projects. She did not die until the end of August 2019.
So at what point would it have been acceptable for Valerie to willingly choose physician-assisted death on her own behalf? At what point would it have been acceptable for her family to decide that for her? And if neither she nor her family had that right, why does the religious right feel entitled to claim it for themselves, magnanimously sacrificing the lives of people they don’t even know? After all, they can hardly limit the sacrifice to their own parents, regardless of how much they might stand to inherit. They are making this decision for everyone.
If suicide is a sin, why doesn’t the religious right put up a fuss when they hear an elderly person offer themselves as a sacrifice to the economy? Is someone else’s suicide only acceptable when it benefits you? Why do so many of the faithful pressure the old and sick to willingly give up their God-given right to live a decent life for as long as they can?
Recently, a right-wing pundit said he was willing to eat his neighbors and feed them to his children if he had to. His superpower, he boasted, was honesty. What he didn’t add was that this push to “Re-open the economy!” while unprepared means he’s also willing to throw 100,000 additional grandmas into the maw of corporations just to briefly assuage their insatiable hunger.
Of course, Americans of the religious right don’t want to kill the old and sick themselves. They just want to “let” them die. They want “nature” to “take its course” so life can go on…for the people who matter.
If this was just an either/or proposition, perhaps they might even be right. But it isn’t. We could choose to send monthly checks to every worker until the pandemic was under control. Such a program would cost less than the trillions given to corporations. And even if we insisted on giving money primarily to these corporations, we could still choose to make the bailouts contingent on corporations paying their employees. There are a variety of other options to explore as well.
But for the religious right, sending someone a check just for sitting at home not infecting anyone is a sin far worse than senilicide, worse than euthanizing the disabled, worse than terminally ill patients requesting medication to allow them the luxury of dying painlessly on a timeline of their choosing.
No, the only moral course of action is to let Grandma, and Grandpa, and Aunt Sally, and Cousin Joe suffer for three weeks on a ventilator before dying. If healthcare professionals also get sick and die, or bring it home to their family causing some of their loved ones to die, well, they all knew what they were getting into when they applied to nursing programs and medical schools. And if hospital custodians get sick and die, too, no one forced them to get a job at a medical facility. Besides, it’s not a sin to let poor people die naturally, is it? That’s just “life.”
If “the economy” is more important than the lives of anyone who “might” die in the next few months or years, why not just kill everyone outright who reaches the age of 65 or 70? No one needs to battle over Social Security anymore. Think of the money we could save by not wasting it on these mostly unproductive people. And that’s just their pensions. There are tens of billions more to save every year by no longer wasting medical treatment on people who are doomed to die relatively soon no matter how much we spend on them.
We might as well round up and euthanize all the homeless people, too. Think of the millions we could save, how lovely our cities could be without them. Pretending that all human life deserves equal respect is just a big waste of money. Even worse, it’s inconvenient.
Americans are happy with politicians who dedicate a trillion dollars a year to the military because that outrageous expense will “save lives.” So why does money matter now to save our most vulnerable? Do we only stand up for others when it’s easy?
We don’t have to sacrifice the economy to save the most vulnerable in our community. We don’t have to sacrifice the most vulnerable in our community to save the economy.
We might, however, need to sacrifice corporate welfare.
That’s a death panel we should all want to be on.
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Covid-19, an ongoing global human tragedy, may have at least one silver lining. It has led millions of people to question America’s most malignant policies at home and abroad.
Regarding Washington’s war policies abroad, there’s been speculation that the coronavirus might, in the end, put a dent in such conflicts, if not prove an unintended peacemaker—and with good reason, since a cash-flush Pentagon has proven impotent as a virus challenger. Meanwhile, it’s become ever more obvious that, had a fraction of “defense” spending been invested in chronically underfunded disease control agencies, this country’s response to the coronavirus crisis might have been so much better.
Curiously enough, though, despite President Trump’s periodic complaints about America’s “ridiculous endless wars,” his administration has proven remarkably unwilling to agree to even a modest rollback in U.S. imperial ambitions. In some theaters of operation— Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, and Somalia above all—Washington has even escalated its militarism in a fit of macabre, largely under-the-radar pandemic opportunism.
The spread of Covid-19 has offered a rare opportunity to raise questions, challenge frameworks, and critically consider what “ending” war might even mean for this country.
For all that, this is an obvious moment to reflect on whether America’s nearly two-decade-old “war on terror” (perhaps better thought of as a set of wars of terror) might actually end. Predictions are tricky matters. Nonetheless, the spread of Covid-19 has offered a rare opportunity to raise questions, challenge frameworks, and critically consider what “ending” war might even mean for this country.
In some sense, our post-9/11 wars have been gradually subsiding for some time now. Even though the total number of U.S. troops deployed to the Middle East has actually risen in the Trump years, those numbers pale when compared to the U.S. commitment at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The number of American soldiers taking fire overseas has, in recent years, dropped to levels unthinkably low for those of us who entered the military around the time of the 9/11 attacks.
That said, in these years, even unwinnable, unnecessary wars have proven remarkably unendable. For evidence of this, look no further than that perennial war hawk Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Given the lack of success of the various campaigns run by U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, across that continent and the Pentagon’s stated desire to once again pivot to great-power competition with China and Russia, just before the pandemic arrived on our shores Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced plans for a modest troop drawdown in parts of Africa. Appalled by even such minor retrenchments, Graham, leading a bipartisan group of lawmakers, reportedly confronted Esper and threatened to make his “life hell,” should the secretary downsize U.S. forces there.
Less than two months later, AFRICOM declared a public-health emergency at the largest of this country’s African bases in Djibouti amid concerns that even far smaller, more spartan American facilities on that continent lacked the requisite medical equipment to fight the spreading virus. Whether the pandemic facilitates Esper’s contemplated reductions remains to be seen. (A mid-April AFRICOM press release offering reassurance that the “command’s partnership endures during Covid-19” doesn’t bode well for such a transformation.)
Still, the disease will surely have some effect. Just as quarantine and social-distancing measures have transformed people’s lives and work in the U.S., Washington’s war fighting will undoubtedly have to adapt, too. Minimally, expect the Pentagon to wage wars (largely hidden from public view) that require ever fewer of its troops to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with allies and fewer still to die doing so. Expect Washington to mandate and the Pentagon to practice what might increasingly be thought of as social-distancing-style warfare.
Soldiers will operate in ever smaller teams. Just as senior leaders constantly counseled us junior officers in the bad old days to “put an Iraqi face between you and the problem,” so today’s and tomorrow’s troopers will do their best to place drones or (less precious) proxy lives between themselves and enemies of any sort. Meanwhile, the already immense chasm between the American public and the wars being fought in its name is only likely to widen. What may emerge from these years is a version of war so unrecognizable that, while still unending, it may no longer pass for war in the classic sense.
To grasp how we’ve made it to a social-distancing version of war, it’s necessary to go back to the earlier part of this century, years before a pandemic like Covid-19 was on anyone’s radar screen.
American Wars Don’t End, They Evolve
When, as a young Army lieutenant and later captain, I joined what were then called “surges” in Iraq in 2006 and Afghanistan in 2011, conventional foot soldiers like me were the main game in town. The doctrine of counterinsurgency, or COIN, then ruled the Pentagon’s intellectual roost. The trick, so key commanders believed, was to flood the war zone with infantry brigades, securing the conflict’s “center of gravity“: the locals. Behind the scenes, Special Operations units were already taking on ever-larger roles. Nevertheless, there were ample “boots-on-the-ground” and relatively high casualties in conventional units like mine.
Times have changed. Full-scale invasions and long-term occupations, along with COIN as a war-on-terror cure-all, long ago fell out of favor. By Barack Obama’s second term, such unpopular and costly campaigns were passé. Even so, rather than rethink the efficacy of imperial interventionism, Washington simply substituted new methods masquerading as the latest strategy of success.
By the time Donald Trump delivered his “American carnage” inaugural address, the burdens of Washington war-making had flipped. When I served in Iraq and Afghanistan, about half of the Army’s 40-odd combat brigades were deployed in those two regional theaters at any given time. The remainder were training for their next rotations and already on the “patch chart” where each unit’s logo indicated its future scheduled deployment. This was the life on the conveyor belt of American war that a generation of soldiers like me lived. By January 2017, however, the number of conventional brigades deployed in the war on terror could be counted on one hand.
For instance, the Army’s most recent round of deployments, announced this April, included just six brigades. Of these, two were aviation units and, among the ground forces, one was headed for Europe, another for Kuwait. Only two ground combat brigades, in other words, were slated for Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan and one of them was a reconstituted Security Force Assistance Brigade—essentially a skeleton crew of officers and noncommissioned officers meant to train and advise local troops. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s Special Operations forces, which had by then crested above 70,000, a figure so large as to raise questions about how “special” they remained, stepped onto that conveyor belt. America’s commandos now bear most of the burden of forever-war deployments and (modest) casualties.
A Two-Tier War-Making System
When the virus struck, the Pentagon had long been developing a bifurcated military machine with two separate and largely discrete roles. The commandos—with key assists from drones, CIA paramilitaries, local proxies, and private security contractors—continued to fight the lingering war on terror. They were generally handling the lethal end of American war, calling in airstrikes, while training, advising, and sometimes even leading often abusive indigenous forces.
Conventional active-duty brigades— reduced to 32—were largely given quite a different task: to prepare for a future revamped Cold War with Russia and, increasingly, China. That crew—infantry, armored brigades, and Navy carrier squadrons—had the “new,” purportedly vital mission of checking, containing, or challenging Moscow in Eastern Europe and Beijing in the South China Sea. Senior generals and admirals were comfortable with such Cold War-style tasks (most having been commissioned in the mid-1980s). However, viewed from Russia or China, such missions looked increasingly provocative as ever more American riflemen, tanks, and warships regularly deployed to former Soviet republics or, in the case of the Navy, to Western Pacific waters that abut China, making the risk of accidental escalation seem ever more conceivable.
Meanwhile, those shadowy special operators were directing the ongoing shooting wars and other conflicts, which, though given precious little attention in this country, seemed patently counterproductive, not to say unwinnable. For the Pentagon and military-industrial-complex profiteers, however, such unending brushfire conflicts, along with a new great power build-up, were the gift that just kept giving, a two-tiered modus operandi for endless war-funding.
Enter the coronavirus.
In Cold Blood
Thought of a certain way, American war will, in the future, increasingly be waged in cold blood. While Covid-19 spreads virally through respiratory droplets, the disease of endless war continues to be blood-borne (even if ever less of it is American blood), ensuring that the social-distancing-style combat of the future could become even more of an abstraction here.
In addition, the preferred post-pandemic warriors of that future may not be uniformed soldiers, special or otherwise, or necessarily American—or in some cases (think drones and future robotic weaponry) human. U.S. war fighting has already been increasingly privatized. Only recently, Erik Prince, the former CEO of the private military company Blackwater, an influential Trump ally as well as the brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, pitched the president on a far-fetched plan to privatize the whole Afghan War.
The Donald passed on the offer, but that it was even considered at such a high level suggests the role of private contractors and soldiers of fortune in future American war-making may be here to stay. In that sense, the recent fiasco of an armed raid led by former Green Berets-turned-mercenaries and aimed at the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro may prove as much a foreboding glimpse of the future as it was a farce.
When uniformed U.S. service members are deemed necessary, the trend toward using just handfuls of them to run an increasingly proxy-war machine is likely to accelerate. Such teams will fit well with public-health guidelines limiting gatherings to 10 people. For instance, drone ground control stations, essentially mobile trailers, require only a pair of operators. Similarly, the military’s newest cyberwar branch (formed in 2015) may not be made up of the hackers of Donald Trump’s imagination (“somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds”), but they, too, will work in tiny teams abroad, and at a great distance. Pushing those guidelines just a tad will be Army Special Forces A-Teams of 12 Green Berets each, which may prove to be core building blocks for a new American version of post-pandemic warfare.
Most disturbingly, American social-distancing ways of war will likely operate smoothly enough without suppressing terrorist groups any more successfully than the previous versions of forever war did, or solving local ethno-religious conflicts, or improving the lives of Africans or Arabs. Like their predecessors, future American wars in cold blood will fail, but with efficiency and, from the point of view of the military-industrial complex, lucratively.
Here, of course, is the deep and tragic paradox of it all. As the coronavirus should have reminded us, the true existential threats to the United States (and humanity)—disease pandemics, a potential nuclear Armageddon, and climate change—will be impervious to Washington’s usual military tools. No matter the number of warships, infantry and armored brigades, or commando teams, none of them will stand a chance against lethal viruses, rising tides, or nuclear fallout. As such, the Pentagon’s plethora of tanks, aircraft carriers (themselves petri-dishes for any virus around), and towers of cash (sorely needed elsewhere) will, in the future, be monuments to an era of American delusion.
A rational (or moral) system with any semblance of genuine legislative oversight or citizen input might respond to such conspicuous realities by rethinking the national security paradigm itself and bringing the war state to a screeching halt. Unfortunately, if America’s imperial past is any precedent, what lies ahead is the further evolution of twenty-first-century imperial war to the end of time.
Still, Covid-19 may prove the death knell of American war as classically imagined. Future combat, even if broadly directed from Washington, may be only vaguely “American.” Few uniformed citizens may take part in it and even fewer die from it.
During the prolonged endgame of wars that don’t really end, U.S. military fatalities will certainly continue to occur in occasional ones and twos—often in far-flung places where few Americans even realize their country is fighting (as with those four U.S. troops killed in an ambush in Niger in 2018 and the Army soldier and two private contractors killed in Kenya earlier this year). Such minuscule American losses will actually offer Washington more leeway to quietly ramp-up its drone attacks, air power, raiding, and killing, as has already happened in Somalia, with assumedly ever less oversight or attention at home. As in the Horn of Africa of late, the Pentagon won’t even have to bother to justify escalations in its war-making. Which raises a sort of “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there…” conundrum: if the U.S. is killing brown folks around the world, but hardly anyone notices, is the country still at war?
Moving forward, policymakers and the public alike may treat war with the same degree of entitlement and abstraction as ordering items from Amazon (especially during a pandemic): Click a button, expect a package at the door posthaste, and pay scant thought to what that click-request set in motion or the sacrifice required to do the deed.
Only in war, one thing at least stays constant: lots of someones get killed. The American people may leave their wars to unrepresentative professional “volunteers” led by an unchecked imperial presidency that increasingly outsources them to machines, mercenaries, and local militias. One thing is, however, guaranteed: some poor souls will be at the other end of those bombsights and rifle barrels.
In contemporary battles, it’s already exceptionally rare that a uniformed American is on that receiving end. Almost midway through 2020, only eight U.S. service members have been killed by hostile fire in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Yet many thousands of locals continue to die there. No one wants U.S. troops to die, but there’s something obscene—and morally troubling—about the staggering casualty disparity implicit in the developing twenty-first-century American way of war, the one that, in a Covid-19 world, is increasingly being fought in a socially-distanced way.
Taken to its not-unimaginable extreme, Americans should prepare themselves for a future in which their government kills and destroys on a global scale without a single service member dying in combat. After the pandemic, in other words, talk of “ending” this country’s forever wars may prove little more than an exercise in semantics.
Not just Trump, but the whole US ruling class must pay for the mass Covid death toll among Blacks, because only the ruling class has the power to systematically allocate life-death chances for whole populations over generations.
To limit the indictment to Donald Trump and his administration would be an insult to today’s dead and dying.
The United States finds myriad ways of killing Black people – of negating the term “Black lives matter.” The novel, or new, coronavirus is ending the lives of African Americans at a nationwide rate that is 2.6 times that of whites, 2.3 times the death toll among Asian Americans and 2.2. times that of Latinos, according to the APM Research Lab’s breakdown of mortality by race. Collectively Blacks have suffered 27 percent of all Covid-19 deaths in the United States, which would mean that 24, 930 of the 92, 333 total U.S. deaths from the virus as of this week, were African Americas, who make up only 13 percent of the population.
Researchers at Yale University and the University of Pittsburgh put the proportionate Black death toll considerably higher, with Blacks 3.5 times more likely to die than whites, and Latinos twice as likely to succumb to the virus. The actual ratios of death may never be known since, according to the Yale study, “almost half the states do not track the race and ethnicity of those who have died in the pandemic, and states that are tracking racial and ethnic data do not account for age differences among population groups.
The COVID Racial Data Tracker, a collaboration of The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project and The Antiracist Research & Policy Center,updates the toll by ethnicity on a daily basis, with about a three-day lag in reporting of deaths by state.
If the Yale/Pittsburgh finding that Blacks are 3.5 times more like to die from Covid-19 than whites is correct, then Blacks make up considerably more than 27 percent of deaths. But, even at the lower rate, the carnage in Black America is horrific. If projections of 143,360 total U.S. deaths from coronavirus by August 4 hold true, that would result in a Black death toll of 38,707 – with no end in sight. By comparison, 1,008 people of all races were killed by police gunfire in 2019, according to the Washington Post tally.
What will be the Black political response to such gruesome numbers? Who will be made accountable for a slaughter that was pre-programmed by the very nature of a society birthed in genocide, slavery and the glorification of conquest and plunder?
Just as infant mortality is the best measure of a society’s general health, so does the Covid-19 death toll indict the United States for systematically undermining the life chances of all of its constituent peoples (143,360 dead by August 4), and for the aggravated crime of setting a death trap for African Americans, every aspect of whose lives has been methodically weighted towards early death. These are crimes that only the ruling class can commit, because only the ruling class has the power to systematically allocate life-death chances for whole populations over generations.
The indictment must be initiated by Black America, the most deeply harmed victims of preventable mass death at the hands of a morally depraved white ruling class. The very nature of mass slaughter by Covid-19 demands that the entire system of political economy – of racial capitalism — in the United States be put on trial, and that the humans that have profited from, bolstered and defended that murderous system be removed from power and punished.
To limit the indictment to Donald Trump and his administration would be an insult to today’s dead and dying, and to all past victims of racial capitalism’s carnage around the world. Every Democrat that has joined with the Lords of Capital in preventing the United States from establishing a universal health care system, is guilty of depraved indifference to the lives of his and her constituents, as is virtually every member of the Republican Party, whose organizing principle is white supremacy, an ideology of mass murder. The U.S. electoral duopoly system has acted as a criminal enterprise, answering to an oligarchy of wealth, with both parties colluding to deny most of the population – and especially Black people – the right to healthy and safe lives and protection from contagious disease, as well as the closely related rights to meaningful and fairly compensated employment, adequate shelter from the elements, and an education that provides the people with the knowledge and skills to shape, and contribute to, society.
It takes a whole class of criminals to create the conditions to kill nearly one hundred thousand people – 27 percent of them Black — in just three months. However, politicians representing Black America, the most victimized constituency, are co-conspirators in the great crime, both by their collaboration with Democrats that have systematically weakened the U.S. social safety net (most notably, President Obama’s partially consummated Grand Bargain with Republicans), and by their management of Black population centers that have been methodically stripped of defenses against debilitating poverty and disease.
These Black auxiliaries to ruling class criminals put personal profit above the welfare of Black people, and must be indicted along with their masters. The Black political class should have been our antibodies against the plagues of racial, political and economic repression, but made common cause with the oppressor. The Black misleaders must be the first to be indicted, because they weaken our ability to resist the greater evils: the Lords of Capital.
The proof of their culpability lies in cemeteries all across Black America. People’s tribunals must convene to indict the perpetrators of mass death, including the Black collaborators in the lower ranks of capitalist crime. Why were Blacks seven times more likely to die of Covid-19 in Kansas City, than whites? What factors (crimes) made Missouri, Wisconsin and Washington D.C six times as lethal for Blacks as whites, and Michigan five times more deadly for Blacks? How is it that the Grim Reaper came for Black people three times more often than for whites in Arkansas, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, Oregon and South Carolina? And what should be the penalty for locking up millions of human beings in virus-infested cages without provision for basic hygiene, much less protection from disease. Isn’t every Covid-19 death in prison — where captives are totally dependent on their captors – a case of murder?
The people must convene, learn the truth, and make their verdicts. The only fitting punishment is overthrow of the criminal racial capitalist regime, whose crimes are multitudinous and manifest. I’ll be asking the organization I co-founded, the Black Is Back Coalition, to initiate Black Covid-19 tribunals in cities across the nation. Activists of all races should do the same.
Last week members of the Los Angeles Tenants Union gathered outside City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s Echo Park office to demand more protections for struggling renters. Due to social distancing guidelines, some demonstrators stood apart from each other on the sidewalk, while others participated in their vehicles, honking and holding signs as they caravanned down Sunset Boulevard.
The need for social distancing may have changed the rulebook for protesting, but housing activists are still finding ways to organize in their cars and online.
As COVID-19 continues to bring unemployment and economic hardship, state, county and city governments have implemented measures to stave off eviction. However, renter activists are pushing lawmakers for stronger action to protect tenants in California’s already crunched housing market. “Unless our elected officials forgive or cancel the rents in the long term, and cancel the debts from the rents that haven’t been paid, we’re just deferring the crisis,” said Maria Zamudio of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed an executive order preventing the eviction of tenants who provide written notice to their landlords that they are unable to pay rent due to COVID-related difficulties, such as illness, job loss or childcare responsibilities. In addition to Newsom’s order, which extends through May 31, the Judicial Council of California adopted emergency rules to suspend legal proceedings for eviction and foreclosure cases.
Los Angeles County’s response to the pandemic temporarily prevents both commercial and residential evictions due to financial setbacks; it also freezes no-fault evictions along with evictions for minor violations, such as unauthorized tenants or pets. The county also temporarily banned rent increases for units governed by its recently passed rent-stabilization ordinance.
On May 12, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted on whether to extend these measures through August 31. The board settled on an amended version championed by Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger that guarantees the current protections through June 30 and requires a monthly reassessment thereafter. “This eviction moratorium . . . is one of the major tools in the county for keeping us healthy because those who can be evicted of course will be out on the street,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who pushed for the August extension.
Meanwhile, the City of Los Angeles is also blocking increases on rent-stabilized units, in addition to temporarily halting no-fault evictions for those impacted by the coronavirus and evictions related to landlords taking rental housing off the market under the Ellis Act.
While these measures may stave off immediate eviction for renters who have lost income during the COVID-19 pandemic, all of them leave tenants on the hook for that money in the future. “Nothing in this Order shall be construed to mean that the tenant will not still be obligated to pay lawfully charged rent,” said a statement from L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office on the eviction protections. Although there are certain limitations placed on landlords—for instance, landlords in the city and county of Los Angeles cannot charge late fees or interest on missed payments—tenants are required to pay back rent within one year from the end of the emergency period.
According to housing rights advocates, requiring tenants to repay missed rent puts many at risk of eviction and homelessness down the road, especially given how the supply of affordable units has dwindled in recent years. “Tenants have been shouldering the economic burden of the housing crisis for a long time,” said Zamudio. Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal, co-founder of the Los Angeles Tenants Union, called the eviction moratorium “tantamount to tenant debt,” adding, “Suspending rent and mortgage for the duration of the crisis is the bare minimum solution that will meet the needs of tenants at this time.”
Rosenthal also pointed out how additional programs to provide financial assistance during the pandemic, such as the Angeleno Card, put the onus on renters, rather than landlords to apply for support. “They burden tenants to apply for a benefit that inevitably goes to their landlord,” says Rosenthal.
Joshua Howard, executive vice president of local public affairs for the California Apartment Association, says landlords are also concerned about losing income. “Without rent payments, rental property owners are not able to fulfill obligations to their lenders, vendors, and employees,” Howard told Capital & Main in a written statement.
Howard called for a “balance between the needs of the residents and the rental housing providers,” and said changes to tenant protections in light of the pandemic should “be narrowly targeted to protecting those renters financially impacted by COVID-19, make it clear that rent must still be repaid, and only be in effect during the times when the government is limiting people from working.”
Activists, on the other hand, question whether it is even possible for many tenants to pay back missed rent payments. “If someone didn’t get a paycheck in April and didn’t get a paycheck in May, it doesn’t mean that six months from now all of the sudden that money is going to be in their bank account to pay back rent that they didn’t pay in those months. That money doesn’t exist and so those rents shouldn’t exist,” said Zamudio.
The need for social distancing may have changed the rulebook for protesting, but housing activists are still finding ways to organize in their cars and online. The L.A. Tenants Union currently has a rent strike underway, which Rosenthal says the majority of the organization’s 1,500 members have joined. “I think folks are going back to Organizing 101. We’re making a lot of phone calls,” says Zamudio. “Regardless of whether we can get elected officials to pass strong policy to cancel rents into the future, tenants are going to need to have the skills to negotiate with their landlords.”
Domestic abuse and violence are serious problems in the United States. Around 25% of women and 10% of men have experienced sexual violence, physical injury or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. As the country deals with the coronavirus pandemic, many municipalities advise people to stay home for their safety. However, for victims of abuse—including the children exposed to it—home may not be a safe option.
By bringing domestic violence to the forefront of public discussions and law enforcement, we can help raise voices and encourage victims to come forward.
The domestic violence increase during COVID-19 is significant. While murder, rape and assault cases have dropped in many cities, reports of domestic abuse have increased. According to police reports in Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles and other cities, domestic violence has jumped by 5%. Unfortunately, this crime is often underreported, an issue that could worsen during the lockdown.
The Chicago Police Department has seen as many as 13% more domestic violence-related calls since the outbreak than reported cases last year. However, fewer victims are following through with complaints. Unfortunately, many people tolerate the abuse because they believe it’s safer than the alternative, such as moving into a shelter.
One 2019 study looked at families who had already experienced domestic violence and were affected by Hurricane Harvey. The stress associated with the event led to higher rates in violence and child abuse —both during and after the disaster. Other factors, such as reduced access to resources and disconnection from support systems, also led to the increase.
During this crisis, shelters are closed or understaffed, emergency rooms are overflowing and many people don’t want to go outside during the pandemic. As a result, victims often get trapped in ever-escalating cycles of tension, power and control.
During lockdown, victims have fewer resources when it comes to seeking help. Many people are also forgoing regular doctor visits, making it difficult for physicians to spot red flags. Some abusers have weaponized the virus itself, threatening their victims with coronavirus or hiding cleaning supplies in order to exert control.
Rural, Suburban and Urban Domestic Violence Trends
Domestic abuse is a critical issue in all parts of the country. However, rural communities often see exacerbated effects due to limited resources for victims, distance, transportation barriers and poverty. In small towns, abusers may have family connections with those in power. Likewise, people may be afraid to speak out due to the stigma, as they may be well acquainted with doctors and law enforcement.
When it comes to urban vs. rural domestic violence, one primary difference is that those in small communities often feel their confidentiality will not be maintained or that their reputations may be damaged. If word gets around, they may suffer from even more abuse.
In suburban and urban areas, one factor preventing victims from leaving their abusers is the cost of living. Many cannot afford to live on their own. For instance, the average monthly rent in a suburban area is $1,695, around $50 more than in cities. Another consideration is transportation. While urban regions often have multiple public options, those who live in the suburbs typically need access to a car.
Many traits connected with urban and suburban areas — such as high education levels, social status and elevated income —actually work against victims of domestic abuse.Those with specialized education tend to feel increased levels of shame and self-blame about being in an abusive relationship. Victims in affluent communities often worry about judgment from friends and neighbors. Plus, while they might drive nice cars or live in expensive houses, they often don’t have access to cash, credit cards or bank accounts.
The Importance of Awareness
Many victims of domestic abuse don’t speak out or seek help due to stigma and the fear of judgment. To stop this crime, we must take the issue seriously.
Community leaders, including law enforcement, judges, doctors and shelter workers, can also do their part. They should know the signs of potential domestic violence, including bruises, extreme stress and defensiveness about partners, and speak up when they spot red flags. If someone comes to them for help, they should offer valuable resources, such as contact information for local shelters and support groups. In this way, victims can begin to take the necessary steps to safety.
During this difficult time more than ever, it’s essential for people to have access to safety and support —no one is alone, even during social distancing, and help is available. By bringing domestic violence to the forefront of public discussions and law enforcement, we can help raise voices and encourage victims to come forward.
Alyssa Abel is an education, career and lifestyle writer with a focus on equitable practices. Read more of her work on her blog, Syllabusy.
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The corporate conservatives who control the Democratic Party are suffering from cheaters’ remorse.
The DNC and their media allies (NPR, CNN, MSNBC, New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Vox, etc.) subverted the will of primary voters, undermining initial frontrunner Bernie Sanders in order to install the worst candidate of the 20 centrists in the campaign.
Now the power brokers are worried that the befuddled Biden, whom they touted as the Most Electable Against Donald Trump, will lose to him. Rather than take responsibility for their idiocy and force Biden to pull out of a race for which he is obviously physically and mentally unprepared, the corporatist sellouts are preemptively blaming the progressives who warned them about this exact scenario.
A Times headline from February 20th proved prescient: “Democratic Leaders Willing to Risk Party Damage to Stop Bernie Sanders.”
Sorry, right wingers. Biden is on you. You made him the presumptive nominee. If Trump wins again, it’s your fault.
Just as it was last time.
Establishment panic over Biden is most palpable in the pages of the official party organ of the Democratic Party, the Times. “While [Biden] has held consistent leads in most national and swing-state polls, they have not been altogether comfortable ones,” the paper noted on May 15th.
If Biden is to squeak by Trump in November, he requires a comfortable lead now. “A CNN poll released on Wednesday found Mr. Biden leading the president by five percentage points nationwide, but trailing by seven points among voters in crucial battleground states…for some Democrats, the results of the CNN poll again raised the specter that Mr. Biden could win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College, as Hillary Clinton and Al Gore both did.”
Historically, in May of a presidential election year Democrats need a lead of at least 10 points over their Republican rival in order to prevail in a general election. Republicans always close the gap during the last six months of a presidential race.
The Times is pushing Biden’s candidacy via two lines of argument. First, lesser-evilism. As columnist Frank Bruni wrote May 17th, he’ll “take Biden’s confusion over Trump’s corruption.” (Of course Biden is corrupt too.) Second, they claim, Biden should be acceptable. He isn’t Hillary Clinton. Due to the coronavirus crisis, Bidenites say, their man is willing to pivot to the left. (Never mind that progressive programs need to be in place before a crisis, not ramping up a year after it begins.)
The second argument is the easiest to shoot down. Biden has a decades-long track record of voting and governing to the right, including voting to invade Iraq for no good reason. Even now, as tens of millions of Americans lose their jobs and thus their health insurance, Biden refuses to join the rest of the industrialized world by endorsing single-payer healthcare. The Progressives don’t trust Biden. They trust history. History proves Biden isn’t one of them.
Bruni’s argument involves magical thinking too. “At the end of the day, Biden can be trusted to do what Trump didn’t and won’t: stock his administration with qualified professionals. He could compensate for any supposed cognitive deficit with a surplus of talent,” Bruni says. There is no evidence, none, zero, zip, that this is true. Biden could validate that argument by announcing his cabinet nominations now. But he’s not.
Biden leaves progressive voters cold. That matters because the enthusiasm gap could decide the election. “Trump had a consistent edge over Hillary Clinton in enthusiasm [in 2016],” reported CNN’s Harry Enten. “His voters were 4 points more likely to say they were very enthusiastic in voting for him than Clinton’s were for her in the final ABC News/Washington Post poll, even as Clinton led overall. That enthusiasm advantage should have been one of the warning signals to the Clinton campaign. Trump’s current edge in enthusiasm over Biden is even larger. In a late March ABC News/Washington Post poll, 53% of Trump backers said they were very enthusiastic about voting for him. Just 24% of Biden backers said the same about their guy.”
If anything, the enthusiasm gap might widen as billions of dollars of stimulus payment letters bearing Trump’s signature hit voters’ bank accounts and he wraps himself in the trappings of the presidency while Biden sits in his basement trying to figure out how to use his computer camera. If I were Trump, I’d be planning my second term.
Let’s not forget how we got here.
When Bernie Sanders announced he was running again, Democratic-aligned media outlets said he was too old. “Mr. Sanders would be 79 when he assumed office, and after an October heart attack, his health is a serious concern,” the Times said in its absurd editorial joint endorsement of Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren.
Then, when Bernie emerged as frontrunner for the nomination, corporate media presented him as an existential threat. Head-to-head polls showed he was at least as electable as his rivals, yet “journalistic” organizations stated, without evidence, that a left-wing Democrat couldn’t beat Trump. Headlines proliferated:
Remember all those “Can Obama Be Stopped?” headlines from the 2008 primaries. Me neither. When it came to Bernie, pseudo-liberal media didn’t pretend to be objective.
The DNC went after him like crazy.
Bernie Sanders won the key Iowa caucus but Democratic vote-counting chicanery cheated him out of the PR for his win. Party insiders believe that Barack Obama personally arranged for Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg to endorse Joe Biden the day before Super Tuesday. Speaking of which, Sanders won California, the biggest state—but the vote count mysteriously took days, denying him a big headline and an accurately optimistic delegate count in media coverage.
Why ICE’s immigration detention facilities throughout the country have become COVID-19 hotspots.
From its very beginning the Trump administration has aggressively used detention as part of its immigration enforcement strategy. Between 2016 and 2019, immigration detention in the U.S. grew by 45 percent, according to figures based on Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s annual reports. ICE’s use of detainer requests — 165,487 last year — requires the cooperation of local or state law enforcement to transfer people into prolonged detention in the country’s immigration detention facilities.
Transfers of people from criminal custody to immigration detention facilities already constituted a detention-to-deportation pipeline prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but advocates now worry that ICE is transferring people into virus hotbeds. While local and state authorities have granted incarcerated people early release from jails and prisons, people are being caught by ICE’s dragnet use of detainers, further risking the spread of the virus. ICE detention facilities have already become hotspots for the virus throughout the country
Nearly half of ICE’s tested detainees have tested positive for COVID-19.
Some, like Sonoma County resident Coraima Sanchez Nuñez, were transferred to an immigration detention facility before the pandemic. Nuñez was arrested for a probation violation last July, and said she planned, upon release from Sonoma County Jail, to take up her reserved spot in a rehabilitation center.
But ICE issued a detainer, a request to state and local law enforcement agencies to notify them of a person’s release date and to facilitate the transfer of custody, which officials aren’t required by state law to comply with. Nuñez was moved to a facility in San Francisco, then transferred to the Mesa Verde immigration detention facility in Bakersfield, California, where she was held for eight months. As an asthmatic, Nuñez is particularly vulnerable to the virus, but said poor sanitary conditions in Mesa Verde put everyone detained there at risk of getting COVID-19.
For weeks, according to Nuñez, soap dispensers were absent in communal restrooms, and only around mid-April — long after local and national public health officials had issued physical distancing and sanitation recommendations — did Mesa Verde staff finally install one at the entrance to the women’s dorm, after detainees went on a hunger strike. Immigration officials provide one small shampoo bottle and one bar of soap every other day for personal hygiene, including washing hands, bathing and cleaning personal products. Nuñez said detainees, responsible for cleaning the dorm and restrooms, used shampoo, toothpaste and lotion to clean common spaces.
Nuñez went on a two and a half week hunger strike to demand access to protective equipment and testing. “It was like no virus ever existed,” she said. She added that when people exhibited coronavirus symptoms, they were not isolated from other detainees at Mesa Verde.
Nuñez was part of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit filed last month, calling on California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra to stop transfers from California jails and prisons to ICE detention facilities. Such transfers account for most of ICE’s bookings into detention during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the ACLU. Normally, these transfers make up a significant part of new bookings in immigration detention centers. In 2018, inmates at California prisons and jails comprised 38 percent of all ICE arrests in the state, with 30.5 percent coming from local jails and 7.5 percent from state prisons. This week, however, the California Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit.
So far, ICE has reported that 986 detainees have tested positive for COVID-19. The Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego is home to the worst known outbreak, with 149 detainees testing positive. However, only 2,045 out of 27,908 people in ICE custody have been tested. In other parts of the country, ICE transfers have already contributed to the spread of the virus. Nearly two dozen detainees who were moved from New York and Pennsylvania jails have tested positive for COVID-19.
Russell Hott, ICE’s acting assistant director for the Custody Management Division, told a federal district judge that ICE is continuing to transfer detainees from state and local criminal custody, while Enforcement and Removal Operations has otherwise “limited the intake of new detainees being introduced into the ICE detention system.” By April 15, Hott said, ICE’s detained population had dropped by 4,000 since March, and it had reduced its number of arrests by 5,372.
But the transfer of people into ICE custody continues to put many at risk. The Centers for Disease Control has specifically urged authorities to “restrict transfers of incarcerated/detained persons to and from other jurisdictions and facilities, unless necessary for medical evaluation, medical isolation/quarantine, clinical care, extenuating security concerns, or to prevent overcrowding.”
There have been efforts from local and state officials to release inmates early from jails and prisons because of the pandemic. California Gov. Newsom granted early release to approximately 3,500 inmates to reduce crowding as infections began to spread through the state prison system in March. In Los Angeles, Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta ordered the expedited release of pre-trial defendants, considering that detention during the pandemic “could affect the defendant’s health, the health of other detainees, or the health of personnel staffing the anticipated place of confinement.” Among those released because of the risk posed to them by COVID-19 was a 68-year-old man. After being released by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, he was detained by ICE and transferred to Adelanto immigration detention center in San Bernardino County, California.
“It makes very little sense,” said ACLU of Southern California Director of Immigrants’ Rights and senior staff attorney Jennie Pasquarella. “You’re counteracting whatever efforts have been made to reduce populations who are detained because of the threat not only to the detainees, but to public health in general. Those efforts are counteracted by then putting those same people in another carceral setting.”
The governor and the attorney general have a moral and constitutional obligation to stop transferring people to ICE custody during the pandemic.
Emily Ryo, a law and sociology professor at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law who has studied immigration transfers, calls transfers during the pandemic “antithetical” to state and local efforts to address the situation. “It’s causing obviously a big public health threat,” she said, “given the risks involved in overcrowding in congregate settings, and given that it’s not really possible to practice social distancing or practice the level of hygiene necessary to stop the spread of the virus.”
While detained at Mesa Verde, said Nuñez, some people who had transferred from county jails were not quarantined or tested before being allowed into the dorms. And it was only after starting a hunger strike along with 39 other detainees that they were given access to protective equipment. “Being stuck in a congregate setting in immigration detention feels like a death trap,” said Nuñez in her declaration as part of the ACLU lawsuit. “We cannot engage in social distancing, we are forced to make do with the hotel-sized shampoo bottles and bar soaps, and we are not provided with any protective equipment to prevent the spread of the virus.” Having been released two weeks ago, under supervised release and required to wear an ankle monitor, Nuñez said she’s worried about those currently in detention. “I felt forgotten. It’s like two different worlds, being in there and out here,” she said. “I didn’t feel safe. I feel like they’re not ready to handle an outbreak inside.”
ICE Public Affairs Officer Jonathan Moor said in a statement to Capital & Main that there have been no COVID-19 positive detainees at Mesa Verde as of May 15. When asked about detainees’ access to testing, Moor said ICE “is taking all necessary precautionary measures to ensure all ICE detainees are screened medically upon their arrival to our facilities.”
He added: “Comprehensive protocols are in place for the protection of staff and detainee patients, including the appropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE), in accordance with CDC guidance. Medical professionals at ICE detention facilities will also conduct a detailed medical screening for all new ICE detainees within 24 hours of their arrival to ensure that contagious diseases are not spread throughout the facility.”
Last week, 13 women were released from Mesa Verde after a federal judge ordered ICE to identify people to release in order to allow for social distancing during the pandemic in Mesa Verde and Yuba County Jail, a county-run facility that houses both county inmates and ICE detainees in Northern California. A federal judge also ruled that immigration officials must restrict new admissions to the Adelanto immigration facility and drastically reduce the detainee population. As of May 14, 324 people have been released on judicial orders, according to ICE.
Gov. Newsom’s office responded to the lawsuit calling for a moratorium on transfers, telling the ACLU to instead bring a suit against ICE directly, and cited Senate Bill 54, passed in 2017, which calls on state and local law enforcement officials to use discretion when cooperating with immigration detainers. Although the California Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected the lawsuit, it didn’t call into question the governor’s authority to take action that safeguards immigration detainees from safety and health risks.
Pasquarella called the California Supreme Court’s rejection of the lawsuit “disappointing.” “But it does not change the fact that the governor and the attorney general have a moral and constitutional obligation to stop transferring people to ICE custody during the pandemic. California cannot pretend it is not responsible for the virus’s spread and the loss of life in ICE’s detention facilities,” she said.
According to Ryo, ICE’s default use of detention will continue to pose a threat to public health and should be a last resort. She urges the implementation of supervised release, electronic ankle monitoring, or releasing people on their own recognizance or on bail, especially in light of the pandemic.
“All those things are alternatives that ICE can use as a tool to ensure a court appearance,” Ryo said. “And the fact that it’s looking to detention as its first choice, rather than a choice of last resort, and doing so in this pandemic, speaks volumes about its refusal to recognize civil liberties that can also be important to public health safety.”
Strikers at Allan Brothers Fruit. (Photo by Xolotl Edgar Franx)
This week the COVID-related strike in Washington state’s Yakima Valley quadrupled in size, as workers walked out at three more apple packinghouses. More than a hundred stopped work on May 7 at Allan Brothers Fruit, a large apple growing, packing and shipping company in Naches, in Central Washington. On May 12 they were joined by 200 more workers, who walked off the job at the Jack Frost Fruit Co. in Yakima, and at the Matson Fruit Co. in Selah. The next day another 100 workers walked out at the Monson Fruit packing shed, also in Selah.
At the center of the stoppages are two main demands for those who decide to continue working during the pandemic: safer working conditions and an extra $2 an hour in hazard pay.
Demands for safer working conditions and extra hourly hazard pay during the pandemic are powering a strike wave in the Yakima Valley.
Apple sheds line the industrial streets of Yakima Valley’s small towns. Inside these huge concrete buildings, hundreds of people labor shoulder-to-shoulder, sorting and packing fruit. If someone gets sick, it can potentially spread through the workers on the lines, and from them into the surrounding towns. Although packinghouse laborers are almost entirely immigrants from Mexico, their families comprise the stable heart of these areas. Most have lived here for years. Jobs in the sheds are a step up from the fields, with year-round work at 40 hours per week.
This part of agribusiness is by far Central Washington’s largest employer, and the industry has successfully fought off unions for many years. The virus may change that, however, if the strike wave becomes the spark for creating a permanent organization among these workers. It is undoubtedly what the companies fear when they see workers stop the lines, and even more so, when they see farmworker union organizers helping to sustain the walkouts.
“The most important demand for us is that we have a healthy workplace and protection from the virus,” said Agustin Lopez, one of the strike leaders at Allan Brothers. “Fourteen people have left work over the last month because they have the COVID-19. So far as we know, the company isn’t paying them. We need protections at work, like adequate masks, and we want tests. How do we even know if any of us have been infected if there are no tests?” (Allan Brothers Fruit did not respond to phone and email requests for comment for this story.)
He charges that Allan Brothers didn’t disinfect the plant and stop production when the workers got sick. One worker, Jennifer Garton, told the Yakima Herald, “They are not doing what they’re saying they’re doing,” and that workers only heard about the cases of COVID-19 in the plant through their own conversations.
According to Lopez, at the end of April the workers sent an email to company managers, asking for better conditions, extra pay, and the right to take off work. “People were taking their vacations or sick leave or anything they could to stay home. The company said that if we had worked for five weeks we could stay home, but they wouldn’t pay us. We’re only making minimum wage, so how could we do that? And we have no guarantee we would even have our jobs back if we don’t come in to work now.”
In response to the demands, he says the company offered to buy the workers lunch. Over a hundred workers rejected that and struck the company.
The shed of another Yakima packer, Roche Fruit Company, did stop work in April to disinfect the plant, after two workers had become infected. Roche employees then also demanded hazard pay in a message to managers. When the company offered an additional $200 per month, the laborers stopped work after lunch on May 11. After an hour of bargaining, the company offered them $100 per week instead, and they went back to work. Operations manager Alfonso Pineda said the company had already planned to give workers “gratitude pay” for working in difficult circumstances.
“At the heart of the dissatisfaction of all these workers is the fact they are essential workers, but their pay does not reflect that,” says Edgar Franks, the political director of the new union for Washington farm workers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. He explains that workers from both Roche and Allan Brothers got in touch with them when they were getting ready to strike. “The walkouts then started after management refused to raise their wages. At Roche, when union organizers and leadership arrived, management quickly relented. This is the power of the presence of the union.”
But fear is driving the strikes, even more than wages. After walking out of the packing plant, workers at Jack Frost stood in a big circle six feet apart while Claudia, a striker, explained that they were fighting for the health of their whole community. “We want everyone to have a health examination, including our children and other people possibly affected,” she declared. “We want it for our whole family, because we know the virus doesn’t just stay in the plant. It’s outside too.”
At the rally in front of the Allan Brothers packinghouse, another woman said the same thing: that the biggest question was whether they could work without getting sick. “We have people who have been affected in this shed,” she told Yakima city councilwoman Dulce Gutierrez. “We want the company to guarantee that there are no more people who have the virus here at work, so that we can protect ourselves and our families.”
The working conditions themselves are responsible for much of the danger, and Franks says the companies have not been responsive. “Ever since the governor’s order [mandating physical distancing and safe conditions], a lot of the safety measures haven’t reached the workers inside. The workers are elbow-to-elbow on the line, packing the fruit going through there. Workers got sick, and they’re concerned that no one is looking after them or the wellbeing of their family and friends still inside.”
Agustin Lopez has lived in the Yakima Valley and worked in its sheds since 1985. His experience has made him cautious, therefore, about predicting whether workers will decide if a permanent union is the answer to their problems. But when he looks at the waves of people leaving the apple sheds, each company encouraging the next one, he thinks change is not just possible, but happening around him. “This connection between us is something new,” he says, “and there are people out here from lots of the plants. Maybe we are actually a federation.” The answer will be determined by the strike, he believes. “If the companies are willing to negotiate, we’ll listen to what they have to say. And if not, then we will continue with our strike.”