Antiracist activists and organizers from around the country describe what Black Lives Matter means in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aislinn Pulley of Black Lives Matter Chicago and The Torture Justice Project and brian bean of Rampant Magazine ask a roundtable of Black activists to share their thoughts about anti-Black racism and the COVID-19 pandemic. Respondents from Chicago include Frank Chapman of the Chicago chapter of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, Damon Williams of the #LetUsBreathe Collective, and Alyx Goodwin and Todd St Hill of LEFT OUT Magazine. Respondents also include Khury Petersen-Smith of Black 4 Palestine from Boston and Haley Pessin of Legal Workers Rank and File from New York City.
The impact of COVID-19 in the United States has intensified, with the highest number of confirmed cases now globally, deaths increasing, stay-at-home orders of one kind or another being instituted in most cities, and a looming massive economic depression. How will the historic legacy and present reality of anti-Black racism shape the impact of COVID-19 on Black America?
Alyx Goodwin & Todd St Hill: The effect of the current economic and global health crisis on Black America is staring the rest of America in the face. Much like how video recordings made racist police brutality and murder of Black people an undeniable reality in the “post-racial” America of the 2010s, recent reports of the racial disparities of the COVID-19 virus have reified racial capitalism for every American with a cell phone.
For at least two weeks there has been story after story of the devastating toll the virus has had on Black communities in cities and states across the country. Many were states and cities already made infamous for their abhorrent neglect of Black communities and working-class communities as in Louisiana, Michigan (Detroit in particular), Chicago, New York, and New Jersey. Meanwhile the putrid and dehumanizing conditions of the US prison system have been exacerbated by the rapid spread of the virus in the prison population.
The current contenders for the White House have produced little more than the usual: platitudes and crumbs for working families from centrist Democrats and endless bailouts for the rich from the Republicans. The problem is this formula for the status quo, which is exactly what frustrates the majority of working-class Americans, particularly Black people. This situation only compounds the already pressurized situation in many Black communities. Cynicism balloons and hope withers in situations like these.
As the population is forced to choose between remaining home to protect themselves and their loved ones from the virus or leaving their homes for work to save Trump’s economy, Black people will continue to bear the brunt of an increasing unemployment rate. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, Black people already were struggling. Returning to any sense of normalcy is impossible without addressing the racial disparities that are intensified by the COVID-19 virus and the new health and economic problems the virus has caused. Black people are looking for action in place of “hope” now more than ever. The current political and economic situation in the US requires action from working-class and poor Black people and our movements.
Damon Williams: Anti-Blackness is a death-making phenomenon at all times. The racist structural nature of our society deprives Black people of adequate access to food, water, shelter, and medical care. Impeding people’s ability to sufficiently meet their primary needs is violent and inhumane, and this has been our normal. Black people’s bodies are at risk of incarceration, confinement, and policing in militarized communities. Black people experience dehumanizing education and labor conditions. All of these destructive dynamics leave us susceptible to traumas, violence, and and psychological injury. This is our reality, and it leaves us more vulnerable to our environments and toxic conditions. We are in a perpetual crisis, so every general crisis or state of emergency has a compounding and concentrated impact on our communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic allows us to see the pernicious death-gap play out more immediately. Once again we have to accept that we will lose our people, it is beyond our control. It is important that this historic tragedy is understood for its human foundations. It is not inherently true that Black people are more vulnerable even though we are forced to more consistently face our mortality. We must be clear that the unequal outcomes we’re observing result from active choices and decisions made over and over again to the point where the fragility of our lives is taken for granted. This is reason for anger.
This pandemic will inevitably embolden our liberatory fervor. We are not going to passively sit as spectators while we watch our people die. Even when we are stuck in place, we will move. Creation, resistance, resilience, rebellion, quiet, nurturance, space making, cultivating, performing, teaching, and building are embedded in our DNA. We will continue and expand our traditions. We will survive. As always, crisis brings a paradoxical and tragically ironic opportunity. Radicality has never been more accessible than now. The entirety of our society’s structures and their limitations are in full view. Agents of power and decision makers are forced to reveal themselves. It has never been clearer that our legislative, corporate, medical, and carceral institutions don’t work and are not designed to adequately protect us or provide what we need. Space is opening up. Those of us not directly affected by the virus and who have some material privileges will be able to rest, reflect, and reconnect. Others of us will be in active modes of response. We can all meet on common ground with a tangible understanding of what work needs to be done. This is a time of clarity. This moment allows us to reach a greater level of focus.
Haley Pessin: Capitalists only declare a crisis when it affects business as usual. In reality, this pandemic has exacerbated the multiple crises of economic and racial inequality that already existed for Black people. The pandemic, in conjunction with the economic downturn, has erased the previous decade of job growth, so that unemployment went from a fifty-year low to twenty-two million unemployed in a matter of weeks. Yet, even before the pandemic, the rate of unemployment for Black people was double that for whites. Moreover, jobs created during this period consisted primarily of low-wage, temporary, and nonunion work. When combined with racist hiring practices and the racial wealth gap, the result today is that Black people are disproportionately concentrated in low-wage jobs and cannot afford to miss a paycheck, leaving them more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.
This is why, in cities across the country, the most severely hit neighborhoods are predominantly composed of immigrants, the poor, and Black people, who are less able to work from home or practice social distancing. For example, in New York City, Black people are twice as likely as whites to die of COVID-19, with residents of the Bronx dying at a rate three times higher than those in affluent Manhattan. Due to racist housing policies, Black people are more likely to live in substandard, segregated housing located in closer proximity to pollution centers and are, therefore, more likely to have pre-existing health conditions, like asthma, along with overall worse health outcomes that increase their risk of dying of coronavirus. This is no coincidence, given that New York is both the epicenter of the crisis and one of the most unequal and segregated cities in the country. In short, these preconditions ensure that the brunt of this pandemic will continue to be borne by those who face the worst oppression and repression in society.
Frank Chapman: Just several months ago we were dealing with the historical reality that for the last four centuries Black people have been forced to live under social conditions imposed by 250 slavery years and 150 years of institutionalized racism. Racist ideology was designed to explain slavery as simply a reflection of the inborn inferiority of Black people. The racist policies of the government create for Black people massive unemployment, decrepit housing conditions, massive evictions and foreclosures, inadequate and poor delivery of healthcare services, and recently a critical denial of public education through the closing of schools.
During this pandemic crisis the existing preconditions of the aforementioned racist policies render Black people extremely vulnerable. COVID-19 infections will spread through our communities like a forest fire causing sickness and death. The lack of a federal response in terms of testing, treating, and hospitalization is having a deadly impact on Black people, causing death and unspeakable social devastation. This why Black people in Chicago—who make up less than a third of the population—are 70 percent of the death toll.
To address this health crisis in our communities there should be massive testing, treatment, and hospitalization. Immediate safe and healthy shelters must be created for the homeless. Hospital beds must be made available, as well PPE for health-care workers and masks for everyone. Cook County Jail, juvenile detention centers, immigrant detention centers, and the state prisons must be depopulated because they are clearly death traps
What about the so-called stay-at-home orders? Well first of all they are not really orders, they are requests. There is no uniform social practice of people staying at home like they did in China, for example. A lot of Black people work in the service industry, in the postal service and public transportation, not to mention hospitals, grocery stores, fast food chains, etc. And so they have to go to work. Those who work in businesses that have been shut down are forced onto the unemployment rolls and will probably be the last to get their unemployment checks from the government. Meanwhile they will face evictions and foreclosures on a massive scale that could dwarf what happened in the 2008 housing crisis.
During this pandemic we should not have to pay rent or mortgages, and the economic stimulus package should reach everyone in our communities, the homeless, the chronically unemployed, children who depend on food stamps and public school meals, everyone!
What does Black Lives Matter mean—or what should it mean—for the organizing and activism necessary to resist the immediate health impact and the more far-reaching and severe social and economic impact?
Khury Petersen-Smith: To answer I would draw on James Baldwin, who wrote:
Color is not a human or personal reality; it is a political reality. But this is a distinction so extremely hard to make that the West has not been able to make it yet.
And at the center of this dreadful storm, this vast confusion, stand the Black people of this nation, who must now accept the fate of a nation that has never accepted them, to which they were brought in chains.James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
The phrase “Black Lives Matter” means many things. In this moment, one thing that it means is that it is, once again, necessary to call attention to the gaping wound of anti-Black racism that is so central to life in this country. That wound is not only a scar from slavery long ago; it is reopened every day, for five centuries. Black people bear its pain, but it disfigures the whole of this place called the United States.
Today the wound looks like Black people, who put on uniforms in the morning and drove buses and trains, who drive large vans down lonely streets to deliver packages, or go to work in a warehouse, or bag groceries, who had inadequate healthcare and abusive landlords and asthma before the pandemic dying, alone, without funerals. As of the writing of this piece, Black people, who constitute 13 percent of the US population, make up 50 percent of those dying of COVID-19.
Our humanity—and that of other vulnerable parts of the population, particularly our Native and undocumented relatives—should be enough to earn the attention of others, though it never seems to be.
But also, if this pandemic has revealed anything, it is that we really are in this together—all of us. The notion that the problems weighing on Black America could be isolated to us was always a fiction. Now it should be clear: as long as we get sick, in communities that become sites of infection, the rest of the country cannot be free of this disease.
Solving the crisis of the outbreak today requires honestly addressing the other problems that set its stage. There is a debt whose payment has been deferred, generations on, but today offers a new opportunity to pay it.
What would reparations mean today, in light of COVID? The attention that Black communities and disproportionately Black workplaces, sites of the virus’ spread, need is born from the years of neglect and oppression of those places and their people. As this country scrambles to provide the care and supplies necessary for people to survive, Black people and others from marginalized communities should be the first to receive these things. Care should not be concentrated in the glittering hospitals of downtowns or medical districts, but extended to our neighborhoods. Others too, but ours first.
We should demand this, alongside demands for adequate equipment for medical professionals and service workers, as well as the suspension of rent and the elimination of debt. It is only the very beginning of reckoning with what this country owes.
Of course there are those who will dismiss a call for special attention to Black people and communities. This is not new; that call has been dismissed again and again over the course of US history by those seeking to uphold the status quo and by many wanting to change it, too. They should just know that dismissing the debt and the call for reparations are merely deferring the question to the future. Debts never go away.
Frank Chapman: I think we should utilize every means available to us to pressure the government and other institutions in our communities to end the inequalities that exist because they are not just killing us and making us suffer during this pandemic, they have been killing us and forcing us into social savagery all along. In this moment Black Lives Matter means fighting for our people to get all the things we need, joining in united struggle with workers and the masses of people to demand of the powers that be the systemic changes that are commensurate with our demands for freedom, justice, and equality.
Haley Pessin: Black Lives Matter means that as we fight efforts by our employers, state governments, and the Trump administration to send us back to work, or to force essential workers to risk their lives without proper safety gear, it is crucial that we keep racial justice at the forefront of our demands. While the pandemic impacts all of us, we need to fight for more than a return to normal. That normal was already intolerable for most working-class people. For Black people, it was often deadly. We need to stand in solidarity with the most oppressed, especially the undocumented immigrants, incarcerated people, and Black communities, so that none of us is left out or pitted against other workers as part of the recovery process.
If the government can find $1.5 trillion to bail out the banks, then they have the money to ensure universal access to healthcare, housing, and safety for all. That said, Black people are not passive victims of this pandemic. Black workers, who are overrepresented in essential work, will play a key role in the workplace fights that are happening across the country to demand dignity, safety, and the right not to die for the bosses’ profits. They will be equally central in resisting efforts to restart the economy on the backs of workers and the oppressed.
Damon Williams: Primarily, Black Lives Matter must mean what it has always meant. It is both condemnation and prayer, criticism and affirmation, a diss-track and a love letter, a political and poetic offering. Black Lives Matter is an external claim, loudly amplifying the central contradiction of our society by exposing its failure to uphold its ideals, these shortcomings are made evident by the realities of our existence. Black Lives Matter is a quiet call for internal reflection, reminding ourselves that we are here, we are present, an altar call inviting us to appreciate life and leave offering. Let us take a moment to be still and to move; let us fight back, let us play, let us pray, let us breathe.
Black Lives Matter has grown to mean Black and Indigenous. Our movement has evolved as we push to center the intersection of people of African ancestry and the people indigenous to the Americas. We are learning we are the same in more ways than we are different. Not only is there solidarity between two distinct groups with related experiences, but within many of us both legacies coexist. It is a solidarity which opens access for us to connect with Latinx communities who identify more with the colonized than with the colonizer. The peopling of America is a more complicated history than we understand. We are transforming ourselves within those complexities. Our movements honor those with anticolonial, anti-imperial, anticarceral, antigenocidal ancestral relationships to this land. In this time we must intensify our commitment to building liberation with oppressed people as we are the most at risk to public health crises.
Lastly, Black Lives Matter has always been an organizing praxis. In this time we must build and rebuild collective bodies. We must cooperate to make coordinated decisions. We must develop and nurture relationships. And it is important that we answer these mandates responsively and responsibly as we allow the experiences of those harmed by our failing structures to guide and inform the work. In this time of acute danger we must remain consistent and diligent in centering the needs of the most marginalized amongst us. Doing so will require accessible and equitable processes designed to combat our internalized elitism, which aligns with the norms of ableist cisheteropatriarchy or “traditional middle class values.” In this time we must be for our people, all of our people. We have work to do.
Alyx Goodwin & Todd St Hill: We have to understand that we need all working-class Black people to build massive collective power. The beautiful thing about these efforts of rent strikes, mutual aid, and debt strikes are that people are not just individually striking for themselves, people are striking for our most vulnerable as well. This (and much more) is the kind of action that breeds hope for humanity. This is also probably some of the most collective power or pushback we’ve seen in our lifetime, and it’s bringing more analysis that involves everyone at the same time, more than even the time immediately following the 2016 election. So, it is important not to lose ground on the progress that has been made in terms of confronting racial capitalism. Moving forward not only requires the kind of uncompromising, unapologetic, and nuanced antiracist politics that breathed life into the Black Lives Matter movement, but it also requires our movements to develop the organizing skills to be able to navigate the US political landscape as it will undoubtedly change over the coming months and years.
What does your organizing against anti-Black racism look like at this moment during the pandemic?
Alyx Goodwin & Todd St Hill: Political education is a priority and an opportunity we all should feel some responsibility to participate in right now. We are in the middle of a public health crisis and approaching a major economic crisis. Both are strong examples in real time we can use to orient our folks towards an analysis that is antiracist, built among and by the masses of working and poor people, and against racial and disaster capitalism. LEFT OUT in particular is using our space to amplify the stories and experiences of working class and poor Black people to provide more stability and structure to the foundation we’re building for this movement of Black left politics.
Haley Pessin: I have been working with racial justice and prison abolition organizations as part of the #FreeThemAll and #ClemencyforAll campaigns, which demand that Governor Cuomo use his authority to free incarcerated people in jails and prisons across New York state. People incarcerated on the notorious Rikers Island in NYC have had their jail sentences turned into potential death sentences, as COVID-19 spreads rapidly while people are denied the most basic sanitation supplies. As of April 1st, Rikers had the fastest growing rate of COVID-19 infections in the state with the most cases in the country with the most cases worldwide. The first person on Rikers to die of COVID-19 was incarcerated on a technicality.
As a legal service worker, it has been enraging to watch my colleagues spend countless hours trying desperately to get our clients out before it’s too late. Meanwhile, Governor Cuomo could release virtually everyone with the stroke of a pen. The NY legislature also rammed through a massive austerity budget that includes $400 million in cuts to hospitals while, at the same time, attempting to roll back hard-won bail reform laws. Austerity and policing typically go hand-in-hand, and will only result in more Black and Latinx people behind bars at a time when that is the most dangerous place to be.
I am also organizing with other groups to strengthen and develop networks that we hope will better position us to resist these measures now and after this crisis, especially through our power as workers. I am a member of Legal Workers’ Rank & File (LWRF, a New York-based, cross-union network of labor militants), which just released a statement outlining our vision for a COVID-19 response that puts people before profit. The issues we raise—around housing, immigrant rights, and mass incarceration—are also racial justice issues.
Damon Williams: A central part of my organizing has been to build a stronger and healthier connection to self. I highly recommend this work to all who are situated to access it. We need to build and nurture our minds, spirits and bodies whenever we can.
However, more tangibly, I have remained involved in external communal work, primarily with The #LetUsBreathe Collective and AirGo Media. #LetUsBreathe was working to launch a summer long land-activation movement building series named #FreeTown in the legacy of our 2016 #FreedomSquare occupation. We are aiming to concentrate on the intersection of incarceration and housing and planning to gather people in unused lots near The #BreathingRoom Space to do healing, organizing and creative work as a method to bring us closer to our vision of a world without police and prisons and where everyone has a home.
We’ve continued designing #FreeTown with virtual gatherings, which has birthed our Stimulus Package, offering $100 payments to artists and movement workers impacted by coronavirus.
I’ve also continued the work of addressing patriarchy, gendered and sexual violence through healing, relationship building, consciousness raising and envisioning new response systems with Black men. This is done through the program #ManUpManDown, which is now convening weekly though video chats. Also, I am continuing my media work with AirGo. We’ve launched #OnTheLine, a podcast series with people responding on the ground during the crisis.
I’m also organizing as a movement participant. Our movement upholds an abolitionist framework and is pushing our society towards decarceration. Right now our call is to #FreeThemAll. I’ve participated in noise caravans surrounding locked facilities and been on calls supporting local activist and survivor of police torture Mark Clements, who was targeted for raising the demand that imprisoned people be released from Cook County Jail. This call to action is state and nation wide. I work to show up and support this critical work, especially in a time when the consequences are immediate.
We are organizing to bring us closer to the world we want to see. Despite heartbreaking loss, engineered scarcity and experienced lack, we are fortunate to have what we need, because we are what we need.
Frank Chapman, along with Angela Davis, led the re-founding of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression in 2019. As Field Organizer of the Chicago chapter of the Alliance, he launched the movement to demand community control of the police through legislation for an elected civilian police accountability council (CPAC). He is the author of: The Damned Don’t Cry: Pages from the Life of a Former Prisoner and Organizer, and will be releasing his second book soon on Marxism-Leninism and the Black liberation struggle in the U.S.
Alyx Goodwin and Todd St Hill are founding editors of LEFT OUT Magazine, an emerging print and online magazine covering Black politics and culture. Help them to publish and sustain their work by donating to LEFT OUT Magazine. Follow them on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Haley Pessin is a socialist based in Queens, NY. She is a member of 1199 SEIU and Legal Workers Rank & File (LWRF).
Khury Petersen-Smith is a researcher who studies and writes about U.S. empire, Black liberation, Palestine, and decolonization. He is a co-founder of Black 4 Palestine.
Damon Williams is an organizer, media maker, educator, facilitator and hip-hop performing artist. Damon is the co-founder and co-director of #LetUsBreathe Collective and co-creator of AirGo Media which produces a weekly podcast and radio show.