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Despair and Disparity: The Uneven Burdens of COVID-19
The last several months have brought a heightened level of anxiety, anger and exhaustion — feelings that, for many of us, have existed at a steady elevation since the end of 2016. The events of these past few weeks, in particular, are a bleak reminder that the oppressive institutions that have allowed COVID-19 to ravage communities of color continue to perpetuate state-sanctioned and white supremacist violence against Black people in this country.
In the midst of it all, I’ve found light and signs of hope in what has happened in U.S. cities.
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, as Trump threatened military violence against protesters across the country, local leaders created space for collective action in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder — engaging in meaningful community dialogue and supporting de-escalation through community-led safety responses. This reimagining of public safety beyond policing is work that community and grassroots groups have been doing for years.
Following the uprisings, protesters around the country issued calls for police departments to be defunded. Neither 2020 presidential candidate has heeded this demand, and so now, localities across the country are answering the call to action.
In Hartford, Connecticut, city council members proposed a 25 percent reduction in the local police department — focused on divesting from areas within the department that are most likely to contribute to the criminalization of Black and Brown communities and investing in community needs, including the creation and expansion of early childhood centers and investment in technology for students and teachers.
On the other side of the country, the San Diego City Council, with communities, proposed the creation of a $60 million emergency rental assistance program, which would be funded in part by federal CARES Act dollars previously earmarked for police.
Most significantly, a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council have taken a bold step and pledged to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department and create a new transformative model of community safety.
These are bold actions that community leaders and organizers have been pushing for decades. The groundswell of public support and demand for change from people in the streets has accelerated progress and made them possible in this moment.
Meanwhile, following the outbreak of COVID-19, in every corner of this country, local elected officials sprang into action, displaying the leadership we needed at the onset of the pandemic. In many places, mayors and county officials put out physical distancing guidelines before their governors, city councils passed moratoriums on evictions and utility shut-offs to keep people safely in their homes, and school boards ensured students and families were able to access meals and technology for remote learning while classrooms transitioned into a virtual setting.
You don’t have to look hard to find bold, inspiring examples of this. In Oakland, California, the city council passed what is regarded as one of the strongest eviction moratoriums in the country, protecting residential, nonprofit organization, and small business renters from both evictions and rent increases during the pandemic. In Austin, Texas, councilmembers allocated $15 million to direct relief services and financial assistance. It was among the first places to provide assistance to undocumented communities who continue to be left out of the federal relief packages. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, legislation to send absentee ballot applications and pre-paid return envelopes to the city’s 300,000 registered voters has now inspired state officials to do the same statewide.
What’s been even more inspiring to see is that in the moments of confusion and desperation, we have forged community — learning from each other, working together across jurisdictions, finding strength and courage, and providing comfort through clear and consistent communication. That is what local progress (in every sense) is all about. And at a time where our federal government continues to ignore, alienate or even deliberately target our communities, the importance of this can’t be understated.
History has shown us that moments of disruption can create frightening circumstances for austerity, vulture capitalism, privatization, and the reinforcement of the interlocking systems of racism and patriarchy.
They also create openings for powerful social solidarity and transformative change.
Our future will be fundamentally altered by the choices we make in the coming weeks and months. It’s not enough to do what is required to get things “back to normal,” if “normal” means people working multiple jobs with no health insurance, the constant fear of eviction or deportation, police brutality and a planet hurtling toward climate destruction. We can’t go back to that version of normal. We want better.
That’s why we must work right now to provide immediate relief to communities while also building a better, more equitable future by fundamentally reshaping our society.
How do we do that? By strengthening civic infrastructure and rebalancing power to center communities historically marginalized by government and policymaking and who today are the most impacted by police brutality, the COVID-19 crisis, skyrocketing economic inequality, and the continuing threat of dislocation and disaster caused by our ongoing climate crisis. And this needs to happen from both the inside and out.
As a movement of local elected officials fighting for racial and economic justice, my organization, Local Progress, seeks to innovate and spread local policies that center equity and protect communities both in these uncertain times and far beyond. That includes, for example, creating local programs to provide rental assistance while we continue to push our federal leaders to enact universal rent and mortgage cancellation. It means enacting an Essential Workers’ Bill of Rights while fundamentally recognizing teachers, sanitation staff and domestic workers as invaluable assets that always deserve dignified wages, job protections and safe work conditions.
The multiple crises unfolding before us will reshape the relationship between people and our government for a generation to come — it will change our understanding of our democracy and what it means to engage. To lead in this moment, we need new models of governance grounded in the fact that the best ideas are coming not from Congress or the White House, but from those who have traditionally been left out of our political decision-making. Just as the fight for housing justice comes from the millions of Americans who each day are forced to make the choice between whether to pay their rent or feed their families, the fight for labor rights and expanding worker protections comes from the now-essential workers who are among the lowest-paid, least economically secure, and least likely to have hazard pay or paid leave policies. As we strive to build a model of collaborative and inclusive governance, we must commit to principled engagement around a shared vision. We must continue to build community and take collective action with the urgency the moment demands and the foresight of the future we want to build.
We will remember that we are leaders with a bully pulpit we can use to amplify the voices of our communities, organizers who can build powerful coalitions that change the political reality in our cities, and colleagues and peers that can push and center each other. 2020 has made it clear how important it is to have bold action at all levels of government. We will push state and federal leaders to build from the ground up and follow the lead of local governments that are centered in the needs and priorities of our communities.
As we look forward and start to think about what our future will look like, the leadership, community and care that have led us through the last few weeks will sustain us through hard times ahead. We must show up every day to this work not knowing if we will succeed — today, tomorrow and in the next year — to meet the desperate and immediate needs of our communities and the fundamental challenge of reorienting our society to one that is more just and equitable. But the scale of the challenge before us is precisely why we continue to show up and do the work. This is how we will build our future.
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