President Joe Biden cast his successful election as a signal of a return to some semblance of normalcy after the chaos that defined the reign of Donald Trump, as if “normal” could describe a world obsessed with profit and facing a pandemic and climate crisis.
Instead, 2021 was a year of uncertainty and right-wing backlash to any small amount of progress made by the social movements that saw a burst of momentum in 2020. It began with the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters attempting to overthrow Biden’s election, a clear sign that “normal” was not just around the corner. The attack should have been an embarrassing setback for Trump’s movement, but many Republicans tried to sweep the deadly riot under the rug and join Trump in a relentless campaign of misinformation. Conservatives under fire demanded a change of subject, so anti-racists everywhere came under attack, leading to alarming efforts to stifle voter turnout, silence educators and insert fascist politics into education.
Still, 2021 saw organized resistance to climate destruction and the politics of white grievance, despair and mass death. After a year of shifting narratives, here’s just a few of our favorite stories from 2021 that help us understand where we are at today.
COVID and the Variants
Just as experts predicted, the Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19 arose in populous areas of the world where governments struggled to vaccinate enough people. Delta and its contagious mutations are believed to originate in India, and Omicron in South Africa — two countries that have been pleading with wealthy nations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive intellectual property protections for vaccines so cheaper generics could be produced at a mass scale for lower-income countries.
Biden, facing mounting pressure and knowing full well that variants would shatter progress made toward ending the pandemic at home, eventually got behind the idea, but critics say the United States has not pushed forcefully enough at the WTO. International trade protections on vaccine patents, formulas and know-how remain, making pharmaceutical CEOs into billionaires with enough wealth to vaccinate lower-income countries where jabs largely remain out of reach.
Today, vaccine makers — many of them originally funded by the U.S. and other wealthy governments to develop vaccines — still refuse to share their “recipes” with biotech firms in India and Africa, despite the efforts of dozens of nations, as well as public health and human rights groups across the world. Instead of a patent waiver, the world got vaccine-piercing COVID variants.
The Biden administration is once again on the defensive, promising to distribute at least 500 million free tests after mocking the idea. Lies about COVID fueled Trump and his sycophants and continue to claim lives, and the U.S reached an unfathomable milestone of 800,000 deaths this month. (Trump recently voiced support for vaccines because he wants credit for the research and billions of tax dollars his administration shared with private companies to assist in development, but Trump’s embrace of “vaccine nationalism” helped set the stage for the global “vaccine apartheid” we see today.)
Since the beginning, the pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on low-income people, frontline workers, people of color and the millions confined to jails, prisons and immigration prisons. Truthout’s award-winning coverage of the pandemic will continue in 2022 — because COVID is here to stay. As Truthout’s Kelly Hayes points out, surviving “Apocalypse Normal” does not require us to pass judgement on others or wrap ourselves in cynicism. Social justice requires a “just recovery,” not a return to “normalcy” that left so many behind to begin with. We can achieve much more by listening and organizing together to proactively shape the COVID agenda in 2022.
Climate Destruction and Indigenous Resistance
As destructive droughts, wildfires and heat waves struck large swaths of the U.S. this summer, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report provided another dire warning: Unless we radically transform our economies and way of life, climate change will do it for us. Disruption is happening in every corner of the world, and most Americans now agree that harms caused by global warming and climate-fueled disasters a part of life. As Truthout’s William Rivers Pitt wrote at the time:
Is the United States capable of such a radical transformation? We can’t get people to wear masks in order to save their own lives and the lives of their loved ones, there are millions of dollars to be made lying to a large segment of the population about issues like climate disruption, and our governing bodies cannot summon the necessary majority to fix a pothole.
Our capitalism is driving everything that is murdering the environment — oil, war, consumption — and that capitalism has powerful defenders.
Indeed, the United Nations Climate Summit in November was under the heavy influence of capitalist interests and the fossil fuel industry. The resulting “compromise” agreement was much weaker than activists had hoped, and as Noam Chomsky pointed out, the real climate action that brought us hope at COP26 was out in the streets.
At home, Biden pledged to cut U.S. carbon emissions in half by 2030, but we have a very long way to go. Biden’s climate agenda was repeatedly stunted by the expanding fossil fuel industry and Sen. Joe Manchin, the conservative West Virginia Democrat with ties to coal who continues to object to any serious effort to move away from fossil fuels.
Yet 2021 also saw plenty of climate action, even if it didn’t come from Congress. After all, the phase-out of fossil fuels must begin where the industry has hurt people most. In places like Louisiana, movements for environmental justice are already claiming victories.
In October, Indigenous-led Water Protectors and climate activists converged on Washington, D.C., for a historic week of action demanding the U.S. move away from fossil fuels. The mass protests came after seven years of resistance to the Line 3 pipeline in northern Minnesota, which saw standoffs over treaty rights and police repression in 2021 as Enbridge Energy pushed to bring the tar sands pipeline into operation, a reminder of the historic resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock in 2016.
Indigenous activists and land stewards are leading the fight against new fossil fuel infrastructure in the U.S. and across the world, laying the groundwork for the economic and energy transformation needed to thwart climate chaos. Truthout’s Candice Bernd tracked the Line 3 pipeline and the oil industry’s growing footprint to the Gulf Coast, where Indigenous activists are vowing to resist plans to rapidly expand fossil fuel infrastructure. Ahead of Thanksgiving, Kelly Hayes urged us to ditch the “colonial pageantry” and support the Water Protectors who risk their freedom to save a world for all of us.
Upswing in Labor Organizing
This year saw a profound uptick in struggle on the job across the U.S., as workers at Kellogg, Nabisco, John Deere and multiple universities went on strike. While Amazon successfully defeated a high-profile union drive in Bessemer, Alabama, the National Labor Relations Board ordered a new election after organizers accused the company of intimidating workers. 2021 also saw Starbucks baristas, restaurant workers, health care staff, delivery drivers, and museum employees win unions, pay raises and better working conditions.
Amid the wave of strikes in the U.S., dubbed “Striketober,” trade unions in South Korea also showed us how to exercise working-class power on a mass scale.
“Everywhere, the working masses are making history, demanding a different future,” wrote Jia Hong and Ju-Hyun Park for Truthout.
The Overdose Crisis and the “War on Drugs”
The pandemic exacerbated another public health emergency: the drug overdose crisis, which reached terrifying new heights in 2020 and 2021. Despite billions of dollars and a decade of attempts at containing the crisis, more than 100,000 people died of an overdose in a year’s time in the U.S.
Current policies built around the “war on drugs” are clearly failing. The overdose crisis has embedded the drug war deep inside the medical system, reinforcing barriers to treatment and systemic racism in health care, one reason why overdose deaths are rising fastest in Black communities. A poll released earlier this year suggests a clear majority of Americans are ready for the drug war to end.
In June, as the number of overdose deaths continued to shatter records, Truthout’s Maya Schenwar reflected on the life and tragic death of her sister, Keeley. Drug policing discourages people from accessing medical care, Schenwar wrote, and the only “solutions” offered by the criminal legal system can be deadly:
In early 2019, my sister was sentenced to two years in drug court, which meant entering a court-mandated treatment program — the type of program Biden is pushing to expand. Keeley was frequently drug-tested; she knew that if there were illicit drugs in her system, she could be sent back to jail — and possibly locked up for longer than if she’d been sentenced by a regular court. Keeley didn’t feel ready to quit heroin, but she tried, in order to comply with court orders.
When you stop using heroin, your tolerance lowers, making you more vulnerable to overdose. When Keeley relapsed, she died.
My sister breathed her last breath in a tent under a viaduct, hiding from the police.
Truthout published Keeley’s writing this year, a harrowing account of giving birth while incarcerated. In her memory, Truthout launched the Keeley Schenwar Memorial Essay Prize, which was awarded to Emile DeWeaver and Pinky Shear, two writers who also shared their experiences inside the carceral system.
Some of our favorite stories of 2021 flew under the radar, and others were never fully covered by the dominant media to begin with. All of them leave us with a burning question: What will we do with our rage in 2022?
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