Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes.
This week we’ve witnessed a new chapter in Trump’s desperation to replace headlines about the massive death toll caused by his bungled response to COVID-19 with headlines about anarchists and unrest.
The Department of Justice on Monday released a list of cities it has deemed “anarchist jurisdictions,” in response to a memo issued by President Trump earlier this month. The memo directed Attorney General William Barr to identify jurisdictions “that have permitted violence and the destruction of property to persist and have refused to undertake reasonable measures to counteract these criminal activities (anarchist jurisdictions).” The Department of Justice has now deemed New York City, Portland and Seattle “anarchist jurisdictions” and has threatened to withhold federal funds from those city governments. The DOJ says it is working to identify other supposed “anarchist jurisdictions.” The department’s purported rationale for labeling these cities “anarchist jurisdictions” included city councils voting to cut police funding, the refusal to prosecute protesters for unlawful assembly, the rejection of intervention by federal law enforcement, and law enforcement officials suffering injuries during protests. The cities the administration has labelled “anarchist districts” are Democratically led cities Trump has repeatedly attacked and ridiculed, so we can expect that if further designations are made, the label will probably fall on other cities that Trump regularly demeans, like Chicago.
The real purpose of this spectacle could not be clearer. As the election approaches, Trump is desperate to distract us from the catastrophic results of his failed response to COVID-19. In reality, anarchist organizers have been busy since the start of this pandemic, alongside many others, doing mutual aid work and other community organizing, and attending to needs that the Trump administration has not. Some have been in the streets protesting, but Trump’s efforts to conflate boogeyman stereotypes about anarchism with all Black Lives Matter protests is part of his larger fascist agenda. We must also consider what these designations foreshadow with regard to the election, Republican efforts to suppress votes, and Trump’s potential efforts to invalidate the election’s outcome. We will talk more soon about those on-the-ground concerns, and about some of the mutual aid work and protests Trump is mischaracterizing, but today I want to talk about what he is trying to distract us from by doing this.
Last week, the United States crossed the terrible milestone of having officially lost more than 200,000 people to COVID-19. The true human cost of this virus obviously greatly exceeds any numbers rattled off by politicians, but the Trump administration’s propaganda has been aimed at minimizing coronavirus fatalities. Last month, the president retweeted a false claim that only 9,000 people had died as a direct result of the disease in the U.S. Trump’s suppression of collective acknowledgement and collective grief is highly fascistic, and resisting that suppression is part of resisting fascism. For that reason, some friends and I co-organized [another] We Grieve Together vigil on social media last week, uplifting the names of people who have been lost and messages of grief and comfort, as well as resources for people coping with grief. The event was really beautiful and I think it helped a lot of people step into a space of collective grief, which is something a lot of our hearts and minds need right now, whether we realize it or not. The work of commemoration and memorialization in this moment is a moral, emotional and spiritual imperative — and so is collective empathy.
If you would like to join such efforts, Cleve Jones and other organizers around the country are organizing a National Week of Mourning October 4-11. I will be putting a link to the main website for those vigils in the transcript and show notes, in case any of you would like to sign up to organize one in your area. I am co-organizing one myself. My collective and I are putting together an event called Signs, Shrines, Collages and a Mixtape, that people who are sheltering in place can participate in solo or in small groups. I plan to make a collage. I might even wheatpaste somewhere, who knows? But we definitely invite all of you to join us in using the graphics from our #WeGrieveTogether image folder to create your own sign, collage or shrine. We are also working on a COVID vigil mixtape that will be played though loudspeakers outside the Metropolitan Correctional Facility in downtown Chicago during the week of vigils. It will feature speeches from grassroots organizers and music from Chicago artists.
Transcripts of the speeches featured in the mixtape will be included in a COVID-19 memorial zine that will be distributed to imprisoned people. The zine will be accessible to everyone online. It’s possible the speeches may be spliced up a bit in the mixtape, during the creative process — I don’t know because I am leaving that part to the creatives. Today, I thought I would share my speech for the vigil with you all, to honor those we have lost, and to better explain why these collages, this mixtape and these vigils are so important.
My name is Kelly Hayes. I am a Native writer and a prison abolitionist, organizing in Chicago, Illinois. Over 950,000 people have died of COVID-19 worldwide. More than 200,000 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 in the United States, but we know the real number is much higher. We know that the prison industrial complex will always suppress the severity of the horrors behind its walls. We know that even before COVID, prisoners were living in torturous conditions that were stripping years off of people’s lives. We know that for many people living in cages, and outside of them, survival was already a daily struggle. And now, as winter approaches, we know that the most vulnerable among us, including those trapped in prisons, jails and detention centers, are in the crosshairs. The conditions of poverty, imprisonment and housing insecurity make COVID transmission more likely, but the threats we are faced with are not grounded in circumstance alone. Because, in many cases, death is being dealt out with great intention.
When people are warehoused in conditions that we know will breed a virus, a decision is being made about what will happen to many of those people. Capitalists, and the death-makers of the prison industrial complex, have always cultivated and maintained conditions that they know will be unsurvivable for many. In this instance, we are seeing a pandemic rage like wildfire through jails and correctional facilities and detention centers, just as it has torn through retirement homes and assisted living facilities. This virus has highlighted who we deem as disposable in this society in horrible ways, but the story doesn’t end there.
We can refuse to let these deaths be swept aside or written off. There is a reason our collective grief has been suppressed with lies and political circus acts during this pandemic. Because there is power in solidarity and collective memorialization, and the powerful are afraid of that empathy and solidarity. The fascist Trump administration has sentenced hundreds of thousands of people to suffer and die horribly. In truth, the number could run in the millions, given that deportations have continued at a swift pace, even though COVID-19 is currently running rampant in U.S. immigration detention centers. We are witnessing the acceleration of the United States as a genocidal project. But we are not powerless, in fact, we are the only power that can stop it.
Panic around Trump’s framing of unrest has led many people to retract their loud and fiery support for activists resisting state violence, but in time, the wind will shift. Early on, the pandemic made many people aware of their own proximity to disposability. That’s why the country watched a police station burn in Minneapolis and, for a time, remained convinced the system was to blame. They were right, and many will be again.
The election has given people a whiff of hope that the system might yet save them, and while it is possible to reduce the damage done, we are staring down mass death, nationwide evictions, financial collapse, and even the potential collapse of our feeble, profit-based healthcare system. We will also see what this country unleashes against dissenters who threaten or complicate its violent work.
We have already seen protesters in Denver charged with “kidnapping” for surrounding a police station. Joel Northam is facing over 250 years worth of charges for his organizing of protests against the murder of Elijah McCain. His house was raided by a SWAT team. Dissenters who are being targeted in this moment are victims of a fascist escalation, and we dare not look away.
We don’t yet have the level of solidarity we need to overcome the challenges ahead, and that cannot be allowed to continue. The walls of our silos must crumble. Arms must be locked. There are great storms ahead. We know the impacts of COVID-19 will continue and that saving as many lives as possible must include freeing our caged siblings. We also know that many people will die because of this disease who do not die of this disease. Because when a medical system over-saturates, people die of many things. People who need major surgery die. People who are having allergic reactions die. People who have heart attacks die. People die and die and die. We must name that in the scope of what is being lost, inside and outside of prisons.
Mutual aid exists because it is in our nature to join together and to act together. This pandemic, like the horrors of the prison system, has demonstrated how harmful it is to human beings to be deprived of connection. We were already being starved of it by the cult of individualism. The answer is more empathy and connection. The answer is to become an immovable force when we are together and a constellation of power and empathy when we are apart.
We need more people, but we cannot wait for the mainstream to catch up with reality. We must name what’s happening and expand our projects and numbers. When the dead are counted in the years to come — and we will be counting our dead for years — we have something to say about how many names will be read. History does not simply happen to people. We all make choices. We must ask ourselves, what do we owe to the living, and what do we owe to the dead?
Andrea Circle Bear, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, died of COVID-19 at the age of 30 in federal custody. Andrea was the first woman in federal custody to die of the coronavirus. She was also pregnant when she fell ill. Her child lives on, but Andrea was lost soon after giving birth.
The Department of Justice touted Andrea’s sentencing in a January press release. “Don’t let yourself or your property get mixed up in the world of illegal drugs. It ends badly,” said U.S. Attorney Ron Parsons. The government issued that statement, and then proceeded to kill Andrea by caging her in the path of COVID-19. Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Andrea’s sister-in-law, also died in police custody five years earlier while pregnant. These losses are not aberrations. They are emblems of what this system is and has always been.
This disease is a genocidal weapon in the hands of this government, but it will also knock on many doors at random in the months to come. If we organize, our collective pain can become collective empathy and action. But this will not happen on its own, as a result of social deterioration. It will take political will, compassion and courage. Whatever is ahead, our survival will depend on our willingness to organize it, and our freedom will depend on our willingness to fight for it. Whatever happens, everything will depend on our willingness to fight for each other, and for the most marginalized among us, including our imprisoned siblings.
May the fallen rest in peace, and may the rest of us raise hell.
I want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember, that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
Ways to get involved with ongoing COVID-19 memorialization efforts:
The COVID-19 National Week of Mourning is happening Oct. 4-11. You can look for an event in your area or sign up to host one here.
You can learn more about participating in Signs, Shrines, Collages and a Mixtape: A Remote COVID Vigil here. This event is based in Chicago, but is geared toward physically distanced participation, so everyone is welcome to join in.
This toolkit from the last #WeGrieveTogether vigil includes a number of images and online content that can be used for online commemoration. The event is over, but the imagery, names, stories and art can be used to uplift the fallen at any time.
#NamingTheLost has hosted a 24 hour reading of the names of people lost to COVID-19 in May. More recently, they organized #NamingTheLostMemorials, a project that invites people to make and display public memorials for people who have been lost to COVID-19. You can sign up to get updates about their memorial efforts here.
Commemoration can be powerful, but it can also be difficult. The Mutual Aid Mourning and Healing Project offers free support to people struggling with grief during the pandemic. If you or someone you know is grieving a recent loss and would like to speak to a therapist, a death doula or clergy, please reach out.