“Now we turn to memory, we search all the days we had forgotten for a tradition that can support our arms in such a moment. If we are free people, we are also in a sense free to choose our past, at every moment to choose the tradition we will bring to the future. We invoke a rigorous positive, that will enable us to imagine our choices, and to make them.”
From "The Life of Poetry," by Muriel Rukeyser (1949)
Last Thursday morning all customers of Duke Energy, which provides power to 7.7 million people across the South, received an email titled “Customer assistance during COVID-19.” It stated that the company will suspend disconnections for nonpayment and waive fees for late payments for the foreseeable future, and that the company is making donations to charities. (The email brags that the company is donating $1.3 million, a number that is put to shame by its $3.6 billion in net income in 2019—and by the $2 million raised in two days by supporters of Bernie Sanders.) Meanwhile, Duke Energy’s stocks have plummeted in value, and utility companies across the country are considering policies that would require their most essential workers to sleep at work to avoid contracting the novel coronavirus. It’s almost as if they are scared.
Every industry has a similar story right now: The Big Three automakers are closed, public parks and gyms are closed, Disneyland is closed. This is a moment of unprecedented change for the United States and the people who live here. Now, as residents of many Southern cities are being asked to “shelter-in-place,” to stay home for the sake of the collective health, we are also being asked to “bail out” a system which has protected so relatively few up to this point.
We are being asked to refrain from contact beyond that which is absolutely necessary, while that concept of “necessity” is now dictated by official policy: In North Carolina in an order going into effect Monday evening, people can go to grocery stores, hardware stores, and public parks (if they are open), and it’s acceptable to visit sick family or go to work in an essential service. Religious entities and media are also deemed essential. Everywhere, there are no more concerts or parties, and very few funerals. Most beaches down the southern coast are closed.
In many places, what previously seemed impossible is suddenly happening: No more evictions. No more foreclosures. Prisoners being sent home.
In many states these provisions are now enforceable by law (putting the already-vulnerable even further at risk for profiling, unjust fines, and police violence), and many people are indoors—alone, afraid—but somehow also more connected than we have ever been. Our fates so clearly woven together, not by the virus itself, but before the virus. The virus shows us what was already true. And looking through our windows at the world, it seems sure that some of us are seeing possibilities we have never seen before, even though they were always there.
People said the debt couldn’t be cancelled, the rent couldn’t go unpaid, the system must go on regardless of its myriad harms. They were wrong.
In many places, what previously seemed impossible is suddenly happening: No more evictions. No more foreclosures. Prisoners being sent home. No more interest on student loans. A moratorium on water and electric shutoffs. Paid sick leave. Free food. Even Starbucks is closed after employees petitioned and won paid leave.
Still, our sense of what is possible now and in the future needs to be shaped not just by rejecting the current social and political order, but by inviting in a new one. We possess the visions, the history, and many of the tools to call for what we actually need instead: Community safety, free education, healthcare for all, housing for all, governance that is grounded in mutual aid and collectivity, networks of transformative justice and community-based safety, respect for all forms of work, and investment in arts and sciences that heal and protect. We have the resources in this country to feed everyone, to care for everyone, to test everyone for the virus, to house everyone. These resources must be diverted from military and police and into community networks of mutual aid and support. Where our federal governments can’t or won’t provide equitable redistribution, we can and must do it ourselves. The fact that we have already started should be a hint that this is imminently possible.
The time is ripe for politicization and activation against the current order.
But it’s easy to hope for a return to “normal” if normal was good enough for you; if you had healthcare, a safety net, a job that didn’t destroy your body and spirit. One morning in 2016 when I used to work at Marketplace, a business show on public radio, the reality was suddenly clear to me. I turned to one of my coworkers, our fingers tapping out stories on our computers under fluorescent lights before dawn, and said, “They’ve done it. They’ve globalized the possibility for profit without globalizing any of the rest... democracy, climate protections, or a social safety net for people.” He stared at me for a second, surprised. “Wow,” he said, and went back to typing.
So yes: Call your reps, sign petitions, get skills, plant gardens, find new ways to protest. And start your days with laughter.
The privileged are now faced with another opportunity to look up from their computer screens and see that a revolution is coming, one way or another, and choose whether to fight for liberation or let authoritarianism set in. We can’t accept a return to a status quo that has never kept all of us safe, and in this moment we should prepare for the worst and fight for the best. That means insisting on justice and generosity in each decision, and it also means using our imaginations.
Now borders are closed down, and more than a third of U.S. residents aren’t supposed to leave their homes. But the same predatory companies can still take out loans overseas, ship supplies where the selling is good, buy up the suddenly cheap homes down the block, or get a bail-out. Coronavirus makes it crystal clear that the risks of capitalism and globalism are shared, while the benefits belong to a narrow few—this isn’t a metaphor, but a fact about what is happening. As more and more people wake up with no work, no health care, and nothing to fall back on, and as more and more people die and are buried without funerals in this land of plenty, as prisoners and their guards, patients and their doctors fall ill, the snowballing chaos is accelerating a path toward mass unrest.
The time is ripe for politicization and activation against the current order. As we activate, we must use our imaginations and our relationship well. If Duke Energy can leave the lights on, we can suddenly imagine that the lights, the power itself, actually belongs to all of us; Duke Energy was faking us out, and that charade is over.
So yes: Call your reps, sign petitions, get skills, plant gardens, find new ways to protest. And start your days with laughter. It’s time to treat art and poetry and music as useful and essential, as they strengthen our ties of trust and build our muscles of imagination. It’s time to talk to our neighbors, to know that our ability to build relationships matters as much as our ability to hold a hammer or get to work on time, maybe even more.
A virus is not a great equalizer—we’ll need to accomplish that through seizing the reins of power from the powerful.
Now is a time to stand by the most vulnerable in our communities and reject wholesale the idea that anyone is disposable, to ground ourselves in the fact that care is a birthright, not a commodity, to offer care to ourselves and others in a spirit of solidarity and in a spirit of ushering in the world we need. Giving and receiving can become rigorous practices of right relationship, in spite of very wrong conditions. And they are possible even at a physical distance from one another.
A virus is not a great equalizer—we’ll need to accomplish that through seizing the reins of power from the powerful. But a virus can reveal that we have always only had each other. Right now we need our most beautiful visions, need now to draw on our most just traditions and our ancestral knowledge of survival. We must insist on possibility.