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24 Apr, 2020 11:33

Covid-19 hasn’t killed American activism – it’s radicalized it

Covid-19 hasn’t killed American activism – it’s radicalized it

Even as millions of Americans are locked indoors, social protest has found ways to grow with an added urgency.

In the United States, as throughout the world, the struggle for social justice has not been stamped out by the Covid-19 lockdown. On the contrary, the crisis seems to be fueling a powerful wave of activism that’s larger and more radical than the country has seen for years. Many Americans are holding rent strikes and calling for rent freezes from coast to coast. Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant is working with local activists to plan a May 1 rent strike to compel landlords and politicians to suspend rent, mortgage, and utility payments in the state of Washington.

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Mass job- and employment-based health insurance loss has fueled calls for universal health coverage and a universal basic income throughout the country, even in traditionally red states. Social media is abuzz with demands for the dramatic expansion of the social safety net to meet the needs of a vast swathe of the population that have been plunged into poverty and peril due to the pandemic.

One of the main concerns among progressive activists is that the right-wing, corporate-funded and presidentially-endorsed, Tea Party-like “open up America movement” is pressuring state governors to lift shelter-in-place restrictions too soon, such as has been seen in Georgia. But it seems these suicidal protests are actually begetting more protests as dozens of progressives are planning a drive-by demonstration, replete with signs, posters, and airhorns, past the Republican Georgia governor’s mansion this Friday under the slogan “Our Governor is Trying to Kill Us.”

Governors and landlords aren’t the only targets of this new wave of activism. A social media meme popular among millions of US Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram users depicts Donald Trump above the statement “I Want You to Die for Our Economy.”

A left-wing online initiative is calling for Americans, most of which are sheltering-in-place, to adopt a venerable Latin American protest method by conducting Cacerolazos – the banging of pots and pans from windows, balconies, and porches – to “Stop #TrumpGenocide” at 7pm every Tuesday.

Homeless groups have occupied vacant homes in California, as Oakland’s Moms for Housing and the Los Angeles group the Reclaimers argue that housing should be a human right. How, they ask, are homeless people supposed to shelter safely in place without secure shelters? Following California’s move to secure thousands of hotel rooms to shelter homeless people, activists in other states are demanding that, since the tourism industry and business travel are collapsing, hotels and motels nationwide should be opened up for the 3.5 million Americans who desperately need shelter.

Activists are also concerned with how the nation’s globally unmatched and racist mass incarceration system is a breeding ground for the pandemic, as are its giant nativist and racist detention camps on the southern US border. According to the Intercept, some US states “are using software to scan inmate calls for mentions of the coronavirus, a move advocacy groups believe paves the way for abuse while raising stark questions about carceral health care.”

Prisoners and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees have undertaken work and hunger strikes in response to unsafe conditions. Anti-prison, anti-detention, and anti-racist activists have organized car caravans outside jails, prisons, and detention centers (see this for just one of many examples) to demand the release of caged humans, stuck in hellish structures where proper social distancing is impossible and safety protocols are not upheld.

The most notable form that activism is taking during the pandemic is workplace and job-safety protests organized by workers who have retained employment at no small hazard to their health. In a dramatic action this week, dozens of socially-distanced, mask-wearing nurses gathered outside the White House to read aloud the names of 50 fellow healthcare workers who have died of Covid-19. Their ultimate goal is to compel President Trump and Congress to provide frontline health workers with adequate protective equipment.

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Whole Foods, InstaCart, and Amazon workers have walked off their jobs and called in sick to protest unsafe conditions, including a lack of masks and paid sick leave. Such resistance is courageous given the weakness of the American safety net and the militantly anti-labor stances of these companies. Amazon has fired employees for demanding a sanitized workplace, while Whole Foods – an Amazon subsidiary – has been caught using an “interactive heat map,” an “elaborate scoring system, which assigns a rating to each of Whole Foods’ 510 stores based on the likelihood that their employees might form or join a union.”

Expanding on these work struggles, the black left-wing organization Cooperation Jackson (CJ) has issued a call for A General Strike – No Work, No Shopping” on Friday, May 1. As CJ explains: “We must stop the worst most deadly version of this pandemic from becoming a reality, and we have to ensure that we never return to the society that enabled this pandemic to emerge and have the impact it is having in the first place… To fight back we have to use the greatest power we have at our disposal – our collective labor.”

While leftists have long floated the idea of a general strike, the notion takes on special poignancy in a time when the right wing, from the president down, is trying to prod workers back into jobs and mass consumption sites before they can be made safe. Trump has selected the international workers’ day, May Day, the product of the left-led labor struggle in late 19th century America, as his target date for “opening America again.” It is unlikely that he has any idea of how rife with rich and radical historical meaning that day is for working people and progressive activists at home and abroad. In fact, May Day also has an even older and related tradition: the celebration of Mother Nature, who is now wreaking vengeance on humanity – Covid-19 is one example and the climate catastrophe is a bigger one – for its assault on Earth under the rapacious, growth- (accumulation-) addicted command of capital.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.