We Can NOT Return to Normal

Today, my wife and I attended a protest in Oakland California. The protest was organized by S.U.R.J Showing Up for Racial Justice as part of the nationwide protests against police brutality, and in support of #BlackLivesMatter and #JusticeforGeorge.

First, a quick kudo to SURJ. The protest was large, organized, and peaceful. The organizers were visible, and really did a pretty amazing job. For the most part, the protest was entirely in cars driving through Oakland. There were also many on bicycle, and a few on foot. And it was HUGE – It took hours to move the whole crowd through a small area in Oakland. The pictures don’t give really show you the scale of this protest.

This was a strange protest. It was a “car march” . We stayed in our cars and drove a designated route through Oakland. While we were lining up, there was a little interaction, one of the volunteers came by to help us tape a sign to our car. But once we started moving, just about the only interaction was honking our horns. A few times when traffic was stopped, some tried to start chants.

But sitting in the car for about 3 hours (I am really glad that we remembered to hit the bathroom before leaving home) gave me some time to think. The Covid-19 crisis has almost all of us wishing for a return to normalcy. But we can’t go back to normal, we can’t go back to the way it was, because for far, far, too many of us, the way it was sucked.

On a swampy stretch of land along the Mississippi River, there is a place called Cancer Alley. Right between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the River Parishes were once home to some of the nation’s wealthiest slave plantations. Now, they are home to over 100 petrochemical companies. For many years, locals have called these parishes Cancer Alley because of the high rate of cancer and respiratory disease. The industry that has carved up their fields is now rotting their bodies at crisis proportions. 

The Covid-19 crisis has hit minority communities hardest.

The current issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),2 shows that its reporting system has gathered racial data on just 534 covid-19 patients admitted to hospital, of about 40 000 admitted so far around the country. Of these, 261 (45.0%) were non-Hispanic white and 192 (33.1%) were non-Hispanic black, in a country where black citizens comprise less than 13% of the population.

Although the CDC has no comparable data on covid-19 deaths, data from localities that do report patients’ race suggest an even worse disparity in that metric. In Chicago, black residents have been three times as likely to have the disease diagnosed as their white counterparts—and nearly six times as likely to die from it. In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, and in hard hit Louisiana, black people account for 70% of the dead but for just 26% and 32% of those populations, respectively.

There are many reasons for these disparities including economic conditions that make it harder for minorities to shelter in place and a health care system based on profit that gives poor Americans less access to health care surely play a part. So does the fact that minority communities tend to be closer to polluting industries and high density traffic. The higher levels of pollution in minority communities have increased health risks for minorities for a long time.

At the same time, climate change, deforestation, and habitat loss have all played a part in creating the pandemic. And, with us heading into a more active than average hurricane season (thanks again climate change) we can expect at least one major storm that will cause evacuations. It isn’t a question of if, only where and when.

When we look at all of it together, we see that it is all related, and we need to address all of it. Racial justice, economic justice, environmental justice. The world we rebuild needs to be better on all fronts than the one we came out of.

Rebecca Spang believe that we are already in the midst of a revolution.

Human beings are responsible both for much of what is wrong and for much of what could be right about the world today. But we have to take responsibility. In hindsight a revolution may look like a single event, but they are never experienced that way. Instead they are extended periods in which the routines of normal life are dislocated and existing rituals lose their meaning. They are deeply unsettling, but they are also periods of great creativity. As some Americans take shelter in their homes from a newly arrived threat and others put their health at risk to combat it, we can all mourn lost certainties, but we can also set about intentionally creating new possibilities. To claim this moment as a revolution is to claim it for human action.

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