Cesar Chavez and the Struggle for Justice During the Covid-19 Pandemic

By Joseph Orosco (March 31, 2020)


Some thirty years ago, Cesar Chavez staged his last major hunger fast. This fast went on for thirty-six days. In his statement issued at the end, Chavez said he had begun the fast because he had to do penance; he was ashamed of himself. For all his years as an organizer, he said he had not truly comprehended the pain and suffering of farmworkers due to exposure to pesticides.   He felt he had not done enough to make people aware of the immensity of the problem.


So after his debilitating ordeal, Chavez went on to speak to numerous audiences across the country, repeating the stories of farmworker children, such as Johnnie Rodriguez, who died after a two year battle with cancer; or of Felipe Franco, who was born without arms and legs to a farmworker mother who had been showered with toxic chemicals in the field. Most importantly, he wanted people to realize that, to the extent to which we all rely on pesticides and cheap farm labor to provide our food, we are also responsible for the suffering of children like Johnnie and Felipe and thus have a responsibility to prevent more pain. Chavez wrote in his statement:


“The misery that pesticides bring will not be ended by more studies or hearings. The solution is not to be had from those in power because it is they who have allowed this deadly crisis to grow. The answer lies with me and you. It is for all of us to do more. We will demonstrate by what we do and not by what we say our solidarity with the weak and afflicted. I pray to God that this fast will encourage a multitude of simple deeds by men and women who feel the suffering and yearn with us for a better world. Together, all things are possible.”

1988. UFW President Cesar Chavez, his mother Juana Estrada Chavez, and Jesse Jackson at the service during which Chavez ended his 36-day hunger strike and Jackson took his up.

I was thinking about Chavez’s words as I read about the two trillion dollar stimulus package passed by Congress to boost the US economy and provide relief for unemployed workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. As James Harrington–an organizer who worked with Chavez—points out, there are about 4 million undocumented workers, many of them farmworkers, who are not eligible for cash relief. And there are close to another 30 million poor people who are not eligible because they have not filed income taxes recently. Many of these people are likely to work in service or hospitality industries that have had to cut back or close down. Its not clear we are sheltering the most vulnerable among us with this package, but we are certainly propping up some of the biggest industries, with almost $500 billion in loans for airlines and manufacturers.


But I think the realization that made me most understand Chavez’s need for penance was thinking about the shelter-in-place regulations going on in many hard hit states. My social media is filled with funny memes and videos about people going stir crazy at home or dealing with their children. Yet, there are millions of working class people who can’t share in this humor because their work is considered essential: grocery store and pharmacy clerks, postal and special delivery drivers, truck drivers, sanitation workers, water and electric utility workers, and of course, public health workers in hospitals. They have to show up so the rest can work from home. Many of them are starting to realize that they are at a greater risk of exposure and have not received from their employers training to protect themselves, or hazard pay, or even masks and gloves. Some of them are starting to strike now, at Amazon and Whole Foods and other retailers, to improve these dangerous conditions. But I can’t get over the feeling that my well-being, and that of millions of other middle class people, depends on the labor of many people who were probably already struggling paycheck to paycheck to get by.


Of course, Chavez didn’t wallow in guilt and self-pity—his realization of the farmworker’s suffering was a call for him to think strategically and to act. First, he came to understand that the use of pesticides was the result of large agribusiness looking to make a quick profit rather than protect the health of workers: “The wrath of grapes is a plague born of selfish men that is indiscriminately and undeniably poisoning us all.”


It is undoubtedly the case that Covid-19 is a plague born of selfish men. Our top leaders in Washington last week were discussing the need to relax quarantine restrictions lest the economy suffer more damage—weighing human lives less than profit making. But more poignantly, we’ve seen how profit motives in New York City have shut down hospitals and, thus, reduced the overall hospital bed capacity over the last twenty years. The most blatant case of selfish greed is that of the large US manufacturer of ventilators, Covidien. In 2014, Covidien swallowed up a competing smaller corporation that had a contract with the US government to build thousands of newly designed and relatively inexpensive ventilators. Covidien then pulled the plug on the contract, saying it was not profitable to make the ventilators, even though the Centers for Disease Control were hoping to stockpile them for future emergencies.


So as Chavez said: “the solution is not to be had from those in power.” I’ve been so impressed to read of all the different mutual aid project erupting across the country in which people are stepping up to collect food and other goods for vulnerable people in their own communities. They are creating thick networks of assistance and developing skills for more organizers.


But more will have to be done. It’s said that physical distancing could become a regular occurrence, not only in dealing with a resurgence of Covid-19, but with other viruses that are expected to become pandemics in the future. We are going to have to yearn and dream for what we will need in a better society. If this experience teaches us anything, it is that we need a much more accessible and equitable public health care system, and better social welfare services, than the US currently offers.


This radical imagining means confronting both political parties that have but profit before people and the corporations that fuel political ambition. However, this is precisely the strategy Chavez envisioned. In an essay written in 1970, he said:


“The attacks on the status quo will come not because we hate but because we know America can construct a humane society for all of its citizens—and that if it does not, there will be chaos…The power class and the middle class haven’t done anything that one can truly be proud of, aside from building machines and rockets. It’s amazing how people can get so excited about a rocket to the moon and not give a damn about smog, oil leaks, the devastation of the environment with pesticides, hunger, disease. When the poor share some of the power that the affluent now monopolize, we will give a damn.”




Please Do Not Thank Me For Viet Nam

By Tom Motko (March 30, 2020)

(For National Viet Nam Veterans’ Day 3/29)

Please do not thank me for Viet Nam.
Just welcome me home and let me finally rest.

Gratitude misplaced grants you no absolution.
Congratulate my survival and my brothers’
but atone for your country and its sins.
Do penance for the whores and the half bloods,
put flowers on the toddler’s graves and the burning Buddhists,
beg forgiveness of the poisoned waters and bloodied jungles,
and the ravished tribes, and the raped and beaten daughters,
and for Con Son Island, and the lost, wandering ancestors.
Bow your head for the chemical waste and the gored oxen,
the cluster bombs, free fire zones, and body counts.

But, please do not thank me for Viet Nam.
Just light a candle and let me finally sleep.


We, the Workers, Will Build a Better World

By Zakk Flash (March 25, 2020)

We’re going to see some serious supply chain problems as my fellow “essential workers” and I fall sick.

Workplace protections have never been good in most industries; I’m grateful for the Teamsters collective bargaining agreement that I work under that gives me a bit more security. Unions are going to be a big part of what gets us through this.

That being said, the companies we work for aren’t doing enough to keep workers safe. As #Covid19 infects workers in logistics and transportation, there will be increasing bottlenecks in our supply chain.

While we hear that grocery stores and pharmacies will remain open during the pandemic, there is no guarantee that shelves will remain stocked. The stockers themselves, underpaid and unprotected, will face more and more risk of contracting the #Coronavirus.

Over two thirds of EMS personnel in New Orleans is currently isolated in quarantine. The hospital in my hometown is asking individuals to sew cloth masks for its employees. Workers around the globe are engaging in wildcat strikes to draw attention to their plight.

The situation, far from resolving itself by Easter, looks to only be getting worse.

There are, however, some truly bright lights.

The mutual aid projects that have arisen to provide comfort, material aid, and a real sense of community during an atomized and frightening time is saving lives. With staggering job losses and a shameful lack of action upon the part of the political class, purpose and progress become therapy.

From pantry programs and crisis nurseries for essential workers to videotaped book readings for quarantined children, folks are stepping up.

We have to continue to step up. We need to continue to support one another, while also holding our politicians accountable.

We need to demand an end to evictions and foreclosures, utility shut offs, and the like. We need Congress, the governors, and the president to get on the same page as the latest advice coming from top scientists studying this disease. We need manufacturing plants to switch their production lines from generating shareholder profits to producing masks, hand sanitizer, and the sorts of tools we’ll need to beat this virus.

It’s going to take an unbelievable amount of work. But we can do it if we stick together.

As the Spanish freedom fighter Buenaventura Durruti said during the Spanish Civil War:  “you must not forget that we can also build. It is we who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and America and everywhere. We, the workers. We can build others to take their place.”

We can build a better world out of this. It starts with what you do next.


Utopia in the Midst of Pandemic: Lessons of the Decameron for Collective Liberation

By Joseph Orosco (March 24, 2020)

Looking around for articles that highlighted speculative fiction responses to pandemics, I ran across this piece from Alan Yuhas from a few years ago.  Yuhas mentions some obvious things such as Camus’s The Plague and The Walking Dead, etc, but what I found most interesting was a mention of Italian Renaissance writer Boccaccio and his story collection the Decameron:

“Going back to the pop culture of the Renaissance, Boccaccio’s Decameron tells the story of 10 young people who flee the Black Death to the country, where they tell each other funny stories, dirty jokes and the 14th century equivalent of romantic comedies. After a horrifying, surreal introduction that describes the remnants of Florence in the throes of the plague, Boccaccio tells stories of people who, rather than fixate on death or turn on each other, form a little society that celebrates what’s good in life. He reminds us, as do the heroes of The Plague and 28 Days Later, of a lesson that’s too easily forgotten: life lurches on, and we should keep trying to lurch with it.”

Boccaccio wrote these stories in the early 1350s after the plague of Florence that wiped out about half the population.  What Yuhas’s description neglects to mention that the Decameron is actually a piece of utopian literature.  Massimo Riva uncovers a bit of this in a recent interview when the Decameron was starting to spike in popularity at the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdowns:

Beyond the obvious similarities of the book’s protagonists escaping to a villa and Americans holing up in their homes, what themes should contemporary readers look for when reading Boccaccio’s text today?

I would point to the ethical dilemma the ten young protagonists face in their decision to (temporarily) abandon the city. This decision can be interpreted in two different and somewhat opposite ways: as an escape from the common destiny of those who can afford a luxurious shelter (similar to the doomsday bunkers that very rich people build for themselves today); and as the utopian desire to rebuild together a better, more ethical and harmoniously natural way of life, out of the ruins of the old world.

The Decameron is not only utopian in the way it describes these young people setting up a new social arrangement in the midst of their quarantine; but the stories they tell each other are–in addition to stories of pleasure, romanticism, and so on– tales that criticize the Church and the moral hypocrisy of feudal leaders.  In a sense, the Decameron is a series of reflections on the collapse of the feudal order and a celebration the rise of the bourgeosie in Italy. Of course, the utopia being celebrated in the Decameron is now the one on the brink of collapse (and hardly turned out to be a utopia for many millions of human beings).  But there is a bigger lesson here.

What this should remind us is that moments like this Covid-19 pandemic are occasions for us to engage in some radical imagining about the limits of the old social order and for new skills, habits, perspectives, and forms of solidarity.  These old utopian stories should warn us that going back to normal after shocks like this is not possible, or even desirable.

So how do we now gather to tell these necessary stories for the building of more collectively liberatory society?

Human Beings Aren’t A Virus; Capitalism and Civilization are the Cancer

By Natan Rebelde (March 24, 2020)

Many people are currently becoming more accepting of the reality that there’s something very, very wrong with our way of life. Declarations such as “humans are the virus!” are indeed misguided, but I would caution against knee-jerk accusations of eco-fascism. Of course, fascists utilizing ecological realities to forward their agendas will likely make use of such rhetoric (or more likely, point blame at groups of “undesirables” such as migrants or BIPOC), but many people making such observations are simply feeling out uncomfortable realities of our culture that they haven’t previously fully faced.

It is our obligation and responsibility to point out the usefulness of such misguided analyses to structures of power, and to demonstrate convincingly how and why it’s not human beings themselves that are the problem, but rather, one very specific dominator culture that has risen to global dominance (so is easy to confuse and conflate with humanity itself): industrial “civilization” and consumer capitalism (and attendant settler-colonialism). Capitalism is the globally dominant form of industrial civilization, so I think it’s accurate enough to put our focus there, though I believe industrial civilization in any form will have similar results, even if the State controls the means of production rather than private capitalists (aka State “socialism”/”communism”).

For the vast majority of our natural existence as a species on this planet, we have not lived in ways that systematically denude and destroy our land bases. Our very existence on an evolutionary scale is evidence of that. And ecology informs us that species and cultures that violate ecological parameters and limitations are fundamentally and terminally unsustainable and self-eliminating. This is the process our culture currently finds itself in the midst of.

ANYways… human beings are not a virus. We are not a plague on the Earth. So-called “civilization” and consumer capitalism are carcinogenic, causing normal cells to behave abnormally, and detrimentally to the larger body. And this cancer has metastasized to encompass most of the body. But maybe give those coming to these realizations a break, and see if, when offered a more nuanced perspective and critique, they grow into it. Pointing fingers and screaming “ECOFASCISM!” is unlikely to have a productive result. That said, bash the actual fash, by all means.

Welcome to the Great Pandemic Depression

By Arun Gupta (March 23, 2020)

I wrote this days ago saying an economic contraction of 10% or more and an unemployment rate of 20%. Only now are investment banks worth hundreds of billions of dollars considering we are in a depression. I haven’t seen anyone acknowledge what is obvious: The same economic denialism is going on now as in 2008. Then, as now, we were told, “No recession.” Then “soft landing.” Then “V-shaped downturn and recovery.” That’s the current line from the Nazi Carnival Barker. Except it’s delusional at best, and a flagrant lie at worst. We are looking at months of economic inactivity and tens of millions unemployed.

Welcome to the Great Pandemic Depression.

If you are feeling stunned and disoriented by what is happening with the Great Pandemic, that’s because we have become embroiled in a war in just days.

We may be looking at a death toll in the millions just in the United States. We are probably looking at an economic depression. We are certainly looking at a disruption and reordering of society and social relations in a way that hasn’t happened since World War Two. That had a profound effect by with 10% of the population being shipped off to war, re-tooling the entire economy, and upending social relations, particularly around gender and race, in ways that rippled through society for decades. We don’t know if this will be on that scale, but we are now in a war society and economy with a malignant narcissist in command.

In this post, I want to focus on the economy. The economic fallout will be as bad as the Great Recession, and we may be headed for a depression. A recession is defined as two out of three quarters of economic contraction, but there is no accepted definition for a depression. So I define a depression as an economic contraction of more than 10% and a peak unemployment rate of 20% or more. This article is informative on the economic impact, but like virtually all reporting on the pandemic, it is behind the curve.

Let’s get ahead of the curve. It is likely many if not most states and big cities will shut down all schools, bars, and restaurants this month. Even if many states, particularly reactionary Red States, don’t enact blanket quarantines, it’s likely a majority of the population will be living under state-imposed self-isolation within weeks as the big states and municipalities do this.

Even before such drastic measures, the airline, hospitality, music, sports, film and TV industry, the entire travel and leisure industry, were trapped between shutting down and collapsing. Global supply chains will be severely disrupted with most of the advanced economies shutting down as well.

Meanwhile, China’s attempts to get its economy up and running again were faltering even before other industrialized countries were hit hard.

There will both be a huge drop in consumption for all but basic goods — food, water, medicine, medical supplies, stay-at-home entertainment — and a huge drop in demand as tens of millions of workers are idled. This will become a feedback loop. People will hoard savings as they hoard toilet paper because they are unsure of how long they need to ride out the storm and hold onto savings, putting off all unnecessary purchases. Consumption will plummet for non-emergency goods, rippling through the supply chain from extraction to manufacturing to sales to shipping. We are talking apparel, electronics, furniture, cars and trucks, consumer durable goods (apart from things like freezers that have all sold out).

One example. In February, car sales in China were at 21% of levels the year before. Let me repeat that. China recorded only one-fifth of the car sales from a year ago. Their techno-authoritarian state

Auto manufacturing, parts, dealers, repairs, and so are about a $1 trillion industry in the U.S., nearly 5% of the nation’s GDP. The energy sector has crashed as well, anticipating an economic free-fall and because of the price war between the Saudis and Russia. Trump has been acting as if everything is great because gas will be cheap, while ignoring the carnage, but even by his murderous logic low gas prices are bad for the economy. High oil prices are more beneficial to the U.S. economy because of the domestic oil and gas production boom that has become a significant employer throughout the supply chain, from drilling and equipment to chemicals, transport, and storage. (I am not saying fracking is good; it should be banned. But this is another economic blow).

Auto insurance accident claims have already declined significantly, indicating people are driving much less. If they aren’t going to work, kids aren’t going to school, they aren’t leaving the house, and huge amounts of wealth are being destroyed in the stock market crash, how likely is it people will be buying houses?

So there goes another huge leg of the economy: home construction, home sales, moving, and goods to outfit homes. Then there is the restaurant industry, which employs around 15 million people. Who knows how many might eventually be laid off, but it’s likely to be enormous both from direct closures, self-isolation, social distancing, and knock-on effects of reduced employment and spending.

All of this will ripple through the financial sector, especially in terms of loans and corporate debt. The Fed has unleashed nearly all of its tools, both Zero Interest Rate Policy and Quantitative Easing, but it’s having little effect because it’s not a financial crisis. Interestingly, one former banking regulator, Sheila Blair, says the Fed is not using its tools to shore up entire industries, which she says would help businesses and consumers.

If this wasn’t bad enough, state and local governments will be hard hit by declining sales tax and income tax revenue. So will mass transit systems by declining ridership and revenue. Meanwhile healthcare systems will be overtaxed and may collapse in some areas. Manufacturing will suffer as well as inventories build up. Less production and consumption will also mean less material moving, so warehousing, shipping, and trucking will all be dealt blows.

This is already worry that weaknesses and breaks could eventually appear in food supply chains. What happens if supermarkets become hotbeds of infection? They are likely to given the enormous foot traffic and all the people handling goods. Imagine if workers start coming down sick and others are too afraid to show up to work. This is deeply worrisome for obvious reasons.

And the fact a murderous psychopath is running the show doesn’t provide any comfort.


I Am Because We Are, and So We Will Rebuild in the Aftermath

By Louis Colombo (March 22, 2020)

Lots of doom and posts prophesying the end of the world. No doubt, these are some unsettling times and it’s hard to know where the bottom is. No doubt too that there’s lots of reasons to be concerned for yourself, your loved ones, and even folks you’ve never met.

But here’s the thing. From where I sit, it looks like the vast majority of people have agreed to disrupt their lives in some really radical ways, not just to protect themselves and their loved ones, but to stop this thing from spreading to the stranger they’ve never met.

Lots of folks are opening up with new ways of being in community online, sharing things with folks they don’t know, and for free. Folks are picking up the phone, checking in with neighbors they might never had occasion to speak to.

We’re recognizing – and hopefully not forgetting – the value of work we might have once ignored. We’re recognizing that we need support, all of, some more than others, and we’re doing so without shame or stigma. Let’s remember that.

I don’t know what a new normal will look like, but with any luck and a lot of courage, it just might look like something built more on love and solidarity, for in our moment of isolation, what are we learning if not how connected we all are, how much we need one another, how much community is the basis for our individuality. Hold that. I am because we are, and so we rebuild in the aftermath.

This will be bad for a while. It might get better and then worse before it gets better. We may see the worst in some folks. But I’m willing to bet that we’ll see the best in a whole lot more. And we will get through.


The Left Needs to Think About the Political-Economic Future in Six Months

By Joe Lowndes (March 21, 2020)

Tucker Carlson is being cheered by some liberals for calling out NC Sen. Richard Burr for insider trading.

Burr should be investigated for this, to be sure. But this is consistent with Carlson’s right-wing nationalism more generally – just as it was Pat Buchanan’s before him. However, it will matter in a new way in coming months I think – and in ways that the left should be paying close attention.

The economy is unquestionably going to continue to collapse at the top and the bottom in coming months. When the presidential campaign season begins in earnest this summer, when things may really spin out of control and suffering really increases, it is easy to imagine real pressure from below on the Biden campaign to call for greater economic reorganization that would include heavy taxation on the top brackets and more redistribution in the form of major healthcare reform, debt cancellation, relief, etc. (the return of Sandersism).

Trump will have to outflank this. As the livelihood and lives of members of his electoral base fall apart, they will need to hear him demonize some elites in their defense along with the nationalism he always draws on – more border control, more crackdown on immigrants, more hostile language about China, etc..

This will be where Carlson will be crucial. His distinct framing of politics – a combination of xenophobia, racism, authoritarianism, and full-throated defense of working-class Americans; broadcasted to his massive nightly audience – is exactly what Trump will need to beat Biden.

We should all really be thinking about what the political-economic landscape looks like in two, four and six months and how we should respond. The right surely is.

joe lowndes

This is a Biological and Political Crisis

By Astra Taylor (March 20, 2020)

If you know me, you know I love etymologically. I love the buried meanings of the word we use, their hidden resonance.

The word “crisis” comes from the ancient Greek. It means the turning point in an illness—death or recovery, two stark alternatives.

Someone just told me the root of “apocalypse is “to reveal” or ‘to uncover’

We’ve been saying we are in a crisis (or intersecting crises) for a long time. But now the term couldn’t be more apt. We are living through both a medical/biological crisis and a political one. Many people will die of coronavirus, no doubt, but how many who get sick will actually be perishing from preventable shortages/rising poverty/and our lack of a truly public and international healthcare system?

That is the truth this apocalyptic moment unveils. To truly cure ourselves we are going to need way more than a vaccine….


Pandemic Reveals the Harsh Realities of Our Society

By Natan Rebelde (March 19, 2020)

Y’all scared? Good. You should be.

I am too. But I have been, for a very long time. I hate that I feel vindicated to some degree. And the reality is, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The disruptions and collapse to come will dwarf this by comparison. But they are part of the same phenomenon: our civilization running up against the natural limits of planetary ecology.

Just as massive wildfires have become a regular annual recurrence, I suspect these sorts of epidemics will as well, likely centered around historical “cold and flu season”. It will just be the height of epidemic season, often leading to global pandemics, born of the globalized industrial consumer economy. These are the consequences of our own choices and actions as a culture. These are, in a very real sense, vengeful (and perhaps compassionate) spirits of the Earth, here to teach us difficult lessons that we’ve refused to learn otherwise.

The silver lining is that our current responses, for better or for worse, point towards many of the ways in which we must change our ways of living if we are to survive as a species upon this planet and create cultures that can sustain themselves on an evolutionary timescale (ecologically sustainable, in other words).

Many of the harsh realities of our society appear laid bare for all to see. Both our current successes as well as our failures can, should, and must inform us as to what works, and what does not. It can, should, and must show us what turns towards life, and what turns towards death. Turn towards life. It is not yet time to awaken from the dream of living. Death is inevitable, and can (and eventually should) be embraced as a friend, lover, ally, and accomplice. But life, on the other hand, is not guaranteed, and thus, a most precious gift. Honor it. Defend it. Then meet death with a grin and a hearty laugh.

The Fed Wants You to Be Afraid

By Teka Lark (March 19, 2020)

The central banking system of the United States is the Federal Reserve System aka the Fed. According to Investopedia a central bank acts as the regulatory authority of a country’s monetary policy and is the sole provider and printer of notes and coins in circulation. The Fed is run by the board of governors. The current chairperson of the Fed is Jerome Powell an alumnus of Princeton appointed by Trump in 2018 the vice-chair is Richard Clarida an alumnus of Harvard, also appointed by Trump in 2018.

Do you know why the Feds couldn’t give you a $1.5 trillion? Because their job is to keep you scared and that kind of money would have put your mind at ease.

Why do you need to be afraid?

One of the Feds purposes it to keep unemployment rates low, but for a bondholder this is bad. When unemployment rates become low, then labor costs start to rise, because they have to pay people more to get good employees. You have competition, competition is only for poor people. That would be you, people who think they are middle class.

Another one of the Feds jobs is moderating long term interest rates.

As the unemployment rate drop, interest rates begin to rise. For bondholders, this Is bad, because their interest rates tend to be lower, though their bonds are so large they still make money if the inflation rate rises above their interest rates they lose money. Their profits get eaten with inflation.

As a result, the Feds look for an optimum unemployment rate that is low enough, so you don’t have social unrest, but high enough so the workers are frightened enough that they will work for low pay to have a job.

They call it maximizing employment I call it behavior modification. Maximizing employment means some people will always have to be underemployed and unemployed, to encourage certain behavior and mindset for the employed —for now.

Who are usually the unemployed, underemployed, Ph.D. driving Uber, in urban areas often Black people. Having a visually different, small, marginalized demographic example of what will happen if you get out of line is sadistic genius.

This is why you are thankful to have anything during a pandemic and feel that the government has no obligation to do anything, but make rich people money.

The selfishness here is embedded in our systems and institutions.