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The Virus of Delegitimation

During the May 1 Cancel Rent car caravan, I of course had to attend by bicycle… with my banner! (Photo by Brooke Anderson)

While I may be sick of wall-to-wall coronavirus in the media, and we’re all a bit stir-crazy with the physical distancing and staying home, I’m NOT sick of this luminous, sensuous, expansive, amazing HALT that we’re living through now. I’m cautiously excited about the profound crisis of legitimacy this pandemic is inducing in our already brittle, exhausted, and criminally insane society. After weeks of imagining how different life can be, and seeing the amazing resurgence of turtles on a beach on the east coast of India, crocodiles on the beaches of Oaxaca, Mexico, and countless other regenerations and reappearances, and sharing the clean air and sparkling views we now have every day, who hasn’t stopped to ponder the possibilities of NOT going back to “normal”? I’ve argued for decades that life could be SO wonderful, SO much better than the pathetic charade we have been imprisoned in until now. But we had to stop working, stop producing that world, and after a healthy break to think about it, start producing the world we want to live in. Maybe the sudden devaluation of shopping, celebrity, and spectacle has enriched our lives and opened our senses to overlooked possibilities? Did we inadvertently stop and smell the roses?

Bumble bee on 15th Avenue stairway.
Covid-19 testing site at Garfield Park in the Mission during early testing effort.
After the initial census tract got tested, it finally opened up to everyone.
Everyone is wearing a mask now!
Trying to help and make a few bucks too…
Major effort at our home sweatshop!

My mind wanders these days, even as I try to focus on one theme or another. Public health, pandemic disease, bird flu, ornithology, speculative fabulism and science facts, medicine and authority, and on and on. I’ve been reading a lot about public health, and even dived (dove?) into the history of epidemic disease here in San Francisco thanks to City of Plagues by Susan Craddock. In it, she shows how poor people were harshly pathologized in 19th century San Francisco, getting blamed for getting sick (since their poverty was a result of their poor character, not an unequal social division of wealth). San Francisco’s white workers directed their frustration and racist wrath at the Chinese almost from the beginnings of statehood, and recurring smallpox, tuberculosis, syphilis, diphtheria, and other disease outbreaks were repeatedly blamed on Chinese. Public health officials took advantage of this prevailing logic to invade Chinatown on missions to “clean it up,” leading most dramatically between March and October 1903 to the destruction of 160 buildings and the eviction of 70 more in the small neighborhood during a bubonic plague eruption. No studies were ever done on the health effects of repeated use of chlorinated lime, carbolic acid, bichloride of mercury, and other noxious substances during these “clean-up” campaigns. After the 1906 earthquake, the devastated city was overrun by hundreds of thousands of rats, and it was finally understood that fleas on rats were the source of bubonic plague. Chinatown, was one of only three districts that did not have a plague problem since the neighborhood had already been rebuilt and sanitized. The rest of the City went on a rat-killing frenzy, and also began pouring cement where wooden floorboards had been in basements and back yards. Dr. Rupert Blue, the city’s Health Commissioner, said, “The disease [was being] built out of existence. This is the hope of San Francisco and in time that city will be one block of concrete throughout.” It was this same post-quake campaign that led to the removal of chicken coops, horse stables, and all domestic livestock from San Francisco. A decade later, the 1918 flu ripped through San Francisco twice, even inspiring a public revolt against wearing masks, before being largely forgotten until Covid-19 refreshed our memories.

Line for food pantry at St. Peters Church on 24th street on April 17, 2020.

The bizarre reality we are living through, when history has suddenly jumped up and seized us all by the throats (or lungs for the unlucky ones already sick), has led to a rapid reconsideration of what is important. For most people, family and friends and the vital connections we have with the people we care about, has moved front and center. Considering what we really need has been an unexpected bonus to this enforced staying-home. Seems toilet paper is very high on the list for a lot of folks, but more broadly, access to food, electricity, and communications has taken on central importance. Care provision, whether by front-line medical workers, or the legions of low-wage workers who had been toiling unappreciated in skilled nursing facilities or childcare centers, also looms large as a basic necessity, elevated by this crisis. Whatever follows this economic shutdown, the folks who provide care for our elders and children may finally gain some long overdue recognition for their essential work. And the ongoing scandalous neglect of people in elder care situations—warehouses for the aged—run by for-profit monsters who exploit their workforces, and provide the bare minimum of comfort and service for their “clients,” may finally be revealed in its naked brutality. And changed forever?

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Practicing Anarchy While the State Fiddles

From Hong Kong

It’s April 12 and we’re still under shelter-in-place orders which were extended to May 3. They may likely be extended to June, who knows? We don’t really get a chance to participate in these decisions, they just mysteriously come from “the authorities.” Do we trust them? Who are they exactly? How would we have a more democratic process in this situation? With so much apparently falling apart, where is our agency in this moment? Old habits of passivity, trust in authority, and our general isolation from any kind of engagement in the larger dynamics that shape our lives tend to dominate our experience. We really need to find another way.

I’m out every day, bicycling or walking through the streets, climbing Bernal Heights, enjoying the serendipitous social encounters with old friends here and there. I’m also in a few email conversations that have lengthened to dozens of missives, with a variety of links to smart analyses appearing all over.

In San Francisco, as of today, we still have less than 1,000 cases and just a dozen or so deaths, out of a population of about 800,000. San Franciscans have been very cooperative and adaptable, and have largely engaged in a self-managed process of physical distancing and reorganizing everyday life. It’s downright anarchic! Yes, the government called for shelter-in-place in mid-March. But lots of people were already doing that before then, and as soon as the call went out, it seems that a huge majority of the city readily complied. It’s part of why I like living here. I think we can do this. We can take common sense actions together, without coercion or heavy-handed enforcement. I’ve shared so many moments already of people cooperating, thanking each other, standing aside on a path, making way in an almost crowded grocery aisle, waiting a few feet behind at a corner so as not crowd each other. It’s remarkable! It’s anarchy for real, albeit on a very small scale.

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Nature’s General Strike

We are all flooded with countless articles and essays to read these days about the Covid-19. I start to write this somewhat reluctantly, because what really can I say that is so different than the millions of words already coursing through the internet? But I’m a blogger, albeit a pretty infrequent one, and I do have an unorthodox way of seeing the world around me. So here I am.

The view from Bernal Heights on one of the many incredibly clear sunsets we’ve had lately.

I’m also grieving the devastation that is underway. Much as I’ve hoped for the end of the world as we know it, mass sickness and death is horrifying. My mother died five months ago, too, so this brings those feelings to the surface every day as well. And then I have the odd experience of being a person who has repeatedly publicly said we should all just stop! Stop doing all this stupid work, most of which is destroying the planet and making us miserable. Once we stop, I proposed, we should figure out what work IS worth doing, and then get on with it… like reorganizing our plumbing systems so we stop using fresh drinking water for waste removal. Like deconstructing buildings in known flood zones and managing our retreat from the shorelines where the ocean and bay will soon rise to unknown levels. Like depaving huge swaths of the urban environment in favor of radical expansion of local food production… Like returning 50% of the lands of the earth to nature’s control, giving other species a chance to rejuvenate and reestablish themselves as part of the web of life, etc. etc.

Soon after my March 11 birthday (and the release of my new book Hidden San Francisco) passed, the severity of the pandemic started to become clearer to me. I admit I was a bit frustrated before then, thinking it puzzling that so many people were getting so freaked out by what was still a fairly low number (then) of infections and deaths. After all, we treat as normal the slaughter of nearly 40,000 people annually on the roads of the U.S. by car collisions, a toll that I have been describing forever as a bizarre social decision to trade “convenience” for mass murder. We’re also living through a decades-long rising crescendo of cancer deaths that we largely attribute to individual bad luck and/or lifestyle choices, rather than the systematic poisoning of our environment by identifiable corporate and individual criminals. And the United States is the largest purveyor of arms and militarized terror the world over, killing directly or indirectly tens of thousands every year in the name of (our) peace and prosperity. The list goes on from there… But as I said, just a few weeks back the numbers on the virus were uncertain, and I was carrying on a usual.

Our last daily newspaper, March 17, 2020.

As San Francisco declared a shelter-in-place order, and businesses shut down all around us (though grocery stores have remained open and well stocked after the first frenzy of panic shopping), and the scope of the global shutdown started to become clear, I suddenly realized that this is it! I’d been expecting and anticipating that our fragile daily lives would suddenly break and collapse eventually. What would cause it? A financial collapse like 2008? An earthquake? A Chernobyl-style nuclear accident? No, it is the pandemic. When in modern times have we seen the entire planet shut itself down over a period of a few weeks? Everyone who thinks we are going back to normal after a month or two hasn’t thought it through.

How many people were already at the edge before this started? Something like 40-50% of U.S. households reported that they couldn’t sustain an unexpected $500 medical or other expense. How many people were already working in precarious, part-time and low-paid jobs, mostly in the much-vaunted service sector? The March 28 SF Chronicle reports that somewhere around 30,000 restaurants have closed in California, a large percentage of which will never reopen. That must be at least 100,000 people who are now permanently unemployed. And that’s just one sector. All convention businesses are closed down. Tourism is shut down. Hotels are empty. Entertainment is closed down, no sports, no concerts, no museums. A happy side effect of all this is that AirBnB is collapsing, but all the people that have built their precarious financial lives on the steady income they could get by renting rooms to tourists are shit out of luck. And this is all just in San Francisco. Extrapolated across the country and all the world, and what we are living through is truly unprecedented.

Waiting in line in six-foot increments, outside Rainbow Grocery.
The line wrapped all the way around to 14th Street at one point.
This is the Trader Joe’s line in Castro Valley on March 27… they’ve adopted the same system.
Lots of boarded up places in the neighborhood.
West of Pecos and Puerto Alegre both boarded up quickly.
Continue reading Nature’s General Strike