Essay Larry Bensky

Plague Journal #12: This Year the ‘Tea’ Becomes ‘We’

George Floyd cannot and will not be forgotten!

Larry Bensky, a long-time radio and print journalist. has been writing his “Journal of the Plague Year” since mid-March for the legendary Anderson Valley Advertiser. He welcomes your comments and suggestions:

By Larry Bensky / Berkeley, June 8

 “Trump called the May jobs report a ‘tremendous tribute to equality’ although it showed that African American employment actually declined last month. And he suggested that George Floyd would be pleased at the news. ‘Hopefully George is looking down right now and saying “This is a great thing happening for this country,”’ ‘ Trump said. (Associated Press, 6/6/2020)

Whew! That was close!

Fortunately, it’s all over! At least for the “millions and millions” of children and teachers and staff who are going back to school just before the end of Spring semester. At least for the tens of thousands of people jamming roads and then filling casinos throughout the South. At least for the defiant dozens back in church, mostly ignoring shelter-in-place and mask orders nominally issued by various jurisdictions.

“Public health experts warn that this increased activity is likely to cause a surge of new infections. ‘There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control” by reopening too quickly,’ said infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci in Senate testimony May 12, ‘leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided. “Cases continue to rise in some of the states where governors have been most aggressive in opening public spaces and businesses that rely on close personal contact, such as salons and gyms. None have met the federal government’s core recommendation of a two-week decline in reported cases.” (Washington Post, 6/5/2002)

Should we feel fortunate that the Center for Disease Control, a deliberately weakened and underfunded branch of the ”federal government” has limited itself to “recommendations?” Imagine how we would feel if these were requirements! As they would have been under almost every other President but Donald Trump. As they have been in numerous countries which, not coincidentally, have had the fewest COVID-19 cases, and fatalities. Places like Iceland, where upon hearing back in January that there was a new virus upon the globe, the government immediately began planning for what would happen if. 

“If “ turned out to be sooner rather than later. A man who’d been skiing in Italy showed symptoms, was tested (thousands of testing kits had been bought before the worldwide frenzy of demand and exploitative pricing descended) and found positive. He was quarantined. Fifty-six people with whom he’d interacted were also ordered to self-quarantine. All did so voluntarily, no one pleaded that leisure or work situations should exempt them. 

Iceland immediately carefully monitored all international travel. Anyone planning to visit was told they would have two weeks quarantine and could not go out even for food shopping. A few businesses (night clubs, hair salons) were ordered closed. Testing was ordered for everyone. As a result, as of mid-May about 15% of Iceland’s 365,000 people had been tested. (The equivalent percentage in the United States was 3.4%) Iceland’s death rate, 2.4 % is the lowest among northern European and Scandinavian countries, and one of the lowest in the world. (The U.K. was highest, 15.2%, while the U.S. figure was 8%.)

Of course with so few people in Iceland — the population of Oakland alone is greater than Iceland’s — “social” measures unthinkable elsewhere are possible. Suspending major economic activity like cruise ship visits (two million tourists last year) would be, and was, economically devastating, But the government had long encouraged self-sufficiency and could (and did) suspend tourism and other shipping, both incoming and outgoing. Although the virus spread only slowly, schools were closed. But then they re-opened, as did tourism and shipping. With a key provision: tourists had to show proof they had been tested just before leaving their home countries, or be tested on arrival at the airport, or go into strict, documentable self-quarantine for two weeks. Freighter crews could not come ashore. Anyone with symptoms or diagnoses received a call from a nurse or doctor every day. (For a full report on Iceland, see “Independent People,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, 6/8-15 2020).

Oh, yes, a little detail: Iceland has publicly funded, universal health care.

Back home, there is no sign of virus abatement, but plenty of signs of governmental and public weariness with the situation. Leading the heedless is the headless. Among President Trump’s ravings: he insists on a “full” Republican convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, this summer. Meaning a descent of around 40,000 delegates, workers, relatives, journalists et al. For his coronation he expects a full house — 19,000 people indoors, cheering and yelling and expelling tiny droplets of possibly contaminated breath. (Among those expelling the most will be “faith based” zealots, who practice full throated cheering and yelling every Sunday. Unless these “people of faith” have magically developed “herd immunity” their “herd” will be inhabiting a slaughterhouse.)

How well do we slaughter in this country anyway! Mostly out of sight, of course, but occasionally in full viral view. But then we return to hiding it and its repercussions again. As in the tragic, disgraceful case of George Floyd. There have been worldwide protest rallies and marches. And an appropriately somber, outraged commemoration at a family observance on Thursday. Commercial broadcasters brought endless maudlin hours of reflection on the matter, and endless aerial videos of the marches and rallies. But our country’s “public” media couldn’t be bothered to carry the Floyd family service live. Not even (or especially not) National Pathetic Radio, whose national staff of somber gigglers and local clumsy amateurs went on with their usual “formats” (including “news” mostly imitative of, when not directly taken from, newspapers.)

Governments did what they always do in the wake of such incidents. Forming commissions to supplement countless already existing commissions and committees. Proposing changes in already ignored laws that might stiffen penalties for brutes and killers among law enforcement. Issuing statements that it can’t happen here.

As if it hadn’t been happening already in countless places, including Minneapolis, pre-Floyd. But it had been happening, I can personally attest. Minneapolis was a stone racist town when I lived there five decades ago. The racism, however, mostly had as its victims another all-American persecution target: Native Americans. 

My first job out of college was as a part time reporter, sometimes assigned to the overnight police beat, for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Every morning, as I came to work during my “cop shop” weeks I would find on my desk a carbon copy of the typed (we’re way pre-computer here!) overnight incidents and arrests. The “incidents” were the usual: accidents, fires, lost dogs, burglaries. The “arrests” were almost always Native American, alleged to have committed alcohol-related offenses. 

A large, filthy cell called the “drunk tank” was full of men passed out or half awake. A disgusting toilet was filled to overflowing. Those who were ambulatory stumbled around, holding up their pants (their shoe laces and belts had been confiscated).

When court opened around 9:00, a black robed judge (including the only African-American regularly visible in the jail/courthouse) entered. A row of unsteady men came before him one by one. The charge, in almost all cases, was “public drunkenness,,” sometimes with an additional allegation, like “urinating in public.” A single public defender represented all of them. One by one they were sentenced to time served, shown the door, asked to sign a paper (most couldn’t write even their names), given five bucks, and were gone. Some had arrest records for the same issues going back many years.

The daily, ritual abuse of Native Americans in Minneapolis slowly generated an opposition, which became, the American Indian Movement, led by Dennis Banks and Russell Means. Ken Tilsen, a prominent Minneapolis attorney, began to make court appearances for Native Americans, and to file civil rights lawsuits on their behalf. AIM spread to cities and reservations across the country, where similar “skid row” arrests had produced similar victims. Major confrontations with lethally armed local and federal authorities resulted in countless injuries and incarcerations. Leading up to Wounded Knee, in 1973. (Native American activist Leonard Peltier has been in prison since 1977 in connection with Wounded Knee, despite abundant evidence that he did not receive a fair trial. Numerous national and international bodies have pleaded for his release. In one of his more disgraceful actions, President Obama just before leaving office denied clemency to Peltier, now 75 and in poor health, )

We now have a situation where one of the largest, angriest most widespread marches and protests in U.S. if not world history is continuing to unfold. Few in this country or abroad had much contact with Native Americans decades ago. Tens of millions are, or have contact with, African-Americans today. That’s very bad news for Trump and his ilk world-wide.

In the short run, much of the energy freed at least temporarily from COVID-19 isolation will now be free to express itself in electoralism. In this country, the same week as the Floyd demonstrations escalated, a little noticed primary election took place in six states. As has been happening since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory two years ago, there were significant wins for progressive voices including in Arizona, Iowa, New Mexico, North Carolina and, most extensively, in Pennsylvania. All of which are “battlegrounds” for electoral college votes this November.

“When racial injustice engulfs a community,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” we need to realize “that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and give up their unjust power, but groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”

The unprincipled, bickering Trump group is a case in point. On economic matters the experienced among them realize that the current “recovery” of the stock market isn’t a “recovery,” just a further enrichment of the already wealthy. On the “defeat” of the COVID-19 virus, the experienced among them know it’s not even close to one yet. On the issue of racism and its daily daggers threatening African Americans wherever police are present, there are no experienced people among them to even try to raise Trump’s abysmal appreciation of the issue.

Therefore, at least for the next few months, the attention ever more widely paid to the electoral industry needs to focus on what can be a winning issue for the anti-Trump movement. It’s reflected in polls showing Biden with growing strength in key “battleground” states. Would an early announcement that Stacey Abrams or Anita Hill will be his vice-presidental nominee help his momentum? How about Kamala Harris as Attorney General? Susan Rice as Secretary of State? AOC herself as Secretary of HEW? There are many more lesser known women and people of color equally well qualified for Washington work. 

A party in transition, as are the Democrats right now, will have difficulty selecting these women, and uniting behind them. But more in danger is a party in dissolution, as are the Republicans. They’ll have even more difficulty attracting votes and turning out voters when the street is no longer “tea” but “we.”. Even the Republicans continuing machinations to dilute or interfere with the right to vote can be expected to generate a huge backlash. 

“We who engage in direct action,” Dr. King wrote, “are not the creators of tension.. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. Injustice in all its ugliness must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

Dr. King’s spirit was certainly present in the large “Family Friendly” protest march Saturday in Berkeley. “Exposing” the ugliness of George Floyd’s death was obviously on the minds of those thousands who jammed the streets. As I hobbled along among them, alongside me I felt the spirits of the tens of thousands I’ve been among since first I got into the streets long ago in the 1950’s. I can only make it a few blocks now. But I can make it, will be taking those few steps until I can’t . 

Dr. King wrote eloquently about how all should be welcome at protests. And he said how disappointed he was that when protests were attacked by jeering racists and violence-prone police, white liberals, who spoke supportive words, failed to realize they had the power to change the brutal situation. He would have been heartened to see Saturday’s Berkeley march. Diverse in age, ethnicity, gender expression, we were all together. Similar gatherings drew millions around the world. Energies released from the COVID-19 quarantines were free. It will take more than legalistic machinations to keep that energy from voting out Trump and Trumpism in a few short months. 

[To read previous entry of the “Journal of the Plague Year” click here]

Larry Bensky
Larry Bensky

Larry Bensky is a literary and political journalist with experience in both print and broadcast media, as well as a teacher and political activist. He is known for his work with Pacifica Radio station KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, and for the nationally-broadcast hearings he anchored for the Pacifica network