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Activism in the Age of Coronavirus

As COVID-19 amplifies the urgency of issues like voting rights and abortion access, the flaws of government have been exposed. And so has the strength of everyday activists.

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The COVID-19 pandemic may be keeping activists at home, but they’re keeping up the fight for justice in all its forms. If anything, the novel coronavirus has exposed the failings of government institutions and programs that are supposed to help people but all too often fail them, especially the most vulnerable. Activists are filling the gaps in the interim and laying the foundation for a very different future, if they have anything to do with it.

Whether “activism” describes paid or unpaid labor, activists have doubled down on their work to address issues that directly affect people’s lives: voting rights, housing and food insecurity, abortion access and reproductive justice, domestic violence and survivor advocacy, and income inequality, to name a few. The pandemic has not just revealed inequities and disparities in these areas, it has amplified them.

A half dozen activists described their ongoing work to DAME Magazine. They’re channeling their energy through methods that model how change can occur, even in an Earth-shattering moment. For people who feel called to activism during the pandemic, the infrastructure already exists for them to make a difference.

Though the U.S. Congress has recessed until at least May 4 and half the states have suspended or postponed their legislative sessions, lobbying remains an important tool to shape what may become laws.

Before the pandemic, the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH), which conducts much of its work through partnerships with on-the-ground reproductive health, rights, and justice organizations in about half the states in any year, helped position Virginia to roll back decades’ worth of abortion restrictions. As Vox’s Anna North reported, NIRH’s action fund worked with NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia on candidate trainings to turn abortion into a winning issue in the purple state. Democrats used their new majorities in the House of Delegates and the Senate to pass the Reproductive Health Protection Act that took effect April 10.

NIRH remains committed to similar bills in other states, according to President Andrea Miller. “But how do we build the case [in a pandemic]? How do we engage people in new ways?” Miller posited at the outset of the pandemic. Potential solutions like developing virtual testimony for legislatures and gathering names for petitions soon began to materialize.

NIRH would need to triage with their partner advocacy organizations and health-care providers, including independent abortion clinics, to help them through the pandemic, especially as Republican-led states exploited the demand for personal protective equipment to try to ban abortion. “We are remaining vigilant while also being supportive and honest about the realities that people are trying to deal with day to day,” Miller said.

Dylan Waguespack found that much of his lobbying has shifted rather seamlessly off Capitol Hill. “Everyone on the Hill is in the same position,” said the public policy and external affairs director for True Colors United, an organization dedicated to the 40 percent of young people experiencing homelessness who identify as LGBTQ.

So are constituents who want to contact their federal lawmakers. Waguespack urged people to lift up the voices of specific populations that may be overlooked in the pandemic. “Right now, email and form advocacy is going to be significantly more effective than phone calls, which is the opposite of usual,” he said. Congressional staffers that don’t have the capacity to listen to hundreds of voicemails a day during the pandemic can skim emails a lot faster.

Outside of True Colors hours, Waguespack dedicates his nights and weekends to “catchall LGBTQ activism and advocacy in Louisiana,” his home state. “In terms of the response to the virus, I am spending my days trying to influence the negotiations of the emergency supplemental packages that are coming through Congress, and then spending my nights trying to convince, for example, a state agency to work in better partnership with a local agency to get people experiencing homelessness into hotel rooms, and running a mutual aid fund for trans and gender-nonconforming people across the state,” Waguespack said.

Recent news reports have underscored the power of mutual aid in the pandemic. For VICE, journalist Lexi McMenamin traced its origins to an early 20th-century Russian anarcho-communist. “Mutual aid organizing is volunteer-run, transparent, and driven by the needs articulated by community members,” McMenamin wrote. Teen Vogue editor Lucy Diavolo reported on the “explosion of mutual aid networks” occurring online, transcending social distance, isolation, and quarantine.

For many marginalized people, mutual aid isn’t new. Waguespack described it as a “form of survival” for trans people. “We already are a community of people who often have to fundraise amongst our friends and family to pay for our healthcare and to stay housed,” he said. In that vein, fundraising could help undocumented people who received inadequate support from congressional coronavirus relief packages and won’t receive stimulus checks at all.

Monetary donations tend to be far more helpful to individuals and direct service providers than material donations, Waguespack said. Cash “goes the furthest” and “allows people the self-determination of meeting their own needs,” he said. “That goes for providers, too. If they need toothbrushes today and cleaning and disinfectant products tomorrow, giving them cash allows them the flexibility to be able to meet those needs.”

The pandemic coincides with Robyn Swirling’s fundraising drive for her local abortion fund through the National Network of Abortion Funds. Swirling and other abortion access and reproductive justice activists typically use this time of year to fund the funds that cover abortion care costs. People’s ability to donate may be limited under escalating unemployment and spread between various needs.

“A lot of this is a matter of figuring out how to be respectful of people’s economic situations while also saying, ‘Those service industry workers that you want to support right now, those are also the people who are going to be even more desperately needing abortion fund assistance in order to access the care that they need,’” Swirling said.

A global pandemic may present a unique set of circumstances, but a crisis is a crisis. “We are working through crisis all the time,” Swirling said. “There are always bills that are targeting the most vulnerable and the patients that we serve.”

For Sabrina Joy Stevens, a civil rights activist who builds political power, “the need was always there” as well. Stevens’ work on 2020 census participation always encouraged as many Black people as possible to self-respond early to the nationwide count that determines social safety nets, congressional districts, and civil-rights enforcement. Black and Latinx populations could be severely undercounted under projections from the Urban Institute. Over the advice of U.S. Census Bureau researchers, the Trump administration refused to add a separate category for Middle Eastern and North African people to improve accuracy.

Census data is all the more important during and after a pandemic. Communities can use it to decide how many hospital beds and how much Medicaid funding they’ll need over the next ten years, Stevens said. Self-responding online can protect public health whenever the bureau’s postponed field operations resume.

“We have the opportunity to take this online now and to be able to really control whether or not we’re counted, regardless of a lot of the other issues that have often undermined the count in the past,” Stevens said. But she’s navigating connectivity issues that linger in a supposedly digital society. About 15 percent of Black people did not use the internet in 2019, according to Pew Research Center figures. Writer Karie Fugett documented how coronavirus is further isolating her and other rural Americans who live without dedicated internet access.

Stevens is also trying to expand voting options, including voting by mail, which “became a really obvious sell once people were not able to typically congregate in large groups.” The U.S. Supreme Court begged to differ, invalidating coronavirus-delayed Wisconsin absentee ballots in “one of the most brazen acts of voter suppression in modern history,” in the words of Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern.

Stevens continues to push for reforms that the government should have been making all along. “The pandemic really made the case [for them],” she said. “We’re really trying to capitalize on that as much as possible.”

An earlier pandemic, HIV/AIDS, bared dire needs that Alexis Danzig felt compelled to address. After her father died from AIDS in the late 1980s, she dedicated the next five years of her life to full-time direct action work through the formidable activist group ACT UP.

Direct action works outside of electoral politics, Danzig said. Activists use and have used it to “speak directly to power” in examples that she ticked through: Picketing a legislator’s office. Leafleting a neighborhood over a Board of Education decision. Deliberately breaking bad laws during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and incidental laws during the AIDS crisis of the ’80s and ’90s, in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Creating and developing services “that are properly the purview of the government, but that the government is not doing for one reason or another,” like providing pre-Roe v. Wade abortions through the Jane Collective. Activists with disabilities repeatedly put their bodies on the line through direct action to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, save the Affordable Care Act in 2017, and advocate the Disability Integration Act in 2018.

“Direct action is corporeal. You do it physically. You do it publicly. You interact with other people when you do it. That’s the heart and soul of direct action,” Danzig said.

COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and social isolation directives don’t mean the end of direct action. “What people don’t realize is how much time and energy and research has typically gone into putting together any one action,” Danzig said. “The work has got to still continue via social media, via Zoom conferences and Skype chats and trainings, because eventually, we will come out of this pandemic.” Activists can get creative if they do venture into the streets—as Danzig put it, “a 13-foot-long banner can have three people holding it who are six feet apart,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended minumum social distance. Four activists with the direct action group Rise and Resist wore masks and spaced themselves six feet apart to hold up an 18-foot “Trump Lies People Die” banner in front of one of the morgue trucks that have parked outside New York City’s hospitals.

Most activists will have to effect change literally from inside. They can learn from Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund co-founder and executive director Laurie Bertram Roberts. “I’m disabled, and also, we’re a group of low-income volunteers who don’t always have running cars,” Bertram Roberts said. She already did much of her work from the “fundshack,” her home and the fund’s headquarters, from which she’s kept her Little Free Pantry open and distributed thousands of dollars in pandemic mutual aid.

Bertram Roberts has partnered with mutual aid groups to distribute resources like the more than 200 birth kits she’s bought for Mississippians, particularly those in the underserved delta and coastal regions of the state. She’s put the word out to the doula and midwifery communities, too. The birth kits are a means of harm reduction. “It’s not that we’re encouraging people not to go to the hospital to give birth, it’s that realistically, we know that people may choose that [option] and also that realistically, we know people are going to be choosing and/or directed to labor at home as long as possible, and if you’re laboring at home as long as possible, an emergency birth is possible,” Bertram Roberts said.

The kits come stocked with emergency birth supplies, among them an umbilical cord clamp, gauze, gloves, and underpads, and she’s added items like a surgical scrub brush. Birth kits are common in international humanitarian crises and developing countries. In Nigeria, activist Adepeju Jaiyeoba started the Brown Button Foundation and Mother’s Delivery Kits, producing and selling low-cost birth kits in an effort to lower the country’s infant mortality rates. “But because this is America and we’re so incredibly privileged that we think that our healthcare system can’t fail us…we’re not even thinking to make sure that we’re looking out for people who may or not be even able to access our system in these upcoming weeks,” Bertram Roberts said.

Looking out for people means listening to them. Alison Turkos is used to channeling direct action in her reproductive and survivor advocacy. In March, she rallied outside the U.S. Supreme Court as the justices deliberated an abortion rights case, and last year, she confronted lawmakers as the U.S. Senate deliberated Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination. “There are so many ways to be heard, and because of the many privileges that I hold, I’m able to go to D.C., and I’m able to raise my voice and to do things that way,” Turkos said. “Moving to a more virtual space, it can allow some of us to move back”—and make space for others.

Listening out for people is another part of Turkos’ work in bystander intervention. Organizations like Hollaback! and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center provide resources and strategies for bystanders to intervene when they witness various forms of harassment and violence. Coronavirus lockdowns have caused domestic abuse to spike worldwide.

“We want to be physical distancing, but we don’t want to be distancing ourselves enough that we’re not intervening when we think that someone might be experiencing harm,” Turkos said. At the same time, people shouldn’t necessarily assume that a fight between intimate partners or within a family means anything more than naturally heightened tensions in a fraught time. Calling the police could make the situation worse.

Turkos encouraged people to be thoughtful by doing their homework before they consider intervention, particularly as social distancing and disinfection guidelines remain in place. “Don’t just walk up to the [neighbor’s] door and bang on it and be like, ‘Hey, I think there’s something wrong here,” she said. “If you want to do some bystander intervention during COVID-19 quarantine, maybe it’s showing up to that neighbor’s door with a roll of toilet paper and saying something like, ‘Hey, I happen to have some extra toilet paper. Do you need a roll?’ [Do] something like that to completely just calm the situation.”

Lobbying, mutual aid, fundraising, building political power, direct action, harm reduction, and bystander intervention are useful tools for activism, but they’re far from the only ones. “I think that there are ways to organize that we haven’t even scratched the surface [of] yet, and I think that this is going to really, literally force us to think of new organizing models,” Turkos said. Whatever they are, activists will be there to meet the demand for justice.

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