Some of the many ways people are safely advocating for workers, renters, incarcerated people, artists, and other vulnerable populations.
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated Massachusetts—there are 58,302 coronavirus cases and 3,153 deaths in the state as of this writing, with a large racial disparity among those who are impacted. Service industry workers have been left without jobs, healthcare workers lack the Personal Protective Equipment they need, and grocery store workers are underpaid, for starters.
Though there’s now a statewide moratorium on evictions during the current state of emergency, rent has not exactly been cancelled. Many landlords are on a warpath to evict tenants, many of whom are music and arts spaces. Meanwhile, healthcare costs remain prohibitive—a poll found that one in seven Americans wouldn’t seek coronavirus treatment because they fear the high costs would bankrupt them.
As some activists argue, capitalism is the crisis, and the pandemic has exacerbated it. In short, there are a lot of things to protest—namely, injustices waged against people of color, immigrants, and the working class. But unlike those who are protesting to reopen the state, social justice-minded activists are attempting to demonstrate safely, without facilitating the spread of coronavirus by breaking social distancing advisories. These are some of the many ways people are safely advocating for workers, renters, incarcerated people, artists, and other vulnerable populations.
Since gathering in large groups is dangerous and can spread COVID-19, activists who practice social distancing have organized car protests. On April 25, the Party for Socialism and Liberation organized car protests to demand rent cancellation, and also drafted a national petition demanding for rents and mortgages cancellation. Demonstrators in 40 cities across the country, including Boston, participated in Cancel the Rents rallies. While housing advocates in Massachusetts recently won a statewide eviction moratorium, there are still more tenant rights and protections to fight for.
The following week,Building Up People, Not Prisons should be credited. You can say “…Building Up People, Not Prisons, a coalition led by formerly and currently incarcerated women, pushed for complete decarceration in a car rally that rolled past MCI Framingham. Incarcerated people are highly vulnerable to coronavirus—among other impediments, they are often unable to practice social distancing and lack access to hygiene products.
“We’re back at MCI Framingham with our sisters and siblings pushing for total decarceration,” prison abolition group Deeper Than Water tweeted. “Enough is enough, @MassGovernor and @MACorrections have AGAIN totally failed people inside. The state will NEVER keep us safe, only we keep us safe.”
The situation is similar at ICE detention centers. Along with other medical professionals, Dr. Lara Jirmanus urged ICE to release people during the state of emergency. “Detention facilities are incredibly crowded and do not have measures to [practice] hygiene … we’ve already seen reports of people who are infected with COVID-19 who are in ICE detention and in these crowded conditions,” Jirmanus said. “It has the potential to rapidly spread and also rapidly overwhelm the inadequate medical [facilities] within the prison.”
Education is a core component of organizing that prevents misinformation and unites communities. In one of many examples in Boston and elsewhere, Make Shift Boston recently launched its virtual, donation-based School of Arts and Social Justice to provide skillshares and education on topics like cooking, poetry, music, visual art, and activism within different contexts.
So far, Make Shift has hosted two classes: Fat Justice 101 and Queer Poetics Through Quarantine. “The idea is that people teach topics that … are really relevant to everyone in the community,” according to Rafael Natan, events coordinator at Make Shift. “We’re basically opening this tool up to the whole community.” Future workshops include: Radical Theory Made Accessible; Staying Connected, Mindful Arts; and Social Justice Filmmaking.
Letter writing and petitions
When Great Scott announced its closing on May 1, Bummer City Historical Society and Civic Engagement Coalition didn’t hesitate to begin a letter writing campaign to their landlords. Launched on May 1, just hours after the announcement, they collected 391 letters by May 4. Wendy Schiller started a Change.org petition demanding that the landlords renegotiate with venue owners.
On the housing front, City Life/Vida Urbana and other housing advocacy organizations like Dorchester Not for Sale formed a coalition called Homes for All Massachusetts and drafted the Healthy Housing Guarantee petition.
“We’re saying that our state legislature should be guaranteeing healthy housing right now for everybody,” Matthews said. “Meaning that there should be a ban on all evictions and foreclosures, the full moratorium I was talking about, there should be a cancellation of rent and mortgage payments for those who are unable to pay due to the crisis, and there should be assurance that in the aftermath of the crisis, both renters and homeowners won’t face eviction or foreclosure or pressure to repay impossible levels of debt accrued due to missed payments.”
As I reported in March, “in a society that prioritizes profits over people, neither the federal nor state and local government are equipped to provide an adequate social safety net. In response, many have turned to mutual aid, or people helping one another. In the past few weeks, such networks have popped up across Mass, with Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville (MAMAS) being one of the first on the scene.”
“We live in a profoundly unequal society, and one of the things that mutual aid is trying to do is redistribute some of those resources so folks have them accessible,” MAMAS organizer Hannah Freedman said.
Indeed, collective care fills many gaps left by the government in helping those impacted by the pandemic. Since the beginning of the state of emergency in Massachusetts, mutual aid networks have sprung up across the state in which neighbors help each other with financial troubles, food, supplies, and more.
Legislators wield the power to make decisions. During the pandemic, various groups have applied pressure in this realm to help push legislation to protect vulnerable Massachusetts residents.
In one example, City Life/Vida Urbana worked with state Rep. Mike Connolly to draft legislation that will prevent tenants from being evicted during the state of emergency. “We actually looked at eviction records from housing court from a sample of recent years and we found that the executed evictions … very clearly have a disproportionate impact on neighborhoods of color and working class neighborhoods in Boston,” Helen Matthews, communications manager at CL/VU, said in an interview. “That’s Roxbury, that’s Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park … Because of that, this is definitely a racial and economic justice issue.”
It took Baker more than a month to sign the eviction moratorium bill into law. Constituents pressured the Senate to pass the legislation in order to take decisive action during the pandemic. “We need Governor Baker, we need the occupant of the White House, we need people in the highest levels of authority to immediately change the way they’re thinking and to immediately take strong action to address the concerns of everyone who is vulnerable right now,” Rep. Connolly said. “Even for someone out there who may not actually care about the undocumented person or the person who’s experiencing homelessness or the person who’s incarcarated, even if there’s someone out there who isn’t all that concerned about those individuals, we need to remember that everyone’s own safety and really everyone’s own life in the circumstance is tied up in everyone else’s lives.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
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Olivia Deng is an arts and culture writer who also covers politics and social movements. Her work has appeared in DigBoston, WBUR, Boston Magazine, The Atlantic, Boston Art Review and more. She is also an illustrator and painter.