News and Notes

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How the Pandemic Defeated America

A virus has brought the world’s most powerful country to its knees.

Story by: Ed Yong
September 2020 Issue
Editors Note: The Atlantic is making vital coverage of the coronavirus available to all readers. Find the collection here.

How did it come to this? A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humbled and humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation. America has failed to protect its people, leaving them with illness and financial ruin. It has lost its status as a global leader. It has careened between inaction and ineptitude. The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, in the moment, to truly fathom.

In the first half of 2020, SARS‑CoV‑2—the new coronavirus behind the disease COVID‑19—infected 10 million people around the world and killed about half a million. But few countries have been as severely hit as the United States, which has just 4 percent of the world’s population but a quarter of its confirmed COVID‑19 cases and deaths. These numbers are estimates. The actual toll, though undoubtedly higher, is unknown, because the richest country in the world still lacks sufficient testing to accurately count its sick citizens.

Despite ample warning, the U.S. squandered every possible opportunity to control the coronavirus. And despite its considerable advantages—immense resources, biomedical might, scientific expertise—it floundered. While countries as different as South Korea, Thailand, Iceland, Slovakia, and Australia acted decisively to bend the curve of infections downward, the U.S. achieved merely a plateau in the spring, which changed to an appalling upward slope in the summer. “The U.S. fundamentally failed in ways that were worse than I ever could have imagined,” Julia Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, told me.

Since the pandemic began, I have spoken with more than 100 experts in a variety of fields. I’ve learned that almost everything that went wrong with America’s response to the pandemic was predictable and preventable. A sluggish response by a government denuded of expertise allowed the coronavirus to gain a foothold. Chronic underfunding of public health neutered the nation’s ability to prevent the pathogen’s spread. A bloated, inefficient health-care system left hospitals ill-prepared for the ensuing wave of sickness. Racist policies that have endured since the days of colonization and slavery left Indigenous and Black Americans especially vulnerable to COVID‑19. The decades-long process of shredding the nation’s social safety net forced millions of essential workers in low-paying jobs to risk their life for their livelihood. The same social-media platforms that sowed partisanship and misinformation during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa and the 2016 U.S. election became vectors for conspiracy theories during the 2020 pandemic.

The U.S. has little excuse for its inattention. In recent decades, epidemics of SARS, MERS, Ebola, H1N1 flu, Zika, and monkeypox showed the havoc that new and reemergent pathogens could wreak. Health experts, business leaders, and even middle schoolers ran simulated exercises to game out the spread of new diseases. In 2018, I wrote an article for The Atlantic arguing that the U.S. was not ready for a pandemic, and sounded warnings about the fragility of the nation’s health-care system and the slow process of creating a vaccine. But the COVID‑19 debacle has also touched—and implicated—nearly every other facet of American society: its shortsighted leadership, its disregard for expertise, its racial inequities, its social-media culture, and its fealty to a dangerous strain of individualism.

SARS‑CoV‑2 is something of an anti-Goldilocks virus: just bad enough in every way. Its symptoms can be severe enough to kill millions but are often mild enough to allow infections to move undetected through a population. It spreads quickly enough to overload hospitals, but slowly enough that statistics don’t spike until too late. These traits made the virus harder to control, but they also softened the pandemic’s punch. SARS‑CoV‑2 is neither as lethal as some other coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS, nor as contagious as measles. Deadlier pathogens almost certainly exist. Wild animals harbor an estimated 40,000 unknown viruses, a quarter of which could potentially jump into humans. How will the U.S. fare when “we can’t even deal with a starter pandemic?,” Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and an Atlantic contributing writer, asked me. Despite its epochal effects, COVID‑19 is merely a harbinger of worse plagues to come. The U.S. cannot prepare for these inevitable crises if it returns to normal, as many of its people ache to do. Normal led to this. Normal was a world ever more prone to a pandemic but ever less ready for one. To avert another catastrophe, the U.S. needs to grapple with all the ways normal failed us. It needs a full accounting of every recent misstep and foundational sin, every unattended weakness and unheeded warning, every festering wound and reopened scar. 

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It’s Like a Nightmare: Options Dwindle for Renters Facing Economic Distress

By: Ari Shapiro, NPR
02 Jun 2020
Featured image: A demonstrator in Chicago calls on the governor of Illinois to suspend rent and mortgage payments for those who have lost income during the covid-19 pandemic. (photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

s one of the country’s worst economic and health crises in history deepens, rent is due again for millions of people who are struggling to make ends meet.

Over the last few months, states and the federal government have taken steps to help tenants who’ve lost their jobs. Now, while the unemployment rate is still climbing, some of the protections for renters are running out.

An extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits for eligible people is set to expire at the end of July, for instance.

In March, Elaine Slikkerveer lost her job teaching art for a nonprofit in Reno, Nev., as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, the single mother of two is struggling to pay the rent and has had to consider uprooting her family from the condo they’ve rented for 10 years.

“I have anxiety. I can’t sleep,” 51-year-old Slikkerveer says.

To make her April and May rent, she stopped making payments on other bills, used her government relief checks and dug into her savings. When she reached out to her landlord to discuss June rent, she says that he was not understanding and insisted she needed to pay.

Last week, Slikkerveer’s landlord, John Burkett, told NPR: “I sympathize with Elaine’s current situation and am working with her to ease the stress,” adding that “rental income is my only income so this is definitely putting a burden on me as well.”

In the end, Slikkerveer says that Burkett agreed to waive her late fee and figure out a payment plan.

Slikkerveer says that six months ago, she could never have imagined being in a situation like this.

“I never dreamed about it. And to be honest with you, it’s like a nightmare. It’s a lot of uncertainty,” she says. “I was planning, had everything planned. And nothing in my plan is working. I mean, I have nothing right now.”

As tenants across the U.S. run out of options, more and more are turning to credit cards to pay the rent.

Property management company Zego processes millions of rent checks every month.

It reported that from March to April, the number of tenants putting rent on a credit card increased 30%; from April to May, it went up another 20%.

As of now, about half the states in the U.S. are allowing evictions, according to Emily Benfer of Columbia Law School, who has been tracking state policies around COVID-19 and housing.

Benfer called COVID-19 “a great magnifier of inequity and health injustice across our country.” She says that people of color are evicted at higher rates than white people, especially mothers with kids.

“Today, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly 10 times greater than that of a black family,” Benfer says. “We can expect this divide to widen as COVID-19 mortality and job loss continues to affect communities of color at a higher rate than other groups.”

Some places, such as Kansas City, Mo., are conducting remote eviction hearings by phone or videoconference — effectively deciding that while it’s not safe enough to show up in court, it is safe enough to evict someone from their home.

Over the last couple of months, there hasn’t been a steep drop-off in the number of people paying rent. The question is what will happen in the next few months.

“We’re watching a tidal wave move forward towards us and across the state,” says Lee Camp, an attorney with ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis nonprofit organization that represents tenants.

He says that the group’s phones have been flooded with calls from people seeking housing assistance. As the state reopens and evictions resume, he predicts that the tidal wave could be “all-consuming for the next few months, if not years.”

There are some variables that will help determine how massive that wave will be. For instance, if Congress doesn’t pass an extension of the extra unemployment benefits, tens of millions more renters could be in trouble.

Before the wave of protests against police violence started, activists around the country were holding rallies to “cancel the rent.”

Ale Lomanto helps organize demonstrations in Philadelphia.

“I feel for my community and my neighbors who have to choose between putting food on the table and housing,” says Lomanto, 26. “And then also putting themselves at risk to work.”

Lomanto owned a pet care business in West Philadelphia before shutting it down in March. Lomanto, who uses the pronoun they, doesn’t know how they’re going to pay rent for June. Lomanto sublets an apartment that’s managed by a company named New Age Realty and is among the 300 tenants petitioning for the suspension of rent payments during the pandemic.

Lance Roger, a real estate lawyer who represents New Age Realty, offers the landlord perspective.

“A lot of these properties are owned by investors, and these are hardworking men and women who are investing for their future,” he says. “So what they’ve done is gone out and gotten mortgages, and when the tenants decide en masse they don’t want to pay their rent, it’s going to impact the ability for the landlords to make their mortgage payments.”

And if more and more mortgages go unpaid, Rogers says, it could have a domino effect with broader impacts on the economy.

In 2008, the financial collapse hit homeowners more than it did renters — but the ripples spread beyond mortgage holders.

This time, if tenants across the country can’t pay the rent, the ripples could reach far beyond the rental market.

Click here to read the full article.


These mayors want to fight Covid-19 and the recession with one big idea: A guaranteed income

Mayors of Atlanta, Los Angeles, Stockton, and other cities want a federal cash program to support their residents in need.

By Dylan Matthews | | Jul 21, 2020, 10:00am EDT
Featured image: Michael Tubbs, mayor of Stockton, California, spearheaded Mayors for Guaranteed Income, a coalition of 17 mayors who support implementing a federal guaranteed income. Nick Otto/AFP via Getty Images

An impressively expansive coalition of mayors across the United States has united for a surprising goal: implementing a federal guaranteed income.

Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, announced in a Time opinion piece last month, is the brainchild of Michael Tubbs, the 29-year-old chief executive of Stockton, California, a city of more than 300,000 about 90 minutes east of San Francisco.

Tubbs first encountered the idea of a guaranteed income as a Stanford undergrad when studying Martin Luther King Jr.’s advocacy of the policy. A guaranteed income is an umbrella term for any policy meant to ensure that all citizens have a baseline level of money every year, guaranteed through government checks. For the last three years, Tubbs has been overseeing a pilot program offering 130 low-income Stockton residents $500 a month, no strings attached, to test one model of how this could work.

That effort, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), began distributing money in early 2019, and while there is no formal research published on it yet, they have so far seen promising results. The money isn’t “wasted” by recipients, as skeptics of a guaranteed income have argued, but is spent on necessities, with food being by far the biggest purchase category.

Tubbs has become a major evangelist for the idea. He told Vox that, after presenting the idea to the US Conference of Mayors in 2018, he was “surprised by how enthusiastic people were.” Then, after the Covid-19 pandemic set in, he found “mayors were hungry for something that met this moment: focusing on root causes, and in line with the spirit of FDR with the New Deal, or JFK and the New Frontier.”

So far, the 17 mayors who have joined Tubbs include prominent names like Los Angeles’s Eric Garcetti, Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, Seattle’s Jenny Durkan, Oakland’s Libby Schaaf, Newark, New Jersey’s Ras Baraka, and Jackson, Mississippi’s Chokwe Antar Lumumba. All are Democrats (as are most large-city mayors), but Tubbs says the group will become bipartisan “soon.”

The effort has also drawn attention from Silicon Valley philanthropy — Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey donated $3 million to the group as a launch gift.

The group’s purpose is both to advocate for guaranteed income as an idea and to support pilot programs of the idea in the cities of member mayors. Those pilots take up the bulk of the group’s budget and could provide valuable new evidence on the effects of cash transfers as well as build public awareness of the idea.

Schaaf of Oakland says she’s already talking with a “major national funder” about launching a pilot in her city. “What excites me about universal income is that … it will intersect with victims of structural racism,” Schaaf told Vox.

Her city has in the past offered one-time cash assistance to help with homelessness, she says, and while that’s been life-changing for some recipients, it’s not enough. “Limiting cash assistance to one-time has a disparate impact on people of color because racial discrimination is not one-time,” Schaaf said. She’s attracted to guaranteed income and universal basic income because of the policy’s regularity and because it leaves choices to the recipients, not the government. “Government cannot know each and every family’s unique circumstances. It’s disrespectful and inefficient for us to try to,” Schaaf said. “I call it ‘tweezer government.’”

Mayors for a Guaranteed Income’s emergence is the latest evidence to date that universal cash assistance is becoming a mainstream political proposal, not least due to the widespread economic deprivation caused by Covid-19. And Tubbs is clear that the ultimate goal is less the implementation of such policies in the cities they run and more to force guaranteed income onto the agenda of the federal government.

Guaranteed income vs. basic income

The terminology in the name “Mayors for a Guaranteed Income” is important.

“Guaranteed income” isn’t quite the same as another concept that has caught on in recent years: “universal basic income” (UBI), the idea that tech leaders and 2020 presidential contender Andrew Yang have popularized. UBI typically involves proposals that offer enough money for a basic subsistence living (like $1,000 per month, as in Yang’s plan) to every American (or at least every adult American), regardless of their other income.

Click here to read the full article.


‘Heads we win, tails you lose’: how America’s rich have turned pandemic into profit

As 26 million Americans lose their jobs, the billionaire class has added $308bn to its wealth

Jeff Bezos has seen his wealth increase from $105 billion to $130 billion
Jeff Bezos has seen his wealth increase from $105bn to $130bn. Photograph: Mona Chalabi

Dominic Rushe and Mona Chalabi
Sun 26 Apr 2020 05.00 EDT
Last modified on Wed 1 Jul 2020 12.36 EDT

Never let a good crisis go to waste: as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the world, America’s 1% have taken profitable advantage of the old saying.

Some of the richest people in the US have been at the front of the queue as the government has handed out trillions of dollars to prop up an economy it shuttered amid the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, the billionaire class has added $308bn to its wealth in four weeks – even as a record 26 million people lost their jobs.

According to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive thinktank, between 18 March and 22 April the wealth of America’s plutocrats grew 10.5%. After the last recession, it took over two years for total billionaire wealth to get back to the levels they enjoyed in 2007.

Eight of those billionaires have seen their net worth surge by over $1bn each, including the Amazon boss, Jeff Bezos, and his ex-wife MacKenzie Bezos; Eric Yuan, founder of Zoom; the former Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer; and Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX technocrat.

The billionaire bonanza comes as a flotilla of big businesses, millionaires and billionaires sail through loopholes in a $349bn bailout meant to save hard-hit small businesses. About 150 public companies managed to bag more than $600m in forgivable loans before the funds ran out. Among them was Shake Shack, a company with 6,000 employees valued at $2bn. It has since given the cash back but others have not.Advertisement

Fisher Island, a members-only location off the coast of Miami where the average income of residents is $2.2m and the beaches are made from imported Bahamian sand, has received $2m in aid.

Its residents seemed to be doing fine even before the bailout. This month, the island purchased thousands of rapid Covid-19 blood test kits for all residents and workers. The rest of Florida is struggling. About 1% of Florida’s population has been tested for the coronavirus, behind the national figure of 4%. The state is also in the midst of an unemployment claims crisis, with its underfunded benefits system unable to cope with the volume of people filing.

The banks that were the largest recipients of bailout cash in the last recession have also done well, raking in $10bn in fees from the government loans, according to an analysis by National Public Radio.

“Heads we win, tails you lose,” said Chuck Collins, director of the program on inequality and the common good at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-author of the new report.

Click here to read the full article.


Voting Matters

All told there might have been 600 community college students and members of the public who came in waves through the 4-hour September 25 Teach-In on “The Power Of Your Vote.” At times this discussion of the importance of getting active around the 2020 election almost filled the 277-seat Laney College Forum auditorium.

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They heard powerful stories told by their peers, their teachers and community activists about the never-ending struggles by oppressed and exploited groups throughout the entire history of America for social and economic justice — long-past struggles like those that legally freed the slaves, more recent struggles like the battles for civil rights, current struggles that touch them personally, like the travesties happening around immigration, the tragedies of homeless students and teachers, the outrages of people priced out of needed health care, the apocalyptic extinction possibilities of climate change and never-ending struggles like safeguarding democracy by demanding that all citizens enjoy the right to vote.

Some stories were real tearjerkers – undocumented immigrants willing to risk everything they had ever known for a chance at a better life, Students wanting an education so much that they couch surf or sleep in their cars in order to attend school. Students struggling to rebound from horrible encounters with the U.S. system of mass incarceration. Students who have seen so much violence in their young lives that they couldn’t imagine a life without it. In this year of danger and discontent there was so much to talk about.

In Oakland the problem is gentrification with rapid and high rent increases, wrote student Kah’lea McClendon. “My parents are not lazy. Both of my parents have jobs, none of them are addicts, and none of them are bad people; but we still were homeless for three years.” The camera focused on Emma Denice Milligan, sitting in intense pain in her power wheelchair, stumbling with her speech impediment, bringing her story of how Dr. Ronald J. Robinson kicked her out of Summit Hospital after two weeks of failing to find the cause of her pain with the statement to her and her uncle, “She’s a drain on hospital resources.”

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voting matters 2_640x426

Why voting matters was the focus of the Teach-In, planned by a Teach-In Committee of students, teachers, administrators and community volunteers in conjunction with the college chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign. In a country as diverse as ours, with an economic system as exploitive as ours, and a political system as broken and captured by money as ours, why the hell would voting matter? To provoke discussion about that question, the planners used a combination of personal stories, newspaper articles, videos and small-group discussions that tried to merge the lessons of history – some ugly and others inspirational – with the optimism of the millennial generation and the demand for change being increasingly expressed by the growing number of once optimistic people now being pushed out of the economy by gentrification, robotization, and the fascist system of harsh controls being pushed by our two-party system. Among the videos shown was 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg’s “How Dare You!” speech to the United Nations. Last year she was sitting in protest outside the Swedish parliament building in Stockholm, handing out flyers that read “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.”

“It’s a city within a city, temporary homes made permanent residence, located in Emeryville, California,” said student Jalana Spencer. “We call it Tent City . . . People live in squalor. Garbage is everywhere, welcoming rodents and things that feed. Portable toilets are overflowing leaving a pungent stench in the air. Dirty faces without names, it is an eyesore. Tented communities are popping up everywhere, blocking roads, trashing streets and making an unsafe environment for everyone around. Many people living in these communities are in need of medical care and financial assistance. There are many circumstances leading to how they ended up in their situation and we as a community should be more aware and understanding.”

Ethel Long-Scott, one of the founders of the Teach-in Committee and MC of the first two-hour session, kicked it off with a short welcoming speech.

“Many of us have watched the Presidential debates,” she said.  “The 2020 election, which we are seeing take shape right now, promises to be the most momentous in our history since the 1860 election brought us Abraham Lincoln as president and ushered in the U.S. Civil War.

“Back then the political system let the slave-owning south control the country by relying on the legal fiction that a slave owner had 3/5 of a vote for every slave he owned. Today, our political system gives corporations — through their influence in both major political parties — a deadly hold over our government, relying on the legal fiction that corporations are people and have more rights than humans do.

“Major splits are developing within the Democratic Party about how to proceed in the 2020 campaign. One strategy is to defeat Trump by compromising with corporations and supporting corporate-funded so-called middle of the road candidates like Biden. Another strategy is to confront the corporations and build on the working class mobilization unleashed by the Sanders campaign in 2016.

“Meanwhile in the neighborhoods more folk are organizing into strands of a movement, and working to pull those strands together. They are struggling to gain control over what people really need, led by a vision of a better society and a safer world.  The bottom line is that there can’t be political democracy without economic democracy. Whoever controls your bread and butter controls you. People are waking up to the fact that they need to fight to be in control of the things they need to survive.  We need political power, and voting our needs is key to generating a social movement aimed at securing the political power we need.

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voting matters 3_640x426
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voting matters 4_640x426

“Why is this happening?” Long-Scott asked.

“Because more and more of us are falling into a new class, a class of people no longer needed by a market-based, profit-based corporate economy that’s replacing more and more human workers with robots and artificial intelligence.  Because corporations no longer employ us, they are driven to use fascism (corporate sponsored terror and dictatorship of government) to control us.

“What we the people need is … a plan, and a narrative. We also have no choice; we have to unite to succeed and survive, unite under the banner of our shared real needs.  United, we are the social force for a new economy that serves the needs of all people and the planet.  That’s why our vote matters today.”

Or as a discussion paper noted, “In this election year and in the coming years, your vote will have great power if we can channel our political energy toward a common goal; transforming our society so that all people have full access to all the resources of society to fulfill our basic needs of decent and dignified life on a healing planet.”

Dr. Kimberly King, the Laney psychology professor and Umoja (unity) program director who MC’d the second 2-hour session, said afterward she was getting “lots of excited responses from students . . . who attended. Several Umoja students were thrilled by the speakers and the perspective of coming together as poor people across colors to fight for what we need and deserve.”

An elerly woman pushes another elderly woman, wearing a mask, in a wheelchair | Getty Images

California calls for all seniors to stay home, closure of bars and wineries


An elerly woman pushes another elderly woman, wearing a mask, in a wheelchair | Getty Images

An elderly woman pushes another elderly woman, wearing a mask, in a wheelchair | Getty Images

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gavin Newsom called Sunday for all senior citizens and residents with chronic conditions to isolate themselves at home, as well as for all bars, wineries and brewpubs to close, launching the state’s most sweeping effort yet to slow the spread of coronavirus.

No other state has imposed such restrictions on residents age 65 and older. Newsom said his orders do not come with enforcement but that he expects residents and counties to follow his protocols. California has 5.3 million residents over the age of 65.

“This will be socialized in real time,” Newsom said. “I have all the confidence in the world.”

The governor’s announcement came a day after large crowds continued to enjoy nightlife in cities across the nation despite public warnings to avoid social activities. The weekend before St. Patrick’s Day drew green-clad revelers to many bars and pubs, and the city of Sacramento went so far Friday as to encourage people to dine out by eliminating nighttime parking fees.

Absent further action, the revelry was expected to continue Tuesday on the actual St. Patrick’s Day, which traditionally sees bars open in the morning to packed crowds across the nation.

“We believe this is a non-essential function in our state,” Newsom said of alcohol-focused establishments. Newsom himself has long owned a wine business.

Unlike a handful of other governors Sunday, Newsom did not call for restaurants to close, but to halve their capacities and create the recommended six feet of distance between patrons.

California now has 335 positive coronavirus tests, a 14 percent increase from Saturday, Newsom said. A sixth person has died, though additional details were not immediately available.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called Sunday morning for a “dramatic diminution” in activity at bars and restaurants across the nation. He told NBC’s Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” that Americans should prepare to “hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing.”

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Sunday ordered the closure of all bars and restaurants through the end of March, and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine was taking similar action. A few cities in New Jersey on Saturday imposed curfews and banned in-person dining.

As positive tests multiply in California and around the nation, elected officials and health officers have scrambled to impose a cascade of restrictions on public life. On Thursday, Newsom’s office issued a directive urging people to avoid large gatherings and new rules opening access to state benefits and opportunities for telework.

He subsequently released an order ensuring shuttered schools could still receive funding, but stopped short of demanding statewide closure of schools, as governors elsewhere have done. The vast majority of schools in California will be closed this week, including those in 24 of the state’s 25 largest districts. Newsom said 85 percent of students in public schools will not have class this week.

Meanwhile, local governments on the front lines of trying to contain the virus have enacted further-reaching limits on public events — Santa Clara County and San Francisco have banned those larger than 100 attendees and sharply limited groups greater than 35. San Francisco went so far as to order bars with capacity limits higher than 100 to close for several weeks.

The economic damage could be sustained and wide-ranging. Businesses are bracing for potentially catastrophic losses of customers as workers who cannot do their jobs remotely confront the possibility of extended stretches without pay.

In an attempt to buoy the ever-popular restaurants and bars in the capital city, the Sacramento City Council provided an economic relief package for small businesses and waived parking fees at night and on weekends. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg on Saturday afternoon tweeted, “Please safely patronize our local businesses during this difficult time,” a post he has since removed. That drew dozens of people to criticize the mayor for risking public health by encouraging residents to visit restaurants and bars.

After Newsom’s announcement, Steinberg said in a statement that “We must all fully embrace the direction the governor articulated today. This will require us all to make real sacrifices, but they are necessary to slow the progress of this pandemic. … I feel for our small businesses, restaurants and working people who will face economic hardship as a result.”

Widespread homelessness was already a paramount concern for California leaders before the virus began to spread, and the sprawling encampments that dot many large cities now loom as a potential source of transmission. Newsom said the state was working to get Californians out of encampments and into shelter, including trailers and motels assembled by the state, and he predicted that officials would be able to move residents experiencing homelessness without wielding “police state” powers.

“I think there’s a lot of mythology about resistance,” said Newsom, adding that “I just don’t buy that someone prefers to live in an encampment.”

Along similar lines, Newsom said his office would on Monday release guidelines about evictions. Policymakers across California are calling for a moratorium on evictions as residents face down the prospect of missed paychecks.

The governor also attempted to allay fears about the economic wreckage, saying that healthy budget concerns help to ensure that “we’ve never been in better position to weather a recession.”

Nolan D. McCaskill contributed to this report.


Vote Like Your Life Depends on It

By Amara Kassam and Larissa Campaña.  Members of the Laney Chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign that sponsored this event. 

On February 25th the Laney College Teach-In on “The Power Of Your Vote” sought to inform an audience of around 250 students of serious threats to our democracy. We featured key speakers such as Moms 4 Housing, O.P.E.N. and other advocates for housing, education and voters rights. We began our Teach-In with a reminder that the foundation of American capitalism was built on and by black slave laborers. As Ethel Long-Scott, activist and leader at the Laney chapter of the Poor People’s campaign stated, “As the billionaire class accumulates more and more wealth, more working people fall into insecurity, poverty, and homelessness.” As the concerns against capitalism start to spark national interest in the American public, we must ask why the only appropriate time for democratic socialist policy seems to be when big banks and big money need bailouts, and not everyday working people. Looking forward to the 2020 elections, we must be wary of the disinformation that will plague our fair election process. A common strategy for illiberal leaders globally is not to shut down voices of dissent, but to drown them out entirely. This is called censorship through noise, and with the constant flurry of meaningless headlines meant to distract from the drastic violations of human rights. While hundreds of thousands of people go unhoused, and big corporations sit on hundreds of thousands of square feet of empty housing, our media is turned to clickbait headlines about the president’s tweets. Our Teach-In aimed to do more than just inform people about the problems facing our democracy, it was aimed to empower a younger generation of students to have their voices heard through their votes. Disinformation is used to suppress our votes and control political dissent. The best way to combat these threats to our democracy is with protest, education, and with our votes. 

LA Moms4Housing

Another group of home-less moms and families are taking over a house — this time in L.A.

Oakland’s Moms4Housing movement, which proclaims that the human right to shelter takes priority over anyone’s right to profit from housing by keeping it vacant, has spread to Los Angeles. As the Los Angeles Times story below notes, the empty house taken over in mid-March by a group of homeless families, is owned by CalTrans, an arm of state government, and is part of a group of 460 properties that have been vacant for up to 35 years as a homeless crisis now rages around them. The Los Angeles group wants all vacant government-owned properties used to shelter the homeless. They were also motivated by the need to protect themselves from the threat of the Coronavirus.


MARCH 15, 20201:30 PM

Sisters Meztli Escudero, 8, left, and Victoria Escudero, 10, stand in the window of a va-cant house they and their families occupied on Saturday morning. The homeless and housing insecure protesters said they were inspired by a similar protest in Oakland ear-lier this year and by fear of the coronavirus outbreak.(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Weeks after a group of homeless mothers took over a vacant house in Oakland and managed to keep it, another group of moms is trying to do the same in Los Angeles.

On Saturday morning, the protesters and their families moved into a two-bedroom bungalow in El Sereno. They say they plan to remain indefinitely and potentially take over more houses.

They are calling on state and local governments to use all publicly owned vacant homes, libraries, recreation centers and other properties to house people immediately. They say the region’s extreme lack of affordable housing and the threat of the novel coronavirus pushed them to act.

“I am a mother of two daughters. I need a home,” said Martha Escudero, 42, who has spent the last 18 months living on couches with friends and family members in neighborhoods across East Los Angeles. “There’s these homes that are vacant, and they belong to the community.”

Escudero and her family moved into the house with Ruby Gordillo, 33, and Gordillo’s three children. The Gordillos had been living in a small studio in Pico-Union. Joining the two families in the El Sereno home is Benito Flores, 64, a welder who had been living in his van.

Like the Moms 4 Housing group in Oakland, the protesters in L.A. are receiving assistance from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, an organizing group that has advocated for state measures to expand rent control and other tenant protections.

A group of housing insecure and homeless people and families and their supporters stage a rally on Sheffield Avenue on Saturday morning to “reclaim” a vacant house that they say is owned by Caltrans. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

But unlike in Oakland, where the mothers successfully pressured Wedgewood Inc. of Redondo Beach to sell a vacant home that the company was planning to renovate and flip, the families in L.A. are moving into a home that they say is owned by the state.

The home is one of many that Caltrans bought years ago in preparation for a now-aborted plan to extend the 710 Freeway. Decades of litigation and legislation stalled the 6.2-mile project before construction could begin, leaving transportation officials as landlords for 460 properties that range from modest bungalows in El Sereno to Craftsman mansions on stately streets in South Pasadena.

One of the best-known is the childhood home of chef Julia Child. The Pasadena house, built in 1911, has been vacant for more than 35 years.

Caltrans has started the process of selling the homes, which are required by law to be offered first to former owners and current tenants who meet certain income requirements, but the vast majority are still owned by the state.

Caltrans did not respond to a request for comment.

Escudero, who works two days a week as an elderly caregiver, said the mothers in Oakland inspired her to occupy the vacant home on Saturday morning. She said the protesters are trying to push the state and city to take care of homeless residents and those without stable housing, especially given the new risks associated with the spread of COVID-19.

“With the coronavirus, they want us to be quarantined in our homes, but some of us don’t have homes,” she said.

In speaking to supporters, the protesters, who call themselves Reclaiming Our Homes, said they understood what they were doing is illegal, but the more significant issue was that homes were left vacant while people in the community were homeless.

“They say it’s a crime to come and occupy these houses,” Benito Flores said. “But this is not a crime. This is justice.”

Roberto Flores, 72, who is a part of United Caltrans Tenants, said that the state agency has long neglected its properties. Tenants have sued Caltrans, alleging it has not followed its own rules to ensure that low-income and longtime residents get access to the houses. He estimates 200 of the agency’s homes are now vacant.

“They’re not fixing them, and they’re not renting them,” he said.

Volunteers help move Martha Escudero into a vacant house she and other protesters occupied Saturday morning. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Records kept by The Times show that in 2015, 37 of the El Sereno homes were listed as “uninhabitable,” including two dozen apartment units. Over the years, residents have complained of break-ins, mold and vermin infestations. That figure appears to have increased in recent years.

An investigation by the Pasadena Star-News found that 163 of the 460 homes sat vacant last year. Caltrans said at the time that the vacant homes would be sold according to state laws, but did not provide a timeline.

On Saturday morning, the families and their supporters moved furniture and plants from a U-Haul truck and into the bungalow. Escudero said they planned to bring in a generator for electricity and urged state and local officials to turn on water service.

Originally, the protesters had planned to take over multiple vacant, Caltrans-owned houses in El Sereno. But in the pre-dawn hours, the Los Angeles Police Department was alerted that multiple men were attempting to break into a property, said Los Angeles police Officer Drake Madison, an LAPD spokesman. Two people were arrested and cited for misdemeanor trespassing, Madison said.

By late morning, officers had gathered across the street but were not attempting to evict the families. While they watched, supporters stood, chanting, “Housing is a human right.”

In recent months, homeless and low-income residents in Los Angeles and the Bay Area have cited the state’s affordable housing crisis as justification for simply taking over houses. Saturday’s attempted occupation is just the latest example.

California has an estimated shortage of 1.4 million homes for low-income families and its homeless population stands at about 151,000 on any given night — an increase of 16% from last year.

Last month, Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo proposed using eminent domain to force a landlord in Chinatown to sell his building. Cedillo’s proposal came after tenants protested a plan for the building to switch to market-rate rentals following the expiration of an agreement with the city to keep rents low. His effort is awaiting a hearing at the L.A. City Council.

A group of homeless and housing insecure protesters and their supporters hold a rally on Sheffield Avenue on Saturday to take over a vacant home. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

In Oakland, the group of mothers occupied the house for two months before they were evicted in January. After that happened, Wedgewood agreed to give community land trusts, affordable housing organizations and the city the right of first refusal for the vacant home and about 50 others it owned in Oakland. The company is finalizing a deal with the land trust for the property, which is intended to house those who had occupied it.

The case attracted national attention and Gov. Gavin Newsom helped broker the deal, which was announced on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and portrayed by some as a successful act of civil disobedience.

The protesters sent a letter to Newsom on Saturday morning, asking for his direct assistance.

In response to the broader homelessness crisis, Newsom has, among other actions, allowed state-owned travel trailers to be used as temporary homeless housing and offered state property to local governments for use as shelters and other solutions.

The protesters said their actions were aligned with the governor’s call to turn public property into homeless housing. But they maintained that Newsom and other elected officials needed to do more and work faster to get people off the streets and into stable housing.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

“There’s so many vacant homes while there’s people on the streets,” Escudero said. “He should be able to empathize with that and figure out how to reach an agreement with us.”


Updated: Opposition Emerges Right Off the Bat to A’s Laney Ballpark Plans

It’s been an open secret for months that the A’s want to build their new stadium on a site next to Laney College, but on Tuesday night, Athletics President Dave Kaval made it official. In a letter to Peralta Community College District Chancellor Jowel Laguerre, Kaval wrote that the Laney site is a “clear priority” for the team.

But at the Peralta district’s board meeting, students, faculty, staff, and other members of the public voiced nearly unanimous opposition to the A’s plan.

“It would be devastating for the low-income communities we serve,” said Kimberly King, a Laney faculty member. “We are hoping to prevent the A’s stadium.”

“I’m a deep, deep — it’s almost problematic what an A’s fan I am,” said Chris Weidenbach, an English teacher at Laney, before he explained why he’s opposed to a ballpark on or near the campus. He said it would massively disrupt the campus’ educational mission while gentrifying the neighborhood. “I can predict massive opposition,” he told the school’s board.

Laney student Jabari Shaw said a ballpark would change the tenor of the neighborhood, bringing party-goers, public intoxication, and numerous other problems to the campus.  Click here to read the full story by Darwin Bondgram.



Rev. Edward Pinkney: Back and in Rare Form

The Rev. Edward Pinkney wasted no time getting back to his first love, organizing for social and economic justice on behalf of the dispossessed. He was paroled in June after serving the minimum 2-1/2 year sentence on trumped-up phony charges of voter fraud. Even though 30 months of his life had been stolen, by mid-July he was leading a demonstration at Michigan’s Berrien County Courthouse.

“We had a tremendous protest this morning!,” he wrote in his regular column in the People’s Tribune. “We talked about the corruption within the courthouse and the growing number of young community members who are in jail. The most important thing is that the lady with the scales of justice no longer exists in Berrien County. We had to do something.

“I also wanted a welcome back home party right in front of the courthouse so they would know I was home,” he wrote. “And we wanted to send a message that the reason we fight is for the people who don’t have the courage to fight for themselves or their children. It’s crucial that we start standing up for what’s right. It doesn’t make a difference what color you are— black, white, brown, red, yellow, green, pink, blue and all others. It doesn’t make a difference. It’s time that we come together and take a stand.”

Pinkney announced he will join a new Poor People’s Campaign being organized in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1967 call for a “radical redistribution of economic and political power.” King was assassinated before he could lead the march on the nation’s capital by poor people from all over the nation, which was carried out by his staff later in 1968.

“Yes, we are going to bring the tired, poor, the huddled masses,” Pinkney said in a statement on his organization’s website. “We are coming to demand our government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read in the Declaration of Independence,’we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ but if a man doesn’t have a job or, an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”

Pinkney also issued a statement on the recent White Supremacist violence in Charlottesville: “We must take advantage of this shameful display of White Supremacism at its best in Charlottesville, Virginia. We must start to organize and mobilize the country, city-by-city, county-by-county, state-by-state . . . But if we are going to protest the confederate symbols and flag, we should also protest the American flag, the red, white and blue, because Black people have caught just as much Hell under the red, white and blue as the confederate flag and symbols.”

The long-time activist on behalf of the residents of Benton Harbor, MI, 90 percent of whom are low-income, was convicted of altering dates on voter signature recall petitions despite no direct or circumstantial evidence. The petitions urged the recall of Benton Harbor’s then-Mayor James Hightower because of the mayor’s support of gentrification tactics by the Whirlpool Corporation, headquartered in Benton Harbor. Supporters are convinced he was framed to stop his organizing activity. Writer Jackie Miller says it was because he had been a thorn in the side of the establishment for years, and Michigan’s power elite tried to buy him off to shut him up – and it didn’t work. Click HERE for the real story.The Michigan Supreme Court recently requested oral arguments in his appeal.

Rev. Pinkney writes a column every month in the People’s Tribune. Click HERE  to read more about the work he is doing.

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