A COVID Memorial Mixtape Revisited

Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout Podcast about things you need to know if your goal is to make a difference in the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. This week’s episode is a throwback situation. In place of our usual content, we are revisiting “A COVID Memorial Mixtape,” which was released in October of 2020 by Ric Wilson in collaboration with a number of grassroots organizers. The mixtape was part of the A COVID Memorial Mixtape. a month-long effortTo remember the COVID-19 victims, it was played from a loudspeaker at the Metropolitan Correctional Facility in Chicago. We made art, built shrines, and dropped banners during that month so we could all grieve together. This tape was made after we lost over 200,000 people in the United States to COVID-19. We have now lost more than 750,000. Globally, more than 5 million people have died. So let’s take a pause, and revisit some reflection, reverence and resistance around those losses.

I’ll be back next week with a regular episode.

Music by Son Monarcas


Note: This is a rush transcript that has been lightly edited to improve clarity. Copy may not appear in its final form.

[music begins]

Juliana Pino Alcaraz:Juliana Pino Alcaraz is my name. I’m a Colombiana Afroindígena Wayuu and Bari who is here as an abolitionist in the environmental justice movement in Chicago. My words that follow are in response to how state violence is driving deaths and lying to us about what we know we’re facing from COVID, a respiratory illness whose transmission is made severely worse by air pollution, incarceration, and anti-Black racism, meaning hundreds of thousands of community members have already been lost. We are here to remember, community members.

You/We bled in water: they don’t even try to pretend you are/were alive.

They will tell you a story that is simple and not full of tall tales about you worthlessness. Then they will call it the medicine that you deserve. They will provide you with expired food and claim that you have reached an expiration date. They will poison your person with exposure to the slow violence of pollution and pandemic, and ask you why you can’t breathe? They will fill your reports with stories of Black danger, Native genocide and friendly evictions. They will claim that cops keep us safe and that companies that plod toxic clouds into the chests abuelas truly had our best interests in mind.

They will call this right.

We will reach deep into the empathetic land, to the place Black lives are valued and Indigenous spirits flourish, and Brown people rejoice. It is here that we all receive our fire and nourish our food. We will shout out that indoor air quality is five times worse than outside, and that this is the same air you breathe. We will tell them that Personal Protection Equipment must be treated as a person. A filter should be placed on your face to protect you and your family from the harmful, viral disregard that is destroying your lungs. We will follow the example of youth to protect their futures as well as the water supply from their dangerous pipelines. We will resist the attempts to take your humanity away through violence, numbers, murders and statistics. In spite of all this, we will work together to heal and protect one another.

These systems will be ripped apart by us.

Take notice now: The walls of this place will crumble and the land will be returned by the foundation-shaking system-ending strength that is our bonds to one another.

Angela Davis once said, “we have learned to forget about prisons.” We pledge to you that we do not believe their simple stories, and we will not forget. They cannot stop us from destroying their assets, and building our reality together. We are inspired by your voices of solidarity for Black life, and we love you as well as all those we have lost. We will correct the record. YOU are worthy, you are our community. WE are worthy, WE make up our community, and we all grieve together.

Together, we transform water dripping in poisonous particles.

Together, we can clear the air of pollution, COVID, lies, and other harmful substances.

We honor the soil that was contaminated by industry waste and the bones of our ancestors together.

We remember together the souls that were taken from our family too soon.

We work together to turn chains into dust and return the minerals in concrete and steel to the plants.

We all can rest in community together, but we don’t have to be disposed of in our own bedrooms.

We rise together to tell the monster its simple story and replace it by our own.

Benji Hart:My name’s Benji Hart. I’m an author, artist and educator currently living in Chicago, and I would like to offer up, by way of mourning, and by way of grieving, love to the people who we’ve lost to COVID, particularly folks in the mass incarceration system, including detention centers. And I also want to offer up grief for all the lessons that COVID has attempted to teach us: lessons we haven’t heeded, but that we’ve also been discouraged from heeding by the current administration and ruling class. COVID sent us so many strong messages about our interconnectedness. COVID has taught us so much about the meaningless categories that we divide our society up by — folks on the inside, folks on the outside, folks with healthcare, folks without healthcare, folks with citizenship, folks without citizenship — and in actuality, when there’s a pandemic, you can’t make those distinctions. If a pandemic occurs in one population, it affects all of us. If certain parts of the population don’t have healthcare, we actually can’t control a disease like COVID-19.

Instead of slowing down or backing off from the ways we were harming our environment, we did the opposite. We committed ourselves not to slow down but to make universal healthcare a reality. To get people out of cages. To open borders so people can freely move as they want and share resources as needed. And so many of the people we’ve lost, it’s because we haven’t heeded the lessons, the teachings, that COVID really has tried so hard to impart on us. I feel deeply for both of those. I grieve for the opportunities for learning, for transformation of our society and ourselves that we so briefly, and so closely, almost attained, and were so quickly discouraged from doing so by folks in power: by the federal government, and by folks with money and resources who were willing to sacrifice young people, Black people, Indigenous people, undocumented people, and incarcerated people so that folks with money didn’t lose a profit, and so that the economy continued to generate the inequities and environmental catastrophe it has always been generating.

I mourn for the ways we haven’t learned this year: that we should have learned, that I wish we collectively did. And I offer up a prayer to those we’ve lost, to their grieving families, and also to a future where we do learn the lessons, where we fight for each other collectively and don’t sacrifice our neighbors, don’t sacrifice the most marginalized among us to a pandemic, whether that pandemic is COVID or whether that pandemic is capitalism, whether that pandemic is the police prison and military system, or whether that pandemic is white supremacy and white nationalism. I hope for a day where we all learn to see ourselves as part of one group and fight for collective liberation.

Bresha Meadows:Bresha Meadows is my name. I am a member of Lifted Voices. I was once held in prison for self-defense. Today we remember those who have been killed by COVID-19 and the many uncounted deaths behind prison walls. I know the daily worry of being in jail. Add to that a virus that has claimed many lives can make it difficult for you to go on. Although jail is supposed not to be a place to punish, it is almost the same thing as the death penalty to keep someone in jail while they get more and more sick. A friend of mine has a dad who is in jail. He has also been diagnosed as COVID. But they have done little to help him. I was shocked to see how this affected her family and me. Prisons treat this virus like a common cold.

I’m lucky enough to have gotten out, and I try to do everything most people wouldn’t expect me to do. I go to classes at Cleveland State University, I’ve got my own apartment. I joined Lifted Voices and realized that I also want others to be free. We can’t leave people behind who were already being left behind. We can’t do what we’ve always done. We can’t allow what happens to people to mean less to us over time. It doesn’t matter if someone lives or dies. It has to matter more to us than ever before. We can’t help people if they are forgotten. We can’t help but feel sorry for people if we stop caring about them. We don’t give up on those in jails, prisons, or detention centres. We don’t want to lose hope.

Tanuja Jagernauth:Tanuja Devi Jagernauth: My name is Tanuja Devi Jagernauth. I am honored and humbled to contribute to this mixtape in support of the Mutual Aid Mourning and Healing Project. We are a diverse group who came together in March 2020. Our common understanding is that collectively devastating times require collective methods for healing and that no one should have grief alone. We are also connected by a drive to politicize what is often shrugged off as “private” or “personal.”

Every single COVID-19-related death is as political and personal as the others. Donald Trump, a fascist, is implicated in every single death. He continues spreading lies and misinformation about its severity and impact.

But wherever you find yourself, please know that your life is important to us

If you are feeling the loss of your loved ones, this is the moment to grieve.

I am humbled to offer a moment

You can keep it with you.

For the loss that is fresh, hot — an open wound,

For the loss that is so old you can’t remember which lifetime — or whose — it came from,

For the loss that you can’t yet name

To grieve the loss of a friend

To grieve the loss of a loved one

We are sorry for the loss in our family.

For the loss or damage to your home

We are here to grieve and rage with your family.

And in our grief, wherever it might be living in our bodies

However, it is not what it seems today

May we find that thing — anything — that can move.

We may be able touch and pick up that which is not yet found.

We can just let our hands roll around in our arms

Like a perfect ball made of clay

It is heavy and cool to touch.

May we discover its potential

Use it to build the next planet together.

Cindy Milstein writes in Rebellious Mourning, “Our grief can open up cracks in the wall of the system. It can pry open spaces of contestation and reconstruction, intervulnerability and strength, empathy, and solidarity.”

We are learning to let our private selves go through mutual aid. We are learning how to connect our personal needs for survival and safety, healing, and community with people around us that we once considered strangers.

We are learning how we can ask for help and how we can receive it.

We are learning the difference between harm, and accountability.

We are learning that we have all we need, and we are finally admitting that we are all we’ve got.

Slowly but surely, we are creating the next world with care and intention.

We will continue to be in love with each other until that day comes.

We will continue to rage together and weep together.

We will continue to spread our joy of empathy.

Our bonds make us strong

Trump is terrified at this thought

Because he knows that at the end of each day.

There are many more of us than they.

There are many more of us than they.

There are many more of us than they.

Aislinn Pulley: I am Aislinn Pulley. I am the coexecutive director at the Chicago Torture Justice Center, the cofounder of BLMChi, as well as a board member for Ujimaa Medics. I am an organizer and artist who was born and raised in Chicago.

I have met so many people who have been affected with COVID. I know people who have experienced, and have suffered from the virus. People who have died from the virus. It is shocking to see the number of people of colour, especially Black, Indian, and Latinx who have died from this disease. The death rates of COVID-19-infected people in the United States are nearly triple that of Whites. The example of COVID disproportionately affecting the poor in a country with a lot of wealth, which has been built at the expense of essential services is shocking.

This country has the most wealth in the world, yet it uses it to torture, incarcerate, and kill its people. This system must be eliminated. We must create a system that ensures our survival and provides for our livelihoods.

COVID has shown that this is a critical step and that it is urgently needed. We cannot wait. We can’t wait. It is the system that is causing unnecessary deaths that has been obvious for a long time. It is our responsibility to act.

Kelly HayesKelly Hayes is my name. I am a Native writer, and a prison abolitionist organizer in Chicago, Illinois. Worldwide, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of over 950,000 people. COVID-19 has been responsible for more than 200,000 deaths in the United States. However, we know that the true number is much higher. We know that imprisoned persons were suffering conditions that stripped them of years of their lives and robbed them both of the present as well as the future long before COVID-19. Many people who lived in and outside of cages struggled to survive. As winter draws near, we are aware of even more atrocities. COVID-19 is already making its way through jails and prisons, striking people who have no access to healthcare. The results are devastating and, with flu season approaching, people will be more likely to die and suffer if they don’t get out.

Some may find the idea of releasing imprisoned people too radical a goal right now. People feel a little hope that the system can save them. But we are facing mass death, financial collapse, evictions across the country, and even the possible collapse of our profit-based health care system. Capitalism will always cut its losses to survive in times of crisis. It has done this through the prison industrial complex for a long period. People who are not able to fit into society psychologically, economically or any other way are thrown out. Some people die and others are simply stuffed into boxes. The elderly and disabled are also discarded and kept in the U.S. This is why so many retirement homes and assisted living facilities have been ravaged by the disease. There was no plan to protect these people. They were not economically or socially important, so they were disposed.

The system will need to get rid of more people to survive in the coming years. This is a time both of danger and opportunity. We cannot afford being passive or meek and allow history to happen to our heads. We should not be avoiding our imprisoned siblings for fear of being thrown off the boat. Instead, we should reject the growth of a carceral state which threatens to swallow many of us in years to come.

This society wants us to believe that our fates are our own — that by abandoning one another, we can keep ourselves safe individually. What will happen to us, our families, our neighbors and our families if jobs disappear and mass evictions and displacements occur across the country? We will be contained. We are forbidden from leaving poverty areas. We will be monitored with ankle bracelets, criminalized and questioned. It doesn’t need to be created. It is there, growing, and grinding people beneath. It is the prison industrial complex, which has outsourced imprisonment to our own homes and keeps people in prisons.

COVID-19 is a genocidal weapon within the government’s hands. However, it will also knock at many doors randomly in the months to follow. Our collective pain can be transformed into collective empathy and collective action if we all organize. This will not happen by itself, due to social deterioration. It will require political will and courage, compassion, as well as courage. Whatever is ahead, our survival will depend on our willingness to organize, and our freedom will depend on our willingness to fight for each other — and that means fighting for our imprisoned siblings.

There is a reason they don’t want us to grieve together. Because they know that we will be stronger if we do.

May the fallen rest in Peace, and may the rest raise hell.