The default strategy in Rhode Island and throughout most of the United States to “keep the economy open” during the pandemic, at whatever cost, doesn’t mean that the price isn’t being paid daily by the most vulnerable. The daily infection and death charts many of us have been morbidly checking are also the cold graphical representation of continued profitability, the underside of the booming stock indexes. Politicians, bosses, administrators and landlords have presented business-as-usual as the only option in the most unusual times any of us have ever seen. Though better than other states in some areas, like testing and the appropriate shutdown last spring, Rhode Island has still had a very limited and inadequate response, disconnected from the needs and concerns of working people. The condescension of Raimondo, the callousness of the Chamber of Commerce, the selfishness of our suburban Trumpers (the Fung petit bourgeoisie), the subservience of whoever is in charge of editing the half-literate lapdog scribbles that constitute the Providence Journal – these are the voices that have largely determined what has and hasn’t happened in Rhode Island’s COVID response.
While the state of Rhode Island has been one of the most COVID-infected states in the United States for weeks, with daily new cases averaging around 100 per 100,000, little has been done to protect residents. We have been riding the waves rather than flattening the curve. In the first full month of vaccine availability, the state distributed a mere 30,000 doses. If only incessant RIDOH YouTube ads or the catchy condescension of prominent politicians provided some sort of immunity.
Despite the pervasiveness of the anger, anxieties and insecurities the last year has produced in the minds and hearts of most people, the seeming lack of viable solutions has left many people feeling politically quarantined. It has also left many important ongoing local struggles small and disconnected from each other. It is easy to fall into feelings of resignation over the inaction of those put in a position to lead. Our incoming governor seems to have little plans beside putting his boat in the water and letting the existing currents take us all further adrift. It can seem like there is nothing we can do but try and insulate ourselves and our families from harm and hope for the best. But we do have the ability to supplant shoddy political leadership and half-measures with collective power in order to not only survive this crisis but to turn over the tables that have been stacked against us.
Real Change or More Trickle-Down Crisis?
As with most things in United States politics, there is a desire to narrow the frame of what is possible and then offer two bad options as the only possibilities for how to move forward. From Trump to Raimondo we have been fed a false choice between the economic health and public health. We could have both in relatively short time if we shut down and then took public health seriously. As the political and economic hegemony of the United States wanes, and domestic inequality shatters its own recent records, we are faced with what will be a multi-year economic crisis. The echo of last summer’s demands for a racial reckoning continue to hit the ears of an America that has never known how to hear the legitimate cries of the present, let alone heal its past. The metaphorical and material bills are mounting. The global warming waves rise, amplified by these other rising tides. As we saw with the 2008 crisis, the Democrats will likely try to pay lip service to the language of the New Deal while trying to establish some sort of moral high ground in the neoliberal quicksand they’ve helped create. Biden’s proposed relief package is getting carved up and compromised already. Biden’s confusion in choosing Raimondo to head his health cabinet before appointing her to his commerce cabinet, just (re)highlights the muddled directionless insulated by the unaccountable paternalism that they both exude. Raimondo getting the commerce and not the health position is a metaphor for her handling of the coronavirus crisis – she did a great job of worrying about big business profits while utterly failing to provide the necessary resources and leadership to keep people safe – workers, students, families, neighborhoods, genuinely small businesses, and incarcerated people.
Who is Dan McKee Going to Be?
Soon-to-be Governor McKee has stated that he wants to continue on with a sunnier version of the condescending inaction of the Raimondo administration’s overall approach to the crisis. McKee’s approach sounds like it might just be a slightly less paternalistic version of Raimondo’s “knock it off” with the onus still simply on the individual to wear a mask or to get tested: “The goal for the year is to stay positive and test negative.” Note that his plan again does not involve the state doing anything proactive or owning any responsibility for our collective safety. We should stay positive and (somehow) not get sick. This rebranding continues the legacy of passing the buck when it comes to having a strategy to keep people safe. No plan to make school districts close once the community reaches a certain threshold of infection. No firm and binding guidelines for non-essential businesses (including indoor dining) to close once we reach (or long-ago surpassed) an unsafe infection threshold. No new provisions to bolster wages and health protections for essential workers – from grocery store workers to EMTs to bus drivers. No plan to make sure renters are protected from eviction by utilizing existing funds that have not been spent, nor any decision to implement a real eviction moratorium. No discussion, let alone proposals, to garner more resources if necessary from those that have it – starting with the private colleges that pay no taxes. And no plan to heed the call to safely save tens of millions of dollars by closing Rhode Island’s unnecessary SuperMax prison, as so many other states have.
What (Still) Is and Isn’t Going On in Providence
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State-controlled Providence public schools continue to hold in-person classes as they have all year. Safety protocols are half-met; infection thresholds get quietly reworked when they are exceeded. Or they are simply ignored, like so many demands by students, families and teachers for some accountability and responsibility from those mismanaging the situation. Amidst all of the half-hearted and largely ceremonial talk about essential workers as “heroes,” Providence public school teachers have been further demonized and mistreated by the privatizers placed in charge by the outgoing governor, whose last words from her stepping-stone podium are threats directed at teachers who are working through a pandemic without a contract.
In spite of large and persistent protest in the city this past summer, the Providence police continue to be unaccountable and overcompensated. Just days after the reckless police chase that left Jhamal Gonsalves in a coma for weeks, Mayor Elorza and certain city council members were calling on the city to hire fifty new cops. The demands to defund the police and reallocate money towards programs and agencies that actually help people continue to be ignored, as Providence gets set to sign a new police contract averaging a pay hike of over 4 percent/year over the next four years.
As jobs have been lost or hours cut, many families have struggled to pay sky-high rents. The existing federal eviction moratorium has slowed or delayed many evictions, but not all. The lack of clarity or political will to prioritize the needs of tenants to this point highlights the need for renters to join groups like the Tenant Network Rhode Island or start their own tenant unions with their neighbors.
What We Can Do: Demand Safety, Protect Health, Reappropriate Resources
The working people of Providence deserve more, but have been uneasily resigned to making the best of a bad situation. The realities of COVID have been made worse by a predictable but inexcusable fixation on keeping schools and businesses running. This has been to the detriment and risk of the general public, particularly working-class communities, especially Black and Latinx communities. Whether in relation to housing, policing, schools or jobs, too many families and neighborhoods in Providence have become experts in how to make the best of a bad situation. The power, ideas and resources to make a more just and equitable Providence are already here. If we can garner the hope and energy to organize, collaborate and build we can create a city and a state where our hard work is remunerated, our health respected, and our voices heard – resonating off of our neighbors’ rather than muffled and resigned to our own ability to quietly persist. We deserve more than the vacant moralism and inaction from those in seats of power, but we are only going to get what we fight for.
Below are a set of demands/initiatives that we believe are necessary to immediately address the health, economic, and social crises that we face. However, we recognize that the State and Federal government ultimately serve the interests of the rich and big business. Instead of simply waiting for these to be enacted, we believe in the need to take collective action ourselves, as workers, tenants, students, parents, etc. What if restaurant workers organized with their coworkers to both demand their boss close indoor dining and demand relief from the State? What if essential workers went on strike for hazard pay and better health care? What if the tenants with the same landlord stood with each other against evictions? Heck, what if small business owners demanded nonpayment of rent to their landlords! These are just a few examples of how we could exercise our power.
All of this will take a movement. We’ll need to unite many disparate projects and organizations, and form new ones, in Providence and throughout Rhode Island.
If you agree with our sentiment, we’d love to love to talk more.
Safety for All!
- Shutdown all non-essential businesses, including indoor dining.
- Defund the police and reinvest into Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. Close the High Security prison, and drastically reduce the prison population.
- Close the schools, move to remote-learning.
- Universal access to PPE, the vaccine, and free quarantine housing with room and board.
Housing for All!
- End ALL evictions, house the houseless, and enact rent control.
- Forgive rent and mortgage payments. Make the banks pay.
Economic Relief for All!
- Bailout all workers, employed and unemployed, documented and undocumented, including hazard pay for essential workers.
- Relief for small business enterprises, including rent forgiveness, and safety equipment for their employees.
- Make the big corporations, banks, and the rich pay, including our many wealthy private universities and other tax-exempt institutions.
Contact us at CounterPowerPVD@protonmail.com if you want to start fighting back, whether it be at your workplace, in your neighborhood, or at your school!