Against the Grain consistently offers incredible programming about social movements, history, books, ideas, and contemporary issues. They’ve been doing episodes on the politics of pandemics, including a number where they talked with experts who study pandemics and, latterly, people who more do analysis (like me). I was really happy to speak with Sasha Lilley last week about what I’ve learned from talking with long-term AIDS activists over the last six years. The episode is up in audio format, and because there’s a professor interested in including it in a class, my incredibly generous parents, who also happen to be speedy typists, transcribed the interview. I’ll paste that below. The episode aired May 4th, 2020.
Today on Against the Grain: The Coronavirus has laid bare the divisions and inequalities of our society. It has also exposed the stark differences and possible approaches to the pandemic. Radical scholar, Alexis Shotwell, argues that we need to frame our fight as one for collective care, rather than for containment and control.
SL: From the studios of KPFA in Berkeley, California, this is Against the Grain on Pacific Radio. I’m Sasha Lilley.
In the throes of the pandemic, it’s hard to see our way to the end of it, much less beyond, but my guest today argues that we need to be struggling for a better world in the future, as well as in the present. She points to how activists during the HIV/AIDS epidemic fought on behalf of the larger collective good, and that we should re-learn those lessons of solidarity. Alexis Shotwell is Professor in Carleton University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. She is also co-director of the AIDS Activist History Project.
It’s easy, Alexis, to think of the coronavirus simply as an infectious agent, to think of it simply in biological terms. But when we speak of what Covid-19 has wrought, we’re often actually talking about the political and social notions that have been created by human beings. What have you observed about how we are relating to the idea of the coronavirus?
AS: It’s a good question. So, one of the key things that I’ve learned about studying viruses, studying illness, thinking about how things manifest and what shape they take, comes out a lot in talking to people who do science and technology studies, that comes out in thinking about the social and political history of illnesses, and that’s to say that there isn’t a way to tell what an illness is or what a virus is without also telling a story about the social world that it comes out of and manifests. So this true when we look at historical examples, so thinking about even what it means to define a virus, to be able to put a boundary around it and know what it is, has always been a real question. One of the earliest kind of science and technology studies, books, was called “The Making of a Scientific Fact.” It looked at the ways that syphilis was something that was very hard to define, because it had lots of different manifestations, because of who it affected and how. So on the one hand, we want to be able to say: We know that this is a virus. We know that we can describe it. We can map it. But when we’re talking about it as a pandemic, maybe that’s an interesting way to make a distinction here—the difference between a virus and a pandemic, is largely about the social relations that come into being around what a virus is in practice.
SL: And you’ve written about how the notion of containment shapes our notion of the virus, but also shapes our notion of ourselves, of what policies should be taken, and of course we’ve seen this play out in pretty stark terms, in terms earlier on, with the notion that the coronavirus could be contained within the borders of nation-states.
AS: If we start thinking about viruses as relationships, then we can start seeing what kind of relationships are being practiced. And right away, when global responses to the coronavirus started, there was a tendency or pattern to say: We’re going to contain this virus in other places, in other countries. We’ll close our borders, and we’ll be safe if we do that. This is a reasonable, or we understand why that is a move. There’s this desire to be safe inside. Safe inside anywhere, really. Safe inside a country. Safe inside a neighborhood. Safe inside a house.
But the logic of containment has two problems. The first problem is that it doesn’t work forever and it maybe never really works, scientifically or in terms of transmission. So the practice of containment is never actually possible. It can have some good effects in terms of slowing down transmission of viruses, but pretty quickly, and certainly as soon as something becomes pandemic, it’s necessary to take on other approaches that mostly we talk about has harm reduction approaches, or approaches that look at what it means to say, given that this is here with us, how are we going to live with it, how are we going to try to protect as many people as possible from suffering and death. So the logic of containment, it never actually is possible to contain a virus through borders of countries.
The other problem with the logic of containment is it very quickly folds into policing practices, basically. So the idea that borders can be solid, that you can keep bad people out, and then good people won’t get hurt. And that logic of containment or policing the virus ends up moving through ongoing ways that people are practicing being in relation with this virus. So we see a turn using that same kind of approach toward asking people to police their neighbors, to call the cops on them if they are having parties, to put people in prison if they are endangering others.
So both of the ways that we think about the logic of containment as a sort of border guard or as a cop end up hurting the people who are already targeted by borders and policing. So both of those approaches, we can do much better than them, in terms of having different relationships with this coronavirus and with illness and viruses in general.
SL: So in terms of how we think of the actions we know we need to take, in terms of protecting each other, the kind of social distancing that is necessary, it is a complicated situation, of course. On the one hand, you’ve got people on the far right are saying no social distancing is necessary. Yet for us, the act of social distancing, which I think you could say is really an act of solidarity–I mean, it’s self-protection, but it is much more—also has other affects which are real and hard, and even have very direct health consequences, which is the kind of isolation that we need to take can be very harming to many people, or maybe to all of us. And how do you think about this question of social distancing as a collective action, because usually when we are acting on the Left collectively, it really means coming together physically, and we are, of course, doing the opposite.
AS: So the first, and I think the most important thing, is to really look at any of the times when we can be practicing social distancing as forms of community care. And absolutely, I think in North America that was really inspiring. Right? So right away, millions of people were substantially changing their lives, even before there were government orders to do this, in order to protect thousands of people. So a really profound and profoundly beautiful act of community care. That possibility is so clearly supported or disrupted by the kinds of social structures that are put in place as this pandemic goes on. So at this point, I think, and I’m speaking from Canada where things are not easy, but because of the money that the government is dispersing to people, they are substantially easier than things are there. And it also is substantially different that people have basic health care that is not tied to their workplace. So especially as this time continues, the question of what community care looks like past people able to do physical distancing, do so, is really something we need to think about and practice. A comrade in my political collective, Amanda Wilson, wrote one of the earliest pieces that I’ve seen about taking a harm reduction approach to physical distancing. There’s a number of ways we can hold this in mind if we say, we’re going to take an approach to this virus that is based on practice of community care, rather than a practice of containment and individualist, self-responsiblization to protect our own selves and our own family.
There’s a couple key things that I’ve seen coming out that feel really important and generative for us on the Left right now. The first I think is looking at the ways people like Sophie Lewis in her work on the abolition of the family. Michell O’Brian, as well, thinking about the abolition of the family form. And also Kim Tallbear who has been looking at the ways that structures of dyadic monogamy set up a perpetuation of settler-colonialism that is organized around the idea that you have a family unit who is protected in a single-family dwelling, and they’re going to be the unit at which all care will happen. In so many ways, we can recognize that this is a harmful lie. The idea that everyone will just suddenly be able to do everything for their kids, and people who are vulnerable or that people who live alone are going to be able to just manage—right away then it’s really clear that this is an impossible situation to maintain for very long. We need to have social worlds in which we take care of each other. We need that for people who are in situations of domestic violence that they cannot currently escape. We need that for kids to have social worlds that aren’t just adults who happen to be with them right now. We need that for elder people. These approaches to thinking about a world in which there’s the possibility of social and collective care for each other, it matters more than ever that we continue to claim those spaces and advocate for them, and imagine them. It’s really vital, especially as we look at how some, and it’s really been interesting to see how sort of disaggregated the Right is about the approach to coronavirus, but very strong tendencies, as the person’s sign said that was circulating on the news: Sacrifice the Weak. So the kind of eugenicist mode of let’s open up the country, let’s let the weak die.
The way we’re going to fight that is having a version of this world where it’s visible and palpable that we all want to take care of each other. And just because people don’t have jobs, they are not going to lose, they shouldn’t lose health care.
There’s a number of approaches of practicing being with each other against the kind of death regime that we’re always fighting. We’ve been fighting it before this virus came out. And that fight is just intensifying and getting more difficult, as we move further into this. But it’s not going to work for us to just say, we want everyone who can to stay home. We have actually need to start building networks of solidarity that support people that have to be working right, that support the people that are front-line care-givers. We just beginning to imagine that stuff now.
SL: I’m speaking with Alexis Shotwell. She’s Professor in Sociology at Carleton University, and her writings on the politics of the coronavirus can be found on our website againstthegrain.org. I’m Sasha Lilley.
Well, Alexis, you have been deeply involved in documenting the struggles of Canadian activists in the 1980s and 90s against the criminalization and stigmatization of people living with HIV/AIDS and it’s telling how little the experiences and lessons of AIDS and the struggle around HIV/AIDS has been referenced by the mainstream media during these months of the coronavirus. I wanted to ask you what differences and similarities strike you in thinking of the two?
AS: I think about the question everyday of how this virus is different from HIV and how the response to the coronavirus pandemic is different than the response to the AIDS epidemic. One thing that is really remarkable is that it’s really similar between these, is the idea that somehow, rich people or mainstream, so that some people would be unaffected and therefore not need to take any kind of action. During the early years of HIV, the pool of people who were disregarded, who were related to as not being worth fighting for or defending were gay men, mostly. Although there was also the equally horrifying tendency to say also people who are injection drug users and people who were, there was this period of time in the early days of the epidemic, they were called The Four H’s—homosexuals, Haitians, heroin-users, HIV-positive injection drug users, and then hemophiliacs were the sort of innocents who were ones who didn’t deserve to have HIV, as the narrative went at that time.
There was a health official in Ottawa, Ontario, who said, actually on-record said, I don’t see what the problem here is. There’s HIV and there’s gay men, and the problems are going to solve each other.
AS: So this overtly death-cult quality of neglect. One of the things I think we can say happened also with Covid-19 is that some of the early narratives said, “This is a very serious virus, but don’t worry, it only affects the old and people who already have pre-existing health conditions.” So there was a nearly identical, but of course with very different content, move to say, “We do not need to commit social resources to this because the people affected by it are disposable.” And so that similarity, for me, has been, has cued me to think that one of the things we can do on the left is to say, “Let’s look at who is considered disposable and let’s orient our political response around deciding that they are not disposable.” So let’s start with the people who are in jail right now, let’s start with the people who don’t have houses to self-isolate in, let’s start with the people who don’t have money to live.
So if we begin with the people that are considered disposable, my research with the history of AIDS activism teaches me that that is a good footing for us to fight the intensification of immiseration that pandemics open for people who want to take advantage of them. The next thing comes back to something I was saying earlier about harm reduction. So during these years, as it became evident through peoples’ attention to their social world what practices were transmitting HIV there was a space where it became clear that it’s like, “Look, everyone could be HIV positive, and here are the practices that will quite potentially transmit this virus.”
And at that point some people did just stop doing all these practices, but there were quite a lot of people who took this different orientation and practiced a form of community care. So they said, “We are not going to give up the collective practices of having sex, of using drugs, of living with cats [laughs], we’re just going to assume that everyone we’re interacting with, everyone we’re have sex with, everyone we live with, everyone we use drugs with, they’re all positive. And so we’re going to have harm reduction practices that mean that that’s a safe enough thing to do.” So that meant needle exchanges, that meant getting latex into prisons, recognizing that people would still have sex, that meant eroticizing latex. So it was a massive community transformation that meant that you could have a whole lot of practices that were safe enough, and that that meant you had a lot of people who could continue the kind of collective life world that was so massively disrupted by HIV and AIDS.
Now, it is a totally different situation for us here. It doesn’t make sense for us to say, “We want to barbecue,” or like, “I want a haircut,” because this is a different virus. So we can collectively be asking, “What are the practices of harm reduction and care we can take that will not destroy everything that makes our life good, and lively?” And so that’s probably going to mean having really good antibody testing that we actually can trust, increasingly, and who knows in a month what the science will look like, but it does seem increasingly that if everyone is wearing cloth masks, transmission goes down measurable amounts that actually can make this a community-level survivable situation.
SL: One of the things of course that makes Covid different than HIV/AIDS is that although initially, as you say, there was in both cases you heard the voicing of sentiment that it was OK if some people died. But with the Corona virus we are now in a situation where most of the economy is shut down, so quite a different reaction than with HIV/AIDS. Not that that would have benefitted people during that pandemic, but there was no equivalent action taken. And certainly the massive harnessing of scientific research and medicine toward finding a cure that’s going on now, or finding a vaccine or anti-virals, again, nothing equivalent during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but you do, as you mentioned, have some populations who are really being left to be sacrificed.
And I’m particularly thinking here of prisoners, because there’s no way to social distance in prison, in the way that needs to happen, and the virus is spreading really rapidly. How do you see the plight of people in those kinds of circumstances, how people on the left should be addressing this, because obviously there has been work for many, many years around ending mass incarceration. But the fact is that that’s where we are right now and it’s quite difficult for us to protest and exert our collective power when we are all trying to socially distance.
AS: So thinking about the way that this moment can open space for us to transform social relations, which is one of things that I think is hopeful and that I want us to hold in view. Witnessing the ways that it has become more legible to people that right now prison is a death sentence really has been opening, I think, some spaces for people to say, Oh, mass incarceration doesn’t make any sense! So anyone who’s done work on this has been, Yeah, we need to de-carcerate massively. I feel like I’ve seen more people start to understand the absolute injustice and ridiculousness of people being stuck in prisons under conditions of this coronavirus, and seeing that actually open a window for them to contemplate that it was never okay that this many people were in these conditions in prisons. I’ve been heartened by that at the same time that it’s not, we’re not winning. The place that the prisons where the coronavirus is spreading so quickly and so terrifyingly, that didn’t have to happen. So looking at people like David Gilbert who was someone who did a lot of organizing around HIV and AIDS during the 90s and has now been working on how to protect people who are inside from the spread of Covid-19.
SL: And he’s a prisoner himself.
AS: He’s a prisoner himself, yes, sorry, I should have said that. He was involved in creating this very important project called PEPA, the prisoner’s education project on AIDS, which saved many lives inside. The difficult thing now is that this virus moves so much faster than any current institution is moving. Now, there have been some important wins on people getting out. But in the context of not a lot of social support, as they are moving to the outside and moving into where do you go? Where do you live? As you are transitioning out of jail or prison. So looking at what it means for us who are tracking who’s being made sacrificable, and how we can move on that when we can’t physically get together to protest? I feel like it’s one of these places where we can look at how we’re connected to the things that we care about, and that we can start leveraging and getting traction on some those things. So people who have lovers, friends, kids, parents in prison are really starting to amplify, I do not want this prison sentence to be a death sentence for them.
So some of the work that we can be doing is just starting to amplify where we are, but a lot of what we can be doing now is asking, What structures we can put in place that will build toward, as we move out of the current period into producing more collective care, less policing, more social support for one another. One of the things I heard a lot in doing this history of AIDS activism was this really important, amazing, brilliant man, George Smith, who was involved with a project called AIDS Action Now, his sort of tagline, which a lot of people took up, he said we need demonstrations and documents. So the demonstrations are how we manifest power, collective power. But we also want to move into any government office that’s making a decision about our lives and lay down for them the policy that we think they should put in place. So he was like, you can’t accomplish anything with just documents, but you can accomplish more with demonstrations if you also have the documents.
So I think that all of us are stressed out right now, so maybe it’s not the best time for us to be drafting policy and laying down plans for how things should go. But it is also not the worst time. It also is a time when we can set up some of the plans for the world that we want, so we’re ready. Because I think we know that people who make money off of other people’s misery, they are setting up plans for how to come out of the pandemic and make a profit. And I’d like us to come out of this as much as we can with plans for leaving the pandemic and changing the world, and making it a world where more of us can live and flourish. So we can’t do demonstrations, but I think we could work on some of the documents.
SL: This is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio. I’m Sasha Lilley. I’m speaking with Alexis Shotwell. She’s co-director of the AIDS Activist History Project, which documents the struggles of Canadian activists in the 1980s and 90s against the stigmatization and criminalization of people living with HIV/AIDS. She’s the author of Knowing Otherwise and Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. I’m Sasha Lilley. This is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio.
The point that you were making about drafting visions for the future, it seems that if there is one clear lesson that can be drawn looking at the history of the Right over decades, it’s that they organized with the long view in mind. And it seems to me that there is the danger in the middle of this pandemic as we are documenting the horrors, as we are considering all the different dimensions of the pandemic, who it’s most affecting, the forms it’s taking, that we lose sight of what we should be demanding now. And also coming out of this pandemic, I think it’s instructive to know that following the 1918/1919 Spanish influenza which killed so many people, that in the 1920s many of the countries that we afflicted with the Spanish influenza ended up adopting universal healthcare. But none of that would have happened automatically. That obviously came out of the organization and activism of people. I think it’s easy to get caught up in pessimism in moment of crisis, I mean why not, on some level, things are dire. But that that can cloud the capacity to think about demands, start formulating them and figuring out how to make them. And I know that you’ve written about how we in some ways balance these personal struggles with our greater politics. Do you have any thoughts on how in the middle of crisis, in the depth of crisis, do we think about the long-term, and even think about things that are positive?
AS: I think this is so important because the pressure I think a lot of us feel is to protect ourselves or to become smaller and try to shield the people nearest us, the theoretical or technical word for a lot of what’s being suggested to us is, “healthism.” So this is, “healthism” is the term for when there’s a big social collective problem that individuals are made personally responsible for, where, like it’s morally your problem if you have diabetes and therefore you’re more vulnerable. There’s many interesting things that we could say about who is being named as vulnerable to Corona virus and therefore responsible in some ways for taxing our health system, or going to hospital, or all these things.
So, I think one thing that I’m finding useful is just to recognize that that mood that we might feel is a real feeling, and it’s coming from a neo-liberal approach that says, “Individuals are responsible for what are actually social problems.” So as soon as we feel that, like, “I’ve gotta have enough for my household,” we can actually name that as like, “Oh, this is a demobilizing, individualizing feeling that I’m having.” It’s a real feeling, but it’s just the beginning, because what we can turn to out of that feeling, instead of increased paranoia, self-protection, a feeling that we’re all alone against the world, we can say, “This is a terrible feeling. I want to be with other people in creating a different world, where no one feels this way.”
So there’s this, I think, it’s like a fractal situation, where every time we experience our own precariousness, vulnerability, fear, we can turn out of that toward asking what that says about the kind of collective world we would want to build. And I think I’m not alone in feeling so inspired by the incredible arising of a whole lot of mutual aid networks, both taking the form of Facebook care-mongering groups, endless Google Doc spreadsheets of places that people can get help, but also just like, people reaching out to each other. So again, that understanding that we’ve seen manifest over and over again and that I think Rebecca Solnit has been theorizing over a long time now. In another part of my academic work I go back to Peter Kropotkin’s work on mutual aid and the impulse help, the impulse to care, as a basic impulse.
And we can say look, in all of these places right now people are already dreaming of a world that is not this, and it’s not just a world that is not this in the sense of, “I don’t want to get this virus and die. I don’t want people near me to be sick and suffering.” It’s actually like, not this, but, “I don’t want to be in a society where we don’t have the resources to take care of people who need help.” So there is this fact, I think, of massive social devastation of the kind that we’re experiencing right now, that this is a traumatic experience, it’s an experience that is unbearably hard, that that hardness, that difficulty, is so massively and so obviously distributed along already-existing vectors of wealth and whiteness. But it shows us that there’s a lot of people who don’t want this world. And so the more of us that tune into and start thinking about what that means, right, like what the world is that we do want, there’s actually a lot of space here for something else to arise. I feel like the thing that I have learned most from studying AIDS activism, and I said this at the beginning, but maybe it’s worth repeating, is that it really does feel to me that centering the people who are most targeted or who are most rendered disposable in that future dreaming, allows us to be most adequate and most expansive toward what the kinds of social transformations we want would be. But it’s not something we have to imagine, in the sense that, it’s not like, let’s wait a year or three and then we’ll imagine what kind of social world we want. It’s actually like saying “no” to this one gives us already so much footing for what could be otherwise. And that feels very hopeful to me.
SL: And yet it also raises the question of when we come out the other side of this, whatever that looks like, whenever that is, whether those memories, those networks that have been built up between people to look after each other collectively, will endure when things go back to whatever we call normal. Obviously, that begs the question, What’s normal? But is there not the danger that anything that goes back to a time that feels like it’s before the virus is going to feel sufficiently better, that people won’t necessarily struggle for more?
AS: Yeah, I think that’s a real danger, and I think that’s one of the reasons that I’m so interested in us really paying attention to the difference between logics of containment which produce call for more policing, and logics of care which produce a call for more care, more connection. So I think as we’re, and again, as you’ve pointed out, it’s not clear what it means to say that we reject or accept something. But we can look at what the practices are that we’re participating in or supporting. So if we’re saying we want more policing, we can know that that will predict we’re setting in place more patterns or policing, more infrastructure for policing. If we say, here are some of the ways that we’re planning to build lateral relations of support, or we’re directing our energy during this time toward keeping alive the people who are most targeted for dismissal or being considered disposable, there’s some sense that those practices build the possibility for the pattern, a kind of different path.
We can’t predict what will happen as things get back for normal, but we can do a lot of things that set us up for various directions. So for example, if we are going to move toward systems like contact tracing for increased movement, the people who are setting up those systems can ask, How are we going to set up contact tracing in such a way that we’re not intensifying social control over people’s movements? We can be alert to the ways that various shifts that feel unusual, or this is just going to happen for right now, can end up producing more constraint or control. So it’s totally coherent to be very, very concerned about Covid-19 and very, very concerned about state repression and control of liberties, and very concerned about everyone, how they are doing. Are they just hanging on because this is so hard? We don’t have to cede the ground of feeling very concerned about government over-reach to the Right. We can continue to hold that in an ongoing way and in the moment.
In other words, I guess what I really feel is that in a long crisis, and I think this is a long crisis, and this is something else we can learn from HIV/AIDS activism. So hopefully, we’re not going to be waiting and struggling and watching our friends die as long as people who were AIDS activists were. They held the line for years. And what they held the line on was, refusing the logic that they were going to render anyone else disposable, and continuing always to advocate for more people living and better lives for them. Maybe I could tell you just one story about that?
SL: Yeah, please do.
AS: So, in Ontario, there was this group, AIDS ACTION NOW!, and they were fighting to get access to drug funding, because many of the drugs that were available and showed promise for treating HIV and AIDS were, they were off-label. They weren’t covered by the drug plans. And there was a system in place. There was a rarely used thing that would allow this to happen, and the government just wasn’t allowing them to use it. So there were various kinds of activist work that obviously we can’t do right now. They did things like disrupt the Legislature. They burned an effigy of the Health Minister. They did a whole lot of different things. And one of the stories that we heard about this time was the Premier came to the lead organizer (there were two of them chairing it at that time), and he said, Okay, we’re going to do it. We’re going to give you funding for AIDS drugs, and you win. And they said, Are you going to give this funding for everyone. not just for AIDS drugs? Is it going to be for people who don’t have money to buy drugs that they need for illnesses that are not HIV or AIDS related? And the government said, Well no, we are just offering this for you. And one of the people who was negotiating this was himself dying and didn’t have access to the drug that he needed because it was like a $10,000 a month drug. And they said, No. We’re not going to accept this just for the people who are HIV-positive. This needs to be accessible for anyone who can’t afford the drugs that they need to live. So they refused to back down, although it was very hard, because there were people in the group that needed this desperately and right then. And they won. And there’s still a program in Ontario, the province where I live, called Trillium, that gives funding for anyone who doesn’t have money for off-label drugs or drugs that are being used in an experimental way that show use for their illness. No one really remembers that that was AIDS activists that won that. What I find so moving about that is that it’s often people who are directly at the friction points who are targeted for death or who are just on the edges who know best what social transformations that can happen that will change how the whole world is happening. They are often not remembered when they take that kind of stand. I feel like if all of us take the orientation toward coming out of the coronavirus pandemic that we’re always going to hold in view the most vulnerable, we might end up, as I am in this province, 30 years later continuing to benefit from that activity, although hardly anyone knows where it came from.
So that’s what we want to set up. If at every point where we’re struggling, we’re orienting in that way. We’re not just going to take it for our own group, even though we matter. But we’re always going to be thinking together. That’s how we build this kind of thing that holds more and more people’s lives as though they are worth living. I think there are lots of stories like that, and lots of points of connection, that people have—decisions that are being made to go toward a more conservative, self-protectionist, individualist way, or toward a more collective, opening, keep more people alive and see what they might do, kind of way. If we hold that, it’s better anyway. I don’t know if it will totally win, but we have a better chance.
SL: Alexis Shotwell, let me end by asking you about broadening struggles as you just described HIV/AIDS activists did, to be more inclusive, more collective. You have a recent essay that’s titled, “Survival Will Always be Insufficient, but It’s a Good Place to Start.” In that essay, you reference the slogan, from 1912, the Labor slogan that we want not only bread, but we want roses. Can you tell us what that meant then, and what that means now in the midst of the coronavirus?
AS: We’ve heard echoes and versions of that slogan, We want bread, but we want roses too. It comes from 1912 in Laurence, Massachusetts. The cotton mill workers went on strike. There were a lot of mill strikes that were happening at that time. The Bread and Roses Strike that came about in response to employers trying to cut pay, was one of the places where people said we are not just looking for the basics, we’re not just looking for mere sustenance, mere subsistence. We actually want more and we deserve more. When I think about, and there’s so much to say about that strike that I’m not going to get into. But the thing that resonates down or that we can hold onto now, is that the tendency in times of crisis and deprivation is sometimes to settle for just surviving. We can also look back at labor struggles from that time and in ongoing ways. In that article, I also talk about the Black Panther Party’s survival pending revolution and the community programs they set up, to say when we start thinking about survival, we can always be also imagining or claiming so much more than survival. So the question, of Yes, we need to survive, and we need to direct support for the survival of the people who are targeted, people in jail, people who are living in poverty, people who don’t have houses to go to, people who have lost their job and health care, people who are declared killable, we should support and help them to survive. Thinking about roses means, we don’t just want to survive, we want to thrive, we want more, we deserve more. There’s this kind of rejection of a bare minimum as what we’re aiming for and what we’ll accept. It’s hopeful or it’s helpful for us to remember how long that struggle for roses too has been. How many years people have been working for more than just merely surviving?
SL: Alexis, thank you so much.
AS: Such a pleasure. Thank you so much for talking with me, Sasha.
SL: Alexis Shotwell is professor in Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University. She’s co-director of the AIDS Activist History Project, and author of Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times and Knowing Otherwise. You can find links to some of her writings on our website Againstthegrain.org. And you’ve been listening to Against the Grain. I’m Sasha Lilley. Thanks so much for listening and please tune in again next time.