In an unjust pandemic world, social movements are essential services. But the question of how to transform a system under pressure is a delicate one. The scale of the need, the poverty, the lack of housing, the immune-compromised, the children and elders push us towards the state. Like social movements over the last few hundred years, movements demand more benefits, more space, and more resources. Such demands may paradoxically strengthen a system that helped to create racial, class and other inequalities. Without our usual repertoire, how can we ensure that the most vulnerable are included, while continuing our efforts to nurture the seeds of a more just, fruitful world?
Only a month ago, visible and vibrant protests filled the streets and the news. In Canada, indigenous communities and allies blocked roads and railways in support of the hereditary chiefs of Wet’suwet’en, reaffirming their sovereignty and challenging the legality of a natural gas pipeline across their territories. The legitimacy of the settler state and its extractivist economy was called into question. These movements held space, and reaffirmed connection to the land in ways that imagined a society beyond the state. Internationally, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, Chile, and Turkey filled the streets, went on strike and clashed with police. In India, women held hands in widespread protests challenging the right wing citizenship laws that targeted and excluded Muslims.
As news of the virus spread, activists were faced with a difficult question. Should we cancel our plans? If we did, were we stepping back? But those veterans, particularly those connected to homeless, undocumented, prisoner and immune compromised populations argued that social solidarity required both physical distancing and mutual aid. We shifted. At one meeting planning a prison abolitionist conference, anti-racist activists explained it was unethical for movements building another world to ask people to travel and physically converge at this time. That doing so would be most likely to harm indigenous and Black communities, particularly prisoners or recently released folks. So, we turned away from the streets, and towards one another, arguing those who are most vulnerable, must be at the centre. The cancellations flooded in. Following the lead of the World Health Organization, the local, provincial and federal governments announced closings, cancellations and shutdowns.
COVID era movements: four models
Less than a month later, the streets are empty, nor can we have physical meetings, but social movement organizing continues in four modes. This organizing defends the needs of workers, it demands more from the state for the most marginalized, it disrupts exploitation and it provides direct support for vulnerable communities. Each mode holds contradictions within it – choices that can either reinforce inequalities or build another world in the shell of the old. We know that how we organize now, will matter in the future. This COVID era movement work varies by location and by history, as pre-existing movements, organizations and networks lean in. I’ll use examples from Toronto.
The first mode is led by workers deemed essential. In Toronto both formal unions and informal workers movements are demanding increased access to personal protective equipment. These include health care workers, truck drivers, first responders, and grocery store workers. The importance of these workers to the functioning of society has never been more apparent. Some have used this moment to flex their power – striking and holding work stoppages. On April 2nd, Canadian Union of Public Employee workers wore stickers “to protest a decision the government to give registered nurses a different level of protection than other professions, such as respiratory therapists, personal support workers and registered practical nurses.” These efforts, amidst the desire by power holders to maintain control, and legitimacy are likely to be successful. We see broad public support for these workers– from the nightly banging of pots to the crafty folks sewing masks, and the signs in people’s windows supporting letter carriers.
The streets are empty, nor can we have physical meetings, but social movements continue
Workers have also been fighting layoffs and for compensation and financial support. More than 2 million Canadians filed for employment insurance in the last two weeks of March because of company shut downs. The government has rolled out the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) that supports some contract, and self-employed workers who have been affected, offering them $2000 a month for four months. Although these programs are intended to maintain the functioning of an exploitative economy, they are important victories that reflect the longstanding efforts of movements to expand the recognition and value of workers, and include gig and other precarious workers. They build on struggles to defend the public sector, gutted by years of neoliberal austerity. The recognition and resources given to these sectors right now are long overdue. However inequalities still exist and these programs and funds can end up further abandoning those most marginalized. Some are excluded from these benefits; those who had no job to begin with, migrant workers, student workers, or those who had no status. La lucha continua.
Defending the most vulnerable
Ensuring that the most vulnerable people are not abandoned is the second mode of movement activity. This includes prisoners, people in long term care facilities, non-status people, those on welfare and the homeless. In Toronto veteran anti-poverty activists who have fought for years for more, more affordable and better housing, shelter beds and supports for the homeless have, in the context of widespread public fear, have succeeded in getting the City to open up beds in community centres and hotels. They work to get more money into the hands of poor people, with emergency assistance to those on welfare. These movements organize online and drive phone and email campaigns that are making a difference to people’s lives.
Immigrant justice and health activists have succeeded in pressuring the Ontario health care system, so that hospitals will now see non-status people with any health care emergency without charge. This change has spread to other provinces. The Migrant Rights Network has succeeded in getting some financial support to some workers with temporary immigration status affected by the shutdowns. In the wake of a hunger strike led by immigrant detainees in the holding facility in Laval; No One Is Illegal, the End Immigrant Detention Network, Solidarity Across Borders, and the Migrant Rights Networks have continued their push to end immigrant detention, and indeed, they are succeeding in undermining the argument that these people must be detained, as many have been released in the past few weeks.
In the midst of CoVid fears, prison justice activists like those of the Prison Justice Society and the coalition “Contain CoVid Not People,” have reiterated demands to improve conditions and release prisoners. They have succeeded in pushing phone companies to stop charging exorbitant rates to prisoners, and in the last few weeks, they, joined by more mainstream allies like the Ontario Lawyers Association have succeeded in getting the prison system to release many non-violent prisoners.
Disruption against exploitation
The third mode of social movement organizing disrupts exploitation. Toronto’s housing prices are some of the highest in the world and there is an active tenant rights movement which succeeded in getting a sign-on letter from many organizations and achieving a moratorium on evictions right now, and then turned to campaign for a rent strike. The tactic raises fundamental questions about the right to housing and became front-page news. One landlord advocacy spokesperson noted, “We have the concept that no one should worry about paying the rent. This has caused chaos,” While it is unclear how many people refused to pay rent, the idea of challenging such exploitative housing relations is circulating and building momentum. This will aid longer term struggles against exploitative housing.
Mutual aid, direct action and immediate support
The last way that movement activists have been operating is through direct action, and mutual aid to support those most vulnerable through food, care and supply runs. Sometimes called Caremongering – (vs. fearmongering), horizontalist movements have a long history of such efforts. One can think of how activists became central in Hurricane Katrina and Sandy efforts. However, the effectiveness of such initiatives attract those understand it as charity for the needy, rather than part of a longer term effort to build a more just society. Helping ones neighbours is a wonderful thing. But when one neighbourhood is homogenous and well resourced, and another is not, that charity may simply reinforce durable inequalities through opportunity hoarding. These tensions can erupt. When the Toronto Caremongering Facebook group that had been started by social justice activists with a strong anti-racist, anti-capitalist analysis, grew over 15,000 strong, they did.
At their best, social movements play this essential role, building voluntary and trusting relations amongst one another – pushing the state to distribute its resources to the most vulnerable, so that we can build together.
On March 18th, Ghee Chopra, an administrator on the site posted:
NOT ABOUT ‘NICE CANADIANS’ HELPING EACH OTHER OUT
FIGHTING INJUSTICE AND MOVING WITH LOVE FOR OUR PEOPLE
SOLIDARITY WITH WET’SUWET’EN ONLINE WEEK OF ACTION https://www.instagram.com/p/B9xe1HYFz7w/…
SEEKING JUSTICE FOR MISSING AND MURDERED INDIGENOUS WOMEN, GIRLS, TRANS AND TWO SPIRIT PEOPLE
BUILDING ALTERNATIVES TO CAPITALISM
RECOGNIZING THE FAILURES OF THE STATE AND DOING IT OURSELVES
RECOGNIZING THAT THE SYSTEM ISN’T JUST BROKEN, IT WAS BUILT THIS WAY
PUSHING FOR STRUCTURAL CHANGE NOT BAND-AID SOLUTIONS
SOLIDARITY WITH MARGINALIZED PEOPLE NOT WEALTH HOARDERS
BUILDING LOCAL POWER TO PUSH FOR A LIVABLE PLANET FOR ALL OF US
KNOWING OUR STRUGGLES ARE INTERCONNECTED
PEOPLE BEFORE PROFIT
PART OF A LINEAGE OF CARE NETWORKS BUILT BY INDIGENOUS, BLACK, POC, SICK, DISABLED, QUEER, TRANS, AND COMMUNITIES ABANDONED AND OPPRESSED BY THE CANADIAN STATE”
I normally avoid reading statements in ‘ALL CAPS’, but joined hundreds of others in ‘liking’ its fierce poetry. Mutual aid projects have flourished in this moment – in some, but not all, activists are working to ensure that these efforts avoid building relationships that further marginalize and exploit.
Social movements in times of pandemic and beyond
We know that social movements are most likely to emerge and succeed at particular moments, when regimes is more open to challengers. Pandemics, like economic instability, war, or social unrest create such moments because powerholders are uncertain, making them pressurable by outside actors, including social movements that aim for more just social relations, but also to those who seek to close borders, exclude, criminalize and arrest.
Those voices of top down enforcement seem attractive to many when the numbers of sick and dead continue to rise. But such emergency orders will inevitably be used most frequently against those that law enforcement see as risky – people of colour and youth. They will condemn those without safe shelter, identification and resources – undocumented or homeless people, the sick, the old, the vulnerable.
But in a pandemic, no one should be left behind. Transformative, anti-authoritarian social movements play an essential role in building trust with each other, incorporating the most vulnerable, multiplying the possible ways of relating and making us less dependent on centralized power that has a historical tendency to abandon and exploit. As my colleague Cary Wu notes, “Public health crises stress public trust in at least four ways. Trust in fellow citizens, trust in politicians, trust in health care and trust in perceived outsiders.” Anti-authoritarian social movements can help to build trust. Because of the way that movements can redistribute and reorganize resources, and create the spaces and relationships that we need, we can challenge the dominant, top down mode of organizing social life.
With fear and anxiety rage, people look for things they can rely on. If anti-authoritarian social movements retreat, state approaches to social order gain more power, with dangerous consequences for creating just social relationships for the short and the long term. As James C. Scott warns, social order is not “brought about by such professionals as policemen, nightwatchmen, and public officials.” He reminds us that such state logics encourage us to trust top down authority, logics of control and criminalization. And they don’t work. Instead, working for the long haul, social movements recognize how society can work best for ordinary people, through building relationships amongst the people.
At their best, social movements play this essential role, building voluntary and trusting relations amongst one another – pushing the state to distribute its resources to the most vulnerable, so that we can build together. Social movements save lives, now and in the future. We must, as thinkers Chris Dixon like remind us, work within, against and beyond the existing system to ensure that when the pandemic recedes, we all flourish.