The world is coming to the end of a year marked entirely by strife. Protests, fires, floods, death, all under the storm clouds of a global pandemic. Most of what I read and hear are unceremonious good-riddances and lengthy soliloquies on how we must try to move on, to forget, to heal. But something bothers me about this narrative. From my observation, this has been one of the most important and powerful years I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve met more amazing humans, doing amazing things, in the last twelve months than I have in years. From my standpoint, there was no other way this year could have gone. It broke open the Pandora’s box. Truth, painful and festering, fell out.
For the first time, people normally left to bang on the indifferent doors of the powerful suddenly had a voice. Many voices. For the first time, people were recognizing just how broken things had become, despite past victories against injustice. And for some of us, we were suddenly witnessing the damage caused by our own wretched egos.
How was this possible? After all, we’d born witness to travesty and strife many times before. From the civil war to unionizing to the Black and American Indian civil rights, women’s, and LGBTQ+ movements, to September 11th and its ensuing wars: this country has time and again proven its willingness to be loud about outright objective cruelty and miscarriages of justice too extreme to go unnoticed. However, enacting change on fundamental levels has proven more of a struggle for Americans. I believe the difference, this time around, was the novel coronavirus.
When it started, and as we watched the devastation unfold via uncensored coverage in Italy, then in New York City, and then the rest of the world and country, we held our breath in shock. We read about the refrigerated trucks rented by hospitals to hold the dead as more patients poured into the ER. We saw the anguish of parents whose children died when they themselves had no symptoms. As a result many of us became withdrawn. We dutifully lined up outside of grocery stores with masks on and we were nicer to one another for a little while because we were equal in our fear of the great unknown that lay before us. Stories of the effect that the virus had on people young, old, healthy, and sick alike were terrifying, reminiscent of awful dystopian books and films that you are always glad you can put down, can forget, in a bid to return to real life.
But we couldn’t put this book down. After a while, we sort of grew used to the new way of life, despite the ever-present fear. After a while longer, we were seeing things from a new perspective, one in which the world as we have been instructed to view it has come grinding to a halt. Suddenly, there were birds. Vivid blue skies. Clean creeks and empty freeways. Coyotes howling at the moon from the streets of North Beach in San Francisco. People lent each other tools and dropped off baked goods on doorsteps. People found those who were not being cared for by local authorities – the homeless, the sick, the elderly – and brought masks, food, and clothes, sometimes every day, for months on end. We managed to make life continue. Food grew. Rain rained. Babies were born. Society adjusted, somewhat, to this new reality.
Amidst the beauty however was of another kind of suffering. Most of us stopped working or lost our jobs or our hours were cut. Some of us were required to keep pushing through because we had no other choice: bills and rent had to be paid, and real government help, it was evident, was not going to arrive. Disparities became clear: who suffered the most versus who gained the most. The poor were given slivers of relief or nothing at all, while billionaires earned more money within the fiscal year than they ever had before. Divisions along race and gender became too obvious for even the most willfully ignorant to dismiss. The cruel nature of politics and politicians was suddenly no longer an open secret: the amount of people willing to publicly stand by their choice to allow suffering in order to save money was now the hot topic of the times. People noticed. And they were angry.
And then, George Floyd was murdered by a cop.
The video circulated like wildfire. This time, more people saw it than videos like this had ever been seen before – after all, we were at home. We nothing but time. We had the space to research why these things happened, were still happening. So when protests exploded across the nation, the sound was collective, deafening. After a while, the nuances crystalized and the fight became highlighted by acts of care and joy. Conversations were started. Bills and propositions were written for local, state, and federal voter consideration. Black and brown people were at the front! These protests, they became hymns.
Rather than sitting by and watching it happen, I witnessed hundreds of thousands of people choosing to stand up, fight back, and especially, to give back. I saw my own community, one so steeped in the machine of economic growth it has begun to rot from the inside out, suddenly stir from its slumber. Teens and young people everywhere began showing up; the rest of us followed. Networks of support spread and overlapped and for the first time ever I saw more people of color leading the way than I’d ever witnessed in my hometown before. Whether fighting for racial justice or sourcing masks, food, and supplies for those without, the willingness to help one another abundant, overflowing. There are no words to express the kind of hope and joy I felt at witnessing this new day. From my own family’s roots in Indigenous and feminist activism to what I’ve witnessed my Black and Brown neighbors experience, I was grateful to see that there was no longer room to conceal a darkly unjust system beneath the glitz of the American dream. It gave me more hope than I’d felt in years.
This hope compelled me to get out and do. I found I couldn’t sit still. With my partner and friends I volunteered to help source and hand out thousands of masks; to help coordinate food, stimulus package sign-ups, and wellness kits for unsheltered folks and others who might otherwise be ignored by city and county officials. When the fires broke out yet again in the county, we switched gears and began distributing masks that worked for both covid and firesmoke, and began doing air quality tests of our own when the websites became unreliable. When voting season kicked into gear, we put together a voter guide that met with the demands of the Black and Brown community of my county and beyond. And the crazy part was that it kind of worked. All of this fighting and showing up and discussing and trying by all of these people. The efforts of every single warrior in this battle produced amazing results. I have a small, budding hope that it will keep getting better, if we just keep on keeping on.
So, I’m not going to shove 2020 out the door like a bad dog who’s taken a shit on the floor. I’m unwilling to dismiss the hard work of Black and Brown citizens of this fucked up country, who in less than a year completely overhauled how we talk about race, equality, police violence, justice, and our own complicity. They led the charge of resilience with fierce grace and beauty, and they did it all during a global pandemic, in the face of rampant global capitalist-based destruction, and almost entirely without the help of anyone but each other. For this, I am grateful for 2020.
Despite everything, this year brought us the truth about who truly loves their neighbor, and who only wants to be paid to do so. 2020 brought us the gift of humanity. I only hope we do not lose it.