Pandemic Racism: The Wisconsin Primary, Disenfranchisement, and the Cost of Life

On Intercepted, Milwaukee Health Commissioner Dr. Jeanette Kowalik, scholar Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, and organizer Christian Smalls.

Photo Illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept

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The Wisconsin GOP forced an election during a pandemic and people are going to die. This week on Intercepted: Milwaukee’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Jeanette Kowalik, discusses the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s reckless disregard for public safety as they force the state to conduct in-person voting. Dr. Kowalik analyzes why some 70% of Covid-19 deaths in Milwaukee are African Americans and why the city has declared racism a public health crisis. She also analyses the expected consequences of Tuesday’s crowded voting lines at limited number of polling sites across Wisconsin. Author and scholar Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to Be Antiracist,” discusses what the data tells us about race and coronavirus in America. He draws historical parallels between the Trump administration response and the Mississippi flood of 1927 and analyzes what it means for the U.S. to have to choose between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Fired Amazon worker Christian Smalls responds to the company’s smear campaign organized against him during a meeting attended by the wealthiest person in the world, Jeff Bezos. And Intercepted listeners share their stories of struggle during the pandemic.

If you or someone you know needs emotional support or is contemplating suicide, resources include the Crisis Text Line, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Trevor Project, or the International Association for Suicide Prevention.

Donald J. Trump: I also spoke just a few minutes ago with Vice President, former Vice President Biden who called.

[Strumming Harp.]

DJT: Hello.

Joe Biden: Am I supposed to say something now? We cannot let this, we’ve never allowed any crisis from the Civil War straight through to the pandemic of 17 all the way around, 16 we have never ever let our democracy second fiddle. We can both have a democracy and elections and at the same time, correct the public health.

DJT: I don’t really know what Joe Biden said. I don’t really care, but he’s happy. He’s a very happy man.

[Music interlude.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

[Music interlude.]

JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from my basement in New York City. And this is episode 125 of Intercepted. 

Sean Hannity: It should not be a partisan issue. This is not a political talking point. The coronavirus does not discriminate between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives or liberals. This is a moment where we should all work together. A lot of people are scared.

JS: Now, it’s become very popular for politicians and officials from various political parties — not just in this country but around the world — to talk about how the coronavirus does not discriminate. And on one level that is indeed true. I mean, Tom Hanks and his wife had it. Idris Elba had it. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is right now in an intensive care unit in Britain as his case worsens. But what we’re seeing right now as we get our first look at some demographic data on Covid-19 infections and deaths from some U.S. cities is that African Americans and Latinx people are dying in disproportionate numbers. In Louisiana, according to the governor, more than 70 percent of the deaths from COVID-19 in the state of Louisiana have been African Americans. More than 70 percent of deaths in Chicago are Black, around the same number in Milwaukee County. We are seeing similar trajectories in large urban areas of Michigan and other states. 

So while it may be true that this virus will impact you if you come in contact with it, there is something else at play, a much bigger factor. And that is that our system in the U.S. does in fact discriminate. It discriminates economically — on housing, on healthcare, on education. It discriminates on every meaningful way that will impact the lives of people who become sick from this virus. Who are the workers on the front lines right now?

OK, yeah some doctors are high income earners. But the vast majority of the people on the front lines are those with low-wage or working class pay — people like grocery store workers, Amazon warehouse workers, delivery people, nurses, firefighters, garbage workers. For them, this pandemic is not a time to read all those books that have been piling up on their shelves or to binge Netflix series. For them, it often means taking public transportation to work, coming in contact with people and packages and machinery that might expose them to a deadly virus. 

Coming up on this program, we are going to be talking to the author and writer Ibram X. Kendi about how this pandemic does in fact discriminate and in the most lethal way possible, along racial, ethnic, economic lines. And we will hear from fired Amazon worker Christian Smalls. He was recently the subject of a PR smear campaign that was organized during a meeting attended by the richest person on earth, Jeff Bezos. We’re also going to hear from you, from our listeners on the struggles that you are facing during this pandemic.

But first, we begin with the elections held on Tuesday in the state of Wisconsin. In Milwaukee which is the biggest city in the state, with the largest African American and Latino populations in Wisconsin, there were just five polling sites open. Normally there would be around 180. But yesterday, there were just five. And people had to wait on line for hours on end just to exercise their right to vote. And in doing so, they were forced to risk their lives and those of others.

This election never should have happened this week and this has been clear to anyone paying attention to the developments with this pandemic over the course of many, many weeks. We saw the infections that happened after the Illinois and Florida primaries, after they continued and moved forward with them. And now, we are going to almost certainly see a spike in cases in Milwaukee and other cities in Wisconsin. So why did it happen this way? 

Well, Wisconsin’s governor is a Democrat, Tony Evers. But the state legislature and Supreme Court are in the hands of the Republican Party. Now, up until last week, the position of the Democratic governor was that the election should continue, although he was consistent in encouraging as much voting by absentee ballot as possible.

Tony Evers: I don’t care who’s running for office or what’s on the ballot, everybody should be able to participate in our democracy. Period.

JS: The Republicans were happy with that and, despite major protests from mayors of 10 Wisconsin cities, including Milwaukee saying this isn’t safe for the public, the governor held firm with GOP support — the election would go on. Now, Gov. Evers did try to expand the rules for absentee voting and extend the deadlines, which the Republicans opposed and actually sued over. A federal judge said the election should be postponed, but he said he had no power to stop it. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene to protect expanded absentee voting, bringing an end to the governor’s attempt to encourage as much of that as possible. And then, late last week, Gov. Evers announced an emergency session of the state legislature for Saturday to try to encourage Republican lawmakers to postpone the election. They did convene and then within moments of beginning the session, it was adjourned by the Republican leader of the legislature. 

Tyler August: April 2020 Special Session is adjourned.

JS: So, the governor issued an executive order postponing the election until June. 

TE: I have been advised by public health experts at the department of health services that despite the heroic efforts and good work of our local election officials, poll workers, and national guard troops, there’s not a sufficiently safe way to administer in-person voting tomorrow.

JS: And then the Republican dominated state Supreme Court overturned his executive order and the governor conceded defeat. And so, people in the poorest parts of the state, the most diverse and least white parts of the state were forced to stand in lines stretching as far as the eye could see to exercise their right to vote during a pandemic. And again there were just five polling sites in Milwaukee, just one in the city of Waukesha.

Wisconsin voter: This is so wrong. This is just so wrong. This election should have been called off. You know, they’re telling us to stay in the house and, you know, stand six feet from each other. But then one of the most important times they’re forcing us to come out here in a group. Stop playing politics with our lives.

JS: I just want to be very clear on this: The blood that this election is almost certainly going to shed is entirely on the hands of the GOP and its Supreme Court justices in Wisconsin. They did this to enforce voter disenfranchisement. They did it because they wanted to force black people, poor people, Democratic strongholds to risk their lives. And they did it not because of the Democratic primary, but because there’s an election for a state supreme court justice and they want to make sure that the Republicans keep that position. It has a 10-year term. That is what this was all about. We’ve all heard the saying vote or die. The message here was vote and die.

And what the early data is telling us is that this reckless election and the conditions under which people were forced to go out and vote, is going to disproportionately impact African Americans and poor people. As of Tuesday, there were some 1,387 coronavirus cases in Milwaukee County. There were 51 deaths, 36 of them African Americans. That means that some 70 percent of deaths in Milwaukee County from coronavirus were African Americans in a county where they make up just a quarter of the population. Last year, Milwaukee officially declared racism a public health crisis and this pandemic has shown already that it was right to do so.

Milwaukee Health Commissioner Dr. Jeanette Kowalik on How Covid-19 Is Disproportionately Killing African Americans

On Tuesday morning, as people were lining up for hours to vote in Milwaukee, I reached Dr. Jeanette Kowalik. She is the Health Commissioner for the city of Milwaukee. 

Dr. Kowalik, thanks for joining us on Intercepted.

Jeanette Kowalik: Thank you for having me.

JS: You are the public health commissioner of Milwaukee. Is it safe to encourage people to go out to the polls today in Milwaukee to vote?

JK: Well, unfortunately, it’s not. I mean, we’re in the middle of a pandemic which was the whole premise of focusing on orders that are prohibiting congregation. So we know that there’s people that will be more at risk for going to one of these consolidated polling sites, which is why we were very, very disheartened by the Supreme Court’s ruling that the in-person election let’s be clear, because obviously there’s other ways to vote that that would still take place. We have a number of city workers that have been preparing just in case, but there’ll be on site at the five locations that are really trying to hold the line as well as making sure that they’re not getting infected with Covid-19.

So I’m very concerned for my staff. I’m concerned for my city, my community. We’re expected to see a peak for Covid-19, about the 17th of April. And I’m quite confident that our peak was moved up due to holding an in-person election and looking at what’s happening across the country, we were one of the first to begin reporting out on race and ethnicity, and mainly because of the leadership in our area. So the declaration of racism as a public health issue happened last year at the county level first and then at the city level we had started collecting race and ethnicity data and made it public facing as soon as we were able to do so. Where in other jurisdictions, they have not provided that information.

Due to some national attention from policymakers, as well as the community, now that there’s other jurisdictions that are starting to report out on race and ethnicity for Covid-illness or cases as well as deaths, and we’re seeing very similar trends to what’s happening here in Milwaukee. So what’s happening here is not unique. It is a reflection of racist policies and practices that have been set up from years ago, and that we’re still feeling today. And when we look at health disparities and distribution of many of the cases for say infant mortality, obesity, violence, you see very similar, lead poisoning you see very similar distributions. And we know that a lot of that is because of some of the redlining and segregation that was set up years ago, you know, we’re seeing this play out today.

And this pandemic is really, really magnifying what’s existed and what has been lurking in our society for a long time. And honestly, I believe the only way to fix this in the future is moving to some form of reparation, really righting the wrongs because you know, if there’s a natural disaster who’s going to get hit hardest? The people that are most disadvantaged, that don’t have the rainy day funds or another home to go to or various vehicles so they can, you know, use something differently if their other one is flooded or damaged. It’s all connected.

JS: What we’re reading from the initial statistics is that in Milwaukee County, African Americans make up nearly half of the recorded positive cases of Covid-19 and 81 percent of the deaths. In Chicago 70 percent of the recorded deaths have been of African Americans. In Philadelphia, where there are more than 2,000 Covid-19 cases, black residents make up nearly half of them. Why is this hitting black communities so disproportionately harder than others?

JK: If there’s anything about this Covid-19 situation that we can learn from right now is acutely that if you have people, or you’re yourself an essential worker, and you have to go out into the elements, that you’re more at risk for contracting this disease. We know too, that this is difficult depending on people’s living arrangements. Sometimes there’s multiple families or folks living in a house or an apartment. So it makes it very difficult to remove yourself, say if you are ill from other people. When you look at homeownership, you know, like who has their own single family house or maybe a duplex or something like that? Versus living in a large apartment building where there’s a lot of congregation.

Incarcerated individuals and we know that the disparity there who’s been suffering from high rates of incarceration for various offenses? African Americans. So, you know, there’s a number of concerns that the illness will spread because decisions are being made or not being made that are harmful to the public, especially those that are still dealing with — grappling with — the disparities due to policies and practices from years ago that are still present today.

JS: In studying what the Republican lawmakers and justices in Wisconsin have rammed through in overturning Governor Evers attempt to stop the primary and the election from going forward today, it seems to me like what the Republican Party is doing is saying, we want to force poor people, African Americans, people who live in the population centers of a largely rural state to risk their lives to vote and they are willing to — I’ll just say it — it seems like the Republicans are willing to kill people in order to disenfranchise black people and the City of Milwaukee from voting.

JK: We have many good people in this state and that really want to provide for their families. They want to be self-actualized. They want to live their best lives. But the politics continue to impact our ability to do that. And it’s extremely disheartening where people are being forced to risk their lives to place their vote or fulfill their right as an American to vote. I mean, it’s just unbelievable that we are even having this conversation right now. This has been really disheartening, you know, being on the inside and the conversations and the mentality of some people that unfortunately have positions of power and that are killing people by the decisions that they’re making.

JS: Are we going to see a spike in cases do you believe as a result of being forced to go forward with this election today? You’re the Milwaukee health commissioner.

JK: Absolutely, and this is why I mean, I received a number of requests over the last 36 hours to cancel the election and trust me if I could have did that, I would’ve did it. The reason why I wasn’t able to do it is because when the governor issued Executive Order 12, there was two things in it one, it included elections as an essential activity. But aside from that, it also took the power away from the locals. So, you know, we had to abide by the state order versus a local order. But nonetheless, you know, as a health official or health officer, and there’s many across the state, you know, there’s a concept called home rule where we’re supposed to be allowed to make decisions that are best for our communities, and that was taken away because we’re in an emergency situation. That’s the reason why I wasn’t able to issue a stop on this in-person election because of that maneuver.

JS: As a public health professional, what is it like to listen to how the President of the United States has described this pandemic?

JK: My thing as a public health professional and as a health commissioner is it’s really important to stay in your lane. Let’s listen to the experts. What do they have to say? So it’s very concerning when you hear electeds making comments about things that are not, they don’t have the training for

DJT: Hydroxychloroquine. I think we should, if it were me, in fact, I might do it anyway. I may take it, OK? I may take it. And I have to ask my doctors about that. But I may take it. What do you have to lose? In some cases, they’re in bad shape. What do you have to lose? It’s been out there for a long time, and I hope they use it. 

And I say, what do you have to lose? I’ll say it again what do you have to lose? Take it. I really think they should take it. But it’s their choice. And it’s the doctor’s choice, or the doctors in the hospital, but hydroxychloroquine. Try it.

JK: You know, no matter what people say, I mean, people listen to our elected officials. And that’s why there needs to be some judgment and discretion about what’s being said. But, you know, that’s for the after-action report. We’re in the middle of the storm now. And it’s better to just put energy into saving lives and trying to reduce the spread of Covid-19. And by having the data that we have, that helps inform our outreach, and other types of activities to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 and communities that are being hit the hardest right now. So that’s where my team and I were trying to put more energy into that. Because you know, this is very daunting work. But this is why we were called to serve for moments just like this.

JS: What is the status of hospitals in Milwaukee right now? Have you seen the kinds of surge in patients that we are witnessing? I’m speaking to you from New York here. We have ambulances going around the clock and hospitals are overwhelmed. What’s the status of Milwaukee’s hospitals?

JK: Well, there are a number of efforts to increase bed and ventilator capacity just like everywhere else. We’re using the projections from the University of Washington study. And we’re monitoring them very closely. The concern about the peak, we have 10 days to get additional beds online and ventilators, if need be.

JS: You’re citing the projections from the University of Washington, but those projections don’t take into account this insane push to force people to go out and vote in person and am I wrong? I mean, this is gonna potentially have a major impact, particularly because there’s so few polling sites. And we’ve already seen long lines across the country for people trying to vote. And what a coincidence that it often seems to be in communities of color or economically disadvantaged communities. But how do you plan for something when now you’re forced to allow people to congregate in mass groups potentially being in lines for hours?

JK: This is just unbelievable what we’re dealing with right now is just like every day, it’s just like something else. So the fact that we’re having an in-person election in the middle of a pandemic is just beyond me and my public health colleagues, we all are like, really, this is what we’re doing right now? But the fact of the matter is, we still have to respond to it. You know, when this day is the seventh, then we have to add 14 days out, brings us to the incubation period for Covid-19. And then we should expect to see a surge of cases. And what are we doing? I mean, are we going to have more PPE by then? Are we going to have more testing by then? So it’s very, very complicated and disheartening, to be quite honest.

JS: Explain the importance of Milwaukee declaring racism a public health crisis.

JK: So, again, this is really important because it helped frame how we view our response to Covid-19 from the beginning. So we felt it was important to include race and ethnicity. We also were using a public facing map to be able to show how Covid-19 is moving through our community. And the fact that it happens so quickly. Since there’s some frustration in the community like, oh, you’re taking too long, but this disease moves so fast. I mean, Friday the 13th was our first case — so, March Friday the 13th. So from day one to Friday, we had about 1000 cases. So in three weeks, this is how quickly this grew in the city of Milwaukee.

It’s important to know who’s been most impacted to help with the outreach and the resources and getting people back to normal after the fact. Making sure that those areas of town, you know, Sherman Park, that’s where I grew up. And the Sherman Park community was already going through a number of challenges from when I grew up there. I mean, my stepdad still lives there on 48th and Hadley. But, you know, just the fact that you already have neighborhoods that were really struggling and trying to bounce back. And then you have a pandemic layered on top of that. It’s very important to refocus resources on those areas and the communities that are being hit the hardest.

JS: Dr. Jeanette Kowalik, thank you very much for being with us.

JK: Thank you for having me.

JS: Dr. Jeannette Kowalik is the Health Commissioner for the city of Milwaukee.

[Music interlude.]

Scholar Dr. Ibram X. Kendi Discusses What The Data Tells us About Race and Coronavirus in America

JS: For more on race and the coronavirus and the ways in which our existing systems in this country have disproportionately impacted communities of color, particularly African Americans, I am joined now by Ibram X. Kendi. He is the Founding Director of The Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, DC. He’s professor of history and international relations, and he’s also contributor at The Atlantic magazine. He is the author of a number of books, including “The Black Campus Movement,” “Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History Of Racist Ideas In America,” and “How To Be An Antiracist.” Ibram X. Kendi, thanks for joining us on Intercepted.

Ibram X. Kendi: Oh, it’s a pleasure to be on.

JS: Before we get into the big picture, I just want to get your immediate reaction to the Republican stacked state Supreme Court in Wisconsin overruling the Democratic governor and forcing people in Wisconsin to go out in the midst of a pandemic to vote in the primary and in the other ballot races that are underway in Wisconsin.

IXK: I think what’s happening in Wisconsin is emblematic among Republicans in terms of what’s happening nationwide, whether you’re talking about Republican-led states or you’re talking about the Republican-led United States in which Republicans are not really taking this pandemic seriously, not recognizing that decisions they make could lead to the curve not flattening, could lead to people being infected and dying.

Reporter: Wondering why you haven’t taken the extra step of a shelter in place, given the fact that I think Iowa is one of only five states now that hasn’t done that? 

Gov. Kim Reynolds: Yeah, well, in a sense, we put a lot of the measures into place. I’ve just done it in an incremental fashion.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson: But we don’t want to put people out of work unless there’s a good public health benefit.

Mary Louise Kelly: It sounds like you don’t

Gov. Kristi Noem: The people themselves are primarily responsible for their safety. They are the ones that are entrusted with expansive freedoms. They’re free to exercise their rights to work, to worship and to play, or to even stay home, or to conduct social distancing.

IXK: I think that decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court is yet another indication of this larger problem.

JS: The main reason that the GOP really wants to move forward with this primary and that they went to great lengths to do it is because there is a Republican Supreme Court Justice who is up for reelection, and they want to make sure that they keep a stacked court. This is entirely on the Republican Party in Wisconsin, but we’ve also seen the Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden, effectively saying there are safe ways to go and vote in person.

JB: I mean, there’s a lot of things that can be done. That’s for the Wisconsin courts and folks to decide.

JS: What about the role of the top Democrat in the presidential race right now and his messaging on Covid-19, not just in this election, but also in Florida, Illinois and elsewhere.

IXK: We have black people, particularly in the south that are dying at astronomically sort of, disproportionate rates. And I haven’t seen Joe Biden come out very loudly and forcefully to talk about racial disparities negatively harming black people, even though these very black southerners are the reason why he’s the front runner.

JS: On March 27, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Representative Ayanna Pressley sent a letter to the Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar calling for comprehensive demographic data on Covid-19. And in their letter they wrote, “Any attempt to contain COVID-19 in the United States will have to address its potential spread in low income communities of color first and foremost to protect the lives of people in those communities, but also to slow the spread of the virus in the country as a whole.” Can you, Ibram, just break down what demographic data lawmakers are hoping to capture and why that’s so important?

IXK: Well, for instance, what we already know is that in Michigan, Black Americans comprise about 14 percent of the state population but 40 percent of the coronavirus deaths. We also know that in Illinois, the infection rate among black Americans is twice the state population. We know that in Milwaukee, black people make up about 26 percent of the county, but nearly 80 percent of the deaths. And so what this means if that is the case, nationwide, let’s say if it’s the case that black and even Latino people are more likely to be infected, are more likely to be killed as a result of Covid-19, that means that these communities are at a higher risk for infection, and even for death, which means we need to figure out programming and policies that can stem the tide in these communities. And we need to be very deliberate and open about that. Because if we don’t, then these communities will continue to be disproportionately affected. And when you have disparities, as I just described, there must be policies, or lack thereof that are behind these disparities that we need to essentially ascertain, but if we can’t even see the disparities because we don’t have the data, then how can we go about solving this problem?

JS: Last week, you also called for racial demographic breakdown of all people tested, infected, hospitalized and killed by Covid-19. What do you believe that that data would help us better understand?

IXK: Each one is different. So in terms of testing, many Americans have anecdotal beliefs that the more connected you are, the wealthier you are, the better ability for you to get tested, that certain communities are being under-tested and other communities are being over-tested. So if we had testing data, you know, we could potentially answer or figure out whether that’s the case, particularly among race. Are white people, when they’re showing symptoms more likely to be tested than a Latino person? When it comes to infection rates, you know, obviously, we need to know what communities have higher levels of infection, you know, as I stated earlier, to figure out ways to protect those people. 

Hospitalization rates, we need to figure out specifically who’s being hospitalized and why, especially because when we essentially assess hospitalization rates with death rates, we need to figure out whether presumably as we’ve historically seen, certain communities have lower access to high quality health care that’s saving their lives, or certain communities are not receiving equitable treatment from the same doctors or the same hospitals. We need data to figure out what is going on, you know, at every step of this sort of pandemic.

JS: According to smartphone location data that was analyzed by The New York Times, they found the following: “In cities across America, many lower income workers continue to move around, while those who make more money are staying home and limiting their exposure to the coronavirus.” In New York City, if you look at photos that are taken on the subways or the bus that goes right in front of my house in a largely overwhelmingly immigrant neighborhood, you see mostly black and brown people stuffed into public transportation because they’re working at low-wage or working class jobs that have been deemed essential. So you know from who is able to work from home and limit their exposure to the availability of testing, talk about this racial and socioeconomic inequity that we’re seeing playing out in this crisis.

IXK: Studies have shown that if you’re white, you’re more likely to have a nest egg and wealth, you’re more likely to have a not only a higher income job, but the type of job that allows you to work from home. So therefore, if you’re a person of color, you’re more likely to not be able to currently work from home right now. If you’re a person of color, you’re also more likely to be in a situation which you have to take public transportation to your job, because typically, your job is not in your immediate community. And then also, if you are a person of color, you don’t necessarily have a nest egg. You don’t necessarily have your grandparents or your parents wealth or you haven’t been able to save up enough money with your low wage job. So that means you have to work. 

So then you go out and you work in order to maintain the livelihood of your family. And then because you’re out in the world and you’re not able to socially distance, you’re more likely to then catch the virus. And then you’re more likely to come home and spread that virus to your family because the vast majority of transmission is family transmission. On top of that, many people in this society aren’t then looking at all of the policies that led to that narrative I just shared. Instead, they’re saying, well, you should have socially distanced yourself. Or, you know, why was your behavior like that? So again, what happens is we have this sort of American narrative of ensnaring people and then blaming them for being the victim.

JS: You know, in New York, the Public Advocate, Jumaane Williams has called on Bill de Blasio’s administration to break down Covid-19 cases by race and in a letter to de Blasio, Jumaane Williams writes that people of color are “over represented in essential occupations, including grocery store workers, laundromat workers, health care workers, and emergency responders.” We’ve talked a bit about how front line workers are being impacted here. But in the bigger picture, you know, and of course, Donald Trump wins the grim prize for being the worst absolute person in terms of public officials in this crisis. But here we have Bill de Blasio who is a Democrat who also endorsed Bernie Sanders, who just said this week that he only learned a couple days ago that asymptomatic carriers are a thing. You know, you have Rikers Island teeming with coronavirus infections, not just among the prisoners, but also the staff there. What about what’s happening right now in the center of New York City which is governed by a “progressive” Democrat?

IXK: My own work, Jeremy, has largely been, you know, studying the history of racism and the history of racist policies, the history of racist ideas. One of my findings is that racist ideas have not just been produced and trafficked by conservative thinkers, by moderate thinkers, by liberal thinkers, but even some of the most progressive and radical thinkers have also said you know what, there’s no race problem. You know what, this is all about class? No, you know, it can’t be about race and class. No, let’s only focus on sort of class or, you know, if we bring in race that’s only going to alienate white people who we need to form coalitions with. And so as a result, some progressive thinkers, obviously, some progressive leaders are not willing to study racial data, recognize the ways in which racist and even capitalist policies intersect to harm poor communities of color. Instead, they want to only focus on let’s say economic policies and do not want to recognize its intersection. 

And I wonder if that’s happening in New York City because, you know, I actually studied the zip code data that New York City recently came out with that The New York Times published. According to that data, the five zip codes with the highest coronavirus case rate per 100,000 people, those communities were on average, the Latino community was over represented, and the Asian American community was over represented. And then when you flip it around, and the communities — there were about two communities — with two cases per 100,000, which was the lowest rate in the city, both of those communities were overwhelmingly white. And then there were another 20 zip codes that had the second lowest case rate per 100,000 at three. Fourteen of those 20 communities, white people were the largest sort of racial group. What we’re even seeing by the zip code data is that there’s a racial disparity in New York City.

JS: What about the fate of people locked in prison? We’ve seen now deaths occurring in prisons, including people who were locked up on technical violations or because they didn’t have money to bail themselves out. And in some cases, we’re talking about a miniscule amount of money that ultimately led to the death penalty being carried out against them via coronavirus in the jail.

IXK: I think when we look at potentially the four communities of people who may end up suffering the worst as a result of this pandemic, you’re talking about incarcerated people, homeless people, people in nursing homes, and potentially undocumented immigrants. And so when you look at people in prisons, black and brown people are about double the population in prisons is about double the national rate. If our political leaders are not taking seriously the disproportionate amounts of infection and deaths in communities of color, they’re probably certainly not going to take it seriously the outbreaks that are happening from Rikers Island to other prisons. 

And because as you know, many of these incarcerated people are considered throwaway people. It’s imagined that they’re a problem, essentially and there’s nothing that could be further from the truth. You know, there are a lot of communities most specifically the incarcerated community that is going to suffer horribly. And the worst part about it is we’re not even going to hear their cries because so many people and so many political leaders are not stepping up to defend them as the human beings that they are.

JS: For The Atlantic you write, “Without racial data, we could end up stranded in Trump’s America a year after the worst pandemic in American history flooded out of truth and justice and fairness, homeless like Black Mississippians in 1927,” and you quote Bessie Smith’s song saying:

[“Backwater Blues” by Bessie Smith plays.]

JS: Talk about the parallels that you see between today’s pandemic and the way it’s being responded to, and the great Mississippi flood of 1927 or other historical analogues.

IXK: By April right around this time in 1927, the Mississippi River as a result of months and months of heavy rains essentially over-flooded both banks, breaking the levees at New Orleans all the way up the coast. And, of course, the Mississippi River system is the largest river system in the United States and tens of thousands of square miles were inundated and flooded. And as a result, hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes and their livelihood. And so many of them were driven into these flood relief camps that were overseen at the time by the Secretary of Commerce who was Herbert Hoover. And Herbert Hoover was able to suppress reports of racism and lynchings and essentially forcing black people into cleanup efforts through armed guards. And simultaneously, the national media praised Hoover’s relief effort. He was seen as somebody who got it right. So as a result, he became a political star. And he used that stardom to then run for president and he ended up becoming the President of the United States in 1928. And then promptly led the United States into the Great Depression. 

I mean, I see something very similar could happen in which you’ve already seen — at least when I wrote that piece — Trump’s approval ratings had risen and was among the highest of his whole presidency. He of course, is almost giving daily press conferences in which he’s essentially touting himself for the great job that he’s doing and his acolytes, and disciples all over the country are doing something similar. What was happening in Mississippi in 19or I should say, really, across Middle America in 1927, is that black people in particular, were suffering horribly. But for many white Americans who were not suffering horribly, who were not connected to those black people, they were imagining that Hoover was doing a good job. 

And so what could similarly happen this year is you could have black and Latino and even Asian and Native people who are suffering horribly, and many white Americans who are able to socially distance and many white Americans who are imagining that the people who are being infected are being infected because of their own behavioral deficiencies can then end up imagining that Trump did a great job and he’s a great leader and thereby deserves to be reelected.

JS: If things go as it seems they’re going to go and we end up with a November race where the choice is between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, what does that choice say to you about the realities of the United States of America in 2020?

IXK: One of the most popular talking points in American politics is this idea that the Democratic candidate who can win the white swing voter is the candidate who is the most electable, and because of that, and because so many independents and Democrats want Trump to lose, they have of course clung to who they consider to be the most electable Democrat. If that Democrat who resembles the Democrat that lost in 2016, then loses, instead of those very people beginning to recognize that maybe the centrist white Democrat was not the best choice against specifically a Trump candidate, instead of them recognizing that idea is no longer sort of politically valid, instead, they’re going to blame the people who did not vote. 

Instead, they’re gonna blame the people who Joe Biden alienated as a result of his history or his refusal to adopt more of Sanders’s extremely popular policies, particularly among young people. And so again, it’s going to show me that, you know, Americans are too bogged down and too blinded by their own ideology, you know, to really recognize what is best for themselves what’s best for this country. And it will essentially allow potentially for either a Trump presidency or a Biden presidency that presumably may not be able to ensure that Trump — or a Trump-like candidate — will never rise again.

JS: Ibram X. Kendi, I want to thank you very much for all of your work. Your writing is incredibly important, particularly at this moment and thank you so much for joining us on Intercepted

IXK: You’re welcome. Thank you.

JS: Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is author of several books, among them “How to Be Antiracist.” He’s founder of The Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University in Washington, DC and a contributor to The Atlantic. His forthcoming book, out this summer, is called “Antiracist Baby.” He is on Twitter at @DrIbram.

[Music interlude.]

Fired Amazon Worker Christian Smalls Responds to the Company’s Smear Campaign Against Him

JS: Last week on the show, we spoke to an Amazon warehouse worker named Christian Smalls. He is, well now, a former Amazon worker. He was an assistant manager but he was fired after organizing a walk out at the Staten Island Amazon Warehouse on March 30th. Now, it certainly appears that Chris was fired in direct retaliation for organizing workers, talking to media and exposing conditions and lack of transparency at this facility. But Amazon vehemently denied — and continues to deny — that he was fired in retaliation for his organizing efforts. Amazon claims Smalls violated a company order to self-quarantine, and that he put others at risk by being “onsite” for the protest he organized. That protest, Smalls told us, was organized to call on the company to protect his co-workers from the coronavirus. 

Here’s what Smalls told us last week:

Christian Smalls: My message was just a simple message. All we wanted was the building to be closed down and sanitized just like the other building in Queens, New York. That’s all we wanted originally. We didn’t want nothing more, nothing less, to be closed down, sanitized and for us to be paid while that’s happening.

JS: Since then, Amazon has gone all in on Christian Smalls. Last week, we learned that Amazon had a meeting, attended by the richest person on earth, Jeff Bezos, where Amazon executives and lawyers discussed a PR strategy to smear Chris Smalls. This bears repeating: The richest person on earth participated in a meeting to develop a smear campaign against a warehouse worker on Staten Island because he organized a protest demanding a safe workplace in the midst of a pandemic.

Now, Vice News broke that memo story after it obtained leaked notes from the meeting. According to those notes, the Amazon PR strategy was to paint Christian Smalls as “the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union organizing movement.”

The notes were written by Amazon’s general counsel David Zapolsky where he says that Smalls is “not smart or articulate” and that it is better to put the focus on him rather than to debate Amazon’s own safety policies in the press. That lawyer, by the way, is a Joe Biden fundraiser. Zapolsky also wrote, “We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organizer’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal.” Those notes, according to Vice, were shared widely among Amazon staff.

Christian Smalls might have lost his job, but he is continuing to organize against Amazon in the name of protecting his former co-workers, and he joins me now. Christian Smalls, welcome back to Intercepted. 

CS: Thank you for having me.

JS: We spoke to you last week after you were fired from your position as an assistant manager for an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island — the JFK8 warehouse — in response to you staging and organizing a walkout then.

Unidentified Person: Now you don’t have a mask?

CS: No, we don’t have no masks. I have to wear scarves. We don’t got no masks. They don’t provide us with masks. They say they do. They don’t. We don’t have the right type of gloves. We don’t have latex gloves. We’re not in the medical field. They’re sugarcoating everything. They’re downplaying everything. Somebody needs to be held accountable.

JS: What is your response to Amazon’s leaked memo and also the fact that the richest human being on earth Jeff Bezos took time out of his day during a pandemic to participate in a meeting aimed at smearing you?

CS: First and foremost, it’s not about me. It’s never was. It’s about the people. And if they think that it’s gonna be Amazon versus Chris Smalls, they’re sadly mistaken. This is Amazon versus the people. They could dance around it all they want. They could try to smear me. Good luck with that. It’s not gonna work, you know, I’m not gonna fall for the trap. This company knew exactly what it was doing when they fired me. They wanted to put an end to me. They didn’t care about my family. They didn’t care about my children. They didn’t care about my life.

As you stated about the leaked memo, they don’t care about their own employees. They don’t care about people. At the end of the day, it’s all about greed. It’s greed and evilness. They don’t have no compassion for their employees, or the working class people. You telling me they’re intimidated by somebody who makes $25 an hour and like you said, the richest men in the world? What does that say? That speaks volumes to truth and truth to power. That I’m intimidating them because I’m speaking the truth. Other than that, you wouldn’t have no meeting like that.

Everybody needs to know who these people really are. You shouldn’t be buying their products right now. They’re upset because I’m getting a lot of Amazon Prime accounts canceled. Guess what, keep canceling them because you’re saving lives. You’re saving lives.

JS: For people who haven’t followed this story closely, explain why you organized a walkout at the Amazon warehouse.

CS: These employees that I work with for years, this is my extended family. These people I work with 40-50 hours a week, sometimes 60. They’ll give me the clothes off their back. I’ll give them the clothes on my back. I couldn’t sit back and watch my people get sick and bring this virus home to their families. I had to take action you know, anybody that is you know, a decent human being would make the same decision I did. I took some time off from the company when I noticed that things were just not right. There was something wrong, very wrong with what was going on. They wasn’t being transparent with employees about the amount of cases.

As you noticed, there’s a lot of cases popping up all over the country all of a sudden, why is that? You’re telling me it took me to protest for us to get answers? That’s ridiculous. There is something deeply, deeply concerning about what’s going on. This is life or death. There’s no way to cut it. This is life or death. There is no in between. It’s either you go to work and get the virus for your overtime pay. Or you don’t and you stay home and you become homeless after a while. You’re not giving people options and I’m not standing for that.

JS: Now Amazon the company and of course, Jay Carney who was President Obama’s former spokesperson, he is now the top PR flack for Amazon. And he has been tweeting and posting on social media that Amazon is the leader in protecting its workers and its customers. Are you saying that from your experience working for Amazon in that warehouse that you believe Jay Carney and Amazon are not being truthful when they claim that they’re leaders among corporate institutions for protecting workers and customers?

CS: Everything Amazon does right now is all Band-Aid work. They have one issue a day, they put a Band-Aid over it until the next issue come up, and then they put another Band-Aid over it. That’s what they do. They do Band-Aid work. Everything they’re doing is reactive right now. The virus has been in these buildings for almost two months, in all of their buildings. If not, it will be. People work in these buildings from all over, thousands of people. And this is the bigger picture that not only America needs to wake up to, but the whole world. This is life or death and I don’t know why I was chosen to deliver this. 

My life changed for a reason, and I need everybody to listen to what I’m about to say. There’s 500,000 employees more than that now, almost 600,000 because they hired 100,000. That was another Band-Aid right there. 600,000 employees, possibly nationwide. Nationwide. God forbid they all become carriers of the coronavirus. This virus spreads to two and a half people, spreads. That’s nationwide.

Now globally, they have 800,000 employees globally. God forbid they all become carriers. This is the bigger picture. Y’all want to stop the coronavirus? You want to flatten the curve? You got to stop the breeding grounds. These warehouses are breeding grounds for the coronavirus. My building is a prime example: 5,000 people in and out that building weekly from all over, all over the state of New York. New York is the epicenter. You know, one plus one is two. We got to wake up. We need the government to step up and shut these buildings down. There’s your flattening of the curve.

You want hospitals? My building holds 14 NFL football fields — 14 — 900,000 square feet. Why you got these doctors and nurses working out of tents? Take these Amazon facilities away. Shut it down. Shut it down. We don’t need them right now. What was we doing 20 years ago? I was going to the grocery store with my mother. Amazon didn’t exist to me. It’s not a necessity. We adapted to the times. We got to revert back to the old society. We don’t need Amazon. Shut it down. Take these billions of dollars. Don’t give it to the food pantry. That’s a Band-Aid right there. We didn’t have a food shortage. Give this money to the medical field. Help them out. That’s my message.

JS: Now of course when you started blowing the whistle on the conditions at the Amazon JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island, the company would only acknowledge that there were a handful of potential or confirmed coronavirus cases. Now we understand from news reports and advocates who are supporting the workers at this warehouse, that there may be as many or more than 25 confirmed cases at your former place of employment. Tell us what you’re hearing from your former co-workers and other Amazon workers across the country.

CS: The stories I’m hearing are horrific. I have a friend — a personal friend — he’s been sleeping in his car for five days because he’s sick and he can’t get a test. And he has three small children at home. That is ridiculous. I have people that haven’t been paid in over a month that got lupus. That got bronchitis. That got severe asthma, and they can’t go to work because they may get sick and die. And this company is not paying for that. This temperature checking thing, they’re sending people home with a fever, unpaid. I got people that’s on quarantine, supposed to be quarantine pay. They’re on quarantine and haven’t been paid.

It’s horrific what they’re doing to people. The conditions in a warehouse are terrifying. It’s a ghost town in there. People don’t want to show up for work. People are scared. I’m getting emails from all over the world. You name it. Whatever country I got them, trust me. They’re counting on me to fight this battle, and speak up for them because they’re afraid. And that’s what I’m going to continue to do.

JS: Chris, I assume that you had health care through your employer Amazon, correct?

CS: Yep, sure did.

JS: Let’s set aside Amazon for a moment. Now you as a fired worker, what are your options for health care for you and your children? What are you going to do?

CS: Honestly, I’m walking with the fate of God right now. That’s it, you know, I believe that everything happens for a reason and at the end of the day, you know, good people should win. This is David and Goliath. And I’m not going to give up, my children will be taken care of. They have a very strong mother. She’s a nurse. We’re resilient. That’s all I need right now. You know, the support and love from the people I’m receiving from all over the world. It gives me the motivation to continue doing what I’m doing. You know, at the end of the day, I know that my children will be taken care of, regardless, you know, until my last breath. We’re working with the fate of God right now. At the end of the day, he has the last word.

JS: Now Christian, of course, this week again, we are seeing workers walk out of the Amazon facility that you worked at in Staten Island. We’re seeing it in Chicago and other cities. Just give people a sense nationally in this country of the kind of organizing that is going on among Amazon workers or fired Amazon workers in your case.

CS: Yeah, it’s a revolution. Enough is enough. They realized, because I spoke up and I did what I did, that they’re in the same position. There’s a revolution going on and this won’t be the last walkout you see. There’s some mobilizing as we speak. So, you know, I hope these billionaires wake up because if not, we’re going to take the power back, and we started a coalition. We’re organizing all across the nation and yeah, we all have one common goal and that’s to protect the front liners, and I’m all on board and I support it, support it 100 percent.

JS: You know, taking into account all of the struggles that we’re seeing in this country right now, what are you calling for people to do regarding the condition of workers and the condition of safety at Amazon and Amazon warehouses?

CS: If you care about people, if you care about life and you want to stop being in the house and be in quarantine, you want to practice real social distancing, stop clicking the button. Stop clicking that one click buy. You are saving lives literally. Literally, you’re saving lives. Stop clicking that one click buy, stop clicking the button. That’s practicing social distancing. These grocery stores are five minutes away whether it’s driving or walking. Amazon is probably the most popular source to get your food ordered. There’s other resources. There are and utilize them. They’re still around, support the small businesses, the mom and pops. That’s the real love. Those are people that really love people and love this society and the communities. Amazon don’t care about people. Stop supporting them.

JS: I just as a person, want to thank you for standing up for all of us and remind people that, you know philanthropy from billionaires is not even crumbs off the table of the rich and the sacrifice that you’re making is going to be remembered for a very long time.

CS: I appreciate that. I really do and thank you for giving me the platform to have my voice heard.

JS: That was Christian Smalls. He was fired by Amazon after organizing a walkout to protest for safe working conditions amidst the coronavirus pandemic. We invited Amazon to join us on the show today but the company declined. Instead, Amazon sent us a lengthy statement mostly consisting of steps the company says it is now taking to ensure a safe workplace. Among the policies Amazon said are now in place at its facilities are increased cleaning and sanitizing of their workspaces, temperature checks of employees and that recently-purchased protective masks are going to be distributed soon to workers. Amazon also said it communicates to all employees at a warehouse when anyone is diagnosed with Covid-19.

Amazon denied Christian Smalls accusation that quarantined employees were not getting paid or that Smalls protest has influenced customers to terminate their prime accounts. An Amazon official also said “All employees diagnosed with the illness or placed in quarantine will receive up to two weeks of additional time off to ensure they can get healthy without worrying about loss pay. We are also offering all hourly employees unlimited unpaid time off through the end of April.”

Amazon’s lawyer David Zaplosky told Vice News that his comments about Smalls were “personal and emotional.” He blamed Smalls for endangering other Amazon employees and said “I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me.”

[Music interlude.]

Intercepted Listeners Share Their Stories

JS: As I said on last week’s show, part of what keeps us all human during the darkest of moments is knowing that we are not alone. We’re all connected whether we admit it or not. And we need each other to get through this pandemic. We’ve been asking our listeners to call us to share how this situation has been impacting their lives. Here are some more of your voices from the pandemic.

Mai: My name is Mai and I’m calling from Burlington, Vermont. I’m a grocery store worker and I recently began exhibiting symptoms such as fever, sore throat, dry cough. I decided to see if I could get a test. The urgent care facility I went to was doing screenings in cars. I don’t have a vehicle so I had to stand out in the freezing cold. I was told they wouldn’t see me because I had an outstanding bill of $157. Due to where I work, hundreds of folks could be at risk. So reluctantly, they saw me and tested me, and now I’m waiting for the results.

Steve: My name is Steve. I live outside of Albany, New York. My second job is as a delivery driver. Of course, we’re getting no protection. So as I recently developed a cough, although I’m fine, I called my doctor and they almost laughed it off. They were like, you’re not gonna get tested. If you’re famous or if you’re a politician, you can get tested multiple times, you know, but the people on the ground, out in the streets, no.

Gokhan: My name is Gokhan. I’m calling from the Chicago area. I am a truck driver, an essential worker. I drive for a very large company with more than 4,000 semi trucks around the country. And all we carry is food related items in refrigerated trailers and we are not provided with any masks whatsoever. Even though we are truck drivers, we do enter into warehouses and shipping offices day in and day out multiple times a day. And not every warehouse is taking serious precautions in terms of social distancing and whatnot.

Joey: My name is Joey. I’m an essential worker in New Orleans. I work in a fast food restaurant for $8 an hour with no benefits, no sick days, no vacation time, no personal protection equipment. If there ever were a time for bosses and business owners to show that they cared about us at the worst moment, this would be it.

Unnamed: I’m calling from Zeeland, Michigan. I wanted to share the fact that my company purchased masks for the employees, despite the fact that our local hospitals are asking for seamstresses to create masks because they have so few and reached out to my superior to see if we could donate the masks. I couldn’t do nothing anymore.

Pete: Hi, my name is Pete. I’m calling from Long Beach, California. As of today, I don’t have any health insurance anymore. I lost my job last week. I don’t know what I’m going to do. My wife and I now don’t have health insurance. My sister’s a nurse and I’m really just praying and thinking about all the people who are on the front lines and the grocery workers, the essential workers, the people that are out there because they don’t have another choice.

Jillian: Jillian from Denver, Colorado. I am a food service worker so I have been laid off. I fear all the time that I’m going to get the disease and I have to stay at work because I get my health care through there. I guess I’m outweighing the risks of it makes more sense to self isolate and lose my health care or put myself at risk. I know that I still have the ability to be hospitalized, and not go into debt.

Ashton: Hi my name is Ashton and I’m in Nashville, Tennessee. March 3, a tornado hit our entire community here in East Nashville and destroyed many restaurants and venues, music venues where a lot of my friends work in the service industry. Our Republican governor is doing the bare minimum, believes you can pray coronavirus away. And I just feel like Tennessee and the south and my community of East Nashville will be feeling this for a very, very long time.

Reed Olson: Hello, my name is Reed Olson. I am from Bemidji, Minnesota and I own a restaurant. Two weeks ago we were forced to close and lay off all of our employees and we hope to open soon but doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. For the last five years, I’ve operated a 26-bed homeless shelter. Basically it’s one large room with bunks and the board of the organization felt it unsafe for staff and guests alike and we closed our doors.

And last Friday, we took over an entire two-floor wing of a hotel and we were able to move most of our people into the hotel and give them a safe place to sleep. On our third day of operating at the hotel, we received our first confirmed guest with coronavirus. My staff doesn’t really have the training nor are they paid to do what is being asked of them right now. We’ve really become the frontline on the community response to the coronavirus.

Our community is in the middle of three American Indian reservations and natives are overrepresented in the homeless population. The people that I serve, they’re wonderful, caring people with nearly insurmountable barriers to a more stable and safe life. Though they did not bring the illness to the Bemidji, they will be the hardest hit and likely be blamed.

Adam: My name is Adam from San Francisco. I’m a bartender/artist. I buried my mom and my grandmother last year and came home from my grandmother’s funeral this year to a $4,500 overpayment from the only time I’ve ever been unemployed in my life, on unemployment four years ago. Right now, I did not pay rent this month because I don’t have any more money coming in. I don’t have any money beyond what I already have. I haven’t filed taxes yet. I’m afraid I’m going to owe taxes because I’m a bartender and typically that’s what happens.

That being said, man, moving forward, I guess it’s just I’m in good spirits. I’m trying to be productive, make some art, try to reach out to people care about. I assume that that’s a good way moving forward is to try to come together and maybe see this as a way to change for the better and hopefully, get some real change instituted for, you know, instances like this that are going to happen in the future. Anyway, love you guys and be well, stay safe. We need you. Thank you.

[Music interlude.]

JS: This pandemic is not just threatening the physical health of all of us. It’s also hurting tens of millions of people, sending them deep or deeper into depression, despair, hopelessness. There are a lot of crisis services that people can call or groups you can reach out to if you are feeling total despair right now. We’re going to link to some of those in today’s episode notes. And if you’re facing economic hardship or taking action in your community, if you are a worker being forced to work in unsafe conditions, if you were unable to vote because of this pandemic or you got sick after voting, we want to hear your story as well. You can call us at 202-930-8245. That’s 202-930-8245. If you share your story with us, we might play your message on a future episode.

[Music interlude.]

JS: And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro, our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

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