Abolition in the Time of Covid-19

Carrie Freshour (Department of Geography, University of Washington; cfresh@uw.edu) and

Brian Williams (Department of Geosciences, Mississippi State University; bsw63@msstate.edu)

Introduction

As scholars whose work focuses on the environmental and political consequences of plantation-industrial agriculture in the United States South, we are struck by the convergence of multiple legacies of the plantation with Covid-19. The environmental and health consequences of factory farming (Davis 2005, 2020; Wallace 2009; Wallace et al. 2020), global in scope, act upon the inequalities and heightened vulnerabilities created by plantation ecologies and plantation politics in the US South. To understand this regional vulnerability as well as the region’s relational geographies, we refuse efforts to silo and villainize working class people in the South (cf. Glanz et. al. 2020). Instead, we situate the devastating and unequal consequences of Covid-19 in the US South as a consequence of the destructive dominance of what geographer Clyde Woods refers to as the regional neoplantation bloc (Woods 2017a, 2017b). By prioritizing extractivist capital accumulation and exploitation over the needs of people and the environment, the plantation bloc is responsible for producing vulnerability as an essential feature of plantation power. This regional and political formation has responded to this crisis with a distinct mixture of cruelty and incompetence that is unsurprisingly harmonious with the Trump administration’s early response.

We examine the unequal and devastating effects of Covid-19 in the South through a focus on racial capitalism as a mode of ordering vulnerability by spatially and racially organizing exposure to harm. The politics of labor precarity and carcerality form spatial infrastructures which produce greater vulnerability to Covid-19, and are the target of abolitionist politics of health and wellbeing (Purifoy 2020). These are mobilizations rooted in longstanding Southern struggles against the plantation model of socio-spatial organization (McCutcheon 2019; White 2018; Woods 2017a). We believe that a response to Covid-19 as a global public health (economic, social, political, and ecological) crisis must emerge centering the legacy of Black, working class struggle. These movements, fomented in the Black Radical Tradition, help us see, feel, and act upon the relationality of struggle, or what historian Paul Ortiz (2017) calls “emancipatory internationalism” (see also Douglass 1862; DuBois 1903, 1935). This provides a powerful material and ideological basis against racial capitalism, towards abolition.

Manufactured Vulnerability

In the US, Covid-19 unfolds with temporal and spatial unevenness. The health system barely has the necessary resources to handle normal operations, let alone a pandemic. This leaves hospitals without enough respirators or beds and healthcare professionals, particularly nurses, techs, and aides without proper personal protective equipment (or PPE) (Lalasz 2020). Although experts have long warned that a pandemic was inevitable, the United States was woefully ill prepared. The government, which can serve as the site for necessary coordination in response to something as relational and far-reaching as a pandemic, had neither the resources, political will, nor the planning available for an effective early response (Dozier and Bergengruen 2020; Neely and Lopez 2020). Instead, early on the national response simply warned individuals to engage in the preventative behaviors: washing hands, avoiding large gatherings, staying home when sick. While individual decisions matter in terms of disease spread, an effective response to something as social and general as a pandemic requires collective action, rather than individualized blame.

As a consequence, the virus has spread with alarming speed in a US context of hyper-privatization of public provisioning, and is on the verge of overwhelming healthcare systems. The lack of a coherent or sufficient national response has devolved life-or-death decisions to the state and local level. Repeatedly proclaimed in news reports and on social media, we hear time and time again that “viruses don’t discriminate”, but there are so many ways that Covid-19 acts upon, intensifies, and produces new inequalities. Here we discuss this as a relation of uneven vulnerability, disparate exposure, and unequal consequences for livelihoods and labor.

A disproportionate number of deaths are now concentrated in four southern states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia (Newkirk 2020). Many health experts and insurance companies attribute this disproportionate mortality rate to what they call “comorbitites” or the existence of multiple pre-existing conditions that would make one succeptable to Covid-19 (Rae et al. 2020). These compounding risk-factors are inseparable from environmental racism and inequalities in healthcare, as well as other inequalities in how people are able to live. For example, exposure to toxins and particulate matter through pollution or work can contribute to diabetes, respiratory issues, and a whole host of other health complications and chronic illnesses. These factors, in turn, increase the likelihood that someone will develop severe or even fatal complications from Covid-19. Alongside this (unnatural) vulnerability, access to healthcare and testing remains highly uneven. Racism, as state-sanctioned vulnerability to premature death, forms a fatal infrastructure for Covid-19’s spread, and constitutes a central dynamic of state and capitalist responses to the pandemic (Gilmore 2007).

As of April 1st, the national rate of infection was around four times the rural average. But much of the rural South has rates of infection at or above the national average (Bishop et al. 2020). In Mississippi, especially, the rural infection rate is much higher than the national average, as is the mortality rate. And this seems to especially be the case in majority-Black rural counties, places with high rates of uninsured and underinsured people, as well as high poverty rates. In Mississippi and Louisiana, as in the rest of the US, Covid-19 cases and deaths have been disproportionately concentrated among African Americans (Louisiana Department of Health 2020; Mississippi State Department of Health 2020). Many of Louisiana’s deaths have been concentrated in a corridor of parishes along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. These parishes rely on a petrochemical industry built on the lands of former plantations. The “double curse of oil dependency layered on top of a foundation of plantation dependency”, in Clyde Woods’ (2017b: 222) words, has environmentally and socially heightened vulnerability to the effects of Covid-19.

The pernicious effects of concentrated generational wealth, material power, and ideological hegemony are evident in the decision making of local leadership across the South. Although Louisiana issued an early Emergency Proclamation, state-level responses in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia have been less proactive (National Conference of State Legislatures 2020). Instead, the responsibility for preventing spread has fallen on individuals. At the same time, politicians have clung to a “business as usual” approach that puts people – and especially low-waged workers – in harm’s way (Judin 2020). These states have also resisted demands for decarceration, even though prisons and detention centers produce the ideal conditions for the spread of the virus. Perhaps most egregiously, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves, who dragged his feet on a Covid-19 response while issuing an order to nullify local shelter-in-place ordinances, found time to declare April “Confederate Heritage Month” (Ladd 2020). Here we see the Southern elite, those with the political power and might to make and enforce decisions around Covid-19, leading the way to catastrophe. We turn to the US South not as an exceptional case, but instead to highlight the relationality of the South’s political leadership to the rest of the nation.

Clyde Woods argued that the “neoplantation bloc” produces regional vulnerability and enables a racially-marked and uneven “selling of the South” as a region for low-wage, non-unionized, and undervalued work (Cobb 1993; Wilson 2000; Woods 2017b). This neoplantation bloc constructs avoidable, yet woefully permissible premature death for rural, majority Black and working class communities through generational proximities, disinvestment, and the expansion of carceral geographies to rurally “abandoned” and “forgotten” places (Gilmore 2008; Ryerson and Schept 2018). These proximities to vulnerability express themselves in the current crisis, yet have underlain dominant politics throughout the South since the region’s dependence on plantation slavery. This includes land dispossession, exposure to toxic environments, failed and racist education systems, abandonment of social services, anti-worker and anti-union organizing, company towns, and a concentration of prisons, jails, and detention centers for expanding punitive carceral geographies.

“Essential” Work and Unequal Exposure

The plantation mode of social organization is founded on a perverse and inverse relationship between the foundational work necessary to life itself, and the uneven valuation of work, people, and places. In other words, this work has long been undervalued and underpaid largely because of who does this work and where they do it, yet the South in general and the rural Delta in particular remain sites of struggle in which the plantation logic is always contested and never totalizing. A foundational argument for proponents of slavery, in fact, was that slavery as an institution was essential to the economic wellbeing of the South, the nation, and the consuming public. This assertion was encoded in declarations of secession, as a defense of racial domination. After emancipation, as the planter class was faced with the dual crises of political legitimacy and profit, cotton interests argued that racial domination and starvation wages were necessary for the production of cotton, and thus for the wellbeing of the region. However, in the post-war period, as the Black Freedom movement directly confronted plantation interests, cotton again faced a crisis of legitimacy and profitability. In response, cotton plantations were fully mechanized and chemicalized in a matter of years. Fixed capital expenditures on machines were calculated against the economic cost of “labor” and the political threat of workers.

This logic of racial capitalism continued with the exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from the 1935 Social Security Act, ultimately excluding these workers from any labor protections including the right to form a union. This was a “compromise” won by Southern Democrats to maintain a racially segregated workforce of Black farmworkers and domestics stripped of rights and protections. This racist legacy shapes so-called “right to work” legislation in the South alongside longstanding anti-union warfare, which has seeped outside the borders of the South across the Midwest and North at an alarming rate over the last decade.

Anti-labor legislation joined anti-environmental deregulation in the production of vulnerable people and places. Today, the South, and this includes much of Appalachia, bears a distinct vulnerability to climate change. The Black Radical Tradition anticipated the imperative of relational struggle, not only in shared enemies and processes across the region, but also to extensions of empire beyond the US. Projects of racial capitalism in the South paved the way for projects elsewhere, as the South provided a key experimental site for the agro-industrial revolution (Domosh 2015; Nally and Taylor 2015; Olsson 2017). US-style industrial agricultural practices aimed to displace traditional methods of food production across the global South as well as material and ontological relations to land and more-than-human nature (Ajl 2018; Holt-Giménez 2017; LaDuke 2007; Sharma 2017). Building on plantation logics of extraction, export-driven monocultural production, and regimented socio-environmental control, such revolutions directly contribute to the pandemic we see today expressed in Covid-19 (Spinney 2020).

In our own work situated in the rural US South, we emphasize the role of agri-food workers in all of this – not farm-owners, but those essential workers who are being called to “feed America” (Jordan 2020). Some of the first worker-organized and -led “wildcat” strikes across the country occured in the US South. On March 23rd, 50 workers at a Perdue poultry processing plant in Kathleen, Georgia walked off the line over fears of virus spread (Elk 2020). Animal processing, considered “essential”, is largely concentrated across the South: Georgia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. A workforce of majority Black women across Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride continue working shoulder-to-shoulder, processing hundreds of thousands of birds each day without hazard pay.

Ultimately, the logic justifying the continued dependence on essential workers, over and above the value of their lives, maintains profits for Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, Wal-Mart, and other large corporations without responding to workers’ needs – needs that reach beyond and before Covid-19. Workers continue to put their very lives at risk not because of some illogical patriotism to “feed America” but rather because they must feed themselves and their families and have no “safety net” to do so otherwise. We live in a country which has always valued profits over people, with Covid-19 drawing out the contradictions of racial capitalism as the most “essential” workers in our country have also been those workers long undervalued, underpaid, and ignored. In this moment, devalued and invisibilized “essential work” has become hypervisible – to the heightened vulnerability to premature death of “essential” workers (Kagan 2020). What erupts into an acute crisis of the pandemic is, in actuality, the result of a long-building crisis of both worker precarity and the ecological limits of perpetual growth. Starting here, we might better understand the continued movement of working people across the South, rather than blaming them for the spread (cf. Glanz et al. 2020).

There is no reason to believe that this crisis will lead to the enlightenment of employers and politicians to realize the true value of workers essential to survival. Rather, repression and replacement are the plantation bloc’s tried and true responses to crisis. However, this moment of crisis and heightened vulnerability provides an opportunity for worker-led organizing and a forceful assertion of the truly essential value of workers, and this includes paid and unpaid alike. Can we imagine a world where our dependence on each other mirrors the kinds of caring networks emerging in the form of mutual aid instead of racial capitalist division of the working and comfort classes? This is a unique moment for labor, connecting across sectors, payscales, and ultimately social classes to make immediate demands for hazard pay and PPE, but also for larger demands for worker-owned cooperatives and beyond (Cooperation Jackson 2020; Taylor 2020). This crisis demands a revaluation of work and an abolition of its current ecological and social conditions (Heynen 2016). The conditions of life and work prior to the emergence of Covid-19 were a daily crisis, and a return to normal is impossible. In the meantime, let’s follow Cooperative Jackson’s call for a general strike, May 1st (Akuno 2020)!

Exposure and Carceral Geographies

Prisons, jails, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers are sites of sinister spread of the coronavirus with rates of infection exponentially higher than the population as a whole. Because our country locks up so many people each day, our carceral systems are overcrowded with people in close proximity, receiving grossly inadequate food and medical attention. In the South, where we claim eight of the top ten states with the highest rate of incarceration, the spread of Covid-19 will be especially catastrophic (Wagner and Sawyer 2018). People inside are scared for their lives as none of the prescriptions given to us are actionable – social distancing, sanitation, hand washing, and access to medical care. We have witnessed desperate photos and viral videos from inside depicting people’s fears, anger, and frustration. We have read letters from incarcerated community members pleading for information, for basic sanitation, for support, and for release. Beyond calls for help, incarcerated folks have led at least 21 protests related to Covid-19 in the last two weeks, in the form of petitions, hunger strikes, mass refusals, escapes, and even collective suicide threat (Perilous Chronicle 2020).

Following their lead, broad coalitions of formerly incarcerated activists, abolitionists, public defenders, and immigrant rights organizers are demanding local, state, and federal governments to release people, boldly reframing carcerality as the public health crisis. Abolitionists in particular are connecting the threads of incarceration and demands traditionally siloed as “labor” and working class concerns. As incarcerated loved ones are forced to manufacture hand sanitizer while at the same time being denied access, and others are expected to dig graves for the anticipated deaths in NYC, we see with clarity the ways in which racial capitalism disregards entire populations, and how this disregard reaches across work and carcerality, limiting options for work and life with dignity and meaning. Here, we draw out these connections as they play out across the rural US South.

Scholars and activists have long been mobilized around “mass incarceration” and “prison reform”, yet geographers in general, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore in particular, have pushed us to understand these as carceral geographies. This framework allows us to see how prisons built increasingly in rural places provide a “fix” to the contradictions of racial capitalism (land, finance, welfare, and labor). The warehousing of people in cages connects rural and urban places and people along windy off-beaten roads, in the Mississippi Delta, Eastern Kentucky, and rural South Georgia. These constitute spatial relations made invisible through distance and seclusion. Yet, the invisibility of rural prisons and detention centers feeds off its inverse, the expanding technologies of surveillance and punishment in urban places, the spillover of urban jails, and to the economic abandonment of working and poor communities of color, disproportionately Black and Latinx, structurally excluded from access to “gainful employment”.

Prisons fix the problem of generational unemployment, a structural condition of Black working class life in the US. By removing people from their communities, the state removes the ability for these people to participate fully in community reproduction. This then transforms caring relationships into fractured ones mitigated by long networks of surveillance, contact through JPay,[1] over-priced commissaries, censored emails, and weekends in the car or on the bus traveling from home to the cold, sterile, always watched, disciplined spaces of the prison and detention center.

Beyond the immediate transformation of care, prisons create a forever dependence on precarious jobs. This is what “having a record” does; it follows you, enabling the systematic labor exploitation of a racialized workforce. The constant threat of detention and deportation acts in a similar way, following undocumented people and enforcing precarity. This is who the poultry plants, the fast food restaurants, the grocery stores, and other, now “essential” industries depend upon. In this way, the tethers of carcerality, whether to oneself, a child, brother, partner, or loved one follows people back to their communities. As caring labor stretches across distances urban and rural, this push and pull forces a greater dependence on shit jobs. Surveillance and social services extend the disciplining reach of carceral geographies, shaping, for example, who can and cannot access food stamps, childcare subsidies, and adequate housing.

Therefore, abolition is not just about closing prisons, jails, and detention centers; although it starts here, it is also about reimagining the networks of care that have for so long been manipulated by racial capitalism. Broad solidarities expressed in the current movement to #FreeThemAll4PublicHealth led by No New Jails NYC, Survived and Punished, and Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee[2] have long understood why we must demand everyone be released, with an unwavering faith in humanity. These are solidarities connecting across scale and space, people and places often erased from formal considerations of political activism and access to power, yet long central to the making of abolition.

Abolition in the Time of Covid-19

We understand the actions of the neoplantation bloc to be distinct from and oppositional to a multiracial working class South. Incarceration and harmful conditions of work are mutually reinforcing systems of control that replicate violence, not just during acute crises like the current pandemic. The legacy of plantation power in the South, in particular, is distinguished by the toxic intersection of carcerality and racialized labor oppression, and this moment presents an imperative of dismantling these interdependent systems of enforced vulnerability to premature death.

Yet, across the country activists are creatively organizing against unequal exposure for workers and incarcerated loved ones. They bring clarity to our relational struggles by exposing prisons as a public health crisis. They write letters, build social media campaigns, record videos, conduct “honk-ins”, and hold webinars that strengthen existing relationships and stretch across disparate spaces, in this sense building for what’s to come in a post-Covid-19 world. In all of this, we call special attention and support to the convergence of movements in the South, part of an ongoing freedom movement (Dong 2020; Henderson 2020) that centers abolition as a necessary practice of worker-centered power, self-determination, reconstruction of socio-spatial relations, and the politics of health. We join grassroots organizers working for abolition. Understanding this is only possible through collective struggle with others, for us this means:

  • a rejection of anti-Blackness as a governing principle of social and economic relations (see Wright and Bledsoe 2018);
  • a reconstruction of landscapes that are not environmentally racist and destructive;
  • a responsibility to collective political education, driven by a love that trusts we can grow together;
  • a revaluation of world-making work, especially care and reproductive work;
  • a world built upon mutual flourishing, rather than one that accepts harm as a necessary cost of profit and power; and
  • we root abolition in the strength of the Southern Freedom movement, a movement long committed to our collective liberation.

Endnotes

[1] JPay (https://www.jpay.com/) is a privately held company that contracts with the state Departments of Correction, jails, and private federal prisons to provide communication and other services to people currently incarcerated across 35 states. This is the major form of commoditized communication that allows money transfers and censored messaging. JPay is expensive, with a variety of non-optional fees. Across many states, contracts with JPay allow kickbacks to the jails and prisons themselves (Wagner 2014).

[2] With similar campaigns carried out by Southerners on New Ground, Fight Toxic Prisons, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, Project South, Survived and Punished, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, La Resistencia, Covid19MutualAidSeattle, and Dignidad Inmigrante en Athens, among others (see https://freethemall4publichealth.org/ and https://www.instagram.com/covid19mutualaid/?hl=en).

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