Remarks delivered by Maya Schenwar (editor of Truthout and author of “Locked Down, Locked Out” and the upcoming “Prison by Any Other Name”) at the Tzedek Chicago Passover Seder, April 14, 2020.
A few months ago, which feels like a few centuries ago, Brant and I discussed the idea of me saying something at this seder about the difference between reform and liberation. I’d been writing about how popular prison reforms such as electronic monitoring, drug courts, and psychiatric institutions are actually entrenching the prison-industrial complex. I thought, what better occasion than Passover to talk about how we shouldn’t be pursuing fake liberation, and how we don’t want nicer-looking reforms that are still forms of oppression? What better occasion to affirm that we have to demand all-out freedom and stick with it?
Now, in these terrifying new times, it feels even more imperative to make vast, sweeping demands—demands that rise higher than we might think we can dream. In the midst of a worldwide plague that, in one way or another, engulfs us all, it’s time for that all-out freedom call.
What do I mean by “all-out freedom”? I’m thinking about the refrain that “no one is free while others are oppressed.” I’m thinking about Audre Lorde saying, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” The COVID-19 crisis has deeply and horribly impacted our own communities — and communities everywhere. Marginalized people have, of course, been disproportionately impacted. (Consider that approximately 70% of people who’ve died from COVID-19 in Chicago are Black.)
Right now, we are coming to understand that none of us are healthy while others are sick. As long as anyone is in peril, more will be in peril. And liberation for only some is not liberation.
Yet, in a lot of different arenas, we’ve come to accept small offerings from our political representatives and leaders—a bailout mostly geared toward banks and corporations, a slight reduction in drug prices, a few people freed from prisons, some limits on carbon emissions. We say, “Well, something is better than nothing,” even when the something is far from enough, and when the something leaves many people to die.
Even in the face of coronavirus, the health care plan of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee would leave many millions of Americans uninsured. At this moment in which all of our lives are threatened, it’s time to call for Medicare for All—and much more. We need comprehensive cost-free mental and physical health services, including treatments that go well beyond doctors and hospitals. We need to recognize that plentiful nutritious food, housing, sleep, free time, relaxation, and self-determination are also part of health and survival—and part of liberation. This is the moment to demand universal housing, universal food access, and drastically improved labor practices, which are key to building the kind of freedom that sacrifices no one.
And, at a time when unemployment is skyrocketing and the climate crisis is amplifying the effects of COVID, where is our Green New Deal? Where is our jobs guarantee, our income guarantee for those who don’t work—and our guarantee that our leaders will do everything in their power to confront the climate emergency, which is on track to kill billions? These aren’t far-off dreams or hypotheticals; they are steps that it makes sense to implement now to directly address the public health and economic crises enveloping our country.
At a time when we’re witnessing a shortage of life-saving equipment – ventilators and protective gear – we can issue a pragmatic call for the end of the war industry. In fact, we can challenge the existence of the military-industrial complex as a whole. Has there ever been a clearer moment to say no to the machinery of death, and to demand a mass shift of funds away from the Pentagon and toward public health?
It’s not a time for compromise—not a time to save some and not others.
Moses abided by this philosophy in his dealings with Pharaoh. He said to Pharaoh, “Let us go into the wilderness and worship our own God!” In response, Pharaoh proposed compromises—little reforms, fake liberations.
Pharaoh’s first compromise proposal was for the Jews to stay in Egypt, but worship their own God there. Some people might have said, “Take what you can get! Stop there, Moses! It’s better than nothing.”
But Moses declined the compromise, which was a little better than nothing—but it wasn’t freedom.
So then some plagues happened, as we know, and Moses asked again. Pharaoh scrounged up another compromise: He would let the men go off into the wilderness, but the women and children would have to stay in Egypt. Of course, women and children were groups that were more vulnerable—multiply oppressed, within the oppressed group. And in this compromise, they’d be thrown under the bus.
This compromise reminds me of the “moderate” reforms we see all over the political stage right now, reforms that modestly benefit some people, while throwing other people entirely under the bus:
For example – the proposal that a few more people can have health care, but there will still be millions and millions who are uninsured. Some would say, It’s better than nothing!
And there are the proposals to let some people with nonviolent first-time drug offenses out of prison, while millions of others will be left in cages. Some would say, It’s better than nothing!
And of course, there’s the compromise that younger people with no criminal record will temporarily not be deported, while older people and people with criminal records are condemned to deportation. Some would say, It’s better than nothing!
These are reforms that throw people away. Liberation refuses to throw anybody away.
Moses said no to the compromise, and we have to say no to the politics of disposability, too.
So then there were more plagues, and Pharaoh issued a final compromise: The Jews, including the women and children, could go into the wilderness – but they’d have to leave their animals behind. Basically, they’d have to be released from captivity with barely any resources.
There’s no freedom without some means to survive, and even thrive. A country where many millions are without health care in the middle of a pandemic is not a free country. A country in which people are starving because they’ve suddenly lost their jobs and have no safety net is not a free country. A country in which a few people are released from jails because of a pandemic, but are released into homelessness, is not a free country. In fact, a country in which people experience homelessness is not a free country.
My longtime pen pal and friend Lacino Hamilton, who is incarcerated in Michigan, wrote me a letter about the experience of the pandemic behind bars. He is hoping to be released soon: After 26 years in prison, his challenge to his conviction appears to be on the verge of being recognized. But, Lacino wrote, “I’m worried that I’ll leave here and materially my life will worsen.” He wrote, “Returning citizens are supposed to be happy with dead-end opportunities, the kind that offer only a ‘piece of a life.’ I want a whole life.”
Everyone should have a whole life. Without that, it’s not real liberation.
So, Moses said “no” to the no-animals compromise, because it was not freedom at all.
Eventually, after the most gruesome and horrifying plague of all, the one we hate to talk about, Pharaoh agreed to the whole package.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of the story. Pharaoh tried to prevent the actual implementation of the plan, necessitating some miracles from God to allow the Jews to truly leave.
Some miracles are probably necessary now, too, because the forces of power are never going to agree to full liberation. But I personally don’t think those miracles will be bestowed by a powerful God (who, to be honest, sometimes comes across in parts of the Torah as another angry dictator). I think we have to make those miracles ourselves.
What would it look like for us to create miracles, in the uniquely brutal time we’re currently living through? A couple of weeks ago, Arundhati Roy wrote a beautiful piece about the COVID-19 crisis, in which she talked about this time as one that forces us into a kind of magic. She wrote,
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
I love that passage, and it speaks to something important. I don’t think the miracle of a full-scale societal transformation that allows for the possibility of liberation will come from above. As far as I know, God cannot unilaterally snap their fingers and provide a universal health care plan or a Green New Deal, or end white supremacy or incarceration, or provide a home for every human being. We will need to grow these things. And I believe that we can, if we remember that no one is safe and healthy until everyone is safe and healthy, and that liberation cannot mean throwing anyone away.
There are many ways to take action right now to pursue liberatory goals, from mutual aid efforts that address urgent needs and build organizing infrastructure for the world we want to live in, to critical housing and labor campaigns, to racial justice movements working to release people from jails and prisons, to environmental campaigns that are drawing connections between this moment and the looming climate emergency, to the ongoing battle for Medicare for All, and much more. Brant is going to share some links in the chat for this Zoom call that will point you toward ways to get involved. These are only a smattering of the many crucial efforts currently underway.
I don’t think we need to drop horrible plagues on our enemies in order to refuse harmful compromises. Instead, we need to unite against horrible plagues – including the plagues of injustice, inequity, and mass violence – and for mass liberation.
I believe that we can enter the portal and fight for that new world, if we are prepared to do it together.
Action items (National and Chicago-Based):
* The People’s Bailout: a coalitional effort by environmental, economic, racial and health justice groups to advocate a transformative economic package in response to COVID-19.
• #FreeThePeople: a coalition of advocacy organizations who do work to support imprisoned community members across the state of Illinois.
• Physicians for a National Health Plan’s COVID-19 and Medicare for All
• National Nurses United’s broad-based Medicare for All effort.
• Chicago COVID-19 Help & Hardship Page: a mutual aid effort for direct food and housing assistance.
• Rogers Park Food Not Bombs: Saves food from the waste stream while highlighting the inequities of our society.
• Brave Space Alliance’s Crisis Food Pantry and Trans Relief Fund.
• Restore Justice Illinois: to help provide for someone being released from prison.
• Help Love & Protect: to make masks for people in women’s prisons:
• Autonomous Tenants Union: an all-volunteer organization committed to organizing for housing justice from below and to the left.
• Lift the Ban: to advocate for lifting the ban on rent control in Chicago.
• Organized Communities Against Deportations: resistance movement against deportations and the criminalization of immigrants and people of color in Chicago and surrounding areas.