How has the far-right used the pandemic to exacerbate racial othering and undermine democracy? What strategies can racial justice organizers use to build power and counter right-wing narratives? A panel of experts weighs in.
Phi Nguyen: Good afternoon, everyone and thank you for joining us today. Welcome to the session. This is the sixth in a series of live stream events that recognize the pivotal role that the Black Lives Matter uprising is happening on reshaping our relationship with Black lives and its profound implications for our collective future. My name is Phi Nguyen and I'm a civil rights attorney and the litigation director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta. Advancing Justice Atlanta's mission is to protect the civil rights of AAPI communities in Georgia. At Advancing Justice Atlanta, I work broadly in the areas of voting rights and immigrant justice. Today's program is called White Supremacy: Infecting the COVID-19 Response and Corrupting Democracy. Today, we will bring together academic and activist analysis on how the far right is using the COVID-19 pandemics to further the white supremacist movement and to undermine democratic institutions. Today's program is sponsored by the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley in collaboration with Inland Empowerment, We the People Michigan, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta. We are so excited that you're able to join us today, and we invite you to send us questions through the live chat throughout our conversation. But before I introduce our panelists for today, I would like to share with you a short video called a Grief Letter to COVID. It's a poem produced by the Center for Cultural Power.
Phi Nguyen: I think that that really helps to set the tone for our conversation today, but again, the poem is called a Grief Letter to COVID and it was produced by the center for cultural power. You can follow them @culturestrike on Instagram, and they work to ignite change at the intersection of art, culture and social justice and growing a movement where artists are at the heart of social change. I think I'm just as excited as you all are to hear from our panelists, but before I turn the floor over to them, I do think it's important for you to understand my connections to the conversations that we're having today. As an Asian American, I do want to explicitly call out how Trump's references to COVID-19 as the China virus has had devastate consequences on AAPI people across the country. Our businesses are down, anti-asian violence is on the rise, and our communities are frankly hurting. But as a voting rights attorney in Georgia, I do feel compelled to use this time to share with you a different aspect of my work and of my lived experiences that I think is particularly salient to our conversation that we're having today, and that has a broader impact on all communities of color. And what that is, is that I want to share with you how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the history of voter suppression in the state of Georgia. In Georgia, our elected leaders have played up the lie of voter fraud while downplaying the truth of the COVID-19 pandemic. We had record voting turnout in the 2020 presidential elections, and in the subsequent Senate runoffs in January, notwithstanding the pandemic. This was, of course, thanks first and foremost to the massive multiethnic, multiracial gears of community organizing efforts in Georgia, but the other thing that allowed our voter turnout to be as fast as it was, was the option for voters to vote safely and securely by mail. In the November 2020 election, over 1.3 million Georgians, which was roughly a third of everybody who voted, voted by mail. And just to give you context, that's more than 30 times the number of people who voted by mail in the 2016 election. The thing is the majority of voters who elected to vote by mail in 2020 were voters of color, and they were voters of color who helped deliver a victory to Joe Biden. And as a direct result of that, what we're now seeing play out right now is in the Georgia legislature, which is now in session and has been in session since January, is an all-out attack on voting. Since the legislative session started in January, there have been more than 70 voter suppression bills introduced, and the most egregious of those bills are ones that propose to gut voting by mail, even while we are in the middle of a pandemic still. And in Georgia, we are no strangers to anti-voting laws. We fight them at our state capitol every year, but what does feel different about this year and what is more remarkable about this session is the way in which the pandemic has enabled our lawmakers to make cuts to our voting rights with far less transparency and far less public input.
Phi Nguyen: And that's because people have to decide right now what's more important. Is it more important for people to march down to our state capitol to speak out against the threat of white supremacy, or is it more important for them to shelter in their house to protect themselves and their families and loved ones and our society at large against the threat of COVID-19. And here's the other thing. The lawmakers who are pushing for these restrictions to voting are all doing this in the name of election integrity, even though there was absolutely no evidence of any widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election, and that was widely investigated in Georgia and we had two different recounts. On the other hand, what we have seen and what we do know and what the evidence bears out is that over half a million Americans and nearly 17,000 Georgians have died from COVID-19, and yet, in our state, our bars and our gyms are open; our governor has refused throughout the pandemic to implement a mask mandate, and famously, there's a Congresswoman from our state who refused to put on a mask that was offered to her by a colleague when she was locked down during the January 6th insurrection at the federal capitol. And so I think all of that is important to bear in mind as we turn to this conversation with our panelists and the first person that I actually want to introduce to sort of set the context and give an overview of what we're talking about today is Denise Herd. Denise Herd is the OBI's associate director and a professor of public health at UC Berkeley. Her scholarship centers on racialized disparities in health outcomes, spanning topics as varied as images of drugs and violence in rap music, drinking and drug use patterns, social movements, and the impact of corporate targeting and marketing on popular culture among African American youth. And in honor of Women's History Month, I asked each of the panelists to name a woman that they would like to thank or that they admire and Denise would like to thank her mother, and she admires in her mother her spirit of perseverance and optimism, despite challenges. So welcome, Denise. So excited to have you here and to be in conversation with you. My first question for you is Donald Trump, as well as the far right pundits and political actors, not only fomented insurrection January 6th; they've also been science deniers, have promoted racist conspiracy theories about COVID-19, fomented violence against Asian people, defied masking mandates and have suggested that the pandemic is a hoax. Can you take some time to give us an overview of how the right wing movement has used the COVID-19 pandemic as an organizing issue to further their larger agenda of white supremacy?
Denise Herd: Okay. Thank you so much, Phi, for that wonderful introduction and for your comments, because I think they're really important and I'm very happy to be here and be a part of this conversation. So the answer to your question, first of all, I think as opposed to a unified right wing movement, I think there are a variety of different kinds of groups involved in the movement, including conservative Republicans and Trump supporters like Betsy DeVos. But there are also some extreme right wing activists like the Proud Boys, the OathKeepers, the Boogaloos who we saw in the expect capitol on January 6th. And some of these groups began to organize protests against COVID-19 public health measures in the first month of the pandemic, and some of their stated goals of these groups were to resist public safety measures as an infringement on their constitutional rights. The Second Amendment, defenders of the Second Amendment, gun owners are sort of a paradigm of that kind of model. However, implicitly, the protests also provided a platform for right wing activists known as accelerants who want to use these protests to create massive social disruption, a civil war, race war, that would help to destroy the present society with the expectation that a new society would form, allowing members to enjoy the white privilege and dominance, you know, that they hope to recapture by belonging to these groups. And so, for example, the protests against Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan on April 30th was a prime example of this kind of protest. So they were carrying gun rifles, confederate flags and nooses and stormed the state capitol, and the protesters compared Whitmer to Adolf Hitler, they showed nooses and some of their signs said "tyrants get the rope." So you know, in addition, commentators have suggested that the perception that was emerging during those months, that COVID-19 was going to primarily hit people of color, helped fuel these movements. You know, people have looked at the fact that these protests were very White and that they came about as the news that these major health inequities and disparities, and so Black, brown and indigenous people were getting hit hardest. And so people were aware that ending lockdowns was going to cause more infections and deaths, but they didn't feel that they were going to pay the price. Conservative billionaires also helped support these movements and provided them with resources. So this kind of specter of white supremacy, militarism, violence against elected officials was evident in protests across the country. This wasn't confined to Michigan. Illinois, Wisconsin, Mississippi, a number of places around the country, and these protests and the online spaces where right wing groups would mingle provided avenues for cross-pollinization of ideas, for radicalizing and recruiting new members. So, for example, there were 962 new right wing Facebook groups protesting COVID-19 stay-at-home orders between May and August of 2020 with up to 3 million members. So this is a vast movement. So as somebody in public health watching this, being incredibly concerned about what was going to happen to our country, what was happening to people of color, it was just amazing to see the kind of -- these kinds of fringe policies influencing national policy and our national response to COVID. And so I began asking myself what could possibly be going on? And research has been coming out in California, watching Trump's behavior during this process. What people have begun to realize is that the fringe represented by right wing activists became sort of the center of our response, our public health response coming from the White House, because in Trump's desire to get reelected, he recognized or felt that these people were going to be a very, very important base for him to be reelected. And so there was almost a dialectic between Trump and the right wing in that they helped influence some of the policies that he adopted, which refused to take COVID-19 seriously. He supported, he tweeted support for these kinds of protests. And so I think one of the critical things here is to understand how Trump's desire to be reelected with him as the head of the Republican Party and his great influence on Republican governors and legislators helped bring these kinds of protests and the ideas behind these protests and the ideology of white supremacy into the White House and diffused to the American people as one of the primary influences on the response, the U.S. response to COVID-19. And I think I'll stop there.
Denise Herd: Thank you so much for that overview, Denise. That was really helpful in setting the stage for this conversation and one of the things that you mentioned that I think is important for us to all acknowledge is that this is a diffuse movement, and it's something that's happening across our country and I identified ways in which it's playing out in Georgia. And so I do want to bring a couple of other people, our two other panelists into the conversation, to talk about how this is playing out in their regions. And so it is my pleasure to introduce y'all to our other two panelists that we have with us this evening. I'll start with Sky Allen. Sky Allen is the special projects manager for Inland Empowerment in the San Bernardino and riverside counties of Southern California. Born, raised and educated in the region, she strives to empower communities to fight for what they need by challenging institutional systems and chipping away at structural issues at the local level to change policies. In her current role, Sky fosters relationships with local government officials, partner organizations and institutions to bolster civic engagement. And I did ask Sky to name a woman she would like to thank today and she would like to thank Vero Alvarado for being an awesome mentor and friend. Vero helped Sky and she continues to show her that above all, organizing is a labor of love for your community, and that change happens from the ground up. Veronica was also Sky's guide into organizing and Sky says that she's better because of how Veronica mentored and supported her. So welcome, Sky.
Sky Allen: Thank you so much for having me. Honored to be here.
Phi Nguyen: And then the other panelist I would like to introduce is Art Reyes III, who is the founding executive director of We the People Michigan. He was born and raised in Flint, Michigan, and hails from three generations of proud UAW members. He spent much of 2016 working in Flint, responding to the water crisis, and helped launch Flint Rising. Before that, he led Michigan Voice, which is a statewide civic engagement organization. And Art would like to use his time today to honor an unsung hero of the 1937 Flint Sit-down Strike. Her name is Genora Johnson. When police gas bombed the factories and opened fire on workers, Genora Johnson who was 23 years old at the time took the mic on the sound truck and said cowards, cowards, shooting unarmed in defense of men. Women of Flint, this is your fight. Join the picket line and defend your jobs, your husbands' jobs and your children's home. She went on to found the Women Emergency Brigade which played a key role in winning the flint sit-down strike, which is one of the most important labor movement victories in history. So welcome, Art, and thank you for giving us that interesting piece of history. All right. So glad to have both of you here with us. My question for both of you and you can take it in either order, but can you tell us how the far right has used the COVID-19 pandemic and their antigovernment rhetoric to recruit followers in California and Michigan respectively? And you can take that in whatever order you would like.
Sky Allen: I can start that one. So I think when people think of California, they tend to think super progress, super blue, everything is super left there and that's kind of the predominant narrative and if you live here and if you've spent a substantial amount of time in California, you'll know that the reality is far more complex. Nothing is that simple, that black or white. The same rhetoric that fires up far right wingers, white supremacists in Georgia fires them up in Michigan, fires them up in California and everywhere in the country, especially as you come further inward in California. Things get -- ideology is quite diverse. People have lots of different opinions, lots of different beliefs and we see the same sorts of things happening in our communities, as well. One really clear example I can offer you all is that there is a petition right now to recall the governor, Governor Newsom in the State of California. And even though my region, the inland empire, San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, even though we only have 10% of the registered voters in the state, 20% of the signatures to recall the governor come from our region. So that just gives you a little bit of perspective that things are not -- ideology is not even all across the state and really radical extremism can appeal to people all over the country. A slew of antiscience folks show up to local board of supervisor meetings and spew conspiracy theories, anti-science rhetoric, and often blatant racism and bigotry against Black people, against Asian people, against people with disabilities, against people who they feel -- farmworkers, warehouse workers, the list goes on and on. There's no shortage of bigotry and racism and other isms that we see and hear and feel from our neighbors when it comes to the fear mongering and the way that they've been antagonized, especially over the past four years. The unfortunate part about that is it's not just a handful of protesters, right? The Riverside County sheriff and one of the supervisors refuses to uphold CDC guidelines, often mock them, praise people and organizations who don't follow them and openly encourage this sort of behavior to continue in the community. And they're not alone, of course. There are unfortunately other elected officials who follow suit, but those are the first two that come to mind. And it's really harmful to the majority of the community who's trying to follow the guidelines, follow the rules, trust that their government is there to protect them, even though the majority of us still do believe those things, it is still harmful to have this sort of rhetoric and action happening in our communities. I'll pass the mic to Art so he can talk about what that looks like in Michigan.
Phi Nguyen: Thank you for sharing.
Art Reyes: Thanks, guys. Can you hear me?
Phi Nguyen: I can hear you. You might have frozen.
Art Reyes: Okay. Yeah, thank you so much, Sky. Really appreciated hearing that and thank you for the introduction. So again, my name is Art Reyes. And I'm going to just share a little bit of the context. I'm in Michigan. But first, I think it's important to zoom out a little bit as we look at the context that we're in right now in a state like Michigan. So for me, my family wound up in Michigan in the 1940s and 50s as migrant workers from South Texas and for them, you know, they came to Flint for jobs in the auto factories because it represented -- it was a beacon of hope for working people. It was a place where you could come and have decent wages and be able to provide for a family and be treated with dignity. As I was growing up, my parents were in high school in the '80s and it was the beginning of a shift in Michigan, where Flint, the community of Flint went from the 1950s the highest income capita for a brief period to today, the single poorest city in the United States. When we look at the shift and some of the context that happened afterwards, particularly as we saw an onslaught of neoliberal policies that ravaged a place like Michigan, what we've seen over the past few decades is as we've seen significant economic devastation in many communities, we've also seen a corporate conservative infrastructure that seized upon that, and has really used that to amass political power and wealth. So just contextually when we look at Michigan, Michigan is one of the most segregated places in the United States. As a whole, we're between 75-80% white. Our largest city by far is the city of Detroit, which is 90 plus percent people of color, it's 80% black. And when we have communities like Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, Benton Harbor who have experienced multigenerational economic devastation, they're virtually entirely cities of color, then we have places like the Upper Peninsula, very rural part of the state which by some accounts has been in an economic recession since 1992, we've been very fertile ground for divide and conquer politics that have told some communities in pain the reason for your pain is because of other communities in pain. And so we've seen a willingness of political actors and wealthy donors, folks like you know, Denise mention earlier, Betsy De vos. They have put hundreds of millions of dollars into the State of Michigan and reshaping our politics and really doubling down on a divide and conquer politics rooted in dog-whistle racism. When we look at all the context around what's happening, you know, the kind of pretext for what we've seen in Michigan this year that has made all of our national news with white supremacists storming the Capitol, there's been kind of a long onramp for this.
Art Reyes: And there's been many political and corporate actors in the state who are complicit in this, and I think it's really important to lift that up because it didn't emerge out of nowhere, and it has also been -- it is also emerging out of a politic that has been enabling pretty extreme right wing and right nationalist policies, but also, you know, one that has allowed kind of naked austerity policies that have impacted communities like Flint where I grew up, that led to things like the Flint Water Crisis. I want to set that background context for when we come to COVID. And for me, I think it's really important just to set a little bit of the context what if this year has looked like. I want to paint a picture of a split screen for you on April 30th. On one side we had a violent foreshadow of the few dozen armed white nationalists storm our state capitol to force their way into the chambers. Men with longrifles stood in the gallery looming above our state senators, but that same day, a very different, but equally foreshadowing gathering was happening online via Zoom. Folks from all over the state held a people's telethon for eight hours. It was black and brown folks in Detroit sharing poetry, mourning loved ones they had lost that month due to the COVID crisis, it was white and native people in rural communities, undocumented people in Michigan talking about the mutual aid efforts that were happening where our people were taking care of their neighbors and community. And 21,000 people turned out online for that as we've called our elected representatives, fighting for their release of incarcerated loved ones who were at highest risk of getting COVID. On one side, you saw a violent racist backlash and that predominated. The other story, working class people fighting for their communities and for each other. We'll have more room to talk about that, but I think it's really important to not overblow the broadness of what these kind of very dangerous, increasingly violent white nationalist fringes that we have in a place like Michigan, that have been here long-standing, for example, as many folks know had an attempt to kidnap and execute our governor thwarted several months ago, over the summer. But what we've also seen is the emergence of really strong, really committed multiracial working class organizing is actually showing up and countering that -- (Audio choppy) We should not give the folks who stormed the capitol with guns more credit than the organizers who are fighting every single day in places like the upper peninsula who are standing shoulder to shoulder with our folks, Flint and granite and Detroit and Kalamazoo and all over the place.
Phi Nguyen: Thank you so much for sharing, and I think you both made such important points, including the point that you made that this has been a long time coming and the COVID-19 pandemic has just ignited something that was already brewing and both of you sort of raised the point that we have political leaders in every state I think who are enabling this to happen. And Sky, I just I have to mention that as somebody who lives in Georgia and has a lot of friends in California, I do appreciate you taking a nuanced view of California and saying that it's not, you know -- everything's not rosy and progressive over there, either. All right. I do just want to encourage our audience to put in any questions that you may have in the chat. But if there are no questions right now, then I'll go ahead and move on to the next question and this question is actually for all of the panelists. And I'll -- I think I'll start first with Denise. What is your take on how successful this movement is? How successful has the far right movement been in eroding our confidence in science and government and impeding the response to COVID-19 and the economic recovery? Let's start with Denise, and then we'll move to Sky and then end with Art for that.
Denise Herd: Thanks so much for asking that question. It's a great one. I think I'll probably talk a little bit more about health in this. Unfortunately, especially, as I said, from my vantage point as someone in public health, I think the impact on the COVID response nationally has been terrible. I mean, we have over 500,000 deaths, we have millions of people infected with COVID and, you know, I have colleagues that are physicians and people that practicing public health and it's been shocking to us that, you know, a country that supposedly as advanced as the U.S. has had this kind of experience. And, you know, so I think that we can see the success of the right wing's influence with a president who has refused to wear masks, who has served as a role model for not wearing a mask, organized and participated in superspreader events. I would say aside from being a role model, so much misinformation has been shared in social media and the conservative media and, you know, a recent study from Cornell University found that Trump was the single largest transmitter of misinformation surrounding COVID-19. And one of the researchers said the president's social media presence is the tip of an iceberg with an entire amplification ecosystem of right wing media, influencers and outright conspiracy theorists making up the bulk below. So some of the kinds of things that Trump has said and misinformation, at one point he said that children were almost immune to COVID-19. He suggested that injecting bleach or disinfectants could be used to kill COVID-19 germs. And he's repeatedly reduced the notion that COVID-19 is a serious disease and sometimes, compared it to nothing more than the flu.
Denise Herd: In addition, he minimized the role of public health experts, like Dr. Anthony Fauci in the White House, and so he removed scientific advice and counsel that could have helped guide the country in a more positive direction around COVID. And in addition, echoing some of the points that I think Sky was making, there have been numerous threats and criticisms of public health officers across the country, not only Governor Whitmer but in California alone in the first six months of the pandemic, I think there were at least six health officers around the state that left their post and there were serious death threats against the Orange County health officers. So I think to the extent that we have -- we might be anticipating our fourth surge of the virus, and we have had devastating amount of illness and death throughout the country with the majority borne by people of color. I think to that extent, the right wing has been very successful in creating public health policies that have not helped us effectively deal with coronavirus, especially given the role of the U.S. in terms of having so many resources and so much advanced medical technology.
Phi Nguyen: Thank you for that, Denise. Sky, do you want to answer the question next?
Sky Allen: Yeah, sure. I definitely have to echo a lot of what has just been shared. Again, I think this answer is a bit nuanced, as well. To start with the good news, I don't think that they have been successful in shifting public opinion, right? For the most part, people believe the science, they believe that COVID is real, they believe that we need to wear masks and they've doing those things, right? They're wearing their masks. They're keeping their distance, they're trying to stay home as much as possible, they're washing their hands, all of those things. And that matters. That makes a difference. It's important that people still believe the science and follow the science to the best of all of our ability. The other side of this, though, is that they have been successful at changing the narrative, and regardless of the best actions of the majority of us, the minority of folks who are creating this chaos and raising this havoc are keeping all of us unsafe. The actions of people to spew disinformation, to spew misinformation, to promote anti-science, anti-mask, anti-government sentiment, is making all of our communities less safe and brought us to a point in part where 500,000 of our community members are gone, right? And that's not nothing. That's really meaningful. That's really devastating, and that's a huge problem for us in the moment and in the long term to figure out how to address.
Sky Allen: For us locally in the Inland Empire, most of our local government has shielded away from following the CDC guidelines as aggressively as they may have otherwise because of the pressure that right wing folks have put on them to not be so aggressive, and, you know, the majority of organizations who were engaged were really focused on directly supporting people in need, trying to connect them with resources, trying to connect people to food banks, to unemployment insurance or new jobs, all of these other sorts of activities, and meanwhile, right wing extremists and white supremacists were just organizing hard and going to every single city council meeting, board of supervisor meeting, anything they could go to, to say this isn't real, this isn't happening, we shouldn't be wearing masks, etc. etc. And in doing so, they appealed to the most cynical and self-interested instincts of many of our elected officials and gave them an excuse to not do what the majority of us know they should be doing. And that's really dangerous and, like I said, that is violent on all of us, and it's something that we're really going to have to figure out how to address.
Phi Nguyen: Thank you, Sky. How about you, Art? Has the far right movement been successful in eroding confidence in science and impeding our government's response to COVID-19?
Art Reyes: I appreciate the question. I think when we looked it both in terms of COVID, but also in terms of the prospect of an actual real multiracial democracy, for me, I deeply believe, and I want to unequivocally say they are losing. I want to share a couple of reasons why I think that, but also, it is requisite that we're proactive and forceful in our organizing against that, because that can change. But I think you know, what I described -- what I described a bit earlier around some of these flashpoint moments, and I do think April 30th is a really critical moment for drawing out the contrast of kind of the two narratives in Michigan, particularly in 2020. One that was really driven by violent rhetoric by white nationalists that very aggressively targeted our governor and in particular, that was initially stoked by political opportunists on the right seeking to attack the governor whose political stock was rising. We saw that happening, we saw this massive multiracial response, but the multiracial response to that, that continued to play out over the course of the year. And this is why I think it's really important to unequivocally to say the right wing white nationalists are losing. One, we had record turnout in Michigan and this was not about any candidate. This is about our communities showing up at the ballot box and stating at the ballot box that black lives matter, that no human being is illegal, that water is life, not a commodity, that all of us deserve dignity especially in the midst of a global pandemic. We had right wing forces that came and very forcefully attempted to undermine the election in Michigan, driving a racist strategy that was seeking to disenfranchise black and brown folks in Detroit specifically. We were ready. We outorganized them. That thousands of people from every corner of the state, from tiny rural towns as far northwest as you can go in the state of Michigan in the upper peninsula to our biggest cities like Detroit, stood together, took action in the streets, organized their people to speak truth to elected officials. All of these things, this was really important and happening and organizers and a mass of multiracial working class people fought tooth and nail to defeat attempts to undermine our democracy that were coming from the highest office in the land and we won. We prevailed.
Art Reyes: But I think what's really important is that that's not done. The reason we had some of these victories, the reason that we're continuing to make advances in fighting COVID, the reason that we've been able to push some of these back is because we've seen working class folks, everyday folks, black, white, brown, native, newcomer, across communities coming together and organizing together. But what is really important in this moment I believe is that we are both organizing and pushing newly elected leaders to say you better actually deliver for working people, especially in the midst of a global pandemic where our people need healthcare, where they need money, where folks need wages, jobs that actually pay sustainable wages. Like newly elected folks better deliver for working people, if we want to continue winning in this and that we actually have to be holding those who are complicit in this accountable. And I want to mention one thing on this. In Michigan, during the postelection phase, where we saw an incredible amount of disinformation coming at us. We saw an incredible amount of threats of violence directed at our organizers, our people all over the state, when our people prevailed, stood together, showed up over and over and over again until we won and we were able to protect the results of the election in that moment. There are still a lot of, a lot of elected officials that are complicit, that were spreading disinformation, that signed on to the Texas lawsuit that was attempting to disenfranchise millions of voters, that voted not to certify the election, and because of all the work that we did during the postelection period, bill action councils all over the state, there were rural communities, black and brown folks in places like Detroit and Grand Rapids and Lansing and Benton Harbor, but also in all of these rural communities across the state, those rural communities are represented by some of the folks that are complicit, and so right now, there's an effort called Defund Bergman that a number of rural organizers in northern Michigan who are represented by Jack bergmen who continues to spread disinformation, we've seen some of these folks in some of these communities completely entrenched and if they're not held accountable, and not demanding actual bold action that delivers for working class people, but also holding people accountable who were complicit in that, then the wave of some of the white nationalism, of rising fascism, that tide will return, and it's our duty to continue combating that and the way that we do that is by organizing, by continuing to build the multiracial democracy that this country has never yet realized, but I believe deeply is possible if our communities are continuing to drive that work.
Phi Nguyen: Thank you for that, Art, and I think Denise wanted to respond to you.
Denise Herd: (Muted) I definitely agree with you that we have not lost, that, in fact -- I know there's a lot of grassroots organizing and, in fact, I think that's where the strength has been. I've seen at the local level here in San Francisco community groups in the mission and in the fruit veil have been coming together and they've been demanding -- first, it was testing resources for people, because there was a claim that people wouldn't be interested in being tested. And, of course, once people formed coalitions with city government and with local medical school and they found that tons of Latinx people in the Mission were getting tested, now they're organizing around treatment, around vaccines, around social services. So I think those efforts have been really strong and I happen to have relatives both -- because I did some time in San Bernardino, I graduated from Eisenhower High School in Rialto and I've got sisters in Oklahoma. I've got families in red states and red areas and they're very aware. And we've had people countering those conservative governments and they're very aware that, you know, they need to social distance and mask and they've been upset about these orders, but -- and I do think given, as you said, the power of the people, we have new people in the White House, and so you know, I think things are starting to happen and I know we get a chance to talk about that a little bit more, but I'm just thinking about in terms of the influence of the right wing primarily because it became orchestrated through the White House, and had had an enormous impact on public health.
Denise Herd: And much more impact than I think it would have had otherwise and so I think that's my point is that when you get you know, the leader of the Republican party, supposedly the leader of one of the most important countries in the world, who does not model what you need to do to contain the pandemic like this, that you end up with a death toll that didn't need to happen. You end up with massive levels of infection. And in this area, we've suffered some severe economic crises. I mean, unhoused people, unemployment and things like that. So I don't want to diminish the real, important truths you're talking about, but, you know, just from the standpoint of, you know, what other countries where there wasn't science denial, where there was immediate recognition that -- that people need to mask up. And that greatly diminished the health and the economic toll, the toll on the country. So that was just my point. And I certainly didn't want to imply that we don't have a lot of fire and we don't have a lot of -- there's not a lot of organizing because I think the organizing is what's helped communities of color because we have been left out of the broader -- we've been left out of the health system in so many different ways that if it weren't for the community organizations, the churches that have been really central to this effort, that things would have been even worse. So I just wanted to clarify that.
Phi Nguyen: Thank you, Denise. And I think you're both making excellent points. And I think the other thing I would say, sort of in response to what Art brought up is we're not losing, and I think that's part of why we are seeing this surge in white supremacy, because I don't mean to put this crudely, but one of my friends and colleagues and a fellow social justice advocate in Georgia on the issue of voter is suppression, she said to me one time, we're winning and you see it because a dying donkey kicks the hardest. And so I think that's why we are seeing in Georgia our state elected officials going very hard in trying to undermine democracy and challenging and trying to delegitimize the election results and tamp down on people's voting rights because they are losing, and it's a fight for power. I think I would love to hear a question from the audience if we have any. All right. We have a question from Kim Clark. And the question is: What were the demographics of the vaccine trials? Do we know what percentage of those part of the trials were people of color, or was supremacy present there, too? Thank you for the question, Kim, and do any of our panelists want to volunteer to take that question?
Denise Herd: You know, Sky, I can just say something, I heard one of the professors in our schools that works on infectious disease and I don't know about the racial composition. I think when you're looking at something like the vaccine trial, they were mostly looking at gender and age, those were the primary criteria, because, you know, biologically, there shouldn't be differences in how the vaccine would react. So I think those were the two main categories, but am not at all sure.
Phi Nguyen: All right. It looks like we have another question from Kinji Ridley. Kinji asks how do you all think misinformation about COVID and relaxed mask mandates are going to affect the roll-out of the vaccine in the future? And anybody --
Sky Allen: I guess I can start that and my colleagues can add to it, if there's things that I miss, but I think at least what I'm seeing in my community so far is there are people who still feel a type of way about the vaccine, aren't trustful of it for a variety of different reasons potentially and maybe aren't interested in signing up immediately. But a majority of the community is really anxious to get vaccinated and to be able to quote/unquote "go back to normal" and resume some sort of normalcy and not have the fear of the pandemic weighing on them as it has been for the past year. So at this point, the demand for the vaccine far exceeds the supply, and that's going to remain the same for the next couple of months, so I don't know that misinformation about maybe the vaccine in particular is going to change the roll-out of the vaccine, because what we've been seeing so far is people are really eager to get it. As the vaccine covers more and more people, we may get to a point where it's harder to reach that quote/unquote herd immunity level, because if we don't reach a certain amount of people who do sign up, and that's a problem for later if we get to that point, but in terms of mask mandates, I think that's similar to what we've already been experiencing the past year.
Sky Allen: We already have some exposure to what that looks like. The response from our elected officials is, unfortunately, quite varied among different elected officials and different levels of government have different responses to how to enforce CDC guidelines in their community, whether it be their city, county, state, etc. And I think the people who are following the science, who have been watching articles or news, as much as information they can get over the past two years, will wear a mask as long as leaders like Dr. Fauci and other leaders continue to say wear a mask even if you're vaccinated to protect your community. And we're just going to do the best that we can to share the proper information and people will respond to that as they can and we will continue to push our elected officials to reflect us in the best way possible. So that's how I would think to address the question.
Phi Nguyen: Thank you, Sky. And I do actually want to move us on to the next question, because I think that something in Sky's response sort of gets us heading down this direction. We know that institutions of medical science and the government have at times in our past and currently extremely abusive with women of color, the Black community, indigenous communities and other communities of color, and that can undermine trust in things like the vaccine. And so what I want to ask the panelists are what are some of the challenges that you've encountered related to this in your effort to galvanize the racial justice movement and how successful have you been in addressing some of these challenges within communities of color? And let's start first maybe with Art.
Art Reyes: Okay. Can you hear me? Having a little bit of audio issues.
Phi Nguyen: I can hear you.
Art Reyes: Okay. You can hear me, okay. So I was having a little bit of trouble -- the audio was choppy when you were asking the question so I'm going to pick up what pieces of it I caught, and then maybe someone else -- and I'm happy to loop back. I just missed it. I think for us, most fundamentally, there are significant issues of trust that we actually have to be rebuilding very deeply in our communities. I know that very, very deeply coming from a place like Flint, where, you know, public trust was broken in a very devastating way, and so it's actually really important. We're working very deliberately to rebuild trust within our communities but the other side of that is accountability and actually making sure that we have institutions that are acting in the best interests of our communities and quite frankly, for many, many, many years, they have not been.
Art Reyes: We've seen massive disinvestment in our public health infrastructure. We've seen massive disinvestment particularly within communities of color, but not just within communities of color. So as we've seen a lot of the erosion of our ability -- our ability to care for the public, there's been narratives that have been able to seize upon that, pitting our communities against one another, further eroding that trust. So I think right now in this moment, what is really critical is that we're focusing on rebuilding trust through a lens of power and it is actually important that multiracial working class communities that marginalized communities are actively building power to make demands on our institutions to actually serve us, particularly for folks that are in government right now. So yeah, I hope that captured at least part of your question. Apologies for my Internet issues.
Phi Nguyen: That's okay. Thank you for your response and Denise, do you want take this question next? I'm happy to repeat it if you need me to.
Denise Herd: Sure. Thanks, Phi. I want to agree with Art. Certainly, those atrocities in the past, including Tuskegee and sterilization abuse and so forth influence people's perceptions about institutions, but I think he really hit a very important point when he said that trust needs to be rebuilt and there needs to be accountability and through the public health, through medicine, so I would agree with that. And I would add that, you know, I think one of the issues for me is people want to talk about vaccine quote hesitancy and not mistrust, but to say that that -- that's the main impediment to people getting vaccinated, and I don't think that that's main reason we're not seeing equity in terms of vaccination rates.
Denise Herd: For one thing, there's some research that just came out showing that White Republicans are much more likely to be "vaccine hesitant," like 56% of those surveyed compared to 31% of African Americans expressed, you know, concerns about getting the vaccine. But the other thing is that vaccine equity is a part of healthcare equity and for many reasons, we know that people of color are not experiencing the same levels and if you look at something like what determines who's getting the vaccine, people that are employed with good jobs with insurance that can take time off from work to go get the vaccine or stay for hours on the Internet. There's less digital access and so forth. That's the nexus of factors that have long contributed to health inequities and shaping access to the vaccines right now.
Phi Nguyen: I really appreciate that response, Denise. Are there any ways that you've been trying to address that inequity in your work?
Denise Herd: Well, you know, the media has been really interested in vaccine hesitancy and I've done maybe three or four interviews about that, and I, of course -- for many of us working in this field, these are not new issues and we understood there was going to be equity access issues around the vaccines. So I think through talking with the media and trying to help them to reframe the issue and trying to help them understand why it is that, you know, Whites are two to three times more likely to get vaccinated, even when vaccine centers have been set up in communities of color, they're flooded with Whites coming in taking up vaccination spots. I would say that's the kind of work I'm trying to do primarily with the media.
Phi Nguyen: That's important, really important work to be doing, I think just reclaiming that narrative. Sky, do you want to address this issue?
Sky Allen: Sure, absolutely. And I think what Denise brought is up is really important. The conversation around false narratives and the conversation about failing institutions are kind of two separate things. Not always, but in the way that we're talking about it in this moment, in this way. They're slightly separate, right, and I think it's important to separate those things out a little bit. The conversation around false narratives really ties a lot into the deliberate disinformation that we were talking about before, and the push for anti-mask, anti-science, saying COVID is a hoax and all of those sorts of things, that's kind of more disinformation that we can clearly identify and point out as deliberate bad actors. Institutions failing our communities, that's a much broader issue. That's a much deeper issue. That's a much longer issue, but we know that when we talk with our communities that the same people who were failed by the institutions in the past in the ways that have been mentioned before are also the people that are disproportionately impacted by COVID right now. So there is this balance of maybe there is some hesitancy potentially around a vaccine that was fairly new that people don't have a ton of information about generally speaking, but there's also direct harm and violence from a pandemic that has taken away so many of our loved ones and has kept us from being safe at work or being able to go to work in our normal capacities and do their daily living sorts of activities, and I think because of all of those factors, the vaccine hesitancy as was just raised is less of an issue than the deliberate disinformation campaign that's been happening simultaneously.
Sky Allen: So in terms of, you know, what we're doing about it at the local level is focused on the logistics of the moment. Last year was focusing on how do we protect our communities that are impacted, disproportionately or otherwise, right? How do we ensure that those people have food on the table? How do we assure that they don't lose their jobs or homes are able to pay for the things that they need to pay for should they lose their jobs. How do we support them to get access to hand sanitizer and masks and the like? Now, it's about how do we work with our public health to try to make the logistics more equitable so people in marginalized communities, in disproportionately affected communities, get equitable access to the vaccine as people with resources and money and power. And addressing those things, direct communication and trying to figure out the logistics and support that work. It's serving as the trusted messenger with the community and saying that we can trust this and this is what the research is, this is what the science is, this is what we know, and let's learn about these things together. Let's explore all of these things together and bring community with you as you're going through this process. And it's constantly learning, right? In the beginning, we really focused, like I said, on the logistics of it and kind of ignored the disinformation and a year into this, we realized that you can't just ignore it. It's been there. It's only growing. We have to tackle it head on and push correct information and actively work to steer people away from the active disinformation campaigns that are happening, but regardless, really focusing on the equity indicators and the logistical pieces of doing the work to ensure that things are equitable moving forward.
Phi Nguyen: Thank you, Sky and thank you, both of you, for really addressing the issue of vaccine inequity in a way that really highlights all of the factors that are at play there, and that aren't because of hesitancy within communities of color. Why don't we turn to the audience and see if they have any questions for you all. All right. We have one question. What interventions are you all looking towards to address how the right misinforms and radicalizes online specifically? Whether it's policy or community defense, education, or other solutions. And let's start with Denise.
Denise Herd: You put me on the spot, Phi.
Phi Nguyen: I can switch if you want.
Denise Herd: I think it's a great question. And yeah, I think it's a really good question. You know, I think our change in the White House, I think that having, you know, some of the social media channels are being much more careful in what kind of information they're allowing to be publicized through their channels is going to help, but I think this is something that definitely needs to be dealt with and I would be interested to hear what Sky and Art have to say about this.
Phi Nguyen: Let's hear from them. Sky?
Sky Allen: Sure. Like I said, we're still being students in this, right? And trying to learn from our community and learn from online platforms of what's working and what isn't, but really experimenting and pushing folks online, where they are, in Facebook groups, on Twitter, on Instagram, and posting not just factual information in terms of graphics and infographics and things of that nature, but really talk about communal responses to the vaccine right? Saying in the Inland Empire, we look out for our community and I wear a mask to ensure you're as safe as I am. How do we make this issue that wasn't supposed to be political, how do we make it personal again, about you, me, our neighborhood, our community, protecting each other and what that requires and what that looks like and can we chip away at the fear mongering and the extremism and the polarization that has come out of the COVID conversation and just making it about you, me, our community and protecting one another. How can we do that through video, pictures, how can we do that through graphics? What works, what doesn't? Can we push that out there, can we share it as much as possible and can we start chipping away at the ways that the extremism and radicalization has happened online? Especially since that's one of the safest ways that we can experiment right now when it's still not entirely safe to be out in the public doing that.
Art Reyes: I was going to build on that. I really appreciate that, Sky. I think that ultimately, the solutions to this have to be rooted within our communities, and I think for me, a really important principle and something for us right now is the antidote to information isn't more information, it's relationship. It's relationship and also making sure that we're explicitly building multiracial democracy. So I think for us as we saw, one of the kind of interventions specifically to your question Emmet, we just got up and running in 2020 a program in rural and suburban counties. It was about having real, honest, long-form conversations with people that were seeking to begin an opening for a relationship, that were beginning to get a sense of how people were doing, what was going on in their community, and really beginning to actually establish an emotional connection with people. And that's really important how we combat disinformation. Disinformation that we've seen move incredibly rapidly, it's been really, really hard to combat, but the best way to do that is to actually be making sure that we're rebuilding a sense of public, that we're rebuilding civil society and rebuilding some of the connections within our communities within this area to be moving forward. I think for us, it's been incredibly important that we're really focusing on targeting some of the communities that are susceptible to disinformation and making sure that we're building relationships and also quite frankly, that we are -- that we're seeing really explicit about race and about class. I think that that is incredibly important as we continue to do the work, particularly in places like Michigan.
Phi Nguyen: Thank you for the question and I'm actually going to -- sorry to put you on the spot a little bit, Art, but I do have a follow-up question to your answer, which is how do we build relationship right now when many of us are isolated and are not able to organize in the traditional ways that we're able to? How do we build relationship in this moment?
Art Reyes: Yeah, I appreciate that question. I think it's a really important one. So look I think for us what that looked like in a number of cases. A deep canvass program we ended up doing over the phone, making phone calls with people who actually in the midst of the pandemic were actually really willing to have conversations with people that were asking real questions and that were actually concerned about their wellbeing. That was really important. And the other thing that's really important, especially for the organizers out there. In my opinion, there is kind of a consultant class that has attempted to dominate the digital space, right? That by digital, what digital organizing means is spending a lot of money on consultants and paid ads that can microtarget our communities. But what is really important is that we're actually seeing digital as a realm. It's a space that our people are, and we need to actually be meeting our people where they're at and same, as we would be organizing, actually beginning to build relationships with people as human beings, as agents, as people who care deeply about their family and community and not just as data points.
Art Reyes: And for me, this is really important because we've seen, you know, for us, you know, with -- an amazing organization that focuses a lot on digital organization, in Michigan we ended up building digital squads during the period of really heightened disinformation in Michigan around the election. And what that was focused on, actually focusing on your networks, your relationships, what are the stories that people need to be told? How are we building the connections with people individually and moving them where there is relationships, where there's human connection and where we can be building those in that space, as opposed to the kind of broad blanket that I think quite frankly, from my perspective has plagued the kind of civic engagement space more broadly in progressive circles, that it's treating our people like data points, like bodies, like numbers. And so it is really important that we're focusing on engaging our people as people wherever they are. And right now, particularly in the context of the pandemic, our people are online and it's important that we've been finding spaces to do the story work necessary, do the one-on-one work that's necessary and actually a whole lot of potential for us to be doing in that very real ways.
Phi Nguyen: Thank you, Art. All right. I do have another question for our panelists here. This is my last question for you all, and then if we have time, maybe we can take another question from the audience. But my question to you is under the Biden-Harris administration, what are the hopeful signs and the new challenges we face in ensuring a racially just response to the pandemic and an expanded democracy? Do anybody want to go first so I'm not putting people on the spot?
Sky Allen: I'm happy to start that one. I think I would say -- kind of break it up into two ways for me personally. I would say that symbolism matters, but policy matters more, right? And that would be kind of like my short response to it. I'm really excited that we now have leadership in the White House that doesn't fuel the flames of white supremacy, and that has a strategy around COVID, around many of the other issues that we care about and are dedicated to. As a Black woman, it matters to me that a lot of people in federal government now look like me that didn't before. And that speak to people that look like me and people that don't look like me openly and as honestly, as they can and as often as they can. I think that really matters. And I also think it matters that they give platitudes in speeches that are progressive, that did speak to the needs of our communities, that are community driven and that's really important. That's really meaningful. However, as I said, at the beginning, policy matters more, right? It matters that not only you look like me, but that you fight for me, that you look like my neighbor, but you fight for my neighbor. We need action behind the words as well and we've only been in this place for a little over a month now, about a month and a half. I'll give it a beat to see if that policy comes to the table and is passed in ways that benefit our communities.
Sky Allen: But all of our problems weren't just created out of thin air and arose in the last four years, right? They are deep issues that were exacerbated but were born long ago. It's going to take more than one month, more than a year, it's going to take more than four years to undo all the damage over the centuries that we've existed as a country, but it's important that the people in charge take that head on and do what they can to in a month, in a year, in four years, to tackle those things to the best of their ability. Our community and organizations are expecting people to fight as hard as they're speaking about fighting and show they're committed to doing the work, as committed as we are to doing the work and protecting our communities and building a better future. That's a lot of work and I'm measuring my expectation, but I'm also really hopeful that we will achieve meaningful growth in the next couple of years because I do think the people that are now tasked with delivering that change are committed to a degree to doing it, but I do think that it's important that we continue to push and ensure that the policy matches the symbols.
Phi Nguyen: I absolutely agree. And then Art or Denise, which one of you?
Denise Herd: I'm happy to go. So I think there's an awful lot of hope echoing what Sky was saying, you know. The changes in the White House I think are tremendous, and, you know, just in Biden's first two days in office, he issued so many executive orders that are going to have a positive impact on COVID. He's requiring masks and physical distancing on federal property and transportation. Measures to improve access to care. Measures to improve the public health supply chain. There were like 13 executive orders on healthcare and COVID alone. And in addition, there's measures to improve economic relief, to help -- accepted the Paris Climate Agreement, he's joined the WHO, improvements in immigration policy. So I think there's a lot of reason to be very hopeful with even -- even though the time in office has been very limited, they've done a tremendous amount of work to do what they can with executive orders. And even more recently, Biden used his presidential power, I think it's the Defense Production Act to get two vaccine manufacturers to coordinate so that we'll have more vaccine out there. And it looks like he's going to exceed the expectations for the vaccine roll-out. So I think in terms of the pandemic itself, there's more hope for containing it now that we've got the kind of leadership in the White House that's really committed to making the pandemic a priority for the country, and it's a dramatic change from the previous messaging and policies of President Trump. So I don't think it's going to answer all problems, but it's definitely a change in the right direction and honestly, as someone in public health, I'm breathing a sigh of relief that finally, we have science advising and public health advising coming from the White House and not all the misinformation that we were exposed to in the previous information.
Phi Nguyen: Thank you, Denise, and I absolutely agree. I was just having that conversation earlier today after I read an article that we're ahead of schedule with vaccine roll-out and that we are exceeding expectations and my reflection was we could be in a very, very different place right now if the election had turned out differently. So I think there's a lot to be hopeful about. Art, do you want to answer this question?
Art Reyes: Yeah, I really appreciate that, and I think very, very hopeful on the turn-around, particularly around the pandemic, and being able to echo everything, Denise, that you just lifted up, about a complete shift from one administration to the others and the level of seriousness and competency that's happening around the COVID crisis. Now, the other thing that I do think is really important to state that speaks to both democracy and racial justice is that I think it is also incredibly important that we're pushing the administration to be very, very serious on bold action, on racial and economic justice in this moment right now. Our communities are hurting economically from this. If the administration -- I think it's incredibly important that we're really pushing for as bold of action as it possible in this moment, and I think for me, as an organizer, the other side of that is that if we're not really getting -- if working people aren't being taken care of during this, there's a real danger that all of the things that we were discussing earlier, the kind of violence, white nationalism that we're seeing, the rising fascist tendencies, those actually swell, those grow, if this administration is not able to deliver for working people. So it's not just we need it. We do. Our communities desperately need that, but it is also important for the future of our democracy that we see very real and serious, bold action to make sure that our communities are whole and are taken care of and I think it will be really important that we're continuing to push Congress, to push the Senate, to push the administration to make sure that they're actually delivering in this moment.
Phi Nguyen: Are there new challenges that you see? I think we've acknowledged what the hopeful signs are but are there particular new challenges that you see with this administration?
Denise Herd: Well, I'm worried about the fact that Trump is still perceived as the major leader of the Republican party. I mean, you know, we had a second impeachment trial because of the divided Congress, Trump was not able to be impeached, even after the debacle in the Capitol. And so I think as Art said, there's still going to have to be a lot of pressure and a lot of struggle. The Supreme Court is very conservative. All of the challenges you're talking about with respect to voting rights are still there. So I think there's signs of hope, but I don't think we can wait. I think, you know, people are still believing the election was a fraud, and I think there's still people that are hoping that in 2024, Trump will return to the White House. And so I think that we still have a lot of work to do.
Phi Nguyen: I think that's the call to action to everybody who's tuned in because we can't get complacent and we need to keep pushing forward. Well, we are almost at 6:30 so I just want to wrap up this conversation and thank you so much to everybody who joined us today and for watching and also thanks so much to our panelists for this important conversation and for everything that you contributed and all of your insight and for all the amazing work that all three of you do. Please feel free to comment wherever you're watching this live stream and stay tuned for our next panel this spring, and for more information about the program, please do visit www.riseup4justice.com. So thank you everybody for joining tonight.