Vic Mensa: What Joe Biden Owes COVID-Ravaged Black America
The musical artist and activist writes about the disturbing lessons we’ve learned from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that’s killed 546,000 Americans and counting.
The time bomb in my head ticked away as I waited with expected reluctance, not wanting but surely anticipating, for COVID to become racist. “The great equalizer,” or so it was touted by mainstream media outlets, the same dysfunctional propaganda machines that perpetuate the “good guy, bad day” narrative for homegrown white-supremacist terrorists but label Trayvon Martin a “gangsta.” And so, I waited. And then came Brooklyn. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood-esque images of police officers handing out PPE to white folks eating kale caesar salads with low carb bread crumbs on picnic blankets in Williamsburg juxtaposed with unmasked gang-unit linebackers tackling young Black men on street corners in Bed-Stuy. Two different Americas.
As the layers of facade surrounding COVID-19 shed like the skin from a king cobra, the fangs began to show, the venom to drip, the beast to bite. And like all American conflict, we found ourselves tossed in the crossfire as cannon fodder. Data emerged showing that Black, Latinx and Indigenous people were all dying disproportionately due to the pandemic. A CDC-cited study of selected U.S. states and cities showed that 34 percent of deaths were among non-Hispanic Black people, although we account for only 12 percent of the total U.S. population.
While many worked from home, brewing their morning coffee in the comfort of their kitchen, Black Americans, the ever-strained backbone of a body that rejects their existence yet could not stand without them, worked the front lines, becoming known as “essential workers.” It is a peculiar and convoluted paradox to be deemed so disposable as to be murdered with impunity by policemen in “difficult jobs,” but as soon as fire strikes and a body is needed to risk being burned, to become “essential.” Post offices, public transportation, hospitals and all manner of crucial infrastructure were manned with Black and brown men and women, and they died in droves. To create the conditions under which a community is so rife with instability that in the event of disaster they are so ripe with vulnerability, and to do so intentionally, is nothing short of an attack. The health and health care disparities experienced by communities of color made us the perfect target and ideal victim for a woefully-negligent government response to a deadly pathogen.
In Chicago, I started a program in 2018 called Street Medix to train and equip first responders in the city’s most violent neighborhoods, teaching high school students and teachers alike how to address gunshot wounds using everyday items like a T-shirt or school ID. I was inspired to create the initiative in Palestine, where I met a man from an organization in Gaza training first responders in a city under siege, where ambulances seldom came in time and access to medical treatment was substandard. I was reminded of home, where ambulance response times are exponentially longer on the South and West Sides than in the Gold Coast. For years, there was no trauma unit on the South Side at all, despite the obvious need. Gunshot victims had to be transported to the far North Side, where many arrived after it was tragically too late. The message sent to the people is familiar: your lives are not valuable. That is, of course, until a human shield is needed.
As with all of America’s most insidious offenses, the prison emerged as the belly of the beast, the heart of the death machine. Horror stories of warehouses erected for bodies in prison yards began to reach the headlines. My phone began to explode with frantic friends behind bars fearing for their lives, watching their neighbors breathe their last breath, wondering if they may be next. Just this month, prolific author and esteemed political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal reported having shortness of breath and other COVID symptoms, in addition to autoimmune conditions and a degenerative skin disease. He was “tested” and received a false negative. Only after the phones began blowing up and pressure mounted did they retest him and discover he did in fact have COVID, in addition to the condition causing his skin to deteriorate around his shackles. The prison is a microcosm for America at large: Black people are shackled to poor health care, meager education, and low-paying/high-risk jobs.
During the 2020 election, communities of color, and specifically Black Americans, put Joe Biden in power. This despite his role in our destruction with the ’94 Crime Bill and the advent of mass incarceration. Now is the time for reciprocity and results. No longer can our communities be plagued by lack of access to health care. No longer can we be plagued by police brutality with impunity. No longer can we be bait-and-switched as disposable in comfort, and essential in crisis. As I said earlier, we are the backbone of America, and when we fall, the whole body is going down with us.