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Out of crisis comes opportunity, the saying goes. For Abraham Walker, that meant moving his family from New Orleans to northern Virginia after his brother’s murder.
Mr. Walker’s sons were young, and he wanted them to attend better schools and have a life in which the loss of friends and relatives didn’t seem “normal,” writes Washington Post columnist Theresa Vargas.
Now, a few years later, a new normal has set in for everyone – at times, profoundly, not for the better. But Mr. Walker is an “aggressive optimist,” he says, and while visiting a group Facebook page recently, he was moved to ask: “What are some positive things that have happened to you because of COVID-19? For starters, I see my kids more.”
Hundreds of answers poured in, from the simple to the life-altering. “I successfully grew a tomato,” wrote one person. Another “learned to eat intuitively rather than emotionally."
Underlying a lot of the observations was a sense of privilege that comes from having a job that can be done remotely. Plenty of Americans aren’t so fortunate. But among those who are, many are giving back – including people who have recovered from the virus, as Monitor reporter Sarah Matusek recently wrote.
I’ve seen many people experience joys big and small from this sudden paradigm shift. A family on my street suddenly moved to California after proving to their employers that they could work successfully from home. A friend’s husband, who travels often, taught his daughter to ride a bike.
I’ve enjoyed my evening walks around Washington, D.C., admiring the fabulous architecture – which I hardly notice while driving – and discovering the joys of podcasts. I’ll stop there. The list is long.
The pandemic has exacerbated divides and deepened inequalities. No two individuals’ experiences are the same. But in South Africa, as anywhere, our experiences are bound by common threads: fatigue, love, uncertainty, resolve.
On the morning of July 3, 2020, South Africans woke up and began another day in lockdown – the 99th day, to be precise.
In the arid northwest, a forensic nurse woke her three boys, her heart aching that she couldn’t touch them. A store owner leaned over his counter, wondering if today would be one of the increasingly rare good days – days when people chatted, bought novelties, and didn’t count their change. The head of the country’s coronavirus task force lingered in bed a few extra minutes, relieved there was no early-morning interview or Zoom call for a change. And a single mother in Johannesburg rose to make breakfast for her daughter before heading to the only job she had left: a few hours of cleaning, for $10 a week.
Their days are all distinct in a country that is staggeringly diverse, and unequal. But together, they paint a picture of what South Africa’s president has called “the gravest crisis in the history of our democracy.” And they speak to experiences most of us have felt in the past few months, from fear to fortitude.
These are their stories.
On the morning of Friday, July 3, the 99th day of South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown, Bongani Mabuza rose before dawn to open the small corner store at the front of his property in the Johannesburg township of Katlehong.
The winter air was singed from controlled burns of the prairie that surrounded the city. And in the inky darkness outside Mr. Mabuza’s gate, the street was quiet. Before COVID-19 hit South Africa, 5 to 7 a.m. were one of his busiest times. His spaza – a local name for this type of store – served bread and Coke and hot sandwiches to a steady stream of customers in blue workmen’s overalls and security guard uniforms heading to jobs in the city.
Now, there weren’t many people who needed to be up that early. Three months into the lockdown, so many South Africans had lost their jobs that there were more people unemployed than still formally working.
For 99 days, Mr. Mabuza had charted the pandemic’s course by the purchases his customers made. On the good days, they bought candy bars and energy drinks. They paid in large bills and didn’t count the change. On those days, customers cracked jokes, whispered gossip, and didn’t ask if he knew anyone who’d died of the coronavirus.
But there weren’t many good days anymore. Now, most of the time, people came in with their eyes cast low, clutching the exact change they needed for a loaf of bread. Or they used their last few Rand to buy vouchers for a popular cell phone gambling app. That is, if they had any money left at all. Mr. Mabuza had so many customers he’d given food to on credit that he’d mostly given up hoping they’d pay him back.
By the time dawn cracked over his little shop that morning, at least 2,952 South Africans had died. Tens of thousands were sick. Millions had lost their jobs. As countries across Europe and Asia began a cautious return to normal life, South Africa’s case curve was bending in the other direction, vying with countries like the United States, Brazil, India, and Mexico on the table of the world’s worst outbreaks. The pandemic’s global centers were shifting south, toward deeply unequal countries where it pulled apart the cracks in already battered public health systems.
And yet, all around Mr. Mabuza, life continued. On the other side of town, a single mother rose to make breakfast for herself and her young daughter before heading out to a cleaning job. One hundred miles to the north, a forensic nurse woke her three boys, her heart aching as she promised herself that she wouldn’t touch them again until this crisis was over. In the coastal city of Durban, meanwhile, the head of the government’s coronavirus task force snuck a few extra minutes in bed, bracing himself against the day of Zoom meetings to come.
And in Katlehong, Mr. Mabuza stepped behind the counter of the African Accent Spaza Shop: the business he had named in defiance of the white teachers who told him he spoke English well, except for his “African accent.” He leaned forward, watching the world outside his doors come slowly to life.
Dr. Salim Abdool Karim had always been an early riser, and also a night owl. His ability to get through the day on four hours of sleep had served him well as a med student and a young scientist. It had been useful as a young father and as an AIDS researcher, and it was particularly helpful now, as he tried to figure out how South Africa would survive what the country’s president had called “the gravest crisis in the history of our democracy.”
But on the morning of July 3, the chair of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID19 – the man dubbed “South Africa’s Dr. Fauci” – had a rare reprieve. No early morning interview with a radio talk show host or morning news show. So at 6 a.m. he decided to linger in bed a few extra minutes, covers pulled tight against the chilly Durban morning.
Like nearly everywhere in the world, the previous 98 days had been grueling. In late March, with case numbers still in the triple digits, the country had begun one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, which forbade even outdoor exercise and the sale of tobacco and alcohol.
That bought time, but it also created new catastrophes. Families struggled to eat. Women couldn’t escape their abusers. Police and soldiers meted out violence on people who violated the lockdown rules.
Now, three months in, the lockdown had eased but there were new crises. Journalists, ministers, even the president, grilled Dr. Karim about them on nearly a daily basis.
When would the days-long backlog of coronavirus tests be cleared? Was public transportation safe? When would the peak arrive?
They all seemed to boil down to one thing: When will life be normal again?
It was a question Dr. Karim wanted an answer to as much as anyone. South Africa’s lockdown had been only five days old when, on March 31, he had first lost someone to the disease.
“When I went to see her in the hospital, they wouldn’t let me in. When I asked to speak to her, they said she couldn’t talk because of the ventilator. And when she died, there wasn’t a funeral,” he says of his friend and colleague, the AIDS researcher Gita Ramjee. “That’s when I realized that this disease doesn’t only kill, it kills in a way that doesn’t allow people to say goodbye, or to grieve.”
That was the world he wanted back.
For Sindisiwe Nokulunga Maseko, the normal everyone was always asking Dr. Karim about had never been easy. In the best of times, the 25-year-old single mother had pulled in around $300 USD a month from two cleaning jobs and a small government assistance check. That was just barely enough to buy groceries and pay rent – as long as no one needed medicine or new clothes that month.
But when she woke up at 7:30 on July 3, her old life felt enviable. Now, her only steady work was a cleaning gig at a community center down the road, which paid $10 a week for three two-hour shifts.
It was better than nothing. When the lockdown started, for Ms. Maseko, like the other million women in South Africa who work as housekeepers, that spelled an immediate end to her work. And because her jobs had been informal – paid under the table, in cash – she wasn’t eligible for unemployment.
“I was angry. I saw that we are going to struggle because of this thing,” she says.
This wasn’t the first time Ms. Maseko had lived on the edge. Indeed, since she’d first arrived in Johannesburg in 2014, as a 19-year-old with an infant daughter, she’d never been more than a few steps ahead of calamity.
In those first years, she’d made her tiny budget work by squatting rent-free with her sister and her sister’s two young children in a room in an abandoned house on the eastern edge of the city. It was the kind of sprawling old building that a hundred years ago might have been owned by one of the well-to-do white families who’d made their fortune in Johannesburg’s gold mining camps. Now, a new generation of the city’s fortune-seekers had crowded in, tapping an illegal electricity connection from the nearby city wires and drawing water from an outdoor tap.
Back then, Ms. Maseko did any job that came along – sweeping streets, installing electrical wiring, cleaning houses. It didn’t really matter what she was doing, as long as her girls – now there were two – had something to eat and money for school uniforms. “I want them to become doctors,” she said. “Or singers.” Or anything else, really, so long as they had a choice in the matter. She never had.
In October 2018, she and her daughters moved into a concrete room at the backyard of a nicer house. It was small and dark, and they had to cross the yard to get to the bathroom or kitchen, but it was theirs. For the first time in her life, she felt like she’d made something of herself. That she and her girls were going to be ok.
At 9:15 a.m., as Ms. Maseko was mopping the community center floor in Johannesburg, Cecilia Lamola-Larufi was trying to figure out how to manage her day’s first crisis.
In the offices of the medical charity Doctors Without Borders in the city of Rustenburg, she scrolled through her emails while her phone lit up again and again. The day before, two of the clinics in the city where she helped oversee sexual and gender-based violence units had been forced to close temporarily after several members of their staffs tested positive for COVID-19.
That worried Ms. Lamola-Larufi. In Rustenburg, a city flanked by platinum mines in South Africa’s arid northwest, an estimated one in four women had been raped. At their care centers, Ms. Lamola-Larufi’s nurses gathered the forensic evidence of those crimes, collecting fluids and documenting the crime scene mapped onto the woman’s body – purple bruises, black eyes, broken bones. But by far their most important role was something less tangible.
For many of the women who walked through their doors, Ms. Lamola-Larufi knew, this might be the only moment in the aftermath of their assault that they simply felt heard. This could be the one and only time when no one was going to ask what they were wearing, or if they had been drinking the night it happened.
“You never stop a woman who wants to talk to you from talking,” she says. “You never tell them, ‘Ok, I’ve heard enough.’”
Her team knew the statistics: Only around 8% of rape cases reported to police ended in a conviction. And nine in 10 women in Rustenburg who experienced sexual violence never reported it to police in the first place.
“The system often fails them so it’s even more important that we do not,” Ms. Lamola-Larufi told her teams. The evidence they collected, she reminded them, “gives [these women] a voice.”
But during the lockdown, that had been harder than ever. Many were simply stuck at home with their abusers, unable to find a way out. Others made it to the care center but struggled to explain what had happened. Six feet away, behind surgical masks, the nurses and social workers struggled to read the only part of the women’s faces they could see – their eyes. Had they been crying? Were they afraid?
At a distance, sometimes, it was hard to tell.
At African Accent, the morning had been busy. A rare good day, by Mr. Mabuza’s count. In early June, with the economy cratering, South Africa’s government had slackened the rules of its lockdown. Restaurants, hairdressers, and casinos reopened. People in the suburbs began to call their housekeepers and gardeners again. And so now, a month later, many Katlehong residents had been paid for the first time in a long time. By noon, so many customers had come in with large bills that Mr. Mabuza was out of change.
Yet he felt deeply uneasy. Few of the customers wore masks. He himself rarely did either. That was a hard thing to explain, he thought, unless you’d been in this part of the world as another deadly disease made its rounds: HIV.
Then, as now, the disease was a humiliation. So Mr. Mabuza had developed a theory about why almost no one in Katlehong wore a mask. It made you part of this thing that had already destroyed so many lives in your community. “How else can you show you don’t have it except to be unmasked and unbothered?” he reasoned.
Anyway, in Katlehong, a settlement of small, tidy houses and tin shacks, few people knew anyone who’d actually fallen ill. The pandemic’s worst damage had come instead from hunger, and from the police.
In the early days of the lockdown, Mr. Mabuza had watched as cops and soldiers in sand-colored fatigues marched down the street, guns swinging. “That’s how the cat and mouse game started,” he says. When they found someone on the road, there was rarely a conversation about what rule they’d broken. Instead, he saw people slammed against the ground. He listened as soldiers barked humiliating orders: 50 push-ups. Frog-hop to the end of the block.
“Normally in the township when you call the police, they take hours to come,” he says. When his own store had been robbed a few years earlier, he’d found the perpetrators before the police had the chance. So why now had they become so committed to doing their job?
“At a point, coronavirus stopped being the enemy, and instead it became the police,” he says. “People were being brutalized into staying home, and government was saying it was for their own safety. How do you make sense of that? Government knew we wouldn’t fear this unknown disease we’d never seen. So instead they made us fear the police instead.”
Mr. Mabuza had seen violence like this before, in the dying years of apartheid, as political killings – and equally brutal police reaction – gripped Katlehong. He was five years old the first time he saw a dead body lying in the road on his way home from school, not far from where his shop now stood.
He knew what the people brought to preserve order were capable of. And even now, most days, that seemed scarier than a virus.
In Durban, Dr. Karim’s day had turned, as it often did, into a parade of Zoom meetings. He met with a group of clinicians working on a reliable rapid test. Then came a Zoom call with a task force looking into virus transmission on minibuses – the cramped, rickety vans that carried most commuters to work. They were desperately important to keep the country running. And when that conversation was done, he had another about one of the most fraught questions globally – what to do about schools.
That problem, like every other he faced related to COVID-19, stood at the intersection of public health and social justice: The kids most at risk from COVID-19 were also the most at risk of falling behind in their education.
That was how it almost always went with epidemics. Like AIDS or measles or any of the other infectious diseases Dr. Karim had studied in his life, the coronavirus itself did not discriminate. But the society it entered did.
He’d known that since he was a child, growing up in an Indian township wedged between a middle-class white suburb and a rundown African one on the edge of Durban. And it was underscored when he arrived, in 1978, at South Africa’s only medical school for “non-white” doctors.
“As soon as you got there, you got roped into the struggle against apartheid,” Dr. Karim says. “We were out at 3 a.m. painting ‘FREE MANDELA’ on bridges before our lectures.”
When he graduated, Dr. Karim went into medical research. And his studies solidified a basic truth of apartheid South Africa: to be Black and poor was, very often, a death sentence.
“The experience of growing up under apartheid is inextricably linked to my choice to become a doctor, and all of the work I have done since,” he says.
Health was justice. Justice required good health. And as the sun slunk low, Dr. Karim clicked “leave meeting” on his final Zoom call of the day, and prepared at last to head home.
“Did you do your school work?” Ms. Maseko asked her older daughter as the sun collapsed behind the horizon, leaving Johannesburg in a chilly winter darkness. It was two days before a full moon, and it hung low and heavy in the night sky.
Since the pandemic started, 7-year-old Londiwe’s teachers had sent weekly assignments for her to complete in her workbooks. But Ms. Maseko couldn’t afford to buy her daughter those books. So she’d asked another parent to send her photos of the pages by WhatsApp, and then she copied the text and images carefully into a notebook she’d bought at the grocery store.
EDUCATION & ATTITUDE CREATE OPPORTUNITY, its cover read in bold letters.
Sometimes Ms. Maseko struggled to explain Londiwe’s assignments to her. She’d left school in tenth grade, when her family couldn’t afford the $20 to buy a new uniform. It had been so long now since she’d done math problems or memorized English grammar rules.
Anyway, Londiwe was struggling to focus. She missed her friends, she said. And she was bored of being stuck at home. Truth be told, Ms. Maseko was too.
Their concrete room felt like an igloo on winter nights, and in the main house, there was always so much noise – babies shrieking and oil frying and soap operas blaring from the small TV. Ms. Maseko preferred to be alone, watching Indian soap operas. “I didn’t finish school, so I like practicing my English,” she says. “I like the dance. I like to see another part of the world.”
Sometimes on nights like this, she imagined herself living in a house she used to clean, before the lockdown, which had so many rooms she couldn’t tidy them all in a single day. A house where she could get some quiet.
In Rustenburg, Ms. Lamola-Larufi arrived home spent. On her walk to work that morning, she had noticed a group of people loitering in a small park. They were waiting for cars to stop and ask for help with a small job – ironing, painting. When she looped back in the afternoon, many were still there, slumping dejected on the lawns and benches.
It wasn’t lost on her that she could have grown up to be one of those women. And it wasn’t lost on her that she could have grown up to be one of those walking through the doors of her centers every day.
A decade ago, her younger sister’s partner had stabbed her to death, leaving behind their daughters, ages 2 and 6 weeks.
“I’m trying to stop other people’s stories from ending like hers,” Ms. Lamola-Larufi says.
It gave her purpose to do this work, but it was also heavy, and she’d long ago learned that if she didn’t find ways to escape sometimes, it might crush her.
So her family had started a tradition. Every Saturday, she, her husband, and their three adolescent boys all picked a song. And then the five of them pushed back a couch in their living room and danced. “And we really dance,” she says. “Until our bodies are just lightness.”
On day 99, as she arrived home, she had that to look forward to.
In the coming weeks, South Africa’s case numbers would double, climbing towards a half million. The leaders of two of the most populous provinces would fall ill. At the country’s largest airport, two people would die in a shootout between police and criminals trying to steal a shipment of face masks.
But on July 3, that was all still to come. For now, Ms. Lamola-Larufi was thinking ahead, to the moment tomorrow morning when one of her three sons would hit shuffle on the family playlist, and for a moment, they would all lose track of where they were.
Portland, Oregon, looks to be the test case of a new White House policy of deploying federal officers to cities to deal with civil unrest. But the agents’ actions are raising questions about the legality of the approach.
President Donald Trump announced plans Wednesday to send hundreds of federal law enforcement agents to Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, as each city confronts a spike in crime. The move follows his deployment of federal officers to Portland, Oregon, where protests have continued since George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis.
The president dispatched more than 100 personnel from the Department of Homeland Security to Portland to protect federal buildings and monuments. Clad in camouflage and tactical gear, the agents have stood guard outside a federal courthouse, one of several federal buildings in the city vandalized in recent weeks.
Videos have also shown officers engaged in less passive acts: tear-gassing protesters, firing “less lethal” munitions at demonstrators, and using unmarked vehicles to grab protesters off the streets.
Michael Dorf, a law professor at Cornell University, explains that the government may deploy forces to protect federal property or when state officials request help to enforce state laws.
The arrests conducted by DHS agents away from federal property – and the opposition to their presence from state officials – muddy the legal picture. “There’s at least some reason to suggest that what’s happening may not be justification for execution of federal authority.”
President Donald Trump announced plans Wednesday to send hundreds of federal law enforcement agents to Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, as each city confronts a recent spike in crime. The move follows his deployment of federal officers to Portland, Oregon, where protests over racial inequality and police brutality have continued since George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.
The president’s self-styled “law and order” campaign targets cities led by “liberal Democrats” who he accuses of failing to crack down on street violence and civil unrest. Local and state officials have criticized the effort as an election-year ploy as he lags in polls behind Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
Federal statutes enable a president to deploy government forces to states under certain conditions. But the actions of agents in Portland have triggered demonstrations and litigation, raising questions among law enforcement and legal experts about what awaits Chicago, Albuquerque, and other cities that President Trump has sought to portray as lawless.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler blamed the agents for inflaming protests and called for their withdrawal. Gov. Kate Brown seconded that demand and labeled their patrolling of streets “a blatant abuse of power.” Democratic members of the state’s U.S. congressional delegation, including Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, introduced legislation to limit the role of federal forces in cities.
The president dispatched more than 100 personnel from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to Portland under an executive order he signed last month to protect federal buildings and monuments. Clad in camouflage and tactical gear, the agents have stood guard outside a federal courthouse that protesters defaced with graffiti, one of several federal buildings in the city vandalized in recent weeks.
Videos have also shown officers engaged in less passive acts: tear-gassing protesters, among them a “wall of moms” and Mayor Wheeler; beating and pepper-spraying a Navy veteran; firing “less lethal” munitions at demonstrators, leaving one man with a fractured skull; and emerging from unmarked vehicles to pull protesters off the streets and haul them away.
The state’s attorney general filed a federal lawsuit July 17 against DHS and other federal agencies that asserts the officers violated the civil rights of Oregonians by seizing and detaining them without probable cause.
Michael Dorf, a constitutional law professor at Cornell University, explains that federal law grants authority to the government to deploy its forces to protect federal property or when state officials request help to enforce state laws.
The arrests conducted by DHS agents away from federal property – and the opposition to their presence from state officials – muddy the legal picture. “There’s at least some reason to suggest that what’s happening may not be justification for execution of federal authority,” he says.
DHS officials have called the camouflage uniforms “standard” and “appropriate for any operational environment,” and further claim that the removal of name badges protects officers against potential harassment. The agency’s acting deputy secretary has described the use of unmarked vehicles by law enforcement as “so common it’s barely worth discussion.”
The agents sent to Portland belong to a “rapid deployment force” drawn from DHS agencies that include Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has aired concerns to Trump administration officials that the public will mistake federal officers for military troops because of their similar uniforms.
“We want a system where people can tell the difference,” a Pentagon spokesman told reporters Tuesday.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum on Monday asked a federal judge to impose a temporary restraining order on the agents in Portland. She argued that their lack of recognizable police uniforms, failure to identify themselves when arresting protesters, and use of unmarked vehicles make them indistinguishable from “lawless militia” or “kidnappers.”
The absence of identifying details about the officers sows confusion, according to Edward Maguire, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University, and an expert on policing protests. “If people don’t know who you are,” he says, “you’re defeating their ability to hold agents and agencies accountable.”
Agents from the FBI, DHS, and other federal law enforcement agencies will head to both cities. Their stated mission appears different from that of the officers sent to Portland, with a focus on combating violent crime and greater coordination with local officials and police.
The mayors of Chicago and Albuquerque have voiced wariness about the impending arrival of federal agents. In Chicago – where more than 400 homicides have occurred so far in 2020, an almost 50% increase from the same time last year – Mayor Lori Lightfoot told reporters that city officials “welcome actual partnership but we do not welcome dictatorship.”
Black Lives Matter and other activist groups in Chicago filed a federal lawsuit Thursday seeking an injunction against federal authorities from interfering with peaceful protests, arresting people without cause, or concealing their identity.
Activists frame the litigation as an attempt to prevent a replay of Portland. Recent events there make that concern understandable, says Dennis Kenney, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former police officer.
“We’re not used to seeing things like that in the U.S.,” he says. “Those are things we associate with places like Venezuela and Colombia.”
As movements for racial justice have rocked the country, murals have become a striking part of the protest – and healing – process. Our culture writer talked to five street artists to understand what’s prompting the revival of this political art form.
He starts painting at 5 a.m., racing against the sun. From atop his forklift crane, Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs – one of Boston’s foremost graffiti and street artists – resumes work on a multistory mural at a local school. As dawn glistens on nearby skyscrapers, the artist’s thoughts flit to his 2-year-old daughter as his spray cans rattle and spit. She inspired his mural of a young Black girl floating above the ground with wings on her sneakers.
Following the death of George Floyd, muralists have picked up aerosol cans and paintbrushes to convey a need for change. Scores of murals of Mr. Floyd, other victims of police violence, and messages and images of hope have sprung up across the country. Street artists are taking advantage of this most public of art forms to beautify drab urban spaces and touch hearts.
The Monitor reached out to five professional street artists to hear their stories. They paint in different locales and approach murals from different art traditions. But what they share is a mission to counter racism and denounce police violence by presenting affirmative images of Black people.
Says Sami Wakim, who runs the Street Art United States website, “It’s a voice for the voiceless.”
Street artists often paint on walls in order to tear them down.
Following the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests, muralists have picked up aerosol cans and paintbrushes to convey a need for change. Dozens upon dozens of murals of Mr. Floyd and other victims of police violence have sprung up on walls across the United States. Street artists are taking advantage of the immediacy of this most public of art forms to beautify drab urban spaces and reach the hearts of viewers.
They’re also continuing a rich artistic tradition of muralists who’ve used outdoor canvases to convey political messages. During the New Deal, for instance, Diego Rivera’s murals highlighted the toil of industrial workers. But it was the arrival of spray cans that truly democratized street art and empowered a young generation to express itself. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the burgeoning punk and hip-hop scenes in Philadelphia and New York spurred teenagers to both deface and decorate subway trains and urban spaces with stylized slogans and signatures. Elegant forms of stylized graffiti, the progenitor of street art, started to emerge from spray paint scribbles.
“This is an art form that was started by Black and brown and Latinx teenagers in their marginalized communities because of the injustices that they’re facing and because that was their outlet and their voice,” says Liza Quiñonez, founder of Murals for the Movement, an initiative to rebuild communities in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles with uplifting murals by Black and other minority artists.
Long before Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring hung pieces of art in ritzy galleries to decry racism and the devastation of AIDS, they were street artists. Mr. Haring’s 1986 anti-drug mural, “Crack Is Wack,” in East Harlem remains New York’s most famous mural. More recently, the likes of Shepard Fairey (most famous for his Barack Obama “Hope” poster) and the mysterious Banksy (most famous for his playful pranks) have become global icons through their Instagram-shareable street art that advocates for social justice and other causes.
Not all street art is political, of course. Subjects range from the prosaic (portraits, landscapes, animals) to the imaginative (surrealist trompe l’oeil optical illusions whose meanings are as elliptical as Salvador Dalí’s mustache). But the global art form remains a visible form of public protest in places such as Mexico City, Beirut, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Santiago, and cities across America.
“All these different movements are quite specific in their political concerns, but I do feel that it’s fair to put them under one political umbrella, which is artists are looking for an audience, eyeballs, really, when it comes to drawing more attention to their political concerns,” says Liz Munsell, co-curator of a new exhibition, “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. “Artists throughout history have been at the forefront of introducing very progressive social ideas into society and paving the path towards normalizing them.”
“It’s a voice for the voiceless,” adds Sami Wakim, who runs the Street Art United States website, a hub dedicated to worldwide murals that instill a sense of hope, as well as history, through creative expression.
The Monitor reached out to five professional street artists to hear their stories. Reliant upon commissions, grants, and sponsorship from nonprofits and businesses, they approach murals from different art traditions (several of them employ graffiti nicknames). But what they share is that they’re using murals to counter racism and denounce police violence by presenting affirmative images of Black people.
He starts painting at 5 a.m., racing against the sun. From atop his forklift crane, Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs – one of Boston’s foremost graffiti and street artists – resumes work on a multistory mural at the Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. As dawn glistens on nearby skyscrapers, he observes nature’s daily shift change as bats cede the sky to birds. The artist’s thoughts flit to his 2-year-old daughter as his spray cans rattle and spit. She inspired his mural of a young Black girl floating above the ground with wings on her sneakers.
Mr. Gibbs says the message of the mural is, “The future is in our children. Regardless of your culture. If you are a child to this world, you are contributing to a better future.”
He believes that the timing of the image coincides with the Black Lives Matter protests.
“I know a higher power is playing into everything we do,” the veteran graffiti artist says later, sweat beading on his forehead during a midmorning break. “I’m here to give a positive balance. Not to say I’m not hearing what’s happening or that I don’t have an opinion, but while the young people are speaking, I’m just letting them know, ‘Yo, I hear you.’”
Mr. Gibbs, an artist-in-residence at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, co-founded Artists for Humanity, a studio to mentor young artists, most of whom are minorities. Today, an art class of teens hovers near the mural as Mr. Gibbs tops up a paint canister and dons a respirator that looks like the bottom half of Darth Vader’s mask.
“If you’re giving the youth the ability to open their mouth to say something and it’s on a platform to be seen and heard? Let’s go man,” says Mr. Gibbs. “Let’s lean into these conversations. Let’s see if we can do better if we just teach each other to do better.”
In Denver, Thomas “Detour” Evans sees canvases where ordinary people see impassive hunks of stone, brick, and concrete.
“I saw a wall and it spoke to me and said it needs a George Floyd on there,” says Mr. Evans, who branched out from ambitious art museum exhibitions built around his paintings to street art in 2015.
Once he’d received permission to paint the surface from the building’s owner, his friend Hiero Veiga came over to help. Mr. Evans created the lower part of Mr. Floyd’s face, rendering it with impressionistic color. Mr. Veiga, a distinguished graffiti writer, muralist, and fine artist, painted a more realistic skin tone. The effect was to make it seem as if life was being breathed back into the body.
Soon after, the pair were offered spaces to memorialize two other people who died recently from police violence, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain. Mr. Evans calls the series a “Spray Their Name” campaign. Like all street artists, he shares his work on Instagram.
“We are visual historians of what is happening today,” says the artist, who is the subject of the documentary “Detour,” on Amazon Prime. “As many of the marches die down and there’s more distraction for people as things open up ... I like having that as a reminder of what’s really important.”
A strikingly different type of Black Lives Matter portrait was recently unveiled across the street from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Sophia Dawson painted a mural depicting Eric Garner, the victim of asphyxiation by a police officer, as a child. He poses smiling alongside his sister, Lisha, and his brother Emery. Titled “For Gwen,” the mural is dedicated to the mother of Mr. Garner.
“A mother’s loss of a child is a universal loss,” explains Ms. Dawson, whose long-standing activism for criminal justice reform stems from watching documentaries in college as well as her own mother’s incarceration. “I was really trying to tap into the hearts of people that don’t care and don’t see and that don’t feel, because I think they’re blinded in a way. And I’m hoping that my art will lift the veil off their faces so that they can see things the way I see it.”
Ms. Dawson, a fine artist who is entirely new to street art and using spray paint, also collaborated on a mural where she painted Mr. Floyd as an infant in the arms of his mother. In another Black Lives Matter mural in Foley Square in Manhattan, Ms. Dawson filled the “L” in the phrase with portraits of mothers whose children have been killed by police.
“I believe my gift is from God, so I use it as a form of service,” says Ms. Dawson, who teaches art classes at Rikers Island, a jail for New Yorkers, most of whom are awaiting trial. “We’re meant to bless other people, to heal other people, to liberate other people.”
Long before he went to college to become a professional designer, Cedric “Vise1” Douglas learned his craft with quick, furtive paint strokes of aerosol cans on the streets. Scanning other people’s sneakers for telltale aerosol splatter, he joined a crew in Boston and tagged walls as Fanes, a playful twist on the word “finesse.” Recognizing his talent for art was, Mr. Douglas says, akin to discovering he possessed a superpower.
“The cool thing about graffiti was it was like my second superhero outfit,” he says. “I’m Cedric Douglas by day, but at night I’m Fanes. So it was like people didn’t know who you were. But you had something that you knew you were doing that no one knew.”
Not even his own family knew about his pastime. When Mr. Douglas was arrested for elaborate artwork on a derelict basketball court, the police he’d fled from during a foot chase were far more genial than his livid mother. Compounding his mother’s ire: The Boston Globe covered the incident. Indeed, some street art is considered vandalism under the law and may be punishable with fines or imprisonment if people are caught by the police. But Mr. Douglas knew that his interest in graffiti had steered him away from worse paths. After college, he and his partner Julia Roth started their own mobile art vehicle, dubbed the Up Truck, to mentor children.
“We’d go around teaching people how to be creative,” he says. “Some of the things we do teach is spray paint, which is kind of ironic since I got arrested for using it.”
Mr. Douglas has painted many pieces protesting violence, including portraits of nine victims of the 2015 mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. For a recent art project, Mr. Douglas created yellow caution tape featuring the last words of Black people killed by police, including Mr. Garner’s “I can’t breathe.” When he handed out reels of the tape to Black Lives Matter protesters in June, the front page of The Boston Globe featured a photograph of someone holding a strip with the words “Don’t shoot.”
“A lot of the work I try to do is paint Black men and women in a positive light,” says Mr. Douglas, who was nominated for the Ad Club of Boston’s 2016 Rosoff Award for individuals changing the city through diversity and inclusion. “One of the issues we have with racism is that a lot of people have a negative perception of Black men and women. A lot of people just aren’t around a lot of different cultures. Boston is very siloed, and there’s Black neighborhoods and there’s white neighborhoods.”
For much of the coronavirus shutdown, Robert Vargas has been working on one of the world’s most ambitious – and dangerous – pieces of art. He’s been painting “Angelus,” one of the world’s largest murals, entirely freehand on the side of a 14-story Los Angeles building. Ascending two stories on the swaying scaffolding can feel like an additional 1,000 feet, says Mr. Vargas, who explains that “Angelus” celebrates ethnic diversity in an inclusive city. But when the Black Lives Matter protests came through his downtown neighborhood, the internationally known fine artist came back down to earth. He watched rioting and looting break out while standing in front of another of his murals, “Our Lady of DTLA.”
Days later, when the ransacked Starbucks across the street from him erected wooden boards to cover its broken windows, Mr. Vargas saw an opportunity to turn a “black eye for our community and a bit of an eyesore” into a positive message. He used the planks as a canvas to paint the word “Justice.” The word is split into two. Mr. Floyd’s eyes sit between the two fragments.
“The symbolism there is that he is the bridge to justice,” says Mr. Vargas. “What I wanted to do was create something that would, of course, show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, but also be able to create an image that would show that we are a resilient people.”
Mr. Vargas went even further. After observing artists painting the slogan “Black Lives Matter” in gigantic letters on streets across the country, he decided to make a statement of his own. He painted the words “Change,” “Peace,” “Unity,” and “Love” over the four crosswalks directly beneath his high-rise studio. He named the piece “Intersection of Introspection.”
“You’ll be able to take one of these roads, make a left, make a right, and then find the Black Lives Matter intersection somewhere else,” says Mr. Vargas, a fine artist in the classical tradition. “If you’re down with Black Lives Matter, then that’s the destination. If you don’t understand Black Lives Matter, then that’s the origin.”
The Holocaust was humanity’s darkest hour, yet it still contained points of light that can illuminate today’s problems.
In autumn 1941, inmates in the Warsaw Ghetto faced catastrophe. Typhus had been spreading through the Nazi ghetto throughout the summer, and, as temperatures were falling, rates were expected to skyrocket.
But mysteriously, the opposite happened. Cases suddenly plummeted, and the disease receded.
Now, a team of researchers say they know what happened. In a paper published today in the journal Science Advances, an international team of researchers describes how the inmates beat the typhus outbreak through cooperation and education. Political leaders organized lectures on cleanliness. The community practiced social distancing. And community aid groups sprang up to help distribute food and other essentials.
“It’s one of the great medical stories of all time,” says Howard Markel, the University of Michigan physician and medical historian who coined the term “flatten the curve” in relation to the novel coronavirus outbreak. “We should take heart and inspiration from the courage, bravery, and unity of doctors, nurses, and patients alike to combat an infectious foe. We need to do that today, and they did it under much more dire circumstances.”
To some witnesses, it simply didn’t make sense.
“This is really an irrational phenomenon,” wrote the Polish historian Emanuel Ringelblum, in notes found after his execution by the Gestapo. “There’s no explaining it rationally.”
It was November 1941 in the Warsaw Ghetto, the sliver of Poland’s capital that the Nazi occupying government had transformed into a squalid holding pen for the area’s Jews, Romani, and others deemed undesirable. Typhus had raged through the community all through the summer and early autumn. But then, just as infection rates were expected to have skyrocketed as winter approached, cases fell dramatically.
“I heard this from the apothecaries, and the same thing from doctors and the hospital,” Ringelblum wrote that month. “The epidemic rate has fallen some 40 per cent.”
The Warsaw Ghetto should have been an optimal site for an outbreak. More than 450,000 mostly Jewish inmates were crammed into 1.3 square miles, making for a population density between 5 and 10 times that of today’s busiest cities. Nazi authorities deliberately kept resources from entering the area, all the while using fear of disease in anti-Semitic party propaganda. Nevertheless, typhus rates in the Warsaw Ghetto were plummeting.
The only explanation, according to research published today in the journal Science Advances, is that the inmates did it themselves, by sheltering in place, promoting and enforcing hygiene, and practicing social distancing.
Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.
This remarkable story of an oppressed community rallying together to combat a public health crisis holds obvious implications for today, as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to claim thousands of lives around the world daily and debilitate national economies.
“It’s one of the great medical stories of all time,” says Howard Markel, the University of Michigan physician and medical historian who coined the term “flatten the curve” in relation to COVID-19. “We should take heart and inspiration from the courage, bravery, and unity of doctors, nurses, and patients alike to combat an infectious foe. We need to do that today, and they did it under much more dire circumstances.”
The Germans’ fear of a typhus outbreak provided an excuse for the formation of ghettos. Influenced by and promoting anti-Semitic ideas of Jews being disease-ridden, in the autumn of 1940 the Nazis forced the Jews living in Warsaw and the surrounding areas into a tiny restricted area, and sealed it off with a wall.
“The ghettos were in no way treatment, but a tool to separate the Jewish population from its surroundings, and imposed more misery on the Jews,” says Havi Dreifuss, a professor of history at the University of Tel Aviv and the head of the Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
Officially known as the Jewish Residential District in Warsaw, the ghetto was immensely crowded. The Nazi authorities blocked most food from entering the ghetto, at one point allowing at most rations of 200 calories per day. Throughout 1940 and 1941, famine killed thousands. With no money, physical energy, or a place to bury them, residents left the corpses of loved ones unburied in the streets.
Such overcrowding, filth, and poor hygiene fostered a breeding ground for typhus. Official numbers suggest that there were a total of 20,160 cases, but the researchers behind the new Science Advances paper dug into other historical reports and estimate that 80,000 to 110,000 residents were infected. They suggest that the official numbers are likely low because residents were afraid to come forward in fear of repercussions from the Nazis. Some 20,000 residents died of typhus, and many more died from hunger while suffering from the illness.
“They’re surrounded by Nazis, at best they’re going to get moved to a concentration camp, and at worst they’re going to get shot,” says Dr. Markel. “And they knew this.”
But the Nazi’s efforts to ghettoize Jews in Warsaw inadvertently created a hub of doctors. There were about 800 physicians among those imprisoned there, and many more nurses and scientists, according to Miriam Offer, author of “White Coats in the Ghetto,” which chronicles ghetto inmates’ struggle against a series of public health calamities.
This community established a health council, procured vaccines as much as they could, held public lectures on preventative health, sanitation, and hygiene, set up an underground medical school, and conducted scientific studies.
“In the Warsaw ghetto there were excellent and devoted medical experts, who tried to do what they were trained and studied for, in unbearable conditions, which, of course, endangered them as well,” says Dr. Dreifuss.
The political leaders of the Jewish Council had to do as the Germans dictated, says Dr. Offer, who teaches Holocaust studies at Western Galilee College and Tel Aviv University. But the new health council advocated for a decentralized approach to fight the epidemic. While the Nazi authorities forced draconian quarantines and mobilized punitive sanitation squads, she writes in an email to the Monitor, the health council focused on education and independent empowerment whenever possible. Cleanliness was encouraged and often enforced. Self-isolation and social distancing became basic practice and common sense. And community kitchens were set up by volunteer groups and food smugglers to help feed the starving population.
Dr. Offer says, there were political tensions and conflicting ideologies among some different groups in the ghetto. Still, she says, the medical leadership “managed to negotiate these differences, creating collaboration, even amidst great tension, and thus succeeded in establishing a medical system.”
And it worked. Three times as many people would likely have contracted typhus had it not been for these behavioral measures taken, according to the new paper.
Biomathematician and lead author Lewi Stone of Tel Aviv University and RMIT University and his co-authors examined the scientific literature on typhus, conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto, and the reported typhus rates there to graph different scenarios of what may have caused the epidemic to collapse. The only scenario that fits with what happened, he says, was the community mobilization and behaviors described in historical documents from the ghetto.
“Inmates and the doctors there, they must’ve been working hard, because that’s what the model shows,” Dr. Stone says.
Social distancing methods have been used for a long time, Dr. Markel says. Before vaccines and other modern medicine, “these public health methods were really the only tools in the toolbox,” he says. “And yes, they work.”
Typhus in the Warsaw Ghetto is another example, but it may have been easier to motivate such behaviors because people’s lives were already so disrupted and overturned.
“In the ghetto,” Dr. Markel says, “there was a remarkable, almost inspirational esprit de corps of this community in the face of insurmountable odds.”
Indeed, says Dr. Offer, “what was needed primarily was hope, creativity, dedication and thinking out of the box, as well as a set of values of humanity, daring, public responsibility, and unity to overcome the epidemic and save lives.”
Regardless of how the typhus epidemic disappeared, she says, “This also gives us hope that COVID-19 will not be with us forever.”
Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.
At a time when the world’s democracies are on a back foot against a pandemic and creeping authoritarianism, a new study finds hope in Latin America. The reason is a surprising exception in the region’s political landscape. Uruguay remains a vibrant democracy in a continent still prone to the force of autocratic, populist leaders.
“Corruption has historically been a hurdle for Latin America, undermining growth, democracy and governance, and violating the rights of millions,” states the report, “The 2020 Capacity to Combat Corruption Index.” Uruguay ranked highest in protecting judicial independence, upholding strong democratic processes, and encouraging robust investigative journalism.
Voters there are both well-informed and organized to send corrective signals to leaders. “There are no significant anti-democratic actors in Uruguay, whether on the extreme left or right, and when such an actor publicly appears, they are immediately condemned and isolated,” according to BTI, a global think tank on democratic change.
With the fallout of the pandemic undermining public confidence from one country to the next, the temptation to fall back on personality-based politics in Latin America may rise. Uruguay shows the reasons not to.
At a time when the world’s democracies are on a back foot against a pandemic and creeping authoritarianism, a new study finds hope in Latin America. The reason is a surprising exception in the region’s political landscape.
Latin America’s second-smallest country, Uruguay, remains a vibrant democracy in a continent still prone to the force of autocratic, populist leaders. That country’s people show a growing trust in stable democratic institutions relatively free of corruption.
“Corruption has historically been a hurdle for Latin America, undermining growth, democracy and governance, and violating the rights of millions,” states the report, “The 2020 Capacity to Combat Corruption Index.” Uruguay ranked highest in protecting judicial independence, upholding strong democratic processes, and encouraging robust investigative journalism.
Notice that last point. The private sector, such as media, business, and civil society, plays a crucial role against corruption. In Uruguay, a sense of self-governance has made a big difference. In 2016, after journalists uncovered a scandal involving the vice president, the country’s anti-corruption agency conducted a probe that led to his resignation.
Voters there are both well-informed and organized to send corrective signals to leaders. Last December, for example, discontent over rising crime and economic drift resulted in the election ouster of the center-left Broad Front coalition. But voters also sent a signal to the center-right National Party when it took over in March. Elected by a tight margin, it has been careful so far to avoid a sharp partisan swing, blending economic reform with its predecessor’s social justice agenda.
“There are no significant anti-democratic actors in Uruguay, whether on the extreme left or right, and when such an actor publicly appears, they are immediately condemned and isolated,” according to BTI, a global think-tank on democratic change.
Uruguay also stands out in its global outreach. Among Latin American countries, it provides by far the largest number of United Nations peacekeepers.
Like other parts of the world, Latin America shows signs of “democratic fatigue.” While the region has the highest levels of election participation in the world (voting is mandatory in some countries), overall trust in political parties is now a low 13%. A wave of anti-corruption efforts a few years ago has either stalled or reversed. The Brookings Institution says the region is marred by “reduced space for civic action, weakened democratic checks and balances, high levels of inequality and attacks on human rights.”
That makes the political dynamics in Uruguay both an exception and a model. With the fallout of the pandemic undermining public confidence from one country to the next, the temptation to fall back on personality-based politics in Latin America may rise. Uruguay shows the reasons not to.
Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.
Faced with consistently disruptive next-door neighbors, a woman found that a spiritual perspective of what it means to be a neighbor made all the difference.
Recently, my next-door neighbor knocked on my door to apologize for some tire ruts that his landscaper had made in my yard. He said he would have the area repaired. I assured him it was not necessary, but he insisted.
My heart was touched by this expression of kindness. I recalled a couple of years earlier, when the people who lived where this present neighbor now resides seemed to be anything but concerned about others. They repeatedly parked in front of my driveway, making it impossible for my family and me to get out. Many times, my mail was not delivered because the mailbox was blocked. One time I returned from being out of town to find them partying on my patio!
Talking to these neighbors had resolved none of the issues. I turned to God for help. I’ve often found that prayer inspired by the Bible – including the words and works of Christ Jesus – as well as the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, brings inspiration that leads to harmony.
So I opened my Bible to gain a better understanding of who my neighbor truly is. On one occasion, Jesus shared a parable indicating that mercy is a neighborly quality (see the parable of the good Samaritan, Luke 10:30-37). I strove to be a good neighbor myself by being merciful to my neighbor.
To me this didn’t mean being naive or excusing bad behavior, but uplifting my view of my neighbors to see them as God made them: spiritual, God’s very image and likeness, as declared in the first chapter of Genesis. On another occasion, Jesus referred to his brother and sister as whoever does “the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 12:50). God, divine Love, is the Father-Mother of all of us. As God’s children, we are all brethren and are made to express God’s limitless love.
Expanding on this understanding of our spiritual relation to God, Mrs. Eddy wrote, “...Christian Science comes to reveal man as God’s image, His idea, coexistent with Him – God giving all and man having all that God gives” (“The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany,” p. 5). What God gives man (which includes all of us) is qualities of infinite Love. This is our real nature, the divine law written in our hearts, and the basis for expressing unselfishness, respect for others, thoughtfulness.
I resolved to trust God’s Word and not give in to frustration about the situation. I realized I could take a stand, could refuse to believe that man, created and governed by God, could do anything inconsistent with Love. God is supreme. And I saw that not only did this relate to my neighbor, but I also needed to better live these spiritual facts myself by being more unselfish, respectful, and governed by God’s goodness.
Gradually, as I prayed with these ideas, the situation improved. The neighbors stopped blocking my driveway, so I was able to receive my mail and my family was able to get where we needed to go on time. Never again did they use my patio.
I see this experience as a modest yet encouraging proof that each of us truly has “all that God gives,” and that God’s giving includes harmony and the ability to express unselfed love and respect for others. We can all serve as living proof of God’s Word, in refusing the temptation to see inharmony as inescapable and expressing God’s love in our own thoughts, words, and deeds.
Thank you for joining us. Please come back Monday, when Henry Gass explores how Texas is grappling with the dark history of the Texas Rangers law enforcement agency.
Before you go we have a quick editor’s note. You may have noticed that we made an unforced error in yesterday’s Viewfinder marking the start of baseball season. We got a bit ahead of ourselves and inadvertently featured a photo of a practice game from the day before. The spelling of Zack Godley’s first name has also been corrected.