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Mouths Masked, Democracy in the Dark, Market Power Grabbed, Executive Authority Centralized, Legislation in the Fog.

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or The Institute on Assets and Social Policy.

IASP Lab Director’s Post 5.15.20 [This post pre-dates the national outrage over George Floyd’s murder]

In a world before COVID-19: Banning immigration touches off a maelstrom of protests. Shredding environmental regulations brings people to the streets, and advocates rush to Congress and the courts. Opening public lands to extract our common resources for private plunder ferments lawsuits, bodies in front of bulldozers and people chained to trees. Deregulating meatpacking plants, allowing line speed up that closes already tight physical distance and produces more workplace injuries, creates wildcat strikes. Banning reproductive and abortion services results in massive demonstrations, mobilizes a mass movement, and prompts organizing in the halls of Congress and state capitals. Firing workers trying to organize their workplace promulgates pickets, boycotts, and legal complaints. Powerful evidence of structural racism–like COVID’s racialized infection and death rates–organize new mass mobilizations. Demonstrations, movements, and demands for legal remedies and accountability meet street-level racist and sexist harassment and murder. Student sit-ins, building occupations, and campus resistance follow administrative fiat as the stroke of a pen change campus sexual assault rules to empower the accused and victimize the assaulted. As the financial crunch of the pandemic started to emerge, the CFPB announced that it would relax or postpone various reporting requirements for mortgage lenders, credit card companies and other financial institutions.

We knew the spaces to contest power and mobilize for our communities in the world before COVID-19 and this has changed dramatically during COVID-19. Yes, all these examples demonstrate a reactive stance. Frankly and honestly, the current capacity of progressive power has been our ability to curtail the worst injustices, sometimes. It is far more difficult to propose, demonstrate, garner public trust and loyalty, build institutions, and design and implement equitable public policy.


COVID-19 has sequestered those contested terrains, thereby locking down democracy’s playing field.

Those real examples just mentioned are arenas where forces of democracy contest power, behavior, civil society, institutions, and policy. Not just democracy–these are spaces in which forces for equity and social justice contest market forces, racism and sexism, the meaning of public good. It does matter whether we win, lose, inch the boulder toward justice, or move the public discourse. However, COVID-19 has sequestered those contested terrains, thereby locking down democracy’s playing field. It is possible, and indeed as we are experiencing, for new ways to see, understand, educate, and even organize. For this moment, at least, we do not have the password gaining entry into the contest to change things. In my view, that is a prime reason why we are seeing an extraordinary and uncontested abundance of regressive, absolutist actions from Washington, state capitals, agencies charged with our public health, safety, environment, and public lands. We are witnessing some hard won street-victories nullified by administrative, legislative, and executive fiat. I want to be clear that a lot of this is not new. What is different is the breathtaking scope and rapidity. In fact, normal was the problem.

What is not normal are the enormous and lasting consequences and limp pushbacks. Cars gridlocked in mile-long food line in San Antonio, Anaheim, Minneapolis, and Detroit, indeed, all across the country. The $400 rainy day fund that only about 40 percent of families had in emergency savings pre-COVID ran dry weeks ago. This in face of a relatively generous unemployment insurance bump and a one-time cash transfer. Relatively in comparison to many other market economies that allocated replacement wages for workers; relatively, also, for those that qualified and those who managed to navigate systems designed to frustrate and sideline people; relatively, also, for those in the informal economy and those whose work is not paid in money.

We are not all in the same boat, pulling together in civic and civil solidarity for the public good. We see a bailout of capital that works for asset holders, not workers, not small businesses, not families, not communities, and which will never trickle down. This trajectory too is not different from decades of policy, just the scope and pace, again happening behind closed doors without democracy and equity’s voice.  One particular day of the week provides a blunt and almost predictable reminder that the stock market is not the economy. Every Thursday the latest millions file unemployment claims while the market goes up creating more wealth for large investors.

We need to grasp firmly our experience of this pandemic’s racial and class epidemiology, our understanding of who took advantage of this moment, what they represented, for what profit and power grabbing, and what we have lost. We need a bolder transformation that does not restore routine injustices to “normal” but projects a courageous vision for a reparative future worth building.

This is where I dedicate my energy and work. IASP stands ready.

IASP Director, Thomas Shapiro
By Tom Shapiro, IASP Director