Handicapping the virus riot
by James Kaelan and Ty Uranga-Foster
On the final Sunday of March, two weeks into California’s statewide quarantine, I sent my buddy Ty Uranga-Foster a press release that the Hanover Township Police Department had posted to its Facebook page.
NATURE OF OFFENSE: Terrorist Threats, et al.
DATE OF OFFENSE: 03/25/2020
TIME: 1358 hours
LOCATION: Gerrity’s Supermarket, 2280 Sans Souci Prkwy
SUSPECT: Margaret CIRKO, 35 yrs old, Hanover Twp
On 03/26/2020 the Hanover Township Police Department arrested Margaret CIRKO, following an investigation at Gerrity’s Supermarket, Sans Souci Parkway, where she intentionally contaminated produce/meat/merchandise for sale.
Police were called to the business after CIRKO entered the store making verbal threats that she was sick while intentionally coughing and spitting saliva/bile on produce/meat/merchandise. CIRKO continued this behavior in several aisles before attempting to steal a 12 pack of beer as she was being ordered to leave the store by employees.
CIRKO was charged with 2 Felony counts of Terrorist Threats, 1 Felony count of Threats to use a “Biological agent”, and 1 Felony count of Criminal Mischief. In addition to Misdemeanor counts of Criminal Attempt to commit Retail Theft and Disorderly Conduct.
“That’s one way to get a test,” wrote Ty.
Back in late March, I imagined that public demonstration could be used by the left to demand healthcare and a basic income — even the seizing of industry under the Defense Protection Act. This fantasy isn’t dead. On April 14, the Hawaiʻi Department of Human Services released a report called “Building Bridges, Not Walking on Backs: A Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for COVID-19,” that stipulates, amongst other recommendations, new investment “in subsistence living and the perpetuation of land- and sea-based practices traditional to Hawaiʻi’s ecological and food system.”
But as we approach the end of April, from Hong Kong to Algeria, the pandemic has emptied the streets of people demanding more accountability from their governments. In the U.S., the only people waving signs and honking horns are conspiracy-minded conservatives objecting to business closures and mandatory stay-at-home orders. It turns out the only people willing to protest en masse are the ones who think the virus is a hoax.
With Ty’s permission, I’m publishing the following transcript — in part to volunteer what at the time seemed like a radical action, but also to demonstrate just how unpredictable life has already been during the pandemic. Something that felt pregnant with revolutionary potential a month ago now feels sterile.
“I read this press release,” I wrote to Ty, “and my first thought was: The fear of the virus weaponizes the body — even of the healthy. It makes the poor and the rich equally powerful, because one sick person is one sick, person irrespective of income.
“In fact, the poor may be MORE powerful — because they’re perceived as ‘unclean.’ So, like, what if someone who’d already contracted and recovered, and was therefore incapable of spreading COVID-19 [we now know that people can be infected multiple times, rendering the recover-then-protest contrivance unethical at its core]— or better yet, a bunch of people matching that criteria — mobilized a strike/riot, threatening to invade spaces where essential food and resources are being housed.
“Could be a way to demand drastic action…”
“Also invites a massacre,” said Ty. “Interesting idea, though.”
“Right,” I said. “Massacre 💀.”
“Once that kind of action starts,” said Ty, “it’ll be open season. Gatherings and demonstrations are already illegal at the moment.”
“But on the certain-to-die front,” I said, “unemployment filings from last week are five times higher than ANY volume ever filed since records have been kept.”
“Hard to even wrap your mind around that information,” said Ty.
“The stimulus package is a Band-Aid,” I said. “$1,200 one time? For millions of people who don’t work FOR MONTHS??”
“It’s way worse than a Band-Aid,” said Ty. “It’s textbook shock doctrine. They’re always ready to come out ahead. Honestly, the past few days have me feeling kind of defeated.”
“Right,” I said. “A palliative. A distraction. Well, then, let’s talk about the practicality/ethics of a virus riot!”
“What is it?” asked Ty. “Any gatherings are inherently dangerous. How do you account for that?”
“I take your point about retaliatory police/military violence,” I said. “We’re entering a moment of mass state violence — either in the form of inaction ($1,200 one-time payments), or in the form of action: police/military suppression of citizen protest.
“Right now, everyone is too afraid to gather because gathering is the top threat to your health. That will change, we fear. At some point in the foreseeable future, NOT striking/rioting may become more injurious to your health than staying home.
“Demonstrating against authoritarian regimes is ALWAYS deadly. Americans have never done it en masse before, in part because American authoritarianism has always been race- and class-based. So only minority communities have rebelled. Now state power will be directed at suppressing the MAJORITY of the country.
“So, I think my question is, can an early virus riot shift power? Or does it hasten catastrophic violence?”
“The problem with questions of strategy right now,” said Ty, “is that no one on earth has any ability to project even a week into the future. We’re completely off the map. This stimulus feels to me like a provocation. My guess is they’re ready and waiting for an uprising.”
“You’re right that we’re off the map about specific facts,” I said. “But facts can be shaped by collective action (or the threat thereof). But what if the enforcers are too afraid of the disease? I guess you can shoot people from far away…”
“They could do whatever they have to,” said Ty. “Give riot cops enough PPE to make them ‘feel safe.’ Use drones. Whatever.”
“But everyone’s at home all day watching and reading the news,” I said. “Trump can’t control the reaction his own maladministration is getting. How could he control the coverage of such an event? Especially if it’s recorded from the inside?”
“Yes,” said Ty. “But he also has his highest approval rating ever. News is subjective. Facts are subjective.”
[Trump’s approval rating has dropped from its peak, but it remains higher than at almost any other period during his administration.]
“To your point,” I added, “I came across a terrifying quote from an article in The New Yorker today about how Republicans and Democrats perceive the news coming out of the White House completely differently.”
[a] CBS/YouGov poll, released this week, [asked respondents] what sources of information about the coronavirus they found most credible. Democrats rated medical professionals and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention most highly. Trump came in last among this group, at fourteen per cent. But, for Republicans, Trump came in at the top, with ninety per cent saying that they trusted the President’s information about the coronavirus, making him tied for first place with medical professionals.
“Yeah,” said Ty. “The problem is the populace is fully around the bend. We’d need to beat the superfecta of concentrated capital, the government, the military, AND 50+% of the citizens.”
“What you’re saying then,” I asked, “is that no action is viable? Nothing could move the needle?”
“No, no,” said Ty. “Not at all. The needle is more moveable than ever. I just have no capacity to imagine it.”
“What I’m saying,” I elaborated, “is a virus riot could be asymmetrically powerful… Also a virus riot needn’t be real OR mass-mobilized. That article I shared, that was one woman, who WASN’T sick, fucking shit up in a grocery store.”
“It’s pretty astounding to destroy $35,000 worth of goods with no weapon,” said Ty. “But it’s also just so nihilistic.”
“It’s unconscionable the way she used it,” I admitted. “But she unlocked a powerful action. The question remains, can it be employed for good? If the infiltrators were recovered COVID survivors — who couldn’t infect OR get infected — the action would be purely symbolic. But still with the capacity to deliver a crazy-powerful message…”
“I think you’d have to infiltrate rich/powerful places,” said Ty. “And record it.”
This last Wednesday, a little more than three weeks after our initial conversation, I sent the text transcript to Ty.
“Boy that feels like a long time ago,” he responded.
“Right?” I said. “Like we were talking about the potential fallout from 9/11 on 9/12. Did NOT see the Iraq War coming 😬.
“It also seems SO obvious in retrospect that it would go this way,” I added. “Conspiracy theorists say it’s a hoax. Then even they realize it’s real. So everyone follows the social distancing guidelines. The precautions work. Lots of people DON’T die. Conspiracy theorists return to claiming it was all a hoax.”
“Good to see,” said Ty, “that my ‘no one knows anything, knowledge is a lie’ stance has held up lo these many days.”