Race, class, the state and the COVID-19 pandemic
Ted Rutland is a professor of urban and cultural geography at Concordia University whose work concerns cities and how racism is “woven into the very making of cities.” I wanted to speak with Rutland in particular since cities are the places where we’re stuck, the places that are COVID-19 epicentres, and therefore places of an intense and heightened cultural and political significance as far as race and class are concerned.
We discuss the parallels between the urban slums of 1830s Europe and how this relates to our contemporary homeless and prison populations, the unique potential for social change right now and the simultaneous fear that the state (and, in particular, the police) will come out of this crisis yet more empowered than before.
Lily Shykoff: What are you dwelling on right now? What in particular keeps you up at night?
Ted Rutland: For someone who grew up in relative privilege in a first world country, the future has always been relatively predictable. Of course predictions are wrong, but I’ve lived my life in a way that assumes certain things are going to happen and what actually happens doesn’t depart too much from that. I find it to be a big struggle to have so little idea of what things are going to be like a year from now or even three months from now or even tomorrow. I think most of the world’s population sort of lives this way all the time but for people who have lived in some sort of comfort this is a shock. It’s a partial welcome or rude awakening to the way that most people on the planet live.
LS: Absolutely. I’ve been finding a strange irony among people on the left who are so terrified of their friends or family or neighbours not being sufficiently prudent that we keep saying “listen to the state above all else.” I’ve seen calls to demand more, to ask for more protections for low wage workers, or to call for a rent strike for example, but I’m wondering what you make of this trust in the state or even in city governance during a time of crisis. To what extent do you see that trust bleeding into our post-COVID lives?
TR: It’s unfortunate that when it comes to things like social distancing a lot of people are trusting the state to establish the framework through which we should live our lives and that we’re using the police to enforce it. It’s really clear that we need social distancing but a more left perspective on that is that we should all do as much as we can, do the most social distancing that we’re able to, but that across-the-board rules don’t take into account the social hierarchies that structure our society. It’s a little odd to see people so easily accepting the state’s definition of what we should be doing.
At the same time I’ve been really impressed by all the people you see and people I know who are interpreting what needs to be done right now in a much more strict way than the state is. So tons of people who are very critical of the state are not actually critical of the idea that we need to do something, that we all have a responsibility for this.
There’s a tendency in the mainstream of society to see anti-authoritarians or anarchists as being in favour of doing whatever you want at all times, but almost all the anti-authoritarians and anarchists that I know are practising much more strict social distancing than the state is requiring and the people who are doing less than the state requires are doing so under a kind of neoliberal idea of freedom. […] There are some quite interesting analyses of what we need to be doing right now and some very grassroots and informal ways of holding each other to account in ways that aren’t about shame and aren’t about state authority and aren’t about calling the cops to ensure that we do what we need to do to keep safe.
LS: What are some of those in concrete terms?
TR: I see people being very strict with themselves and sharing a kind of commitment to a strong social distancing among friends. I think there’s also a ton of really interesting organizing right now including rent strikes, including the hunger strike at the Laval Immigrant [Holding] Centre. What I’m most focused on that I think is a good thing that could come out of this is the organizing around prisons and detention centres. What I’m thinking about draws from the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a rad Black feminist abolitionist scholar and activist out of New York who writes a lot about crisis, and we’re absolutely living in a time of crisis right no. We’re used to going through economic crises that are created by capitalism. This crisis is a little different. It’s certainly related to capitalism in lots of ways but it manifests primarily in these health effects rather than an economic downturn as its primary factor. But what she says about crisis is that in these moments where the status quo is no longer possible, new things are possible, that what comes out of it is obviously a social struggle and so there’s no guarantee that anything positive will come out of this at all or that the overall result will be positive […] but clearly we see a bunch of ways in which the status quo can’t hold.
Right now we see for example that it makes zero sense to have people like migrants locked up in immigrant detention centres. People in detention centres cannot practise social distancing, they cannot use the hygienic practises that we’re being told to use. Their life becomes a flagrant violation of health protocols that we’ve all come to accept.
We don’t usually condemn migrants to death for having crossed the border but that’s what keeping them in a detention centre would mean right now. It’s also not good for the rest of us because the walls around a detention centre are porous. People are going in and out of these places so we’re creating little death traps where people are going to get infected and are going to die. This will actually affect all of us.
Lots of people are calling for the release of immigrant detainees and prisoners and I believe that some of that will happen. The thing is that when the lockdown is over maybe the fact that we’ve let a bunch of people out and they haven’t gone around murdering everybody means that we don’t need to force them to go back and we can actually rethink why we’re caging so many people to begin, with because we haven’t always done this. There’s a number of ways in which things are possible now in the particular conditions of this pandemic that might establish precedents that allow us to keep more just ways of doing things going after the pandemic ends.
LS: Some people on the left who are being very strict about their isolation are expressing on social media that they’re a little perplexed about how to frame that in organizations or communities that are much more politically diverse. How, for instance, do you tell your neighbours that calling the cops is not the most appropriate action and how do you frame that in a way that has the illusion of political neutrality in order for it not to appear as something that falls along these ideological fault lines?
TR: This is a great moment to put in practice what a lot of activist intellectuals in the U.S. have been calling everyday abolition. What do we need to do in our everyday lives to create a world where we don’t need prisons and where we don’t need the police? One of the things is that, because we have a specialized police force and we have these cages around, everyday people don’t need to have the skills to talk to their neighbours, talk to people they see in the streets and try to get people to behave in ways that are in the interest of everyone. We’ve basically lost those skills and we also, to be honest, don’t react well when people who aren’t cops or judges or teachers try to exercise authority over us. We take any questioning of our behaviour or suggestion that we should be doing things otherwise as an exercise of authority, which it isn’t necessarily. If you don’t have any power over someone, you aren’t exercising authority.
This is a time to develop new skills, and we’re not going to do that perfectly but we can start doing it. We need to try to pass messages along that are compassionate and that are trying to invite people to become the kind of person that they are. People are, at their core, caring.
LS: Can you speak about some of the historical precedents to COVID-19 in terms of race, class and organizing, and how this is playing out in cities?
TR: The history of modern cities is a history that emerges from dealing with epidemics. To me the modern city — the modern way of seeing the city and the modern way of governing the city — is born out of the cholera epidemics of the 1830s that wiped out tens of thousands of people in major cities across Western Europe and North America all in the same year. That’s a moment where things like the slums, places that poor people and working poor people were living in dreadful conditions, places that were overcrowded, that didn’t have any kind of sanitation facilities, didn’t have heating, didn’t have bathrooms, didn’t have reliable shingles on the roof, these dreadful places that no one seemed to care about all of a sudden became a great preoccupation because if those people get sick, we can all get sick. Cities are massively changed out of a recognition that our lives are all bound together at a microbial level and that we need a minimum standard of living for people if we all want to stay safe and have good lives.
Is that organizing? For sure the 19th century Communist parties came out of that. Frederick Engels’ first big report was a study of working class districts in Manchester and across England that was very much about showing how terrible living conditions were having bad effects on peoples’ health and how those living conditions were the result of a lack of state action but also of exploitative landlords and factory owners. It also, like so many social changes, drew on the support of wealthier people who had some kind of philanthropic interests — the Bill Gates of that era — who are not great but can sometimes do something that’s useful.
In terms of race, class and COVID-19, this is a similar situation where the analogy to the urban slums of the 19th century are homeless populations and prison populations, two communities that are extremely vulnerable to COVID at the moment and that we usually don’t pay attention to. We’re already now seeing some attention to ensuring that their conditions are better because it’s a way of ensuring all our conditions are better. That’s not necessarily solidarity, or it’s a weird kind of solidarity. People on the left will see this as a straightforward social justice issue, while people not on the left are going to think, “Oh I need to get homeless people healthy so that I don’t get sick.” Despite these differences, I guess you find, I don’t know if you want to call it allies, but you get people in the mainstream that will support the things that the left has been fighting for for years, albeit for different reasons.
LS: Do you have any insights or any feeling about how this will shape Montreal’s specific cultural fabric down the road?
TR: I don’t think it’s going to be good overall. I’m interested in what’s getting shaken up right now, where new ideas are getting credence and support, where different institutions and people are getting support and public valorization where they weren’t before. On the one hand we’re really shining the spotlight on medical professionals and I think that’s a good thing. We’ve underspent on healthcare for a really long time and we’re seeing all the really important work that healthcare professionals do and we’re seeing the ways in which our lack of financing for healthcare has put us in a very bad situation. They are clearly emerging as the heroes of all this and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Hopefully we invest more heavily in healthcare in the future.
Conversely, people believe François Legault is handling this extremely well, and in comparison to Trump and Justin Trudeau, I think that’s true. [Ed.’s note: This interview took place before Legault announced the reopening of businesses and schools.] I’m glad. I don’t like the guy, I don’t like his politics, I don’t like his party, but I’m glad he’s doing a good job. I don’t want to see his approval ratings drop for badly handling this because it would mean a lot more people would die, but I don’t have a ton of confidence in our ability to withdraw our support from him after the pandemic ends. These things tend to linger with an afterglow in the same way that Rudy Giuliani in New York was a pretty terrible mayor but until recent years, and his public defence of Trump, was seen as a really great mayor because of the leadership that he supposedly showed after 9/11. We should celebrate if Legault is doing a good job, but I think that we also should, when the pandemic’s over, go back to criticizing his horrible policies.
Another example is the police in Montreal, who were going through an ideological crisis, especially in terms of race, before COVID-19 hit. New data on racial profiling came out and there was a growing movement to impose some kind of external oversight and authority on the police department.
LS: What was that data?
TR: A report came out in [October] that used the police’s own files to examine racial profiling and they found that Black and Indigenous Montrealers were stopped at a rate of four times greater than white residents. Arab residents were stopped twice as often as white residents. So there’s been a growing push to finally try to change this institution but now everyone’s depending on them to enforce social distancing rules because we can’t apparently imagine any other institution playing that role. I can imagine tons of them, but the history of the modern police is the history of them trying to find ways of justifying their existence, and usually in some kind of humanitarian or socially beneficial role so this is not unprecedented. I’m worried about the prestige that they’re going to gain through this. There are so many other things that we can worry about and so many other kinds of traditions to draw from but those are the main things I’m thinking about at the moment. ■
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(Race, class, the state and COVID-19)