Solidarity is the best medicine

#ShutDownDC organizing response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Over the past three months the COVID-19 novel coronavirus has spread from community to community and from country to country in a massive outbreak that has now grown into a global pandemic. So far the death toll has passed 4,200 globally -- a number that is sure to continue to grow. In the United States, more than 1,000 people have already been diagnosed with COVID-19. But that number is expected to grow dramatically as testing increases and because the US is the only industrialized country on the planet that does not provide universal healthcare. Here in Washington, DC, Mayor Bowser has declared a state of emergency, recommending that “non-essential mass gatherings, including conferences and conventions, be postponed or canceled” through the end of March.

Earlier this year, #ShutDownDC, a wide-ranging collection of local, regional and national organizations announced a bold plan to take direct action to shut down business as usual in the nation’s capital this spring, between Earth Day and May Day. What does the global public health crisis presented by COVID-19 mean for #ShutDownDC and the climate movement more broadly?

Our response - building a resilient movement

If anything, the outrageous reality that our neighbors without access to quality healthcare, secure housing, healthy food, or paid sick days are facing some of the most severe risks from the spread of this virus highlights the injustice in our society -- health justice, climate justice, and more -- need to take bold direct action to confront and dismantle the interlocking systems of oppression that are so pervasive in our communities.

As the climate crisis worsens, we will experience more and more disasters brought on by superstorms, droughts, novel diseases, and extreme weather events. Many of the very same communities that are facing outsized risks from COVID-19 will shoulder some of the most severe impacts of those climate-induced disasters. And just like the climate crisis, even though we have known for some time that the COVID-19 pandemic was coming, elected leaders and the people in power have failed to take action.

Our response, then, is not to wait to see how this pandemic plays out and hope that the government and the drug companies will take care of us. We must rather continue the work of building a strong, powerful and resilient movement that can rise to the challenges we are facing and keep each other safe.

Building affinity groups

In #ShutDownDC we organize in small(ish) groups called affinity groups- groups of 5-6 or fewer to 20 or more people that organize to support each other in taking risks together. By organizing in small groups, we can get to know the folks we’re taking to the streets with, come up with creative action ideas that we can organize ourselves (without waiting for somebody else to tell us what to do), adapt quickly to changing conditions and coordinate with other affinity groups. Affinity groups often work in clusters with other affinity groups, enabling the positives of working in small groups with the power of larger numbers

On September 23rd, nearly two dozen affinity groups ‘adopted’ different intersections to shut down during the morning rush hour. One affinity group parked a boat in the middle of K St and 16th St, shutting down that iconic intersection with a harbinger of the rising sea levels; another group of healthcare workers and Black Lives Matter supporters set up a blood pressure screening clinic in the middle of Independence Ave in Southeast DC, a notorious healthcare desert.

Right now affinity groups are just starting to come together for the actions from Earth Day to May Day. On Monday, a group of cyclists met to start forming a bike bloc that can organize a roving bike party through the streets of DC, snarling morning rush hour. Another group of people of faith met on Tuesday to talk about hosting a public witnessing event and interfaith service that can shut down business as usual. Already there are more than 20 affinity groups making plans for actions this spring.

So how do we respond to the COVID-19 pandemic? We keep organizing into affinity groups! If we can have each other’s backs in the face of the police or angry motorists or counterprotesters in the streets this spring, we certainly ought to be able to have each other’s backs as we face down this global pandemic together.

Often affinity groups organize trainings and coordinate food and transportation for big actions. Certainly in April and May affinity groups will be doing that, but in the face of a global pandemic many affinity groups may decide to check in on each other, bring food or supplies to members who are sick or under quarantine and hold virtual meetings to reduce isolation and give folks stuck at home something to do. At the same time we can build up strong relationships, plan our spring mobilization and get ready to head to the streets together!

Are you interested in joining an affinity group? Click here to let us know what type of group you’d like to get matched up with!

Our Accessibility Working Group, which has been working to make #ShutDownDC's spaces more accessible, has put together a one-pager with questions for Affinity Groups. We encourage you, together in your groups, to think about some of the barriers to participation in meetings and actions and different ways you can work to lower some of those barriers. These questions are especially timely as our community, particularly our friends at higher risk and who are caregivers, are challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

So what will Earth Day to May Day look like?

It’s mid-March and the first planned day of action isn’t for more than six weeks. It is far, far too soon to know how this public health crisis will impact the Earth Day to May Day framework because we don’t have any idea what this pandemic will look like in a few weeks. But here is what we do know:

  • We are facing down a climate crisis that threatens our collective survival.

  • In the coming months and years we will face many, many more crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Our governments and the powerful corporations are not doing what needs to be done to address the climate crisis OR the pandemic.

  • The government’s responses to both of these crises has lacked transparency with officials blatantly obfuscating facts. This highlights the urgent need for true democratic participation in times of crisis.

  • Solidarity is the best medicine. Working together and building strong and resilient movements based on cooperation and mutual aid are the keys to surviving the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis.

So we’re moving full steam ahead with organizing! Dynamic front line and local organizations are leading us on each day of the mobilization and we are committed to supporting the ongoing campaigns that they are working hard to advance. We are going to take common sense precautions like move our meetings from in-person sessions to Zoom video conferences and postpone in-person trainings for a few weeks. We have already expanded our video conferencing capabilities so we can host calls of more than 100 people and if we need to invest in additional Zoom accounts or webcams to allow working groups and affinity groups to coordinate we can certainly do that. And of course we will continue to listen closely to the advice of public health experts about how to keep ourselves and our communities healthy and safe.

We hope that affinity groups will have each other’s backs through these trying times, checking in on and taking care of members who are sick or under quarantine. And some affinity groups may organize mutual aid pandemic relief, bringing food and other supplies to neighbors who are under quarantine or sick, confronting government and public health officials when they make decisions that put our communities at risk, or even expropriating medical supplies hoarded by the for-profit pharmaceutical companies!

Being safe in the streets

Right now there is no way to know what the pandemic will look like by late April. But regardless of what types of medical risks or hazards we are experiencing at that time, there are lots of ways to engage in collective action! It’s possible that by late April the worst of the virus will have passed us by already and we can organize without thinking much about it. We also may find ourselves wanting to change our targets to name, shame and disrupt the organizations and institutions that allowed this virus outbreak to turn into a pandemic. And if we are still facing serious restrictions on coming together for mobilizations, artist and activist David Solnit has developed a pretty robust list of different tactics we can take, even under quarantine.

We don’t know how the next few weeks are going to play out but what we do know is that solidarity and collective action is our strongest weapon against any of these challenges we are facing!