Food, Travel, Culture, News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

Pandemic and Protest for the Impoverished

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I’ve spent the past week working on an article (cover story, July 2020 Editor & Publisher magazine), for which I’ve spoken to news editors around the country, to better understand how they’ve managed through months of pandemic – and now, during protests and civil unrest. It feels like crisis on top of crisis on top of crisis for news organizations already fiscally challenged, with newsrooms gutted.

It got me thinking about life here in northern Vermont, and how communities have managed through the protests and pandemic.

Last week, a group of students from an international boarding school in St. Johnsbury staged a protest, and maybe a hundred local residents came out to demonstrate their frustration with the disproportionate number of police shootings and killings at the expense of black families. The incident was not without its own strife. There were a few arrests of protesters who blocked the entrance to the local police station. One overzealous officer manhandled a tiny sprite of a woman, tossing her like a doll down the concrete stairs leading to the entrance.

By the next day, the small town had returned to its sleepy status. The protesters had been replaced by a small group of maybe a dozen “Blue Lives Matter” counter protesters, who planted themselves on the sidewalk in front of the station, hoping for honks from passing cars, in support of cops. It didn’t surprise me, this kind of support for the men and women in blue. Here, as in most small towns across the country, cops aren’t wooed from other towns; here, the officers live in the community. They know everyone, and everyone knows them. This kind of co-dependent relationship makes it untenable for the police to overreach their authority, and it makes citizens more respectful of the force made of their neighbors and family members.

Crime is, of course, a little different here. The local paper’s crime blotter this week reported a local man over in Burke who was arrested for pelting a woman with eggs after a night of, admittedly, excessive drinking.

Only about half of the residents you see milling about in towns, or driving to and from them, sport “PPE.” You won’t see many N95 masks. More often than not, they have the cloth kind that someone stitched by hand, or bandanas wrapped snug. I saw a man yesterday who was heading into a local pharmacy with a grimy, old white t-shirt haphazardly wrapped around his face and tied in the back. At least he was trying to be accountable to his community.

It’s not that the others are unaware of COVID-19. It’s not like they don’t take it seriously. The local health clinic always has a full parking lot, and the low-tech “website” for our town – a metal billboard at the end of our dirt road – reminds people of the risks and to socially distance themselves, as if that were even a choice.

It’s more likely that people here are simply nonplussed by it. There is a sense that, no matter what happens here, that life will go on, that poverty will endure.

I’ve been introduced to a number of residents who came here from Connecticut, where I still live full time. Each has a similar story – that they came north for a more idyllic perspective, an active lifestyle – snowmobiling, hunting, fishing – and to escape oppressive taxes. But what they found in northern Vermont is that life’s challenges simply take on a new form.

From the previous owner of my little cabin, I inherited some relationships with a couple of locals who help me maintain the land. The local town selectman is my plow guy. He maintains the town roads for a living, and plows out the driveways of his neighbors for $30 a visit. He automatically shows up anytime we get more than six inches.

I have a young man who comes to shovel paths around the house and to pull the snow off the metal roof when it piles up. His mother is the town clerk a few hollows away. We got to talking during his first visit, and he explained to me how much he loves it here, especially being able to navigate the region by snowmobile during the winter. It’s a practical, affordable and thrilling alternative to automobile transportation.

But he said that he may have to go back down south to Connecticut, after all, because there’s just no opportunity here, no work for him.

He spends his summers doing landscaping and mostly fighting off the dreaded black flies. We called upon him to mow a meadow, because it had gotten high from the spring rains and because we knew he could use the buck.

Back home, I’m used to landscapers showing up with a veritable fleet of vehicles, equipment and personnel. He showed up with a riding mower on in the back of his pickup, its blade and cover dangling precariously off the side of it. Rusted through, he had to hold onto it, guiding it across the grasses and adjusting the height by hand, courtesy of a string he’d tied to it.

It’s hard to invest in your business when jobs are scarce.

For so many Vermonters here, pandemic or not, the barn still needs a new roof they can’t afford; the tractor still needs repairs. The fields around the house need to be groomed, and the ruts in the road – caused by the freeze-and-thaw cycle of mud season – need to be smoothed out. Farm animals and pets still need feed, and rotted wood on the cabins needs to be replaced with whatever scraps of lumber can be found in the shed.

But there are also little pleasures. With spring comes picnics with the family. The woodstoves go cold, while charcoal grills fill the air with the seasonal scent of smoke. Kids run free and play outside, and when night comes – as was the custom in our home growing up – the parents bathe them of the grime and check their heads for ticks.

Joy feels smaller here. Expectations are managed. Passersby aren’t always inclined to smile, but they do wave and nod. Conversations are truncated and efficient. People don’t feel the need to be constantly entertained.

There are no fine dining experiences or nights at the theater to miss – let alone to protest until they “open up.” A date night might take of the form of a retired couple sitting on a front porch and sharing a bottle of wine, watching the occasional truck rumble by. No one is in a rush, after all.

Life is simple by design, by necessity, and by geography. They know the virus will come, and that there’s nothing to do but wait for it and to carry on.

Photo: G.A. Peck, 2020

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

The President’s “Keyboard Warriors” Take to the Streets

I saw this clip when the reporter first posted it — taken at some of sort of a rally. I can’t be sure whether it was a gathering just to celebrate the President or to make some sort of statement about the state of affairs on Long Island, within reach of the COVID-19 hotbed zone, New York City.

I’ve come to expect this kind of vitriol. It’s not new. Some years ago when I was dispatched to photograph a protest/counter-protest of Trump’s speech at the Coast Guard Academy commencement, I took some of this kind of flack myself from several individuals who walked alongside the protest marchers and screamed at the group. To me, they yelled “fake news” and some misogynistic nonsense that I shrugged off at the time. It’s gotten much worse in the years since, with reporters harassed, doxxed, physically assaulted, their gear ripped from their hands and destroyed.

The Constitutionally protected Free Press no longer feels very free. It feels like targets have been painted on their backs.

When this clip first published on Twitter, I had a couple of thoughts: First, note how brave the local TV reporter is as he walks through the frothy-mouthed crowd. See his calm as he navigates individuals/superspreaders yelling in his face and refusing to respect any physical distancing.

I thought, look at how they scream at him, even in front of their young, impressionable children. Look at how they seem to have lost their damned minds, becoming people I doubt they are in everyday situations. I bet they don’t behave like this at family reunions, nor at the workplace, nor in their neighborhoods, nor in their PTA meetings.

I was also hyperaware of the irony of this. Here, we have a reporter dispatched by the local Long Island TV station, to report on their event. Had he and others not been there, they would have been accused of ignoring their plights, blackballing their voices. How many times have you heard from the President’s most ardent supporters, “You won’t hear this on the mainstream media …”

And yet, this is about as MSM as you can get, the guy I bet everyone in the crowd knew by name and face, because he’s on their TV screens every weeknight. Local TV news is about as close to the community as you can get outside of a small-town paper. It’s not just “mainstream,” it’s “Main Street.”

Here he was to capture their moment, to take their story to the airwaves, to interview them and get their perspectives.

And what do they do? They threaten him, scold him, verbally shit all over the guy. They terrorize him.

I shared the clip on social media, and I blamed the President for this vitriol and hate. After all, it’s his words, verbatim, that they practically spit at the TV newsman. Listen carefully, and you can hear them parrot our President.

Turns out, I was right to put the blame at the President’s feet, because in the middle of the night — when the President should either be sleeping, meeting with his entourage at Camp David, or thinking long and hard about how to save lives in the throes of pandemic — the President shared this clip, too. Not once, but twice. That tells me he’s quite proud of these people, this behavior, and his ability to manipulate masses of his “keyboard warriors,” to the point that they have become something other than themselves.

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

The Story Behind the Photo

Impeach

I shot this photo in Washington, DC, on the occasion of the first Women’s March, the day after the inauguration of the 45th President, Donald J. Trump. Shortly before this was taken, I found myself in a sea of women flooding a metro station, politely and patiently ascending the escalator and staircase that spit them out closer to the Mall. The mood was upbeat, unified. They sang and cheered. They chanted. They poured into the streets and moved toward the Mall. The streets near the event stage were already packed—women, men, children, arm-in-arm shoulder-to-shoulder.

It was on that walk toward the Capitol that I took this photo. It was one of the few images from the day that I printed and framed. I’ve kept it on one of my desks. People who’ve come through my office may have thought it an endorsement of impeachment. I did not frame it for that reason, though even back then, I had an educated, odds-were-with-me expectation that a Trump Presidency would be disastrous and untoward. Anyone who watched him for 25+ years, as a unethical businessman and epic misogynist, knew it wouldn’t end well for the American people.

It seemed likely that his Presidential fuck-ups and conduct would be so monumental—unsuited to the job that he is—that impeachment might one day mire and divide the nation. And here we are.

Rather, I framed the photo because it felt particularly iconic for the day. It was more about the women marching than the man many were protesting.

The sign the woman crafted is a bubble-style mailing envelope, cut and splayed open. I know this because the night before the March, I’d followed the Maps app to a local office supplies store, where women had overrun the shop in search of poster board and Sharpies. Everyone in the store, it seemed, had traveled to DC with the hopes of locking down those creative supplies once in town. The store ran dry of sign-making stuff, necessitating the creative use of the large mailing envelopes for sign media. They started selling like wildfire. I even bought one. During the March, I wore mine sandwich-board style. It read: “1st Amendment Guardian” in plain black Sharpie.

The woman in my photo wrote IMPEACH on her splayed-open mailing envelope and walked with confidence toward Congress. Maybe she felt prophetic. Maybe it was just wishful thinking. And here we are.