Self-reflections in 2020
“..I remember an early test report where a psychologist said: ‘Brian would rather be given a hiding than be ignored." Duuh! Wouldn’t everyone? Long before words like social distancing and self-isolation existed in our vocabulary – these were my greatest fears.”
How do we relate to the pandemic, or rather, how do we relate to fear? What kinds of feelings do illness and a pandemic evoke? The author, educator and activist Brian Carmichael takes us back to California during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and early 90s and writes about when the situation in prisons where so-called segregation cell blocks were introduced, about mass protests, vulnerability, isolation, and similarities to how today’s CoVid-19 impacted New York.
There is a saying in American politics, used by the Left and the Right: “Never let a crisis go to waste.” The global pandemic of CoVid-19, the disease caused by the novel CoronaVirus SARS-CV2, is certainly no exception. And while the rights and liberties of citizens, enshrined and protected by the US Constitution, are being chipped away at on a daily basis in the best of times, this pandemic, and the fear associated with it, have given those in power the opportunity to take oppressive new actions to control the masses and limit freedom of speech and assembly, the right to a quick and speedy trial, before a jury of your peers, and the fundamental rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and to the due process of law. Businesses, gyms, houses of worship and many beaches and parks have been ordered closed, and with little coverage from the media, most State and Federal court proceedings were suspended. More than 70% of those in jail are still awaiting trial and have been convicted of no crime. They are disproportionately Black or Brown. Normally, when the rule of law was in effect, if the state failed to bring charges, or move the case through the courts within the prescribed time, the charges would be dismissed and the defendant released. Now the accused is forced to languish in jail, convicted of no crime, with COVID-19 looming like a death sentence. All of these executive actions, rules and regulations have the force of law, even though they were never debated or voted on, much less signed into law.
Overcrowded and unsanitary jails and prisons in the US are the last place you’d want to be in an epidemic. It is impossible to be socially distant when you share a cell or dorm with dozens of other prisoners, shower and wash in communal bathrooms or go to a mess hall in which hundreds of prisoners at a time are fed meals. Guards and civilian employees come and go into correctional facilities, and prisoners are arrested, transferred or released providing the perfect vehicle for infections. Months ago medical staff in charge of jails and prisons joined with activists and civil rights groups, calling for the immediate reduction in the population of all jails and prisons, to prevent the inevitable outbreaks and deaths.
Living through this historical moment is particularly painful for me because it has brought back so many memories from the last time a global pandemic – caused by a ‘novel’ virus arrived in the US. As the first cases were detected, medical experts in charge of prisons, along with civil rights attorneys, and activists were raising their voices. First advising, then pleading with prison administrators and politicians for immediate, bold actions to head off an approaching disaster. They were ignored. Of course, that “novel” virus came to be called Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Instead of listening to the experts, a reactionary policy was put into effect long after the virus started spreading throughout the US detention system: when a person became sick and tested positive for the virus, they would be isolated, segregated and transferred to special quarantine lock down units. As a result thousands of ill people began to overwhelm the system, suffering and dying needlessly, and (as the California State Senate and Assembly investigations later characterized them) “prematurely.” At the California Medical Facility at Vacaville (CMF),hundreds of HIV+ prisoners, neglected and abused, died horrible deaths in the AIDS segregation units, in just the first few years it was open. I know, because I was there.
Amongst the hundreds of dead were close friends and comrades, men I had done time with, who I had grown to know and love, through our work in the Pastoral Care Services (PCS) program where our mission was to spend time with individual as they became ill. And when it was determined that the person was days or weeks of dying, we would sit vigil, in shifts, around the clock, holding their hands, reading to them, praying with them, writing letters, just being with them, so that not one more prisoner would die alone in his cell, or hospital room, begging for help that never came. As more prisoners began to die the grief turned into rage, and led me and other activists to begin organizing non-violent demonstrations, boycotts and protests, start a letter writing campaign, even going on hunger strike, speaking out in countless interviews with media, attorneys and investigators. All of this started a national debate and landmark reforms in the way prisoners with HIV/AIDS were treated, including millions of dollars being spent in California alone, opening an HIV Treatment Center, hiring more doctors and HIV specialists, and the opening the first hospice ever built inside a prison. ACT UPs “Silence Equals Death” and “Action Equals Life” were proven more than slogans, but we embraced. Many of us prisoner activists were transformed in the process. But the lingering thoughts…If only those politicians and prison administrators had listened to the early warnings. What If only we had made more noise, sooner…?
This year, COVID-19 hit the prisons and jails exactly as predicted. And because politicians and prison administrators once again ignored the advice and counsel of medical professionals, they were too slow to reduce the population, another era of American death camps is upon us. Tens of thousands prisoners have been infected with CoViD-19 and nearly ten thousand more guards and correctional employees infected. Many hundreds have already died. With more than 135,000 deaths in the country, who are disproportionally Black and Brown, its hard to make anyone care.
Mentally, emotionally, I’m not doing well right now, “sheltering in place.” After a childhood of physical and sexual abuse, where I’d constantly act out and get into trouble for being the class clown (doing anything for attention) and too many years in prison where six feet to my left or right was a nieghbor’s cell, I don’t take well to being separated from others. I remember an early probation report where one psychologist said, “Brian would rather be spanked than ignored.” Well, duh! Doesn’t anyone ? Long before our vocabulary included social distancing and self-isolation, they were my biggest fears.
Before SARS CoV-2, I had been regularly going to an anger management group weekly, a harm reduction group twice a week, and Crystal Meth Anonymous meetings 4 or 5 times each week that start and end with everyone hugging and handshaking and catching up, all around the concept of shared strengths, hopes and experiences that can help each of us maintain sobriety and begin to rebuild and reshape our lives. I didn’t realize how much I needed, all those hugs. All those friendly faces, all filled with the genuine love, support and understanding, from men and women just like me. It was healing me from the inside, and filling that painful, agonizing void lingering from all those scores of friends and loved ones I’d lost to viruses over the years, primarily HIV and HCV (the Hep C virus).
Yes, I was still angry, depressed, and dealing with a life-long struggle with drug and alcohol addictions, suffering wickedly from PTSD after years of being abused and molested as a kid, then spending decades in the grinder of untreated mental health disorders and suicide attempts, to years upon years fighting off the indoctrination of incarceration and institutionalization, finding my voice, and my identity, in the LGBT and HIV/AIDS activism movement within prison during the aforementioned AIDS epidemic in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Yet, even with all my baggage, I was happy and doing good. I’d already been awarded a scholarship to a prestigious decorative arts school, cancelled due to the lockdown, the day before classes were to start. I was continuing the healing process and, after 13 years in maximum security higher learning facilities, I was reacclimating to the 21st Century, but in a world new to me; one of smart phones and Facebook, an opioid epidemic and the new President was no longer Barack Obama, nor George Bush. Aside from the 2 months I’d done in Rikers Island last Summer, I’d been out of prison for over a year, and I was doing good. I felt a part of the community. I felt loved and I had many friends I loved and cherished. And even living in the most distant part of the five boroughs of New York City, out in Far Rockaway, Queens (where, I joke, the A-train goes to die) the last thing I felt was isolated. Or lonely.
But now, with everything shut down, and the powers that be preaching self-isolation and socially distance, and all my self-help groups transitioning to online formats like Zoom, I have never, in all my life, felt as isolated as I do out here. Not even in San Quentin or Sing Sing. Naturally, no sooner had I voiced my internal troubles than my bro, Ecua called me from Attica, where visits, vocational and educational programs have stopped, prisoners are forced to wear masks, and hundreds of prisoners and guards have already tested positive for CoViD-19 and many have lost their lives. As I explained my hug-deprived suffering and isolation to Ecua, the words stuck in my throat. The little flash of self-reflection turned into a mushroom cloud when another old friend shared how his mother was in a nursing home (that he’d been forced to put her in, due to infirmity and advanced Alzheimer’s) and now that very nursing home was hit by multiple CoViD-19 infections, and he was struggling, not knowing what, if anything, he could do. People of color are suffering a more brutal type of enforcement of these made up rules, and being murdered in the streets by police, yet I’m feeling turmoil? No, I’m feeling particularly petty and self-absorbed, whiney and weak. Yes, I’m terrified now to go to the corner bodega, or to my doctors office. But legions of brave, fearless, heroic first responders go into the hot zones repeatedly, every day. How can I even complain? How fucking dare, I? I feel ashamed now for crying over what one friend refers to as my ‘rich white girl’ problems, while the very air is being crushed out of the lungs of others, not by a virus, but by emboldened racist police. This virus, though it is as unlike HIV as an apple is unlike an orange, is frightening and deadly. I have been through this before. Silence and denial equal death. I know what needs to be done. I need to stop whining and wake the fuck up.
AFTER we have all climbed out of our socially distant fox holes, there will be a NEXT time share the horror, pain and void I still feel TODAY, decades after losing so many friends to HIV/AIDS. And I know there will be people who, instead of looking at me confused, uncomprehending, will now be able to nod their heads in understanding. THEN, as my friends and neighbors try to process the devastation, or the government’s betrayal, and put voice to their pain, grief and outrage, I will empathize, recognizing their pain as my own. And I will share the path I took to healing and recovery was SOLIDARITY and ACTION. I will be able to help comfort and counsel them, advise and assist, serve them, much like, say, a CoViD-19 Doula. I will not let the insidious encroachment on our rights and liberties be forgotten. I will stand sentinel, and remember when other can not. More, I will speak truth to power. I will condemn racial inequality and invite others to join me, as I share my strength, hope and experiences; my love, faith and resources, and I pledge it all in the mutual aid of my neighbors.
I will work, sacrifice and struggle for a more free, just and perfect union, and be a servant to my community
And if opposed, I will stand with my community, rally and fight in the courts, the streets or the barricades.
This article is dedicated to the late, great Larry Kramer, who taught me how to advocate, and agitate.
To read more from Brian, read an article from thebody.org