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Black Lives Matter Leaders See Organizing Opportunities During COVID-19 Pandemic
Black Lives Mattes Organizer Dr. Melina Abdullah serves as a panelist on Live Stream Of "My Peoples" Episode 3 at Mack Sennett Studios on May 22, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Earl Gibson III/Getty Images

Black Lives Matter leaders are using the COVID-19 outbreak as a chance to push criminal justice reforms and advance an anti-capitalist agenda that they say has already been partially implemented by public officials responding to the pandemic.

Dr. Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of BLM’s L.A. chapter, said it is time for “those who’ve been thinking about what the collapse of capitalism could do” to spring into action, “just as crises are used by oppressive regimes to usher in their visions.”

During her weekly “Beautiful Struggle” radio show broadcast Tuesday night on KPFK FM, Abdullah encouraged BLM allies “to sharpen our organizing tools.” She was joined by Rosa Clemente, an early member of Black Lives Matter, who has been discussing coronavirus strategies with other black liberation activists throughout the nation. Clemente said the current public health emergency presents “a prime opportunity to not only reimagine what this world can look like but to make that vision a reality.”

“We are in the whirlwind of capitalism collapsing, particularly here in the United States,” Clemente, a former Green Party vice presidential candidate, told Abdullah. “Everything we’ve been saying this country could do, they’re actually doing it now. Now y’all like socialism, right? Because it’s definitely knocking at your door.”

Clemente specifically mentioned new housing policies from California Governor Gavin Newsom, whose administration is leasing hotels and motels to protect homeless people from contracting COVID-19. State officials are reportedly considering purchasing the properties, along with apartment buildings, in an effort to stop the virus from spreading among vulnerable, unsheltered individuals.

“Now, you can find homes for people who are unhoused,” Clemente said. “We’ve been asking for that for three decades.”

The organizers also discussed how COVID-19 has changed policing and public safety, as some law enforcement agencies have ordered officers to cite and release people whenever possible, resulting in fewer arrests. Meanwhile, criminal and civil trials have been discontinued in California for at least two months to reduce the flow of people entering state courthouses.

Black Lives Matter recently released a list of demands which include a request for government officials to “release all people in detention, prisons and jails who are elderly or infirm.”  Healthcare experts have voiced concern that correctional facilities could become “incubators” for the virus to spread because of the cramped conditions inside, making it difficult for inmates to maintain social distancing. Gov. Newsom issued an executive order on Tuesday that stopped the intake of new people into state and juvenile facilities in California due to COVID-19. In New York City, America’s epicenter for coronavirus, 75 inmates in the jail system had tested positive as of Wednesday, while 37 correctional staffers had also contracted the disease.

“COVID-19 is shining a light on all injustices in the world, including the caging of human beings,” Abdullah said.

Earlier this week, L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he had released at least 1,700 nonviolent detainees over coronavirus fears. Abdullah has called on politicians to pull back resources from law enforcement and redirect those funds to healthcare and alternatives to incarceration.

Several regions and states recently issued government-mandated orders for residents to stay home in an attempt to contain the disease, resulting in mass layoffs. A record 3.28 million unemployment claims were filed in the United States last week, according to the Department of Labor. On Friday, the House of Representatives passed a $2 trillion stimulus bill in response to the adverse effect coronavirus has had on the economy. The plan, previously approved by the Senate on Wednesday, includes direct payouts to about 90% of Americans, an unprecedented boost of unemployment benefits, federal aid for independent contractors, protections against foreclosures and evictions, $500 billion in corporate loan funding, $117 billion for hospitals, $32 billion in grants to the airline industry, and the suspension of student loan payments.

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