We Still Here: Pandemic, Policing, Protest, and Possibility
Reviewed by David Austin
June 1, 2021
By Marc Lamont Hill. Haymarket Books, 2020. 128 pages. $40/hardcover; $12.95/paperback or eBook.
In May 2020, professor, author, and activist Marc Lamont Hill was faced with a dilemma. The United States was being rocked by the protests that came in response to the eight-minute-and-forty-six-second-long video recording of the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, and against the extrajudicial killings of Black Americans all over the country, including demonstrations in Hill’s home city of Philadelphia, Pa. But as the nation was in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, his joining a public protest would possibly expose him (and by extension, members of his family) to a virus that was already having a disproportionately devastating effect on the Black community. The dilemma illustrated a point that other commentators had made: that perhaps the most glaring side effect of the pandemic was the laying bare of the unjust and discriminatory institutions that rule this nation.
In the first half of this slim but powerful book (presented as a series of interviews with the author conducted by French activist Frank Barat), Hill takes us through the many ways in which COVID-19 showcased the issues of economic inequality that were exacerbated by the crisis. There’s the response that Hill terms “Corona capitalism” to refer to exploitation of people under duress for profit; there is the wretched state of this country’s for-profit healthcare industry and its particular failure in Black and Brown communities; there is the havoc wreaked on incarcerated people and the elderly, the “death-eligible,” as Hill refers to both of these sectors of the population.
The second half of the book focuses on the protests that erupted across the United States last summer in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, and so many, many others. Hill discusses the importance of cell phone and body camera video in documenting these crimes. He delves into the issue of the protests, the vast majority of which were peaceful. There is a frank conversation about Hill’s statement that “All Black Lives Matter,” a “declaration that no one is disposable,” a discussion that includes “those who do not fit into mainstream frameworks of respectability” (queer or trans Black folks, for example). There is also a very necessary conversation about the history and future of policing.
And finally, there’s the “possibility” part, an “abolitionist future,” as Hill calls it, but treatment here is not limited to the usual references to capital punishment or prisons. For Hill, an abolitionist future is one that is “about building a world where we work together to meet one another’s needs; a world built on communities of care and networks of nurture; a world in which every living being has access to safety, self-determination, freedom, and dignity.”
And that is the power of this book. In spite of all the pain, suffering, anger, and division of the last year (made worse by the acrimony over the presidential election and the violent insurrection that followed), Hill sees this time as one of possibility, of hope, of movements for real structural change.
Last summer’s rebellions and the pandemic are forcing us to have real, very serious conversations about criminal justice reform, incarceration, police reform, income inequality, and yes—finally—real reform of our healthcare system. These conversations are already leading to legislation, which could mean substantial and transformational change. With luck, this book can stimulate such conversations, perhaps within our meetings, and show us how to turn our words into action.
David Austin is a member of Haddonfield (N.J.) Meeting. He is a retired history and English teacher and Holocaust educator. His middle-grade novel in verse recounting the true story of Holocaust survivor Charles Middleberg is titled Small Miracle and is now available from Fernwood Press.