As this incomprehensible year winds down, I’m revisiting some of the stories I’ve written over the last twelve months—attempting to create a narrative out of this somewhat disjointed collection of work and the time it spans.
In the early weeks of 2020, I traveled from New York to California to report on San Francisco’s efforts to eliminate the myriad fines and fees that keep poor people in debt. I then flew back east and headed across the Hudson River to Newark, New Jersey, where I investigated the ongoing chaos behind the local government’s handling of a lead-contamination crisis that left some residents without safe drinking water for months.
When those stories were published in mid-March and early April, they entered a world drastically different than the one in which they’d been reported and written. By then, my reporting, like nearly everything else in our lives, had become remote. As unemployment soared and mutual aid projects popped up around the country, I spent April on the phone with organizers and historians, exploring the radical history of mutual aid, from Black mutual aid societies in the 1700s, to the mutualista movement of the 1800s, to the Black Panthers and Young Lords in the 1960s and 1970s, to emergency relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Once again, that story’s publication, this time in early June, found me in a very different place than the one I’d been in when I’d written it: the streets of Brooklyn, masked and under curfew and protesting. In the midst of that momentum, I pulled back to analyze the role of jail support in social movements, honoring a vital but oft-invisible organizing tool.
Later in the summer, when calmer energy and higher temperatures had settled in, I returned to a project that I’d started over three years prior, when I’d first reported on young far-right activists in Paris during the 2017 French presidential election. My reporting combined with research I’d done for my master’s thesis in 2018 to become a feature for VICE, looking at why well-educated young people in a city known for strikes and revolution are joining the far right. Published at the beginning of October, the story ended on an ominous note about the potential of the far right to reach unexpected people and places. It’s a potential that exists regardless of who resides in the Élysée Palace—or in the White House. I had this sobering thought in mind a month later, as I celebrated my birthday on the bright Saturday morning that New York City exploded with long-absent exuberance over the news that Donald Trump had failed to win re-election.
Together, these five stories trace a jagged, bumpy path through 2020: the early hints of optimism, the shocking lows, the solidarity and perseverance in the face of tragedy and injustice, and the ever-present—and, I would argue, ever-growing—threat of the far right on both sides of the Atlantic.
In case you missed these stories the first time around or wish to revisit them now, you can find links here:
Cutting the Poor a Break: San Francisco pioneers a program to reduce fees and fines that keep people from succeeding. The Progressive. April/May 2020.
Newark’s Lead Crisis Isn’t Over: “People Are Still Drinking Water That They Shouldn’t.” The Intercept. March 15, 2020.
Friends in Need: Mutual aid societies offer a model of cooperation for helping the vulnerable. The Progressive. June/July 2020.
Jail Support: What Is It and How Does It Support Social Movements? Teen Vogue. June 15, 2020.
To avoid leaving you on the same ominous note I ended my VICE story with, I thought I would close the year with a nod to the activities that accompanied, and made possible, this work: running (eight miles, before last week’s snowstorm rendered the sidewalks treacherous), knitting (forthcoming: a scrap-yarn sweater from the leftovers I’ve accumulated over the last few years), baking (most recently, lemon squares to bring some light to the winter solstice), and yoga (going on half a decade as the most essential part of my day).
Inevitably, some hobbies didn’t stick: I spent about a week trying to learn Russian alongside a friend who is determined to read a Russian epic poem that has never been translated into English. She remains a committed student; I still only know the few words I picked up from a Russian figure skating coach over fifteen years ago. С праздником!