In this personal essay, local community activist Janis Bookout encourages Austinites to see the power in embracing social distancing and choosing to create a long-lasting, positive impact on our local community.
Janis Bookout is the Executive Director of Earth Day Austin, as well as one of the organizers of Community Resilience Trust, a grassroots coalition that came together in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the goal of making Austin a more equitable city for everyone. You can support Janis' work by contributing to her Patreon account.
When I was a child, patriotism was a thing we talked about, at least my grandparents did. But since they passed, I don’t hear it much anymore. Now, as I am watching the world deal with this pandemic, I am left wondering what this means for our freedom.
Choosing to change your behavior is not giving up your freedom. It’s a choice. When I became a parent, in reality, I was not forced to, I was not obligated to. One could argue that I was brainwashed by my own baby (sleep deprivation, intimidation techniques, etc.), but overall, my behavior was my choice. And I changed my behavior significantly. I made sweeping changes to everything almost overnight. Because it mattered. That sweet boy mattered more to me than everything I had invested in up to that point.
In the last few weeks, out of love for my family, my community, and just people, once again I am willingly upending my life – giving up 90 percent of my normal activities and completely changing my behavior. Why? Because it matters. That sweet baby boy and his sweet baby brother are now 15 and 13. I want them to have their grandparents for as long as possible. I want them to have parents who guide them far into adulthood. But it doesn’t stop there. I want all of our families to thrive together.
So, as I have watched the world deal with this pandemic, I am left wondering about what is really at stake here. Yes, life is at stake. But also, what about democracy? We can see democracy’s weakness in our inability to suppress this virus. In a “free” world, people are used to doing what they want. In our industrialized and now high tech society, many are used to having the world at their fingertips.
Many, but not all. Because the chain of events leading up to that privilege included the subjugation of people for the wealth of others. And that’s where I want to go–all the way back to our formation as a country. The spirit of our constitution far exceeded the capacity of our founding fathers to embody its implications. In fact, to a great extent, we constituted our country on stolen land and powered it with genocide and slavery. The Bill of Rights, however, began to flesh out what it fully meant to embody the value of human rights such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Eventually, it could not be denied (at least in print) that that right was a human right – for all humans, not just white ones.
But even as we have moved toward human rights and civil rights, over time we have, in the societal “back room”, systematically institutionalized discrimination, exploitation, bias, and physical harm. Discriminatory laws were replaced by more subtle dress codes and hair policies. Prisons were filled disproportionally with non-white people who were (and are) then used as under-paid labor to make profit for companies led almost entirely by white CEO’s. “Capitalism” was allowed to run rampant with insufficient checks and balances while the racial pay gap got wider and wider and wider due to a lack of policies that would ensure anything different. It is a long, connected chain leading to this moment, and there may well be a long chain moving forward.
At the same time, our excessive production and waste has also polluted our neighborhoods (disproportionately non-white) and streams and nearly every living thing that makes our neighborhoods and natural spaces beautiful. We have plastic particles in nearly every digestive system on the planet.
All this to have the world at our fingertips.
At the core of American ideology is independence. This is what fuels the left to fight for equal rights AND the right to fight for freedom from regulation. Independence. The ability to move and live free as one’s own agent, free from constraint. This is the ideology that is both our strength and our weakness.
If someone wanted to take over and control the free world, they would want to create an environment of chaos just like the one we have right now. They would instill existential fear into everyone on the planet, just like the fear we have right now. They would create a situation in which virtually everyone was begging for some authority to solve the problem they themselves created with their unwillingness to restrain their own movement.
And now here is the moment where the human mind wants to ask, “What if this is really a hoax? Or worse, viral warfare?” It’s not a hoax. People are getting sick and dying. This is, in fact, happening. We will almost certainly never know for sure if it is viral warfare. But neither of these is the question that matters. The only question that matters is How will we respond?
How will we respond? If we ignore the warnings and “exercise our freedom” by refusing to participate in social distancing practices, not only will many of us kill ourselves and others doing so, but we may well lose our precious freedom while we are at it. Because when the ventilators run out, hospital staff are overwhelmed and dying, supply chains are running out, and everyone is terrified, who will be left to fight off authoritarianism? We may well be begging for it at that point.
We have one shot, right now, to save our democracy, but how? How do you protect free will when what is threatening all of us requires such extreme measures?
Choose to change your behavior. Like a mother or father who gives up almost everything for their child, choose. Choose to stay home. Choose to protect others. And do it now. Not next week, not tomorrow. Now. Take Austin, Texas, for example. A UT modeling study shows that if we don’t suppress 90 percent of our movement, we can expect to run out of ventilators between now and mid-April. l. We are not there yet. According to the unacast heatmap, movement in Travis County is currently reduced by 55-70 percent.
You see, choosing to participate is still exercising your freedom. If you willingly choose to participate, then no one has to force you to. No military necessary. Hospitals stay functional, and there is a respirator available for you or your parents when and if the time comes.
You can also choose to be kind to others. You can choose to think beyond your own neighborhood and see what you can do to offset inequities. In doing so, we can build relationships and strengthen our networks. We can diversify our approach.
Communities, like people, are a renewable resource. We can thrive if we nurture ourselves. We can be resilient if we actually work, inclusively together. We can triumph over adversity and build the kind of society we have truly always wanted. The one where there is no need for regulation and enforcement because people choose not to dump or spew harmful chemicals into the air next to underrepresented communities.
But this is NOT going to just happen on its own. All of us, but especially those with the most privilege and power, have to willingly choose to change our behavior.
But let’s get it even more real. How are we going to have a fair election during a pandemic? The ONLY way we can is if we are working together, participating in a way that has everything work. THIS IS POSSIBLE. How do I know?
Because a group of leaders in Austin, Texas is right now working together to protect our most vulnerable. This is not just one siloed organization, but 30+ organizations serving diverse sets of constituencies, looking strategically together to forward the most vital strategies, policies and communications as quickly as possible, while staying mindful of not doing more harm. It is extraordinary. It is the definition of resilience.
THAT is the kind of society I want to build. One in which we preserve the beauty of life for everyone and the world really works for all us. We are at a pivotal moment in human history.
How will we respond? Choose.