(In)Security in the Time of COVID-19: New Histories of Human Vulnerability, Community Resilience, and the Struggle for Social Justice

Artwork by: Tobias Merlo.

This post introduces “(In)Security in the Time of COVID-19,” a ten-part blog series that will be featured on ActiveHistory.ca over the next six weeks. Visit the series page here.

We are the (In)Security Working Group, a collective of historians based at the University of Toronto committed to developing a rigorous and critical analysis of the ways in which security regimes impact people’s lives.

We understand “security” as a set of police practices that states mobilize to protect property under the guise of keeping people safe. Historically, these governmental techniques designed to foster a healthy population and to ensure capital accumulation have also produced precarity, exploitation, and skewed life chances among “undesirable” populations. Security regimes thus render Black and Indigenous; LGBTQ2+; mentally or physically disabled; undomiciled or precariously housed; undocumented; and poor people vulnerable to premature death despite their stated objective of fostering life. Policing practices that ostensibly keep people (and property) safe and frequently culminate in the disproportionate arrest, assault, and execution of black people are one example of the Janus-faced nature of security. Yet, even seemingly benign professions like social work and governmental agencies like public health play increasingly important roles in contemporary security regimes that underpin what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “organized social abandonment” in the age of austerity.  Prioritizing property and profit over people leaves too many people vulnerable to the direct and indirect violence of market forces. Our collective believes that alternative ways of keeping people safe exist. Indeed, the very same communities abandoned and targeted for injury and death are often the birthplaces of innovative strategies for survival and harm reduction.

The (In)Security working group was created during a state of emergency. While no one could have predicted the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is hardly surprising that it has proven to be especially destructive to poor people, Black and Indigenous communities, and incarcerated human beings. Closed borders, disorganized lockdowns, and the failure of governments worldwide to protect essential workers, not to mention the terrible toll that the disease itself has taken on marginalized communities, offers a striking counterpoint to the image of a global elite at the helm of finance capitalism who have seen their wealth soar while remaining relatively insulated from the virus. Over half of all Canadians are within $200 of not being able to cover their bills and debt payments; Canadian billionaires, meanwhile, accumulated an additional $37 Billion dollars during the pandemic.

Mainstream media outlets continue to pay little attention to the racial and class cartographies of the COVID-19 catastrophe. Instead, headlines are flooded with staggering death tolls and infection rates, racist conspiracies igniting anti-Chinese sentiment, and speculation about when things will finally return “back to normal.” Yet, a return to normalcy should be ethically unacceptable since the virus merely exacerbated the regular and long-standing effects of racial capitalism and its attendant security regimes. George Floyd was killed on the eve of the pandemic; subsequent lockdowns did little to keep police officers from harassing, arresting, and, at times, killing other black people. Hence the long hot summer of 2020 when Black Lives Matter protests swept North America and the globe, drawing critical connections between enduring patterns of racist state violence and novel threats to black life due to medical apartheid in the time of COVID-19. Abolition, after all, entails defunding the police and prison system so that our public money is spent on free, quality health care rather than incarceration.

In Toronto, the community responses to our normalized state of insecurity have been nothing short of phenomenal. Protests across the city organized by groups like Black Lives Matter TO and Not Another Black life erupted with demands to defund and abolish the police and reinvest in community resources. Renters in Parkdale launched Keep Your Rent campaigns to encourage mass rent strikes given Canada’s refusal to implement a wage freeze for non-commercial renters. Indigenous peoples in our city and across the country continued to mobilize in defense of their sovereignty over these lands. Masses of people are trying to build safety in our society where it has heretofore been the preserve of the wealthy.

Our collective is committed to historicizing this conjuncture and to making certain that the social movements, local knowledge, and political challenges of this moment are documented in the historical record. Our hope is to offer rigorous and useful analysis to help us better understand the security regimes that shape our lives and the movements that seek to transform or dismantle them. For our first public project we have partnered with Active History as well scholars and activists beyond our working group to bring you a special series on (In)security.

Melanie Ng contextualizes anti-Chinese racism amid the COVID-19 pandemic by examining the older intertwined histories of anti-Chinese and anti-Black racism in Canada. Ng invites us to consider how these specific forms of racism, though not identical, buttress white supremacy while precluding an easy solidarity between Black and Asian Canadians.

Avvy Go, director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, discusses the current state of racism, harassment, and violence directed toward Chinese Canadians and persons of Asian descent during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Go calls on us to learn about the history of racism in Canada and actively support community organizations engaged in anti-racism work, including the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice (CCNC-SJ), which launched the Stop the Spread campaign in 2020, the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, and Colour of Poverty – Colour of Change.

Khaleel Grant shares an interview with Dr. Beverly Bain, a University of Toronto professor and long-time Toronto activist. Together they discuss the trajectory of Bain’s activism over the decades, her reflections on the long history of Black queer organizing in Toronto, and the urgent need for abolition.

Criminologists Alex Luscombe and Alexander McClelland reflect on important lessons learned about data and data activism since the April 2020 launch of the Policing the Pandemic Mapping Project. The project tracks and visually depicts data on the enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions and patterns in policing across Canada. Furthermore, Luscombe and McClelland expose some of the challenges and limitations of the Policing the Pandemic Mapping project and offer valuable insight into the work of data activism.

Lauren Catterson also considers COVID-19 restrictions but within the context of travel and immigration. Almost one year ago, many countries introduced new immigration controls in response to the pandemic. In the U.S. the Trump administration downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19 while seizing the opportunity to bar certain non-U.S. residents and non-U.S. citizens from entering the country. Though these measures appear to be a temporary response to the pandemic, Catterson considers immigration during other moments of crisis, here World War One, and demonstrates how exceptional wartime measures became important and lasting parts of U.S. immigration law.

Edward Dunsworth examines how the already vulnerable position of migrant farm workers in Canada has been exacerbated by the global pandemic. Dunsworth emphasizes how insecurity and exclusion are a recurring theme in the history of Canada’s agricultural sector. Denied the protections of labour unions, collective bargaining, and employment laws that apply to other workers, migrant agricultural labourers have been left with the impossible burden of toiling to feed Canadians while left unprotected from COVID-19.

Justin Panos historicizes the COVID-19 crisis in Ontario’s long-term care system. Despite significant media outcry regarding outbreaks and deaths in these facilities, corporate care chains and the provincial government essentially abandoned some of Ontario’s most vulnerable citizens. Panos connects this crisis to a broader history of labor organizing and privatization in Ontario’s long-term care sector. Organized labor’s inability to forge a meaningful coalition with residents and their families emboldened the champions of privatization and undermined workers’ bargaining power. Fashioning a new social movement that explicitly links worker power to patient care is key, Panos suggests, to preventing similar tragedies in the future.

Lilian Radovac and Simon Vickers explore how grassroots community archives and the histories they house face the threat of disappearance due to increasing financial precarity. Reflecting on their own experiences with the digital archive exhibition space Alternative Toronto, Radovac and Vickers reveal the labour and financial costs that grassroots communities take on to preserve counter-historical records. In the 1970s cheaper rent in Toronto meant that community histories could be more affordably housed. With increasing waves of gentrification and skyrocketing rent prices, it has become incredibly challenging to maintain existing community archive spaces and create new ones. Radovac and Vickers insist that funding agencies must commit to supporting local grassroots community-based archives or we risk losing these histories.

If Radovac and Vickers show the ways in which housing precarity shapes the historical record, Max Mishler focuses on the specific problem of housing insecurity in the time of COVID-19. Situating Toronto’s current eviction crisis in a longer history of financialization and racial capitalism, Mishler highlights the political decisions in Ontario and Toronto that have made people vulnerable to eviction. In the second part of this post, Mishler interviews Samuel Stein, author of the book Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State, about the matrix of real estate, capital, and human insecurity.

Last, but certainly not least, Emily Gilbert’s afterword identifies some of the key themes to emerge from this conversation and offers some concluding thoughts on the overall project. Of course, there is so much more to be said on security and insecurity in the time of COVID-19 and while we certainly have not covered everything, we welcome you to respond to our posts to broaden our conversation on these questions of security and insecurity in Canada.


The (In)Security Working Group

Lauren Catterson, Elio Colavito, Khaleel Grant, Kate Grisdale, Sarah Hannon, Carlie Manners, Max Mishler, Melanie Ng

Alec Dunn-Domes, Domestic + Global. Sourced from: Justseeds.

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