Nyle Fort

Will the Pandemic Mean Justice in America?

Air Date: August 31, 2020

Minister, activist, and Princeton University scholar Nyle Fort discusses reimagining a post-pandemic America.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, and I’m honored to welcome today to our broadcast an activist, humanitarian, a minister, and a scholar, Nyle Fort at Princeton University. He joins us today. Welcome.


FORT: Thank you for having me.


HEFFNER: Nyle, first, I know that you yourself had COVID. I want to ask you about your health, how are you feeling?


FORT: I’m not 100 percent, but I’m much, much better. I have my taste back, which is probably the most important thing after my smell back and I’m back to working out. So I feel good. Thank you for asking.


HEFFNER: That’s a relief to hear. I’m glad you’re getting better, if not in a hundred percent condition. You have been so eloquent and poignant in your commentary on this crisis and the humanitarian and religious awakening. I wondered if we could just start there. How would you characterize, if the response to the pandemic has been a kind of awakening, how would you define it? How would you describe it for our viewers?


FORT: Well, I love the way that Arundhati Roy describes it, a writer wrote “The God of Small Things” recently wrote “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” a novelist and activist. She described it in a recent essay as a portal, talking about the pandemic as a portal. And part of why I like that is that it suggests that there is no going back to normal. There’s no going back to normal. It’s going to lead us somewhere. And the question one is where is it going to lead us? And two is what are we going to bring with us? So she has these amazing lines at the end of the essay that talks about, are we going to carry the carcasses of our past: the wars, the guns, the exploitation of the earth through that portal with us and essentially recreate what we already had or are we going to walk lightly on the earth? Are we to carry less baggage? And are we going to come into this new world with the excitement about possibly building and transforming the world? And so I love that analogy of a portal and I think that it’s dead on.


HEFFNER: If you were to answer that question, Nyle, reimagining this next stage of human existence, what is a realistic aspiration that can achieve the ideals that we have not been able to achieve in recent decades and even centuries?


FORT: Sure. I’m, I actually want to take a step back before we get into what’s realistic or not. And I actually think that what’s so remarkable about this moment is that it gives us an opportunity to completely re-imagine what it would be like to live into the world. What it would look like for us to not have to work to live. We have so many people who are currently unemployed. So many people who are struggling to eat. We have so many children who are struggling to receive their education because they’re hungry or because they’re crowded in dilapidated housing. So what would it look like one for us to back away from what’s realistic, but to think about what’s possible. In the heyday of slavery, it was not realistic to think about black people being born outside of plantations. And so we have to remember that. We have to remember that the best of what’s happened in the world did not happen because it was realistic. James Baldwin says that I know what I’m asking of you is impossible. But then he said, the impossible is the least that we can demand. And I think in a world that’s marked by so much oppression a part of what happens is, is that it limits our imagination. I’m reading this really cool book called “The Body Keeps The Score” and it’s about trauma and the body and the mind. And it talks about how people who are traumatized oftentimes have this assault on our imagination on thinking about what might be possible. So I actually want to start there. I want to think about what does a world look like, where everyone has, what they need to thrive? What does a world look like where no child not only goes hungry, but has the opportunity not only to go to a decent school, but to experience the world where they can go to the park and not be killed by a police officer like Tamir Rice was or can walk down the street like Michael Brown did and eventually attend college, which he was supposed to do two days later, or who can sleep on their auntie’s couch, like Aiyana Stanley Jones in peace and not be raided and eventually shot and killed at I believe, seven years old. And then beyond that, how do we think about thriving and flourishing? I don’t want to fight for a world where we’re just making it. I don’t want to fight for a world where my kids or our kids just don’t get killed by police. I want a world where they can thrive, where they can imagine, where they can think about what’s possible, and actually act on that without being so bombarded with questions of police brutality. So bombarded with the fear of not making it home safely. And so I want to think about that. Now, in terms of what’s realistic,

HEFFNER: Well, you, you said what’s humane ought to be realistic,


FORT: That it ought to, but, but in reality we’re fighting against hundreds of years of history. We’re not only fighting against what happened to George Floyd. We’re not only fighting against what happened to Brianna Taylor. We’re fighting against hundreds of years of oppression, racial oppression, class oppression, gender oppression, so on and so forth. And I think that’s a remarkable thing to remember when we ask these questions of what’s realistic. Well, you know, we’re dealing with hundreds of years of oppression and a lot of people want us to figure that out in a couple of minutes. And I think that that’s unfair. And I think that we should have the room and space to experiment, to play, to try, to fail, to get back up again, and to keep asking these same questions.


HEFFNER: As someone personally affected by this pandemic and seeing communities across the country, but in particular, the disproportionate effect on black and brown communities that also ought to factor in, into what is realistic and what is a humane public policy that values each human life the same way. But the, the reality of this pandemic and COVID is that we don’t have equal rights. We don’t have an equal right to healthcare. So I wonder personally how that factors into your assessment of what we should be driving towards now?


FORT: Sure. With that said imagination needs to be coupled with will and needs to be coupled with strategy. And so I don’t want to make it seem as if imagination alone is what we need. It’s a crucial part because it actually lets us know what’s possible. It lets us know what’s possible. Those of us who are interested in changing the world, people also have imaginations that are quite cruel. People imagined black people in slavery. So that’s a side note. But we do need to think about what it takes to actually actualize our dreams. And I think activists are doing a remarkable job at that. They’re thinking through, for example, what does it mean to have safety in our communities without not only police violence, but without the role of policing at all, which in many ways is designed to collect, to protect public, to protect private property and manage inequality. And so we see activists, we see protestors, we see community people trying to figure out exactly how to do this. Another example, in the midst of people who are struggling to eat, who are struggling to make ends, meet, struggling, to feed their children, struggling to have education for their seven-year-old or their high school student, we have all of these mutual aid groups that are popping up all across the country. And that is a very real life example of people who normally do not have the resources at scale to do what the government could do are still figuring out ways to protect one another to care for one another, to learn each other’s names, to build relationships that are not predicated on exploitative labors. I don’t have to meet you just because we happen to work at the same job, but I get to meet you because we live near each other and because we have a common interest in taking care of one another and each other’s families. So I think there’s some very practical steps that do need to be taken. I think this experience has showed us the fault lines of democracy. Bernie Sanders campaign I think was really hitting the nail on the head when it was emphasizing health care. So we just notice how ridiculous our healthcare system is as soon as this pandemic hit, I mean much, much before, but it became utterly apparent when you don’t know where you can get tested, if you can get tested, you don’t know if you’re going to get charged for getting tested or for being inputted into the hospital. And so we have all of these questions that I think again, is allowing for us to think through how can we build a different kind of world. What does it mean again, not to have to work, to live? What does it mean to have leisure? A lot of people are struggling in this moment, but also spending more time with their families. What if we could do that outside of the context of a crisis? What if that could also be a right that we all enjoy?


HEFFNER: When you talk about the right to health care and the systemic inequity you’re lasering in on the structural realities pre-pandemic, and how much of that was manifested in those responses to the pandemic that were so inadequate for certain communities? And, how do you see that, that historical perfect storm of the police brutality further exposing manifestly just the ludicrousness of inequality?


FORT: Sure I mean, one way that I’ve described it is that in one way the pandemic is unprecedented. We haven’t seen something like this, I believe in over a hundred years. But on the other hand, it’s all too familiar in its consequences. And so there was a whole story that was being told that death is the great democratizer; that the pandemic somehow democratized misery and suffering. But now if you’ve been paying attention to any of the data you know, that that’s utterly not true, it’s a complete lie. Death is not the great, great democracies. In fact, I think it’s at the moment of death that we actually see the fault lines of democracy. We see not only who dies more and who dies younger, but we see how people die. And so I think we really need to be honest that this was really a train wreck. But as Arundhati Roy says in The Pandemic is a Portal that train had already been moving towards disaster. And so we see that in every major institution of American life. We see that in housing. So we have an eviction crisis that is really on its way. I mean, it’s already begun, but it’s really on its way, an eviction crisis, of course, we have an incarceration crisis, which is not just about numbers, but it, which is also about the qualitative experience of what it means to be inside of a prison, which is probably the most inhumane place to be during a pandemic. It’s impossible to quarantine in a prison. And then you couple that with the lack of PPE, you couple that with the rise of depression rates, you couple that with all these other things. So you’re talking about housing, you’re talking about incarceration; we’re talking about food insecurity. What does it mean to not have enough money to feed your family or to feed yourself? Of course, we can talk about employment. Not only are we losing our loved ones, but we’re also losing jobs, black people, working class people, latinx people were disproportionately affected in every area of American life. And those were the preconditions. Those were the preexisting conditions, even before the pandemic struck. So what the pandemic did is it revealed for some but confirmed for others, what this country has always been about, but it’s also laid bare, I think not only what’s wrong with this country, but I think what could be turned right. Again, I think we see clearly that we would need a new healthcare system if we truly believe that everyone mattered: black people, working class people, poor people, women. I think that we could see that it matters that we have quality education. So now we have black children, working class children, otherwise who are falling back in their education even more than certain other students, even though we’re all falling back. So again, I think that you’re absolutely right. I think people like Arundhati Roy and so many others who been really screaming that, hey, y’all this isn’t new in its consequences, even though it may see new and, and how it’s arrived.


HEFFNER: It may also not be new in the deliberate malice on the part of an administration that’s denied critical services to the populations most suffering. And I just want to ask you as a scholar and a spiritual leader, if it’s important that we define this as what it is. And, you know, I don’t know what the correct term is, but I think when it comes to the negligence of authorities, both at the state level, in New York where I’m recording this and nationally, when it comes to the federal government, there has been a malignant negligence that can be described fairly as homicidal and even genocidal. And I don’t know if it’s important for us to take the step to define it that way, but I want you to tell us if it is.


FORT: Sure. I mean, I think that it’s like saying that the sky is blue. It’s like saying that water is wet. If you just open your eyes and you’d be honest about what you feel we know that we are under a misleadership that in many ways does not care, not only about black people, but almost anyone other than his own interests. And it’s just Donald Trump, it’s governors and other establishment politicians across the country who are governing their states in ways that are completely inhumane, that are cruel, that are killing people. And so blood is actually on their hands. It’s funny how we are; some people are pointing to the young people, having parties and pointing to protesters and things like that. And really in reality, those who have the most power, oftentimes are I think left off the hook. And I also want to say that it’s awesome. It’s so important. You know, it’s easy to point at Donald Trump as the sum of all of what’s wrong with our country and our society. That’s easy to do. He’s an easy monster to point out and then put our blame on. And while obviously there’s so much blame there. And while obviously it’s really important to tell the truth about the monstrosity and the cruelty of his administration and his presidency I think it’s also important to remember that not only is Donald Trump not the only the issue, it’s not only the Republican Party. So you have a Democratic Party that in many ways has been complicit with the suffering of working class people, poor people, black people, and the most vulnerable in our country. So I talked about incarceration, well incarceration was exacerbated and expand it under Bill Clinton in the mid nineties. And you have the Crime Bill in 1994, which in many ways, intensify and expanded the carceral state while, while shrinking and in many ways, eviscerating the social safety net. So you have a moment under a Democratic presidency where you’re ending welfare as we know it, and you’re using the prison system to try to solve all of the inequality that you’ve also created. And so we need to remember that; we need to remember that under Obama, there were more people deported than any other presidency. Now, so we can’t let the identity or the party of certain politicians getting the way of us telling the whole truth. And so I think it’s really important to critique Donald Trump, obviously, I think it’s really important to critique white supremacist governors who essentially believe that white people, especially property owning elite white people matter more than everyone else, but I also think is extremely important, especially now when you have people reminiscing on the good old days of George Bush, which is just absolutely ridiculous, who led us into the Iraq War. We need to tell the truth about the whole thing. And so the scariest thing in this moment isn’t Donald Trump. To me, it’s the urge to return to normal “quote unquote” because normal is what got us here. Normal is inequality. Normal is racism. Normal are people like my nephew who are right now incarcerated for 10, 20 years for essentially being black and poor. That’s normal is. And so I’m really nervous while I’m excited I’m also nervous that the sort of loud racism that we see is making it difficult to hear the quiet racism that happens every day under the Democratic Party, under folks who are even not white, some black politicians and otherwise.


HEFFNER: Nyle, how do we incrementally improve the mortality fatality morbidity situation, the public health situation in a way that is cognizant of what you just said?

FORT: Yeah, well, I won’t pretend to know the one, the 10-step program of how to keep people alive in this situation. I won’t pretend to know that. I mean,


HEFFNER: But you’re concerned about folks being desensitized to the grave and equities that were exposed here. And so far we haven’t gotten the body count under control. I mean, especially in black and brown communities, but across the country. So I just wonder if you have a vision, and I do want to lean into your spirituality for a minute, if you have not at this moment in a subsequent question, but how we get to a vision that is cognizant of the current reality and wanting to avoid the return to the previous reality.


FORT: Sure. I mean a part of it is that numbers can be quite abstract. You know, so while we don’t know the exact numbers, which I think actually is extremely important, data is extremely important. Sociology is extremely important. It makes sense of a messy terrain. It helps us tell broader stories about social groups and all of those types of things. I think that’s extremely important, but let’s not forget numbers don’t have names, numbers don’t have stories, numbers don’t have heartaches. They don’t have children, they are data. They, they try to tell us a broader story. So I think a part of what it means is that to not become desensitized to the death toll and to the number of cases is also to remember that these are real people. They have names, they have family members, they have dreams that many of which have been dashed and deferred. So I think it’s one important,


HEFFNER: Yeah, to my knowledge now there’s not a memorial commemorating the souls lost in the 1918 pandemic, at least not one visible in DC or New York. I’m sitting here very near the Irish hunger monument to those who perished during the great famine, of course, the World Trade Center. That is one way we will never forget. And that should, ought to be first on the agenda here with the legislature and the governor’s office because New York failed its constituents. And, and frankly it failed in a more astronomical magnitudinous way then before the national pandemic plagued communities and every single state. And so I hear you, and I think that both where you are in New Jersey, presumably, and where I am in New York, we need to dedicate monuments and memorials to the memory of those who perished in this pandemic.


FORT: I couldn’t agree more. I’d actually like to speak to that a bit. So my dissertation, I’m writing a dissertation on African American grief and particularly the way that mourning, acts of public mourning shape contemporary black activism. So I’m looking at things like the movement for black lives and thinking about how all of that really is a response to loss, not only the loss of life, but the loss of history and all of those things. And so I think you’re, you’re hitting the head on the nail. I think that’s extremely important and it’s not just how many people are dying, but is this how we as a nation respond to our dead, who gets statues, who gets memorials, who gets three funerals, one of which is in the rotunda in Washington, D.C. and then also, how are those stories told? So someone like Dr. King is a great example, Dr. King is remembered by everybody, you know, he’s remembered in black churches, he’s remembered in black homes. He’s also remembered in the White House. His birthday became a holiday under Ronald Reagan, the same president who he, eviscerated black communities during his presidency, right? The same president who rolled out and continue the War on Drugs, right? And so I think it’s really important to think about that. And King, in that sense, his memory becomes a site of contestation. Do we remember just the second half of “I Have a Dream” or do we remember that first half where he says America has a blank check and it keeps coming back insufficient funds. Do we remember the 1967 Dr. King who stood up in a church called Riverside and spoke out against the war in Vietnam?


HEFFNER: Around the corner in close proximity? Yeah.


FORT: In close proximity. So how we remember it, not just who we remember becomes critical, but I also want to say this memorials are extremely important. Monuments are extremely important. They articulate who and what we care about. They say a lot about what we value and in that sense, they’re deeply political, but they can also become simply representative. They can stand in for the much harder work of actually ensuring that Black Lives Matter on a policy level, on an institutional level. So I go to Princeton University. Princeton recently changed the name, or is replacing the name of the Woodrow Wilson School. And that’s thankfully to student activists, I got to campus in 2015. This was on the heels of the Ferguson rebellion; Student activists were rising up on campuses all across the country. And so it took five years for the administration to pay attention to something that student activists were organizing around for at least at least five years. So they’re going to change the name of the Woodrow Wilson School. And some people are going to applaud that. And they’re going to say that was a step in the right direction. But many of us who are more concerned with an, a transformation and not just a representation, I think are asking important, deeper questions like, okay, you can change the name, but will you change the nature of the school


HEFFNER: Precisely.


FORT: Go ahead.


HEFFNER: No, no. I was just going to say the third reconstruction, if that is the period we’re entering, it cannot be merely symbolic or cultural reparations in, in some status, it has to be an elevated societal footing. And that’s what I want to close on now that this notion that there was no successor to King in shepherding the economic justice message in the way that Lewis, John Lewis, rest in peace, he powered on when it came to voting rights, but there seemed to be an absence when it, when it came to the fundamental economic equality and that question in materially achieving it. And I just want to close with your thoughts on this question of the Third Reconstruction and the pursuit of economic justice and, and what was ostensibly a missing link between King, Lewis, and their successors, not to say folks like William Barber and others are not championing just causes, but materially, it hasn’t arrived yet.


FORT: Well, I mean, I want to think about particular kinds of formations, like the Black Panther Party who in many ways is seen as, as Keeanga Yamahatta says the civil rights movements’ ghetto little cousin, which means we sort of write them off. I mean, the Black Panther party was obviously a socialist organization who was anti- capitalist, who was interested in this economic question. And part of, I think, why they get written off, beside the fact from, you know, they were carrying guns and sort of reduced to that, was the threatening relationship between economics and race. And so they were forming alliances with people like the Young Patriots with groups, groups, like the Young Lords who were latinx Puerto Rican, nationalists, and white communities of talking about this sort of solidarity around class. Of course you have groups like the Comprehend River Collective who are also interested in socialism and socialist projects. So you have a long tradition, even post-King who were interested in transforming the economy. I mean, part of the issue of course is resources, is people really I think, you know, getting the type of political education that’s important, you also have the rise of the black middle class, after King. You have the rise of the black political leadership class, which culminates in Obama. And so you have all these different dynamics that are a bit different than 1964 and 1967. And people were, I think, challenging those things and really with dignity and decency, trying to figure out how to get free around this question of both class and race.


HEFFNER: Nyle, we’ll have to have you back very soon. I hope you’ll join me on the podcast to continue this conversation later this week.


FORT: Okay.


HEFFNER: Thank you for your time today. Nyle.


FORT: Thank you for having me. I had a great time.

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