Subscribe to Salvage and receive two print issues per year, plus digital access including audio and back issue PDFs
The Ground Under Our Feet
The following article first appeared in print in Salvage #10: The Disorder of the Future, our Spring/Summer 2021 issue. Our back issues are available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including PDF versions of all issues, and all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here. They begin with the next print issue, and give instant access to all subscriber-exclusive content.
I am walking to the park. I’ve worked remotely since 2017. The Covid-19 pandemic changed very little about my day-to-day life, only that I could no longer use the office I was renting in a coworking space. I also started to go on a lot of walks. There is a park near the apartment where I used to live, and I walk there, sit at a little table or on a bench, maybe talk to a friend on the phone, maybe read a while, or write and answer emails, or walk around looking at people playing baseball, or walk around listening to music. Even before the pandemic I did a lot of that, actually, walk around listening to music. But it took on a new intensity and frequency once we were in lockdown, especially as the weather got warmer, and now there are certain songs, like ‘It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning’ by Scottish band We Were Promised Jetpacks, that I can’t listen to without thinking about walking through puddles at Armour Square Park during Chicago’s wet early spring.
There are tons of parks like this in Chicago; public space abounds in nature’s metropolis. And though many of them are not cared for as well as they should be – their fieldhouses falling into disrepair, their playground swings rusty and squeaky – they have performed an essential task since the pandemic began: allowing people to gather, safely, in public.
After the initial shock of the pandemic wore off, comrades and I started gathering outside, in parks. We’d have birthday parties, and political meetings, and one-on-one chats, and it felt like we were able to have some semblance of a normal interaction, even though we were outside, and even though we knew we wouldn’t be able to do this forever: it is Chicago, after all, and winter would come eventually. Still, it was a tremendous gift to have this space at all, and to be free to use it, to be able to be in each other’s physical presence, even if we had to stay six feet apart.
This physical presence is essential for building solidarity. You can’t pull someone aside after a Zoom meeting to compliment them on an intervention they made, or ask them to expand on a point, or commiserate about how uncomfortable the chairs were. You can’t exchange a knowing look across a room. You can’t walk a picket line on Zoom or block Michigan Avenue on Zoom. You can’t chant together on Zoom, because Zoom mutes everyone else when one person is speaking. Our ability to feel our collective strength – really feel it – depends on our ability to meet in person.
I am talking on the phone with my oldest friend about wearing masks. She lives in Argentina, where we’re both from, and she has heard on the news about mask-wearing in the U.S. becoming politicised. She can’t believe it, and she wants me to explain it to her. How come some conservatives are opposed to wearing masks? What is going on? Do they not want to live?
I struggle to answer with more than ‘Yeah, it’s bananas, right?’, because she and I only get so many hours a month on the phone, and I want to talk about our lives. I know there is a lot to uncover, and if we start trying to think it through out loud, we’ll end up talking exclusively about why some people refuse to wear the masks.
But let’s talk about it. Let’s start with the obvious: there are people who see the masks as an infringement on their personal freedom. Of course, the imperative to curtail the spread of Covid-19 has reduced much of the freedom we get to exercise in our daily lives: many of us can’t leave home; if we do, we can’t really move as we please. If we have to go to work, we have to wear a mask and/or face shield, to stay six feet away from others. We can’t travel or go inside other people’s houses or go to bars. Or, we could – but we’d put at risk our own lives and the lives of others.
Under capitalism, we are ‘free’ to do very little: work and consume. Everything else we want to do – love, make art, look at a tree, watch a movie, commune with others – we have to claw out time for. Our lives are largely defined by the time we spend working and then readying ourselves to work again the next day. So, of course, all of the limitations put upon us by Covid-19 feel like huge impositions, like unwelcome impingements on our freedom, because we have so little of it to begin with.
And, because the popular political imagination has been so decimated, the working class is barely organised, and most people never experience the power of their collective action, the site through which ‘freedom’ is expressed is often reduced to the individual. But whatever freedoms we have as individuals we have fought for and won as a collective.
I am on South Martin Luther King Drive. This is neither the first nor the last protest against the police murder of George Floyd. Chicagoans have flooded the streets for days in a row now. It’s a little jarring, and a little nerve-wracking, but mostly it’s great to scream together again, to show up, to sing and chant.
We’d been inside for two months, under strict orders to socially distance, but rage drove us outside. On the third day of protests, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a curfew – 9pm – at 8pm. As the thousands filling the Loop tried to find a way to scramble home before the curfew hit, before police were given even more leeway to arrest and brutalise us, the mayor gave an order to raise the bridges connecting downtown to the rest of the city. I heard reports through the grapevine, friends of friends, that drawbridge operators at first refused to raise them. But eventually their bosses caved under the pressure of the mayor and passed that pressure on; they had to do it. The bridges went up. People were trapped downtown.
It’s not the first time the physical world has been weaponised. ‘Hostile architecture’ – benches with dividers so people can’t lie down, concrete spikes under bridges so people can’t set up tents – is a common trope now; people know what it is. They photograph it; they shake their heads at it; they get mad about it online. But this was something else, more sinister. This was a live manipulation of the literal ground under our feet to hurt us, to trap us.
A couple of weeks later I went with my then-boyfriend to a caravan driving south on MLK Drive. There were some people on bicycles, too, and others walking alongside on the sidewalk, but most people were in cars, which felt really great because we could each take up so much room, but also really not-great because it was so hard to get chants going. I stuck my torso out the sunroof of our 1988 Volvo 740 and did a call-and-reply with a guy in the car in front of me for a while, but it fizzled faster than it would’ve had we been side-by-side. We rode along until cars started peeling off then went home. Later, we heard that some of the people who were on foot had marched down 31st Street and gotten attacked.
‘Safety in numbers’, we always say, except Covid-19 has made it infinitely harder to put that rule into practice. Still, we kept marching. We rode our bikes to meet up with comrades on the far south side and marched north up MLK, again, this time on foot. At some point, we got stuck under a bridge, and some previously-unknown-to-me comrades and I used the echo to send our voices out into the crowd: ‘No justice, no peace, fuck these racist-ass police’. Someone showed up with a bucket drum. We stood as far apart as we could, but our voices traveled together.
A few days after that – or maybe it was the day after; I don’t know because every day felt like three in one – I walked to Armour Square Park again. The parking lot next to it, usually empty, was full of armoured Jeeps and buses full of cops, ready to be deployed at any moment to break up the protests. What I had come to understand – with good reason – as benign, public space, a safe haven for my comrades and me, had turned dangerous.
Despite that danger, we kept marching. We met outside until it was truly too cold to do so. Covid-19 made it nerve-wracking to be there in person at all, but doing that one thing that, I guess, so many people saw as limiting their individual freedom – wearing masks – allowed us to be out on the street fighting for our collective freedom. As far as I have been able to gather, there was not a significant uptick in Covid-19 cases after the protests of last summer. This is likely because everyone wore masks.
But Covid-19 and the police response to the uprising of 2020 will have repercussions on how we use public space for a long time. As we’ve learned to adapt, to get creative about meeting outside, city governments have flexed their muscles of repression, often aided by right-wing vigilantes dedicated to beating out any left-wing presence. In my neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, comrades watched police look the other way as an alt-right guy, armed with a wooden table leg stuck with giant metal nails walked into a protest crowd. We may have access to public space, but we rarely have real control over it. We’ve learned to use it to make our demands heard – so it follows naturally: control over it should be a demand in and of itself.
As companies build private parks – as Salesforce has done in the Bay Area – or threaten to take over existing public ones – as US Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke suggested during the Trump administration – we risk being further restricted to our homes or places where our presence is contingent on a purchase. We have to understand the right to public space as worth fighting for – both to keep what public space we have and to win more of it.
Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve moved to a different apartment. I live in the same neighborhood (Bridgeport), but on the opposite side, so I don’t go to Armour Square Park as much anymore. Instead, I go to a park behind Armour Elementary School (named after the same guy, yes, meat-packing magnate and ruthless union-buster Philip Danforth Armour). The park behind Armour Elementary has a quarter-mile fine-gravel track encircling a large expanse of grass, some trees, and a few benches. There is also a small playground. As far as I know, the City does not do much upkeep of this park. The trash is emptied regularly but not frequently. When I moved to this side of the neighborhood, there were two soccer goals in the middle of the park. Now, one of them lies tipped over on its side, and I don’t know where the other went. Whenever I walk the track, it strikes me that two functioning soccer goals is rather the bare minimum we should expect from a park, especially one that abuts a school in a neighborhood with a significant Latinx population.
Before the pandemic, I swam a few times a week at the public pool at McGuane Park, also in Bridgeport. It’s a fine facility, but the locker rooms are always a little dirty, and there are no curtains between the showers, and that’s fine, I guess, except that not everyone is comfortable being looked at naked, and it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to put up dividers, except that under austerity everything is too expensive. I paid eighty dollars for three months of lap swimming (everything else – family swim, open swim, senior swim, water aerobics – is free), which, granted, is not that much and maybe wouldn’t pay for cleaner locker rooms, or shower dividers, or for mowing the adjacent park so it’s easier to walk on the grass, or for new nets for the basketball hoops. But then I think about how Lori Lightfoot spent more than $281 million worth of CARES money on police payroll at a time when what most people needed was investment in things that could get them out of their house and doing something, anything, safely.
The money is out there; it’s just in the wrong hands. We know that. It takes political leadership and imagination – to think about what kind of lives people should be living, even through the unthinkable – to put it to good use. Last year, on Thanksgiving morning, as I walked my dog through the park behind Armour Elementary, a young guy approached me, asking if he could pet my dog. She’s skittish around people she doesn’t know, especially men, but she let him pet her, so eventually we sat down on the grass and started chatting. He told me he’d woken up at four in the morning to go into his warehouse job at five, because he didn’t know he had the day off. He found out when he got there and it was closed. Most of the people working there are undocumented, he told me, so ‘of course we don’t have a union, so these things happen all the time’. We talked for a while; the park made space for him to approach me, and then for the conversation to unfold. As I walked home, I wondered if he and his coworkers ever saw each other outside of work, if they could have a space to organise, should they ever want it. I thought about how the spheres in which we can practice our freedom have gotten smaller and smaller around us, even before the pandemic, and how now, we’re not totally free even inside of our own homes. We have to dare to imagine a world that’s really ours, with public spaces that we control, that we can use to practice our individual freedoms and to organise to win more collective ones. We know the ruling class won’t give that to us, so we’ll have to fight for it – soccer goals, shower dividers, public assembly rooms, whatever we want – for ourselves.
Marianela D’Aprile is a writer living in Chicago. Her writing about architecture, culture, and politics has appeared in The Nation, Jacobin Magazine, and Metropolis, among others. She sits on the National Political Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America.