Racial justice, police accountability, mutual aid, climate activism and warp-speed vaccines – we examine the ways our COVID-19 year changed American society.
Dr. Taison Bell, a critical care and infectious disease doctor in Charlottesville, Virginia, has spent the year watching COVID-19 devastate his community while also trying to help his kids adjust to virtual school. We listen in as he talks to his young children about the vaccine and then heads in to receive his first dose.
We look into the science behind the vaccine and how researchers were able to develop it in record time. While science is a fiercely competitive field, collaboration was key to the vaccine’s success.
And we examine another big change as we head into 2021: the Biden administration’s approach to environmental justice. EPA environmental justice adviser Sacoby Wilson discusses President Joe Biden’s reversal of Donald Trump’s attacks on science and how racism intersects with a disregard for the environment.
The pandemic has also pushed Americans to rethink criminal justice. Protesters have demanded that law enforcement budgets be shifted to other services that need more funding, like education, social services and mental health care. In November, Los Angeles County residents passed Measure J, which will put hundreds of millions of dollars toward alternatives to incarceration. In collaboration with KALW, reporter Andrew Stelzer talks to L.A. residents about the need for mental health care, how COVID-19 has affected people in jails and how Measure J could change the city.
Finally, we hear about the growth of mutual aid networks. As the pandemic left people around the country vulnerable to eviction and hunger, grassroots groups of local residents, like Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy Strong, stepped up to support their neighbors with initiatives like free-food fridges and grocery deliveries.
Read: More on Carlos Zuniga’s story in The Atlantic
Reported and produced by: Najib Aminy, Pamela Kirkland, Elizabeth Shogren, Kenneth Sousie and Andrew Stelzer
Lead producer: Najib Aminy
Edited by: Jen Chien and Laura Starecheski
Production manager: Amy Mostafa
Production assistance: Brett Simpson
Mixing, sound design and music by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda
Digital producer: Sarah Mirk
Episode art: Molly Mendoza
Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan
Host: Al Letson
Special thanks: University of Virginia Health
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: Hey, hey, hey. It’s Al and I have some exciting news. Okay, so in July, we brought you American Rehab. That was our eight-episode series that uncovered tens of thousands of people, desperately, in need of help for their addictions. But instead of getting treatment, they were sent to work without pay, sometimes, at big corporations. The New Yorker called it riveting, urging, and mind-bending. Now, we’re making it available for your binging pleasure. You can find it by subscribing to Reveal Presents: American Rehab wherever you get your podcast. Again, that’s Reveal Presents: American Rehab. All right, get to binging.
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Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting & PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. President Joe Biden is promising a full-scale wartime effort to fight the Coronavirus pandemic. He wants a hundred million people vaccinated in a hundred days, but he says, defeating the virus won’t be quick or easy.
President Joe B…: I understand the despair and frustration of so many Americans and how they’re feeling. I understand why many governors, mayors, county officials, tribal leaders feel like they’re left on their own without a clear national plan to get them through the crisis. Let me be very clear, things are going to continue to get worst before they get better.
Al Letson: While the initial rollout of the vaccines was marred by lack of coordination and shortages, they were developed in record time. That’s one bright spot during a year of darkness. Today, we’re going to hear stories on how people have persevered and found their own bright spots.
Al Letson: First, the story of frontline healthcare workers who began receiving the vaccine last month. Dr. Taison Bell is one of them. He’s a critical care and infectious disease doctor in Charlottesville, Virginia. We’re going to tag along with him on the day he went in for his vaccination.
Dr. Taison Bell: How did everyone sleep?
Kristen: Ruby slept [crosstalk 00:02:48]
Ruby: I slept great.
Al Letson: This is Taison’s family. His wife, Kristen. His two-year-old daughter, Ruby.
Ruby: Mommy froze the milk.
Al Letson: And his seven-year-old son, Alain.
Alain: Hey, daddy. Dad.
Al Letson: They’re having breakfast before Taison heads to work to receive his vaccine. He directs the Intensive Care Unit at UVA Health and treats patients with the most severe cases of COVID-19.
Dr. Taison Bell: Taking care of COVID-19 patients has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
Al Letson: He’s watched patients have to be put on ventilators knowing some would never come off.
Dr. Taison Bell: You get so emotionally attached to patients that it can be hard sometimes when you can anticipate what’s going to happen.
Al Letson: He doesn’t just deal with the virus at work. It’s everywhere around him.
Dr. Taison Bell: On my drive home, I call family members who have COVID-19. They may be at home but I’m worried that they’re going to end up in the same boat at some point. That’s incredibly stressful. There’s another layer of complexity that just intersects with every aspect of your life. So, it feels like you can’t actually escape it sometimes.
Al Letson: COVID-19 has changed a lot for his family. He’s working from home more. His kids are in a virtual school and his mother-in-law comes to the house to help out a couple of days a week. Taison says he’s stretched to the limit. At the hospital, he’s working with patients who are sometimes too sick to discuss their own treatment.
Dr. Taison Bell: One of the things that happens a lot of times in the ICU is, people come in extremely sick from the get go, and they may have tubes and all sorts of machines hooked up to them and they’re not speaking with you. In a sense, I’ll just be honest, there’s a dehumanizing aspect to it. To where, if you don’t know someone’s voice and their back story, sometimes, you don’t make as firm of a connection with these patients.
Al Letson: He worries about his patients, but also, whether he’s putting his family at risk. He lives in constant fear of bringing the Coronavirus home to them.
Dr. Taison Bell: So, I’ve talked to my children about the Corona Virus and the fact that it’s caused so much problem in the country and the world. Some days are really tough, but I share all of that with my children.
Dr. Taison Bell: Tomorrow, I’m going to get the vaccine against Coronavirus. When I talked with them about the fact that I’m getting a vaccine last evening.
Alain: It is going to work?
Dr. Taison Bell: Yeah.
Dr. Taison Bell: They fully understood the gravity of that and what that meant.
Alain: But, is it just a test?
Dr. Taison Bell: No, they’ve done the experiments already.
Alain: So now, there’s a real vaccine?
Dr. Taison Bell: There’s a real vaccine.
Ruby: Does it hurt?
Dr. Taison Bell: It probably will hurt but only for a little bit.
Ruby: [inaudible 00:05:51] a little pinch?
Dr. Taison Bell: Yeah, a little pinch but then, it will feel better soon after that.
Ruby: And I’ll kiss it?
Dr. Taison Bell: Yeah, you can kiss it [crosstalk 00:06:01]
Ruby: [crosstalk 00:06:01]
Al Letson: As a black man, Taison says, it’s been especially hard. When he looks around the ICU and sees himself, his community, and the faces of his patients. He noticed it early in the pandemic.
Dr. Taison Bell: There was a day I was rounding in the ICU and just trying to get through the work of the day, and we were on morning rounds and I realized that one section of the ICU was almost all Hispanic patients. Hispanic last names. Then, the other section was almost all black names and families that I knew and recognized. I was trying to just get through the day and trying to do what I’m supposed to do but it felt so weighty on my shoulders that I had to stop my team and just say, “You know, guys, I just have to say that it is incredibly hard to see the toll that this has taken on the minority community and to see people who, you know, to see such a high proportion of our patients who are sick from these communities is personally really tough.”
Dr. Taison Bell: So, I’m on my way now to get the Coronavirus vaccine.
Al Letson: Taison arrived at UVA Health to receive his first dose. He walked down the halls of what’s usually the cancer treatment wing, passed large windows with bright sun streaming in.
Dr. Taison Bell: There’s something that I need to admit just in the interest of full transparency. I don’t like shots. It’s not vaccines, in particular. I love vaccines. I just don’t like needles. I can’t stand them. I’m looking very much forward to getting this vaccine. I’m not looking forward to the actual needle.
Al Letson: Finally, it was time for the injection. Justin, a hospital pharmacist, puts on his rubber gloves and takes the syringe out of the package. He preps the vaccine and slowly draws Taison’s dose from the vile.
Justin: Okay, you ready?
Dr. Taison Bell: I’m ready.
Justin: Okay, and just relax your arms as much as you can.
Dr. Taison Bell: I’ll try.
Justin: All right, here we go. One, two, three.
Dr. Taison Bell: Oh, wow.
Dr. Taison Bell: They thanked us for what we were doing, which felt really great, and then he gave me the vaccine and just this big handshake that you just felt the strength and the gravity at that moment.
Justin: You did great.
Dr. Taison Bell: Thank you, sir.
Dr. Taison Bell: Thank you.
Justin: Good to meet you, man.
Dr. Taison Bell: Nice to meet you too.
Justin: Good luck with everything.
Dr. Taison Bell: It was fantastic. All of these complex feelings and emotions, all really came to ahead the moment that vaccine went into my arm and I, finally, had this feeling that there’s a way to lift this now. That we can finally turn the corner on this. It reminds me of this song by Nina Simone, Feeling Good. I love this song because it’s really exemplifies the transition that I felt today. We’ve been through to so much darkness and it’s been so hard for everyone. Everyone’s been affected by this but this vaccine is a key to a new day and this is how we step into the future. We [inaudible 00:09:42] because there’s a lot of work to be done but, watch out.
Al Letson: Taison received his second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in early January. The new day Taison was talking about got here a lot sooner than anyone expected. Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted it would take up to 18 months to develop a vaccine. Scientists did it in about half that time. Billions of dollars from the US government and philanthropists played a big part. But so did a revolution in the way scientists share information about their discoveries in the face of a global crisis. Many more scientists started posting their findings on the internet in real time. Breakthroughs are coming faster and collaboration is happening in a field that usually thrives of competition. Michele Avissar-Whiting is the Editor-in-Chief of Research Square, a website where scientists can quickly share their work.
Al Letson: Michele, thanks so much for talking to me.
Michele Avissar…: Nice to see you, Al.
Al Letson: Tell me if I got this right. Traditionally, scientific research goes through a process called, peer review. Scientists submit their findings through a journal to be published then different scientists weigh in on the work. It’s a long arduous process that can take years before the scientific community or the public knows what they’ve discovered. During a pandemic, does that system still work?
Michele Avissar…: Really, the pandemic has made a mockery out of that traditional publishing system. That idea seems really outdated even outside of the pandemic, but with the pandemic happening, that’s preposterous, right? That it could take that long. I think, everyone sort of saw that and said, “We need to get these results out now.” That is exactly why we’re seeing this unprecedented emergence of both treatments and, now, vaccines for the COVID-19 virus. It’s only by virtue of all that research having been shared really, really early on through preprints.
Al Letson: What exactly are preprints?
Michele Avissar…: The prepint is just the early version of the paper, that then, the author submits to a journal and it gets peer reviewed and considered by an editor for publication.
Al Letson: We spoke with a German Researcher who published a preprint on your website in May, Dr. [Julien Wallace 00:12:23].
Speaker 9: To be honest, we’ve never published preprints before. We decided to publish it early to make it available to a lot of people.
Al Letson: Her lab has been working on a COVID vaccine. It’s now in clinical trials but, to get to that point, she had to first identify the small parts of the Coronavirus that trigger an immune response. She wanted to get her findings out fast. Also, she didn’t want another scientist to beat her to publishing first, but she was surprised at what happened afterwards.
Speaker 9: This really led to interesting collaborations with researchers worldwide. We have now collaboration with people from Ireland and with guys from Thailand and Indonesia. So yeah, I think this was a really huge benefit.
Al Letson: But, there are risks too. Dr. [Wallace 00:13:14] says that, one of her findings was picked up a lot on social media and people, either didn’t understand it, or intentionally cherry picked her research to push herd immunity as a way to fight the virus.
Speaker 9: A lot of people interpreted the work and said, “Okay then, we don’t need any masks. We don’t need any lockdown because 81% of all people are already immune and have immunity and could not get infected.” Which is absolutely not true.
Al Letson: So Michele, what do you think was motivating the social media post?
Michele Avissar…: Total misinterpretation of a very complex story. People who have an interest in pushing the narrative around herd immunity. That we already have immunity to this virus and everybody is overreacting and we shouldn’t be shutting the economy down. We shouldn’t be closing restaurants and closing schools and all of that have found that little snippet useful to push that narrative. Even though, it’s false. Even though, it’s misleading.
Al Letson: Looking at the growth you’re seeing in preprint submissions, what does that mean for science at large? I asked you this because I have a dear family member who’s dealing with a longterm illness. A longterm fatal illness. They’re always checking in to see what new research is coming out. What treatments are available and things of that nature, and it’s always so slow. Just curious if preprints could possibly speed up that system.
Michele Avissar…: That’s exactly the hope. Beyond just speeding up the system, what I’m hoping is that it makes it more rigorous and improves the system over time. Because if we move to the system where everything is free to read and accessible to read right upfront, and then we open that research to really anyone to scrutinize, I think that this opens us up to a world where we can have, perhaps, more faith in the science that ends up being endorsed. So hopefully, we do see faster progress and more collaboration around these terrible diseases.
Al Letson: Yeah, this kind of feels like a revolution in science. Like, everything is changing here. Paradigm shift.
Michele Avissar…: Yeah, I totally agree. I think, we’re witnessing the very beginning of a fundamental shift in the way that research is published.
Al Letson: Given that, you think preprints are here to stay?
Michele Avissar…: I think so, yup.
Al Letson: Michele Avissar-Whiting is the Editor-in-Chief at Research Square. Michele, thank you so much for coming on to the show.
Michele Avissar…: Thanks, Al. It was great to talk to you.
Al Letson: What other changes could be on the horizon for science in 2021? One major shift has to do with who’s in the White House.
Sacoby Wilson: Trump’s administration [inaudible 00:16:11] four years of anti-science, of rolling back environmental protections. From air quality to water quality to risk management to agricultural workers.
Al Letson: That’s Dr. Sacoby Wilson. He’s an Associate Professor of Environmental Health at the University of Maryland, and advices the EPA as a member of its National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. I first interviewed him in 2019 about how Trump’s policies disproportionately hurt people of color.
Al Letson: With Joe Biden in office, change is already coming. On his inauguration day, Biden signed an executive order targeting many of Trump’s environmental rollbacks. He also canceled construction of the Keystone oil pipeline and move to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. Just this past week, Biden announced new Interagency Environmental Justice Councils at the White House.
President Joe B…: Environmental Justice will be at the center of all we do addressing the disproportionate health and environmental and economic impacts on communities of color, so-called communities. Especially those communities, brown, black, Native American, poor-whites. It’s hard, the hard-hit areas. Like, Cancer Alley in Louisiana or the Route 9 corridor in the State of Delaware. That’s why we’re going to work to make sure that they receive 40% of the benefits of key federal investments in clean energy, clean water, and wastewater infrastructure. Lifting up these communities makes us all stronger as a nation and increases the health of everybody.
Al Letson: I spoke to Dr. Wilson before this announcement was made to ask him what he expects from a Biden Presidency.
Al Letson: What a few weeks it’s been, am I right?
Sacoby Wilson: That’s right.
Al Letson: Biden named a Native American woman, New Mexico Representative Debra Haaland, as his Interior Secretary Nominee. He picked a black man who heads North Carolina’s Environmental Agency, Michael Regan, to head the EPA, and a black woman, Brenda Mallory, to lead his White House Council on Environmental Quality. Is the door open now for progress on environmental justice?
Sacoby Wilson: You’re seeing a commitment to diversity, yes, and inclusion. You’re seeing a commitment to folks who have experience because Obama administration make some progress [inaudible 00:18:36] on environmental justice. But I think, the work of this administration could be transformative for decades. You have to do a lot of work to make up for hundreds of years of neglect, of injustice, of racism. A white supremacy as pertains to who is able to access clean air and clean water, and who’s not. We want to make sure our communities are also equally protected when it comes to environmental rules and regulations and that hasn’t happened to this point.
Al Letson: What kinds of concrete things could change under this new leaders?
Sacoby Wilson: When you think about environmental justice, which is really talking about how some communities are overburdened by environmental hazards, the landfills, chemical plants, factories, refineries. When you have too many facilities, we’re not going to add another facility. We can say no to bringing in new facilities. This administration can put more focus on those who are most vulnerable.
Al Letson: You’ve been working in environmental justice and I understand that some of the breakthrough work you’ve personally done was in Charleston, South Carolina about a decade ago. They were planning to expand the port there and a black community near the port using innovative way to get federal money to deal with pollution problems. Can you tell us that story?
Sacoby Wilson: Yeah, the big issue in Charleston is, you have the Port of Charleston is going to expand, right? But even beyond the port expansion, there was already a lot of environmental hazards in North Charleston which is primarily, black folks, low-wealth folks. They had multiple Superfund sites. They had leaking underground storage tanks. You’re storing fuels on the ground and those tanks leak. Brownfield issues, metal recyclers, and you also had an incinerator. The county’s incinerator was also in this community. You add, on top of that, all the truck traffic, so the diesel particulates, right? The sit, so you’ve been overburdened by hazards and you have poor infrastructure.
Al Letson: What were you able to do to correct all that or to begin working on it?
Sacoby Wilson: When I was Associate Professor at the University of South Carolina, I began working with the Low Country Alliance of Model Communities in 2007. What we’re able to do was a build a community-university partnership to train residents to collect their own air quality data. This partnership actually led to the incinerator being shut down.
Al Letson: How did federal law help you protect the community?
Sacoby Wilson: North Charleston was actually the first community in the country to use NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, to get mitigation dollars. No one had ever done it before and so they were able to get four million dollars to mitigate the impacts from the planned expansion of the port. The fact [inaudible 00:21:15] do that was actually groundbreaking and that community group, in many ways, has been a model for how you can use NEPA in other parts of the country.
Al Letson: Last year, Vice President Kamala Harris sponsored an environmental justice bill in the Senate. It didn’t pass but it would’ve made it easier to help communities that suffer from multiple sources of pollution. Do you think she’ll try to push to prioritize issues around environmental racism?
Sacoby Wilson: I, wholeheartedly, believe that Vice President Harris is going to push Biden on this. I actually wrote a blog. I actually said, “Would Biden be the first climate justice President?” Because if he’s able to do, through executive power and through the Senate, you can see transformation. Not just reformat and [inaudible 00:21:59], real transformation, real revolution, real impacts for communities who have been really let down by the EPA, by just being used as sacrifice zones for multiple decades.
Al Letson: You know, one of the things I think about when we talk about environmental racism is that we’re just talking about racism in general. In a lot of ways, especially if you are not experiencing that racism, and just to be clear, if you’re not black, if you’re not indigenous, if you’re not a person of color, a lot of times, seeing that racism is hard for people. I think, it’s twice that effect when you’re talking about environmental racism because a lot of the factors that cause communities to be polluted can’t really be seen. Like, if you’re driving by a Superfund site, you may not know it’s a Superfund site unless there is a big sign that says, “Hey, this happened here.” So I guess the question I have is, how do we make change? Not from a political standpoint, but from a human standpoint. From a societal standpoint. How do we shift the paradigm for people to understand that these things are real and that the most vulnerable are always the minorities in any nation?
Sacoby Wilson: As someone who grew up in Mississippi, I remember the first racist incident I experienced a five-year-old, right? I remember being called the “n-word” playing soccer and playing baseball. I remember getting fights over the “n-word”, right? Been suspended from school when someone called me the “n-word” and they got a slap on the wrist, right? That pain is a part of me, right? That trauma, I carry that with me. You had people who experienced the trauma of police brutality [inaudible 00:23:53]. Folks experienced the trauma of their kids that school [inaudible 00:23:57] pipeline. That’s trauma, right? We should be able to see that trauma and we should also be able to see that trauma the state-sanctioned poison of communities of color.
Sacoby Wilson: What happened if Flint, for example, with the Flint water crisis, wouldn’t happen in Aura, Michigan? You wouldn’t dare put a landfill or incinerator in Bethesda, Maryland. But, you have the Wheelabrator incinerator in Curtis Bay, Baltimore, right? We can make that more visible by people understanding, seeing the data is one way to make it more visible. Science can play a role [inaudible 00:24:33] to make science more inclusive. By making science more inclusive, we make it more approachable. We make people understand how the value of science and how they can use science right. Knowledge is power. I think, with that knowledge, we can make the environmental injustice, environmental racism more visible in this country.
Al Letson: While Biden was on the campaign trail, he wouldn’t ban fracking for oil and gas. Now that he’s the President, does that worry you?
Sacoby Wilson: I think, he made a political move. He didn’t want to lose Pennsylvania. I think that that administration knows who’s been impacted by those operations. Not the wealthy and not people like me. It’s folks who look like me so the policies has to be overhauled, right? So, fracking has to go. [Hauling 00:25:18] gas has to go and we can replace those things if we can’t invest in climate opportunities and we invest in infrastructure and we focus on equity injustice.
Al Letson: Tell me, what gives you hope about the work you’re going to do going forward?
Sacoby Wilson: One of the things that really excited me with the protest, with the uprising against racism, and the fight for black lives in this country and globally is in all the young folks out that who were protesting. I think, doing science is great and being in science is great, but my most important job is not to do great science. My most important job is to train the next generation of scientists. I think, with this new administration, the emphasis on climate change, environmental justice, that will inspire more young folks to want to get [inaudible 00:26:08] and so, that gives me hope.
Al Letson: Dr. Sacoby Wilson, thank you so much for speaking with me again.
Sacoby Wilson: Yes, sir. Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Al Letson: Reveal’s Elizabeth Shogren and Najib Aminy produced our story.
Al Letson: The massive Black Lives Matter protest that erupted last summer were built on the persistent hard work of longtime activists. It’s about much more than a call to defund the police.
Speaker 12: It’s really seeking to look at how we can give that person care in the community as opposed to incarceration at every point in the system.
Al Letson: That’s coming up next on Reveal.
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Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting & PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. The pandemic has led to shifts in areas of society that had been historically resistant to change. Like, the criminal justice system. While prisons all over the country had been rightly criticized for failing to protect staff and inmates from infection, many local jails have been decarcerating at unprecedented levels. It’s something that reform advocates had been calling for for a long time and it’s intertwined with the goals of the Black Lives Matter Movement that surged last year. Calls to defund the police got a lot of attention, but beyond that, protesters were demanding that law enforcement budgets be shifted to other services that need more funding like education, social services, and mental health care.
Al Letson: Right now, people with mental health issues tend to end up behind bars. We can see that because in 44 states, jails and prisons are the largest mental healthcare providers. The largest mental healthcare facility in the country is the Twin Towers Jail in Los Angeles County. Residents there made a Vote for Change last November by passing Measure J. It will put hundreds of millions of dollars towards alternatives to incarceration. If it works, it could be a model for redirecting money from the police into other services. Reporter, Andrew Stelzer has more.
Andrew Stelzer: The massive Twin Towers Jail is only a 20-minute drive from Antonieta Zuniga’s house. She lives in Pico Rivera in southeast LA County.
Antonieta Zunig…: I love all my grandkids and my kids, but Carlos was very special for me since he born.
Andrew Stelzer: Antonieta’s grandson, Carlos Jr., was born in 1993. In his early teens, he began exhibiting signs of schizophrenia. Hearing voices and police sirens.
Antonieta Zunig…: He was living with his mother when everything starts. He start like at 13, 14 years old.
Andrew Stelzer: By the time he turned 18, Carlos had been in and out of the hospital several times. The family really didn’t know what to do but his mom couldn’t deal with it anymore so grandma opened her doors.
Antonieta Zunig…: Of course, I was naïve. I don’t know nothing about mental illness. Until I saw so many strange things is when I said, “Wow!”
Andrew Stelzer: Over the next eight years, Antonieta learned a lot. Carlos would randomly move furniture around the house or use meth and disappear for days at a time, but she did her best to keep up.
Antonieta Zunig…: It’s very hard to handle a situation when you’re not a doctor, when you’re not a nurse, but he’s very respectful with me. He loves me as much as I love him and that help us.
Andrew Stelzer: But in 2019, Carlos was on a streak of refusing to take his medication. Without that baseline, things became even more difficult.
Antonieta Zunig…: In those three months, they take him into seven different hospitals. They keep him only for two days, three days. They told me that they can keep him for no more time because insurance don’t allow them more time.
Andrew Stelzer: Then one day in November, things got a little bit scary. After three nights of no sleep, she smelled something burning. Carlos was lighting trash fires in the backyard and he wouldn’t respond to her questions. Antonieta felt like this was out of her league so she picked up the phone.
Antonieta Zunig…: I forgot totally, totally I forgot who to call. Okay? And that was my mistake.
Andrew Stelzer: Because she was so tired, she forgot about the mental health hotline numbers pinned up on her refrigerator. Instead, she dialed 911.
Antonieta Zunig…: I called them for help but they come like a SWAT. They come about 10 police cars and like 20 or 25 persons. They make a big commotion. You know? I said, “Why you gonna do that?” You know? “I just need him to get to the hospital.” And they say, “No, we don’t gonna take him to the hospital. We gonna take him to another place.”
Andrew Stelzer: By other place, they meant the Twin Towers Jail. Antonieta says she feels guilty for being unprepaired and making the phone call that set things in motion.
Antonieta Zunig…: He don’t deserve to go to prison. He don’t do nothing because he wants to do it. He’s doing that because he’s sick but they got the gun. They got the badge. What can we do? All I can say, “Don’t shoot him!” Because, in so many cases, you know?
Andrew Stelzer: You’re probably bracing yourself for what comes next in Carlos’ story. But in this case, there’s good news. The tragic ending we’ve heard way to many times didn’t come to pass.
Sarah: Hi, Carlos. It’s Sarah.
Carlos: Oh, hi.
Sarah: Hi. Do you still [inaudible 00:34:05] interview today?
Andrew Stelzer: That’s my reporting partner on this story, Sarah [Sch 00:34:12], talking to Carlos during the summer of 2020. Almost a year after he was arrested.
Sarah: How’s it going?
Carlos: Good, just watching YouTube.
Andrew Stelzer: And as you might be able to guess, they don’t have YouTube in jail. It took more than five months and some help from his family, but Carlos found his way to a better situation. When the virus hit, LA released 5,000 people from jail and he was part of that wave.
Carlos: The whole experience of being in jail, it was just scary for me. Not knowing when I was going to get out. They end up just sentencing me to a program.
Andrew Stelzer: Carlos is in a supportive housing facility where he has his own bedroom and a smart phone. He’s allowed to smoke cigarettes. He sleeps a lot and doesn’t really do too much in terms of rehab, but he takes his pills and stays safe. He has ambitions to, one day, be a video game programmer.
Carlos: I look forward to having a job and going to school and chilling with my friends. I look forward to see my mom and see my dad. Just have a normal life.
Andrew Stelzer: The longer Carlos stayed in jail, the more his chances at that normal life would’ve declined. Job prospects, housing opportunities, even life expectancy is lower for people who have been incarcerated. And, it doesn’t just affect them.
Diana Zuniga: When one person is incarcerated, it’s not just that one person. It’s the entire family. It’s their loved ones.
Andrew Stelzer: Diana Zuniga is a longtime community organizer in Los Angeles. She’s also Carlos’ cousin.
Diana Zuniga: For our family, we’ve had multiple people incarcerated so the impact of that on the generations after them has been really felt.
Andrew Stelzer: Diana’s father has been locked up for most of her life. Carlos’ father has also been in and out of prison.
Diana Zuniga: Many of our loved ones, especially, the men in our family have been incarcerated and some of them have been diagnosed with mental health needs or trauma issues. It was hard for my family to then see the next generation of men go through similar things. And that next generation was my cousin, Carlitos.
Andrew Stelzer: That personal experience has driven much of Diana’s activism which is focused on creating community-based alternatives to incarceration. Carlos’ housing situation is one example. She helped him find his way through the system into a more humane environment.
Diana Zuniga: It’s really seeking to look at how we can give that person care in the community as opposed incarceration at every point in the system.
Andrew Stelzer: Diana admits revamping the entire structure is a big task. Los Angeles’ criminal legal system is massive but progress is being made.
Peter Espinoza: In LA County, we have about 280 judges on any given day who are hearing criminal matters.
Andrew Stelzer: Peter Espinoza is a former Judge himself at the LA County Superior Court. When he stepped down from the bench back in 2016, he says around 30% of judges’ calendars involved inmate in mental health housing inside jail.
Peter Espinoza: There was virtually no resources available to judges who are looking for a way to care for individuals without keeping them in the jail or sending them to prison.
Andrew Stelzer: To be clear, there is mental healthcare inside LA jails. Remember, Twin Towers Jail, where Carlos Zuniga was held, is advertised as the largest mental health treatment center in the entire United States but.
Peter Espinoza: You can’t get well in a cell.
Andrew Stelzer: People with mental illness are the so-called “frequent fliers” of the system. Their untreated behaviors land them in and back out of jail again and again.
Peter Espinoza: The jail is overcrowded and the clinicians who are trying desperately to care for ill people in the jail are understaffed, under-resourced.
Andrew Stelzer: Espinoza took a job directing the newly created Office of Diversion and Reentry or ODR. ODR’s aim is to create a web of other options for people with mental health or substance abuse issues. That includes, sentencing alternatives, drug treatments, and perhaps most importantly, housing.
Peter Espinoza: We make a commitment to them that we will house them for life.
Andrew Stelzer: I just want to make sure you heard that.
Peter Espinoza: We will house them for life.
Andrew Stelzer: ODR’s program pulls homeless people with a serious mental health disorder out of jail and puts them into housing with medication and services, if necessary, for the rest of their lives. Espinoza says, the cost is about $40,000 a year per person. It cost more than five times as much to care for them in jail.
Peter Espinoza: Many of these people will not require housing for life, but some of them will. Some of them will, so that they don’t return to homelessness, so that they don’t return to untreated mental health, untreated mental illness, and the cycle begins.
Andrew Stelzer: In the first five years or so, ODR has taken more than 6,000 people out of jail and put them into community services and the early results are pretty promising. A RAND Corporation Study found after a year in the program, 71% of people stayed in ODR housing with a recidivism rate of only 14%.
Peter Espinoza: Those are remarkable numbers for recidivist behavior.
Andrew Stelzer: His office isn’t operating alone. Under a new county-wide philosophy of Care First, Jail Last, a progressive board of supervisors is working on plans to close a jail in 2021. County agencies across the board are being reshaped to help key people out of the criminal legal system. Then, in November, LA voters elected a new progressive district attorney and approved Measure J.
Andrew Stelzer: The Measure requires, at least, 10% of the county’s general fund to be spent on community investment and alternatives to incarceration. That could end up being upwards of 500 million dollars a year, and none of that money can go to law enforcement. Instead, it can fund the kind of program that’s kept Carlos Zuniga out of jail. His cousin, Diana, says the public’s appetite for change surged in 2020. The Coronavirus seem to spark some long absent compassion.
Diana Zuniga: People really witnessing how COVID-19 is taking the life of so many people and how that is actually then happening within jails, prisons, and detention centers. Finally, there is this connection of health and justice that organizers have been lifting up for a long time.
Andrew Stelzer: When the pandemic hit, it jump started ideas that were already working their way through the system.
Diana Zuniga: This is a pivotal moment around health and justice concerns that people can’t ignore anymore.
Andrew Stelzer: That unexpected rush of political will, along with funds generated by Measure J, could keep that momentum rolling in a post-pandemic world.
Al Letson: Thanks to Andrew Stelzer for that story. It comes to us from KALW Radio and was edited by Lisa Morehouse and co-reported by Sarah [Schauer 00:41:57]. The reporting was supported by the National Geographic’s Emergency Journalist Fund and the Pulitzer Center.
Al Letson: The pandemic has brought out people’s compassion at the grassroots level as much as in political organizing. Up next on Reveal, Neighbors Helping Neighbors.
Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting & PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. The past year has hit the country hard in so many ways. We’ve seen record numbers of people losing jobs, having trouble paying rent, or going hungry. But, at the same time, there’s been an explosion in the growth of mutual aid. From community free fridges to diaper drives to direct cash donations. Neighbors and communities all over the country are stepping up to help people through. Now, it’s not like mutual aid is a new concept in the US. Just think about the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast program or immigrant benevolent societies. But in this recent resurgence, many people are discovering this type of organizing for the first time.
Al Letson: Sarah Thankam Mathews, who lives in New York, says it was a sense of impending doom that kicked her into action. Last March, just before shelter in place orders were announced, she was watching the news come out of China and Italy.
Sarah Thankam M…: And I just thought, this is going to be awful, very, very possibly in New York City, going to be where Italy is in 14 days.
Al Letson: Sarah was worried about herself but also for her neighborhood, Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. She thought about her nextdoor neighbor.
Sarah Thankam M…: He’s an elderly gentleman, not in the greatest of health, and I just thought about him. But I also thought about all the people like him on all the blocks of this city. The thought that appeared in my mind in sort of like neon bright light was, we need to get organized quickly online and by geographic proximity.
Al Letson: She set up an online messaging network through the platform, Slack, but she didn’t know if her plans would work.
Sarah Thankam M…: But then, I just kept thinking about the urgency that I had been feeling and my partner and I walked around our neighborhood, for 10 to 12 blocks, putting up little fliers. And in the first four hours, 60 people joined. That was the first day. The second day, it was like noon, not even the end of day and there were a hundred people. The third day, there were 200 new people who joined.
Al Letson: The Slack network quickly formalized into a mutual aid group called, Bed-Stuy Strong. They’re now a network of over 4,000 local people who are supporting their community during COVID-19.
Sarah Thankam M…: One way that I talk about mutual aid to the relatively, like, “I’m initiated” is, I say, “Hey, this is not a new thing. Mutual aid is as old as humanity itself.” You know? Mutual aid is what’s practiced in my home village, South India, where they say, “Oh, the neighbors in the next village had the flood washed away their homes.” Like, “We need to help them.” But it’s not optional to take care of each other.
Al Letson: Sarah says that since they started, they’ve made roughly 19,000 grocery deliveries in Central Brooklyn. They’ve also branched out into things like medication delivery and their volunteers are constantly finding ways to fill the needs that continue to arise.
Sarah Thankam M…: There are Bed-Stuy Strong neighbors who are organizing trash clean-ups around the neighborhood because there had been cuts by the Department of Sanitation. Folks have done census outreach, voting electoral work. There are folks who, over the summer, organized an AC donation and exchange drive for our elderly neighbors who ran the risk of getting really ill because of heat.
Al Letson: As they’ve grown, Bed-Stuy Strong is also making new connections with like-minded groups.
Sarah Thankam M…: One thing that I’m really thrilled about is that we, months ago, entered into this partnership with the Brooklyn Packers, who were black-owned worker-owned Coop who just are incredible.
Al Letson: A warehouse just south of Bed-Stuy, in Brownsville, is where food distribution coop, Brooklyn Packers, does its work. This cold Friday morning, fresh food is being counted, sorted, and packed into individual bags for the weekend’s deliveries. Brooklyn Packers was founded in 2016 but it’s grown rapidly during the pandemic. They, now, work with 10 neighborhood mutual aid groups. Sourcing and packing groceries for people all over Brooklyn.
Kelvin Taitt: So, you’re getting your leafy greens. You’re getting your vegetables. There’s chicken in the bag. There’s rice. There’s beans. There’s pasta. There’s tomato sauce.
Al Letson: Kelvin Taitt is Director of Operations at Brooklyn Packers, and also, co-founded his own neighborhood group last April, East Brooklyn Mutual Aid.
Kelvin Taitt: We wanted to make sure that we started of with taking care of the people that lived on our blocks, two blocks away, just in the little community that we have already made.
Al Letson: The group was, initially, pretty small.
Kelvin Taitt: When I first started, our volunteers were my dad, my stepmom, my cousin, her five-year-old daughter, and my stepbrother. Those were our first volunteers for the first month-and-a-half.
Al Letson: Gradually, neighbors on other blocks joined in. When they realized help was needed in nearby neighborhoods, they kept expanding out.
Kelvin Taitt: You know, our volunteers are parents and teachers and people that have just moved here and want something to do. People that owned their own businesses that want to support in any way that they can. Our volunteers are people that are elected officials. Offices that are rounding up PPE for us and delivering it to us because they know we need it. Our volunteers’ our community. They’re our neighbors. They’re our friends and our families.
Al Letson: Now, along with groups like Bed-Stuy Strong, they’re leveraging the power of communication and strength in numbers across the whole city.
Kelvin Taitt: We have [cross-border 00:48:35] mutual aid network, which is just a giant, what’s that, group chat? We share resources. We share food. We share ideas. We share tech. We share volunteers, sometimes, if we need to. Unfortunately, the government hasn’t given us resources. We’ve built infrastructures and operations that had served our communities over the last eight and nine months and we’ve done that together.
Neal Gorenflo: I see participating in mutual aid as a kind of human development process that helps people become more compassionate, cooperative, and skillful participants in society.
Al Letson: Neal Gorenflo is the Executive Director of the nonprofit, Shareable, whose mission is to empower people to, well, share.
Neal Gorenflo: Mutual aid is practicing democracy with a small d. The grassroots kind of democracy, right? It’s citizenship, really.
Al Letson: Shareable has put out a film, book, and podcast series called, The Response. All about building collective resilience in the wake of disasters, and COVID-19, has certainly been the biggest disaster we’ve seen in generations.
Neal Gorenflo: The pandemic was a powerful catalyst because it put every human on the planet at risk at the same time, and at a time when we’re all connected. Almost all of us are connected by digital networks. This allowed mutual aid to actually go viral and I haven’t seen anything like this in my lifetime or know of a precedent.
Al Letson: Neal says, the explosion of mutual aid during the pandemic has shown that people can’t always rely on institutions or governments to help them.
Neal Gorenflo: You know, our nations is so divided that we fail to respond to this pandemic effectively. We had all the resources and knowledge to do it and we didn’t do it, right? We’re paying extremely steep price in lives and treasure for this national family dysfunction. I think, the lesson of COVID-19 is that, we need to rebuild our democracy from the ground up or we won’t be able to overcome the many challenges we face in the 21st century.
Al Letson: Neal says the government needs to do a better job of supporting its citizens. So, mutual aid shouldn’t be a substitute for what the government is supposed to do, but he says that, Neighbors Helping Neighbors, that has to be part of the solution.
Neal Gorenflo: We really have to go back to basics and rebuild our communities with these kind of ideas in mind. As the African proverb goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Al Letson: Kenneth [inaudible 00:51:24] produced that story. Our Lead Producer for this week’s show is Najib, the mighty, Aminy. Jen Chien and Laura Starecheski edited the show. Thanks to Producer Pamela [Kirkland 00:51:40] for her work on our vaccine and fast science stories. Special thanks to the University of Virginia Health for their help on Dr. Taison Bell story. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our Production Manager is Mostafa. Score and Sound Design by the dynamic duo, J-Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, Arruda that helped this week Brett Simpson. Our Digital Producer is Sarah Merck. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our Editor-in-Chief. Our Executive Producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camarado Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. And Catherine MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a Co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting & PRX. I’m Al Letson and, remember, there is always more to the story.