Pandemic: ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’*
Albany, Georgia, was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic when it first began to take hold in Georgia. The sole incorporated town in rural Dougherty County in the heart of South Georgia’s “Black Belt,” 73 percent of its population of 70,000 are African American. Thirty two percent live below the poverty line, and Albany had the highest rates of the diseases of poverty – cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and obesity.
These are the underlying conditions that give rise to the highest death rates from the coronavirus pandemic and came to include all of Georgia, especially the metro Atlanta area. By the middle of August, the numbers of COVID-19 cases were surging past a quarter of a million, and on August 11, a record high of deaths occurred for one day.
Across America, African American death rates from COVID are three times as high as white Americans, as is the case with Latinx communities. Gainesville, Georgia is another hotspot, where the chicken processing plants are concentrated, and most of the workers employed there are Latinx.
What the Pandemic Reveals
COVID-19 did not create the conditions of poverty in which the pandemic has its most devastating effect. Those conditions are rooted in Southern history. The Southern Black Belt is the historic plantation belt, where great wealth from the production of cotton was produced by enslaved labor. The Civil War was fought to put an end to slavery, yet at its conclusion, the newly freed remained mired in deep poverty, along with many poor white workers. This situation offered a glimpse of a possible way forward: uniting as a class to determine a common destiny.
But that was not to be. White supremacy was employed as a justification for attacking the African Americans with both legal and extralegal terror (KKK), driving the workers apart. A rigid segregation was imposed, and any who dared to oppose it were subject to the same terror.
But the all-class white unity which white supremacy aimed to forge did not bring substantive economic gains for poor whites. They, too, were disenfranchised and left with few rights. Legal and extralegal segregation enshrined a divided working class, united in a common poverty, unable to fight as one. That is a condition that has prevailed across the South to this day.
The murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia, combined with the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and then followed by the police shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, was the catalyst for the massive uprising of all colors that spread across Georgia. The call for “Black Lives Matter” came to be an expression of unity, a recognition that the old divisions that have kept us apart as a class could be breached, and a glimpse of the power that a class that stands together in the fight for its own interests and in defense of one another could embody.
Government Of, By and For the Corporations
Georgia was the last state in the country to shut down for the pandemic and the first to reopen only three weeks later. Georgia is also rated the number one place in the country to do business. The state operates in the interests of the corporations, and it is in the interest of the corporations to keep the profits coming in, no matter the danger to the workers.
Georgia is no longer mainly based in agriculture, as it was during the post-Civil War period. When agriculture became mechanized, hastening the end of the sharecropping system, the agricultural workers were pushed off the land, and the industrialization of the South began in earnest. Millions of workers flooded into the industrial centers then in formation, including Atlanta and Birmingham, but also Detroit, Chicago, and all points North.
Agribusiness remains about 10 percent of the Georgia economy, relying mostly on migrant labor. Georgia is also home to auto, film, paper and timber, transportation and warehousing, and many of the world’s multi-national corporations. Georgia has been fully integrated into the global economy, ranking 12th in the nation in exports, and in 2019 traded over $143 billion in products with 221 countries.
Georgia is so attractive to the corporations because it is a right-to-work state. The rate of unionization in the state now stands at 2.5 percent. The minimum wage remains the lowest in the nation. Automation eliminates more and more jobs, leaving workers scrambling for work at the lowest wages, the fewest benefits, and the most dangerous working conditions. When they can find work at all, many have to settle for gig work, part-time, temporary, and seasonal work. And if that is not enough, corporations are lured into doing business in Georgia with generous tax credits and the country’s lowest corporate income tax rate.
When the pandemic hit, it was the workers at the bottom that were hit the hardest. 2.8 million workers have filed unemployment claims. In April, the unemployment rate in Georgia peaked at 12.4 percent. On August 1, the stimulus unemployment compensation expired. Many thousands are now left with nothing, and eviction proceedings are already underway. The state legislature passed a budget in July in which $2 billion in cuts are being made to services across the board, including $950 million to education. Ill-prepared and ill-equipped, the governor has pushed to get our children back in school, and the result has been disastrous. Some schools that attempted to open have had to close, with hundreds of students and staff in quarantine.
Yet the governor still opposes a mask-wearing mandate and even sued the mayor of Atlanta for imposing a mandate to wear masks. The state still refuses to expand Medicaid, and hundreds of thousands remain without health insurance.
In the midst of a pandemic, health care workers are being laid off. Scores of smaller hospitals across rural Georgia are closing due to a lack of resources. Now the pandemic is surging, setting new records for cases, hospitalizations, and deaths every day. Yet the governor continues to refuse to require even the most elementary measures to contain the virus. We are past the point of having to choose between lives or livelihoods. The pandemic is engulfing both.
It is in the midst of the crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic that a police state still operative in Georgia was exposed. In the Black Belt county of Glynn on the southeast coast, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was out for his morning jog, was gunned down by a retired police investigator and his son, who also had ties to the District Attorney’s office. The killing was covered up for 78 days until a 36-second videotape of the incident was revealed. Soon to follow came the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and then Rayshard Brooks was shot in the back by police officers in Atlanta. In the aftermath of the protests, Governor Kemp called out the National Guard to Atlanta without even consulting with city leaders.
All of this is indicative of a way of life that is endemic to how the South is ruled. Every African American in Georgia knows that at any time, they could be targeted for any or no reason at all. This is what the protesters, who came out by the thousands in every city and town, from all walks of life, knew and understood when they proclaimed that this is systemic and that the system itself must be transformed.
The Weapon of Voter Suppression
Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, who campaigned in 2016 armed with a shotgun, promised to be tough on crime, is of course, pro-business anti-immigrant, and refused to expand Medicaid. He was able to be elected by employing a time-honored tradition in the South – massive voter suppression.
Now, in 2020, we approach an election that promises to be of major consequence, and steps are being put in place to make voter suppression operative again to maintain political control. In the June 9 primary, the state sent out absentee ballots to all of its 7 million registered voters. While many of them said they never received them, over 1 million did cast absentee ballots, leading to a record turnout. Even so, voting at the polls was a fiasco. Hundreds of precincts were closed, leading to long lines, with some voters not even knowing where they were to go. New voting machines, and poll workers not even trained in their use, added to the chaos.
Now, for the November election, the Georgia Secretary of State has declared that absentee ballots will not be mailed out to all registered voters, further exacerbating a voting nightmare. A record 5 million are expected to vote, many of whom are energized by the movement to defeat Trump.
Voter suppression, along with a police apparatus that exercises brute force as a matter of course, white supremacy, states’ rights, pro-corporate, anti-worker, a state government merged with the corporations and operating in their interests — these characterize the economic, social, and political system that defines the situation in Georgia and across America.
All of that may describe the conditions rooted in Southern history, but they do not tell the whole story. The story of the South is also a freedom story — a story to be free from slavery, and a story to be rid of systemic racism, a story of a divided working class uniting to overcome its chains.
Can racism be eliminated without, at the same time, transforming the economy in which it is rooted? Despite all of the gains of the Civil Rights movement, the economic relations remained. The ruling class, a capitalist class, remained intact. This time, transformation means throwing it out root and branch. Capitalism may be in the process of its own destruction, but the owners of private property are preparing right now to move to a fascist solution to maintain their supremacy. The working class, especially that new section discarded by electronics and automation, united as a class around a common program and with a vision of a new society, can change the world, a world in which all of the needs of every human being are provided in a truly cooperative society.
*Charles Daniels, 1979
September/October 2020 Vol30.Ed5
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
P.O. Box 477113 Chicago, IL 60647 email@example.com
Free to reproduce unless otherwise marked.
Please include this message with any reproduction
The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011