Excerpt: Viral Justice

Ruha Benjamin

Viral Justice grows out of my contention that viruses are not our ultimate foe. In the same way that COVID-19 kills, so too ableism, racism, sexism, classism, and colonialism work to eliminate unwanted people. Ours is a eugenicist society: from the funding of school districts to the triaging of patients, “privilege” is a euphemism for tyranny. Any attempt at spreading justice, then, entails not simply “including” those who’ve been disposed of but fundamentally transforming the societies into which they’re included.

In the words of James Baldwin, “We are living in a world in which everybody and everything is interdependent.” It is not something we must strive to be. We are. Opposing everyday eugenics requires that we acknowledge and foster a deep-rooted interdependence, not as some cheery platitude but as a guiding ethos for regenerating life on this planet. This is what disability justice organizers have been trying to tell us, and what Indigenous peoples have long asserted—that whether we want to accept it or not, we are connected, not just to other living things but to those yet born. Our decisions today ripple across time . . . seven generations, according to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s Great Law of Peace. Interdependence is not only part of a sacred philosophy but also a guiding ethos for refashioning social and political structures.

Consider what began with mass protests over social and environmental injustices in Chile in 2019, where Indigenous communities led the charge for a nationwide “reinvention.” Hundreds of thousands of Chileans mobilized, and in late 2021, they elected 155 representatives to completely rewrite their dictatorship-era constitution amid a “climate and ecological emergency.” An Indigenous language and literature professor, Elisa Loncon Antileo, a member of the Mapuche community, was elected president of the constitutional convention. She and the other participants posed fundamental questions that citizens of most nations have probably never considered: “Should the country retain a presidential system? Should nature have rights? How about future generations?” This is world-building on a grand scale with local communities and Indigenous values guiding the process. It is a process of reworlding that doesn’t try to smother differences, one that envisions a “pluriverse” rather than a universe, welcoming heterogeneity rather than enforcing a singularity.

As professor of Africana studies Greg Carr tweeted at the time, “The fight to rewrite Chile’s national constitution should be leading global conversations & everyday talk alike. The people have forced a social structure confrontation, with structural inequities and our planetary environmental emergency at the center. We should all be watching.” Watching, yes, and asking how we might rewrite our own constitutions; how we might even reconstitute the outworn political imagination that carved up the planet into nation-states to begin with, and refashion the failed economic ideology that treats the earth like one giant mine despite our collective demise.

Alas, it is not my mission in this book to answer these questions exactly but, rather, to remind each of us that they can and should be asked at all. As you’ll see, while many of the examples to follow tend to come from the North American context, this is not because we, here, have any business holding ourselves up as examples to the rest of the world. Instead, in seeking examples of viral justice, I turned mostly to people and projects in my own backyard, as I encourage each of us to start right where we are. But make no mistake—individuals, communities, and movements across the planet, like what we witnessed in Chile, are lighting the way. They remind us that even things that seem hardened in stone can be shed, should be shed, when they run counter to human and ecological interdependence.

Racism, inequality, and indifference are a juvenile rebellion against the reality of this interconnection, microscopically and sociopolitically. “I want to grow up and so should you,” exclaimed an exasperated Baldwin, addressing an audience at the National Press Club on December 10, 1986, a year before he died. Perhaps, then, COVID-19 is forcing us all to grow up, exposing that vulnerability and interdependence are our lot, whether we like it or not.

COVID-19 is a social disease and, as sociologist Eric Klinenberg insists, solidarity is an “essential tool for combating infectious disease and other collective threats. Solidarity motivates us to promote public health, not just our own personal security.” But, he cautions, “It’s an open question whether Americans have enough social solidarity to stave off the worst possibilities of the coronavirus pandemic.” Vaccines, in turn, are no magical fix for the kind of pathological self-interest that masquerades as independence. When we look worldwide, access to a COVID-19 vaccine has widened the gap between those whose lives matter and those deemed disposable. But we don’t have to resign ourselves to this infantile individualism-cum-vaccine nationalism.

What if, instead, we reimagined virality as something we might learn from? What if the virus is not something simply to be feared and eliminated, but a microscopic model of what it could look like to spread justice and joy in small but perceptible ways? Little by little, day by day, starting in our own backyards, let’s identify our plots, get to the root cause of what’s ailing us, accept our interconnectedness, and finally grow the fuck up.

To that end, I propose a microvision of social change, much like Grandma White’s everyday abolitionism, which we seed in the present as alternatives to our fracturing system. But where should we start? Sleep deprived, let’s start with our dreams.

Dreaming is a luxury. Many people have spent their lives being forced to live inside other people’s dreams. And we must come to terms with the fact that the nightmares that people endure represent the underside of elite fantasies about efficiency, profit, and social control. For those who want to construct a different social reality, one grounded in justice and joy, we can’t only critique the world as it is. We have to build the world as it should be to make justice irresistible.

That many of us have a hard time imagining a world with universal healthcare or a world without prisons is a clear sign that even our dreams are weathered. To dream bigger, we no doubt have to start redistributing wealth and creating a much stronger social safety net where everyone has access to the goods—material and social—that are essential to lead a flourishing life. There’s just no getting around it. As geographer and abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore insists, “Capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it.”

In March 2020, when the pandemic forced schools to close, many people were surprised to learn how many students are homeless. In New York City, the largest public school system in the United States, roughly 111,000 students—1 in 10 children—were homeless during the 2019–20 school year. As more people bear witness to the shameful social inequities that have been right under our noses, we must demand bolder forms of wealth redistribution: Universal Basic Income, universal healthcare, and free college tuition, for starters. Impossible. Inconceivable. Pie in the sky! people will say. Two words for them: police budgets. More specifically, diverting budgets such as the $100 billion spent on policing in the U.S. to public goods that people actually need.

Despite how inequality is made to seem natural, scarcity is manufactured. We no doubt have the means to guarantee that everyone has jobs, healthcare, education, housing, and the ability to ensure millions of children do not go hungry. But we must demand a permanent divestment from policing, prisons, and the entire carceral apparatus, and a radical reinvestment in public goods that reflect our interdependence as people. Legendary civil rights activist Bayard Rustin put it plainly: “We are all one—and if we don’t know it, we will learn it the hard way.”

So how do we go about materializing a more expansive commitment to the Common Good? The late sociologist Erik Olin Wright offers a wonderfully lucid vision for this transition in How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century, which he completed after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. In describing how we can grow the world we want, Wright likens society to the ecosystem of a lake, in which we find an intricate web of many kinds of life-forms: bacteria, aquatic plants and algae, and fish, among other vertebrates. Despite this heterogeneity, a dominant species of capitalism (and I would add racism, ableism, sexism, and imperialism) reigns in this ecosystem. He suggests that transforming our current system will require a gradual process of introducing “alien species” that can survive the environment—nurturing their niches, protecting their habitats until, eventually, they spill into the mainstream and displace the dominant species.

“Viral justice” as an approach to social change seeks to nurture alienated species—all the forms of life and living that are routinely cast out and rendered worthless in our current system. These are the species of behavior that embody interdependence and, in the old ecosystem, would be judged as weak: non-carceral responses to harm, non-capitalist approaches to healthcare, and mutual aid of all kinds. Look closely, and you’ll find these alienated life-forms already taking root under the atomized and stratified habitats that have been slowly killing us. The pandemic has allowed these life-forms to grow beyond their niches, and with more of us fostering them, they could eventually transform our entire ecosystem.

Many of these life-forms are not new but build on past efforts that are easy to overlook, such as the volunteer-based Freedom Schools organized by civil rights activists throughout Mississippi in the mid-1960s. These schools were student-centered and culturally relevant, combining political education with more traditional academic skills and serving everyone from small children to the elderly.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, similar alternatives started sprouting up in many places, with neighbors offering each other basic provisions and planning for the long haul. Within the first ten weeks of the stay-at-home orders, over ninety mutual aid groups and over 550 resource groups registered under the banner of Mutual Aid NYC. Mutual aid groups are not charities but voluntary associations that are part of a long tradition of radical change focused on meeting people’s immediate needs and transforming the underlying conditions that produce those needs in the first place.

Viral justice takes many forms.

As an individual, it could look like Ruhel Islam, a Bangladeshi immigrant and the owner of Gandhi Mahal, an Indian restaurant in Minneapolis. When Islam’s eatery was damaged in a fire apparently started by a right-wing extremist during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020—after the murder of George Floyd—he thanked his neighbors for trying to stand guard but said, “Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served.” His daughter Hafsa Islam posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page, “Gandhi Mahal may have felt the flames last night, but our fiery drive to help protect and stand with our community will never die! Peace be with everyone.” This kind of solidarity is contagious, no doubt inspiring the rest of us to consider how we, too, can stoke the flames of justice.

As collectives, viral justice could look like the youths at South End Technology Center in Boston creating masks for frontline workers and other vulnerable groups. For their “PPE for the People” campaign, young people in the community used sewing machines, 3-D printers, and laser cutters to create everything from 3-D-printed N95-style masks and clear face shields to hand-sewn personal masks for everyday use by the elderly, low-income folks, and essential workers. This initiative is just one of many making social change irresistible.

Longtime organizers such as Mariame Kaba insist that mutual aid is a practice that entails meeting people’s immediate needs through food donation, grocery delivery, bail funds, transportation, and childcare, in the spirit of “solidarity not charity.” But mutual aid is also an opportunity for political education—an “on-ramp” for people to get involved in social movements, according to Dean Spade, a Seattle-based organizer and founder of the mutual aid resource website Big Door Brigade.

To that end, Spade points to three types of movement work: dismantling harmful systems, providing for people’s immediate needs, and creating alternative structures that can meet those needs based on values of care, democratic participation, and solidarity. Take Ecuador, which, in 2007, began a bold experiment that didn’t cost a lot of money. Rather than continuing to criminalize street gangs, the country legalized them. And as sociologist David Brotherton documents, gangs were able to “remake themselves as cultural associations that could register with the government, which in turn allowed them to qualify for grants and benefit from social programming, just like every body else.”

Some members went to school, started businesses like catering and graphic design companies, or took advantage of grants for job training or setting up community centers. As a result, homicide rates dropped dramatically, and gangs began operating more like social movements, even collaborating with their rivals on cultural events.

Of course, change didn’t happen overnight, but as Brotherton reminds us, little by little over ten years, “trust and long-term relationships had a chance to build up.” It wasn’t the policy alone but how people used the legalization of gangs as an opportunity to transform how they related to one another. That’s viral justice at work.

In the pages ahead, we’ll come across examples of these kinds of movements, with an eye to how everyday people choose to get involved in the nitty-gritty work of world-building. But in every case, before we can really appreciate the stubborn audacity and courage this takes, we have to look squarely, soberly at what we’re up against. I warn you now, it ain’t pretty. Each time you find yourself staring at the page thinking, I thought this was a hopeful manifesto about change! I urge you to recollect the words of poet Mary Oliver:

I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world

This is what we call witnessing. The surge of sorrow, rage, and weariness that comes each time we learn anew of the never-ending cruelties that surround us, that is our hearts breaking, each piece of our insides offering up a new surface—fresh understanding, greater resolve—connecting to our outsides.

Only then can we truly grasp the mettle it takes for people to bear witness to this burning world, their clothes reeking of soot, their eyes itching from smoke, and yet turning one to another to plot a world where they can take off the masks and breathe easy. They are, in the words of Kaba, “pre-figuring the world in which we want to live.” Again, it may be tempting to dismiss these efforts as small, fleeting, and inconsequential, as we’re still taught to only appreciate that which is big and grand, official, and codified. But a microscopic virus has news for us: a microvision of justice and generosity, love, and solidarity can have exponential effects.

At the end of the day, I am a student of the late-great Octavia E. Butler, writer and builder of speculative worlds. To the question, What is there to do? she once responded, “I mean there’s no single answer that will solve all our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead, there are thousands of answers—at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”

We can be one of them, if we choose: vectors of justice, spreaders of joy, transforming our world so that everyone has the chance to thrive.