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As Trump’s “reopening” endangers lives, Democrats must advance policy that gives working people something to fight for, argues In These Times’ Sarah Lazare.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Jaisal Noor: Welcome to The Real News, I’m Jaisal Noor. The coronavirus pandemic has taken a staggering toll on the United States, which has just over 4% of the world’s population, but more than 30% of the world’s confirmed cases and 28% of the world’s deaths. And in the United States COVID-19 has hit low income communities of color the hardest. Meanwhile, most states are rushing to reopen against the advice of public health officials. Well, joining us to discuss this is Sarah Lazare, web editor and reporter for In These Times, who’s done an excellent series of reporting on COVID-19 and especially around issues around reopening and the power that corporations are wielding right now to shape public discourse.

Sarah, it’s now something like 48 states are reopening this week over the objections of health experts and scientists. You write in public discourse, the language of reopening is largely being conceded to the right. Talk about what this looks like, because we see this throughout news reporting, whether it’s newspapers or media, the right is really taking hold of this. And at the same time when the government hasn’t really provided a safe alternative to opening and also not given real benefits, like many other countries have. A $1,200 stimulus check and unemployment benefits for those who can get them right now, it’s really put people in a tight spot.

Sarah Lazare: Yeah. We really should not let the administration of Donald Trump, the GOP, right-wing think tanks or CEO’s frame this rush to unsafely send people back to work at the reopening because what they are in fact doing is unraveling the conditions that we need to have an actual, safe, just and sustainable reopening. In order to actually have our society reopen again, to do all of the things we desperately want to do, which is, stroll through the park safely without a mask, go to the library, go to work without fear.
In order to do those things in a way that is all just the first thing you need to do is contain coronavirus, that’s what shelter-in-place is for. Shelter-in-place is for not only containing the coronavirus, but also putting aggressive public health measures in place so that you can have the level of containment that you need to actually have a safe reopening. The Trump administration has not been putting any of those public health measures in place in any kind of a coordinated and effective way, so as a result, this important time that we have to move towards an actual safe reopening has been largely squandered.

But another thing that you need to have a reopening that’s anything like safe or just is you need to give people a way to survive during the very difficult containment process. On the one hand, we have Republicans sending us into a very lethal, dangerous hasty “reopening” that we know is going to kill large numbers of people. And based on the evidence we have so far black and Latino people are going to disproportionately bear the burden of the deaths, which is a really horrific thing. And then on the Democrat side, what we’re seeing is people supporting shelter-in-place instructions but not giving people a way to survive while they’re sheltering in place.
For people to shelter-in-place, you really need to be paid to stay home, that’s really the only just way to do this. The labor union UE is calling for people to be paid to stay home, but instead what we’re seeing from Democrats is paltry one-time payments, unemployment insurance that undocumented people do not qualify for at all. According to One Fair Wage, 44% of people across the country who have applied for unemployment have not yet received it.

It is also incredibly unjust to not give people the things that they need to survive while sheltering in place. What I think we need is a coordinated, holistic, social justice-based approach to a crisis that allows us to collectively move forward without sacrificing human lives and without leaving anyone behind or consigning anyone to destitution, poverty or hunger, or potentially losing everything. And I think that the left has a big role to play in defining and determining what that looks like in this moment.

Jaisal Noor: One thing that I think a lot of us noticed is how you had, especially on Mayday, you had workers protesting around the country and around the world saying that, “We’re being forced to go into,” essential workers being forced to go in and work under very unsafe conditions. And that got a little media coverage compared to these reopen protests, which are astroturf because similar to the way The Tea Party in 2010, under President Obama, claimed to be this organic grassroots movement.

There’s actually evidence now that these reopened protests are funded by some of the wealthiest, most corrupt organizations on the planet and you right with the funding from the Koch Foundation, Exxon Mobil, and a bevy of wealthy donors, The Heritage Foundation is at the center of the political efforts to prematurely restart the economy. Talk about who these groups are, and also what they’re doing to sort of pull these strings to really astroturf these protests that are ongoing till this day. Even as 48 States have started to reopen, they’re pushing for a rapider and wider reopening.

Sarah Lazare: Just to be clear, there are several Koch-Funded Think Tanks, The Heritage Foundation, ALEC, Americans for Prosperity. They have at least publicly distanced themselves from the actual reopen protests. There was a Politico article that came out a few weeks ago in which Koch-funded orgs tried to distance themselves from the protests. Those protests are still being astroturfed by wealthy organizations, for example, FreedomWorks. It’s highly involved in those protests as well as white supremacist organizations. But the Koch-Funded Think Tanks while publicly disavowing the actual protests are doing incredibly aggressive lobbying and advocacy work pushing for an unsafe sending of people back to work.

They are on legislator calls, they are lobbying, they are getting all this space in outlets. The Heritage Foundation is very influential in the Trump administration, it actually had a role in the Trump administration’s transition team along with… The Heritage Foundation history goes way back, it was involved in the sort of Reagan era tax cuts and has been behind a lot of the really anti-worker anti-poor people and racist legislation of our times. For example, The Heritage Foundation claims that it had a big role in pushing Trump to pass work requirements for food stamps.

And so a lot of these Koch-funded organizations that have decades-long history, opposing unions, fighting the good public programs. Have been very aggressive from the outset of the coronavirus crisis saying we should send people back to work knowing fully well that it’s going to mean that people die. And they are essentially continuing what they’ve always been doing, but they are doing so in escalated conditions, because now they’ve proven that they’re willing to call for an unsafe “reopening” knowing that people are going to die.

While they might publicly distance themselves from the actual protests, they’re very much part of a similar… okay, they have similar goals to the protests and you could argue that they’re far more influential with the Trump administration and with the Republican Party overall in pushing those goals. And you’re totally right that the reopen protests which were astroturf and far smaller than the wave of the labor militancy and strikes and people being very courageous have gotten… the “reopen” protests have gotten far more attention, which is really too bad because workers are being incredibly brave, they’re fighting for their lives, they’re speaking out. I think there’s been this sort of patronizing head padding line out there saying, “Essential workers are heroes.”

One of our reporters, Hamilton Nolan’s at a piece where he interviewed a bunch of grocery store workers, and a lot of them told him, “No, I don’t want to be risking my life. I’m here against my will, I’m here because I have no other way to survive. I want to live, this is not by choice.” And so there’s a profound amount of economic coercion just implicit in the way we use the word essential workers, economic coercion, disciplining labor. And I think that the ways that workers are fighting back and organizing and banding together in solidarity in this moment are incredibly powerful and with way more coverage.

Jaisal Noor: And finally, Sarah, to kind of build off your point about how essential workers they’re being allegedly honored for sacrificing, putting their lives at risk, which many of them don’t want to do. But that really made me think of the military flyovers we’ve been seeing over the hardest hit cities, because these are planes that cost millions of dollars. It costs tens of thousands of dollars per hour to keep them in the air. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that the role that the military and Pentagon plays and everything from the budget.
More than half our discretionary budget goes to the Pentagon. To this piece that you wrote titled, The Pentagon Wants Workers in Other Countries to Risk Their Lives for U.S. Arm Industry Profits. And in it you write, “Workers are being asked to risk their lives, or as one union that represents General Dynamics workers in Maine put it, become “sacrificial lambs” so that the U.S. war machine can keep humming.” Talk about the union and the workers you talk to and what that situation is like?

Sarah Lazare: There are many layers to the injustice of what you just described. The first thing is that the U.S. military’s belligerence and aggression is making the world far vulnerable to coronavirus and it’s making the world a far more dangerous place. Five years of U.S. onslaught on Yemen have left the country’s healthcare system really decimated. Yet, U.S. Saudi bombings have continued during the crisis, and now Yemen has the coronavirus outbreak that could be really horrible because of those conditions. The U.S. ratcheted up sanctions on Iran, even as doctors warned that people were dying in large numbers because sanctions were cutting off vital supplies like ventilators.
We saw the U.S. deploy a ship to the Caribbean to hedge against Venezuela, sorry, more than one ship, it was a few ships. And we’re seeing the U.S. ratchet up militarily in terms of rhetoric towards China at a time that we need global cooperation to deal with a global pandemic. All of these acts of aggression hurt most of the people in those countries that are being targeted by aggression, but also hurt the whole world because this is a global pandemic, so an outbreak anywhere affects the whole world everywhere.

We’re told that we need all of this military spending for “national security.” I think we’re seeing right now that the U.S. military does not keep anyone safe and that the whole framework of national security is a false framework. Given that the U.S. have invoked national security as the reason that we need to keep the defense industrial base going during this crisis. The U.S. defense industrial base has been declared essential, which means that workers who build tankers and bombs and drones here in the U.S. are being told, “We still need you working because the work that you do is essential.”

Because of the reasons I mentioned, we should reject that framework altogether. On top of that workers that I talked to are not happy that their lives are being risked for something that one could argue, or for something that they think is not essential. I talked to one worker who works for a contractor for Lockheed Martin who requested anonymity. And he said that it’s really scary he’s going to work every day, he doesn’t have social distancing conditions, someone at his facility had tested positive for coronavirus. As you mentioned, the union that represents General Dynamics workers in Bath, Maine, said that workers are being treated like sacrificial lambs.

All of that is really horrible. On top of that there’s even a more belligerent thing that’s happening, which is, the Pentagon is mobilizing to pressure Mexico and India to push workers in their countries who are either suppliers or subsidiaries for U.S. arms companies to keep going to work. There is this idea that workers in other countries, in Mexico and India have to put their lives at risk for the sake of U.S. arms companies like Lockheed Martin. This was just a whole other level of injustice because poor and working people in the U.S. already don’t have very much say about the actions of the U.S. government or military, but a worker in Mexico or India has no say.

The idea that they would sacrifice their safety, that they would take their lives into their hands for the purpose of U.S weapon companies being able to do manufacturing of weapons that are in turn making the whole world more dangerous at a time of profound vulnerability is just completely unconscionable and I think deserves a lot more attention. I think we can’t talk about the coronavirus crisis like it’s just a domestic crisis to be dealt with domestically. The U.S. has 800 military bases around the world, the U.S. hums the biggest military empire humanity has ever seen. That empire needs to be dismantled and needs to right now immediately take its boot off of the neck of people in other parts of the world trying to survive a profound crisis.

Jaisal Noor: All right, Sarah Lazare, web editor and reporter for In These Times. Thank you so much for sharing some of your incredible reporting. In these last few months we know it’s a challenging time for everybody, but it’s important that we stay connected to these different struggles happening around the world and recognize the role that we can play in helping, or at least, decreasing the suffering that’s happening in the rest of the world. Thank you so much for joining us.

Sarah Lazare: Thank you so much.

Jaisal Noor: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.

Production: Genevieve Montinar, Will Arenas, Andrew Corkery
Studio: Will Arenas

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.