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A man named Jeremiah sleeps wrapped in an American flag on the streets of downtown Oakland, beneath a large Black Lives Matter mural.
In 2020, the pandemic exposed longstanding inequality more clearer than ever. How much did we fundamentally change because of it? (Mural by LC Howard; Photo of Jeremiah by Pendarvis Harshaw)

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused millions of people around the world to die, and many more to suffer. Arguably, the most unnerving part is how this time period will affect generations to come.

That said, I don't want to see some fluffy reflection on COVID-19.

I don’t care that you switched your wardrobe to be more comfortable while you worked from home, or that you successfully made sourdough bread. In this country alone, over half a million people have died directly from COVID-19, not to mention those dead from medical complications indirectly related to the virus.

People are feeling down, suicides and overdoses are up, and depression is damn near expected. Children are falling behind in their studies, and elders are spending their golden years in solitude. You want the world to know about the beauty of an air fryer? Save it.

The homicide count in a number of U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Stockton, has risen by significant percentages over the year prior.

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Late last spring, when that nationwide spark of activism jumped into people and had ‘em pouring into the street chanting "Black Lives Matter" from Philadelphia to Pleasanton, all it resulted in were minor here-and-there policy changes, including the highly flawed George Floyd Act. There’s also an ongoing tug-of-war around defunding or decreasing the amount spent on police departments in a number of cities; despite the Minneapolis city council's pledge last June to dismantle its police department, it just voted for $6.4 million to hire more officers. The TV show COPS was canceled for a few months before being reinstated.

The trial for Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd, is "tentatively" underway as of this week. Something tells me I already know the outcome.

March 10, 2020: the last "regular" day.
March 10, 2020: the last "regular" day. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Look, this year has been heavy. I get it. As a relief from this dark cloud, I wanted to write a fluff piece too.

I had this poetic idea to drop a column about my interaction with the skies over the past year. It all started with the photo I took exactly a year ago yesterday. The clouds were sorbet orange; lightweight majestic, especially that part that looked like a gaping hole in the sky.

Below, on the banks of the east side of Lake Merritt, unmasked people stood within close vicinity of each other while taking photos of the airshow. I was there with them only because my final in-person interview of the past year had been canceled.

Around the same time, KQED sent out the email telling us to work from home for the foreseeable future. And in the following days, I can't tell you how many times I’d stare at the big blue beyond in frustration at the lack of leadership from the president and other elected officials.

Spring turned to summer and my big-hook-head continued to turn upward, watching helicopters circling the city as people poured into the streets to protest police brutality—thousands of people motivated by the news of George Floyd's murder and the extrajudicial killing of Breonna Taylor. (The case against Taylor's boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, was dismissed earlier this week.)

I spent a few days this summer watching the sky as ashes from nearby wildfires landed on my little patio garden. Lack of investment in the state's frail electrical infrastructure meant that, once again, it turned destructive under elevated temperatures and high winds. Fire season was a haze, but no one will soon forget Sept. 9, 2020: the Day of the Orange Skies.

Over the course of the year I looked up at fireworks, and nervously looked around after hearing gunshots. There was that one night in August when I stood on a hillside of the Yolo Bypass, watching the late summer sun dip below the horizon in the distance. Simultaneously, a full moon arose from the other side of California's capitol city. As soon as la luna showed her big beautiful face, a bunch of bats came out of nowhere. I instantly dipped.

Bats, though visually impaired, know it’s nighttime because of their circadian clock's "suprachiasmatic nucleus." I read about that while laying on my back in my bed at 3am—my own internal clock thrown off because of COVID/stress/dietary decisions, and once again staring up: this time at my phone; as well as the ceiling, the sky, the universe.

I thought writing about clouds and shit would be poetic. And then I'd bring it home by mentioning that just about everyone under the sun was dealing with the same issue.

And then I got grounded.

The sign outside of California Medical Facility state prison in Vacaville, on a smoky hot August afternoon
The sign outside of California Medical Facility state prison in Vacaville, on a smoky hot August afternoon. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

What about the stories of the actual people? Particularly the ones I haven’t had a chance to write about, because other issues in this high-paced news cycle demanded my attention?

Last spring I got word that Alameda County’s food program wasn’t getting to a 67-year-old woman named Paula, so she looked up, down and all around, and found a neighbor or two to assist her with groceries. I wanted to write about her in May, but I was occupied by that whole national upheaval about racism and police brutality.

Chris Tha Fifth, an author and rapper who was formerly incarcerated at Solano County State Prison in Vacaville, told me that prior to his release, he too spent time looking up—looking up at smoke filling the prison he was in. I wanted to write about him last fall, but got sidetracked by the sideshow of African-American male entertainers selling out during election season.

He's one of thousands of people who've been released from prison this year. As of March 3, 2021, California's prison population has decreased by 28,454 over the past calendar year. We have the lowest number of prisoners here in California in three decades, and still the prison system is at 102.8% of its capacity.

And while the state says it tried to quell the spread of COVID-19 in its prisons, over 200 people have died, and many more were sick.

Prison officials tell me this decrease in population has led to the consolidation of incarcerated firefighter groups and the closure of at least one institution, Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy.

Keith Wattley, founder of UnCommon Law and an Obama fellow, tells me there's still more that can be done to alleviate California's overcrowded prisons. "One of the most significant data points," says Wattley via email, "is that people serving indeterminate terms (i.e., those whose release is dependent on the parole board and the Governor) now represent nearly 40% of California's prison population! That's because they've been systematically and consistently excluded from release consideration, even though they present by far the lowest risk of recidivism."

I had plans on writing that article in January, but instead I spent a solid portion of the first week of 2021 looking up the definition of "domestic terrorism," and then looking skyward in bewilderment that it wasn't being applied to the siege on the U.S. Capitol Building.

Graffiti on an underpass in Oakland: "Shelter in Place Without a Shelter."
Graffiti on an underpass in Oakland: "Shelter in Place Without a Shelter." (Pendarvis Harshaw)

There were also so many times this year I found myself looking down. Disconnected, distraught, disgusted and lost. Or over-connected, staring at my laptop, trying to write/right the wrongs of the world, or on my phone figuring out what's going on with this planet.

Sometimes looking down while jogging, running away from problems. Other times in a downward stare: inebriated, and sulking in my issues. On a few occasions I was punch drunk—walloped from family drama, unhealthy habits, and the fatigue of simply existing during a global pandemic.

In writing that fluffy piece about my interaction with the skies, I was going to end on some trite overused line from Tupac ("keep your head up") or Earth, Wind, And Fire ("keep your head to the sky").

But there's another overused popular piece of poetry that's more applicable.

“You will not be able to stay home, brother/You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out,” says poet Gil Scott-Heron, in the opening lines of his most famous piece, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," published 50 years ago.

I thought about that line a lot these past 365 days.

That fluff is unplugging. It’s a mechanism for dealing with things by avoiding them.

And I get it. Again, I wanted to wax poetic about clouds and shit. But 50, 100 years from now, future generations will ask what happened during this time, and it's important we don't bury the lede: the country that invests the largest amount of money in defense couldn’t defend its most vulnerable people from a virus that impacted countries the world over.

And in this country, working class and poor people suffered while the rich got richer. It was a continuance of the past, and predicator of what's to come.

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Nothing fluffy about it.