Tired of Dying: Ashes Action, Covid-19, and Protesting Under a Pandemic
When your back is against the wall, dumping your loved ones in the president’s front yard can seem like the only rational response.
A friend died last week. Maybe it was the week before. The days and weeks bleed together lately, like they did in those years when my “uncles” kept dying and we went to funeral after funeral, cleaned out house after house. HIV and coronavirus aren’t the same, of course, but for some of us, the last few months have been an echo of days gone by, a virus stalking us, with Black and brown communities paying the highest cost, a government that doesn’t care, a populace that seems to think that this only happens to them, others, those people, not to anyone virtuous or good. Never me.
It took ten years for 100,000 people to die of AIDS in the United States.
It took a little over three months for 100,000 people to die of coronavirus.
Both losses are treated as hurtling inevitabilities, despite numerous moments that could have turned back the tide, the most fundamental of which involves giving a fuck. Each of those people was someone, yet they are often described simply as numbers, a slick data viz on the front page of the paper.
Americans live in an era of necropolitics. Death is no sign of neutral passage but instead a vicious exertion of political power. Death is state violence. A body cannot just be a body when the human it once was couldn’t afford insulin, went to the corner store for milk while Black, lived in a nursing home where they died of communicable infection after being abandoned in their own waste for days on end, went to grammar school and got caught on the wrong side of the door during a lockdown, or labored in a meat processing plant during a pandemic so someone could buy cheap chicken at a supermarket. Americans, especially white Americans, have become very adept at seizing the optics of death as commentary.
Too often, though, white people shy away from the literal power of the body, of death as a palpable physicality. Death is uncomfortable, gross, unpleasant, the body sacred but also troubling. The thought of handling a body, of sinking your fingers into a bag of ashes, of turning bone shards over in your hands and trying to read their secrets, disturbs. Death, we are told, should be marked with symbolism, not literalism. Wash your hands, don’t lick the dust away.
My entire life is shaped around my broken body and what other people think of it, so I have a bit of a preoccupation with the body as politics. My impairments shape how people interact with me as they make assumptions about my humanity and capability. Death is a distillation of something I already know: Even in death, people will violate me, wrest away my control, will reshape my narrative to meet their ends. If I die of Covid-19, it will be another number—too bad, so sad. It will not be “look how the second wave absolutely devastated unprepared rural hospitals” or “look how reopening tourism too early has catastrophic consequences.”
When Larry Kramer, an icon of AIDS activism, a ferocious force of ACT UP, died recently, the Times implied that his anger made him difficult; his “aggressive approach could sometimes overshadow his achievements,” they said,before changing the headline. But his anger kept him alive. His anger kept a generation of dying people alive. It drove a movement that took the fight to the most public of places, making it impossible to ignore. At the height of the crisis, crowding the streets was the only thing that made sense when your friends were dying in silence on Ward 86.
People don’t like anger, especially that they cannot turn away from. It makes them uncomfortable. This does not seem to change with time or history. Perhaps, I think, this is because they feel guilty that they are not angry too.
Bring the dead to your door; we won’t take it anymore, protesters chanted in 1992 during the first Ashes Action, forming a line through the streets of Washington. It was a howl of existential rage and grief, a public acknowledgement of collective loss and the gutting of the LGBQT community. They painted words and art onto cardboard so powerful we see their shadows in 2020;the bloody hand, the stark triangle on a black background that once read “SILENCE=DEATH” and now says “TRUMP=DEATH.”
If I die because my government has chosen to expose me to death by refusing to follow ample scientific evidence with respect to the coronavirus, I want to be dumped on the White House lawn, a slowly bloating body, limbs flexing with the breakdown and withering of muscles and tendons. I want to fill the summer heat of DC with a stench that worms through the Rose Garden and through the smallest cracks of doors and windows. I want to slowly leak foul fluids and a slick of oil, hair matting and sloughing away, skull revealing itself with a grin. Surprise! Hello! I don’t like being here either, but you left me no choice!
Death is our final statement, and if I die in a pandemic that is killing tens of thousands of people due to ineptitude, cowardice, political gamesmanship, then I want to make a statement about that. Not in a firmly worded obituary, though certainly that would be nice, but with my body, this last thing left to me, the thing I have fought to control until the bitter end, a final protest. I do not want to be part of a symbolic memorial: I want to be the symbol, the Covid-19 body that rotted on the White House lawn, the bones that howled in the wind, the fingers and toes that disarticulated into the grasses and scattered like oracles.