I remember when I first got into journalism covering community planning meetings with quaint names like “Vision 2020,” about what this year would be like. Now here we are, and I can honestly say I don’t think any amount of planning would have prepared us for the hellscape this year turned out to be.
So far, 2020 has included a sick convergence of grotesquely global-scale problems one after another, and the fact is that instead of planning for them, our leaders either actively buried their heads in the sand (coronavirus, climate change) or conspired to make matters worse (stealing another Supreme Court seat).
The Advocate, a victim of the coronavirus-induced economic standstill, has not been publishing for most of the year at a time when it feels (to me at least) that an independent voice is needed more than ever. But this special issue at least gives us one more chance to throw ink, paper and online text at the mess that is this year. Here’s to making the most of it with a mostly chronological roundup of 20 standouts of a truly stand out 2020.
1) The most deserved impeachment in the history of impeachments
Hard to remember it, but 2020 actually began just weeks after the Democratic-led House (finally!) voted to impeach President Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Looking back on it now, it feels fitting that the House voted to impeach in 2019, then the Republican Senate held their farcical trial in 2020, calling no witnesses and thereby laying the first omen that this wasn’t going to be such a great year. As Democratic California Rep. Adam Schiff said in his final arguments at the trial: “If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost.”
2) Pandemic … not the board game
When the coronavirus first surfaced, infecting a huge number of people in Wuhan, China, few took it seriously. Then it quickly spread to Italy, South Korea, Iran, and then EVERYWHERE. Now it has affected nearly everyone on the planet with as of this writing, more than 34.1 million confirmed cases and 1.02 million deaths worldwide. And, thanks to our illustrious leadership, nowhere has it hit harder than in the United States, where we have had by far the highest case and death count in the world. Lives lost, livelihoods lost, and a way of life put on hold — the COVID-19 crisis is the greatest crisis any of us have likely faced in our lives.
3) Remembering 1620 — from an Indigenous perspective
If 2020 hadn’t been so busy making history of its own, it might have been a time many looked back 400 years to the 1620 landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock. Many Plymouth 400 events were set to happen (and many wound up being canceled), but a local group of Native Americans also worked to honor Indigenous history this year and to bring attention to the genocide and death by the European disease of smallpox that the Mayflower landing eventually led to in a series called River Stories 2020.
4) Reduce, reuse … that’s it…
Another news item buried under the garbage heap of news from this year is that Valley municipal recycling contracts were renegotiated in late February, and the favorable rates many cities and towns received have now been wiped out. China’s refusal to accept dirty and contaminated American recycling has meant the market for recyclables almost entirely dried up, and cities in towns in Western Mass will now have to pay to haul away recyclables. In the meantime, NPR came out with a story this year that plastic recycling was never very realistic and a myth put forward by big oil companies trying to sell a product. In fact, only 9% of plastic has been recycled since it first started being manufactured 60 years ago.
5) And then there was one
Count me as one of the people who obsessively followed the Democratic primaries, years before they started in earnest. More than two dozen candidates ran for the chance to take on Donald Trump, including two of the Advocate’s favorite senators: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. In February, when Bernie picked up popular vote wins in all three of the first nominating contests, it looked like he might go all the way, until frightened moderate voters seemed to think that Biden was the safer choice and voted for him in droves across the country on Super Tuesday (March 3). The blow was staggering at the time, but now that Biden is the nominee I’m not going to linger on might-have-beens. The fate of the democracy may be at stake, and in the meantime, Bernie has worked to solidify progressive gains through electing progressive down-ballot candidates and including bolder legislation in Biden’s platform.
6) An entirely altered social reality — social distance
Do you remember your last normal social gathering? Mine was a friend’s birthday party in Easthampton in early March. We stood around chattering and laughing inside, eating chips out of the same bowl, and joked that several of the people in the room had recently been on airplanes. It was only weeks later that restaurants, gyms, bars — even playgrounds — were designated off limits. Weddings were canceled or postponed.
For a while, the only times I was entering a building that wasn’t my home was to go grocery shopping, and then soon after that I stopped doing even that in favor of getting groceries delivered. Mail was kept outside the house for a certain period of time before we allowed it in. By the same token, however, we did more calling of friends and others we hadn’t spoken to in ages. Among the many things I’m looking forward to at the end of this pandemic is to go back to inviting people near me rather than keeping six feet apart.
7) Actual people-focused legislation
It sadly didn’t last, but one of the good-news items early in the pandemic was that politicians were scared into passing legislation that actually helps people. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed on March 25 with near unanimous support from both houses of Congress, included one-time checks for a vast majority of Americans along with generous unemployment enhancements which meant the majority of low- and medium-wage workers who had lost their jobs actually made more than they had at work, thereby allowing them to stay home and shelter in place from the pandemic.
Millions of people lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic (including yours truly), and millions more have been laid off right up through this week, as unemployment claims remain historically high. During negotiations of the CARES Act, some Republicans put up a fuss, saying that the lowest wage workers should receive less, but ultimately fell into line. The bill also included some corporate giveaways, and excluded undocumented immigrants from receiving checks, but it was a rare moment of the government actually doing what the people needed.
8) Support for nurses and other front-line workers
The global supply chain failed massively as the pandemic got underway. Most of us laypersons were left with too little toilet paper, a harrowing enough experience, but for nurses, ER doctors, and other front-line workers, there wasn’t enough protective equipment to do their jobs.
Some small businesses stepped in to fill holes, including distilleries that made hand sanitizer, sports equipment manufacturers that began making medical face shields, and even food delivery programs, like the Feed The Frontlines — organized by Amherst resident Lisa Oram — which brought meals to dozens of Cooley Dickinson employees every day.
9) Advocating for those left behind
In a stroke of cruelty, an otherwise generous relief package early in the pandemic (see above) left out undocumented immigrants, who are often already struggling at the margins. Local advocacy organizations have had to combat increased fear of foreigners during this time of communicable disease. The Pioneer Valley Workers Center, as usual, has stepped up, and created a community fund for undocumented Valley residents left out of the federal relief package, raising nearly $350,000 and distributing it to 700 people.
10) Disaster at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke
As the virus ripped through communities across the world, it proved disproportionately deadly to older people, and some nursing homes become hot spots of the disease. The Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke became one of the most notorious examples of poor management of COVID-19, leading to at least 76 deaths among its residents — including veterans of World War II and other conflicts.
The tragic debacle made national headlines and led to what Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey believes are the first criminal charges against people involved in running nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Superintendent Bennett Walsh and Medical Director Dr. David Clinton both face abuse and neglect charges from the state, which could lead to decades of prison time.
11) Learning at a distance
It’s no picnic to hold a digital meeting with a bunch of distractible coworkers, but an entire generation of students became at risk this spring of falling behind in their schooling with the joke that is online learning. Seniors didn’t get a real graduation, spring sports, or a prom.
Thanks to our failure to rein in the pandemic over the summer, it still for the most part isn’t safe to return to classes in person, and things are getting exacerbated well into this school year with no end in sight. Teachers have been placed in the impossible position of either placing themselves in physical danger or working to deliver an equitable education to students in wildly different economic circumstances.
Parents are finding themselves having to act as teachers in addition to full-time caretakers and often full-time workers. Older students, fed up with the restrictions, are holding parties and getting infected. Many are doing heroic work under the circumstances, but the result may very well be a mulligan on the entire school year.
12) Cover your mouth … and nose
Of all the things to become politicized during a pandemic — a cheap, relatively effective way everyone can contribute to prevent the spread of infection shouldn’t be one of them, and yet here we are in 2020 when wearing a mask is somehow still controversial among some circles.
I must admit that I was among the skeptical in the beginning — the Advocate’s own reporting quoted the U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams saying masks were not effective against the virus. But as the evidence started to pile up, and further reporting indicated how mask wearing helped quell the Spanish Influenza outbreak about 100 years ago, it seemed clear that a change of attitude was in order (and a public correction from the Advocate).
Masks can help contain the spread of disease, and there’s even a September New England Journal Of Medicine study stating that universal mask wearing could help people develop immunity. A local group, DIY Masks For Western Mass, helped organize people to make masks, distribute them, or request them if in need.
13) Black Lives Matter
The police killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis, when four officers pinned him down, and one — Derek Chauvin — kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, sparked righteous outrage and led to massive demonstrations across the nation. It also brought further attention to recent slayings of Black people, including Breonna Taylor, who was gunned down in her own Louisville home on March 13 by police conducting a “no-knock” raid, and Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot by two white men while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia.
The nationwide anger at the racial injustice, exacerbated by inequitable medical care and economic support during the pandemic, has pushed the Black Lives Matter movement into new levels of popularity, and led to real discussions about defunding police and thinking up other solutions to community issues previously handled by police.
A Black Lives Matter mural, organized by City Councilor Tracye Whitfield, was painted along Springfield’s Court Square, while Amherst has discussed creating a civilian oversight board for its police department.
14) Even Trump’s Justice Department has issues with the Springfield PD
In July, the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report that Springfield’s police department, and its narcotics division in particular, regularly engages in a pattern of excessive force, which included instances of officers beating suspects and threatening to pin crimes on them that they didn’t commit. Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood has announced reforms, including body camera use, but there are other Springfield officials calling for the removal of all officers who worked in the narcotics unit during the time of the investigation.
15) What it takes to get universal mail-in voting
We still haven’t achieved the dream of universal mail-in ballot systems that they have out West, where states like Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, and Utah (yes, Utah!) mail out ballots to all eligible voters. But the pandemic greatly expanded access to voting. Republicans, and Trump in particular, have worked hard to undermine mail-in voting — going as far as to state publicly that additional voter participation spells doom for Republicans. Trump henchman Louis DeJoy, the president’s appointee to run the Post Office, tried to push through reforms to hobble it, but wound up being sued by several states and backed off his proposals.
16) Playing dirty politics
Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who is young and gay, was the victim of a petty smear campaign during his quest to unseat longstanding corporate-friendly Democrat Richard Neal in the First Congressional District of Massachusetts. A college Democrat group at UMass sent a letter to Morse stating that his dating of some students at the university, where he taught as an adjunct, made some students “uncomfortable,” a letter which was then leaked to the college newspaper and made national headlines. Morse never dated any of his own students, and no specific allegations ever came out, but reporting by the Intercept found that high-level Massachusetts Democratic Party officials acted in an advisory role to the college group.
Morse had been a promising challenger against well-entrenched Neal, who has long stood against people-focused policies such as Medicare for All. In the end, Neal won in a landslide.
The West continues to burn. This record-breaking year for wildfires in California, Oregon, Washington, and other western states has killed many and left far more homeless. Smoke from the infernos, one of which was sparked by a gender-reveal party gone wrong, found its way to the East Coast during the fading days of summer, blocking out our own view of the sun. Earlier in the year, Australia was the site of additional massive fires that killed wildlife and threatened populated areas. Climate change is real.
18) RIP RBG
It was everyone’s greatest fear since the day Trump was elected, but we all held out hope that perhaps scrappy two-time cancer survivor and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg could hold out until Jan. 20, 2021. Her health failed on Sept. 18, right on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.
In the Jewish faith, it is said that someone who dies on Rosh Hashanah is a “Tzaddik,” meaning a righteous person. As Republicans move at lightning speed to replace the liberal icon with as conservative a justice as they can muster, this sign of divine rectitude is likely the only solace we are likely to receive as the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion and countless other decisions hang in the balance.
19) And then there’s Massachusetts’ Supreme Court
Only days before Ginsburg’s death, the Chief Justice of Massachusetts’ Supreme Court (called the Supreme Judicial Court) also died. That is allowing Republican Gov. Charlie Baker yet another appointment to the body. By the end of this year, when Justice Barbara Lenk retires, Baker will have appointed all seven members of the court.
This has already had consequences, as the majority Baker-appointed Court rejected allowing voters to decide on a popular measure called the “millionaire’s tax” which would have brought in new revenue to support schools and transportation by taxing the state’s wealthiest citizens.
20) The most important election of your life
Will Election Day hold the good news we so long to hear that Trump is finally out? As things stand now, despite Biden’s strong standing in the polls, we have news of Trump stating he will refuse to leave if he loses. Never before has it been more important to vote someone out of office — for all the hardships we’ve felt in 2020, getting this racist, fascist, tax-avoiding wannabe dictator out of Washington (and hopefully before a jury) might even make this a good year after all.
Dave Eisenstadter is a former editor of The Valley Advocate.