New York in the Time of Coronavirus

NYC in the Time of Coronavirus

Both the city and the state of New York had their first confirmed case of coronavirus on March 1. In the following weeks, NYC rapidly transformed into the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States1.

I thought I’d share a few photos of what it’s been like. 

It started with (literal) half-measures, like restaurants being required to operate at no more than 50% capacity on March 12, the same day Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a State of Emergency. 

Four days later, on March 16, all public venues, bars, gyms, restaurants (except for delivery/takeout), etc. were ordered to close, as were NYC schools. 

Four days later, on March 20, all “nonessential” businesses were ordered to keep 100% of their workforce at home.

Sometimes the parks are empty, but they’re often packed. Governor Cuomo has warned they may be closed if New Yorkers fail to social distance within them.

Grocery stores have started closing (March 25) as employees test positive for coronavirus. Ironically, their new limitations on the number of people who can be inside the store at once have led to packed lines outside their doors.

(Photo taken March 21 outside Trader Joe’s, 20 minutes after open and three days before an employee tested positive)

Grocery delivery apps are backed up for days and out of stock of many basic items; sometimes you learn that in the app itself, sometimes a few days later when it shows up with only half of what you ordered.

During my rare outings (I spend roughly one hour per week outside my apartment), I’ve noticed mask usage in my neighborhood climb from 1 in 10 people to about 1 in 3, as of March 28. I’m now among them, albeit with a homemade mask fashioned from a cotton-shirt2

It’s quiet during my walk around the neighborhood. The avenues still have light traffic, but the streets are completely barren. They are basically an extension of the sidewalks now, useful for maintaining six feet from others. 

The normally bustling Prince St. is entirely empty save for one single food delivery person. Delivery workers make up the majority of people on the streets now.

Even the famous Prince St. Pizza, normally mobbed with a line out the door even in the wee hours of the morning, is moribund. 

Virtually all of the storefronts and restaurants are boarded up; many of the restaurants have even stopped doing takeout or delivery. It’s unclear if they’ll be back when this is all over.

I’m used to hearing a myriad of languages when I walk outside. I’m used to pushing past crowds of people, impatiently ambling behind slow walkers, and bumping into gawking tourists who’ve stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. But now I don’t hear anyone, the crowds and slow walkers are gone, and the tourists have fled.

Many of my friends and coworkers have fled the city too, for their hometowns where a house, family, and yard can make the difference between a mental break and a mental breakdown. It’s been three weeks since I’ve seen anyone I know in person.  

I’ve personally seen coronavirus end relationships, shutter local businesses, and destroy livelihoods. It’s taken nearly a thousand of us. It’s seized our greatest public space and turned it into an infirmary for its victims. It’s drained the energy from the City That Never Sleeps. 

When it’s all done, when the schools and shops reopen, when the quiet recedes into the cacophony of loud neighbors blasting music and angry horns honking and police sirens blaring,  and when the last of the dead are buried, we’ll remember how quickly the city could die — and how quickly it came back to life again. 

Get well soon, New York. 


Footnotes

  1. A bit of background: Roughly 1 in 4 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States is here in NYC. That’s partly because we test the most (NY state will soon overtake South Korea in tests per capita), but also the unsurprising result of being America’s densest and most internationally visited city. Similarly, New Jersey has the second most confirmed cases in the country. 
  2. Homemade masks, while not as good as a “real” mask (e.g., surgical or N95 mask), are still significantly better than nothing. Stay home and save the real masks for medical professionals. But if you must go out, wear a homemade mask

Eight Years Ago

Eight years ago today, Troy Davis was executed. And four years ago today, Remain Free was published.

I still remember the night of the execution: Wednesday, September 21, 2011. I was a freshman. I had just finished my very first college exam and left Myers Hall to hop in my little red Chevy, which sputtered and struggled to get me down to Death Row in Jackson, Georgia. I remember the thousands of protesters—and the dozens of counter protesters. It was a chaotic scene—laughing, screaming, crying, praying, acrimonious chants battling each other and harmonious chants sung in unison. I remember when the riot police arrived, the prickly sound of their tasers in action, the officers downing a man who crossed the line, the muscular arms hauling him off into the back of the van while helicopters whirred overhead.

I remember the sudden hush over the crowd at 7:00 PM, the moment of execution, the sun setting, the riot police in their gear staring impassively from across the divide.

I remember the jubilation when the news spread that the execution wasn’t happening tonight, that the Supreme Court had issued a one day stay of execution. I hopped in my sputtering red Chevy and drove back to Myers Hall, promising to come back the next day. I remember the horror when I learned that the execution had only been delayed for a few hours, and so all I could do was sit in the Myers lobby and watch Anderson Cooper on CNN countdown and then announce that Troy Davis had been executed. I remember the confusion, the fear, the numbness when the next day I opened Myers mailbox 382A and saw a letter from Troy, the last one I would ever receive.

Four years later, on September 21, 2015, Remain Free was published. There was no launch party, no fanfare. Instead, we drove to Savannah and visited Troy’s grave. He’s buried next to his mother and his sister—they all died in 2011. I wrote a note in the front cover of the book and placed it on his grave, along with a replica of the wristband I first got in Wright Square in Savannah in 2010, outside the federal courthouse where Troy’s evidentiary hearing was being held—the first time Troy had been back to his hometown since his conviction in 1991. It’s the same as the wristband I still wear today, blue with white letters illuminating two sentences:

I AM TROY DAVIS. INNOCENCE MATTERS.

Judging the 2018 Georgia Author of the Year Awards

I was a judge for the 2018 Georgia Author of the Year Awards (GAYA). For Best Memoir, I selected This Gladdening Light: An Ecology of Fatherhood and Faith by Christopher Martin.

 

Below is my submission statement:

Disillusioned by the “artificial light spread by industrial Christianity,” Christopher Martin is in search of a new theology. Through a spiritual pilgrimage consisting of treks amid the Appalachians, unsuccessful backyard gardening, and (above all else) the births of a son and daughter, Martin’s faith is renewed by “the God I met in my children…a God who could be human.” Steeped in the physical and political environs of the American south and spiritually inheriting from both Thoreau’s Walden and Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, This Gladdening Light is a poignant, lyrical, and heartfelt expression of the divinity within our planet and ourselves.

 

Congratulations to the author. I highly recommend this book!

 

Disclosures:

1) My book, Remain Free, won the 2016 Georgia Author of the Year Award. In 2018, I was contacted about judging this year’s GAYA. I otherwise have no affiliation with the Georgia Writers Association or the GAYA.

2) The links above are Amazon affiliate links, which send me a ~5% commission if you click them and make a purchase. Thanks for supporting this site!

Naveen and Troy

Today is the one year anniversary of my father’s sudden and unexpected death. It’s also the birthday of Troy Davis, my friend who was executed on death row in 2011 and whom I wrote Remain Free about. These were the two most influential men in my life, so I thought I’d share a few words on their relationship.

Both my father and I were moderate supporters of the death penalty in 2008, before we met Troy. So when we first heard about Troy’s case, we were both skeptical of this death row inmate’s claim of innocence—for me, it was because I had this naive, childlike faith in our justice system and institutions; for my father, I think there was a certain cynicism that that led him to distrust people by default, and who less trustworthy than a convicted cop killer?

Nonetheless, on September 23, 2008, the day Troy came within 90 minutes of execution, it was my father who was the first to tell me the execution had been stayed. My mother was adamant we accept Troy’s offer to visit him on death row six days later, but my father did not share her enthusiasm. By design, he had built a bubble in the suburbs for his kids—a safe, if a bit dull, life, far enough away from the city to be mostly free from the drugs, gangs, and violence that plagued Atlanta and the neighborhoods in Savannah where Troy grew up. I think he was afraid of us puncturing that bubble to enter the world that he had fought so hard to stay away from.

He came with me the first time I ever went to a Troy Davis rally, a few days before Troy faced another execution date in October 2008, I was transfixed. I was 15 years old, and captivated by these speakers talk about justice and freeing Troy. But he was unimpressed. He grew up in India, a bustling, chaotic democracy that was never bereft of rallies, protests, or the occasional bandh (general strikes and infrastructure shutdowns by political activists). For him, this was just another street corner rally.

I think his mind changed when he finally met Troy. Troy was so genuine and warm and kindthat nobody could meet him and not want to fight for him, to save him. I can’t remember exactly what they spoke about on those visits, but when I left for college, Troy, in his final letter, said, “I know he misses you more than you’d even imagine.” He was right, of course. He usually was about these sorts of things.

After two or three visits, my father stopped coming to see Troy on death row. Not because he didn’t care, but because “it is too depressing seeing Troy in there.” From his voice, I could tell how deeply death row disturbed him. This was not the safe life in the suburbs he had worked so hard to build for us.

But he would still wake up early in the mornings on those Saturdays we visited Troy, make the 90 minute plus drive to Jackson, Georgia, and wait across the street at the Wendy’s while we met with Troy for six hours. He would still drive me to rallies, and drop me off and pick me up at the train station when I interned at Amnesty International but couldn’t drive. Like me, he was no longer a supporter of the death penalty. And on September 21, 2011, the night Troy was executed, only five years and 19 days before his own death, he was there protesting with me outside death row, chanting “I Am Troy Davis” into the setting sun.

If you knew my father or would like to honor his memory, please make a donation to an education-related charity of your choice—education was a cause he cared deeply about. If you’re not sure where to donate, two organizations I like are Pratham and DonorsChoose.

If you knew Troy or would like to honor his memory, please make a donation to the Innocence Project, a non-profit that helps free wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and works to prevent wrongful convictions from happening in the first place.


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Voter Deception on Georgia’s Ballot Initiatives

I noticed this when I voted for the first time in 2012: Georgia’s ballot initiatives, which are typically amendments to the state constitution, are frighteningly biased in their wording to push voters into voting yes.

Here are the ballot initiatives, verbatim1, for 2016, which Georgians are voting on as I type these words:

Amendment 1: 

Provides greater flexibility and state accountability to fix failing schools through increasing community involvement.

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?

Amendment 2: 

Authorizes penalties for sexual exploitation and assessments on adult entertainment to fund child victims’ services.

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow additional penalties for criminal cases in which a person is adjudged guilty of keeping a place of prostitution, pimping, pandering, pandering by compulsion, solicitation of sodomy, masturbation for hire, trafficking of persons for sexual servitude, or sexual exploitation of children and to allow assessments on adult entertainment establishments to fund the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund to pay for care and rehabilitative and social services for individuals in this state who have been or may be sexually exploited?

Amendment 3:

Reforms and re-establishes the Judicial Qualifications Commission and provides for its composition, governance, and powers.

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to abolish the existing Judicial Qualifications Commission; require the General Assembly to create and provide by general law for the composition, manner of appointment, and governance of a new Judicial Qualifications Commission, with such commission having the power to discipline, remove, and cause involuntary retirement of judges; require the Judicial Qualifications Commission to have procedures that provide for due process of law and review by the Supreme Court of its advisory opinions; and allow the Judicial Qualifications Commission to be open to the public in some manner?

Amendment 4:

Dedicates revenue from existing taxes on fireworks to trauma care, fire services, and public safety.

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to provide that the proceeds of excise taxes on the sale of fireworks or consumer fireworks be dedicated to the funding of trauma care, firefighter equipping and training, and local public safety purposes?

 

Given the very low proportion of voters who actually research these initiatives in-depth, who would actually vote against these? Look at the title of Amendment 1! Yet deeper examination, especially on Amendment 3, reveals disturbing aspects of some of these amendments that are obscured by their biased phrasing. (Just start Googling if you’re curious)

While voters should research what they’re voting on, that shouldn’t give the state a free pass to deceive them. I’d be surprise if any of these amendments fail to pass; in the future, if you’re a Georgia voter and haven’t researched the ballot initiative, leave it blank, or, if you’re going to vote on something you haven’t researched (which the vast majority of people voting “yes” are doing”), just vote no, regardless of what the amendment is. Don’t let the state deceive you2.

Footnotes:

  1. View the text of the ballot initiatives at http://sos.ga.gov/admin/uploads/2016_Proposed_Constitutional_Amendments.pdf
  2. Perhaps the solution is to implement something like California’s State Voter Guides, which features, “an impartial analysis of the proposal and the potential costs to taxpayers as prepared by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, arguments in favor and against it prepared by proponents and opponents, the text and a summary prepared by the Attorney General or the Legislature, as well as other information.” While certainly there is opportunity for bias in this system, it’s still an order of magnitude better than Georgia’s current ballot deception.

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Five years ago

Five years ago today, my friend Troy Davis was wrongfully executed. One year ago today, I published Remain Free to share his story.

In that one year:

  • Remain Free beat out a New York Times bestseller written by a US president for the Georgia Author of the Year Award
  • Remain Free has been featured in NRI Pulse, India New England News, Khabar Magazine, and the Sunday edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Khabar Magazine, and India New England News
  • I’ve spoken at MIT, Cornell, UGA, Georgia State, Kennesaw State, high schools, Amnesty International groups, and CreativeMornings Boston (with a few more to come!)
  • I’ve met and talked to incredible people from all walks of life who share a passion for reforming our justice system, ranging from the parents of other teenagers who’ve befriended death row inmates to rappers, fashion designers, entrepreneurs, and everything in-between.

 

To mark the one year anniversary of the publication of the physical copy of Remain Free, the one many of you made possible, I just published the Kindle version so people all over the world can read it. As with the physical version, all profits will be donated to the Innocence Project.  And of course, the book can be read in serialized from for free on remainfree.com

In the end, this was to serve the mission of sharing Troy’s story with as many people as possible. A huge thanks to all of you who’ve supported this journey that began around this time eight years ago.


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Coming of Age on Death Row

CreativeMornings Boston has posted my talk from May 2016, titled “Coming of Age on Death Row”. The teaser:

I fight to live so you can remain free

What happens when the realities of a suburban teenager and the world’s most well-known death row inmate collide? The answer involves secret phone recordings, a maximum-security prison, bizarre interpretations of the Eighth Amendment, a tense confrontation with a Supreme Court justice, and an unlikely friendship that would alter the future of both involved

Thanks to all the fine people of CM Boston for hosting me!


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