Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Oct. 16: The total number of COVID-19 cases reported in the United States surpasses eight million, according to Johns Hopkins University’s latest numbers. The Supreme Court will consider whether President Trump can exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count used to allocate congressional seats. This comes after a federal panel last month blocked the Commerce Department from being able to enforce Trump’s July order, saying the census figures have historically included “every person residing in the United States at the time of the census, whether citizen or non-citizen and whether living here with legal status or without.” The Federal deficit reaches a record $3.1 trillion.

Oct 17: Nine days after the FBI arrested 12 men for plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan in protest of her mask orders, Trump holds a rally where he says, “Be careful of her and her attorney general because you know they’re like in charge of the ballot stuff,” Trump had said, prompting his crowd to chant “lock her up.” “Lock ’em all up,” Trump tells the crowd. Whitmer responds on NBC’s Meet the Press, “It’s incredibly disturbing that the president of the United States, 10 days after a plot to kidnap, put me on trial, and execute me … is at it again … inciting this kind of domestic terrorism.”

Oct 18: Dr. Scott Atlas tweets misleading information about the effectiveness of mask-usage to prevent the spread of the virus. Twitter removes the tweet in violation of its policy prohibiting false or misleading content related to COVID-19 that could lead to harm. Trump holds a rally in Nevada, calling Biden corrupt and chanting, “lock him up.” He says that if he had listened to scientists the country would be in a “massive depression.” Biden campaigns in battleground North Carolina, slamming Trump for saying the U.S. had “turned the corner” in the coronavirus crisis. “Things are getting worse,” Biden says, “and he continues to lie to us about circumstances.” A federal judge blocks the Trump administration’s effort to end food stamp benefits for nearly 700,000 unemployed people. Fauci says on the CBS show, 60 Minutes, that he is “absolutely not” surprised that President Trump was infected with the coronavirus after seeing him at a crowded public event where few people wore masks.

Oct 19: President Trump calls Dr. Fauci and other public health officials “idiots” and that if the US had listened to Fauci there would be “700,00 [or] 800,000 deaths,” not 200,000.  “He’s been here for, like, 500 years,” says Trump. “He’s like this wonderful sage telling us how — Fauci, if we listened to him, we’d have 700,000 [or] 800,000 deaths.” Trump continues, “People are tired of Covid. People are saying, ‘Whatever, just leave us alone.’ People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots.”

From the Cutting Room Floor ...

“When the pandemic hit, there was just wild uncertainty.” Tim Keller, mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, leans forward in his chair. I’m certain there are others in the Zoom call with him, off screen. We are meeting to talk about the early days of the lockdowns, the BLM protests, Albuquerque’s troubled history of police violence, and the insertion of federal law enforcement in his city. 

Every city has its own 2020 story, but Albuquerque stands as an interesting case study for understanding the intersection of race, immigration, and policing as a whole in 2020. A little over 500,000 people live inside the city limits, making it large but not uniquely so—around the size of Baltimore or Minneapolis. The US Census lists 74% of the population as white and 49% of its citizens as Hispanic.[1] In other respects, it is demographically similar to many other American cities.

When you look through Keller’s manicured social media pages, he comes across as a nice, moderately left-wing, “law & order” mayor, not too dissimilar from Steve Adler in Austin or Joe Hogsett in Indianapolis. He chuckles when I tell him this, responding that it is the nicest compliment I could have given to his communication team. He’s also known as the “Metal Mayor,” given his love of the bands Sepultura, Anthrax, and Pantera.[2]

Yet Albuquerque stands out in a way that renders it especially interesting to study this year.


Six years ago, the Obama Justice Department put the city under a consent decree. Effectively, the DoJ took over their police department after concluding that officers in the Albuquerque police department overused deadly force, even against those who posed “minimal threat.” Tasers came out too frequently. Those with obvious mental health problems faced a “higher level of force than necessary” from those tasked “to protect and serve.” And it wasn’t just acts of commission that caused the consent decree; police omission proved to be a lasting problem. Albuquerque has an infamously huge backlog of never processed rape kits, something that Keller has focused on in recent years.[3] It is a mid-sized city with a somewhat troubled police record. I want to know: How did it handle a pandemic, and then, what did a city with a sizable Republican constituency focused on “crime” do when faced with massive protests against police violence?[4]

“Every morning I would wake up and get in as many briefings as I could,” he says. “In the afternoons, I would meet with all the department heads from police, fire, our health department, and just try to figure out what do we have to do for tomorrow.” It was touch and go like this for six straight weeks, “all we could think about was a couple of days ahead.” They were so short on resources in the early months that Keller personally drove to the grocery stores to check the city’s toilet paper inventory. “These were the kinds of things we had to pay attention to,” you can tell he is still a little traumatized by what he experienced… deciding who is essential and who is not, what we are going to keep open and what has to close. There were thousands of decisions that had to be made on very limited information.

Little guidance arrived from the federal level. In Albuquerque, they declared their own emergency order, decided in early April to pay businesses so that they wouldn’t go bankrupt, kept the outdoor parks open, and converted community centers to homeless shelters with in-place childcare. They started feeding seniors through their cars. Then they worked on enforcement, deputizing the fire department, food inspectors, and code inspectors, to make sure that metering (keeping building capacities low) and distancing rules were being upheld. Keller wanted both costs and infection rates to stay as low as possible for as long as possible. Keeping employment going had to be a high priority, too. “The whole situation was like what he’d heard about the Great Depression,” Keller recalls, “we decided to borrow a book from [Franklin D.] Roosevelt and use our emergency powers to not have all these procurement code requirements that get in the way of construction. We pushed $120 million out the door in two months and declared construction a necessary business.” The controversial decision to construction projects during the pandemic paid off: “Now it is the second largest sector in the city and is propping up our economy.”

He takes a deep breath, “The federal government should have just done that with the whole country. That was an instance where no one was stepping up and taking leadership.”

“What could they have done early on?” I ask.

“Contact tracing. As a mayor, there is not much I am legally able to do for contact tracing. Everything is HIPA protected. That decision needed to have come from the federal government. We were totally shortchanged on contact tracing and on economic support because of the president’s choice not to send Federal guidance. As a consequence, the decisions were made by  local governors and local mayors. We had a total checkerboard of people making different decisions in different places.”

As the spring lockdowns turned to a summer surge of cases in New Mexico and the southwest, the federal government still allocated too little. Cities had to band together, then regions and states. Gallup, New Mexico, Keller points out, is surrounded by Native American reservations. When the Navaho reservation outbreak began in late April, the Gallup hospitals were taking patients from as far away as Arizona. Soon, the staff was overwhelmed. It shows that, though the pandemic “theoretically should impact everyone the same,” the lack of consistent help from the highest levels of government exacerbated how certain populations are being impacted more than others, especially over the long term. “For instance, our private schools are meeting. You can send your kids to private school and they have all these ways to manage it.” Without extra funding, however, Keller points out that public schools, especially those in poorer areas, struggled to get back on their feet. “This is one of the reasons why the city opened up daycare, not just for essential workers, but for everyone. We are continually trying to support low-income folks, who statistically are often communities of color.” In this pandemic year, cities like Mayor Keller’s really became, as he says, the “safety net.” For so many who weren’t caught by that net, there was too often a downward spiral; lack of access to childcare means that you can’t go to work, which means that you fall further into poverty, which means that you face eviction.

Keller attributes his ability to make quick, flexible policy decisions this year to the fact that Albuquerque has a “strong” mayoral system. “In any crisis, you want to have a centralized decision maker,” he explains. “True, it increases the risk that you might make some bad decisions, but over time, you want more decisions than less. I know a lot of weak mayors around this country, and they can’t stand it because they are always blamed for everything. And yet, if you don’t have any formal authority, there as actually very little that you can do. Decentralization can allow for rapid experimentation and innovation under normal circumstances, but in a time of crisis, there is a premium on dealing with the crisis quickly and efficiently.” I make a mental note to see if this bears out across the country: Were the mayors in the strongest systems able to help out their communities the best this year? Or were decentralized systems able to cope more quickly by calling on non-governmental actors and corporations? (See the Exhibitions section to examine the results of this study).

And, of course, near the heart of any “strong” or “centralized” form of government comes a police force. I ask Keller if he sees himself as a “law and order” mayor in a city that struggles with high crime rates. In 2020, according to the Albuquerque police department, kidnapping, prostitution, and drug offenses actually saw significant drops in frequency. These are all activities for which you usually have to leave the home, and no one left their home in 2020. In contrast, arrests for pornography, arson, and weapons violations rose significantly. One can only assume that these were caused by the extra time spent in front of computer screens this year and the violence and protests associated with masking, the shutdowns, and George Floyd.

He replies right away that he doesn’t use that phrase “law and order,” for obvious reasons. “But the thing we all want is safety. Everyone has the right to feel safe, whether they are protesting or in their home or walking down the street. … It is like standing in a highway while cars are whizzing past you in both directions. The president narrowed those lanes of traffic. The lanes became so small that inevitably, someone is going to get hurt, and I do blame the president for that—”

“—or, he only saw one of those lanes of traffic as worth protecting,” I interject.

When the phrase “defund the police” became attached to the George Floyd/Black Lives Matter protests, Keller wasn’t fazed. “The easy way out,” he replies, “is to pick one or the other. But what we are trying to do is create a third alternative to that choice…. When you call 9-1-1, you’ve got police or fire. If violence is occurring … you need someone in law enforcement …. You aren’t going to send a social worker when someone is being brutally beaten by their partner. On the flip side, we also know that there is massive community trauma from constantly sending police officers in for things like abandoned cars, low level child neglect, or mental health and behavioral health calls. There is this traumatization and also a risk of escalation. We are trying, in this new approach, to address both issues.”

The problem, he explains, is too few law enforcement for so many problems. “For decades, we have asked the police, who are already understaffed, to do more. We have said, be a behavioral and mental health expert. This idea is actually about sending certain 9-1-1 calls to unarmed professionals. Sometimes it is a mental health professional. Sometimes a paramedic if someone is passed out. Sometimes it is a city worker who can give someone a ride to a homeless shelter. We are actually pulling calls out of the queue for police.”

And so far, Keller says, it’s working, “We piloted this, taking 10,000 calls out of police responses that could be handled by civilians. We kept 6,000 people out of the emergency room and out of jail. It is cheaper. It fights the mass incarceration problem. It gives people the response that they need at the right time. And the police like this idea. They will tell you that they just want to be police officers. They were never trained to do all this other stuff. It is naïve to expect them to be mental health professionals. We are not just following through on the defunding idea, but we are also fighting crime better.”

We’re wrapping up, but Keller folds his hands. He sees something this year that he wants me to note. We need to recall the good parts of our identities even when addressing problems. “I think there is a real need for a shared collective identity that would bind us together,” I say. “Wouldn’t it be great if we had that as country?” he muses, looking down at his hands for a moment. “When you don’t have it as a country,” he opens up his hands, “I guess you have to look locally. It would be better, though, if we were all doing it together.”



[1] U.S. Census,

[2] Simon Romero, “For Albuquerque’s Headbanger Mayor, Power Comes in Power Chords,” The New York Times, April 18, 2018, sec. U.S.,

[3] City of Albuquerque, “Sexual Assault Evidence Kit Backlog Reduction Project,” October 19, 2020,; LeftField, “Tackling Albuquerque’s Rape Kit Backlog,” NBC News, February 27, 2018,

[4] Andrew Oxford, “Albuquerque Election Hints at What’s Ahead,” Santa Fe New Mexican, November 7, 2017,

Read more

“Albuquerque police: A history of violence,” Fault Lines, Al Jazeera English, April 13, 2016,

Leigh Ann Caldwell & Blayne Alexander, “Historic voter turnout keeps getting bigger,” The News with Shepard Smith, CNBC, October 16, 2020,

NBC News. Whitmer: Days After Kidnapping Plot Revealed, Trump “At It Again” | Meet The Press | NBC News, 2020.
Gallagher, Aoife. “How Fake News Goes Viral: The Black Lives Matter Dallas Tape.” ISD: Institute for Strategic Dialogue, October 16, 2020.
Brownlee, Chip. “Election Officials Are Planning for Conflict They Hope Won’t Materialize.” The Trace, October 17, 2020.
Schwarz, Jon. “Losing Could Expose Trump to Prosecution for Any Number of Crimes.” The Intercept, October 18, 2020.
TRAC. “The Pandemic and ICE Use of Detainers in FY 2020.” Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, October 19, 2020.
McLeod, Paul. “Here’s How Private Equity Firms Targeted Republican Sen. John Cornyn With Dark Money To Preserve Surprise Medical Billing.” BuzzFeed News, October 19, 2020.
Pilkington, Ed. “‘It Is Serious and Intense’: White Supremacist Domestic Terror Threat Looms Large in US.” The Guardian, October 19, 2020.
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