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In case you missed them: the Guardian's unsung heroes of 2020


Election pranksters

True to form for an administration that could make the most routine tasks somehow absurd, Donald Trump couldn’t even lose an election without making it weird. With close but clear results, he refused to concede, concocting a series of unhinged conspiracy theories about stolen votes and fraud – lies he still maintains.

But laughs soon arrived, in the form of the Trump “voter fraud hotline”, which loyal patriots were meant to call into with evidence of fraud. It soon devolved into a debacle, as an army of pranksters flooded the phone lines with ridiculous tales meant to highlight the absurdity of the proceedings.

One caller told the hotline she met the devil at her polling station in Georgia, who challenged her to a fiddle contest. Another relayed the plot of the 1980s sitcom Different Strokes. A third wiseass called to snitch on a suspicious character skulking around that bore a striking resemblance to the McDonald’s mascot the Hamburglar, who, based on his clothing, he could only assume was antifa. They put a fine point on what a lot of the country thought: this entire effort is a joke – and you, Mr President, are also a joke.

“It’s misery. It’s one of the worst ways to end a campaign you could think of,” one campaign staffer fielding the calls said, calling the prank calls traumatizing. The hotline was soon shut down. What a small joyous gift to watch it all happen in a year otherwise full of bad news.

– LO’N

The student who begged us not to vote for her dad

👑STEPH👑 she / hers
(@streeganz)

if you’re in michigan and 18+ pls for the love of god do not vote for my dad for state rep. tell everyone


June 23, 2020

They say blood is thicker than water, but in some cases, not even that can guarantee a complimentary reference. That was the case for one of our heroes – a college graduate who begged her followers to “please, for the love of God” not to vote for her Republican father who was running in the Michigan primaries.

Why do we rate Stephanie Regan so highly? Well, it takes a lot to rat on one’s own dad – especially when he’s publicly pitching himself as a family man on his campaign website, using multiple photos of himself and his children to support his run.

The two disagreed about structural racism, white privilege and Black Lives Matter, but Regan wanted people to make up their own minds: “look him up and just read for yourself,” she said.

Her father, Robert Regan, described himself as “so conservative [he] makes Rush Limbaugh look like a liberal”. (Limbaugh, a radio host, once called a student who suggested that health insurance should cover contraception a slut and a prostitute.)

Regan, by the way, ultimately lost the primary, so perhaps his daughter’s statement was a damning blow. A father should be proud.

– PN

Doggface – the cranberry juice drinking skateboard sensation

In 2010 the artist Craig Damrauer made prints with the slogan “Modern art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn’t”. You could say that about a lot of viral stardom, whether it’s Chewbacca Mom (who laughed in a car while wearing a mask), Mason Ramsey (who yodeled in a Walmart), or Doggface – my 2020 hero.

Doggface (AKA Nathan Apodaca) went viral in September after filming himself skating down a highway to Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams while sipping a bottle of Ocean Spray. The video has 73m views on TikTok alone.


Jumping on a skateboard is not particularly noteworthy, nor is drinking a fruity drink while doing so. But there’s something in the frictionlessway Doggface does it that makes it so special.

Before his viral fame Doggface was living in a trailer in Idaho, way below the poverty line, without water or electricity. In the video he’s actually skateboarding to work because his car broke down.

Then his life changed in the blink of an eye. Ocean Spray gave him a new truck. Stevie Nicks paid tribute to him. He bought a home. He even just starred in the new music video for David Guetta’s remix of Dreams.

Some people probably see him as a champion of the American Dream, but Doggface isn’t my hero because he went viral and got rich. He’s my hero because he was just trying to make the most of another shitty day, and he put a smile on all of our faces while doing so.

– MB

The ‘This is fine’ meme and its gallows humor





This is fine! 2020 is fine!



This is fine! 2020 is fine! Photograph: KC Green

“This is fine.”

Every time the meme crossed my path online this year, I saw something of myself in the dog’s vacant smile, bug-eyed paralysis, and impotent optimism. I, too, was sitting with a mug of coffee amid a global pandemic, telling myself it was fine because I needed to hear it, even though it was palpably untrue.

The meme – derived from a larger comic strip published by artist KC Green in 2013 – took off online in 2016 as capturing the collective disbelief at the election of President Trump. In 2020 the flames climbed even higher, with the onset of coronavirus in March sparking a sharp rise in Google searches for “this is fine”.

In fact, the cartoon had been inspired by Green’s misgivings about starting antidepressants for the first time; before 2016, it was embraced by teenagers worried about their upcoming exams. “It’s become a catch-all for anything,” Green says wearily from his home in western Massachusetts.

Though he has been able to monetise his creation through “This is Fine” merchandise (including, this year, a face mask), Green admits to having become somewhat numb to its outsize online presence.

Indeed, he noticed applications of the meme became more elaborate and high-concept this year as people sought to pass time in quarantine, superimposing themselves in the place of the dog, or showing him surrounded by toilet paper piled high. (The room in flames also became a popular Zoom background.)

One spin-off stood out, however. After Joe Biden was confirmed as president-elect in November, an animated gif went viral that showed the dog being carried out of a burning building by a firefighter – mug of coffee in hand.


Novy-San
(@novysan)

Never has a GIF made me cry. Until tonight. [origin unknown] pic.twitter.com/Ud61wmy3jx


November 8, 2020

“Never [before] has a gif made me cry,” research scientist Dan Novy tweeted.

Green, too, was moved by the hopefulness of the clip, imagining a happy ending for his tired, put-upon creation.

“I felt something,” he agrees. “The first time I saw it.”

Doug Emhoff





US Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff.



Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

Doug Emhoff, more widely known as “Kamala Harris’s husband”, is set to be the first US second gentleman. And in the spirit of equality, we will be referring to a man in reference to his wife for once, rather than the other way around.

Credit where credit’s due, Emhoff really did take a back seat in 2020, letting his wife shine. The entertainment lawyer will clearly do anything for his other half: last year, he physically removed a protester from the stage at a Harris event. I guess behind every great woman is a man ready to tackle anyone that interrupts her when she’s speaking.

Emhoff also took time out of his day job to campaign for Harris and has since quit his private law firm to be a full-time house-husband (White House husband, that is). Suppressing his male ego and taking one for the team may have helped Harris secure her win as the first woman of color VP.

Emhoff’s new title is an exciting opportunity to see traditional gender dynamics flipped on its head. I can’t wait to see a man help decorate the White House for Christmas. Honestly, anything will be better than the Shining theme Melania went for in 2017. If Kamala’s presidential campaign is any indication, he will handle his new role with grace and humility and live up to the name gentleman. No doubt he’ll have a delicious homemade meal ready for the vice-president when she gets home from a long day at the office. So to all you heterosexual men out there: take several notes.

– ES

Katie Porter and her whiteboard

Not all heroes wear masks. But one hero foresaw something even more important than mask-wearing in this pandemic – free, accessible and routine Covid-19 testing. That person is Representative Katie Porter.

Before Porter came along with her whiteboard, high-up officials did not seem to know the cost of the battery of tests required to discern who has the virus in the US ($1,331), nor of a federal code that would allow them to make that testing free and available instantaneously.

Rep. Katie Porter
(@RepKatiePorter)

I did the math: a full battery of coronavirus testing costs at minimum $1,331.

I also did the legal research: the Administration has the authority to make testing free for every American TODAY.

I secured a commitment from a high-level Trump official that they’d actually do it. pic.twitter.com/RmolCtmNbG


March 12, 2020

But Porter had done her research and was there to help out. She reminded the director of the CDC that without free testing for all, there would be no way of knowing who does and does not have the virus. “Do you wanna know who has the coronavirus and who doesn’t – not just rich people – but everybody who might have the virus?” she asked.

And just like that, the commitment was made. Sadly, 300,000 lives have been lost to the virus in the US, but without Porter, things could have been a lot worse.

– PN

Bookshelves





Tell us who you are - with your bookshelf on Zoom.



Tell us who you are – with your bookshelf on Zoom. Photograph: imageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo

There is nowhere to hide on a bookcase – which is why nosy people make a beeline for them. Your neuroses and nostalgia are laid bare in the self-help titles not quite concealed on the lower shelves, the dissonant notes struck by gifts from friends, the repeat reads revealed by cracked spines.

This year, we exposed our shelves to the world thanks to endless Zoom meetings. Their strength lay in their combining universality and individuality: more interesting than a bare wall, less intimate than a bed, easier to tidy than a kitchen.

Even an Ikea Billy gave depth (11in, to be precise) to a webcam window. But after weeks inside our own homes, starved of human interest, it is no surprise that we soon started taking a closer look.

In April, Bookcase Credibility joined Twitter to pass judgment on the book-lined backdrops of TV talking heads. Elon Musk’s bare shelves, holding only four editions of seemingly the same book, embodied the performative minimalism of Silicon Valley. The titles piling into each other like dominos behind Natalie Portman implied frequent use.

Even individual titles spoke volumes. In May, the UK cabinet office minister, Michael Gove, was called on to explain his copies of The Bell Curve (arguing a link between race and IQ) and work by the Holocaust denier David Irving after his wife posted a photo of their home.

In 2020, our shelves stood in for ourselves – so it’s no wonder we read so much into them. As Bookcase Credibility says: “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you.”

– EH

Nevada

Oh, Nevada. We are in a love-hate relationship. You took five times longer than most states to deliver the election result. (I had to remind myself whether the result had been called for Nevada yet just writing this.)

A provision in Nevada’s election law meant poll workers took the night off in the middle of its ballot counting. Because of this, the whole world was waiting on the edge of its seat for a result while Nevada got some beauty sleep.


Liz Jenkins
(@ej11lizzie)

Nevada counting ballots pic.twitter.com/GC85ZFZdMd


November 5, 2020

But sometimes good things happen to those who wait– or rather, good memes. From the jokes about the friend you hate, texting he’s on his way when he’s clearly still at home; to old school solitaire references; to some great theme tracks chosen to mark exactly how slow the count was, Nevada became an unsung hero of 2020 simply for giving us so many laughs during an otherwise painful election. Not to mention how satisfying it was to hear the result finally called.

– PN

Teacher of the year – as celebrated on TikTok

Between the technical difficulties and awkward silences to the sinking feeling of missing out, remote class can be a nightmare. It’s hard to feel connected when the only interaction students have with their teachers is through the dreaded Zoom Room. But one history professor at Chapman University, Dr James Brown, managed to make it work – to the point where his students organized a surprise to let him know how much they appreciated him.

In a viral TikTok, all the students started out their last class of the semester with their cameras off, prompting Brown to ask whether or not it’s a “cool new thing to do to not turn your cameras on”. Later, he grew more upset. “Seriously?” he asks. “Is it my fault that you have your cameras off?”


His students then turned on their cameras, revealing handwritten thank you posters. He starts crying. I start crying. You’ll probably start crying, too.

This year has been particularly challenging for students, but teachers and professors are adapting to the best of their ability against all odds. That makes them heroes in our eyes.

– IR

Election officials and poll workers





Poll workers prepare signs before polls open on November 3, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina.



Poll workers prepare signs before polls open on 3 November in Columbia, South Carolina. Photograph: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

For nearly all of 2020, election officials faced the nearly impossible task of figuring out how to hold an election in the midst of a pandemic.

That election day passed without any systemic failures is testament to the volunteers who stepped up to help out, and officials working quietly behind the scenes to adapt. But Trump’s battle against the outcome resulted in vicious attacks and threats against election officials across the country.

One official, Tina Barton, who has been the city clerk in Rochester Hills, just outside of Detroit, since 2013, received threatening phone calls that included foul and sexually explicit language. “You start to just question your career choice. Is this something I want to continue to do and is there value in continuing to do this? You go through all those range of emotions,” she told the Guardian.

Despite the fear tactics, Barton, a Republican, publicly pushed back on claims of election irregularities in Rochester Hills.

Ultimately, it was her duty to voters that kept her going.

“You take an oath of office to the constitution of this country, the constitution of this state. Not to a party. Not to a person,” she said. “I am 100% in it for my constituents and making sure that everything is done correctly here and I know that’s the way that every election official in this country feels.”

– SL

Opal Lee





People dance to music during a Juneteenth celebration in Los Angeles, Friday, June 19, 2020.



People dance to music during a Juneteenth celebration in Los Angeles on 19 June. Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP

Here’s a not-so-hot hot take: the US needs more paid, federal holidays. We’re notoriously stingy with them, especially compared with more bon vivant countries such as France and Spain. And so who is more fitting of an unsung heroes’ crown, than the woman who campaigned for, and won, an additional federal holiday for us all this year?

Enter 96-year-old Opal Lee. The Texan has fought tirelessly to see Juneteenth become a federally recognized holiday. This day is loaded with jubilation and pain for Black Americans. It celebrates 19 June 1865, when Galveston slaves first learned of the freedoms granted to them by the Emancipation Proclamation. The holiday has long been observed in southern states, where Black residents eat red foods that signify freedom, including watermelon, red velvet cake and hot sauce. In 2016, Lee, then 89, walked from her Fort Worth, Texas, home to Washington DC in the hopes of pushing Congress to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

When pressed on the difference between Independence Day and Juneteenth, Opal deftly responded, “… the Fourth of July? Slaves weren’t free. You know that, don’t you?”

This year, Opal finally saw the fruits of her labor. Amid a reckoning around race in America, New York and Virginia joined 45 other states and the District of Columbia in recognizing Juneteenth as a public holiday. Now we’re looking at you, North Dakota, South Dakota and Hawaii …

– AW

K-Pop Fans





A fan awaits the BTS concert as part of the “Love Yourself” North American Tour at Staples Center, before the pandemic.



A fan awaits the BTS concert as part of the ‘Love Yourself’ North American tour at Staples Center, before the pandemic. Photograph: Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images

When I was growing up, obsessing over a boy band was pretty low-stakes. It usually involved voting for music videos on TRL or trying to cop seats to a gig on Ticketmaster before the site crashed. This year, however, K-Pop fans used their skills to become grassroots activists; quelling racist police tactics; dampening attendance numbers for a Trump rally; and crowdsourcing a million-dollar donation for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Their ultimate show of force came this summer, during the height of Black Lives Matter protests across the globe. The Dallas police department asked residents to submit videos of “illegal protest activity” to its iWatch Dallas app. K-Pop fans took note of the serious privacy and safety risks that posed to protesters and flooded the app with fancams (which are hard to explain to anyone who can remember using a fax machine, but they’re basically montages of a celebrity set to fun music – like the Gen-Z version of fan mail). They swamped the system, with the Dallas PD announcing its app was down due to “technical difficulties” hours later. And who says all Gen-Zers do is post dance videos to TikTok?

“When we saw a minority of people being treated unfairly, we wanted to do something to help,” Mel, a K-Pop fan who lives in Texas, told the Guardian. “I thought the fancams would only slow down the app for an hour or two, so I was super-surprised when we shut the whole app down!”

– AW

Celebrities helping hospitality workers





Chef David Chang competes for the Southern Smoke Foundation.



Chef David Chang competes for the Southern Smoke Foundation. Photograph: John Fleenor/ABC/Getty Images

David Chang, the founder of the Momofuku restaurant group, turned to ABC’s hit game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in October to raise money for hurting restaurants who had spent months pleading with congressional members for guidance and relief.

There were some bumpy patches throughout the episode: Chang wasn’t sure about which Superman comic cover was auctioned for more than $3m, nor did he know which Peter, Paul & Mary song a SpaceX craft was named after. Luckily, he was able to ask director Alan Yang and host Jimmy Kimmel for help.

Then came the million-dollar question: which US president was the first to have electricity? Chang still had one lifeline option left, so he phoned friend and journalist Mina Kimes, who helped Chang settle on Benjamin Harrison for an answer.

Chang guessed correctly and became the first celebrity ever to win the million-dollar prize. He donated his winnings to the Southern Smoke Foundation, an organization that provides grants for emergency expenses in the food industry. On his podcast, he said he had watched the show and played the app to prepare, but those exercises couldn’t ready him for the stress and anxiety of being in the hotseat.

Ultimately, it was his predilection for gambling that got him through. “I’m a gambling man and shame on me if this is wrong,” Chang said on the show, “but I’m doing this because having a million dollars right now, in this moment, is a game-changer for many, many families.”

Chang isn’t the only celeb chef pitching in to save restaurants. Guy Fieri raised more than $21.5m for the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund. It shouldn’t be up to celebrity chefs to come to the rescue of the food industry – that’s the federal government’s responsibility – but it at least earns them a crown in our books.

– IR

Delivery workers





Delivery workers at night on 5th Ave during the coronavirus outbreak, in Manhattan.



Delivery workers at night on 5th Ave during the coronavirus outbreak, in Manhattan. Photograph: Adela Loconte/REX/Shutterstock

In virus-hit New York City, it’s no longer allowed to dine indoors, it’s far too cold to eat outdoors and going grocery shopping could mean hiking through more than a foot of snow.

So how do 7 million hungry residents stay fed? The answer here, as in cities around the world, is delivery workers: disproportionately older and migrant men of color, working around the clock through conditions that were brutal and dangerous even before a life-threatening pandemic, kept precarious by unconscionably low pay, with nearly no labor protections to speak of.

Since March, local leaders and Silicon Valley CEOs have heaped praise on delivery workers, labeling them “essential”, calling them “heroes” – as close as we’ll get to an acknowledgment of the workers’ pivotal role in our collective survival. Yet under late capitalism these words really seem to mean “please keep working until you collapse”.

Delivery workers have been among the hardest-hit by Covid-19 – but because they are commonly misclassified as “independent contractors”, they have been left out of the sick pay and unemployment insurance thatkeeps millions of Americans afloat. Is this how we should treat our heroes? When will society deliver for them, for a change?

– WC





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