By: Molly Hayes
In early March of 2020, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) changed nearly every aspect of life across the globe. States closed non-essential businesses; masks and social distancing became the norm. Despite the horrors of COVID-19, many people refused to abide by these precautions and continued to eat out, have parties, and attend large gatherings. By May and June, entire states began reopening in clear defiance of warnings from health officials. As other countries’ cases have plummeted, the number of cases in the US continues to rise. As of July 12th, the CDC reported that the U.S. had 3,236,130 reported COVID-19 cases and 134,572 reported deaths. Evidently, the United States is failing at flattening the curve and keeping its citizens safe from the Coronavirus.
In May, as people avoided leaving their homes in fear of COVID-19, their eyes were opened to another, centuries-old crisis. The murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by police sparked a wave of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests across major cities in America and around the world. Police brutality and anti-Black racism are products of centuries of continued systemic oppression against Black people. Black people continue to experience racism in every aspect of their lives: from access to healthcare, fair workplace treatment, access to education, and more. Today, the United States is dealing with two major life-or-death crises at the same time: the Coronavirus pandemic and police brutality fueled by institutionalized racism. The two are inextricably connected.
While these crises may seem distinct and unrelated, this is far from accurate. While the most recent BLM protests were sparked by police brutality, protesters are fighting anti-Black racism of all kinds. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), specifically Black people, are more likely to work in essential jobs and live in communities with limited access to resources. Furthermore, the CDC reports that when adjusted for age, non-hispanic Black people have a 5 times higher rate of hospitalization from COVID-19 than non-hispanic white people in the U.S. The CDC attributes these disparities to a number of factors, among which include living conditions, work circumstances, and health issues, noting that “Racism, stigma, and systemic inequities undermine prevention efforts, increase levels of chronic and toxic stress, and ultimately sustain health and healthcare inequities.” The ingrained discrimination in these systems inherently places Black people at higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19. BLM protests aim to address these intertwined and equally existential issues as well.
Although the BLM movement has mobilized millions of people worldwide, the response from the White House has been dismissive at best and inflammatory at worst. President Trump showed disdain for the BLM protesters, calling them “thugs” and tweeting, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Trump took this quote directly from former Miami police chief Walter Headley, who had a long history of anti-Black racism. Headly developed a “get tough” policy that, in his own words, targeted “young hoodlums, from 15 to 21, who have taken advantage of the civil rights campaign.” When referring to this policy, he asserted that he and his colleagues “Don’t mind being accused of police brutality.” While a few of these protests have unfortunately involved stealing and breaking into stores, the overwhelming majority of the Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful. Many protesters have demanded justice through lifting their voices, making signs, and painting “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on major roads across the nation. In some cases, police officers have even stood with protesters in support of the movement. On the other hand, we have seen, time and time again, videos of peaceful protests turned violent by police using teargas and rubber bullets unprovoked.
Concern about the government’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic as well as pre-existing biases against Black people and the BLM movement have caused some public officials to blame the protests for the rise in Coronavirus cases. At a press conference in early June, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds argued that “it would be very hard to identify where someone got COVID-19. I mean look at the protesters.” At the end of June, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy implied that the BLM protests were causing an increase in COVID-19 cases. He cited the cause of the increase in cases as “the bars but also compounded on that, the protests.” In early July, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves tweeted, “Liberal media is trying to claim the increase of Coronavirus was just caused by family BBQ’s on Memorial Day. They completely ignore the fact that our uptick (and other states) began within days of massive protests all over — which they have celebrated.”
The list of claims goes on, yet in reality, the evidence suggests otherwise. In mid June, the National Bureau of Economic Research reported there to be “no evidence that net COVID-19 case growth differentially rose following the onset of Black Lives Matter protests” and “no evidence that urban protests reignited Covid-19 case growth during the more than three weeks following protest onset.” The tendency to blame an increase in Coronavirus cases on the BLM protests isn’t surprising, but according to current research, it is factually inaccurate.
Protesters recognize the seriousness of protesting during a pandemic and they are doing all that they can to keep themselves, their fellow protesters, and their communities safe. Through my experience protesting in my own community, I have witnessed the precautions that protesters have taken: handing out hand sanitizer, requiring masks, and keeping distance. This is certainly more than the police have done—consider the irony of tear gassing citizens during a pandemic that affects the respiratory system. Additionally, BLM protesters aren’t just taking to the streets, but are also finding creative ways to protest from home. People are putting up posters, organizing through Zoom, contacting elected representatives, and sharing information through social media. These forms of protesting are not only safer than in-person gatherings, but make it more accessible for people of differing strengths and abilities to become involved.
This isn’t to say that protesting during the pandemic of a highly contagious disease isn’t risky. Large groups of people in a small space certainly have a greater potential to spread the Coronavirus. While it isn’t the ideal time to protest in terms of public health, it is the necessary time to protest in terms of public attention. The issue of police brutality and the general disregard for Black lives is so severe that people are risking their lives to fight against it. BLM protesters are not fighting to oppose COVID precautions, they are fighting despite them. George Floyd’s murder did not start the BLM movement; it re-catalyzed it during a time of existing unrest. The entire world is finally listening to the calls of the Black Lives Matter movement. Now is the time.
What—and who—should we really be directing our critiques towards? Yes, the public health crisis is extremely serious. However this critique regarding the rise in cases should be directed towards the people going out to brunch, bars, parties and the government officials who are opening their states too soon, not the people who are protesting to save the lives of Black people. We, as a nation, are dealing with two major issues right now. People are dying at the hands of the Coronavirus and people are dying at the hands of racism and police brutality. Those who are worried about the Coronavirus and those who support BLM both want to save lives. Let’s not pit the crises against each other.
Edited by Bindu Srinivasa