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The autopsy of George Floyd revealed that he had contracted the coronavirus. But it didn’t have anything to do with his death, the medical examiner said. This man survived a pandemic that is disproportionately killing black folks but couldn’t survive a police force that disproportionately targets black folks.
In a normal society, we’d be heartbroken, frustrated, and angry that black people have been pushed out into the streets to demand equal justice at a time when all people should be staying at home and avoiding large crowds. We’d be desperately trying to manage the urgent need for social justice within the confines of the urgent need for social distancing. We’d be trying to keep protesters safe from the police and from Covid-19 at the same time.
But we don’t live in a normal society; we live in a white one. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that some white people have used this moment not to think about how the victims of police brutality can avoid being re-victimized by an infectious disease but instead to call hypocrisy on public health organizations and the progressives who support protests against police violence.
Whiteness apologist J.D. Vance weighed in: “I’m still amazed at how quickly the moral scolding ceased as soon as elite-favored protests began taking place. (I guess I shouldn’t be amazed anymore. I should just expect it.) But it has further eroded trust in our country’s experts.”
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The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney refused to let a good crisis go to waste: “So here’s a proposal for politicians who are not ready to give up control over our lives: Please check back in two weeks. If these protests do not prove to have spread the virus significantly, you liberate all outdoor activities (perhaps with mask requirements) immediately. All outdoor July 4 activities should be back on. Summer league baseball should be back on. Pools should be open.”
I can’t tell if these people are hoping black people get Covid-19 to punish them for daring to question the police—or hoping people don’t get Covid-19 so they can get a pedicure.
But I can tell that these people are not interested in the health and well-being of protesters. I can tell that these people are pushing a conservative political agenda and not an impartial health one. That’s because people who are actually concerned about black lives, and how those lives might be protected from both the cops and the coronavirus, are pointing out three things.
Compared to the white-bread, gun-waving Confederate protests during the spring, the protests we’ve seen since the death of George Floyd have been pretty masked up. Not every protester is wearing a mask, but many of them are. It’s hard to tell from television cameras or anecdotal street reports what percentage of protesters are covering up, but we can see with our own eyes that a majority are.
That’s not surprising, because those agitating for racial equality are not hostile to the notion of public health, unlike the All Haircuts Matter protesters. Those protesters, whom we last saw raging against quarantine orders, were explicitly committed to going mask-free. Their leader, Donald Trump, refuses to wear a mask because, when he’s not hiding in a bunker, he thinks wearing a mask makes him look “weak.” It makes sense to point out the lack of concern for public health in a protest that is essentially against public health.
In contrast, the protests against police brutality are not ideologically antithetical to public health guidelines. Nobody protesting for black lives acts like wearing a mask is insulting to their bravery. Going out and protesting cops is plenty brave enough. In fact, these protests are telling us that people are willing to risk their own personal health—from the coronavirus, and from police brutality—to advocate for justice.
More protesters should be wearing masks, though. That is something that I’ve said, and many other black people have said when speaking about the protests. Unfortunately, our voices kind of get drowned out by anchors and commentators having a conniption every time a sacred Target gets looted. I would love to spend more time talking about appropriate social distancing during direct action, but unfortunately I have to waste my time debating white people who don’t think racism exists. The “moral scolding” of people who refuse to wear protection has not ceased; it’s been shouted down by people who want to morally scold people who destroy property.
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If Andrew Sullivan needs me to tell people to loot a Walmart to get the personal protective equipment they need to continue protesting safely, let me know.
Any honest expressions of concern about managing protests during the pandemic would include an examination of whether the tactics used by the police against the protesters promote or frustrate public health. Not surprisingly, the commentators who cry public health hypocrisy offer no examination of the tactics employed by armed agents of the state. In reality, many of the protesters who get Covid-19 will be victims of police tactics that made it all but impossible not to contract the virus.
One common police tactic is called “kettling.” Police surround protesters, jamming them into an enclosed area that is easier for police to control. The most infamous example of this during these protests took place when the New York Police Department trapped 5,000 people on the Manhattan Bridge for over an hour. Far from promoting social distancing, police forces around the country are trying to force protesters together like sardines.
When not kettling protesters, police are busy arresting them. That means protesters are thrown together in tight quarters for a night—or longer—which also promotes the spread of the coronavirus.
And when not being arrested or kettled, people are being teargassed, pepper-sprayed, and beaten. One officer (that we know of) pulled off a person’s mask so that the police officer could pepper-spray the protester more effectively.
It’s hard to keep your mask on when somebody is trying to pour water all over your face to get the tear gas out of your eyes. It’s hard to keep your mask on when cops are beating you about the back and neck with clubs. It’s hard to maintain a concern for social distance when you are being brutalized and terrorized by police officers using counter-insurgency tactics against you.
A government concerned with keeping citizens safe from the coronavirus would not be employing any of these tactics during a pandemic. Police could be using the T-shirt cannons that are not being used at sporting events to fire masks into crowds of people. Instead, police were caught seizing masks meant for protesters, because the snowflake cops didn’t like the messages printed on those masks.
Protesting during a pandemic is inherently dangerous. The police, through their tactics, are making it immeasurably more dangerous, and none of the keyboard heroes who suddenly care about intellectual consistency in public health can be bothered to talk about who is making these public health concerns worse for everybody.
Covid-19 does not care about who is “right.” It does not care who has the moral high ground. The virus is going to kill people regardless of their political ideology, because it’s a lethal virus and that’s what it does. Any discussion of the pandemic and protests has to acknowledge that infectious diseases do not care if you are on the side of angels or not.
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But how we think about people who engage in activities that puts them at risk from disease can be informed by how we think about the importance of those activities. Health care professionals, for instance, engage in high-risk activities all the time. And we applaud and thank them. We can make a moral distinction between a nurse who works in enclosed spaces ministering to the sick and a boxer who gets in close to minister an uppercut for prize money.
One of the consistent, relentless demands of the miasma that is white, male, heteronormative ideology (yes, all three) is that we treat the beliefs of those who practice it as the objective ones and everybody else’s beliefs as subjective, partisan, inferior, or deficient in some way. That’s how these people end up acting like the desire to ostracize and humiliate LGBTQ people is just as valid as—no, make that more valid than—a gay or trans person’s desire to buy a cake like any other person walking around this country. They tell themselves they are fighting for an objective right, while everybody else is allowing their subjective desires to cloud their judgement.
This alleged objectivity allows people to ignore the inequality and unfairness inherent in their status quo, while promoting a society where only the most powerful prevail. If these white people think they are fighting for a default normalcy, then some of them will think it’s okay to use guns, gerrymandering, and voter suppression to maintain society as they see fit. Or they’ll argue that their desire to gather in a park to enjoy a sunny day should be treated with the same deference as somebody else’s desire to gather in a park to object to state sponsored murder.
But the two are far from equivalent, and it’s intellectually dishonest to claim they are. It’s intellectually dishonest—and lazy and ignorant—to look at someone’s desire, say, to go to baseball game as the equivalent of another’s desire not to be murdered by police.
White inconvenience is not a national crisis. Police brutality against black people is. The only people who will tell you differently are sociopaths who are unable to properly value human life, or white people who simply do not value black lives.
Public health officials should be saying exactly what most of them have been saying: Acknowledge that demands for justice are more important than the desire to go shopping, and advocate for people to be as safe as possible while participating in the medically risky yet socially necessary process of protests. That is a subjective standard, but it’s not a hypocritical one.
It’s also the right standard, and just because some people would evidently shoot me to get into a Cracker Barrel doesn’t make their position equally valid to mine.
Not a single person decrying the “hypocrisy” of police brutality protests gives one damn about the lives of people participating in the protests. They’re not trying to think through how to protest safely, and they’re certainly not trying to think through how they can help end the police’s destruction of black lives while remaining socially distant and safe. They’re just doing their usual false equivalency thing: casting demands of an oppressed minority for justice in the same moral light as the self-pity a white man feels when he’s not allowed to rule the earth for eight seconds.
Protesters should wear masks. The police should stop using tactics that make it harder for protesters to avoid catching the coronavirus. And Martin Luther King Jr. did not die so white people could get a tan at the beach during a pandemic.
Elie MystalTwitterElie Mystal is The Nation’s justice correspondent—covering the courts, the criminal justice system, and politics—and the force behind the magazine’s monthly column “Objection!” He is also an Alfred Knobler Fellow at the Type Media Center. He can be followed @ElieNYC.