The Ethics of Pandemic Protests

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Ruby Hogue

Ruby Hogue ’20 participated in the Black Lives Matter protests. “We marched and chanted for miles. There was no major tension between the protestors and the police, which had the potential to break out in violence.”

COVID-19, which has killed hundreds of thousands seems to be of no issue in the face of injustice. Although quarantine has been lifted in New York City (Phase 2 of the city’s reopening will begin on Monday, June 22, 2020), the severity of the global Coronavirus pandemic has not lessened. However, even in the midst of COVID-19 infections, political divide and polarized activism remains in the headlines. Despite social distancing warnings and continuous fears of contracting COVID-19, different groups of people are currently protesting in order to protect their rights. Though the protest groups are expressing their shared First Amendment rights, they are fighting for reasons varying in severity.

In mid-April 2020, protesters in Michigan and Ohio were angered by lockdown measures and protested against the very order designed to keep them safe from COVID-19. Their signs showed that they believe the lockdown was a violation of their rights, and they should be free to go outside. Some wanted their businesses to reopen, as their sole source of income was suddenly gone. There was a common theme: by staying at home, they can no longer live the life that they once had. 

The reasons behind the anti-lockdown protests contrasted starkly with the Black Lives Matter protests that started late May 2020. The recent death of George Floyd, a man who was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minnesota, sparked rage all over the country. It was another example of yet another black man killed at the hands of police in the United States of America. What really upset people, however, was when prosecutors released a statement stating that they were unsure whether Chauvin would be charged, despite viral video evidence that proved the officers’ blatant disregard for Floyd’s life. It was one more reminder that black lives are not valued in America and that some police officers use their racial bias as grounds to use excessive force, and that some officers have a blatant disregard for black lives. This is no exaggeration. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Taamir Rice, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland are a few of the many names of those whose lives had been taken recently by police officers, with little to no action taken against their murderers, and who have since been the main figures the movement fought for after their deaths.  

The two protests highlighted here, and more importantly, the response to these protests by law enforcement and government officials, show the difference in privilege between groups in America. The anti-lockdown protesters, armed with guns, stormed government buildings and were shouting in the faces of police officers, yet were not met with nearly the same force as the Black Lives Matter protesters. President Trump himself showed no opposition to the protests in Michigan. Rather, he advocated for them, tweeting “These are very good people, but they are angry.” Yet to the protests in Minneapolis, Trump called the people “THUGS dishonoring the memory of George Floyd.” 

Two protests going on around the same time, yet the responses were very different. The “very good people,” whom the President gives praise to, protest for their “right” to disregard pandemic guidelines, while the “thugs” are trying to bring attention to police corruption and fight against the apathetic attitudes to the loss of black lives. Sanjit Guliani ’20 said, “We see the priorities and differences: anti-lockdown protesters advocated for their right to get haircuts, while BLM protestors advocated for their right to live and not get shot by law enforcement. It’s quite hypocritical.” 

Of course, it can be argued that the effects of the protests are very different. The protests for BLM have led to riots, endangering public safety. However, through video evidence, it is clear what started out as something peaceful was aggravated by the police, escalating the situation to the riots which occurred. The blame cannot be shifted to the protesters alone. 

It seems to be the worst time to take the fight to the streets, marching and coming in close contact with hundreds during a pandemic. However, there is no “right time” to fight back. The question for these people is not whether COVID-19 will kill them, but whether the people expected to serve and protect them will kill them first. These people are not fighting for others to give them care, for their right to get haircuts, or to get their nails done. The constant lack of action taken against police officers who kill civilians seems to affirm a badge is quite literally a “get out of jail free” card. The chant “I can’t breathe” that has been shouted out for years is not just an exaggeration, it is a cry for help. The last words of Eric Garner caused such outrage, and despite protest and a demand for justice, no action was taken to prevent it from happening again to people like George Floyd. The disregard for African American lives follows a pattern; it is institutional and has allowed for far too many lives to be taken.

The response to the BLM protests should not be disdain over how the people are not social distancing. The actions of police officers are adding fuel to the fire. In a time when a pandemic has been caused by a lung-attacking COVID-19 virus, officers are throwing tear gas, a type of chemical warfare that burns lungs and eyes, into crowds of protesters. Although this kind of chemical is outlawed by the Geneva Convention, it is somehow allowed for riot control. The very reason why tear gas and rubber bullets are allowed is to lessen the harm inflicted on the protesters. However, officers show no restraint, their victims ranging from a ten year old child to a pregnant woman. Rubber bullets are meant to be shot on the ground; their deflection is what hits the crowd with less force. Yet when the rubber bullets are aimed straight at the crowds at point blank range by officers with no attempt to deescalate a situation they created, the concern of staying six feet apart is understandably not on anyone’s mind. 

The concern over COVID-19 is still a real issue. Just because quarantine is over does not mean that the Coronavirus pandemic is any less serious. However, the real virus is the way our legal system treats black people. This is not the first time that people have taken to the streets to protest for the movement. This is a cyclic issue that stems from our inability to change. It should not have to take another unnecessary murder of a black person to create discourse over police violence, only for the mass media to forget about it and move on. It has come to this for a reason. We need to make sure it does not happen ever again.

The two protests highlighted here, and more importantly, the response to these protests by law enforcement and government officials, show the difference in privilege between groups in America.

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