As the police attack, bait and kettle protesters, many people have begun conjecturing about how the gatherings will impact the ongoing pandemic. And while I worry about the health of the protesters, and encourage them to get tested after they take to the streets, it’s inherently ignorant and racist to blame protesters for the inevitable spike in the pandemic numbers.
What about the governors who, all too soon, and stuck between a rock and a hard place, have made the decision to enter phased reopenings, a decision that chose the economy over lives? This is not to oversimplify the situation, seeing as it’s true that most people cannot live off of the meager Trump-signed stimulus checks and unemployment checks. But the choice to reopen states has returned much of the country to business as usual and opened up the chance for a second coronavirus wave. There have been similar resurgences in other countries and in some U.S. states after reopening.
Every day I see people gathering in neighborhoods, flocking to beaches (here’s looking at you, Ocean City) and generally breaking social distancing orders. And why shouldn’t they? The crowd in Ocean City from photos looks overwhelmingly white, and there is little fear that the police will act violently against them. Those people are exercising their right to freedom, you might say. With that logic, the same argument can be extended to protesters, who are exercising the explicit right to protest systemic inequality rather than the right to … get a haircut?
The pandemic worsens globally daily as people rush to normalcy. The World Health Organization desperately announces to an impatient world that just because you return to normal doesn’t mean the pandemic does not rage on. Reuters reported on June 8 that COVID-19 had its biggest daily worldwide increase ever. The reason the pandemic even slowed and plateaued in some areas, to begin with, was because of the very measures that have been tossed to the side — the strict social distancing orders, the stay-at-home orders and the mask orders that have disappeared as restaurants, tattoo parlors and barbershops reopen and black people continue dying at the hands of police who are not caring for communities. And now we are starting to see the consequences.
Those who are protesting in efforts to propel the Black Lives Matter movement are risking their lives in more ways than one. They are risking their lives at the hands of the police who are battering and tear-gassing them, and they are also risking their lives by protesting during a pandemic. But what choice do they have? If the systemic oppression suddenly stopped when natural disasters occurred, then there would be no need for protests. The real truth is that disasters highlight the cracks in our society; the vulnerabilities and systemic issues that have always existed and harmed people.
Black people and those suffering from poverty are often the most impacted by disasters. Just look at Hurricane Katrina, where many of the black and poor citizens who were criticized for disobeying evacuation orders had nowhere else to go. During the COVID-19 pandemic which is already disproportionately affecting black communities, the police are still targeting and killing black people. The protesters are not only fighting for Black Lives Matter, but they are also making the statement that systemic inequity and inequality is life-threatening in itself, so much so that it is necessary for people to protest and gather during a pandemic.
Despite the timing of the reopening of our own state of Maryland, and states all over the country, and how that might contribute to COVID-19 spread, people who align with the likes of President Donald Trump are scapegoating protesters. And by sharing that perspective, those who blame protesters are engaging in racist and ignorant rhetoric. Those are the same people who are more upset about a police car’s destruction than the public death at the hands of Minnesota police of George Floyd. They are more upset about peaceful protests than about the systemic racism that took the life of Breonna Taylor.
What President Trump has done by disregarding the WHO’s guidance and diverting U.S. financial support, which totals 14.7% of the WHO’s donations, away from supporting a health organization during a pandemic is what will cause the inevitable spike in COVID-19 cases and certainly the tragic demise of more innocent people.
Anjali DasSarma (email@example.com) is editor-in-chief of The Retriever, The University of Maryland Baltimore County’s student newspaper.