Policing and protest in a pandemic

The progressive left continues to organize online for what comes after this crisis, hoping to ensure that life doesn’t easily return to the kind of ‘normal’ that allowed injustices.

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In a disturbing video from two weeks ago, NYPD officers at a subway station in Harlem, crowded together and not wearing either masks or gloves, manhandled a young African American boy who was selling candy and chips to passengers on the train. The anguished voice of his mother, not on camera but obviously nearby, can be heard as the police struggle with her son.

While these officers might have taken the time to explain the need for social distancing (and demonstrate this behavior themselves), and could have shown some empathy for a young person perhaps trying to create extra income in what are increasingly desperate times for many working families, they trampled his wares underfoot and pulled him away in full view of outraged commuters.

Unfortunately, this was not the only such scene reported in the U.S. city hardest hit by the novel coronavirus.

Another, more recent video, shows another NYPD officer, also not wearing a mask, using a taser on a bystander who was watching and loudly commenting on the apprehension of two others accused of not social distancing. The policeman proceeded to beat the young man to the ground before a masked officer arrived to help him with the arrest. While Shakiem Brunson, 31, was reportedly in possession of an unnamed weapon, which he was not seen to brandish, and marijuana, the officer has been suspended with pay after the video created a public outcry.

What most of these videos and other reporting, from New Jersey to Las Angeles, mainly in alternative media, all have in common is that authorities continue to criminalize people of color, even children, and arrest them for minor offenses like ‘disorderly conduct’, usually related to social distancing during a pandemic, when time spent incarcerated could prove to be a death sentence.

Demonstrating that such harsh treatment of traditionally marginalized populations is not exclusive to the United States, long persecuted and misunderstood Roma populations face even worse repression in much of Europe, especially in those countries in the east that are under the sway of rightwing populists in the mode of the current U.S. president, where these communities already lived in often appalling conditions without access to necessities like clean water.

Although we are often told that this pandemic is a great equalizer, usually by those who are able to continue their lives of comfort with the least amount of risk, the numbers clearly show that this isn’t the case. Vulnerable groups often live in environments with very high population density making following the advice of health officials about things like social distancing difficult if not impossible, even in their own homes.

Many of the communities being most impacted by the disease also often live in impoverished areas that are properly called food deserts, where basic nutrition is not readily available, leading to higher incidences of long term health issues like obesity and diabetes and higher mortality rates in terms of Covid 19.

Much more widely covered than troubling instances of pandemic related police brutality in the United States have been protests in many state capitals and other cities calling for a re-opening of the U.S. economy, with over 150 last weekend alone. On a smaller scale, these scenes have been repeated across the country’s northern border here in Canada.

In many American cities, a minority of citizens participating in these anti-lockdown protests, most of them white, some of them armed with weapons of war, have confronted police, worried bystanders and even healthcare workers, getting close to them and yelling directly in their faces without facing any consequences.

While we must have sympathy for those who are protesting due to the serious economic concerns they have, especially in states notorious for denying citizens unemployment benefits, more sinister forces appear to be driving yet another astro-turfed, rightwing movement. Aside from a large number of richly funded rightwing backers that we’ll soon turn to, these protests also draw on long running connections to law enforcement, especially sheriffs’ departments in more rural areas.

As Suzanne Monk, founder of the group, Reopen America, told a reporter for the UK Independent, “We actually are going to start talking with the sheriffs’ departments across the country. Some sheriffs’ departments have started not to enforce, or softly enforce, the order. And I think that has in those states given those people more liberty to get back to work.”

The earliest of these ill advised protests, in Michigan on April 15th, was organized on social media under the banner of ‘Operation Gridlock’, with many others across the country later using the name to promote their own actions. The idea at first seemed to be that protesters would remain in their cars and honk their horns, but, while many followed this sensible advice at the first protest in Lansing, sizable numbers mingled in large groups and put themselves and others at risk.

In response, ‘Operation Gridlock’ organizers in Michigan have held off on calling for more protests, saying in a statement on Facebook, “Our mission to get the Governor’s attention has been successful. Now we wait to see how she will react. … We pray the Governor looks now to lift the ban and safely get Michigan back to work!”

Despite this, it appears the genie is out of the bottle in terms of the anti-lockdown ‘movement’ and protesters were back in force in Michigan’s state capital last Thursday, April, 30th.

Speaking to the big money funding behind some of these efforts, Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, explained in a press briefing after the first protest that ‘Operation Gridlock’ was, “funded in large part by the DeVos family and I think it’s really inappropriate to for a sitting member of the United States president’s cabinet to be waging political attacks on any governor.”

This powerful Michigan family is, of course, best known for charter school advocate and current U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos and her brother, Eric, who has organized a number of mercenary organizations over the years, including the infamous, Blackwater, which racked up human rights violations from the Middle East to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina before multiple name changes to obscure the company’s awful record.

Whitmer has a more centrist than progressive record, it’s true, but only a lunatic would call her a ‘tyrant’ and compare her to Hitler as some of those protesting did last week. Nor should an elected governor have the door to her office in the state capital blocked by armed men and her life threatened for trying to protect the health of citizens in her state by following the advice of experts and ordering non-essential workers to shelter in place.

While big money backers like those associated with the DeVos family and other groups like Freedom Works, which helped organize the Tea Party protests in 2009 surely helped organize and push these protests for their own cynical reasons, more sinister groups from heavily armed militia members to outright white supremacists are a very visible presence at many of them.

At the April 15th Operation Gridlock protest, the far right group who call themselves ‘Proud Boys’ were among those who blocked an intersection that ambulances needed to pass through to reach Sparrow Hospital in Lansing.

As writer and university lecturer Ben Burgis wrote on Jacobin shortly after, “Middle-class people waving signs complaining that low-wage workers aren’t being forced to staff the golf courses and hair salons that they miss don’t deserve our sympathy. Nor do small business owners who are willing to sacrifice the lives of their employees and their employees’ loved ones by demanding that they go back to work during a plague. It’s also easy to be outraged at the recklessness of some of the protest tactics. My brother and sister were both born at Sparrow Hospital. I used to go by it every day. Seeing a doctor in a white coat pleading with right-wing protesters to let ambulances pass through an intersection made me furious.”

In direct contrast to these astro-turfed and cynical anti-lockdown protests, on May 1st unions, progressive and other groups that usually march on this international workers’ day were not on the streets, although some essential workers for companies like Amazon held walkouts, small assemblies with strikers in masks and sickouts, the actions weren’t seen as impacting these companies’ bottom lines.

Nonetheless, as explained in the Vox article cited above, they drew sympathy for these workers who have been so important to maintaining the living standards of so many of their fellow citizens.

The progressive left continues to organize online for what comes after this crisis, hoping to ensure that life doesn’t easily return to the kind of ‘normal’ that allowed injustices in the workplace and in marginalized communities to become so routine that plutocrats and the authorities that so often answer to them could ignore the pain they have caused and insist on putting ordinary citizens at risk during a pandemic in the name of the almighty ‘profit motive’…

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