“Weaponized and racialized”: Police departments use COVID-19 to target black & brown communities

Black and Brown communities are being disproportionately targeted and policed in New York City’s enforcement measures during the pandemic.

SOURCEDemocracy Now!

Viral images have shone a spotlight on uneven policing. Some show police officers distributing masks to White residents in crowded New York City parks — and apparently arresting no one. Meanwhile, videos have emerged of violent crackdowns on social distancing measures in Black and Latinx neighborhoods. We continue our look at how Black and Brown communities are being disproportionately targeted and policed in New York City’s enforcement measures during the pandemic, and also discuss how officers have ordered protesters to disband, citing executive orders from the mayor and the governor that ban “any non-essential gathering of individuals of any size for any reason.” We speak with author and activist Jill Nelson, who was recently arrested when she used chalk to write “Trump = Plague” on an abandoned building, and with Norman Siegel, civil rights lawyer for Nelson and former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at how Black and Brown communities are being disproportionately targeted in New York City’s response to the spread of COVID-19 — and it’s not only here in New York City.

We’re joined by Jill Nelson, usually writing about these issues, author, activist, former professor of journalism. She was just arrested herself by the New York Police Department on April 16th. She was graffitiing the words “Trump = Plague” in chalk on a boarded-up building in her Washington Heights neighborhood in northern Manhattan. She spent more than five hours in jail, wasn’t allowed to make a phone call for hours, had to demand to be given a mask. Also with us, Norman Siegel, civil rights attorney, who is one of two lawyers representing Jill Nelson. He’s former director of the New York ACLU.

Norman Siegel, can you talk about what Jill Nelson faced and what you’re calling for right now?

NORMAN SIEGEL: Well, we’re asking the Manhattan district attorney — we’ll begin some telephone conversations in the next week — to dismiss the charges. We want whatever record exists because of what happened in April to be expunged. We want an apology to Ms. Nelson. And finally, Ms. Nelson has requested a meeting with the precinct commander of the 33rd Precinct in Manhattan, so she could sit down and have a discussion with the police commissioner — the police commander to talk about the affirmative things that the Police Department can do during the COVID-19 period in the Washington Heights community.

Ms. Nelson is an outstanding, as you said, Amy, scholar, activist. And she’s giving voice to people who are suffering, directly or indirectly, similar kind of inappropriate actions by some of the police officers of the New York City Police Department.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about some of the disproportionate approaches of the Police Department, and disparate approaches. So, you have, last week, on the same weekend when police officers were distributing masks to White residents gathered in — oh, in crowded parks, not involved with social distancing — pictures were going online. Pictures were going, showing White people crowded in Central Park. At the same time, you had a different group of New York police officers attempting to shut down a press conference and a protest in Manhattan’s East Village. The event was organized by Reclaim Pride Coalition [to] protest Mount Sinai Health System[‘s] invitation to partner with the right-wing evangelical group Samaritan’s Purse to open medical tents in Central Park, that happened a while ago. The officers ordered the protesters to disband, and gave one of them a summons saying she had violated social distancing rules issued in executive orders from the mayor and the governor that ban, quote, “any non-essential gathering of individuals of any size for any reason.” So, you have both the arrests around social distancing and the arrests around protests, Norman Siegel. Can you talk about this?

NORMAN SIEGEL: Absolutely. And it’s very alarming, because if the mayor of the largest city in America can ban peaceful political protest, it could reverberate around the entire America. Other cities, if they see that New York is doing it, might do the same thing.

Political protest is a bedrock principle of American democracy. It’s protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. And just think of, without political protest in the last 75 years, the incremental progress that we have made with regard to race relations because of the Southern civil rights movement, because of the ending of the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, the LGBTQ+ movement, the environment movement. Without [sic] the right to political protest, people who generally don’t have the power have a vehicle to get their message across.

And even today, protests that are needed, peacefully, with Mr. Arbery in Georgia, that situation, reflective of a much more historical pattern of discrimination against people of color and poor people; the idea that the Department of Justice can all of a sudden drop the charges on Michael Flynn. Lots of demonstrations are needed, because it’s embedded in what American democracy is all about.

So when you have an executive order that the mayor is now relying on, that, as you quoted, talks about the nonessential gathering of people, and in the governor’s executive order, the examples they give are parties, celebrations, social events. Our position, very strongly, we encourage people, not only in New York, but all across America, understand what’s at stake here. It’s the right for the people to peacefully demonstrate. And usually when you’re demonstrating, historically, as well as currently, who’s the target? The target is government officials and government policy. So it naturally follows that the governors, the mayors would want to ban and suspend political protest.

So, the bottom line is, is that when you take a look at Supreme Court decisions, they say that if you’re going to have an executive order or policy, it’s got to be content-neutral, reasonable time/place/manner. It’s got to be narrowly tailored, and it can’t be overly broad. So, the problem here is that you could have both respect and protect free speech and public health, because you can say the people who want to demonstrate, as long as you’re wearing a face mask and you’re at least six feet apart from the other people, you can have free speech, and you won’t spread the COVID-19 virus.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we talk —


AMY GOODMAN: Before we talk about the Arbery case, which I want to do also with Jill Nelson, I wanted to compare what happened to her and Central Park being filled with White people very close together. The pictures are everywhere. And yet, in the East Village — and this is a video that also went viral — cellphone video showed police officers aggressively pinning a Black man to the ground as they arrested him, accusing him of not social distancing, who was talking across the sidewalk to a woman who was at a police booth, and then violently attacking another Black passerby, dragging him on the street, punching him. And like with the first Black man, they kneeled — this very burly officer, not wearing a mask, kneeled on both of their necks, separately, during what was supposed to be this social distancing enforcement. The second man who was attacked, 33-year-old Donnie Wright, was hospitalized with severe injuries to his back, ribs and chest. The officer, Francisco Garcia, has since been put on modified assignment. They say they’re investigating the situation. I want to get Jill Nelson’s response, and then Norman Siegel, to what is taking place here.

JILL NELSON: Well, you know, I think that COVID-19 has been weaponized and racialized and is being used to further oppress Black and Latinx people. And we have to resist, as Norman was saying. You know, we cannot just sit by and act as if this is acceptable or anything goes to survive. It’s not enough, to me, to bang pots and make cheer and clap at 7:00 every night. We have to, as Norman said, get out there, demonstrate and resist this militarization of our city, of our country, and the racialization of this alleged great fight against COVID-19.

What’s the difference between, you know — and when you look at the pictures that you mentioned, Amy, in Central Park, people are much closer than the people who were beaten down in Brooklyn or in Lower Manhattan. It’s just absurd. And the mayor and the elected officials need to take a stand. And let me say that I have written — I wrote a letter on the 20th of April to all my elected officials and have heard from Al Taylor, my state assemblyman; Gale Brewer; Jumaane Williams. That’s it. Where’s my congressman? Where is the city councilperson? Where’s my state senator? Nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to turn nationally to what’s happening in Georgia with Ahmaud Arbery’s death. Georgia’s Attorney General Chris Carr requested Sunday the U.S. Department of Justice conducts an investigation into the handling of Arbery’s case. The 26-year-old — well, he would have been 26 on Friday, 25-year-old at the time, February 23rd — an African American young man, was shot and killed in February by two White men — a retired police officer and his son. He was out jogging. The killers, Gregory and his son Travis McMichael, were arrested and charged with murder Thursday, two days after the video of the shooting was released. The police department, even the state, had it for months. They said they hunted down Arbery because he looked like a burglary suspect. Earlier this month, the cellphone video went viral, showing — so, I was wondering if you could also, Jill — this is the kind of thing you write about in The Nation and other publications. What has taken place here? Many people are calling for the arrest of the third person, the one who took the cellphone video, who was following Arbery along, who knew the other two men. But your thoughts on how this fits into what’s happening? And interestingly, as the Republican governor, Governor Kemp, opens up Georgia, one of the first states to reopen —

JILL NELSON: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: — immediately, hundreds of people protested the death of this young man.

JILL NELSON: Right. Well, I think it is, as it has always been in America, open season on people of color. And we see COVID-19 and the stress in the nation being used as a cover for that same thing. And Arbery, to me, if people had not — if his mother and his family had not kept up complaining and demanding action, if people had not immediately come out and began demonstrating and resisting, this would never have happened. There would have been no arrests. But it ties into these scenes we see of armed White men with swastikas and Confederate flags converging in front of statehouses and demanding that governors reopen. I mean, this is the Civil War, with this as just the latest battle.

AMY GOODMAN: Final comments, Norman Siegel, on what you feel has to happen nationally right now as states do open up but this crackdown continues?

NORMAN SIEGEL: Well, first, let me comment. I want to support the family of Mr. Arbery with regard to the call for an independent prosecutor. My experience is that on cases of this nature, which not only affect that family but are symptomatic of a larger historical pattern, that Jill has just articulated, you need to have someone from the outside come in, in order to get justice.

Second, with regard to what’s happening right now, my message to people who are listening this morning, and for you to talk to your friends and neighbors: The rebels need to get out and need to be able to protest, to speak out, not just online, not just on Twitter, but to make sure you’re wearing face masks, you’re socially distant, and begin to speak up, because what I’ve learned, we don’t lose our civil rights and civil liberties with a big bang overnight. We lose it day by day, little by little, and it atrophies. And then one day you wake up, and you don’t have those rights that you took for granted. So speak up, write, demonstrate peacefully. This is our country. These are our rights. And we have to fight for them, because, otherwise, we’ll lose them.

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to comment that at the same time we’re talking about this disparate treatment of people of color and White residents in this country, particularly here in New York City, COVID-19 also does not affect people equally, as we see all over the country the disproportionate number of deaths in the Black and Latinx community of those suffering from COVID-19 and contracting it, to begin with.

I want to thank you both for being with us, Jill Nelson, writer, activist, journalist, author of a number of books, including Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience, and Norman Siegel, civil rights attorney, one of the two lawyers representing Jill Nelson. He’s the former director of the New York American Civil Liberties Union.

When we come back, a new billboard has gone up in Times Square: the Trump Death Clock. We’ll speak with the man who unveiled it. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: “Can’t Be There Today” by Billy Bragg. He released this on Mother’s Day, performed, well, remotely for a big City Winery event that included Steve Earle, the Indigo Girls and others. To see Steve Earle’s premiere of his new song, on his new album, you can go to democracynow.org.


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