Operation Gridlock protest outside of New York State Capitol, April 2020. Photo credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com

On Thursday, April 15, the traditional day for paying federal taxes, several thousand cars rolled to a stop on the streets in Lansing, Michigan. They surrounded the State Capitol, commencing “Operation Gridlock” to protest Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s extension of the state’s “stay-at-home” order. Blaring horns, waving flags, and sprouting signs on car hoods and windows saying “Don’t Tread On Me” and “Let Me Work,” they agitated for a loosening of restrictions to get businesses back up and running. A few hundred protesters on foot stood on the capitol grounds, but most stayed in their cars, socially distanced. Since then, in an even tenser confrontation, some of these protesters have returned with weapons: They entered the state capitol building and were barred from confronting Whitmer by a line of state troopers.

Michigan has seen the largest protest against governors by far. But a few dozen protesters shouted outside the Frankfort, Kentucky, capitol building on April 15 as well; and over in Raleigh, North Carolina, about 100 people protested Governor Roy Cooper’s stay at home order. Other protests in Ohio, Utah, Wisconsin, and elsewhere, while small, sent the same message.

But these “let me work” protests weren’t the first to take place during the pandemic. And conservatives are not the only protesters.

On April 3, protests by a dozen medical workers in scrubs outside Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan called for the provision of protective gear for front line workers, while in the Bronx, as CBS New York reported on April 2, medical workers also protested their working conditions. Grasping signs saying “Patients Before Profits” and “Healthcare Justice Saves Lives,” about 20 medical professionals spaced themselves out on an inner courtyard to address the national media.

On April 7, a caravan of cars drove in circles for an hour in front of Chicago’s sprawling Cook County Jail, demanding the release of many detainees. Hundreds of jailed defendants and nearly a hundred staff had already tested positive for the coronavirus. One man awaiting trial, Jeffery Pendleton, had already died on Sunday, April 5. Three more prisoners and two guards would die in the next two weeks. This “solidarity caravan” maintained social distancing rules while managing to protest: They shouted from their cars and held posters out the car windows with slogans like “Detention=Death” and “Release Them B4 Corona Takes Them.”

Each of these examples alerts us to a crucial question for our democracy in this state of crisis. Just how do you protest in a pandemic?

In normal times, freedom of movement and the right to assembly are core tenets of our democracy. Historically, these have supported the collective voice of thousands of citizens by protecting the right to gather in the streets and make their views known. Mass protests are powerful precisely because they make visible the significance of collective will. This is especially true when protesters assemble at symbolic sites. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial is one of several examples of protesters taking their demands to the heart of government.

At a time when most of the U. S. population is under stay-at-home orders, and when outrage at the lack of preparation for a pandemic is mounting across the nation, one of the fundamental tenets of democracy — the right to protest — is necessarily restricted.

But the history of parades and protests demonstrates just how important dissent has been in promoting social change in United States history. Social movements have used public participation and public presence as a key strategy for changing opinions for more than a century. This year, for example, marks the hundredth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution that gave women the right to vote nationwide. Huge parades of suffragist women, marching in the streets and placing their bodies on public display, served to demand change at a time when middle- and upper-class women were expected to avoid making themselves a “spectacle.” Every major social movement has used mass protests to change opinion and to shape governmental action.

Physical protest asks us to stand and be counted. Our embodied presence serves as a public testamentary to our point of view. When protests bring hundreds of thousands of people together in one place, through highly coordinated national planning that requires everything from permits to public safety measures, the magnitude of the event guarantees that citizens will be heard and seen. The scale of such in-person protests is key to their power to engage, and help shape, public opinion.

And it is not only progressive causes that have used public protest as a political strategy, as the recent protests in Lansing demonstrate. Anti-abortion rallies, Tea Party gatherings, and white supremacist gatherings — like the “Unite the Right” events in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11 and 12 in 2017, in which hundreds of neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan, and other members of white supremacist and neo-Fascist groups came together in a deadly clash with counter-protesters, police, and on-lookers — are a few recent examples.

But right-wing protests are often dwarfed by the massive scale of progressive rallies. The Women’s Marches in Washington D.C., across the nation, and around the world on January 21, 2017 — the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration — may have been the largest one-day protest in American history. Approximately half a million people marched in Washington that day, with estimated totals of a million or more in other cities. Massive scales of participation and physical displays of public conviction characterize the power of such protests.

Under our current pandemic conditions, of course, marching with tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of others, is unthinkable. So, what are the possibilities for mass protests during a pandemic?

I put this question to my anthropology students recently. Most of them immediately thought that online protests were the answer, pointing out that especially now, when so many families live a large part of their lives online, connecting socially or for work through Facetime, Zoom, and Instagram, it might be easier than ever to organize virtual campaigns. And in fact, recent social movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo surged in part because they made canny use of online platforms to signal shared values and calls for change as they organized “real life” protests. Similarly, white supremacists used the Internet to build a cohort for the “Unite the Right” march.

A move to online protest could be more democratic, making organized dissent more available to those who normally might not be able to travel to a protest venue, such as parents with young children, people who are disabled, those without transportation, those who cannot afford to take time off of work at that precise day, or those for whom coming forward in public is a danger, such as undocumented people, making a good case for organizing virtual protests under normal conditions.

Of course, not everyone has access to the Internet. But what is also lost in virtual campaigns that display their commitments in “likes” and hashtags, is the visual power of hundreds of thousands of bodies committed to changing social practices, beliefs, and policies. In-person protests are hard to manipulate or deny. They are not subject to bots, spoofing, or fictive avatars. They do not speak in an echo chamber. Rather, they claim the attention of the public at large.

The most powerful twenty-first-century protests will use all the tools, and occupy all the space, that they can. Online and “IRL” protests can be and have been, intertwined in ways that help launch, build, coordinate, and disseminate images of live events as part of broader campaigns.

And not all collectives come together to protest: Some reaffirm, celebrate, and reassert community values. Around the world, we are seeing creative adaptations of how to protest, and perform, collectively when the pandemic keeps us physically separate. Most have involved sharing music or saluting health care workers. Widely circulating photos and videos feature Italians singing together across their balconies, Spaniards banging pots and pans out the windows, and entire choirs in South Africa singing together connected only through their earphones.

Here in the United States, residents of New York, Chicago, and other cities have also sung from their windows and cheered front line workers. In Montgomery, Alabama, residents in high-rises started collective clapping to salute health care workers on their shift changes. Teachers in Dallas, Miami, and the Indiana suburbs have formed festive car parades to wave to the students in their neighborhoods as a mark of solidarity with their classroom communities.

These celebratory actions can easily be adapted for the purposes of collective protest. They can be coordinated, documented, and live-streamed synchronously via social media, even when Americans are self-isolating, and when protesters are widely separated across neighborhoods, cities, and states. Such protests even have the potential to coordinate actions across the divisions of social class and race and ethnicity that too often divide us. A hundred people on the lawn of a state capitol do not make a movement. But hundreds of thousands united in time, and in physical actions — like cheering or chanting, holding placards, and unfurling banners, even if separated by space, be it feet or blocks or miles or thousands of miles — could.

As the pandemic unfolds, it will remain important to make public opinion known. We need to support governmental action that supports public health while commenting on and correcting poor decisions that affect us all. This will become especially important over the next several months as the national death toll continues to climb, calls to “open the economy” accelerate, and the disproportionate impact of the virus on communities of color brings longstanding injustices to the fore.

There are ways to show ourselves and be counted in a pandemic: We are already doing it. However socially distanced, we still have the potential to make our voices heard, separate but together, from balconies and rooftops, front-stoops and windows, and on digital devices, across the nation.

Jane Desmond is a professor of anthropology and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.

One thought on “How Do You Protest in a Pandemic?

    HAARP Project a Weather Control Weapon!

    The individual comes face-to-face with a conspiracy so monstrous he cannot believe it exists. The American mind has not come to a realisation of the evil which has been introduced into our midst. It rejects even the assumption that human creatures could espouse a philosophy which must ultimately destroy all that is good and decent.
    J. Edgar Hoover

    “The truth must be repeated over and over again, because error is repeatedly preached among us, not only by individuals, but by the masses. In periodicals and cyclopaedias, in schools and universities; every- where, in fact, error prevails, and is quite easy in the
    feeling that it has a decided majority on its side.”
    ~ J. W. v. Goethe

    by The Rockefeller Foundation an Global Business Network
    May 2010
    PDF Format

    Every day world mainstream news reports more people in more countries diagnosed “positive” for the coronavirus illness, now called COVID-19. As the reported numbers grow, so does widespread nervousness, often in the form of panic shopping for masks, disinfections, toilet paper, canned goods. We are told to accept the testing results as science-based. While it is next to impossible to get a full picture of what is taking place in China, the center of the novel virus storm, there is a process, being fed by mainstream media accounts and genuine panic in populations unclear what the real dangers are, that has alarming implications for the post-pandemic future.

    During the last week of January the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ordered an unprecedented lock down of an entire city of 11 million, Wuhan, in an attempt to contain a public health situation that had clearly gotten out of control. Never before in the history of modern public health had a government placed an entire city in quarantine by imposing a cordon sanitaire around it. That lock down was quickly extended to other China cities to the extent that, for the past weeks, a major part of the world’s second largest national economy has shut down. That in turn is impacting the global economy.

    At this point, as cases and the first deaths are being reported in countries outside of China, especially in South Korea, Japan, Iran and Italy, the prime question everyone has is how dangerous this virus is. The fiasco with the US CDC, where the putative tests for the novel virus were shown defective, underscores the fact that the testing for the now-named virus, SARS-CoV-2, said to cause the disease called COVID-19, is anything but 100% reliable.

    Despite this, influenced by a steady stream of mainstream media images of empty shop shelves in Italy, of police cordons around Washington State nursing homes said to house several presumed Coronavirus patients, of pictures of Iranian hospitals filled with body bags, millions of citizens are understandably becoming alarmed and fearful.

    What is being done in city after city and country after country is cancellation of major events where many people come together. This has included the Venice Carnival, major sports events, trade shows in Switzerland and elsewhere being canceled. Major airlines are being financially devastated as people around the world cancel holiday flights, as are cruise ship lines. China orders burning of cash notes claiming they might be contaminated. The French Louvre reopens but does not accept cash, only cards, as paper might be contaminated. WHO warns about paper money contagion risk. Countries are introducing laws such as in the UK allowing legal detention of citizens who might have a virus. Growing media promotion in the West of shop shelves bare of everyday essentials such as rice, pasta, toilet paper is feeding panic buying everywhere.

    Questions on Death Rate
    It is important to have a perspective on the apparent deaths provably due to COVID-19. Here facts become very imprecise.

    As of March 3, 2020 according to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom, worldwide there were a total of 90,893 cases of COVID-19, with 3,110 resulting in death. He then called this a 3.4% mortality rate, a figure highly disputed by other health experts. Tedros stated,

    “Globally, about 3.4% of reported COVID-19 cases have died. By comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far fewer than 1% of those infected.”

    The problem is that no one can say precisely what the true death rate is. That’s because globally we have not tested all who might have mild cases of the virus and the accuracy of those tests are anything but 100% certain. But a statement about a death rate more than three times that of seasonal flu is a real panic-maker if true.

    The reality is very likely a far lower true mortality according to epidemic experts. “We do not report all the cases,” says Professor John Edmunds of the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

    “In fact, we only usually report a small proportion of them. If there are many more cases in reality, then the case fatality ratio will be lower.” Edmunds went on to say,
    “What you can safely say […] is that if you divide the number of reported deaths by the number of reported cases [to get the case fatality ratio], you will almost certainly get the wrong answer.”

    The WHO under Tedros seems to be erring on the side of spreading panic.
    The WHO and the USA CDC some years ago changed the definition of deaths from seasonal flu to “deaths of flu or pneumonia.” The CDC calculates only an approximate flu death count by totaling death certificates processed that list “pneumonia or influenza” as the underlying or contributing cause of death. The CDC estimates 45 Million Flu Cases, and 61,000 what they deftly call “Flu-Associated” Deaths in 2017-2018 US Flu Season. How many were elderly with pneumonia or other lung diseases is unclear. Naturally the numbers help spread fear and sell seasonal flu vaccines whose positive effect is anything but proven. Worldwide, the CDC estimated in a study in 2017 that, “between 291,000 and 646,000 people worldwide die from seasonal influenza-related respiratory illnesses each year.”

    In China alone the estimate for seasonal influenza-associated (including pneumonia) deaths was about 300,000 in 2018. Note that 3,000 corona-attributed deaths, as tragic as it is, is but 1% of the “normal” annual deaths from lung-related illnesses in China, and because of the mixed or changing China accounting, it is not clear how many of the 3,000 China deaths are even from seasonal pneumonia. But owing to dramatic videos, not verifiable, of people allegedly dropping dead on the streets in China, with no proof, or of Wuhan hospitals filled in the corridors with body bags apparently of dead from COVID-19, much of the world is understandably anxious about this strange exogenous invader.

    Amid what is clearly confusion among many well-meaning health officials and likely opportunism by Western vaccine makers like GlaxoSmithKline or Gilead and others, with alarming speed our world is being transformed in ways just months ago we could not have imagined.

    Whatever has occurred inside China at this point it is almost impossible to say owing to conflicting reactions of the Beijing authorities and several changes in ways of counting COVID-19 cases. The question now is how the relevant authorities in the West will use this crisis. Here it is useful to go back to a highly relevant report published a decade ago by the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the world’s leading backers of eugenics, and creators of GMO among other things.

    The report in question has the bland title, “Scenarios for the Future of Technology and International Development.” It was published in May 2010 in cooperation with the Global Business Network of futurologist Peter Schwartz. The report contains various futurist scenarios developed by Schwartz and company. One scenario carries the intriguing title, “LOCK STEP: A world of tighter top-down government control and more authoritarian leadership, with limited innovation and growing citizen pushback.” Here it gets interesting as in what some term predictive programming.

    The Schwartz scenario states,

    “In 2012, the pandemic that the world had been anticipating for years finally hit. Unlike 2009’s H1N1, this new influenza strain — originating from wild geese — was extremely virulent and deadly. Even the most pandemic-prepared nations were quickly overwhelmed when the virus streaked around the world, infecting nearly 20 percent of the global population and killing 8 million in just seven months…”

    He continues,

    “The pandemic also had a deadly effect on economies: international mobility of both people and goods screeched to a halt, debilitating industries like tourism and breaking global supply chains. Even locally, normally bustling shops and office buildings sat empty for months, devoid of both employees and customers.”

    This sounds eerily familiar.

    Then the scenario gets very interesting:

    “During the pandemic, national leaders around the world flexed their authority and imposed airtight rules and restrictions, from the mandatory wearing of face masks to body-temperature checks at the entries to communal spaces like train stations and supermarkets. Even after the pandemic faded, this more authoritarian control and oversight of citizens and their activities stuck and even intensified. In order to protect themselves from the spread of increasingly global problems — from pandemics and transnational terrorism to environmental crises and rising poverty — leaders around the world took a firmer grip on power.”

    A relevant question is whether certain bad actors, and there are some in this world, are opportunistically using the widespread fears around the COVID-19 to advance an agenda of “lock step” top down social control, one that would include stark limits on travel, perhaps replacing of cash by “sanitary” electronic cash, mandatory vaccination even though the long term side effects are not proven safe, unlimited surveillance and the curtailing of personal freedoms such as political protests on the excuse it will allow “identification of people who refuse to be tested or vaccinated,” and countless other restrictions. Much of the Rockefeller 2010 scenario is already evident. Fear is never a good guide to sound reason.

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