Protestors in Los Angeles on May 30, 2020. Photo credit: Hayk_Shalunts / Shutterstock.
My first political memory was watching officers of the Los Angeles Police Department beating Rodney King on television.
I did not fully comprehend what I was watching at 5 years old, though I sensed that it was unjust. Nearly three decades later, braving coronavirus and angry about police brutality against people of color that has once again sparked nationwide outrage, I joined tens of thousands of mask-wearing protesters in Los Angeles in mass resistance.
Our common chant — “Say their name!” “Which one?” — referenced the thousands of victims of anti-Black violence who have fallen since Rodney King. It also provokes the question: What, if anything, has changed? Can our nation sustain its outrage long enough to deliver the tangible policy changes for which communities of color wait?
It isn’t easy to overcome gnawing guilt as I participate in mass gatherings. I am a health policy researcher living with multiple preexisting conditions; I am also currently engaged in research on the broader impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on health status and health care utilization. But as a white individual committed to racial justice, I cannot stay home either. White silence perpetuates the status quo of disproportionate violence against Black and brown individuals. Systemic racism also plays an important role the in racial disparities that we observe in the present pandemic and whose effects I am researching.
Police violence against political activists, which compounds the current public health crisis, isn’t new. The protesters of the 1950s and 1960s faced tremendous violence as they pressed for landmark policy changes such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today’s nonviolent civil disobedience bears striking similarities to those 1964 demonstrations, and the deadly interactions between law enforcement and people of color that have unleashed the current protests occur in a context of worse economic and public health conditions than existed in the 1960s.
But a coronavirus pandemic poses unique challenges for civil disobedience. While many states have begun to relax restrictions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend that people maintain six feet of distance from those not in their own households. While masks help to prevent spreading respiratory droplets, maintaining social distancing during protests, or any mass gathering, is unrealistic.
Why are protesters not dissuaded by this? Because in their view, there is not one, but two pandemics at work: Covid-19 and systemic racism. “We are living in a racism pandemic,” American Psychological Association president Sandra L. Shullman noted. “The health consequences are dire. Racism is associated with a host of psychological consequences… Moreover, the stress caused by racism can contribute to the development of cardiovascular and other physical diseases.” Stress from racism can also exacerbate existing health problems, which are far greater in Black than in white communities.
Living should not be a white privilege. But in too many cases, it is.
Protesting is also now a life or death experience, not only because of Covid-19, but because of military-style police tactics. On Saturday, May 30, holding a sign that read “White silence –> violence,” I joined thousands of fellow Angelenos marching peacefully down Fairfax Street. As we walked peacefully toward a row of LAPD officers chanting George Floyd’s name, we heard a noise. Our eyes began to burn and water, our noses and throats burning as well.
In addition to beating peaceful protesters and shooting rubber bullets, the LAPD used tear gas against us, a weapon banned by the United Nations, and they would continue to do so throughout the protest. As a health policy researcher with several autoimmune conditions, I was counting how many of us had just rubbed our eyes, were coughing, and were removing masks to try to breathe more easily or to pour water over faces, now itching and burning.
But police brutality actually creates further determination to protest because it expands popular anger against the police. On Tuesday, June 2, I again joined thousands of protesters at Los Angeles City Hall and the LAPD building to protest racial injustice and the continued employment of Chief Michel Moore. We sang familiar songs of solidarity — “This Little Light of Mine” and “Lean on Me” — on the steps of City Hall, while a long row of police officers and National Guardsmen stoically looked out on the crowd and reminded us about the 6 p.m. citywide curfew.
Around 7 p.m., the protest moved peacefully away from City Hall. The walk became more hurried as police sirens became increasingly loud and larger in number. Soon, dozens of police had formed barricades at each end of the block, preventing anyone from leaving. They announced that they were arresting us for curfew violation, and ordered us to sit on the ground with our hands behind our heads as they advanced toward us in riot gear.
Protesters shouted out to one another a phone number for assistance with posting bail. Some handed around a Sharpie so that we could write important phone numbers on our hands in case we lost access to our phones.
The activist in me was outraged that the City of Los Angeles was allowing the arrest of non-violent protesters simply because of a peaceful assembly a little past 7 p.m. The health policy researcher in me wondered how many people had touched the Sharpie with which I was writing down the number of a local friend supportive of my protest, and the possibility that they carried coronavirus.
But not all of us were arrested. I was zip-tied and lined up with half a dozen other women, facing a wall and guarded by police officers.
Few of the police were wearing masks; none who I saw had body cameras turned on.
I talked with the other women in the line-up. We made jokes about the handcuffs impeding our ability to stretch after several hours of walking and standing. We shared our regrets about drinking so much water along the march. We recounted our favorite protest signs from the day.
After an hour and a half of standing in place, we were directed to board police department buses, and to fill the seats, making social distancing impossible. As the bus filled, the police officer driving it said to us, “We’ll be as cool as you allow us to be.” And then the driver announced that because of the high volume of arrests, the downtown Los Angeles jail was overflowing, and we would be driven to a jail approximately 20 miles away.
The activist in me considered the financial burden on poorer individuals who would not be able to afford to take a Lyft back to downtown Los Angeles. The health policy researcher in me wondered whether the bus had been sanitized, and whether the additional time in a tightly-packed bus without any windows open would increase the likelihood of contracting coronavirus.
As we began to approach the jail in San Pedro, we asked the officers whether we could be arrested and cited for trying to return home after the city’s curfew. “You might,” the officer responded. “You’ll have a paper that indicates that you have already been cited tonight, but you might get an asshole cop.”
You might get an asshole cop. With people of color disproportionately likely to be stopped by police, it was not difficult to imagine that the people most likely to face consequences from breaking curfew were Black, brown, and poor, replicating the police discrimination that motivated our mass mobilization in the first place. Those with money — white and professional activists like me — would take a Lyft home, and avoid a second encounter with the police. As criminal justice researcher Andrea Ritchie has noted, curfews accelerate police interaction and police violence: Those arrested for curfew violations are even more disproportionately made up of minority youth than those arrested for other crimes.
Police responses to these protests have arguably heightened the risk of exposure, whether by imposing on protesters chemicals that elicit coughing or by detaining them in close (often indoor) quarters. While Los Angeles does not detain protesters for long — we simply signed an acknowledgment that we were cited for curfew violation — this is not true everywhere. New York City arrested and detained protesters for more than 24 hours in small jail cells, a nationwide hotspot for Covid-19, despite New York City having over 215,000 coronavirus cases. We do not yet know the public health impact of decisions made to date.
Balancing the competing interests of public health measures amid a pandemic and combatting systemic racial injustice is no easy feat. And it says a lot about the nation’s failures on both issues that people of color are now forced to risk their health (indeed, their lives) amid a pandemic to remind the nation that their lives matter.
Has the pandemic itself, in a way no one expected, reopened the country to a business long-deferred — the struggle over racial justice? Protests are continuing across the nation, fueled by additional acts of police brutality. President Trump is resuming campaign rallies, despite concerns about indoor mass gatherings and the fact that coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are rising in many states. In fact, President Trump and others on the Right pointed to the nationwide protests to justify resuming these rallies, and criticized the media’s different tones in coverage. However, President Trump’s Tulsa rally will be indoors, making it more dangerous than the outdoor gatherings that have defined Black Lives Matter protests, where coronavirus transmission is lower and where activists distribute masks and hand sanitizer.
Ultimately, activists have to decide whether the risk incurred by a mass gathering furthers some greater good, and like other public health professionals, I support the idea that they are. Returning to City Hall the day after my arrest, I spoke with a lifelong Angeleno whose first political activism was in response to the beating of Rodney King, my first political memory. Together, that day, we marched in Los Angeles to help show America that Black lives matter.
Miranda Yaver is a political scientist and postdoctoral scholar in health policy and management at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she conducts research on health disparities in the U.S. health care system and on how political conditions shape the impact that policies have on health outcomes in the United States.