Waves of US protests and police crackdowns exacerbate Covid-19 public health risks

Police in Brooklyn handcuff and detain peaceful protestors on Sunday (G. Ginsberg/HPW)

More than 100,000 deaths from an epidemic still going full steam, and 40 million people unemployed. Meanwhile, a new US space shuttle took off for the international space station this past weekend - in the shadow of a major crisis over police brutality and race relations.

Almost twenty major American cities have been under a curfew since Saturday evening and the National Guard has been deployed in a dozen states. The extent of the damage done by clashes between protestors and police in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and Philidelphia - both material and human - is difficult to quantify at this point.

What began as protests over the brutal Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, has led to a nationwide mobilization of military police.

Throwing kerosene on a fire

From the neck of Floyd, an African American man, pinned under the foot of a policeman, gasping “I can’t breathe”, to the situation of a community that has paid an exorbitant price in the Covid-19 epidemic (one death in four, while African Americans make up only 14% of the population), things only have gotten worse. Most of the recent demonstrations, in fact, began calmly. Escalation was also fueled by the police response, including the ramming of demonstrators with police vehicles, beatings and arrests even of peaceful protestors, shootings of journalists, and more. Then, the tweets of President Donald Trump added fuel to the fire. He warned protestors that dared to cross over the White House lawn about the “vicious dogs” waiting for them. In another Tweet, he declared, “when the looting begins, the shooting starts.”

Anti-fascist groups accused - but what about white supremacists?

US Attorney General William Barr has alleged that far-left and anti-fascist groups have fomented the violence. But there is also evidence that white supremacists infiltrated the demonstrations to stoke the fire. When we look at the images, in any case, it is not only blacks seen here looting shops or attacking police vehicles here.

Deflecting attention

As always, the bottom line is, who benefits from this unrest? Five months ahead of an election in which millions of Americans have lost a loved one due to the pandemic, and even more people have lost their jobs, making use of the crisis for political gain can be an irresitible temptation. A failed president diverts attention from a catastropic Covid-19 toll - more than 20,000 cases and 1,000 deaths in just the past 24 hours - by stoking the racial tensions that have divided American society for decades.

In France, the mythology built around the 1789 revolution has long served as a driving force of passions, whether it was May 1968 or the Yellow Vest protests of 2018-19. In the United States, the legacy of the Civil War, which pitted the rural, slaveholding secessionist South against the wealthier and more industrialized North, persists. Symbolically, it is these racial divisions that still ignite Trump and his followers. This has been reflected in Trump’s expressions of support for the heavily armed bands of far-right protestors that marched around state capitals in places like Lansing, Michigan, protesting Covid-19 lockdowns. It is evident once more in the President’s claims that the unrest of the past week is largely driven by far-left agitators, which he has dubbed “terrorists”.

Health Policy Watch-Twin plagues of Covid-19 and police brutality rock United States - both affect minorities disproprotionately