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Protesters sit in front of Gracie Mansion, the official residence of New York City Mayor, during a protest march over the death of George Floyd, New York, NY, June 2, 2020. New York City changed the imposed an 11 p.m. curfew to 8 p.m. due to continued rioting and looting of stores during protests over George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25th. (Anthony Behar/Sipa USA)No Use UK. No Use Germany.
Op-Ed

Pandemic Politics: Is there a right time – and way – to protest during a pandemic?

Editor's Note:

This post is the fourth in a series of brief reflections on Pandemic Politics by fellows at the Brookings Doha Center. Every two weeks, a fellow will share his/her reflections on a short selection of commentary focusing on an angle of the pandemic’s impact. 

Previous posts in the Pandemic Politics series can be found here: 

Coronavirus: War-talk or crisis-talk? by Noha Aboueldahab.

Does the coronavirus pandemic signal China’s ascendancy to global leadership? by Nader Kabbani.

Will COVID-19 exacerbate or mitigate conflicts in Libya and Syria? by Galip Dalay.

Recent protests in the United States have stirred a debate about whether it is safe to protest during a public health crisis that requires physical distancing. These protests have taken place within a climate saturated with racism, a pandemic, and partisan politics. Anti-racism protests, triggered in response to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, have been raging across major U.S. cities. At the same time, several cities have witnessed anti-lockdown protests, such as when armed protesters stormed the Michigan State House to demand that businesses be reopened.

Protesting during a pandemic raises difficult questions. Should the government allow citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights safely, rather than curtail those rights? Should it distinguish between anti-lockdown protests and those against systemic anti-black racism? How does the act of demonstrating during a pandemic expose racial hierarchies?  

While some states have tried to ban anti-lockdown protests, Floyd Abrams and John Langford argue that such attempts “run afoul of the First Amendment” and that space for political dissent should be protected. However, Firmin DeBrabander warns that the military demeanor of the armed protesters in Michigan “is not meant to invite discussion; it’s meant to end it.”  

Emerson Sykes points to safer alternatives to express dissent, such as online and drive-by protests. But, as Maria O’Sullivan cautions, “online protests are not a substitute for traditional street protests, as they will not necessarily have the same potential to drive change.” 

The different positions taken by political groups on both anti-lockdown and anti-black racism protests exposes vast differences in how Americans interpret, exercise, and react to their First Amendment rights. The role of racial identity in influencing such reactions is, as Jamelle Bouie argues, key. 

COVID-19 policies must do more than eradicate the disease. They must address and reverse the systemic racism that causes the disproportionate suffering of black and other vulnerable communities at the hands of the virus. The right to protest is an important expression of this demand, even as its recent exercise has painfully exposed entrenched racial hierarchies.

Below is a short selection of commentary for more on this debate.

“The First Amendment sometimes requires discomforting results to protect the liberties of our people.” Floyd Abrams, Visiting Lecturer at Yale Law School and John Langford, Counsel at Protect Democracy. The Right of the People to Protest Lockdown, May 19, 2020.

“[A]rmed protests are inimical to the traditions of free speech and assembly. When you see protesters in military garb brandishing assault rifles, it does not inspire you to debate them—nor is it intended to.” – Firmin DeBrabander, Professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The Great Irony of America’s Armed Anti-Lockdown Protesters, May 13, 2020.

“We may need to rely on creative means to protest for some time, but we must remain vigilant to ensure that any safety measures governments put in place are temporary and do not outlive their necessity.” Emerson Sykes, Staff Attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. How to Protest in a Pandemic, May 1, 2020.

[O]ne of the hallmarks of effective protest is its public, visual impact. And often media coverage of protests is a means of garnering greater public support.” – Maria O’Sullivan, Senior Lecturer at and Deputy Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Monash University. Is protesting during the pandemic an ‘essential’ right that should be protected? April 21, 2020.

“The great irony, of course, is that this conception of freedom, situated within racial hierarchy and meant to justify deprivation and inequality, has always been impoverished when compared with an expansive, inclusive vision of what it means to be free.” – Jamelle Bouie, Opinion Columnist at The New York Times. The Anti-Lockdown Protesters Have a Twisted Conception of Liberty, May 8, 2020.

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