Thousands of people have been pouring into America’s streets for several days now to protest systemic racism in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other black people. They have faced police violence that has in some cases turned lethal, including tear gas, rubber bullets, and vehicle attacks.
America — and, specifically, Black Americans — is also amid another crisis right now; the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has killed over 100,000 people, a disproportionate number of them black. Despite the fact that protesters are largely wearing masks, health experts say the protests will almost certainly set off new chains of infection. But many of those who showed up exercised their constitutional right despite the threat of being infected, because systemic racism has been around far longer than this disease and will be far harder to eradicate. As one protester said, the police pose a far bigger danger to black people than Covid-19.
However, police are also deploying the threat of the pandemic as one of their tactics against the protesters. Over the weekend, as the protesters worked to keep each other safe — handing out masks, taping hand sanitiser to poles, even offering masks to police officers — police destroyed areas where protesters had stored water and other supplies, deployed tear gas, thus forcing protesters to remove masks and touch their faces, and many police refused to wear masks of their own. But none of this has stopped the movement. Ahead, we spoke to several protestors about what keeps them out there amid a pandemic.
Anonymous, 35, Brooklyn
I was impressed by the way — as a community — people were taking care of each other. People were wearing masks; people were doing their best to social distance as much as they can. There were several individuals of all genders and races who were handing out water, masks, and hand sanitiser. It was definitely community taking care of community. For me personally, as a Black queer woman, the only danger I felt was from the police. There were an alarming number of police who were not wearing any protective gear. My partner and I have been quarantining pretty hard for a while, we know that we’re going out there not having been exposed. And I know the police are interacting with people every day, and it just blows my mind that they’re out there without a mask, gloves, or hand sanitiser. I saw some volunteers offering them masks and they turned it down.
I don’t think it’s possible as a black person to feel safe with the cops around right now. Especially in a moment when we are protesting them being able to kill us with impunity. As a black woman, I’m always watching the police and there was a moment when I could see the energy change. You could see their anger rising. They were starting to talk among themselves, there was whispering, and they were moving around. And as we were walking away from the crowd, we got to the edge where all these cops were moving en masse. I was like, I don’t know what’s going on, but we need to go. We get home and pull up Twitter, and it said they were beating people with batons.
The 11pm curfew [New York City just imposed] is racist. Because people could not handle a quarantine and this is their response to black people protesting. It makes everything more dangerous for a person of colour.
These protests for us are a long-term strategy and requirement of us, so this won’t be the only protest that we go to. While some people are going out to get haircuts, we’re protesting for our right to breathe. If there’s ever a risk I’m willing to take in the pandemic, it will be for my own life and for the lives of other people of colour.
The police are far more dangerous to black life than Covid-19, and that will always be a fact as long as the police exist.
Anonymous, 41, Brooklyn
My partner and I did have to really discuss if we were going to go to the protest. We both feel very strongly about the violence, the injustices daily — outside of Covid and before Covid. So, it really was a conscious decision of us to go and potentially risk our health and others’ health. This is definitely long-term for me as well. We were able to walk over to the protest, and that was a helpful element of it. I don’t necessarily want to burn out on running around physically, especially right now, we need to stay healthy.
Anonymous, 24, Minneapolis
I live about two miles down from downtown Minneapolis. My surrounding community is a mix of all cultures and races. It’s natural for me to be an ally and step up as a white woman.
At one point, I saw an officer open up his car window and spray mace out at a line of protestors. For no reason. Things got progressively worse at that point — fireworks going off in the alley behind the first precinct, gas being sprayed, rubber bullets being shot.
About Covid, I wasn’t too concerned. I’m a young and healthy woman and have no compromising autoimmune disorders. I had a mask on and a bandana over that while protesting and tried my best to give six feet of space around my bike that I was on. Covid wasn’t so much a priority for me, but making sure that I’m supporting the community was.
Anonymous, 27, DC
I was out Friday evening and Saturday afternoon to evening. I marched about three miles on Friday, and seven miles on Saturday.
People at the marches were doing a great job social distancing, everyone was wearing masks and I brought both disinfectant wipes and hand sanitiser with me for before and after being in the crowd, and when eating and drinking. Everyone basically had their faces covered, not only for Covid purposes, but to keep themselves safe from facial recognition and future retaliation as well.
My partner and I wanted to stay safe and when we arrived in front of the White House, we decided the crowd was too big (and also our feet were killing us after marching for hours) so we left, again mainly because we didn’t see protesters observing the six feet apart rule. There were medics in the protest crowd, I could tell by their backpacks, and there were folks providing water as well.
Going forward, we’re committing to self-quarantining for two weeks after being in the protests, as we both have elderly relatives. I am working from home full-time and we go out only to walk our local trails and once a week to the grocery store. Although my timer on that will probably reset as I intend to rejoin protests this week.