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The All-Consuming White Pandemic Protester

As white armed protesters flood state capitols to be marveled at by the media and left alone by police, workers of color are fighting for their survival.

Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The images are striking: A young white man in the Michigan state capitol staring blankly ahead, his bare scalp split by a mohawk, the butt of his scoped rifle resting against his carrier vest. Across the room, a line of state police and sergeants at arms acted as a silent barricade against the throng of protesters demanding the state reopen. The week before, there had been a similar scene as another group of men, firearms in hand, piled out of the back of a flapped truck parked in front of the Pennsylvania State House, which was surrounded by hundreds of right-wing, overwhelmingly white anti-quarantine protesters. One person was issued a citation.

Last weekend in New York, Shakiem Brunson and Ashley Serrano were approached by four plainclothes cops while chatting outside a bodega. After ordering them to disperse, the cops pinned Brunson against the window and pushed Serrano to the ground for, the New York Police Department later told Gothamist, allegedly violating social distancing orders. Video from the scene then shows a cop striking a bystander, Donni Wright, in the face and punching him in the chest and ribs while he was pinned to the ground.

There is nothing surprising at this point about the deference shown by police to armed white protesters and the violent contempt held for people of color for simply being outside (or in their own homes). We’ve seen it before: After police shot and killed Stephon Clark in 2017, 84 people were arrested in a subsequent peaceful march against police violence through an affluent white neighborhood. Hundreds of Native water protectors were violently arrested at Standing Rock after police repeatedly used pepper spray and rubber bullets and high-pressure water hoses in freezing temperatures on unarmed crowds. Yet police at the deadly 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” protest stood by as a member of the KKK fired his pistol in the direction of counterprotesters.

But the heavy policing being reserved (again) for communities of color right now also comes at the same time as these communities are dealing with the worst of this virus. The numbers—at least the ones that are available—have all borne out the same ugly truths and failures of a racist health care system with a preference for capital over human life: Native communities across the country are still cut off from federal aid while staring down steep rates of infection. In North Carolina, where the state government’s response has been relatively adequate, Black people, who make up 22 percent of the population, are still 39 percent of Covid-19 cases and 35 percent of reported deaths. (Even more sobering, as the News & Observer pointed out, is that this tracks with the trends established in the state during the 1918 flu epidemic.) And everywhere from Illinois to D.C. to Wisconsin to Iowa, the Latinx community’s infection rate leads by a wide margin.

Taken together, what we’re witnessing is the question of who gets to exist in public in America—who gets to be seen and heard—only now against the backdrop of a global pandemic. It’s a racist and classist disparity that brings a kind of hypervisibility to people of color—through over-policing and public surveillance—and simultaneous invisibility, as those same communities are failed by the state’s public health response and media coverage of the fallout. 

The anti-stay-home protesters, and their political allies who want to “reopen” the economy, will only force people of color deeper into this double bind: They are often the frontline, high-contact workers made most vulnerable during the pandemic. So if the virus, which is predicted to nearly double its current daily death toll to 3,000 by June, resurges in the fall and winter as widely expected, it will again do the most damage to these workers and their communities. And yet, despite this systemic and unnecessary cruelty, thanks to centuries of precedent, it is still almost impossible to imagine a similar occupation of public space by Black, Latinx, or Native citizens not ending in horrific, state-sanctioned violence and paternalistic finger-wagging from both Democratic leaders and the media.

Think about the movements within these communities that have quickly and quietly become background noise: The petitions and sickouts initiated by Amazon workers. The local and national rent strike movements. The protests by low-wage workers forced to enter the petri dishes that are meat-processing plants. These are more representative of the life-or-death decisions facing the working class, and particularly low-wage workers of color, both now and when businesses are reopened. But because they lack striking visuals, the nation’s attention has instead been turned toward protesters who represent a statistically slim percentage of the nation. 

This is another version of the invisibility being enforced on vulnerable communities right now, particularly working-class communities of color: The labor actions being staged across the country are life-giving in an almost literal sense. They are workers fighting for safer conditions and hazard pay, both to keep themselves and others safe. The anti-lockdown protests, in contrast, are life-taking. They are, as my colleagues at TNR have written in recent weeks, protests about sending other people back to work.  

At this point, it feels repetitive and even demeaning to characterize the pandemic as clarifying. None of these examples of unequal treatment by the state and our private sector needed to be highlighted or underlined going into the crisis: They were already plain as day. As stay-at-home orders in hot zones like New York and Gallup, New Mexico, are enforced with increasingly violent tactics, the results will be more concentrated and deadly as they are dished out to the people who have dealt with them in “normal” times. Meanwhile, communities of color will be forced to watch these Ammon Bundy cosplayers have their demands be centered and respected by the institutions that matter, because that’s just how the fuck things work here.