Policing and COVID-19: A dangerous combination
7/30/2020, 6 p.m.
As protests in Richmond continue to draw attention to decades of overpolicing, it has become abundantly clear that the status quo cannot hold. Richmond is a city with deeply entrenched segregation and brutal poverty alongside glittering new developments. Recent police actions here make the state’s “Virginia Is for Lovers” slogan ring hollow. These responses to protests are made even more harmful by police reliance on aggressive strategies that only exacerbate the health risks of the coronavirus.
During the past few weeks, protesters have been gathering to grieve the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Marcus-David Peters and so many other Black people at the hands of “public safety” authorities. Instead of being allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights, protesters are met with unnecessary force by militarized police. Barricades were erected around the Richmond Police Headquarters, and there have been reports of police using flash-bang devices and rubber bullets on protesters. Not only are measures like these unnecessary, but they come with great financial cost and moral decay.
Once protesters have their constitutional rights violated, they are put into even more danger by policing methods that increase the risk of contracting the coronavirus. On June 1, police used tear gas on protesters at the Robert E. Lee statue 20 minutes before the beginning of curfew. Tear gas is a chemical weapon that is banned in war and irritates the eyes, nose and skin. Its use against Virginians is shameful.
Our country is grappling with a pandemic that strikes the respiratory system and is easily spread from person to person. COVID-19 has killed nearly 150,000 Americans. There is no reason police should be using methods to control protesters that compound the problem.
In addition to use of extreme force and non-lethal weapons that do real harm, the reliance on jailing folks for exercising their First Amendment right puts them at risk for the coronavirus as well. Two infectious disease specialists at the University of Virginia likened our prisons and jails to “landlocked cruise ships” because they have become hot spots for the virus’ spread. There is no space for social distancing in prison or jail, and testing has been lackluster. Supplies such as soap, hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment are hard to come by.
COVID-19 spread like wildfire in a youth detention facil- ity in Bon Air and the adult Dilwynn Correctional Center in Buckingham and we cannot afford to replicate those health emergencies. Jailing protesters during this pandemic is cruel and a threat to public health.
The response to demonstrations thus far—speeches of inclusion by elected officials alongside repeated police harassment—is typical of the empty performative politics that have prompted Richmonders to protest in the first place.
Listening to the needs of the people must go beyond virtue signaling. Now is the time to develop new frameworks for public health and safety and to move away from the inhumane ways law enforcement has been violating Virginians during this time of protest.
Now is the time to truly embrace justice for all.
Member, Virginia COVID-19 Justice Coalition
The writer is a statewide organizer and campaign lead for Southerners On New Ground.