It’s More Than A Juxtaposition: On Discussing Black Lives Matter Demonstrations in the ‘Land of the Free’ and the COVID-19 Pandemic

TIFFANY LOERA

No te preocupes hija, estamos bien, my mom says reassuringly to me over the phone as we discuss the current state of the United States.

As nations around the world begin to ease their lockdown restrictions, the U.S. reports over 100k deaths from the COVID-19 outbreak (McCarthy and Singh 2020). Other sources report that the death toll reached over 105K deaths at the end of May 2020 and continue to rise (DW 2020, McCarty and Singh 2020). Although this virus does not discriminate between hosts, inherent social discrimination within the U.S. marginalizes racial and ethnic communities and their access to healthcare, making this a political and social disease.

Over recent months, the U.S. received worldwide criticism regarding its insufficient approach in the management of the COVID-19 outbreak (Blow 2020, Minhaj 2020, Strasser 2020, Zurcher 2020). During the height of the outbreak, reports of people leaving the house without a mask or appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) show the lack of support of public health interventions strategies to limit the spread of the virus (Blow 2020, Minhaj 2020, Strasser 2020). Although the Trump Administration took broader measures to limit the spread of the virus such as: mass travel restrictions, mobilization of medical equipment and the CARES Act, it inherently failed in protecting those who fell outside the normalized demographics (Minhaj 2020, Strasser 2020, Zurcher 2020, U.S. Department of the Treasury 2020). The Trump Administration failed to implement social distancing measures that could have lowered the reported infection rates and national death count by an estimated 80% (Minhaj 2020). Moreover, this administration has approached the COVID-19 outbreak with a clear political bias. One rooted in the iniquitous philosophy behind the nation’s social hierarchy.

Nevertheless, some criticisms support the Trump Administration’s COVID-19 tactics. One argument is that the curve of the virus has “somewhat” flattened due to the “patchwork of shutdowns and social-distancing” measures taken throughout the U.S. However, the flattened curve of the outbreak should not be attributed to the ‘good doing’ of the Trump Administration, as these measures were handled by individual state governments (Zurcher 2020). It is even more apparent that the U.S. health infrastructure requires support in combating the COVID-19 outbreak (Minhaj 2020). The demands of the COVID-19 pandemic have added to the already present systemic violence that stems from social and structural inequality. In addition to the criticisms revolving the Trump Administration’s lacked enforcement of public health measures, President Donald Trump received criticism on his recent twitter posts threatening community demonstrations with

military action (Figure 1). Particularly on how hypocritical the President’s response was to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations given the lack of federal support in managing COVID-19 cases throughout the outbreak. It is not unknown that the U.S. social structure operates within a dichotomous reality in which right v. wrong and peace v. violence are on two blurred sides of the spectrum.

Figure 1: Screenshot of President Donald Trump’s twitter post on May 30th, 2020. Trump posted various twitter posts specifying forceful use towards any violent demonstrations, public source (after DW News: “George Floyd Killing: Fresh Protests as Trump Threatens to Call in US Military” 2020).

Historically, the term structural violence was employed by social scientists to understand institutionalized violence (Farmer 2004, 307). Paul Farmer defines structural violence as “violence exerted systematically—that is, indirectly—by everyone who belongs to a certain social order…” (Farmer 2004, 307). Moreover, this concept can highlight the complexities within these social systems in which the individuals “become part of oppressive systems and reproduce domination” (Alinia 2015). This concept underpins the benefits and consequences within each level of a social structure and aims to inform “the study of the social machinery of oppression” (Farmer 2004, 307). Furthermore, if we deconstruct the concept entirely, the term structure and the term violence bare their own epistemological inquiries and motivations (Farmer 2004).

In the context of the U.S., structural violence is at the epicenter of inequality in which race, religion, and gender are paired with socio-economic, socio-political, and other social factors (Blow 2020). These interactions expose the health characteristics of the

privileged and less-privileged members of society. For example, Black communities have a higher prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as stroke, diabetes, and other NCDs comparatively than the rest of the U.S. (Blow 2020, Council on Black Health 2020). Additionally, early reports of the pandemic showcase that Black people are disproportionately more affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, representing 33% of COVID-19 cases in 14 U.S. hospitals (Kirby 2020). The problem in the U.S. is that violence is normalized—oppressing those within the lower tiers of the social hierarchy. The COVID-19 outbreak did not create these health inequities; however, these systemic issues disproportionately affect Black communities and People of Color (POC) communities (Blow 2020, Council on Black Health 2020). For instance, limited to no access to healthcare among racial or ethnic populations throughout the U.S. (Kirby 2020). Public demonstrations and discussions surfacing on all social media platforms across the world have raised concerns regarding the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and tensions within our social structures.

In the final days of May of 2020, demonstrations across the U.S. were ignited after the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin (MacInnes et al. 2020, BBC News US & Canada 2020). Although Chauvin was detained and charged for the murder of George Floyd, a reality of this situation is that Chauvin was allowed to live his life freely for a few days prior to his arrest. It was only because of the public condemnation of the justice systems omittances that Chauvin and the three other officers complicit in George Floyds death were arrested and charged for second degree murder (Campbell et al. 2020). This is stated to be the doing of national and global protests (Campbell et al. 2020). Although news sources state, “the Floyd case has reignited US anger over police killings of Black Americans”, frustrations regarding police brutality against specific racial and ethnic communities within the U.S. remains a reality prior to and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic (BBC News US & Canada 2020, Council on Black Health 2020). These realities are symptoms of systematic oppression within the law enforcement infrastructure and beyond. The COVID-19 pandemic places further strain on social cohesiveness within the U.S., bringing to light the inequalities that have dominated the lives of many Americans.

On May 30th, 2020, demonstrations were conducted outside of the Reno City Hall in my hometown in Reno, NV, USA (Figure 2). The demonstration began around the early part of a Saturday afternoon, in which an atmosphere of unity and solidarity was felt among the participants (Alonzo et al. 2020). Leaders of the protest urged demonstrators to not injure the message of the movement and to go home after the demonstration, ultimately urging for a non-violent movement. However, as violence ensued at the later part of the demonstration, a State of Emergency was declared (Alonzo et al. 2020). Minoo Alinia (2015) states that the struggles faced by racial and ethnic communities are not “isolated phenomenon detached from greater struggles for social justice” (Alinia 2015, 2337). Furthermore, that “struggle against all forms of domination and subordination necessitates dialogue, solidarity, and coalitions across groups and movements” (Alinia 2015, 2338). The hypocrisy within broader social discourse in asking Black communities to sustain a system and not incite violence in a society which constantly inflicts violence upon these communities is telling of the inherently systemic issues present in U.S. society.

In considering the trauma behind the manifestations of these demonstrations, the desire for freedom is clear. Organizers have coordinated response measures towards the violence that is often associated with protesting. However, demonstrators also face the social and physiological stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many demonstrators across the U.S. have urged the use of PPE during demonstrations to limit the spread of COVID- 19, even more so as this virus affects the more socially vulnerable within this context. An additional challenge to the right to demonstration and maintaining public health

recommendations is the use of tear gas by police and military personnel, a tactic used to control large crowds. These were used by police personnel in the Reno, NV protest once the demonstration had escalated, affecting demonstrators and innocent bystanders who removed their masks gasping for air (Alonzo et al. 2020). Conversely, using face coverings to incite violence in a demonstration intended to be peaceful and safe creates a juxtaposition between fear of violence and fear of the virus. Due to systemic inequality, the viral outbreak transformed into a political stance, minimizing the experiences of those affected by the virus and social injustices.

There is evidence, however, that these issues are being addressed by social organizations and organizers of the protests despite the U.S. governments lack of public health intervention. These organizations are sharing relevant information on digital platforms (Figure 3) (Council on Black Health 2020). The scarcity of PPE for healthcare personnel on the front lines showcases how PPE is a privileged resource not as easily accessible to the health care infrastructure, let alone the general public (Minhaj 2020). However, the responsibility of tackling these issues of health and beyond should not be up to the vulnerable communities already experiencing social injustices. The responsibility should be on governments and wider society to fight against the spread of the virus, in addition dismantle prejudice social systems that complicity aids this health inequity. The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to challenge aspects of the U.S. social structure and how it operates.

Figure 3: Social media Instagram post by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showcasing a public health approach to the necessities needed for demonstrations with additional information highlighting safe demonstration practices. (after Ocasio-Cortez 2020).

Declaration of Media Content: Please note that the images within this article are supplementary and aid in piecing together the complexities surrounding the BLM Movement and the COVID-19 Pandemic. Given the scope of this article, this is one piece of a larger social issue. For more information on COVID-19 and the BLM Movement, please check out these web sources:

https://www.naacp.org/coronavirus/ https://blacklivesmatter.com/

Bibliography

Alinia, Minoo. “On Black Feminist Thought: thinking oppression and resistance through intersectional paradigm.” (2015). Ethnic and Racial Studies, 38: 13, 2334-2340. doi: 10.1080/01419870.2015.1058492.

Alonzo, Amy, Siobhan McAndrew and Benjamin Spillman. “Updates: Reno mayor declares a State of Emergency, describes some of damages to City Hall.” Reno Gazette Journal (2020). Accessed: May 31, 2020. https://eu.rgj.com/story/news/2020/05/30/hundreds-gather-reno-protest-george- floyds-death/5291340002/

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Tiffany is an MSc student in the Biosocial Medical Anthropology program with a research focus on how the body expresses stress within the context of war, sexual violence, and PTSD. 

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