By Laura Wang
When New York City became the world epicenter of COVID-19 in mid-March, the country turned its gaze inward. The only news was coronavirus news, and Americans were a captive audience as we stayed home and watched the case numbers and death toll tick higher and the stock market plummet. Everything was unprecedented, and nothing could escape the reach of the coronavirus.
Then in early May, a video surfaced online of two white men chasing down, physically confronting and shooting to death a young, unarmed Black man in Georgia. The details of the murder came with it. The young Black man’s name was Ahmaud Arbery. He had died in late February, and his aggressors and murderers were former police officers. It became the only story in weeks that could cut through the coronavirus coverage. And even with the accompanying shock and horror of Arbery’s murder, it was the only news in months that felt familiar. Most Americans have never confronted a pandemic as widespread or disruptive as COVID-19, but Arbery was neither the first nor last unarmed Black person we would see killed at the hands of a present or former police officer.
Soon, we would hear about Breonna Taylor in Louisville, who was killed after police officers broke down her door with a battering ram and shot at her at least eight times in her own home. On May 25, we watched George Floyd of Minneapolis pinned to the ground by three police officers, including Derek Chauvin, who suffocated Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd repeated, “I can’t breathe,” a cry we had heard before from a Black victim of police brutality. As Gene Demby of NPR said, “We’re at the point where the very words people use to plead for their lives can be repurposed as shorthand for completely separate tragedies.” Floyd was pronounced dead in the hospital that night.
The coronavirus pandemic and police violence against Black bodies are evidence of the public safety threat that anti-Black racism poses. The Washington Post maintains a database that has recorded 5,360 fatal police shootings in the U.S. since 2015. 24 percent of those victims were Black, but Black Americans make up only 13.4 percent of the U.S. population.
When COVID-19 started to spread, government officials urged us to reach across our differences because the virus does not discriminate. We know now that’s false. Black Americans are infected by and dying at disproportionate rates of COVID-19. According to the CDC, non-Hispanic Black Americans account for 22.9 percent of COVID-19 deaths. The CDC has cited living in densely populated spaces, racial housing segregation, food deserts, lack of access to quality health care and major outbreaks in prisons and jails as primary reasons that racial and ethnic minorities are particularly at risk of coronavirus. These circumstances were the effects of anti-Black policies and practices — white flight, redlining, public funding based on income and property taxes, over-incarceration of young Black men. Living in a pandemic reminds us of all the forces in the world outside of our control. The numbers remind us of the forces we can control and how we have allowed them to kill Black folks.
It is hard to watch the demonstrations in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Des Moines and more without deep feelings of ambivalence. Protest is a necessary tool to demand better for our communities and maintain our democracy. But buildings going up in flames, trucks driven through crowds, tear gas and rubber bullets pelted at demonstrators, and more death should not be required to make law enforcement officials stop killing unarmed Black people. We’ve been using war as a metaphor to describe how COVID-19 has ravaged our country. Now some cities truly look like warzones, with 17,000 National Guard troops activated in 23 states and Washington D.C. In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds has threatened calling in the National Guard and commended Coralville, Council Bluffs, Polk County and Scott County for instating curfews to quell demonstrations. Yet there is something darkly powerful in seeing how far the aftershocks of one local incident have traveled. It is at once moving and alarming for people all over the country to fight for justice for George Floyd because they know that, whether in the rural south or the urban north, no Black American can live free from the danger of anti-Black racism.
If COVID-19 has taught Americans anything, it is that our actions affect others. As individualist as we are, as divided as we have become, my health and safety is still dependent on yours and theirs and his and hers. This applies to civil society as much as it applies to illness. While police brutality does not threaten us all in equal measure, reforming our criminal justice and law enforcement systems is an imperative for all in this country who want to live more secure, equitable and just lives.
The cloth face mask embodies this sentiment. The wearer dons the mask, not to protect herself from the coronavirus, but to protect those around her. If we are lucky enough to not have been directly hurt by police violence, we have a duty to protect our community and stop its continuation. It will take much more than putting on a mask and washing our hands. It will likely take contacting our representatives, vigilantly following police abuse of power in our home communities, donating money, having difficult conversations with loved ones, voting for officials in favor of police reform, filming police brutality if you are to bear witness, demonstrating in the face of violence — and that still may not be enough. Every time I see the violence of the protests on TV, I think about all the violence our institutions have inflicted upon Black people in this country for the past 400 years. The most optimistic outlook we can have on the deadly spring of 2020 is that out of all this destruction, we can build something better.