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Protests against police violence fly in face of advice to prevent spread of virus

In this June 2, 2020 file photo, Protesters rally in Phoenix during demonstrations over the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

In this June 2, 2020 file photo, Protesters rally in Phoenix during demonstrations over the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

Public health experts and government officials have for months told Americans living under the thumb of a global pandemic to follow a simple edict: stay home.

Stay home to steer clear of a highly contagious respiratory illness that has killed hundreds of thousands in the country, stay home to protect your older and immuno-compromised friends and relatives, stay home for the sake of national strength.

But as statewide lockdowns have begun to fade away, with the country’s governors and mayors struggling to put COVID-19 in the rearview mirror, the virus in many places — including Arizona — has only gotten worse. Now, however, a different public health crisis has come into focus: police killings of Black Americans.

This crisis has engendered a different response. Thousands of people have taken to the streets in cities across the globe, braving the coronavirus to show resolve in the face of state violence.

It’s a reaction that flies in the face of much that Americans have heard from their leaders in recent months, prompting accusations of cynical hypocrisy from conservatives who grew used to chiding from their political counterparts over their skepticism of government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It begs the question: when one pandemic necessitates social isolation, and the other simultaneously calls for public solidarity, which is the prudent response?

“We should talk about the reality that people in the streets right now understand that coronavirus is still a thing,” said Luke Black, a campaign manager for Poder In Action, a Phoenix-based organization that has helped to organize some of the recent protests against police brutality. “They understand that they are at risk for being there. But we have to put it in very blunt terms that the way things are with the police are no longer acceptable, at any level.”

Drivers of Transmission

On May 25, 10 days after the end of Arizona’s lockdown, a Minneapolis police officer named Derek Chauvin killed a Black man named George Floyd, kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes while other officers stood by. That morning, an Arizona state trooper shot Dion Johnson, whom he found sleeping in his car off Loop 101.

On June 1, the number of Arizonans hospitalized with COVID-19 exceeded 1,000, a new record. That increase began in late May, which public health experts took as a sign that the official end of the state’s lockdown on May 15 had opened the door for new cases. The coronavirus takes about a week to incubate, and lab tests take about another week to process.

Last week, Banner Health announced that it could no longer take COVID-19 patients who require external lung machines. Officials with the hospital system said it was nearing ICU capacity. Statewide, a report from the Arizona Department of Health Services released this week demonstrated that hospital bed capacity has exceeded 80 percent, a key threshold.

Whereas the previous uptick in cases could be explained by an increase in testing and the reopening of the state’s economy, the protests are likely beginning to play a role. Every day since May 25, Arizonans have hit the sunbaked asphalt in droves, invoking the names of Johnson, Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a Louisville woman killed by police on March 13.

These mass public demonstrations, an inevitable response in a country at a boiling point, dwarf the anti-quarantine demonstrations at the state Capitol in late April and early May, but carry some of the same risks, experts say.

“There is good evidence that with this virus, these large gatherings are some of the biggest drivers of transmission,” said Joe Gerald, a professor of public health at the University of Arizona. “[These] are kind of the super spreader events where you have someone who’s infected and instead of being at home and infecting one or two people, they are in the public at a protest like this. And they infect 10, 15 or more people.”

Culture War

Generally speaking, protesters take precautions. Organizers and participants hand out hand sanitizer and masks, which are widely worn.

“I see a huge difference to the [anti-lockdown] protests we saw at the Capitol,” said Rep. Alma Hernandez, a Tucson Democrat with a background in public health who supports the movement for Black Lives and the associated protests.

Nonetheless she acknowledges that there are risks, and that if they haven’t already, protests will likely contribute to rising case numbers. Hernandez herself hasn’t attended any of the demonstrations, as she lives with her father, who is older and immunocompromised

“You can only suggest and encourage folks to do their best,” she said.

But progressives have done more than encourage their conservative colleagues to wear masks, waging a mini-culture war over the proper response to the virus.

Winslow business owner Dan Mazon, who was cited for keeping open his Authentic Indian Arts Store, tells protesters April 20, 2020, that his constitutional rights were illegally suspended. Conservatives were criticized for gathering in large groups to protest the governor’s stay-at-home order during a pandemic. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Winslow business owner Dan Mazon, who was cited for keeping open his Authentic Indian Arts Store, tells protesters April 20, 2020, that his constitutional rights were illegally suspended. Conservatives were criticized for gathering in large groups to protest the governor’s stay-at-home order during a pandemic. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Many in the state’s majority party were skeptical of the deadliness of COVID-19, and frustrated with the governor’s decision to close down most businesses and ask Arizonans to stay home for more than a month, enforcing an emergency declaration to that effect with limited police authority. In the final weeks of the legislative session, conservatives often didn’t wear masks when at the Capitol, eliciting derision and admonition from Democrats. At anti-quarantine rallies in April and May, right-wing activists flaunted the governor’s emergency declaration seemingly by design, with maskless mobs flooding the lobby of the Executive Tower.

“The response on the other side has been political posturing,” said Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

Allen insists that nobody from either party is on the side of the officer who killed George Floyd. But he said that progressives have changed their tune on the dangers of public gatherings.

“This is to their bigger political advantage,” he said.

Different Kind of Protest

The unfortunate irony is that both of these public health crises disproportionately impact Black people and people of color in the U.S. An analysis from researchers at Yale found that Black people are more than 3.5 times as likely to die from the virus than white people, and Latinos in the U.S. are almost twice as likely to die than whites. In Arizona, none of the 10 hardest hit zip codes in the state are above the state median household income.

In short, those for whom police can pose an existential threat also stand to lose the most by assembling en masse to push back against that threat. And in general, working people and people of color experience worse health outcomes compared to their white or well-off counterparts, said Paloma Beamer, who studies environmental health equity at the University of Arizona.

“There’s increased exposure to environmental contaminants, a lack of access to health care, to financial resources,” she said. “These communities are also more likely to have jobs that have a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19. Many are essential workers.”

These factors in part justify the decision to take to the streets despite the baseline risk. As is, non-white Arizonans often must take this risk anyway, as they are less likely to be able to work from home, a luxury much more easily afforded in white-collar fields, Paloma said.

And attending a protest isn’t an automatic COVID sentence, though research has shown that speaking loudly or yelling accelerates the spread of particles from the mouth. If attendees are wearing masks, washing hands or using sanitizer — or better, wearing gloves — and donning goggles, whether for tear gas protection or to limit COVID transmission, they can greatly mitigate the risks, Paloma said.

It’s different than the anti-quarantine rallies, which formed under the ethos that the conventional precautions against the virus were oppressive or otherwise unnecessary.

“I respect that people were worried about their economic livelihoods,” Paloma said. “But that was a different kind of protest. I didn’t see as much concern about taking precautions.”

Police Violence

The idea that staying home is the best way to steer clear of the coronavirus is predicated on a simple assumption: home is a refuge, the safest place to be.

But Breonna Taylor was shot in her home by police executing a no-knock warrant in the wee hours of the morning. Dion Johnson was in his car, safe from the virus though not from the world at large.

“Black, brown and indigenous folks, they understand that their safety is compromised regardless,” said Black, of Poder. “They’re not safe if they stay at home, if they ride their bike, if they sleep in their car. It’s not a conversation of, I’m safe here but I’m not safe there. Either the police kill me, or I risk my life and brave COVID to make a statement.”

And the timing of this moment isn’t incidental. Across the state, cities are considering budgets for the next fiscal year. Phoenix and Tempe are both in the throes of intense discussions over funding for their police departments, and protesters have taken note, with targeted demonstrations in front of both city halls.

“Money can be moved in other directions,” Black said. “From police budgets to public health. These two things intersect at the budget.”

Activists have synthesized these factors into an argument for why taking to the streets is an acceptable risk, and not one that is necessarily contradictory or hypocritical, they say.

Simply, police violence is an epidemiological phenomenon, Black said. He emphasized that it’s important not to use this fact to deny violent officers their agency, but rather to recognize that communities in Arizona that are the most polluted and degraded — take the water table toxicity in Maryvale, for example — also face targeting from police.

“The correlation between public health and police violence and incarceration is almost identical,” he said.

Reporter Dillon Rosenblatt contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: The headline has been revised to more comprehensively summarize the story.  

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