Health Care Experts Don't Get to Decide What Constitutes a Legitimate Protest

When states started locking down during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was mostly in favor of it. But I also believed that there were serious questions—questions about how long the lockdowns would last, how restrictive they would be, and how they would be enforced—that were worthy of discussion and debate. I’m well-versed in the psychological and financial impact of long-term isolation, so I knew very well that there would be at least some resistance to the lockdowns. I also knew that the longer the stay-at-home orders remained in effect, the more widespread and intense that resistance would become. And that’s why it had been my sincerest hope that advocates of the lockdowns would at least be willing to hear skeptics out. Unfortunately, that isn’t what happened. 

Instead, when some conservatives, libertarians, and other like-minded citizens began to protest against the lockdowns, their objections were met with near-instant condemnation. On Twitter and Facebook, they were called “grandma killers” and accused of being more concerned with preserving their own wealth than they were with preserving the lives of their elderly neighbors, friends, and relatives. And in the media, they were portrayed as a bunch of Trump-worshipping white supremacists who were indifferent to the suffering of minority communities hit especially hard by the pandemic. But while there certainly were some extremists whose actions didn’t reflect particularly well on the protesters as a whole, the protests themselves were mostly peaceful.

Eventually, though, individual states began announcing plans to slowly reopen their economies, and the anti-lockdown protests began to wind down. For a brief moment, it appeared as though the nation might finally be ready to focus its attention on a pressing question that to this day remains unanswered: what is the “new normal” supposed to look like in a world that remains under threat from COVID-19, and how do we get there? 

As the protests against the lockdowns came to a close, however, a whole new round of protests sprang up in their place in towns and cities all across the globe. Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists, understandably outraged by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, have taken to the streets in unprecedented numbers. Joined by countless Americans of all different racial, religious, and political stripes, they’ve made it quite clear that they won’t allow America to keep kicking the can down the road on police brutality. Piecemeal legislative reforms and superficial policy changes won’t be enough to make this issue go away. The time for meaningful action has arrived, and elected officials at every level of government are already beginning to respond

But what about COVID-19?

Ever since BLM protesters began taking to the streets, public health officials haven’t seemed as concerned about the potential for a second wave of the virus as they did when protests against the lockdowns were still ongoing. It’s still getting some attention, yet it’s almost as if the virus has been downgraded from a grave existential threat to a relatively manageable, quasi-serious inconvenience. Conservatives noticed this and have been seeking an explanation as to what, if anything, has changed in the past couple of weeks. And it appears they may have finally gotten their answer. 

Last week, more than 1,200 self-identified public health professionals, infectious disease experts, and community stakeholders signed and published an open letter in support of the BLM protests. The authors of the letter argue that “white supremacy is a lethal public issue” and that public officials should not invoke the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to shut down protests against systemic racism. The letter also provides a long list of harm-reducing measures that protesters and law enforcement officials are encouraged to take to try and slow the spread of COVID-19 during BLM demonstrations.

This letter has been making the rounds on social media, and some conservatives are very unhappy about it. And frankly, they have good reasons to be upset.

The problem isn’t that the letter’s authors and signatories are supportive of the fight against systemic racism. To the contrary, the letter includes a broad list of indisputable facts about the deleterious impact that discrimination has had on the collective health of the black community, facts that for far too long have been outright ignored by self-interested, apathetic politicians. One could argue, as I would, that public health experts have a moral duty to call our attention to these issues and ensure that proper action is taken to address them. On that point, I hope that progressive and conservative readers alike will agree with me.

The problem with the letter can be found in the first and third paragraphs, where the authors emphatically condemn “white protesters resisting stay-home orders” and proclaim, without any supporting evidence, that protests against the lockdowns are “rooted in white nationalism.” They also clarify that their support for the BLM protests “should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders.” It almost sounds as if they regret that the anti-lockdown protests were ever permitted to proceed in the first place and are subtly suggesting that, if the country needs to lock itself down again in the future, public officials should move to prevent those protests from happening again.

To be clear, the experts who wrote and signed this letter have every right to disagree with anti-lockdown protesters. They have no right, however, to act as the arbiters of legitimate dissent. They don’t get to decide what constitutes an appropriate reason for American citizens to peaceably assemble and make their collective voices heard. The right to protest is both sacrosanct and guaranteed to Americans of every political stripe. By choosing to try and undermine that right, these experts have instead undermined their own credibility, and that mistake could come back to haunt us all if and when they are called upon to guide a Divided States of America through another wave of COVID-19.  

I’m sure that if they were pressed on the subject of their political motives, these experts would assure us that their primary objective has always been, and continues to be, saving innocent lives. But if that is the case, then the advice they provide in this letter is advice that should have been dispensed in an apolitical manner back during the anti-lockdown protests. So why didn’t that happen? Why didn’t they offer any advice on how to potentially reduce transmission of COVID-19 between protesters at anti-lockdown demonstrations? Could it be that these experts value the lives of conservative activists less than they value the lives of the progressives marching against police brutality? I very much doubt that’s the case, but that is how some on the right are going to interpret this letter. And I’m not sure whether I can blame them for that.

What’s more, conspiracy theorists are going to seize on this letter—if they haven’t already, that is—and use it as proof that progressives in the medical community are trying to leverage their credentials to suppress conservative voices. They’re going to argue that these experts are trying to establish two sets of unofficial rules for two different political demographics—rules that depend less on scientific data than they do on the political biases of the people making those rules—in an effort to curtail the First Amendment rights of their conservative adversaries. It remains to be seen just how far that argument will travel and how effective it will prove to be, but I suspect that it will find a receptive audience in various corners of conservative media in light of the letter’s explicit anti-conservative bias.  

With any luck, there won’t be a second wave of COVID-19, and the country will not have to lock itself down again. But if that day ever does arrive, it’s entirely possible, and perhaps even inevitable, that a very large flock of right-wing skeptics are going to shrug off their states’ stay-at-home orders and tell authorities to go pound sand. And when they are once again accused of prioritizing money over the thousands of lives that could be lost because of their non-compliance, the only rebuttal they’ll need is a copy of this poorly worded, politically charged letter. I just hope it never comes to that.

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