Pandemic and Protest

It’s not surprising that certain individuals and groups in US society are starting to publicly protest the ongoing quarantine measures undertaken because of the COVID-19 virus. From the several hundred (mostly) men who strapped on their guns and drove around the capital of Michigan to the Brooklyn Orthodox community members protesting the fact that they cannot hold traditional burial services for their dead, the frustration with the current situation was certain to spill over into these types of scenarios. Add to that the college spring breakers in Florida and the holy roller pastors holding services of hundreds. Then, there’s Ivanka Trump flying to New Jersey to celebrate Passover while the majority of believers held virtual Seders or streamed their Easter services on their device.

I understand the frustration. Like millions of others, my visits with friends and families have become virtual and my part-time job uncertain. Many of those protesting are small farmers and business owners. Yet, at this point in the progress of the virus, I think the quarantine is still the right thing to do. I’m not ready to organize or attend a protest against it.

Does this mean I am not wary of the intentions of the state and its desire to increase its surveillance and control of the population? Of course not. Indeed, it’s been clear to me since the beginning of the pandemic that this is exactly what the repressive powers of the state would use this moment for. It’s the very nature of the agents of repression to use any uncertainty to consolidate their control. At the same time, the protests in Michigan and elsewhere seem like little more than temper tantrums by overgrown boys whose developmental learning stopped after learning to tell their parents no. Like the Bundy bunch in the western US whose latest claim to fame involved destroying a park ranger building in Oregon, these protesters’ definition of freedom is one that prizes their freedom above anyone else’s. It is a libertarianism that makes Ayn Rand look like a social democrat. It is also a libertarianism that hands the power of the people to the few with the biggest purses and renders those like the protesters even weaker than they are (despite their perception otherwise).

There are many small business people who wonder why their operations had to close. These include small-time contractors and, in some states, farmers. Their growing anger at the orders stems from the need to make a living. They stand to lose more than their temporary freedom. Indeed, they could lose everything they have worked for. This brings up what is probably the fundamental reason to protest the quarantine regimen—people need income to live. It is the refusal of the US government to ensure that everyone who works for a living get a livable income during the lockdown that is causing the most trepidation among US residents. If such a thing were guaranteed, then most people would accept the situation. Instead, the only US residents certain to come out on the other side of the quarantine with their assets mostly intact are wealthy. This fact says it all. Donald Trump and the rest of the rich will still be rich even if they lose a few million or a few hundred million. Furthermore, their theft of medical supplies from the general stockpile and their access to the best medical facilities means that most if not all of them will not suffer much from the virus. They want us to go back to work so they can build their portfolios, not so we can survive.

As for the religious protests, what can one say? The arrogance of the pastors who insist on holding services is counter to the strain of Christianity I grew up with. Their need to fill the collection plates now seems to matter more than the safety of their flock later. One hopes that the words of their Lord when he said he who exalts himself shall be humbled come true. It’s not that I wish death on anyone, but knocking these pastors’ income down to where they can only afford one car seems like a reasonable message from their Lord. Of course, if members of their flock do die from the virus, the pastors can (and will) write it off as the will of their god. I’m not one to challenge that claim, but I still don’t see why any true leader would put their followers in a situation that increased the likelihood of their death. It’s not war, for Christ’s sake.

To be clear. I am very wary of the potential for the quarantine to be used by the state to drastically curtail the freedoms of regular people. As anyone who has been paying attention is well aware, this process has been going on for decades. Indeed, it has intensified since September 11, 2001, especially for immigrants, radicals, Latinos and African-Americans. It intensified, even more, when Trump took power in 2017. The pandemic has provided the perfect cover for an even greater intensification. However, joining protests called by some of the same neo-fascist groups and individuals who viciously attacked anti-racists and anti-fascists in Charlottesville, Manhattan, Portland, Oregon and elsewhere in the US is not going to prevent overreach by the forces of law and order. Indeed, if fascism becomes the political reality in the United States, many of these overgrown “proud” boys with guns will be the stormtroopers for that regime. There’s a reason they wear those red MAGA hats. Donald Trump’s media events are their dog whistles and his seemingly incoherent ramblings are their blueprint.

Do I think there’s a need for protests of some kind? Absolutely. Although virtual protests seem to be the right tactic right now, that might have to change. No matter what form they take, those protests should begin by demanding a guaranteed income for all working people (including immigrants no matter what their status) who lost their jobs or business, health and safety protections and hazard pay for those considered essential workers, the release of or creation of a humane and safe environment for all those in jails and prisons, including immigrants, free testing for everyone and anyone, expanded Medicare for all, a concerted international effort to develop a safe and free vaccine, and a special tax on billionaires to pay for these demands. The potential alternative is a dystopia only the prince of darkness will revel in.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: