Nearly two months on from George Floyd’s brutal killing, the struggle against racist police violence is contending with a catastrophic resurgence of Covid-19, writes Susan Ram
What is the current state of nationwide protests against racist police brutality in the US? Mid-July headlines are no longer dominated by reports of tens of thousands in the streets of towns, cities and small communities across America. It appears that the powerful, perhaps unprecedented upsurge of anger that followed the asphyxiation of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police on May 25 has abated, although sporadic, localised protests continue for example in Portland where protesters have been facing up to federal troops sent in by Trump.
While multiple factors, including organisational issues within Black Lives Matter (BLM), the key mobilising force behind the protests, may be contributing to this fall-back, it also has to be seen in the context of the extraordinary recrudescence of Covid-19 over the past four weeks.
By early July, new daily cases of the virus in the US were totalling 50,000. The ascent has continued, each day’s figures trouncing those of the preceding day. On July 16, a new national record of 77,300 new cases was set; Nebraska, Utah and Oregon each shattered their previous single-day records, pushing the total number of infections detected nationwide past 3.5 million. Thus far more than 135,000 Americans have died from the virus, and many more deaths are projected (the latest estimate from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), based at the University of Washington, suggest that total deaths may hit 208,000 by November 1).
The success of the virus in powering ahead in Trump-ruled America, dramatically visualised by graphs and by data that place the United States in pole position in the global coronavirus stakes, is clearly complicating efforts to build the BLM-led anti-racist movement, especially on the streets.
At the same time, a complex but readily discernible dynamic between pandemic and mass anti-racist protest remains in play.
What has the movement achieved so far? In the first place it has prompted unprecedented numbers of Americans to take to the streets in explicitly anti-racist protest. The sheer scale of this mobilisation merits emphasis: on June 6, for example, half a million people were protesting in close to 550 places across the US. Polling data indicates that between 15 million and 26 million Americans have participated in demonstrations over the death of George Floyd and others over recent weeks.
The reach of the movement – both geographically and in demographic terms – is the second aspect of its extraordinary progress thus far. Protests have taken place in more than 40 percent of US counties – at least 1,360 in total. A big proportion of theses counties are more than 75 percent white. And many of those participating have been first-time protestors. Taken together with polling data (19 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll on June 10 said that “race relations or racism” is the most important problem in the US, up from just 4 percent the month before), this points to a significant mobilisation of white Americans in anti-racist protest, perhaps one of historical proportions.
Thirdly, there’s been a sharpening and an escalation of the demands coming out of the movement. The emphasis now is on defunding the police as an institution, rather than simply calling for specific reforms, such as the outlawing of police resort to chokeholds. In New York, whose city police department was allocated a whopping $6 billion budget for fiscal year 2020, protests have already forced a $1 billion cutback. In Seattle, where weeks of protest culminated in the police retreating from one precinct, calls for police defunding remain the core of continuing protests. At £400 million for the current year, the city’s police budget swallows more than a quarter of the municipal general fund. Campaigners are pressing for it to be cut in half, freeing up more than $200 million towards social services addressing homelessness, mental health needs and the economic disparities endured disproportionately by BAME communities.
How is the movement likely to evolve over the next few weeks and months, as Covid-19, after a brief fall-back in April, continues its seemingly unstoppable advance?
While anti-racist mobilisation has been rendered more difficult, there are a number of ways in which the virus and its catastrophic mismanagement by the Trump administration are acting to fuel anger and discontent across the US.
Disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME Americans
That Black, Latino and other BAME Americans are disproportionately at risk of contracting and dying from coronavirus is backed by voluminous evidence. One study, by the AIDS research group Amfar, has established that localities in disproportionately Black counties (roughly 22 percent of total US counties) account for more than half of coronavirus cases and nearly 60 percent of deaths. The study’s findings are backed by data from US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reveal that Black and Latino Americans constitute nearly a third of all cases and are nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as their White counterparts.
Despite efforts in certain quarters to attribute this gross disparity to individuals’ underlying health conditions, the Amfar study identifies socioeconomic factors (employment status, access to health care, housing conditions, poor air and water quality) as far better predictors of infection and death rates. Additionally, Black Americans “are more likely to have jobs that increase exposure to Covid-19, including jobs deemed ‘essential’ during the current public health emergency.”
Structural racism, in its multiple guises, is reinforcing this disproportionality. Not only are Black and Latino Americans more likely to lack health insurance or live in areas without quality facilities, they must also contend with racial bias among medical professionals: BAME patients are more likely to have their symptoms overlooked or pain disbelieved.
Racism and the rush to reopen the US economy
In this context, the relationship between the uneven, racialised impact of Covid-19 and the Trump administration’s response to the crisis merits close examination. Nowhere has the nature of this relationship been stated in balder terms than in the title of an article contributed by Adam Serwer to The Atlantic in early May: “The Coronavrius was an emergency until Trump found out who was dying.”
Reviewing the twists and turns of what passes for a governmental response to an unprecedented health emergency, Serwer draws attention to the shift, in early April, away from containment measures geared to flattening the curve of infections and putting in place an effective system of testing and tracing. This shift, he argues, coincided with publication of the first data indicating the disproportionate impact the virus was having on BAME Americans. Public health restrictions designed to contain the outbreak were now deemed absurd, a “weird kind of arbitrary fascism” according to Fox News host Tucker Carlson. As Serwer acerbically notes, “That more and more Americans were dying was less important than who was dying.”
By early May, the economy was reopening fast and Trump was in exhortatory mode: “The people of our country are warriors,” he told reporters on May 8. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”
For workers at the front lines of the pandemic – meatpackers, health workers, transportation employees – the consequences of this recklessness have already been disastrous. Meatpacking plants have proved particular outbreak hot spots: as of June 16th, over 25,000 processing plant employees from 238 plants in 33 states had been infected, and there had been multiple deaths. BAME Americans, immigrants, and workers in low-income families are disproportionately employed in meatpacking plants: 44.4 percent of are Hispanic, and 25.2 percent are Black.
That this racialised context, together with the pandemic’s calamitous economic consequences, will result in a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement is not simply the prognosis of American anti-racist campaigners. On July 17, Maplecroft, the UK-based global risk and security consultancy firm, issued its own bit of crystal ball gazing for the benefit of investors. After surveying the likely turn of events in ‘risky’ areas of the world such as Africa and Latin America, the report turned a gloomy eye on the direction of travel in the US, “now the 48th riskiest jurisdiction globally after recording the second biggest drop on our Civil Unrest Index.”
It continued: “The combination of the Black Lives Matter protests, alongside mounting frustration over job losses and President Trump’s weak pandemic response means more unrest is inevitable.”
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Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.
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