By Kris Hermes
May 27th, 2020
It’s been well established that the US response to the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in tens of thousands of preventable and unnecessary deaths. From its initial indifference to the seriousness of COVID-19 to the lack of public health infrastructure and testing, the federal government’s negligence and incompetence is staggering and has had tragic consequences for hundreds of thousands of people.
To make matters worse, the virus has disproportionately impacted people of color in the US, further underscoring the structural racism and economic injustice that was in place long before COVID-19 and which has only worsened during the pandemic. With people of color incarcerated at far higher rates than White people, the rapid spread of the virus throughout US jails, prisons, and detention centers has predominantly affected prisoners of color. Police have also enforced social distancing and other public health measures in uneven and violent ways.
Under more normal circumstances, people would take to the streets in large numbers to protest and resist the government’s callous and fatal response. But, public health measures aimed at reducing harm have also sharply limited freedom of assembly and, in turn, have caused an existential crisis for many who would otherwise be in the streets demanding accountability.
As of April 11, all 50 states had declared emergencies and, while each state bestows different powers in emergencies, such declarations typically grant sweeping authority to impose and enforce an array of coercive measures, including shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders, and bans on public gatherings. Yet, despite these onerous restrictions, activists and political organizers have still found ways of taking direct action against unjust policies and practices.
Some of the innovate actions we’ve seen over the past several weeks include car protests and caravans calling for rent relief and moratoriums on evictions, and “die-ins” demanding that local governments address the crises facing unhoused people in cities like San Francisco. Reverend Billy Talen led a one-person protest in early April against Samaritan’s Purse, the notoriously anti-gay and Islamophobic evangelical charity, by attempting to plant a rainbow flag in the vicinity of a temporary respiratory facility set up by the group in Central Park. Other creative and necessary actions have included rent strikes, job walkouts and wildcat strikes centered on unsafe working conditions, sick leave benefits, and hazard pay for frontline workers.
Prisons, Jails, and Detention Centers Become COVID-19 Hotspots and Sites of Protest
While New York City (NYC) and other COVID-19 hotspots have rightly drawn the public’s attention, less visible is what’s happening at the country’s jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers, which represent some of the worst breeding grounds for the disease, as well as critical sites of protest.
For many prisoners and immigrants held in facilities across the US, social distancing is impractical if not impossible, and their means of protecting themselves is completely out of reach. So, it was no surprise when at least 80 percent of the prisoners and half of the prison staff at Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio tested positive for COVID-19. By mid-May, more than 1,900 men were infected. Thirteen prisoners at Marion and one staff member had died from the virus. A federal prison in Lompoc, California, became the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak at the country’s federal prisons, with nearly 70 percent of people inside testing positive.
Dozens of prisoners agitated by inaction at a state facility in Kansas allegedly ransacked offices, broke windows, and set small fires to protest the prison’s failure to address rising numbers of coronavirus infections. At Chicago’s Cook County Jail, the largest single jail site in the country, prisoners refused to eat non-commissary food to protest unsafe conditions inside the facility. More than 100 prisoners at Indiana’s Pendleton Correctional Facility have been on a hunger strike since April 30, demanding medical monitoring and testing for COVID-19, hot and nutritionally adequate meals, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies.
Similar actions have been organized at Rikers Island Jail in NYC to protest a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), crowded living conditions, and the daily addition of new people to the jail. In the days following a 24-hour work strike at Rikers in March—and an effective media strategy with activists on the outside, which forced NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio to respond—the jail began providing PPE and cleaning supplies. By April, the head doctor at Rikers called the jail a “public health disaster” and, as pressure increased both inside and outside of the jail, a portion of those held on the island were released, but far too few for a jail in which thousands are forced into close quarters.
On the outside, activists, supporters, and family members have been calling attention to the careless disregard and negligence that has resulted in death sentences for many of those held in cages across the country. As a result of numerous protests and calls for decarceration, thousands of people have been released from jails and prisons since March. Pressure is mounting on Ohio Governor Mike DeWine to release 20,000 prisoners from Marion, but so far his office has identified less than 200 prisoners in all of Ohio for potential early release.
The general lack of transparency already prevalent in the US carceral system has only exacerbated conditions on the inside and is deeply troubling. Transparency is critical to properly addressing outbreaks when, and even before, they occur. Knowing whether prisoners have access to medical care and what kinds of resources are being dedicated to the epidemic inside can mean the difference between life and death.
Recognizing the urgency of the situation, advocates and public health experts alike are calling for the wholesale release of prisoners, as well as better protection and safety measures on the inside, in order to curb the spread of COVID-19.
COVID-19 Spreads in Detention Centers and Pressure Builds to Release Immigrants
In March, detainees held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at multiple detention facilities in New Jersey went on hunger strike to demand access to soap and toilet paper. By April, the Otay Mesa Detention Center, run by the private prison company CoreCivic, had the most reported COVID-19 cases among US detention facilities run by ICE. Concerned for their safety, immigrant women held at Otay Mesa requested PPE, such as face masks, but were denied that protection unless they signed waivers releasing CoreCivic from any COVID-19 liability. When the women refused to sign waivers and began making improvised masks from fabric, guards attacked them with pepper spray, handcuffing at least three and placing them in solitary confinement. In early May, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, who had been detained at the Otay Mesa facility since January, became the first person to die from COVID-19 while in ICE custody.
With more than 1,100 immigrants in ICE custody testing positive for COVID-19, public pressure and lawsuits have been building for the agency to release as many immigrant and refugee detainees as possible. While hundreds had been released as of April, more than 30,000 people are still being held in ICE custody at different jails and detention facilities throughout the country.
These hard-fought gains have also come at a cost. When more than 100 people staged a protest inside a minimum security Washington State prison, officials attacked prisoners with pepper spray and shot them with less-lethal projectile weapons. Even less confrontational tactics have resulted in violence against prisoners. Correction officers at Rikers pepper-sprayed eight prisoners in March for trying to check their temperatures at a clinic inside the jail. A prisoner at a federal detention facility in Louisiana was pepper-sprayed and handcuffed for objecting to sick prisoners being put back into general population. As of early April, five prisoners had died at the same facility.
Police Brutally and Recklessly Enforce Public Health Measures
Much like the negligent and harmful treatment of prisoners and immigrants, policing practices during the pandemic have defied common sense and put countless people at greater risk. Whether enforcing public health measures like social distancing or responding to political protests, the controversial “broken windows” policing approach has been used during the pandemic by criminalizing people and enforcing low-level violations in heavy-handed and racist ways that reflect the existing problems of day-to-day policing in the US.
In early May, images circulated widely on social media illustrating the uneven policing happening across NYC. Some images show members of the New York Police Department (NYPD) handing out masks to White people in crowded NYC parks, and arresting no one. By contrast, videos have also circulated of brutal arrests in Black and Latinx neighborhoods over social distancing. The Brooklyn district attorney released statistics around the same time that further underscored disparities in policing. Out of 40 people arrested for social-distancing violations between March 17 and May 4, thirty-five people were Black, four were Latinx, and one was White.
In late March, the NYPD arrested three people under questionable circumstances despite promises from city officials at the time to fine people, at most, for social distancing violations. After escalating the situation, drawing a crowd, and creating an even greater public health risk, police pepper sprayed and grabbed people in the vicinity without using protective gear, despite more than a thousand NYPD officers testing positive for COVID-19 up to that point. The three people were charged with obstructing governmental administration, unlawful assembly, and disorderly conduct.
Thousands of NYPD officers have been dispatched in recent weeks to parks, streets, and subways ostensibly to enforce public health orders. According to the New York Times and data provided by the NYPD, between March 16 and May 5, police made at least 120 arrests and issued nearly 500 summonses across the city for what police say are social-distancing violations. Black people made up 68 percent of those arrests, and Latinx people made up 24 percent. Summonses were also disproportionately handed out by police, with more than 80 percent issued to Black and Latinx people.
In Philadelphia, several police officers forcibly removed a Black passenger from a public bus, dragging him off for not wearing a mask. Instead of just providing the man with a mask, police acted abusively and recklessly, putting the passenger and others at risk of infection. After a video of the April incident went viral, the transit authority said it would no longer enforce its policy requiring passengers to use face masks.
Police Crack Down on Social Justice Protesters
In a similarly uneven and selective approach to enforcing public health measures, police are cracking down on social justice demonstrations—criminalizing protesters, and enforcing social distancing in haphazard, reckless, and dangerous ways—while leaving alone numerous demonstrations of rightwing activists protesting stay-at-home orders in multiple states.
In response to a 30-car protest outside of the Otay Mesa Detention Center in solidarity with the mistreated and poorly-protected immigrant population held at the facility, police cited three people and charged them with unlawful use of a horn, having no proof of insurance, and violating the state’s stay-at-home order. By contrast, no arrests occurred when hundreds of people—brandishing automatic weapons, confederate flags, and swastikas—descended on the Michigan State Capitol to protest the governor’s stay-at-home order.
On May Day, people across the country mobilized around housing and economic issues that have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Protesters in California were calling for a statewide moratorium on rent, mortgage, and utility payments. Housing activists in San Francisco organized a car caravan that traversed the city and eventually arrived at a vacant house where two un-housed people took refuge. In response, more than a dozen police officers blocked access to the house for hours, cleared protesters from the street, and shut down the entire block. Both would-be occupants of the vacant house were cited by police, and at least one protester was aggressively arrested. In Austin, Texas, police disrupted a May Day rent strike protest and arrested more than twenty people, charging them with obstructing a highway and criminal trespassing.
NYC Mayor de Blasio banned all outdoor First Amendment activity in early May and gave police the discretion to arrest people who gather in large groups, even if they wear masks and follow distancing guidelines. One of the city’s first enforcement actions was to shut down a press conference organized by the LGBTQ coalition Reclaim Pride, protesting the partnership between the Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital and Samaritan’s Purse. Police called the gathering unlawful, threatened to arrest those present—including members of the media—and demanded that people immediately disperse, despite their compliance with public health orders.
Seizing Opportunities to Achieve Systemic Change in the Time of COVID-19
In addition to exposing negligence and public health deficiencies in the US, the coronavirus pandemic has drawn greater attention to the racist and repressive actions carried out by the state on a daily basis. Whether one looks at mass incarceration and its tragic consequences, the widespread punitive and violent policing practices that target people of color, or the repression consistently levied against left activists and social justice movements, COVID-19 has underscored the varied and harmful forms of state control.
If there are any silver linings to the devastating public health and economic crises in which we find ourselves, it is the disruption to the status quo and the opportunity to make fundamental changes to the ways we organize and govern ourselves. As we come to grips with the need for new forms of resistance and how best to leverage our collective strength in this moment, we should be looking for strategic points of intervention that will allow us to leverage that strength to achieve systemic change.
Calls for decarceration and prison abolition are growing. Even policing, which has deep roots in the US, is increasingly seen as a tool of social control that we’d be better off without. Dismantling the carceral/police state has been a top priority for people of color-led social movements for many years. We must build on this foundation as we recover from COVID-19 and ensure that we don’t simply return to “normal.”