Thursday, June 4, was a hot, sunny afternoon in New York with multiple protests taking place throughout the city in response to the death of George Floyd and racist policing practices nationwide.
In a Manhattan park, I watched as a 60-something white man stood at the edge of a demonstration with a Black Lives Matter sign, wearing a mask and carefully observing social distancing protocols, and politely asked an un-masked police officer to step back a little bit to a safer distance. The officer, along with two other un-masked officers, had been walking around the edge of the crowd and paused near the man; when he asked them to step back, they instead stepped closer, and another officer who heard the request walked past the man so closely that they almost touched.
In fact, few of the officers I saw at the park that afternoon, or during any other demonstration during the week of June 1, wore masks or observed social distancing with each other—never mind anyone else.
When protests erupted in late May, health officials and epidemiologists began to express concern about the potential for demonstrations to result in a wave of new COVID-19 infections. The public discourse regarding risk has focused on the actions of protesters and on demonstrations as intrinsically dense spaces with high risk for viral transmission—with less said about the police as significant sources of either risk or risk reduction.
As a sociologist who specializes in public health and harm reduction, I have seen activists in the streets of New York City engage in an array of strategies to reduce risk, while police casually violate public health protocols, including those currently mandated for all essential workers and city employees while on the job.
Police throughout the country have engaged in significant levels of violence since protests began at the end of May, including the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, mass arrests of peaceful demonstrators, and detaining arrestees under crowded conditions. These assaults and violations of human rights have (appropriately) received significant attention from journalists—although the epidemiological risks of tear gas and arrest, in particular, have often been overlooked.
But even when all goes well, the police routinely violate the day to day precautions that limit community spread of COVID-19, and determine the dynamics of safety and risk in public gatherings of all kinds.
From a public health perspective, one of the striking aspects of the recent wave of demonstrations across the country has been the relatively low levels of use of masks or social distancing among uniformed police officers in and around demonstrations. The immediate risk, of course, is to each other as they stand around in tight clusters passing the time.
But the risk extends to all protesters or other community members with whom they come in contact. Officers may use face shields during violent encounters, but few of them wear masks or routine face coverings of any kind. In New York City, at least, officers at times use protesters’ concerns about COVID-19 as a way to engage in harassment or intimidation through the deliberate exacerbation of risk—as seen in the story at the opening of this article.
Viewed as a whole, the actions of the police elevate epidemiological risks; officers who are not wearing masks or taking other routine risk reduction measures then amplify the potential for viral transmission when they move in on demonstrators to control a rally or march or arrest participants, even when no explicit violence occurs.
In contrast, activists in New York City have developed an array of risk reduction practices that could be of use throughout the country or the world.
At the most basic level, the majority of people at the demonstrations I have attended in or near the city wear masks fairly consistently. In addition, at most events there are people offering hand sanitizer and masks to those who need them, as well as water and snacks to offset the lack of access to stores or street venders. A tactical shift towards extended marches with evolving routes may have emerged in response to the police, but it has harm reduction elements in relation to COVID-19, as a constantly moving outdoor procession will organically allow more distance between marchers and hence more diffusion of exposure than a stationary rally.
Activists have also developed creative and community-building strategies for risk reduction, particularly the use of rhythmic hand claps as an alternative to mass chanting. Any form of strong or forceful verbal expression, such as chanting and singing, is likely to expel droplets some distance and consequently increase the potential to spread virus. But a good chant is naturally rhythmic, and activists in New York City have developed a practice in which a chant emerges and many people quickly adopt a clapping pattern to carry the rhythm, enabling collective expression without the potential for transmission from hundreds or thousands of people chanting together.
There are valid reasons to be concerned about mass protests emerging during an ongoing pandemic, but the discourse must shift to recognize the systematic violation of public health mandates by police, even in the absence of violence and arrests, as well as harm reduction practices within the protest movement. If there’s a resurgence of the virus in late June, contact tracers may well find that exposure to the police plays a significant role.