Last month, when protestors took to the streets to march in solidarity for Black Lives Matter and demanding that local governments shrink police budgets, I was admittedly conflicted and dealing with personal guilt. Not because of message of the protests. I have stood firmly with that and will continue to do so. Instead, I was nervous because of COVID-19.
On the evening of the first protests in Chicago, the night when the Emergency Alert System texts first went out enforcing a curfew, I was feeling conflicted. I scrolled through my social media feeds, looking at photos and watching videos of friends who had protested or who were sharing protest content from around the country. I wanted to be out there standing in solidarity elevating black voices and marching, but I was concerned about catching COVID-19 from being in a large group after spending months socially distancing. Of course, I had seen posts online highlighting ways to show support for the message behind the protests from the safety of quarantine. However, it did not feel the same.
Eventually, not long after, I did join my first protest. Although, it was purely by chance. I went for a walk after work through Uptown because I had heard businesses in the area were boarding up to discourage looting and vandalism. Uptown is not far from me, but I had not walked through the area in a while. Instead I had been staying in my own neighborhood for afternoon walks.
I was making my way through Uptown in the direction of Boystown when I found myself facing the front of a protest that was making its way where I had just come from. I later heard that a protest had been planned for this area, but it was such a surprise at the time. I stood on the sidewalk, letting the people march through, and cheered from the sidelines. Eventually, after working up the courage regarding my fears of catching COVID-19, I marched with them doing my best to socially distance.
During the whole time, I was anxious. I could not hear the speakers well, so I moved towards the outskirts and observed. I watched police silently observe the protests, various activists passionately and emotionally engaging with officers, people walking around handling supplies, and others who were their own part of this living, breathing community organism. It was fascinating to observe, and I found myself more at ease with thing. After the speeches, the protests moved to Lake Shore Drive where it ended peacefully and people dispersed. I found myself walking a mile north on the southbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive feeling good about myself, and a bit thrilled that I was walking on Chicago’s signature coastal expressway with no cars in sight. While that was my first protest since the murder of George Floyd, it was not my last and I have joined others intentionally. Albeit, with COVID-19 still a considerable concern.
Though, with all the new data tracking the rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, it has been determined by experts and various health organizations that the protests did not contribute to the overall rise in cases. Specifically, because protestors were largely masked and were marching outdoors. Instead, the data shows that the drivers for the rise in cases is due to groups gatherings indoors, not wearing masks, and not socially distancing. All factors that have stemmed from prematurely reopening businesses with few to no restrictions. Looking at the data, we have just as many new cases in mid-June as we did in March and we have seen the record for new cases recorded in a single day broken for five consecutive days. We have seemingly made no progress and despite everything we have experienced as a society, a lot of people do not seem to care.
As a result of this, states that had essentially reopened are now closing again as new reports come in tracking the rise in cases. States currently going through this issue have been largely conservative states like Texas and Florida. However, I wonder when Illinois will be the next to tighten restrictions again. Living in Chicago, there are restaurants with patio seating everywhere and, as we enter the fourth phase of the state’s five-phase plan, more businesses like movie theaters are slowly reopening. All this makes me extremely uncomfortable for I have no plans to dine in restaurants or go to the cinema until I am confident COVID-19 is on its way out. However, it appears many Americans are not willing to sacrifice convenience and entertainment for a few months to ensure we all collectively get out of this alive and together.
Though the news media coverage has been recently focused on the rise of COVID-19 cases, protestors are still marching for racial justice and defunding police. And I know they will continue to do so because we are actively witnessing a contemporary reflection of America’s inherent dichotomy. While unarmed black people are getting murdered by police, white people are throwing tantrums because they must wear a mask in Trader Joe’s or cannot get shredded cheese for their restaurant fajitas. While the mainstream news media shifts airtime away from the protests, I am still confident in the movement’s drive and passion.
This imbalance, where on one side people are fighting for the right not to be murdered and the other is demanding a haircut, has me thinking a lot about classic Curtis Mayfield song “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.” Released in 1970 to support his debut album Curtis, Mayfield’s first single as a solo-credited musician is a powerful declaration about racial injustice in America and the growing furor over it in America cities. Looking at the news 50 years after the song’s release, there is still that civil and social unrest over racial injustice in American cities. And it seems those who do not care, the ones demanding for their right to brunch, largely reside in rural or suburban areas. Two separate Americas with two sperate visions.
In the song, Mayfield sings about inaction as people pray for things to improve but who lay down when it is time to act. While the original context of the song specifically refers to racial matters, I cannot help but think about those who talk about COVID-19 as if it is something that cannot be stopped. Those who do not think about how their own selfish behavior has contributed to ongoing COVID-19 crisis, but instead attempt to find a scapegoat in the protestors they vilify. The ones who are actually actively doing something to make the world a better place while also not driving the worsening the pandemic.
The people who do not care about COVID-19 or racial injustice take their direction from Trump. The president is actively hindering the COVID-19 response because of the impact it is having on his reelection campaign. He is moving to cease federal funding for testing, eliminate the federal unemployment bonus, and encouraging governors to open their state to boost the economy. In the song, Mayfield chastises then President Richard Nixon quoting him saying “don’t worry” as a response to concerns about polluted water and lack of essential education. That was 1970. Now, in 2020, instead of “don’t worry,” it is Trump saying, “slow the testing down.” Everything old is new again and history repeats itself. And unless we change things, we are all going to burn together.