Marching for Public Health, Not In Spite of It

By Isabella Marin | isabella.marinquintero@yale.edu

A crowd of protesters facing the police in New York City. Image courtesy of Johannes Eisele/Getty Images and the New York Post.


The summer of 2020 was unlike any other. From buying groceries to studying, the pandemic has made many things harder, including expressing calls for change through protest. Last summer, many Americans were fighting two wars, one with COVID-19 and the other with systemic racism. While these often feel like distinct battles, they are not unrelated; COVID-19 disproportionately affected people of color, reflecting the health disparities that can result from systemic racism.

After the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter protests broke out in the city, in the rest of the country, and even around the world. The millions of people who turned to the streets were not just protesting the unjust murder of an unarmed Black man by the police officer who pinned him down. Floyd was the latest victim to fall to the systemic racism that has characterized American police forces since their roots as slave patrols that evolved into the modern police. Many studies have found ample evidence of systemic racism in the police, such as the finding by the National Bureau for Economic Research that white officers called to Black neighborhoods fire their weapons five times more often than Black officers for the same type of calls. It is this type of long-standing discrimination and oppression that fueled the national protests. While the last decade was no stranger to BLM protests, the movement in 2020 was unlike any other because it rose out of the many murders that closely followed each other. Andre Hill, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Manuel Ellis, and Daniel Prude are among those who were killed at the hands of the police last year, their deaths catalyzing the movement.

Even in this new environment, the virus did not seem to stop protesters. The 2020 BLM protests were some of the biggest activist movements in history, the largest estimate of participants approximating 26 million people in the US. As Yale Law Professor and Co-Director of the Global Health Justice Partnership Alice Miller pointed out, while a push for internet usage during the pandemic has increased connectivity and access to leaders, internet activism is often considered to be far less effective than in-person events in reaching the public masses. According to Caroline Reed, a Yale student who attended several BLM protests in New York City during the summer of 2020, the presence of online events is easy to ignore as all you need to do is click away, while ignoring a march occurring right outside your window is significantly harder. Peyton Sias, another Yale student who attended a BLM protest in Lafayette, LA, thinks that the pandemic did not hinder the effects of the movement. She said, “The pandemic provided context because it disproportionately killed people of color, so it provided protests with a sense of urgency along with videos of Black men being murdered, which turned ambivalence to politically active.” Organizers recognized the importance of speaking out during the pandemic, so COVID-19 was an obstacle they overcame.

To demand change, activists had to navigate these new circumstances, but the same challenge fell on local governments when responding to the protests. In this country, protesting is a right enshrined in the first amendment of the Bill of Rights, which protects the freedoms of speech, assembly, and petition of the government. While conversations around human rights are not often the focus in American politics, protecting the right to protest became a critical concern when the pandemic forced the ban of large gatherings. What it means to uphold the right to protest changed during the era of COVID. Endangering protesters directly contradicts respecting the right to protest; when a contagious virus that spreads quickly in large crowds threatens protests, public health must be part of the civil rights conversation.

On the surface, the gathering of protesters would seem to be the last thing needed during a pandemic. Reed and her parents were concerned for her safety at protests but she decided that the urgency of the cause trumped those fears. In the end, there was no real cause for significant COVID-related concerns; almost all of the protesters she encountered were wearing masks and while social distancing was basically impossible, she never got COVID from attending these marches. Sias also mentioned that all the protesters attending the march in Lafayette were masked and organizers had hand sanitizers available. These are not isolated cases. A study performed by the Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers Universities that covered nearly 40,000 protesters nationwide found that BLM protests were not responsible for spikes in COVID-19 cases. Masked protesters in outdoor spaces have been proven to not pose a significant danger in this pandemic.

While BLM protests did not cause COVID-19 spikes, local governments still considered the protests in the context of public health to varying degrees across the country. In some cities, like Minneapolis, governments were supportive of the protests and worked with the community to make them as safe as possible. According to the Minneapolis City Health Department, the local government made an effort to reach out to the community through their Shared Power Advisory Committee, which includes trusted community leaders, and received their input for decisions regarding the protests. Josh Peterson, one of multiple city Health Department staff interviewed for this article, conveyed the department’s commitment to supporting the protests when he said, “This pandemic is happening concurrently with the pandemic of racism, if not another epidemic of state violence or police violence as well. It is important to recognize that it is impossible to take those things apart. So, when we think about how to respond to this from a public health perspective, we understand that the response needs to really integrate all of those things.” Because the pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color, the city sought to distribute resources like masks to protesters to make sure that everyone was able to protest safely. The State Office of Civil Rights provided the city Health Department with 50,000 masks to distribute. They handed those out and promoted the use of masks through trusted community partners because their status as Minneapolis city employees made it hard for the people to trust them. However, while the Mayor’s Office received recommendations from the Health Department, COVID-19-related public health considerations were not always at the center of all protest protocols.

During the pandemic, public administration was particularly hectic and decisions about the protests in Minneapolis were sometimes made without advice from the city Health Department. The police department’s lack of communication with the city Health Department is particularly concerning. The Health Department was not consulted about decisions regarding the curfew or the police response to the protests. Additionally, while some in the city Health Department expressed concerns about the use of chemical irritants to respond to protesters because of the threat this may pose during the pandemic of a respiratory disease, this never reached higher levels within their local government. This may explain one of the biggest inconsistencies when it comes to understanding BLM protests through the scope of public health. Reed mentioned that the only people she saw at the protest not wearing masks were police officers. She saw them jamming people tightly into cars and vans after they were arrested. In Minneapolis, arrests and the use of tear gas were commonplace even though incarceration and pulmonary irritation exacerbate the situation. Sven Eric Jordt, a Duke professor who studies the effects of tear gas, called its use during the current public health crisis a “recipe for disaster”. While many city Health Departments like the one in Minneapolis have made their commitment to supporting safe protests clear, this is partly contradicted by the insufficient influence of the city Health Department and the irresponsible actions taken to police protesters. The lack of funding for public health departments may be partially to blame, as this reduces their manpower and their ability to shape some aspects of policy, such as law enforcement tactics, that critically need public health insight, especially during the pandemic.

A Black Lives Matter Protest in Minneapolis. Image courtesy of Stephen Maturen/Getty Images and CNN.

A politically skewed narrative of the protests can also affect how much protesting is respected. The narrative surrounding the protests has not always been shaped by scientific studies. State and local leaders have warned against attending protests because of the danger this may pose during the pandemic. Some, like Mayor Bill de Blasio, made these announcements around the time that CDC Director Robert Redfield warned against the potential of protests as superspreader events and before the studies that found that BLM protests did not create spikes, while others, like Governor Brian Kemp, made those claims despite the findings of experts. The media has also played a role in characterizing the public health impact of the protests. Some news networks like Fox News have continued to claim that BLM protests led to infection spikes even when city officials make no such statements. This differs significantly from their coverage of a Back the Blue rally, where the pandemic was not even mentioned. This demonstrates how much the political and media narratives surrounding the protests have been shaped by political leanings rather than just scientific data.

As public health experts Julia Marcus and Gregg Gonsalves pointed out, these leaders also failed to consider that BLM protests affect public health in ways other than their influence on COVID transmission rates. According to their op-ed, the systemic racism that Black Americans struggle against has serious health effects. Black Americans have higher rates of illness, lower life expectancy, and are less likely to be insured than white Americans, resulting in more than 80,000 excess deaths among Black Americans every year. The people marching in the street were not just protesting for the end of police brutality, they aimed to target systemic racism in all aspects of American life. They were marching for their lives, not putting more lives at risk. This inspired over 1,200 public health professionals to release a letter in support of the protests as important for improving national health. Explaining their position, these experts wrote, “We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States. We can show that support by facilitating safest protesting practices without detracting from demonstrators' ability to gather and demand change.”

Protests have given rise to questions about civil rights, but the pandemic and its related restrictions brought the issue to the forefront. It also highlighted the importance of considering public health in all types of questions including policy, civil rights, and corresponding media narratives, not only how it is being threatened, but also what actions are being taken in its name. This is no less true in New Haven, a city that continues to see protests and that needs to keep this framework in mind because of its significant racial and health-related discrepancies, and as COVID-19 continues to pose a big threat. With massive cuts for public health departments around the country, the improving COVID-19 situation must not be followed by allowing public health to go back into the shadows since health is one of the most critical human rights. Instead this should serve as the wake-up call that makes public health an even bigger factor in policymaking.


Writer's Reflection

While I eventually was able to protest in the name of BLM, I was stuck at home during the summer of 2020 because my parents were too scared for my well-being to allow me to go to a protest. Their fears and my confusion about the motivation behind some local responses to protests, like the curfew instituted in my hometown, made me curious about how the context of the pandemic affected protest protocols, political tactics, and the movement for social justice. Through writing this article, I learned a lot about what local decision-making was like during the pandemic, including that some local governments and officials took more steps than I had expected to support safe protesting. To write this piece, I consulted Yale Law and Public Health Professor Alice Miller to point me in the right direction. I mostly relied on articles from the summer of 2020 in addition to interviews with the Minneapolis Health Department and a couple of protesters. As a result, the article fails to cover all the perspectives involved in these events. I was also unable to describe how procedures differed across the country since there were so many different localities with different policies, so this article does not paint a picture of what it was like everywhere in the US. However, it does explore a general idea using Minneapolis as the main case study to reveal the effect the pandemic had on protests, policies, and civil rights as well as the need for increased spending on public health and for better integration of Health Departments with other branches of local government, especially when it comes to civil policy and law enforcement.