Teddy Palmore '23
In the midst of a global pandemic, thousands of protesters marched towards the Capitol. Only nine days earlier, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by a police officer. Two months prior, Breonna Taylor was murdered by police in her home. And three months before, Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by a former police officer and his son on a morning jog. At the time, the perpetrators of the homicides of Floyd and Taylor remained free and employed. Resounding chants of “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE” echoed off the buildings of downtown DC, demanding immediate systemic reform to the institutions that have oppressed minorities since our nation’s inception. I marched, chanted, and shouted, the whole time in awe of the power that radiated from the crowd. The U.S. was, by then, the global epicenter of the novel coronavirus. Yet, this was but one of many protests that continue to take place to this day.
The presence of the pandemic begs the question: how is gathering thousands of people in the streets safe even during a pandemic? First of all, mask compliance at protests has been remarkably high. Second, physical distancing is still possible even when in large crowds. On top of this, the vast majority of protests have been taking place outdoors, which greatly reduces the risk of transmitting COVID-19. In fact, there is little evidence that any major outbreaks of the virus were associated with these protests. Of course, even with all of these factors, there is still a chance of COVID infection, but many protestors understandably do not care. Fighting for equality has always had its risks.
The protests were largely peaceful, although some devolved into riots. At first, many people, myself included, were uncomfortable with the chaos, especially as shops and restaurants in D.C. were affected. Many saw the burned buildings in Minneapolis and had trouble understanding why such a thing would happen. As I thought about why the protests were happening, I understood better why the riots were happening. This was not needless violence, but the culmination of decades of appeals falling on deaf ears. I thought of Martin Luther King’s words: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” These riots were products of fury. I began to gain some understanding of the massive societal overhaul necessary to end this systematic racial oppression and of the justified anger so many feel about this oppression.
Since before the birth of our nation, rioting and protesting have been glorified. In the years leading up to 1776, there were riots aplenty in British America. There were countless rebellions of enslaved people in the 1800s. Women’s rights activists held numerous protests from 1776 onward. During the civil rights movement, of course, there were hundreds of riots and thousands of protests, as millions fought for equality and justice for black people. All of these riots were voices of unheard people. After each of these periods of unrest, change happened. The US declared independence, enslaved people were freed, women were granted suffrage, and Black people were (supposedly) finally given equality.
Protesting during a global pandemic is not only understandable, but acceptable. The success of protesting, and even rioting, throughout history provide more than enough reason to march, even during a pandemic. In the past, much more so than today, protestors’ lives were in danger. Enslaved people would surely be whipped, mutilated, and killed if caught building a rebellion. During the Civil Rights Movement, protestors were thrown into jail, and brutally beaten while prominent figures in the protests were assassinated or had their homes bombed. Protesting has never been risk-free, and this remains true today. Should legislators pass the reforms necessary to fix the structure of American society, the presence of racial equality in the U.S. will have been well worth the risk.