News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

March 19, 2020

Beware a police solution to the coronavirus

By Craig Johnson

The novel coronavirus outbreak spreading across the world is a crisis unlike any seen in for decades. Overcoming it will require sacrifice, solidarity, and social unity. The last thing we need is increased racial profiling or mass arrests, but that’s exactly what is being threatened under the “shelter in place” order. We need a response to this crisis that does not expand the carceral state and doesn’t target our most vulnerable neighbors.

As of midnight on March 17, the seven counties of the San Francisco Bay Area began the most extensive shutdown in the US in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The shelter in place order calls on residents to remain in their homes for the next three weeks, with only travel for work in “essential” industries, shopping for vital supplies, and caring for loved ones allowed (characteristically for the Bay Area, hiking is also permitted). Violations of the order are being enforced by local police and sheriff’s departments, and are “punishable by fines, imprisonment, or both.”

These counties join several other major metropolitan areas and European and East Asian countries in legislating calls to limit human contact in the interest of public safety. Italy extended a lockdown of its northern provinces to include the entire country. France ordered that all businesses close, and is permitting residents to leave their homes only if they carry a legally binding document swearing that they are on necessary errand, like purchasing food or medicine. All of these measures are being enforced by the police.

There are serious epidemiological reasons to support these drastic steps. Since there is no vaccine and no clear path to treating COVID-19, social distancing is our best strategy for combating the growth of infections. It’s proven effective during previous global pandemics, such as the 1918 – 1919 flu pandemic, and has been working in China and South Korea, where similar or stricter measures have been in place for months. In a better and more just world, we could wholeheartedly welcome these policies as the best way to protect our friends, families, and communities.

But we don’t live in that world yet. Instead, we know that the government bodies enforcing these rules are some of the most corrupt, violent, racist, and otherwise discriminatory in our country. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, for example, has an extensive history of over-policing people of color, and as the origin of the Urban Shield program it competes with the NYPD and LAPD as the epicenter of police militarization

Granting police and sheriffs the power to stop people in the street, demand to know where they are going, and jail them if they are unsatisfied with the answer represents a massive potential danger to the safety of millions. The history of policing in the United States, and the histories of the particular law enforcement bodies tasked with enforcing this measure, tell us that we can expect police to selectively apply these laws to precisely the people who are most vulnerable to this crisis — people of color and the economically precarious — people who are already marginalized even in the best of times. These dangers will be even greater if martial law were introduced in the state to enforce quarantines and social distancing. We must ensure these measures don’t permanently transform our society for the worse.

At the very least we should demand that the lockdown not be enforceable by jail time, given that our prison and jail systems are already overwhelmed and incapable of handling inmates’ needs (from social distancing to basic sanitation and mental health protections). But we need more than that. The only way to overcome and heal from this crisis is to turn to solidarity and cooperation in the face of the pandemic. Social distancing and quarantines are a part of that process, along with safe and responsible mutual aid for our neighbors and everyone in our communities. Incarceration and our racist police and prison systems, on the other hand, will only exacerbate tensions and divisions in our society at the very moment we need to work together. 

On a structural level, this crisis calls for us to reverse rather than deepen the already deadly inequalities in our society. Governments at the local, state, and federal levels must suspend foreclosures and evictions, extend sick leave and hazard pay to those whose jobs are affected by the crisis, and create a national, single-payer healthcare system to give us the tools we need to respond to this crisis and the next one. The misery and deaths being caused by this crisis show that our current system is unsustainable. We need to build a better world, one where we work together to make sure everyone’s needs are met.