A white woman calls police on a young, Black Bahamian man she perceives as breaching social distancing protocols in Halifax, Nova Scotia, leading to his arrest and potential exposure to COVID-19 through contact with the officer and others at the police station. Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, an associate professor of community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University and witness to the event, reports that when she protested the officer’s actions, he told her that social distancing did not apply to law enforcement officers.
In a predominantly Black New York City neighbourhood, a woman out with her boyfriend reports being tear gassed, arrested, and forced into a filthy cell with two dozen other women and no soap for 36 hours. Now her employer won’t allow her back to work for fears she has been exposed.
In a matter of days, politicians in both Canada and the U.S. quickly switched from reassuring us that “we’re all in this together”—claiming friendly neighbourhood police officers would simply be gently reminding people to stay six feet apart—to threatening “aggressive enforcement” of public health guidance through ID checks, tickets carrying steep fines, and arrests.
Fines may seem at first blush to be a measured approach to enforcement of “stay at home” and other emergency orders, and a good alternative to arrest. But, as with speeding and parking tickets, they are likely to be disproportionately issued to Black and brown, unhoused, and no-and low-income people. Steep fines of up to $10,000 are being meted out amid the financial devastation COVID-19 has unleashed: record unemployment claims, little or no relief for renters and homeowners, and food banks bursting at the seams.
Ticketing also contributes to increased risk of transmission, as officers come into close contact with people to hand over ID and issue tickets. In Puerto Rico, organizers report that officers ticketing drivers on the road during curfews are in some cases seizing vehicles. While driving alone is an effective means of social distancing, having to make your way home or go about your daily life without your car might not be.
Arrests for violations of public health orders carry even more immediate dangers, bringing officers, who have some of the highest rates of infection in New York City and elsewhere, into close contact with people, and funnelling them into local jails where social distancing is impossible, soap and running water are in limited supply, and sanitizer, masks, and other protective equipment are contraband. It’s hard to imagine a more counterintuitive and twisted approach to reducing transmission.
And yet, that is exactly what is happening. Arrests of homeless people walking alone for curfew violations, of pedestrians for violating park closure rules and of drivers for failing to obey traffic restrictions, and of anyone simply deemed to be engaged in a “non-essential activity.”
Disparities in enforcement, whether it’s “stop and frisk” or “carding,” are clear. Snowbirds returning to Canada, students returning from spring break, and wealthy denizens fleeing metropolises to isolate in rural areas have all been significant vectors of the virus, yet not criminalized. White joggers, bikers, lovers, and friends in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwoods brazenly violate social distancing, while Black youth playing alone in parks, workers, and families in public spaces face harassment and threats of law enforcement by white neighbours, and aggressive orders to disperse, tickets, pepper spray, and cuffs from officers that put them further at risk of becoming infected with the virus.
Police encounters are often life-changing and potentially life-threatening. From slave patrols to “Starbucks while Black,” policing has long represented a threat to public health for Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ communities, disabled people, and people involved in the sex and drug trades and other informal economies, as acknowledged by the American Public Health Association.
Black people are now weighing the dangers of being perceived as a threat for wearing a mask and for not wearing one.
And public health has long been invoked to justify criminalization, restrictions on migration, incarceration of disabled people, and forced sterilization of people deemed unworthy of parenting. Proximity to Blackness often determines who is considered part of the “public,” whose health is worthy of protection and whose isn’t. Blackness itself has historically been framed as a threat, both to public health and broader society. It is magical thinking to believe that this would suddenly shift during the greatest public health crisis of our time.
Instead, pandemic policing extends and expands pre-existing policing patterns. In a stark reflection of this reality, Black people are now weighing the dangers of being perceived as a threat for wearing a mask as recommended—and, in some jurisdictions, required—and for not wearing one.
The same communities subject to widespread targeting by the police also face the greatest challenges under the orders. Early data from Michigan and Louisiana confirm that the public health crisis posed by COVID-19 is unfolding along enduring racial and economic hierarchies and Black people are dying in grossly disproportionate numbers.
Essential workers, including those in the gig economy, service, and delivery—who are disproportionately poor Black and Brown people—have no choice but to be in public spaces, facing police surveillance and harassment as they travel to the (underpaid) work sustaining the social isolation and relative health of often white middle-class families. Many essential workers, including Black women who disproportionately work as home health aides and nurses, are mandated to do their jobs without adequate protective equipment or the opportunity to practice social distancing. This recreates a longstanding historical injustice that dates back to slavery: the expectation that Black women care for others while being denied the ability to care for themselves and one other.
In addition to essential workers, migrants without status excluded from financial support and people working in informal economies who can’t work from home, also disproportionately Black or people of colour, will also be forced into public spaces to survive, facing steep fines and possible arrest.
Similarly, without more substantive support, single parents, survivors of domestic violence, and people with mental, cognitive disabilities, anxiety, and other conditions may struggle to follow public health orders that don’t take their needs into account, and are often shifting and confusing.
We also need to contend with the reality that a climate of long-standing anti-Blackness has led to an understandable and profound distrust of authorities, who have never had our interests at heart. If we make “public health” in the time of COVID-19 another source of racial regulation and violence, it will further endanger our communities’ collective well-being and our ability to protect ourselves and one another from the virus.
In the face of an unprecedented global public health crisis, we are at a critical crossroads in how we distribute life chances through access to safety, housing, and income, and how we distribute risk, as Christina Sharpe, author of In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, recently emphasized. The choices we make now will have long-ranging consequences that stand to define the post-pandemic world.
It’s time to re-imagine and fight for new conceptions of "public" health that embrace rather than dispose of Black lives.
We can choose to rethink the meaning of safety beyond badges and guns, GPS surveillance, snitch lines, tickets and handcuffs, fines, and cages. We can refuse to once again sacrifice Black lives in the name of (white) public health, whether through disproportionate exposure to the virus, or policing and punishment of the people who are least able to stay home.
It’s both possible and necessary to ensure that public health guidance is not another privilege of the few at the expense of the many. Instead of investing in more policing, ticketing, arrests, and incarceration, we can redirect public funds to where they are urgently needed: paying essential workers a wage that takes the enormity of the risks they and their loved ones face into account, and providing housing, food, and support for unhoused people, migrants, and people released from jails, prisons, and detention centres no matter their citizenship or employment status.
We can fund Black community-based organizations to reach out and support their members. We could train and pay people to staff support lines and deploy community health workers to help people strategize around how to follow public health guidance when their care worker doesn’t show up or their kids are cooped up for too long, or offer tools and support to navigate increased anxiety while living with a disability, or survive an abusive isolation situation. We can invest in workers organizing for safer conditions, and mutual aid networks.
The instinct to demonize, criminalize, and punish people who are perceived as noncompliant with public health orders will only grow as fear, grief, and suffering intensify. It has never in our lifetimes been more important to dream new ways forward to begin to dismantle—and avoid recreating—the catastrophic racial, gendered, economic, and ableist hierarchies that have brought us to this point. It’s time to re-imagine and fight for new conceptions of “public” health that embrace rather than dispose of Black lives.
Robyn Maynard is a PhD student and Vanier scholar at the University of Toronto and the author of Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present.
Andrea J. Ritchie is a researcher with the Interrupting Criminalization initiative at the Barnard Center for Research on Women and the author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color.