What Protests Look Like in a Time of Social Distancing

Organizers are getting creative as it becomes dangerous and even illegal in some places to gather in large groups.
Protesters from a group called 'Pause the System' wear hazmat suits as they demonstrate outside Downing Street in London.
Protesters from a group called 'Pause the System' wear hazmat suits as they demonstrate outside Downing Street in London. Photo by Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images.

On Sunday, after organizing efforts led by Never Again Action—one of a few American Jewish activist groups dedicated to freeing immigrants from ICE detention camps—nearly a hundred cars gathered outside of the Hudson County Detention Center in New Jersey to demand the release of detained immigrants during the coronavirus pandemic. The cars drove around the building honking and displaying signs advocating for the detained people inside. Mindful of COVID-19 prevention guidelines, the group advised protesters to come in cars only with people they were already living with and to stay inside their vehicles.


In the two months since the novel coronavirus appeared in the U.S., hospitals have experienced extreme shortages in necessary equipment and supplies, record numbers of people have lost their jobs, and the government has yet to pass a relief bill. The result is a country frustrated and suffering from systems that have proven unreliable in a time of crisis.

Usually, when a growing number of people in the U.S. gravely oppose their government’s actions—or inaction—they take to the streets to voice their concerns and demand change. But with public gatherings now considered dangerous and even illegal in some places, activists and organizers are facing unprecedented challenges—and have been forced to get creative.

Nadine Bloch, the training director of activist network Beautiful Trouble who’s been an organizer since the 1980s, summed it up like this: “The coronavirus has pulled back the veil on the apocalyptic moment we live in and the incredible failure of our system, the inability of our capitalist system to take care of people,” she said. “And so in this moment, more people are being made aware that the system doesn't work for many, many people in the world.”

With the health and safety of their volunteers to worry about, in addition to those in ICE custody, activist groups like Never Again Action must rely on no-contact methods of organizing for the foreseeable future.

On the same day as the car protest in New Jersey, Never Again Action organized a projection on the side of the JFK Federal Building in Boston demanding Governor Charlie Baker use his emergency powers to release ICE detainees in order to save them from the coronavirus. “Anne Frank died of an infectious disease in a crowded detention center,” read the projection. “Governor Baker, release everyone in ICE detention before it’s too late.”


“Banner action or large scale projections only require a few people who can take appropriate health precautions,” said Never Again Action Campaign Director Stephen Lurie, “but they are powerful reminders that action is still possible outside of our homes.”


Image by Amanda Zimmerman. Courtesy of Never Again Action.

Never Again Action is known for organizing crowded sit-ins at ICE facilities—and businesses, like Amazon, that work with ICE. Elizabeth Weinbloom, a volunteer with the group, explained that putting their advocacy on hold wasn’t an option in large part because the coronavirus pandemic actually increases the urgency of freeing those detained by ICE. “Conditions [inside ICE detention centers] are incredibly crowded, unsanitary, and unsafe with very little medical access,” she told VICE. “We saw that the risk right now is that when this virus gets into detention centers—and that is a when not an if—it's going to run like wildfire.”

Survived and Punished New York, a prison abolition group that focuses on freeing survivors of sexual and domestic violence, has also seen the urgency of their work increase due to COVID-19. In many prisons, incarcerated people are forced to pay for soap, meaning many of them are forced to go without, despite CDC guidelines that encourage more handwashing to prevent the spread of the virus.

“The coronavirus has launched Survived and Punished NY's organizing into rapid response as we seek to get money, hygiene products, and other necessities to our comrades inside before prisons and package rooms lock down,” said Eliza Petty, a member of the mutual aid working group with Survived and Punished New York. Two weeks ago, the group launched a fundraiser with the goal of shipping 10 bars of soap to as many incarcerated people as possible. After partnering with other groups, Survived and Punished was able to raise over $30,000.


While freeing criminalized survivors of domestic and sexual violence still remains a demand of the organization, Petty said that it was crucial for the group to shift its focus to the immediate needs of incarcerated people during the pandemic in a way that is safe for organizers, volunteers, and supporters.

As advocacy groups learn to adapt to new safe methods and tactics that still make an impact, Lurie says that it is the work of long-time organizers like Bloch that groups like Never Again Action have relied on and built on to get through this pandemic. Last week, Bloch and social change strategist Rae Abileah wrote a guide to activism during a pandemic that encouraged people to get creative with their organizing. They suggest holding rallies via livestream, placing signs in your windows, and even hologram protests. Many other resources, like this packet from David Solnit, have been shared widely for free as advocates work across organizations and neighborhoods during the pandemic.

"The coronavirus has pulled back the veil on the apocalyptic moment we live in and the incredible failure of our system, the inability of our capitalist system to take care of people."

Despite the fear and hopelessness that the coronavirus has caused, Bloch said a crisis like this is exactly the time to get more involved in advocacy, even if it does require a little imagination.

“We want people to understand that in this moment, all is not lost,” she said. “In fact, you know, that old saying, In every crisis, there's an opportunity? The opportunity here is that we build or we rejigger our systems to actually serve people.”

According to Eric Thurm, another organizer with Never Again Action, people are heeding Bloch’s call. “This crisis has grown our movement,” he said. “Dozens of new folks are plugging in onto every call. People from all corners of New York, from seasoned organizers to people with no experience, are rising to the challenge as the pandemic makes the truth clear: our government sees detained immigrants as expendable.”