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I hope this doesn't get labeled as a bad faith question. I'm genuinely curious what the rationale is for supporting the mass gatherings and protesting following the death of George Floyd, despite previously having supported the social distancing during the pandemic. While I understand these people feel strongly about racism and police brutality, they also felt strongly about the pandemic.

The same pandemic, mind you, which is still on-going, and the number of daily cases has started growing in the US again, after a long period of decline. This may or may not be due to the protests, but either way, the point is that social distancing seems to still be relevant.

enter image description here

What are the reasons cited for this change in stance?

I am primarily interested in reasons offered by US-based politicians and institutions. Any person who fits this description and who went from supporting social distancing to supporting the protests, fits my criteria and their cited response will be a valid answer to my question. I however had not had much luck in finding such an explanation.

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    Also: How many prominent politicians have “endorsed” the protests to the point of calling people to participate in them (as opposed to being broadly supportive of the cause, unwilling to condemn them, or simply arguing that using force to prevent them would be disproportionate or counterproductive)? – Relaxed Jun 21 at 15:37
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    @Relaxed: Exactly. Before asking what arguments were advance by people who endorsed both, the OP might want to determine whether there actually are such people. Then when they've been identified, finding their arguments should be fairly easy :-) – jamesqf Jun 21 at 15:44
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    On Erik's point and my other comment, the reality of mass protests is that crowds are rarely very dense (have you been to one before the pandemic?). Unless you're directly facing a police line (typically at the front of a rally) or make a point of actually holding hands, people typically stand some distance apart. That's especially true if they are marching. Here is a paper with some examples but there is a whole literature on this. – Relaxed Jun 21 at 21:37
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    The question confuses me a little, by "endorsed social distancing" do you mean "not join protests against social distancing"? – Captain Man Jun 23 at 21:37
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    They endorsed social distancing to save lives. They are protesting to save lives. Its is like being in favor of water rationing during a drought, and then also being in favor of using water to put out a fire. It isn't hypocritical or illogical, even if it will make the drought worse. – Shane Jun 24 at 19:53
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The key difference is that as our understanding of COVID-19 has improved, two facts have become clear about its infectivity which reduce the danger of spread during large outdoor protests like the ones that have occured over the killing of George Floyd. This article from Wired provides a good summary of the evidence:

Masks are quite effective at reducing the spread.

Though [Professor Roger] Shapiro supports the protests, he was worried about their potential to seed new chains of infection. So why didn’t they? His hunch is that two things protected protesters against disease transmission more than some scientists expected: wearing masks and being outdoors. “I think we would have seen a very different situation with fewer masks and indoor events,” says Shapiro.

...[A]nalyses of patterns of spread in China and aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship have provided evidence that airborne transmission likely plays an important role.

In order for SARS-CoV-2 to establish an infection inside someone’s lungs, that person must breathe in a sufficient number of viral particles. This “minimum infectious dose” is still unknown for SARS-CoV-2, but researchers suspect it is low. ...

Masks work by reducing the number of infectious viral particles exhaled into the environment. They are not a substitute for social distancing and hand-washing, but the collective evidence makes a strong case for wearing them during a pandemic. Even homemade masks can have a significant effect

Transmission outdoors is vastly less dangerous than transmission indoors

Linsey Marr, a professor of environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and leading expert in the airborne transmission of viruses who has become a trusted advisor to the World Health Organization during the current crisis, says that though there is increasing evidence that masks help reduce the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the outdoor environment also likely plays a large role.

“Outdoors there is so much dilution in the atmosphere that it would be unusual for virus levels to build up in the air,” she wrote WIRED in an email.


And, indeed, due to their outdoor location and high rate of mask, infection rates have, at least so far, remained very low. In Seattle, for example, the positivity rate for tested protestors is only 1%.

Of course, one take away is that many people were likely overestimated the risks of outdoor activity in the early stages, and, in retrospect, things like beach and park closures were likely an overreaction, and perhaps counter-productive.

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    Good answer, but this is more of a hindsight justification. At the time when the protests started, it was widely expected that infections will soon explode due to them. See Cuomo's plead for all protestors to get tested as proof. – JonathanReez Jun 24 at 5:26
  • @JonathanReez Not quite. We've known about these effects for a long time and it's been clear that, if people take proper precautions, an outdoor protest can be done safely. It's not a contradiction to worry that people might not follow those precautions and to highlight the risks to encourage people to be more careful, or to test as part of a standard contact tracing program. – divibisan Jun 24 at 14:31
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I don't know of any politician or institutions that has made an explicit justification, and I'm not certain any have seen a need to. One would only need to offer an explicit justification if one were trying to organize a protest: trying to convince people they should break quarantine and take to the streets. But these protests have largely been organic, spontaneous actions, meaning they were not preplanned over weeks or months, as some protests are. They arose as a group reaction, self-organizing through private and personal communication channels, growing out of a strong, in-common conviction that there is pervasive injustice in the system. No one needed to convince people to come out and protest Floyd's death; people were primed and ready to go. There was a more pressing need to convince them to be peaceful, civil, and to take proper precautions for their health, and politicians/institutions have mostly focussed on the latter issue.

That being said, almost every discussion of the protests and the COVID-19 restrictions carries a broadly understood and implicit justification. Social distancing is meant to curtail non-essential interactions, in order to slow the transmission of the disease to manageable levels. But political actors (with a few notable exceptions, such as our current president) know that protests are an essential part of the US political system. We tolerate protests for the same reasons we tolerate people gathering in hospitals, grocery stores, and polling places: people need to do those activities or things begin to fall apart. Even those who speak out against the protests are (again with exceptions) careful to do so in ways that do not question the fundamental right to assemble politically.

A few people have raised the issue that the protests following George Floyd's death (BLM) were received far better by political leaders than the anti-social-distancing (ASD) protests that had previously occurred around the nation. This is arguably true, but seems beside the point, for two reasons:

  1. No one tried to stop the ASD protests, except through disapproving words and counter-protests: no mayor deployed riot police with military hardware against them, no governor called out the national guard, the president did not threaten to send in military troops to 'dominate' them. Those protests went off peaceably and smoothly in large part because they met no opposition whatsoever. In that sense, the BLM protests were received far worse than the ASD protests.
  2. The moral justifications for the ASD protests were far weaker. The complaints that lay behind these protests were self-centered and scientifically illiterate, arguing that the coronavirus threat isn't 'real' and that social distancing is an unnecessary and intrusive inconvenience. This isn't to suggest it is invalid to voice these complaints, but such complaints are never going to generate sympathetic moral consensus, not on the same level as the complaint that an entire group is subject to systematic oppression by police.
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  • Comments deleted. Please remember that Politics Stack Exchange is not a place to advance opinions or debate. – Philipp Jun 22 at 9:36
  • 1. you equate BLM riots with ASD protests, even though ASD is not even what this question is about. 2. You deny that there have been high-level justifications for the protests, for example by Fauci. 3. You make completely subjective (biased) judgements about what is morally justified and what is essential. You answer doesn't answer the question and includes a bunch of your opinoins on unrelated topics. – user1721135 Aug 4 at 16:47
  • @user1721135: 1. Whether or not this question is about ASD, the comparison is a response to (now-deleted) comments. 2. Fauci never made an explicit justification for the protests (he avoids politics as best he can); can you offer an example of him (or someone) explicitly justifying it? 3. It is not my assessment that public protests are an essential part of the democratic process; blame the Founding Fathers for that. There is no equivalent sense of the 'essentialness' of other public interactions. Sorry, but it seems as though you're the one expressing unsupported opinions here. – Ted Wrigley Aug 4 at 16:58
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Among protesters: they are generally aware that they are doing something dangerous and/or will help spread COVID-19, but are protesting anyway, typically for some personal or ideological reason.

From this Chicago Sun-Times article:

“It’s not OK that in the middle of a pandemic we have to be out here risking our lives,” Spence Ingram said Friday after marching with other protesters to the state Capitol in Atlanta. “But I have to protest for my life and fight for my life all the time.”

Ingram, 25, who was wearing a mask, said she has asthma and was worried about contracting the virus. But she said as a black woman, she always felt that her life was under threat from police and she needed to protest that.

Per this Newshub article:

"We don't care what any acts of law tells us what to do because those acts of laws are killing us, said protester Leetona Dungay.

Her son David was killed in prison when guards restrained him in 2015 after he refused to stop eating a packet of biscuits. Just like George Floyd, the Aboriginal man's final words were "I can't breathe".

"It is our right to take it to the streets. It is our right and it is your privilege as non-indigenous people to stand with us in that fight," said protester Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts.

As stated in this PennLive article:

When a demonstration sprung up in downtown Austin last weekend, Ruiz felt compelled to be there - “despite what she knew was the very real threat of the coronavirus spreading further as a result,” the report said.

“I just feel like it’s too important to not show up for,” the 27-year-old told BuzzFeed News. “I feel like it’s about me fighting for my rights, my partner’s rights, my father’s rights, my brother’s rights, my friends’ rights. It’s everybody’s fight to me.”

Among politicians: I won't try to summarize. Read what they say and come to your own conclusions.

This National Review article says:

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio was reminded by a reporter earlier this week that retail stores and houses of worship had been closed for months. All public gatherings were limited by law to ten people. Yet thousands were gathered close together, with his encouragement, protesting. “You’ve expressed solidarity with this particular protest cause. Is that why it’s been given dispensation to disregard epidemic guidelines?” the reporter asked.

“Anyone who thinks there’s different rules for different people, again, is not trying very hard to see the reality,” de Blasio hemmed and hawed. “When you see a nation — an entire nation — simultaneously grappling with an extraordinary crisis seeded in 400 years of American racism, I’m sorry, that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services. This is something that’s not about which side of the spectrum you’re on. It’s about a deep, deep American crisis.”

Pennsylvania’s health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, explained that the government guidelines for parties or concerts remained in place, but since “there are obviously significant social issues that are present, people feel they need to have a voice,” protests could continue.

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    This is, IMO, the best answer so far because it actually includes quotes from the protesters themselves. – F1Krazy Jun 23 at 8:56
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    +1 Nice answer with additional context. I do want to point out that in all these cases (as mentioned in those links), people are taking real steps to minimize the risks through mask wearing and distancing. So it's not the case of people ignoring or giving up on stopping the spread of COVID-19 – divibisan Jun 23 at 15:59
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    Note that the National Review article itself is quite biased; even the de Blasio quote is negatively characterized as him having "hemmed and hawed". I'd probably point to a less biased source instead. – V2Blast Jun 24 at 4:47
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    @V2Blast I think although the source certainly advances a certain position, unless one is accusing them of falsifying quotes, they should be accurately reporting what de Blasio & Dr. Rachel Levine have said. – Allure Jun 24 at 4:57
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Public health officials and experts haven't said that COVID-19 doesn't spread during protests, but they've recognized that systemic racism and police brutality are also public health epidemics that are dangerous and deadly. While they've suggested ways that protesters and law enforcement officers can help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, they are firmly in support of the protests, even from a public health perspective. From an open letter, signed by over 1000 health professionals:

"Staying at home, social distancing, and public masking are effective at minimizing the spread of COVID-19. To the extent possible, we support the application of these public health best practices during demonstrations that call attention to the pervasive lethal force of white supremacy.

"However, as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. 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. This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders."

In fact, the behavior of law enforcement officers creates far more opportunities for the spread of COVID-19. Whether it's the use of tear gas, that inflames mucus membranes, causes coughing/spitting, and makes victims more susceptible to contracting respiratory illness, or mass arrests/detentions that keep prisoners in unsafe/unsanitary conditions for longer than is necessary, these actions jeopardize lives and are more dangerous than mere clustering. This is something else the open letter mentioned above talks about, and suggests the following guidance for public health:

Advocate that protestors not be arrested or held in confined spaces, including jails or police vans, which are some of the highest-risk areas for COVID-19 transmission

Oppose any use of tear gas, smoke, or other respiratory irritants, which could increase risk for COVID-19 by making the respiratory trace more susceptible to infection, exacerbating existing inflammation, and inducing coughing.

The open letter acknowledges the dangers that protests bring, but unequivocally describe white supremacy as a "lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19.

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    I think that last statement needs some supporting evidence. For instance, are protestors "usually" wearing masks and gloves? I have seen a fair number of pictures of protests where that appears to be the case, but I have seen a number where, shall we say, it is does not. Are there stats? Or, what does it mean to say that the "biggest contributing factor" is police behavior, and is it true? Does it mean that there are more than twice as many infections due to police behavior in aggregate as there would otherwise be? Does it mean they is more dangerous at an individual scale than clustering? – Obie 2.0 Jun 21 at 23:28
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    @Obie2.0, my apologies. In practically all the protests that I've seen/attended/followed, organizers STRONGLY recommended that those who are protesting wear masks, and in many cases provided them for those who didn't have any. It is indeed a generalization to say that protestors are 'usually' wearing masks, and I'll edit my answer to reflect that. In terms of 'biggest contributing factor', while there is no way to determine the behaviors that led to a particular case, the fact remains that these behaviors by LEOs create situations where disease is more likely to spread than mere clustering. – Ani Nuthalapati Jun 21 at 23:51
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    I live in a suburb of a major US city, so the protests that I been to have been mask-on and distancing is possible. As such, the two meter suggestion has been followed pretty well. However, a lot of the protests taking place in cities, especially where police are retaliating, can make distancing harder, if not impossible. Tactics like kettling are being used to reduce the possibility for distancing, and the sheer number of protestors in cramped urban spaces can further contribute to a lack of adherence of distancing recommendations – Ani Nuthalapati Jun 22 at 0:05
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    In regard to the tear gas situation -- unfortunately, there is no way to know the origins of any particular case of COVID-19, so there's no real way we can use data to come to a conclusion (macroscopically). That being said, health experts seem to believe that from a microscopic perspective, using tear gas significantly increases risk of contagion. – Ani Nuthalapati Jun 22 at 0:10
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    While I certainly agree, and don't mean to imply that protests don't spread illness, or that the cases that arise are avoidable, so are the cases of COVID-19 brought on by the systemic racism that contributes to unequal healthcare access, disproportionate numbers of Black/Latinx Americans working essential jobs, lack of access to testing, etc. This pandemic is one that unfortunately is exacerbated by the system we have in place. It's a sad irony that those are fighting against that system are forced to contribute to that same pandemic in order to do so, but I hope the fight will be worth it. – Ani Nuthalapati Jun 22 at 0:19
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PRIORITIES

It's not that the people supporting the protests think that social distancing suddenly doesn't matter. They feel that stopping systemic racism and extra-judicial executions that are a part of that are important enough to take that risk.

Many of the protests that were ridiculed by people supporting preventative measures were ones of complaining about the inconvenience, or ones where economic measures were given priority over health and safety.

enter image description here

In this case, it's a matter of life and death, in the view of the protesters. As an analogy, if a firefighter refused to save a child from a burning building because the child wasn't wearing a mask, or because it would violate social distancing norms, that firefighter would be castigated as sub-human for not properly prioritizing risks and obligations.

While not as clear cut as that hypothetical, a similar calculus of basic human life is put into play, vs "stuff" or inconvenience. So one can care very much about and believe in social distancing and protective measures, but still feel that protesting to save lives is appropriate.

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I’ll admit that I cannot speak for any BLM protestors or organisers in the United States as I am not in that country and haven’t been following that country’s news too much. I have, however, taken part in the peaceful BLM marches in Osaka and Kyoto and can cite from their Twitter accounts. Obviously, individual motivations will all be different and Japan is not the United States but at the same time, I believe that some common trends can be noticed and mentioned.

However, before I get into the statements of organisers, I would like to focus on one particular quote from your question that, in my opinion, is fallacious:

I'm genuinely curious what the rationale is for supporting the mass gatherings and protesting following the death of George Floyd, despite previously having supported the social distancing during the pandemic. While I understand these people feel strongly about racism and police brutality, they also felt strongly about the pandemic.
(emphases mine)

You used despite, implying that it is not possible to agree with both statements at the same time and you also used the past tense felt when talking about the pandemic. This is a false dichotomy. It is possible to feel strongly about racism and police brutality while also feeling strongly about the pandemic and it is obviously also possible to feel strongly about neither of the two. The key thought that many organisers of protests* will have had – and which were certainly present in the minds of those organising in Osaka and Kyoto – is how to organise a protest without exposing the participants to the dangers of infection with SARS-CoV-2.

Black Lives Matter Kansai originally expected their Osaka march to be joined by around 200 people and received permission by officials and police to do so. However, it became clear that many more people wished to join so they re-negotiated with the police and city and also received permission to have a greater crowd under a number of conditions. Thereafter, they tweeted out the following on their official Twitter account (@blmkansai):

BLM Kansai did not expect such a positive response from the public. We originally planned for around 200 people. However, we are now making arrangements to accomodate for more working within guidelines for public health as the number of marchers increases. We have spoken to the city of Osaka and the police and have gained authorization from authorities to hold marches in groups of 200. Every 200 marchers will be separated by a designated organiser. We have been instructed to separate every group of 200 people by 50 meters.

We will announce and ask participants to social distance by marching with the people in their household, keeping 2 meters distance from other fellow marchers beside them. The use of umbrellas and parasols helps keeps [sic!] social distancing constant as we walk together. To prevent the risk of infection, we are requiring all marchers to wear masks and gloves. Protective eyewear is also encouraged. Thank you for your understanding.
(emphasis mine)

I think the above statement clearly shows that BLM Kansai feels strongly about both the pandemic and racism and police brutality because during their marches for awareness against the latter they clearly established guidelines to prevent the spread of the former.

The same can be said for Black Lives Matter Kyoto whose march was exactly two weeks later. They tweeted out the following messages:

If you are attending the march this Sunday, please wear a mask, practice social distancing (1-2m/6ft), and do not attend if you are feeling sick. We are still worried about corona virus and trying to make the march safe for everyone. (source)

Guidelines:

  • Wear a mask and maintain a social distance

(image source)

If you have experienced COVID-19 symptoms or are at risk infecting someone who is immunocomprimised, do not attend.
(image source)

In addition, I recall a Tweet (but cannot locate it by briefly skimming across the official BLM Kyoto account) effectively stating that there were exactly two weeks between the marches in Osaka and Kyoto so if you attended Osaka’s and didn’t fall ill you can attend Kyoto’s as you would be past the officially recommended quarantine period.

Of course, you might argue how they would enforce mask-wearing etc. among such a large group of people. As I mentioned, I participated. I saw many people gathering at Maruyama Park in Kyoto or Nakanoshima in Osaka, most of whom were already wearing masks before they arrived. In addition,** the organisers in Kyoto

  • provided masks
  • made sure that the participants marched in three lines when leaving the gathering area
  • made everyone disinfect their hands when leaving Maruyama Park
  • and made everyone register with Kyoto city’s official Covid-19 contact tracing QR code*** to facilitate contact tracing if somebody was found to be infected after the march

I tweeted out the above just after the march ended.


* Obviously, there are only organisers if a protest has been organised and planned on a scale before it happened. I gather that many protests in the United States were unorganised, spontaneous gatherings for which there will never be a clear group of organisers and for which no such conscious prior considerations could be made.

** I have to restrict the following remarks to Kyoto only. I think they had masks on-site to deal out in Osaka in case someone forgot theirs but I didn’t make note when the memory was fresh because it only became a question 10 days later so I may be subject to selective memory. In Kyoto, I did pay attention and tweeted about it just after the march ended.

*** This is really just a registration with Kyoto city that you (with email address) were at this gathering. In case of somebody being infected, the local public health office would establish that they had joined the march and then use the list of emails to alert all other participants, as far as I understood.

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(This isn't a good fit for why some people saw fit to support protests and distancing at the time, but it is a good fit for why other people might want to reconsider pointing fingers now *.)

Why protests didn't spread covid basically has scientists looking at cell phone data, something that has been done before wrt covid go gauge how much follow official stay home advice in different places.

People not taking part in the protests tended to stay home more in those locations and on those days, so the average overall effect was more social distancing and less viral spread.

Add to it of course, as others have said, that we know that under normal circumstances covid isn't particularly good at spreading outdoors in the first place and that that data was somewhat available already at the time of the protests.

* Not saying the OP does, but doing so certainly seems to be a popular arguing point in some circles. Which actually makes it precisely a good question to ask here.

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