Chains of change

ImageIn an expression of commitment and principle, served with a chaser of trolling for the president, Mayor Muriel Bowser renamed the plaza in front of the White House, and commissioned artists to paint BLACK LIVES MATTER in broad capital (or capitol?) letters on 16th street.

Black Lives Matter started as a hashtag after the acquittal of the neighborhood watch wannabe cop who killed Trayvon Martin, a Black teen, just about 7 years ago. The hashtag came to unify local protests against police violence and activist efforts to raise the issue in political campaigns.

Mayor Bowser’s actions represent a kind of progress and institutionalization of the movement and a set of concerns, and a broadening of support. Alas, that support and growth comes from a series of high profile killings and the consistently egregious rhetoric and conduct of the Trump administration. It’s a painful kind of progress.

Police at some of the demonstrations have knelt–on their own or next to activists–to offer some kind of support to the protests against racialized police violence.Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-POLICE-JUSTICE-RACISM The image at right is from Coral Gables, Florida, but you can find similar pictures from across the country. Note that kneeling on asphalt, not a man’s throat, hasn’t stopped many many of those same police officers from kettling, harassing, striking, or arresting non-violent protesters.

How did taking the knee come to be a symbol of the cause? Colin Kaepernick, philanthropist and former football player, didn’t feel comfortable saluting a flag that he saw as a front for racialized police violence. Initially, he sat on the bench during the anthem before a game. Nate Boyer, formerly a Green Beret, suggested that taking the knee might be a more effective and respectful way of lodging the protest; Boyer stood with Kaepernick. That’s less than four years ago, and while Kaepernick sacrificed his athletic career for the cause, the National Football League continues to struggle to accommodate the increasingly vocal concerns of its players, as larger numbers of players–and now, even some white quarterbacks–demand action on racial justice. I daresay none will have to make the sacrifices Kaepernick has. That’s influence.

Meanwhile, some Southern mayors and governors have begun taking down those statues commemorating Confederate Civil War heroes. Remember that a local battle over taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee was the initial flicker that attracted the Unite the Right stew to Charlottesville nearly four years ago. Campaigns about statues scattered across the South over the past few years, but removing the monuments hasn’t been an obvious concern of the current round of protests. Still, the protests provided incentive and cover for political leaders to do something–even if not exactly what the protesters were asking for. (At left is a statue slated to be removed from public property in Bentonville, Arkansas, and relocated to a private park.)

Social movements matter, but usually not just as the activists who make them intend. The pathways to influence meander back and forth across issues and campaigns, and everything takes longer than it should.

Organizers grow to develop a restless and persistence patience in remaking the world.


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Police, provocation, and protest

Bad policing poked an old open wound in American life, one that had suffered continual poking and scratching over the past few weeks, months, years, and turned thousands of people out into the streets in protest.

Protestors demonstrate in Columbia, S.C. on Saturday in response to the recent killing of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement.Bad policing of the understandably angry public reaction to police violence will keep people protesting, and increase the damage to all of us.

If most people thought the police officer who knelt on the throat of George Floyd for nearly 10 minutes was a rogue cop who would be swiftly punished, they would not have poured out into the streets of Minneapolis when Floyd’s death was not followed by immediate arrests and indictments.

If people across the rest of the United States thought that racialized police violence was limited to Minneapolis, protests would not have spread across the country.

Outrage about the almost casual killing of George Floyd was the trigger for protests. Demonstrators called for arrests and criminal charges but, judging from the signs and chants and statements, they want much larger reforms, not only in the criminal justice system, but in the larger political and economic world.

People will march when they believe its necessary and potentially effective in getting what they want. If there’s an easier and more direct way to influence policy, most people will opt to take it.

Now, there are people in the crowds who want to press for reforms. There are also people who believe that the economic and political system is so corrupt that reform is impossible. Now and virtually always, most people want to avoid violence–but not everyone.

Once masses of people turn out to exercise their free speech rights, police need to protect themselves, the marchers, and bystanders. Police need to help and protect peaceful protesters, while isolating and containing violent actors–including police and counter-demonstrators.

This is a tough job, but police should enjoy the advantage of superior equipment, training, and coordination. They face the additional challenge of showing that gratuitous police violence, like the killing that spurred the protests, is unacceptable.

Many of the early police responses to the difficult challenge of maintaining public safety give marchers every reason to believe that racism is a feature, not a bug, in the police and criminal justice system:

Driving a police car through an unarmed crowd (New York City).

Violently throwing a smaller person to the ground (New York City)

Tear gassing or pepper spraying unarmed protesters–including a member of A Los Angeles police officer prepares to fire rubber bullets on Saturday, May 30, 2020, during a protest over the death of George Floyd, who died while handcuffed in police custody in Minneapolis on Monday, May 25. [RINGO H.W. CHIU | AP]Congress (Columbus, Ohio).

Firing rubber bullets on distant crowds (Los Angeles).

Targeting journalists, particularly Black journalists, with arrests, bullets, or gas (Minneapolis).

Ripping the mask off a black man whose hands are raised to pepper spray him in the face (New York City).

If there’s a strategy behind these harsh responses, it’s to make protesting so difficult and dangerous that people will be scared to come out. It’s harsh, fundamentally undemocratic, and very dangerous. It’s also unlikely to work.

Certainly, it’s the approach embraced by the president of the United States, who, cowering beneath the covers of layers of secret service protection, bragged about the “ominous weapons,” “fierce dogs,” and agents eager for action.

The language and the action all work to polarize further a deeply divided population.

But some police officers and departments have tried to treat the protesters with respect and sympathy.

Officers in Santa Cruz joined their chief in kneeling (on  the sidewalk–not  a football  field  or  a person)  to  express  their  own  Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson high fives a woman who called his name as he marches with protestors of police brutality and in memory of George Floyd on Saturday, May 30, 2020 in Flint Township. Protestors marched along Miller Rd. In Flint Township before ending up at the Flint Township Police Department Headquarters where they were met by police in riot gear. Swanson deescalated the situation by asking one of the protesters what he wanted of them. They replied to walk with us and so he did with some of his deputies. "We're on the community's side. Al we had to do was talk to them and now we're walking with them. Everybody wins. The cops in this community, we condemn what happened. That guy's not one of us. You have police officers here that do it everyday for the right reasons. We're asking people just to trust the police. Trust us tonight we're walking with you. We prove it by our actions," Swanson said. "When I look at that all the good we do in the community across the nation can be destroyed in on act. We were the heroes a week ago so we're going to get back on the hero platform and treat people right. Give people a voice." protest  against  police  violence.

The Genesee County Sheriff asked protesters how he could support their efforts, and at their invitation, joined the march in Flint, Michigan.

In Kansas City, officers joined the marchers, holding signs protesting police View image on Twitterviolence.

Police chiefs in Atlanta and Houston have made a point of going out to talk to demonstrators–and to listen to them, expressing support for their concerns, and promising to help them demonstrate safely.

To be sure, gestures of sympathy won’t convince all the marchers that the police are really committed to the cause, but such efforts make it harder to mobilize large numbers to fight, break windows, or attack cars.

But small numbers of people can do a lot of damage. Windows have been broken, cars have been burned, and stores have been looted.

Reluctantly, I deploy the weak passive voice above because there are different explanations of just who is breaking windows:

Frantic and undisciplined individual demonstrators

“Outsiders” determined to make trouble.

Undercover police and agents provocateurs

Sinister antifa organizers looking to do damage

Right-wing white nationalists hoping to provoke a race war

Good evidence is scarce at the moment, but anyone who knows a little history would be prepared to believe that all of these groups are poking, trying to exploit the moment.

It’s all scary, first, because authorities use violence as an excuse to crack down on civil liberties and impose harsh measures.

Second, because violence gets in the way of addressing real systematic deficits in our criminal justice system.

Third, because we are still in the middle of a public health emergency, and it seems quite likely that the crowds and confrontation will help spread a virus to communities that are already suffering.

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Protest, Riot, and Rebellion in Minneapolis

Protesters took to the streets of Minneapolis in response to the police killing of George Floyd. And they stayed.

Some wore masks and tried to observe public health protocols for social distance. Some carried gas masks.

Some broke windows of storefronts and looted stores.

Last night, police evacuated an area station that had been set on fire.

Protests about police violence, really racialized police violence, really, violence against Black people, spread to more than a half-dozen other cities, sometimes resulting in violence against property and people.

Racial justice issues, always percolating in American life, are again prominent, and we have to wonder: why this time? will it matter?

Police violence, particularly against Black men, isn’t new. Across the United States, people can recite a list of names of local men who had been victimized. Sometimes, as in the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, a name and a case goes national, and becomes a chance to think about the larger cause. Vigorous and visible protest helps that happen.

So what about the killing of George Floyd?

  1. Floyd’s killing comes documented in graphic videos which show gross brutality and the absence of a threat to officers’ safety. Widely circulated on social media, it’s too easy to hear Floyd’s cries for help and to hear people in the crowd pleading with the police to get off his throat.
  2. The kneeling torture readily evoked contrasting images of football player and philanthropist Colin Kaepernick, who knelt only on grass in protest of racialized police violence, but engendered massive national criticism–including harsh and hostile comments from Trump. Kaepernick’s gesture cost him his athletic career. The resulting meme (above) was almost too obvious.
  3. The killing follows in short order the video of armed men chasing down Ahmaud Arbery in a truck, resulting in another killing. The killers were arrested and charged two days after the video was circulated, more than two months after the killing.
  4. The protests followed months of shutdown in response to the novel coronavirus, and extensive documentation showing that Black people were more likely to be exposed to the virus, and once infected, more likely to die.
  5. The not quite national quarantine meant that more people were watching more social media; they were more likely to see the video quickly. And everyone is frustrated at being isolated and stuck at home.Protesters gather outside Louisville Metro Hall to demand Mayor Greg Fischer fire the officers involved in the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor on March 13.
  6. The killing in Minneapolis follows the killing of Breona Taylor, an EMT in Louisville, who was shot 8 times by police in her home. There is no video of the police executing a search warrant, purportedly looking for drugs. They didn’t find drugs.
  7. The killing in Minneapolis follows a viral video from Central Park, which showed a white woman fabricating a charge in a call to police. She said she felt threatened by a Black man bird watching, who asked her to leash her dog–in accord with park rules. He was carrying binoculars and doggie treats.
  8. The protests follows a month of very extensively-covered (and apparently effective) open up protests scattered across the United States. Those protesters were overwhelmingly white, sometimes armed, and often aggressive and Armed protestors join hundreds of people outside the City County Building as they rally for the opening of non-life sustaining businesses in Pennsylvania on Monday, April 20, 2020confrontational. In difficult circumstances, police demonstrated restraint and tolerance. (I have seen no reports of arrests or police violence at those demonstrations.)
  9. Likely most importantly, the protests come in the midst of a hyper-partisan political environment, in which the president wants to proclaim that he’s not a racist while signalling to his supporters that he is.

It feels like a time to take sides. Effective protest makes people take sides.

When asked about the video of the killing in Minneapolis, Trump replied that it wasn’t good, that he hadn’t spoken with George Floyd’s family, and then turned to talk about China. Later, he tweeted that he was ready to assume control in Minnesota, and “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The quote was borrowed from a racist justification of police violence from Miami’s police chief in 1967. Twitter hung a warning on the tweet, recognizing that it encouraged violence.

The presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, not among the most eloquent presidential candidates in recent memory, was much sharper, tying Floyd’skilling to systematic racial discrimination in policing and the criminal justice system, calling for calm and conciliation–and also for justice. Biden also reached out to Floyd’s family, trying to offer some comfort and display concern.

Pop superstar Taylor Swift, rarely political, took to Twitter as well, charging Trump with “stoking the fires of white supremacy and racism,”and vowing to vote him out in November.

The case, horrific as it is, has become a symbol of a much broader cause. But the American justice system–at its best–handles cases, not causes.

Shortly after the first Floyd video circulated, the Minneapolis Police Department fired the officer who kneeled on his throat, and three other officers who apparently stood by as it happened.

At this writing, after days of protest, Hennepin County announced the arrest of the officer who knelt on Floyd for nearly 9 minutes, charging him with third degree murder. Almost everyone hopes the arrest will take some of the edge out of the protests.

Would the officer have been charged without the protests, disruption, and threats of more?

We’d like to believe that the criminal justice system can now proceed to adjudicateProtesters march on Hiawatha Avenue while decrying the killing of George Floyd on May 26, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. this criminal trial fairly. That’s a statement based more on faith than evidence.

I’m more confident that redressing systematic racial inequity will require more than the judicial system, including more protests.

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Exercising the right to protest, COVID-19

“Government won’t do squat.”*

That’s the slogan I imagine for the open up protesters in Clearwater, Florida exercising VIDEO: Protesters calling for gyms to reopen do squats, push-ups ...their right to protest against the closure of their gyms. Frustrated that they can’t get to the weight stack or the cardio machines, a couple of dozen took an elliptical route to the streets, where they protested by engaging in the collective action of calisthenics.

Local television news was on the story with helicopters right away; the responses on social media were merciless: protesters, who demonstrate they can exercise without a gym, demand access to the gym. They can’t weight to get to the gym. Call it a dead lift.

Puyallup gym protests stay-home order, invites members to work out ...

Exercise machines lay fallow

But the aerobic workout looked pretty sloppy. It’s hard to do a push-up while trying to keep the flag or sign you’re holding in one hand from touching the ground. Still, they may be making progress. Florida governor Ron DeSantis who, since Spring Break, has been determined to open as much of the state as quickly as possible.

The gyms are tough. Owners maintain expensive equipment and depend upon members (who may or may not come to work out) paying monthly dues. It’s hard to charge and unappealing to pay when attendance becomes really impossible–rather than just inconvenient. More than that, exercise is good. It helps you stay healthy, think clearly, and aspire to sanity.

The protesters NEED to get to the gym.

In Puyallup, Washington, a gym owner resisted the state-imposed shutdown by declaring the gym workout to be a free speech event.  A sign on the door welcomed participants: “Protest Here. Enter at Own Risk. Our freedoms and our livelihood are essential.” The owner asked attendees to sign a waiver, freeing him of any liability from injuries or illness.

It’s the same liberty problem as with all the open up protests. You may have the right to risk your own health, but not to become a vector infecting others.

Here in California, I miss the gym, the pool, the locker room, and showers. I miss pushing to raise my heart rate and break a good sweat, breathing deeply in the air conditioned room where other people are doing the same thing.

The experience of a bubbly feeling of connection with others and with the world  is the  closest I’ve come to the “collective effervescence” Emile Durkheim described.

It’s also likely the closest I’ve ever come to living in a petri dish.

Maybe things will just work out.

*h/t to my older daughter.

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We NEED a New Deal; make it Green!

The normalcy we reach after getting through the #coronacrisis won’t be the same as the one the ended in February. Now is the time to push for policiesPublic health workers, doctors and nurses protest over lack of sick pay and personal protective equipment (PPE) outside a hospital in the borough of the Bronx on April 17, 2020 in New York, NY. that shape the new normal we want. (It should certainly include sufficient protective gear for health care workers!)

Even in a fanciful world where COVID-19 disappears tomorrow, much of the economic, social, and political damage done will remain. Some of the retail stores and sectors that struggled before the shutdown will not return. Businesses will have discovered that some of the travel they supported wasn’t needed, and some people will discover that they can happily function with a little less attention to hair and new clothes. People uncertain about their prospects of returning to their old jobs will be less likely to go out to eat, to movies, or to the barber quite so often. A thinner service sector will take care of people who, through new personal austerity and/or newly discovered competencies (cooking, gardening), need something different. Older displaced workers will look for places to plug into the working world–for money and meaning. Youth who graduated from high school or college without ceremony will look for jobs to build their own lives.

This economy can’t save itself without losing a generation….at least.

If, as top Republicans promise, the Federal government refuses to backfill mProtesters Lay Body Bags outside Trump Hotel to Condemn COVID-19 Response (+Video)assive state budget deficits, they will be entering–or reentering–a world where the biggest spenders on health care, public safety, and education are executing severe cutbacks. Fewer nurses, public school teachers, or firefighters won’t make life better for anyone. Really, it could be the American carnage that Trump imagined in the scariest inaugural speech in American history.

People patiently fiddling with their phones while waiting for markets to right themselves and the larger community in the process will be disappointed–although it takes a long long time to dissuade a religious zealot with fact.

We haven’t been here before, but we have been somewhere close. In 1932, President Herbert Hoover ran for reelection on the promise of letting Refer to Captioncapitalism recover on its own, without government interference–or help. fiscal responsibility and was resoundingly rejected.

Franklin Roosevelt presided over an eclectic series of efforts to ameliorate the pain Americans suffered, and to build toward a future. Through cascades of redundantly titled agencies, the federal government supported construction, banks, parks, artists, senior citizens, and young workers–and more.

The New Deal was never enough, but it helped heal and rebuild America. Its legacies are everywhere, from great public works providing rural electricity to the artsy mural in a post office in New York to the monthly check retirees count on.

What we should have learned from the New Deal–and from the rescue effort from the Great Recession–is the danger of thinking small and finding false economies. I’ll bet that virtually all professional economists and all but the most ideologically blinkered politicians got the message: go big. It’s stupid, counterproductive, even sinful, to allow America’s extraordinary resources and people to go to waste.

Congress has already appropriated massive sums to prop up existing businesses, throwing life preservers to those in danger of going under (and others!), without anything resembling a plan that extends far enough to get to shore–a new normal. It’s going to take much more, at least (!) the biggest reconstruction of American life since the New Deal.

It’s time for vision: the Green New Deal has never been more relevant.

But the bucket of aspirations gallantly promoted by the Sunrise Movement Sunrise Movement activists protesting for a Green New Deal.and others offers suggestions, and not yet concrete plans.

Read it! It calls for good jobs, family farms, universal health care, high speed rail, investments in education and much much more in a scant 14 pages. Now it’s time for blueprints as well as visions.

Think of the alternatives: the austerity posture national Republicans embrace will mean cuts in education and health care when we’ve never needed growth more. The emergency rescue program that we’re seeing so far would prop up troubled industries, like coal and cruises, based on preserving jobs or protecting the already connected.

We can do so much more.

Why not a national service program more ambitious and bolder than any we’ve ever seen, putting youth to work tutoring, contact tracing, cleaning surfaces, preparing and serving meals, or redesigning cities? (Conservative columnist David Brooks recognizes the wisdom here.) Every new graduate should have access to a worthwhile job. Put a teacher’s assistant in every classroom, and everyone benefits immediately and for the long haul.

Why not a comprehensive infrastructure program which supports not only routine painting of bridges, but also the full spectrum of needs in a modern economy: scientific research, inexpensive high quality internet access, and outstanding and affordable childcare, for starters?

Why not comprehensive programs to promote democracy, including readyCapitol Hill. access to the ballot, civic education, and professional reporting on local and national news?

We will see massive government spending and deficits over the next few months, and maybe years. Now is the time for engaged activists to force attention to glaring problems and promote solutions that are more than band-aids. Their success will rescue not only a generation, but a nation.

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Are the Open-Up protests winning? What does winning mean? COVID-19

Dramatic, often confrontational, protests by small groups to “open up” seem to be working.

The protests certainly haven’t enjoyed the support of most Americans. A substantial majority of Americans oppose a quick lifting of restrictions on public life and are far more worried about the health consequences of COVID-19 than of the economic damage caused by the shutdown.

But most states have begun with at least a partial reopening of public spaces and businesses. Some, like Georgia, have commenced opening before coming close to meeting any of the standards laid out by the White House (e.g., declining rate of infections). Actually, no states Protesters in Chicago on Friday.are close to meeting those White House standards right now, and the Trump administration has vigorously rejected the guidance for reopening America that it had requested from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). (Icebergs be damned, full steam ahead!)

Even the states that implemented the strongest restrictions on public life, like California and Ohio, have begun public discussions of how to reopen.

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, the target of disgruntled protesters, the Republican state legislature, and the president of the United States, announced that she would not be swayed by racist-inflected protests outside her office (swastikas, nooses, and Confederate battle flags!), and that she would continue to heed the advice of public health experts and epidemiologists. But, even as she extended her stay-at-home orders, she also announced relaxing some restrictions and the reopening of manufacturing plants in the state.

In Wisconsin, another Democratic governor facing a Republican legislature is facing not only hostile protesters, but also a state supreme court that seems decidedly unsympathetic to his claims about protecting public health.

No politician will admit that she changed course on policy in response to determined and disruptive protests (as with all movements), but policy is certainly moving toward an opening up.

Is this what victory looks like?

The real story is more complicated, of course, and is still developing, but here’s a chance to look at the way protest campaigns, even unpopular ones, can influence policy.

A few qualifications:

First, no one wants stay-at-home orders to last forever. From the moment they issued such orders, politicians and public health officials began planning for ways to end them safely. There was always going to be a balancing of competing priorities. Maybe, this is what would have happened anyway?!

Second, the protesters were hardly alone in calling for a restart for public life. Chambers of Commerce, Donald Trump, and conservative pundits have pushed the idea that protecting the economy had to take priority over strict public health measures. And campaigners for relaxed restrictions did more than just protest: they lobbied legislators, broke laws, called and wrote officials, filed lawsuits, and made their case in mainstream and social media.

[More than that, protesters assaulted state houses with many goals. At least some of the Michiganders were worked up about gun rights; lots of the Californians were angry about vaccines.]

(Note: This is always the case for successful social movements in America; protest doesn’t work by itself.)

Third, lifting formal restrictions on public activity is a long step away from resurrecting the social and economic life of just a few months ago. It’s not just hand-washing and masks wearing practices that will change: who wants to go to a movie, get a massage, or ride a crowded city bus? (Someone will, but not near enough people will take the risks to keep most businesses viable.)

Fourth,the costs and consequences of restrictions, relaxed or not, play out differently in different parts of the economy and regions of the country. People Smithfield foods in Crete, Nebraska: Meat workers are threatening that they won't return to work despite President Donald Trump's demand that plants stay openwho have found ways to work safely at home will surely continue to do so….at least a lot of the time. But those who feel unsafe in their workplaces–either because of work conditions (meatpacking plants?) or personal vulnerabilities (age, health, e.g.) will face inexcusable pressures.

There has already been resistance to new rules from all sides. Pressures to work in unsafe conditions will provoke resistance, leading to sick-outs, no shows, and union organizing.  Disgruntled citizens have also chafed at public health restrictions imposed by stores and restaurants; we’ve already seen alarming violence in reaction to required masks.

Fifth, the battles over public health and public life will play out against the consequences of a global pandemic sweeping across American states. people will listen to stories from friends, relatives, and (of course) strangers online; newspapers and academic institutions will continue to post numbers of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths.

Those numbers and those stories will matter, particularly if they increase as virtually public health expert predicts. And they’ll matter more if those economic improvements disappoint, as virtually every economist predicts.

While celebrities and some politicians seeking to comfort remind us that we’re all in this together, the emerging battles seem to suggest otherwise. We are still distressingly early in what will be a long and painful political struggle.

(Note: thanks to Fernando Tormos-Aponte for provoking this piece.)

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Gavin Newsom, Jonah, protest, and the preparation paradox, COVID-19

Gavin Newsom, governor of California–where I live–has done a pretty good job in managing the awful coronacrisis. He’s acted quickly and decisively, taken strong measures informed by science and data, and has explained his decisions.

It’s been a hassle: after the governor prohibited large gatherings, spectators (including me) were banned from my daughter’s first high school swim meet of the season–the last meet of the season. Then public school went online in response to his directives, and my university went online at about the same time. Almost all business shut down and toilet paper vanished from the supermarket shelves.

But California, where the very first COVID-19 cases in the United States appeared, has had relatively low rates of infection and an even lower rate of fatalities from the virus. (You can find data on many sites, including Johns Hopkins University, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, for starters.) Hospitals have managed better than elsewhere, and as frustrated as it is to be stuck at home, I think we’ve been pretty well protected.

I’m not sure that every Newsom decision was exactly right, and there are certainly lots of frustrations, but I’m convinced that the governor made informed decisions in consultation with people who knew more than me. The data tell a story.

Note: Although Newsom was first, he was not the only data-driven decisive governor: Jay Inslee (D-Washington) and Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) were among the chief executives paying attention to experts early and taking the political risk of saving lives.

But saving lives through prevention doesn’t present as clearly as pulling someone out of a burning building. It’s easy to ignore the infections that we don’t get, particularly when the infectious agent isn’t banging up against the front door. Because we have to work to see what these strict stay at home orders are protecting us from, resentment can grow easily.

A vigorous, if so far limited, opposition to Governor Newsom has staged an escalating series of protests to open up California: the beaches, the beauty shops, the businesses. Newsom has been the face of the state and the target of opposition.

Partly, it’s the paradox of preparation, and it evokes one of my favorite Bible stories, Jonah. Here’s the summary:

God tells Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh that He is going to destroy them because of their evil ways. Jonah doesn’t want to do it, because he thinks the Ninevehans (?) will repent, God will relent, and he (the prophet) will look like a jerk. After an interlude with a great fish, Jonah comes to his senses and delivers the news to Nineveh. The residents repent, God relents, and nothing is destroyed. Jonah, angry and disappointed at the lack of follow-through, is then taught a lesson on compassion.

Point: there is every reason to believe that Jonah saved a city. And Newsom saved many lives. But their efforts left Nineveh–or California–worse off than before the warning. Californians are stuck in their houses with work drying up and massive state budget cuts on the horizon; the Ninevehites (?) are mourning, fasting, covered in ashes and sackcloth, with rented (torn) clothes. It doesn’t feel like a win.

And people are angry about the pain. This is why, by the way, it’s so easy to ignore the routine maintenance of our personal and public life: vaccines, painting bridges, updating software, building maintenance, colonoscopies….


The vigorous protests against Newsom, directed to “opening up” California, make for powerful images: unmasked demonstrators pushing up against police; flags and invocations of the Constitution; and frustrated surfers holding boards aloft. If Newsom and the experts are right, they’re also dangerous.

We hope that no one in Sacramento or Huntington Beach, committed to the Constitution and liberty, is carrying the virus that might be spread to an ally or to a police officer at work–and then a family or a workplace and beyond. But the relatively limited disease and damage numbers that reflect Newsom’s proactive–and provocative–decisions could quickly disappear.

There will be no one clamoring to the cameras to claim credit for driving up the infection and fatality rates in California. The rates will prove to protesters that Newsom’s restrictions were ineffective and pointless at best.

Effective politics demands a coherent story, ideally informed with fact, linking together a series of events, and measured against the possible. Telling the truth about bad news is hard under the best of circumstances, and it’s harder when you know that some portion of your audience won’t listen and has easy access to an alternate explanation unencumbered by fact.

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