It’s the guns, COVID-19

A protester screams in a cops faceGuns aren’t the only way to threaten public safety, as open up protesters screaming into the faces of masked police officers surely know.

The police are wearing masks to avoid the possibility of infecting other people. Those medical masks are much less effective in protecting the wearer from the saturated screams of a protester who may be spewing virus as well as venom.

A protest of several hundred people who wanted to end Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s strict stay at home orders assembled outside the capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, and a contingent spilled in to try to enter the legislative chamber in deliberations.

That’s illegal.

Openly carrying loaded weapons is not.

Inside and outside the capitol, some of the protesters carried guns, includingView image on Twitter assault rifles. As gun rights groups have done some of the organizing, it’s not all that surprising that activists would link issues.

The accessory was a way to emphasize their commitment, as well as their willingness and capacity to do more than march. Commitment and capacity to escalate is an important component of protest politics, particularly for a minority. Presently, polls show that large majorities of Americans and Michiganders support the lockdown.

The images evoked memories of a similar, legal, armed protest at the California capitol in 1967. Armed members of the Black Panther Party descended on Sacramento to protest against proposed restrictions on firearms. The Panthers depended on armaments, they said, to protect their community from the police, and made a practice of following police patrols in Oakland while carrying weapons. Huey P. Newton, a co-founder of the Black Panthers and their Minister of Defense called the practice, “armed love.”

The armed protest backfired. In short order, the legislature passed the Mulford Act, which prohibited open carry of loaded weapons. Sponsored by a Republican legislator, it was signed and supported by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. The National Rifle Association supported the bill as well.

Different protesters, different NRA.

Protest is a critical element in American politics, and is Constitutionally protected. The first amendment to the constitution enshrines the right of the people “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

But protest doesn’t work by itself, only in conjunction with other political efforts. A demonstration is a signal of commitment and always at least an implicit threat to do more: to vote, to contribute to candidates, to disobey the law, and to keep protesting.

Resort to physical violence, even the threat of political violence, is a high risk strategy in the United States. Once “peaceably” is no longer operative, government is likely to crack down rather than open up.

The Panthers lost on the gun rights issue; more significantly, they suffered surveillance, infiltration, and brutal repression from the federal government. (So did the Ku Klux Klan.)

While electoral intimidation can be a very effective political strategy in the United States, physical intimidation isn’t likely to work so well.

Back in Lansing, at least one state senator explained that she viewed the arms as a threat, and reported that some of her colleagues were wearing bullet-proof vests. The images circulated across the nation.

A majority of the Republican-led legislature voted to end the lockdown, but Gov. Whitmer extended the state of emergency anyway; legislative leaders promised to take the issue to the courts. Trump, characteristically unhelpful, tweeted that the protesters were “very good people,” and urged Whitmer to meet with them and “make a deal.”

This is, by the way, terrible advice. Politically, Whitmer now enjoys majority support in Michigan. More importantly, she should execute policies that are most effective at protecting Michiganders, popular or not. She should certainly work to explain those policies to people who don’t like them, and be prepared for her opponents not to listen.

But public safety in the advent of a global pandemic is not amenable to split the difference deal-making. If 6 feet, for example, makes for safe social distance, but opponents want no distance, 3 feet doesn’t help anyone. Whitmer’s job is to protect the people in her state, listen to people who know more about public health than she or the protesters do, and be prepared to face the health and political consequences of her decisions.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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