Unrest in America

Fiona Fitzpatrick

On Sunday, April 20th and again on May 9th, thousands gathered in Olympia at the state capital to protest the stay at home order.

As millions of Washingtonians shelter in place, an eclectic group defied orders to voice their anger and outrage at the government for the injustice they feel; echoing nationwide protests. The group consisted of conservatives, seniors, gun rights activists, Trump supporters, anarchists, and families.  

During the last week of April, unemployment claims increased by 450% as Washington state divided out in total more than $1.4 Billion in unemployment benefits. During this week cases and death from COVID-19 also rose, in total WA state stands with 16,000 cases and 900 deaths. The struggle that these protestors feel is great but is there  ‘freedom’ worth the risk to the public? 

For protestors, what takes precedence is not their freedom but more so their livelihood.  For those who live paycheck to paycheck, stay at home orders have devastated their financial security.  Washingtonians have been advised to work from home but that is a luxury that many just do not have.

These sentiments were echoed by the rousing cry of the April 20th, protest which was “Let us Work” and again at the May protest where “Freedom is the Cure” was chanted.

However, the April protest was more complicated than this one chant.  The protestors, although united in their attendance at the rally, had different goals in mind.  An eclectic group had gathered, mothers with their children stood chanting next to men carrying AR-15s and sporting trump paraphernalia who stood next to members of Anonymous.  The pandemic has brought out of the dark all those who are unsatisfied with the government.  

 As one man put it “ I don’t like my government telling me what to do”. His response demonstrates what many Americans especially those left-leaning and affluent, see in these protestors a complete disregard for the health of their fellow Americans.  

But this assessment ignores the other people in attendance, such as a woman dressed in a mask who worked in the healthcare sector.  She stood in a bush and intermediately would jump out and yell “let us work”.    What she wants is “compensation for those who are ill” and “let some go back to work”. Some protesters just want some concessions not a total reversal of COVID-19 measures.

What can not be ignored about these protests is that they are becoming battle cries from extremists. During this time we are seeing extremists stoke fear and recruit more members to their causes.  According to a May 3rd article about extremism in the New York Times, “Engagement with violent extremist content online in states with extended stay-at-home orders grew 21 percent in early April compared with the eight previous months, according to a report by Moonshot CVE, a start-up that monitors extremist searches on Google.”

This outrage that Americans are feeling is not going to disappear and not dealing with it could lead to an increase in those turning to extremism. The feelings echoed in signs reading “Resit like it’s 1776”, “Inslee is a Dictator”, “I refuse to live in fear”, “Give me Liberty or give me Covid-19” and “Unlock Our Churches” that were displayed proudly amongst a sea of red, white, and blue are not going to suddenly end.  

For many it will feel ironic, the crowd seems to love its country and their rights but not the health of those countries citizens?  This issue of public health vs individual freedom is not new or unique to now. Americans have been wrestling with this issue for decades, outbreaks of disease just provide a flashpoint for these conflicts.

These issues have been brought to court and in 1902 the U.S.Supreme Court ruled on this issue in Compagnie Francaise de Navigation A Vapeur v. State Bd. of Health. It stated that the state government has primary control and authority for creating quarantine laws and “from an early day the power of the States to enact and enforce quarantine laws for the safety and protection of the health of their inhabitants has been recognized by Congress”.  Recently, Oregon’s supreme court heard arguments regarding how Gov. Brown’s stay at home order violated the freedom of worship at 10 churches.

Now however all 50 states are moving forward with reopening measures. We are leaving our time of quarantine but the sentiments unearthed during this time won’t die and with the threat of another wave looming it’s essential we figure out the best way to deal with this crisis. As a country, we need to be prepared to suffer a large number of deaths, economic damage, and social friction.  The only way to move forward will be to find common ground, compromise, and listen to experts to guide our behavior so we can reopen in the safest way possible.

Crowds gather at the April 20th protest in Olympia, Wa. (Photo/Aaron Fitzpatrick)Attendee of April 20th protest in Olympia, WA. (Photo/ Aaron Fitzpatrick)