At 2:15 a.m., Walt went downtown to see, to make a statement. The Smiths had talked and talked about the virus; they knew joining the protests against police brutality meant a higher risk of being infected. They took the risk to give their 10-year-old son a chance at a future in which he is not “walking around with the spirit of fear,” Shae said. They took the risk because after dealing with the pandemic “we still have to do whatever it takes.”
The protests mean exposure to the virus and potentially accelerating its spread. The virus has killed more than 109,000 Americans, including a disproportionate number of blacks. Yet the Smiths and tens of thousands of others have chosen to take the risk.
Far from being separate crises, the deadly epidemic of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and the sudden explosion of street protests against police violence are intimately connected, according to protesters and public and mental health professionals.
“People are so pent-up with frustration from being inside for so long,” said Patricia Newton, chief executive and medical director of the Black Psychiatrists of America, which has about 2,000 members. “That was the kindling, and the police brutality lit the fire. People tell me, ‘I need to get out of the house,’ and ‘I’m having cabin fever.’ When people feel hopeless, they feel they have nothing to lose and caution goes to the wind.”
For Shae and Walt Smith, the decision to leave home and walk among strangers for the first time in months was calculated, the result of a thorough discussion about what lay ahead for their two young sons as black men in America.
In Columbia, Md., Jada Smith made the pivot more impulsively. On the day a Minneapolis police officer drove his knee into George Floyd’s neck until he died, Smith had barely left her house in three months.
Smith, 23, broke her self-isolation, joining teeming, screaming, shoulder-to-shoulder protesters who packed streets north of the White House.
“F--- coronavirus. Who cares about coronavirus?” she said. “You can’t even walk out the door without being afraid for your skin color. This is more serious than what the coronavirus was. This is our lives out here. This is our children’s lives.”
For medical professionals, the nightly images of huge crowds walking city streets, shouting and chanting, sometimes wearing masks but with hardly any possibility of social distancing, is frightening, even if it’s also understandable.
Newton and others who have counseled protesters describe the connection between the two crises as complex — very different for different people. Some protesters consciously weigh the risks of catching the virus against a moral calling to voice their anger about racial bias. Others simply follow their passion to meet the moment on the nation’s streets. What both groups have in common is a web of emotions stemming from the pandemic: anger, isolation, loneliness, frustration, powerlessness, hopelessness.
“There are a lot of factors weighing on people,” said Reed V. Tuckson, chairman of the Black Coalition Against Covid-19 and a former D.C. health commissioner. “It would be the height of hypocrisy for people protesting on behalf of those who cannot breathe to then bring home a virus that will prevent the people you live with from breathing. At the same time, a major appeal of protests like these is that they are exciting, engaging and morally compelling, and even more appealing when people have been quarantined for so long.”
Newton has counseled protesters to consider the health impact of large gatherings. “I keep telling people, ‘You can’t protest if you’re dead and you can’t protest if you’re on a ventilator,’ ” she said. “If the people in your home and your community get the virus because of your unwillingness to take precautions, who are you helping? But when people get angry, they stop thinking.”
The clash between the need to take precautions against the virus and the desire to take part in the protests came home to Kitaw Demassie when his 13-year-old daughter asked if they could join a demonstration.
Demassie, a physician who is dean of the School of Public Health at the State University of New York Downstate, said his daughter understood the risk of infection, “but the anger and the isolation from the stay-at-home order combined to make her and other young people feel the need to go out. The isolation of the past three months increases anxiety, depression and also symptoms of indignation. Demonstrating peacefully helps people do something with their anger.”
Father and daughter decided to join a group of physicians protesting in their white coats in Manhattan — “using protection and social distancing,” Demassie was quick to add.
For many years, protests against racial bias have erupted anew after each incident of police brutality that gains national attention. But this time, Demassie said, the explosion of outrage is louder in part because “the interaction with the virus shutdown is fueling these protests.”
Demassie understands why people feel compelled to protest — after all, he’s joining a crowd himself — but he remains “very sure that this will have a big impact on the number of virus cases. There really is no social distancing in these demonstrations.”
It’s a tricky moment, he said: “We have two epidemics — racial disparities in health care, as we see in the death rate from covid-19, and racial injustice as exemplified in the death of George Floyd. In both cases, we need to flatten the curve.”
It’s not that protesters don’t know that gathering in large crowds is likely to further spread the virus. Rather, they often view that reality through a blend of fatalism and idealism.
Shae Smith, a 34-year-old manager at a Gap store, sometimes sounds fatalistic. The virus, police brutality and the way she and other black Americans lived before this year’s events all added up to a deadened life, she said: “We’re already in survival mode. The unemployment that people are facing. . . . How much more can we take? We’re already at our wit’s end. It’s like, we’re walking around, in a sense, feeling defeated.”
Yet she also sounds idealistic. The protests are a chance “to see to it that people are going to be held accountable,” she said. “We got our mask on, and I made a sign and we went out.”
The fatalism is sometimes literal.
Kelly Rudin, of Bethesda, Md., had lived in terror of the virus. Kelly, 63, would send her 62-year-old husband Tom out to do the grocery shopping. But the couple, longtime activists who protested President Trump’s inauguration and the police choking death of Eric Garner in New York, knew immediately what they would do after Floyd’s death.
“This,” Kelly said, “is worth dying for.”
“If white people don’t come out, our society — ” she hesitated, then finished: “Our society is basically done anyway.”
Until recently, the Rudins had taken all precautions they could. Now, they donned cloth masks and promised each other they would stay six feet from everyone else.
But marching amid the crowds, Kelly didn’t feel worried anymore. Watching a group try to breach a police barricade on Pennsylvania Avenue, Tom lamented that because of the virus, they could not go closer.
“Ordinarily,” Kelly said, “I’d be in the middle of that.”
They leaned against a fire hydrant for a few minutes. The shouting rose. People ran back and forth. The Rudins looked at each other. In tandem, they waded into the crowd.
Such stories are both inspiring and worrisome, Newton said.
“I never thought I’d see Americans so fatalistic and idealistic at the same time,” she said. “The fatalism is very scary. I’ve heard repeatedly people saying to me, ‘If I’m going to get killed, I want it to be for a reason.’ At the same time, there’s this idealism — they feel it’s their civic duty to go out on the streets.”
Chante Burg, who recently left her job as a special-education teacher in Louisville to become a disabilities consultant, had plenty of cause to fear the virus. Recently recovered from Lyme disease, she takes 26 pills a day to boost her immune system. She had spent the past two months at home with her boyfriend, a former teacher.
But then, after Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black emergency medical technician, was shot and killed by Louisville police in her own home, Burg heard a call to action through her network of teachers.
“I was livid,” she said. “Just livid. I was furious, I was devastated. I felt like, this is the end. This is the end. It can’t go on.”
Burg, 34, felt compelled to act. “The virus didn’t concern me at all,” she said. “My immune system, I’ve built it up, and I have faith, I have faith in God, I have faith in my immune system.”
She did worry that some people carrying the virus might be among the protesters, that some people may have gotten cabin fever and were “using these protests to get out of the house,” she said. “But I don’t dwell on that.”
She feels in the dark about the virus. She mistrusts the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, basically all of the often-conflicting guidance she hears on the news.
“We don’t know what to believe or who to trust, so we need to take care of ourselves,” Burg said.
In contrast, she’s confident that protesting is the right choice: “It’s important to me to be able to speak out and not live in fear, and it’s important for me to exercise my right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I’m not doing that when I’m sitting at home. Today, I feel empowered, I feel strong. I feel that we’re making progress, and we are going to win.”
In the sea of young faces massed in front of the White House during the past week, Louis and Merianne de Merode stood out. He is 71 and she is 64. The Georgetown couple both have compromised immune systems from battles with cancer; they had strictly quarantined themselves, living on delivered groceries, venturing out only for bike rides on lonely stretches of the C&O Canal towpath.
Fearful of joining the protests because of the risk of infection, they changed their minds when they read their neighbors’ comments on a email discussion group where affluent Georgetowners complained about the looting visited upon local shops without discussing the rioters’ motivations.
The de Merodes put on cloth masks and headed downtown.
“This is 1,000 times more people than we’ve been around,” Merianne said. “We’re walking with people who don’t all wear masks. So we’re scared.”
But just as they felt morally obliged to protest, they also felt compelled to put themselves in a 14-day quarantine after the demonstration.
Tuckson, the former D.C. health commissioner, said the same moral responsibility that brings protesters onto the streets should lead them to quarantine themselves afterward. “If you’re going to follow your idealism,” he said, “you’re going to have to also protect the people you live with.”
Some health advocates feel a tension between advising protesters to take precautions against the coronavirus, which has produced disproportionately high death rates among blacks, and endorsing action against another epidemic — racial disparities in everything from housing quality to police brutality.
But Newton said the two epidemics are more closely connected than many protesters realize.
“The virus exposed the underbelly of the problems we’ve had in health care for decades — a disparity in care that reveals some of the same bias we see in police brutality,” she said.
For more than two months this spring, Denelle Acosta locked herself indoors, leaving her San Antonio home only to buy groceries or ride her bike. As a cancer survivor who is also diabetic, Acosta said she had to remain hypervigilant as the coronavirus swept across Texas.
But when she watched the video of the last nine minutes of Floyd’s life, “I just started sobbing,” said Acosta, 36, who works as a sommelier and bartender at an upscale restaurant. “I have all these health issues, but I don’t care. I don’t want a virus to take me, but if I’m going to be fighting for what’s right, I’ll go out like that.”
Acosta saw the officer crushing Floyd as a metaphor for how the system weighs on vulnerable people. She decided to protest in San Antonio, then drove an hour north to Austin to join another crowd.
In front of Austin police headquarters, Acosta, who wore a black mask, pointed to a camp of tents and couches where homeless people find shelter beneath a busy highway and began listing reasons she believes “the system is broken. So many people have no health care, our education system is a joke, we’re not taking care of our veterans or the elderly.”
Police brutality is front of mind, but she thought also about Trump’s aggressive tweets, the plight of vulnerable communities and the pandemic, which she said has exposed inequity in American society.
“Laying my life on this line for this movement is more important to me than dying because of a virus,” she said. “I can’t take it anymore.”
Fisher and Jamison reported from Washington. Wallace reported from Louisville. Holly Bailey in Minneapolis, Peter Holley in Austin and Hannah Natanson in Washington contributed to this report.