The ‘Reopen’ Protests Echo America’s Racist History

There’s a lot more going on here than just wanting to get back to work

On Monday evening, as Georgia residents began speculating about the motivations behind Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to begin lifting restrictions on gyms, hair salons, massage parlors, and bowling alleys, among other businesses — even before the state had met federal benchmarks for easing up on social distancing rules — one of his constituents offered a theory.

In a Facebook post that quickly went viral, George Chidi, a former council member in the metro Atlanta area who now works in public policy, suggested Kemp was simply motivated by a desire to save money. If businesses reopen, state labor policies will prevent workers from claiming unemployment — forcing them to either risk their lives by returning to work or forego financial assistance. “This isn’t a decision being driven by epidemiology,” Chidi wrote. “It’s the rawest and most lethal of political decisions, and it will kill people.”

On Friday, Georgia begins easing social distancing restrictions — with South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas expected to follow in the coming days — as the media’s focus has shifted from eerie images of empty streets and refrigerated trucks full of bodies to the emergence of a protest movement loudly demanding an immediate return to normal life, Dr. Fauci be damned. And for many, the push to simply move on as if nothing’s amiss, and the apparent willingness among conservative politicians and business owners to sacrifice human lives for financial gain, echoes a racist history in which black people were considered expendable. “It has deepened cynicism about government in general and the intentions of white people in power in particular,” Chidi said in an interview.

A glance at the agitators reveals a common trait: They are overwhelmingly white. Many carried signs expressing support for Donald Trump. And although the president insists the demonstrators are “very responsible people,” the protests have in fact been a magnet for extremist right-wing organizations and hate groups, including the anti-government Three Percenters and Oath Keepers, members of violence-prone groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, and armed militias bedecked in Odinist symbols.

The demonstrations, at which attendees have openly brandished semi-automatic weapons, have been rife with racial hostility. Confederate battle flags have been flown at rallies as far north as Michigan and Wisconsin—ironic given the protesters are explicitly agitating against states’ rights and in favor of Trump’s self-proclaimed “total authority.” A protester in Ohio carried a sign calling Jews “the real plague.” In Denver, a woman told health care workers to “Go to China if you want communism!” And some far-right leaders have framed the demonstrations as a prelude to the “Boogaloo,” an increasingly popular reference among online white nationalists to a would-be civil war, based on a joking reference to a now-classic hip-hop film.

On Wednesday, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms tweeted a screengrab of a text she’d received. “N****r, just shut up and RE-OPEN ATLANTA!”

Such sentiments offer a jarring counterpoint to the characterization of the protesters recently advanced by Trump economic adviser Stephen Moore as “modern-day Rosa Parks… protesting against injustice and a loss of liberties.”

There’s an additional irony in Moore’s exploitation of a civil rights icon: As a recent CDC report suggested, longstanding racial inequities have rendered African Americans far more likely to contract the coronavirus than their white counterparts, and they’re more likely to die once they catch it. In many municipalities, fatalities from Covid-19 among blacks are more than double what might be expected given population figures.

The well-documented biases of the criminal justice system mean that people of color are also overrepresented in the nation’s jails and prisons, where many thousands will likely contract the illness. Those in immigration detention are also at grave risk. At least 220 people in ICE custody have already tested positive, and a judge recently found the agency had “likely shown callous indifference to the safety and well-being” of detained immigrants.

The demonstrations, at which attendees have openly brandished semi-automatic weapons, have been rife with racial hostility.

Meanwhile, people of color are disproportionately represented among those deemed essential workers — delivery people, grocery store employees, transit workers, the construction trades, hospital staffers — who are risking their health to keep society on life support while many of their more privileged fellow citizens hunker down. Fewer than 20% of African Americans and 16% of Hispanics are able to work from home, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to nearly 30% of whites and nearly 40% of Asians.

Stephen Moore is not alone among members of the U.S. business community — or the Trump administration — in advocating for a premature reopening of the economy despite the widespread suffering sure to follow. In addition to the conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and right-wing grifters one might expect to find backing the anti-lockdown protests, conservative organizations — including groups linked to billionaire hedge fund manager Robert Mercer and the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — have been organizing and supporting the protests, according to recent reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Though the messaging promoted by these groups revolves around personal liberty and even patriotism, their goals are largely economic. As Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson on Wednesday, “There are worse things than dying… Nobody wants to die, but we’ve got to take some risk, and get back in the game, and get this country up and running.” (Of course, the most ardent champions of easing restrictions are unlikely to put their own lives at risk.) There are also political considerations. It’s telling that many of the states that have recently moved to lift restrictions are ones Trump carried in 2016, often with substantial margins among white voters and minimal support from African Americans.

The most prominent advocate of the “reopen” movement is the president himself, who used his Twitter account to call for insurrection even as his own administration was advising that shutdowns were still necessary to contain the virus. While Trump’s tweets were aimed exclusively at states with Democratic governors, it was a Republican, Gov. Kemp, who seemed most eager to heed the call to open things up. When the idea triggered a backlash, Trump promptly threw him under the bus.

Whether Georgia’s business owners will take advantage of the opportunity is anyone’s guess; many insist they’ll remain closed for now. As Killer Mike, the rapper and barbershop owner, told TMZ, “We’re going to wait awhile before we reopen, because in our community, there are more of us who are dying.”

What does seem clear is that the sudden urgency among conservatives to send people back to work, despite the ongoing danger, has led some to wonder if their lives are as essential as their labor. “Now that the virus has become clearly racially identified,” Chidi said, “there is a fear it will start to be ignored, that it will look like a risk borne by black people, and so broader white society will stop caring as much about who lives or dies.”

It hardly seems coincidental, he says, that the calls to reopen the economy grew louder as it became clear the black community was bearing the brunt of the outbreak. “I’ve seen the libertarian right, the authoritarian right, the right in general starting to become much more vocal than a month ago,” he notes. “They’re like, ‘Fuck it, open up.’ That taboo has been broken.”

Medium editor-at-large, with bylines in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the New York Times and numerous other publications. ¶

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