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Privileged Protest

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By now, just about everyone has seen the photograph. It's of a brunette white woman standing on the Humboldt County Courthouse lawn with a smattering of American flags in the background. Her head is cocked to the right, sunglasses covering her eyes and a red bandana tied around her neck above a jean jacket. In her hands, a vilely racist sign. It reads "MUZZLES ARE FOR DOGS AND SLAVES. I AM A FREE HUMAN BEING," with an iconic image of enslaved black Brazilian woman Escrava Anastacia wearing a muzzle next to the words.

The photo was taken by Journal contributor Mark McKenna and posted to local reporter Kym Kemp's website. From there, it quickly went viral, drawing appropriate condemnation from all corners of the country. There's so much offensive about the sign — its equating enslaved people to dogs, intoning that such people aren't, in fact, human and comparing a facial covering order designed to prevent the spread of a deadly disease to the institution of slavery, to name a few — that along with social media backlash, questions arose as to whether it was real or had been digitally doctored. The fact-checking website Snopes even ran a story about it, confirming that, yes, it was real and originated right here in Humboldt County.

Some have raised alarm about the way this photo spread, saying the women (two white women posed with the sign, though only one image has spread like virtual wildfire) holding the sign were just exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly. That's true. The Bill of Rights does protect someone's individual right to stand on a street corner with a sign that's deeply offensive, just as it protects the rights of the rest of us to decry doing so as offensive and racist. We should add that there's no right to privacy in a public space, so don't do something on a street corner you don't want to see on the front page of tomorrow's newspaper or trending on social media. It's also been reported that some have called for or threatened physical violence in response to the photo, which obviously is not protected speech.

But make no mistake, this is about much more than a racist sign — this is about white privilege and white exceptionalism. Sure, the layers of privilege and racism, conscious or subconscious, that would prompt someone to make or display a sign like that are breathtaking, but they can also be seen as emblematic of the mindsets driving these protests across the country. Next time you see photos or video of one of these "liberate" protests somewhere in the country, scan the crowd — you won't see many black or brown faces.

And that's not a coincidence, as it's communities of color — along with older populations — that have disproportionately felt the sting of this disease. Preliminary data in Michigan shows that black people, while representing just 14 percent of the population, account for 41 percent of COVID-19 deaths. Similarly, 14 percent of Illinois' population is black compared to 32.5 percent of its COVID-19 deaths. In New York City, officials reported black and Latino people were twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than their white counterparts. In Louisiana, black people make up 33 percent of the population and 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths.

There are, of course, reasons for these disparate COVID-19 outcomes, and it's not that the virus itself is racist. Rather, it's that gross health inequities existed throughout this country long before a new respiratory illness surfaced in China last year. Those inequities are the legacy of hundreds of years of slavery, segregated schools and hospitals and the systemic oppression and exploitation of generations of people, and manifest in everything from reduced access to healthcare and being more likely to live in communities with environmental health hazards to limited access to healthy food and added level of employment stress. (Generational inequities also leave people of color more likely to work in the service sectors where employees are heavily exposed to the virus.)

That's the context under which groups of mostly white people have taken to streets and the steps of statehouses throughout the country to bemoan the "oppression" of shelter-in-place restrictions and facial covering orders. And it's the context in which people of color, also experiencing personal and economic impacts, hear protesters shout loudly that their comfort, bank accounts and jobs deserve more consideration than people's lives.

Make no mistake, history will judge our handling of COVID-19, a generational event. Like all flashpoints, there will be powerful images that tell the story, capturing sentiments of the day. We fear that if officials' worst predictions of COVID-19 come to pass, McKenna's photo from in front of the Humboldt County Courthouse will help new generations of Americans understand how a privileged class ignored the collective good and left society's marginalized and most vulnerable to once again bear unthinkable costs.

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