It seems obvious in retrospect that history does not stand still even during a biological emergency. Long simmering problems like racial discrimination and racial inequality do not go away when plague stalks the land. Police brutality does not cease. Injustice does not take a break. However, it does lead to an important question:
How does one protest during a pandemic?
I suppose the answer comes in two words: Purposefully and carefully
My family decided to join the Black Lives Matter protest planned in front of the Otsego County Court House in Cooperstown, New York on June 7, 2020. Our children insisted that we go. As we are a bi-racial family this cause was not abstract to us. It was real. We made signs together including one that said “Black Lives Matter” which included the faces of people of color whose lives were ended far too soon by white violence – Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Emmet Till and Ahmaud Arbery.
Our family all wore masks. We all waved our signs and felt a sense of unity with everyone gathered. There were 500 people standing in the sunshine holding signs, but they kept socially distant. On that beautiful summer’s day in an idyllic setting of the place that is called “America’s perfect village”, speeches invoked the ugly underbelly of America – its historic record of racism. Just steps from the lovely old inns and shimmering waters of “Glimmerglass lake”, we heard Lee Fisher, the head of the local NAACP speak about systemic racism. We heard Shannon McHugh, a member of the Oneonta Commission on Community Relations and Human Rights instruct the crowd on how white people can be allies and what they should do. We heard Rev. La Dana Clark point to the links of religion and protest. We heard Bryce Wooden, a long time Oneonta resident who is biracial, speak of when the police burst into his home when he was a young boy in a mistaken drug raid. The speakers were powerful. The crowd was enthusiastic and peaceful. The sun shone with a gentle breeze. We left emboldened with a new sense of purpose and were glad that we experienced it as a family.
There was a deep irony at work as we protested during the pandemic. Social distance and masks were used by the protesters as a conscious way to avoid the contagion of COVID. However, the point of the protest was that the contagion of racism cannot be so easily controlled. It has been long lasting, deadly and there is no easy cure. No masks and no vaccines will protect you from it. Nevertheless, we did leave the protest with a sense of hope. We signed up to join the local NAACP and gave a donation and prepared to think about how America could be better.
There would be other local protests that summer. Our daughter attended one downtown. Michelle and I went to Neahwa Park to celebrate Juneteenth (marking the formal end of slavery) with a candlelight vigil and listened on a summer’s evening to local speakers. All these events were masked and socially distant. They all mattered.
Still, I think the day together as a family in Cooperstown was the most memorable for us. Together we gathered with many others during a pandemic on a brilliant sunny day. We were passionate and peaceful. Purposeful and receptive. It was a way to acknowledge that change might still be possible. Biological diseases are caused by nature and spread by people. Racial hatred is fanned by people and spread by people. If a nation can come together to conquer one, why can’t they conquer the other as well?