What lockdown protests are really about

And how do we respond with empathy?

A protester.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Just as we're in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, so we are in the early days of its dissent.

Protests of COVID-19 lockdowns have sprung up in states including Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wyoming, and they won't be anomalies. The longer stay-at-home orders last, the longer people are banned from their workplaces and tasked with guiding antsy, anxious children through online kindergarten, the longer they can't visit grandparents or go to church, the longer Washington's relief programs are a mismanaged, unfair debacle — the longer all that continues, the more protests we'll see.

The irony is evident: Public health consensus dictates limitations on assembly help control viral spread, and mass demonstrations by definition involve assembly. It's conceivable a protest could become a superspreader event, substantially growing a state's infection tally and so prolonging the very lockdown timeline the demonstrators hoped to abridge.

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That possibility makes these protests frightening to their critics in a way rallies about even the most controversial political topics under normal conditions are not. The effects of an abortion demonstration are mediated by government action, by a law passed or a court case decided. The coronavirus doesn't need political mediation. It can spread directly from one protester to another to your grocery clerk to you.

That risk has marked the protesters for strident criticism. But as reckless and frustrating as these demonstrations may be, such categorical dismissals are wrongheaded.

It's no betrayal of the cause of public health to recognize the protesters' fears are real and justifiable. This is ultimately not about being unable to buy lawn fertilizer or get their hair done, whatever they sputter on camera. They are afraid of being poor. They are afraid of being alone. They are afraid of being jailed for trying not to be poor and alone. They are afraid their lives have permanently changed for the worse in ways they never foresaw and could not forestall. Though they may not admit it to themselves, they're probably at least a little afraid they are wrong, that the health threat is more serious than they believe and that COVID-19 could kill them or someone they love.

But they can't protest the virus itself. They can only protest the policy response, and so they do.

"People are taking to the streets, pushing back against some of the more stringent restrictions in some states," Fox News host Chris Wallace asked House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Sunday. "Can you understand why they're doing that?" "No," she answered, "not really."

"Not really"? It's the most obvious thing in the world. If we could smell fear, like dogs do, this whole country would reek.

I suspect this fear, more than any coherent ideology of individual liberty, is the underlying driver of these demonstrations. But the protesters' own rhetoric is all rights and freedom — unsurprisingly, as the American belief in protected dissent is strong. Civil disobedience and conscientious objection are core to our national mythology if not consistent in our historic practice.

Whatever hypocrisy, rejection of rightful responsibility, or oblivion to unintended consequences may be in play here — and I think all those charges have some merit — that remains true. This is why the tweet from Raleigh, North Carolina, police which justified a demonstrator's arrest by declaring protesting a "non-essential activity" rankled so many. It's also why the most vehement denunciations of the lockdown protesters seem to run to the line of calling for demonstrators' arrests but almost never cross it. An MSNBC panelist labeled the protesters the "Fox News, Nazi, Confederate death cult rump of the Republican party" but merely recommended less media coverage. As ridiculous as that contrast may be, the restraint is heartening. It suggests an important norm is holding under immense strain.

Yet wariness of legal restriction of dissent needn't preclude other means of discouragement or redirection as the protest impulse rises. Instead of writing this off as a "fringe" movement, governors and mayors should hold online town halls to hear public complaints — and not just the easy ones staffers pre-screened on Twitter. Rallies organized safely (e.g. with demonstrators in their own cars, not blocking any emergency traffic) should not be harassed or impeded by police.

Most importantly, wherever concessions may safely be made, they should be. The general wisdom of a robust public health response to COVID-19 is no guarantee that every specific iteration of it is appropriate. Some cities and states have gone beyond expert recommendations with onerous rules and police enforcement, as my colleague Matthew Walther has ably documented from Michigan, where you cannot buy paint from open hardware stores or use a motorized boat.

Protesting this sort of overreach with an in-person assembly is at minimum foolish, if not dangerous — but the overreach does deserve protest, including on public health grounds. The best mitigation models will combine effective distancing with tolerability, which means it's not a bad thing to push our governments to find ways to increase tolerability without harming efficacy.

Perhaps if the retirees of Michigan could potter around their yards with their lawn fertilizer, they'd skip the rally.

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