In the last month, there have been numerous anti-shelter-in-place protests at state houses, capitals, and city halls. The protesters demand that states reopen regardless of the public health consequences. In the name of the first amendment, the protesters willfully risked the spread of the coronavirus to police, other protesters, and journalist. As it is at many right-wing rallies, the American flag was waved and reproduced as though to suggest that medical experts and politicians are somehow unpatriotic for putting in place public health protections. The omnipresence of the flag, alongside hateful and sometimes racist speech, suggests something even more unsettling, namely that unthinking patriotism—like unthinking corporatism—often keeps us from thinking and acting in the best interests of our families, our communities, and humanity at large.
In the last month, in states as diverse as Massachusetts, Georgia, California, Virginia, and Michigan, there have been public anti-shelter-in-place protests at state houses, capitals, and city halls. Protesters carried signs that read “all jobs are essential,” “reopen America,” and “shutdowns kill too.” In Boston, a conservative radio host addressed a crowd of several hundred, saying, “I see churches closed, I see an economic collapse, thousands of businesses bankrupt and shuttered – all of this for a lousy virus? For a contagious flu at the absolute worse? This is not a pandemic.”
Everyone wants the quarantine to end. But these protests raise some important considerations. First, the overwhelming majority of the protesters are not wearing masks and are therefore putting more people (the police, other protesters, the news media) at risk. That is, although they are calling for a return to “normal,” by risking the spread of the virus, the protesters are potentially prolonging the very quarantine they seek to end and thereby worsening the economic fallout. Second, the president has tweeted support for these protests, even though the governors of the states in question are following the same federal guidelines that his administration put in place.
It might be helpful to put these types of protests in context. The history of modern non-violent civil disobedience runs from 19th-c British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and American philosopher Henry David Thoreau to 20th-c leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Non-violent disobedience—along with labor actions, boycotts, and other forms of organizing—has been a powerful political tool in US history, helping to win the eight-hour day, the 19th amendment (the right for women to vote), and the Civil Rights Act. But what we are seeing across the country is arguably neither non-violent, civil, nor disobedient.
Besides practicing their 1st-amendment rights in ways that put other people’s health in jeopardy (not wearing masks, not maintaining social distancing measures), there have also been swastikas and confederate flags present at these protests. In a gesture that can only be read as intimidating, some protesters have also carried guns, including assault rifles. And while it is overstating things to suggest that the majority of protesters promote racism, there have been racist overtones to a number of the protests. In this sense, the protests call to mind the Charlottesville protest of 2017, which was advertised as a call to support “southern heritage” but was, in reality, something like a reenactment of a KKK rally.
Furthermore, and perhaps most disturbing, the protesters are using a form of protest, namely non-violent civil disobedience, that was developed to challenge colonialism, slavery, segregation, and so on, but they use it in order to argue for a return to “business as usual.” In other words, they are using a strategy developed to fight for emancipation and justice in order to push for a return to an economic and social system that continues to oppress them (while there is no way to know for sure, it seems unlikely that there were any corporate CEO’s in the crowds of flag-waving protesters). No wonder the president has voiced his support for these events; what could be better than working class people demanding the status quo?
Finally, it is disturbing, although not surprising, to see the American flag such an omnipresent sight at these protests. The appeal to freedom that the flag represents turns out to be an appeal to free markets, that is, an appeal for the absolute freedom to place profits over people. This is the problem of nationalism more generally: an abstract idea such as freedom gets embedded in the symbol of the flag and keeps us from thinking and acting in the best interests of our families, our communities, and humanity at large.
As the great songwriter John Prine once sang (Prine is one of more than 80,000 Americans to die from Covid 19), “your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore.”