Willingly, most nations in the West entered into a kind of voluntary home imprisonment in March. The term for it was “lockdown.” Normally a lockdown is used to end a prison riot. But in this global pandemic, the Western world is going through the reverse process.
Mass protests against American police brutality and racism have erupted in Dublin, London, and Paris. London and Paris have already seen riotous scenes. Downing Street is being trashed in daylight as I write. This is happening despite social-distancing guidelines and lockdown measures that are stricter and more punitively enforced than those in the United States. Boris Johnson’s government has reaffirmed the right to protest, while cautioning that protesters must still adhere to the pandemic-control guidelines, which limit public group gatherings to six people. In Ireland, such gatherings are legally limited to four people. Yet thousands-strong crowds persist in both cities.
The spectacle would be hard to put into a novel: Huge throngs of protesters chanting “I can’t breathe” during a global pandemic that targets the human respiratory system.
It’s not enough to say that American politics have gone global. Just as an astonishing amount of entertainment media from America is pumped abroad, an astounding amount of foreign news media is little more than rewrites of American media. But that doesn’t explain the global protests and riots.
The first thing to note is the mind-bending surreality of it all. After months of hysterical denunciations of beachgoers, parkgoers, churchgoers, and conservative protesters, suddenly governors and even epidemiologists are endorsing mass gatherings that go against the current strictures they imposed on the rest of us. The strictures, which prohibited not just normal business but also weddings and funerals, are dismissed as merely the denial of a hairdresser appointment. Want to hold an Orthodox Jewish prayer service in Brooklyn? Mayor Bill de Blasio will bring the police crashing down on you. But his own daughter is out there at the much larger George Floyd protests.
The second and perhaps more important thing to note is that it’s now abundantly clear the lockdowns created a giant social vacuum. Many people trapped in this vacuum are suffering. Anecdotally, my EMT friends in New York say they are responding to many more times the calls for suicide and overdoses now than for COVID-19. But our streets suffer from the social vacuum as well.
Left-wing writers belittled lockdown protesters in Marxoid terms: as tyrannical agents of capital demanding personal service from the working class. But in fact it is not so easy to distinguish what these writers take as vulgar commercial behavior from healthy social behavior. Meeting friends and family for dinners or cookouts is a social activity that has commercial implications. Ditto talking to shopkeepers, deli workers, or your hairdresser. Many schools are also commercial enterprises of a sort. Taking engagement photos on Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center is a form of commercialized personal service; it’s also a touchstone moment in the lives of the two principals. Our social behavior endows these spaces with a kind of grace.
And the absence of this grace turns out to be an absence of protection. Social behavior is a kind of prophylactic against anti-social behavior like rioting and arson. A closed business doesn’t just lose the security guards who protect it by day, but the shoppers, clerks, and passersby whose presences also protect our streets.
Social-distancing regimens have made our cities empty of the behavior that redeems their occasional ugliness and sometimes oppressive scale. Cities have been emptied of many of their most conscientious citizens — the folks who, just by going about their business, were a defense against anarchy.
As a matter of justice, the rioting must be ended. As a matter of fairness and equality before the law, the mass protests must also be ended in the name of public health — or else the lockdowns on our schools, camps, weddings, funerals, civic organizations, and businesses need to be lifted too.