By ERWIN FREED and MICHAEL SCHREIBER
Amidst a global pandemic that is slowing in many sections of the United States but is certainly not over, police and the capitalist state have done a great deal to accelerate the health crisis. In a moment in which everyone in the world is taking extra precautions to protect themselves and their communities, the police are assaulting elderly people and children, permanently blinding a journalist (Linda Tirado), and leaving the bodies of working people in the street.
The scale of state violence carried out this month has been unequaled in intensity and spread in recent decades. While cops have never been slow to beat, maim, and otherwise terrorize protesters, the scale and geographic distribution of their brutality against non-violent demonstrations glaringly reveals the types of brutal tactics they are willing to use in every part of the country.
Police maneuvers such as firing rubber bullets, tear gas, and other supposedly non-lethal measures risk deepening the spread of coronavirus, as well as further overburdening the tragically underfunded health-care system in this country. The tactics of “kettling” and mass arrests confine demonstrators to even tighter spaces where infectious diseases can be spread more easily. Although even many capitalist politicians were forced to recognize the need for public health standards to lower the prison population, police have arrested over 10,000 demonstrators since May 26.
Some governmental administrations, from the local level up to the White House, are under fire for authorizing strong-arm tactics against recent protesters—including the use of tear gas. It was recently revealed, for example, that the wanton attack on a peaceful march of thousands who had been blocking an expressway on June 1 in Philadelphia was done with the okay of the mayor along with a “unified command group” of top city officials.
Some doctors and medical researchers have raised the alarm that tear gas, pepper spray, and other irritants can help spread COVID-19. For one thing, the chemicals can make people cough, which aids in aerosolizing the virus from those who are infected. In addition, the chemicals can irritate and weaken the respiratory tract and other organs, which open them further to attack by the virus.
“If exposure to tear gas is prolonged, it can result in pretty severe respiratory impacts,” Howard Hu, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington told Popular Science magazine. He said there are many well-documented cases of people developing asthma after living alongside it for days, and that it can worsen deadly pre-existing conditions like emphysema, hypertension, and coronary artery diseases.
Assessing long-term risk is complicated, Dr. Hu points out, because the lasting effects of tear gas haven’t been adequately documented. “When this was first developed by the US Army, all the research was conducted on healthy men—they weren’t exposed to really high concentrations, nor were they followed for months or years.” In contrast, some people who are currently protesting may receive a longer period of exposure.
Moreover, when protests near residential neighborhoods are attacked by police, clouds of tear gas are also entering people’s homes—a hazard for anyone staying indoors to avoid the virus. The chemical can stick to clothing and skin for up to 72 hours, and has deadlier consequences when it builds up in enclosed areas.
Police, medics, and the occupation of Palestine
In an effort to create community health measures in an otherwise disorganized campaign to fight coronavirus, medical professionals including doctors, nurses and EMTs—as well as community members—have been setting up well-labeled medic stations. A well-documented case of police destroying an aide station in Asheville, N.C., shows the true meaning of the cops’ peace and order.
These attacks on aid stations and the arrest of medical professionals, including members of the socialist media outlet Left Voice in the South Bronx, are a vicious violation of people’s right to health and safety. At the same time, the willingness of police in the U.S. to destroy protesters’ safety operations should come as no surprise. All levels of law enforcement in this country receive training from the Israeli occupiers in restraint techniques, crowd control, and beyond. With U.S. support, Israeli police and military have destroyed Palestinian hospitals and other medical centers for decades, including most recently a COVID testing site in the West Bank.
Health care, not cops!
Every step of the way—from murdering people in the street and in their homes to attacking respiratory systems during a massive coronavirus outbreak—the state has acted to make the health crisis worse. This issue has been rarely addressed by local and state governments or in the media.
At the same time, some state governments have begun to address the possibility that the recent demonstrations for George Floyd and other pressing issues might increase the spread of coronavirus, and thus thwart the efforts by authorities to “open up” their economies. In New York, Governor Cuomo announced that attending a protest is now a legitimate reason to receive COVID testing. By doing so, he also admits that testing is still scarce and difficult to receive.
The country requires massive expansion of testing on a national level, which should be financed and managed by the federal government and be available to all for free. This expansion could be easily paid for simply by defunding and demilitarizing the police and transferring the $100 billion annually spent on policing to medical production and services.
Looking further, working people should demand a complete dismantling of the military industrial complex, which would provide many billions of dollars to provide an emergency program to expand quality health care and research and other social services in the United States. Publicly funded and fully equipped hospitals and clinics, as well as a vigorous program of preventative health care, must be provided for free to working people—and especially to Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, which have been deprived of such facilities for generations.