Fighting institutions of power is as American as it gets.
Throughout the history of this country, many have taken action in the form of demonstration to fight real and/or perceived injustice. However, until 2020, no demonstrator ever had to take to the streets with Covid-19 threatening them.
Covid-19 has changed everything — and despite stay-at-home orders, calls for social distancing and mask-wearing, some people have shown time and again over the last year that they just want to be heard.
Gathering in large groups, sometimes mask-free, isn’t as big of a deal to some Americans if it means they will be able to vocalize their beliefs. It’s a scene that’s played out across the US in protests, riots and clashes with police throughout the pandemic.
Psychologically, people identify with the issues they are fighting for and if they feel targeted or victimized, it causes them to want to act on that, according to Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University.
“(The) two big ingredients are transgression of a core moral values and the idea that your core identity group feels attacked, that’s makes one hell of a cocktail,” he said. “Then you add one or two more ingredients in it and then you explode.”
The catalyst for these explosions may be different for groups depending on political leanings, identity and culture.
People’s values and identity draw them to take action
Researchers who have studied morality have found people are willing to incur costs to take a stance, Van Bavel told CNN.
“What happens when we see something that’s morally wrong, we see what’s called a moral imperative, which means we feel compelled to do something about it,” Van Bavel said. “This isn’t just an American thing, look at Gandhi in India and Nelson Mandela. When people think something is morally unjust people are willing to go to incredible lengths to put themselves in harms way to do something about it.”
Activists who spoke to CNN often said police brutality and racism were issues long before Covid-19 hit the US, so their motivation to fight said injustices were not swayed by the virus.
“What’s a bigger threat? Us getting killed as African American men or just the cold or the flu?” said Gregory Bennett Jr., a Wisconsin activist and founder of Peace in the Streets Kenosha Inc. “Covid-19 has been around before, but race has been around way longer.”
Bennett was very outspoken during demonstrations following the shooting of Jacob Blake, who was left paralyzed after being shot in the back seven times on August 23, 2020.
Fighting for what’s to be heard right was not just limited to last summer’s protesters, either. Another group of people recently gathered in Washington, DC, last week to protest the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory. The protest eventually turned into a very violent riot that left five dead.
“We’re losing our freedoms,” one man told CNN January 6 during the riots at the Capitol.
Many who spoke to CNN that day said they believed the election was stolen.
“Even if they’re there for different moral reasons, they’re still there for a moral reason and that’s what the same,” Van Bavel said on the protests last summer and the riots in DC.
He emphasized the stark difference between the motivations of both movements and what participants in each thought was moral.
Van Bavel added researchers have found that when people harm others in the sake of morality, they often do not believe they are doing anything wrong.
“A lot of time people think they’re doing it for a virtuous reason,” he said.
Some activists say they take precautions before protests
Some activists told CNN they were very cognizant of social distancing and wearing masks.
A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that during the summer protests against police brutality didn’t lead to a jump in coronavirus cases.
Bennett, of Peace in the Streets Kenosha Inc., told CNN his organization does educate people on the risks of Covid-19.
“We educated people on Covid and we had them social distanced while protesting,” he said. “We are all conscience of Covid-19, but Covid-19 hasn’t been hanging us in trees, killing our children and women and murdering us.”
Vaun Mayes, a Wisconsin-based activist with Community Task Force MKE, told CNN his organization takes Covid-19 as seriously as it does police shootings.
His organization led a number of initiatives to get food and Covid-19 testing to citizens.
“As an activist, our everyday work has been trying to hold people up and support families throughout the Covid epidemic as well,” he said.
Others ‘don’t believe they’re risking their lives’
Some who gather don’t see Covid-19 as a real threat to their safety.
“A lot of people who are out there risking don’t believe they’re risking their lives,” said Howard Lavine, the associate dean of social sciences at the the University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts.
“Most people are aware of the reality and death toll of Covid, somehow they are not ranking it as a very serious worry.”
But during the recent riots in Washington, many were seen not wearing masks. Because of this, the event was likely a “surge event,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Robert Redfield said in a January 8 interview with McClatchy new service.
“I do think you have to anticipate that this is another surge event. You had largely unmasked individuals in a non-distanced fashion, who were all through the Capitol,” Redfield said.
Last summer, Redfield expressed similar concerns over Covid spreading amid nationwide protests.
Anyone who participated in protests should “highly consider” getting tested, he said in June of 2020.
“I do think there is a potential, unfortunately, for this to be a seeding event,” Redfield said during a June hearing on the coronavirus response. He said the risk of infection is higher in major cities where there’s been significant transmission.
To prevent transmission, Redfield suggested at the time that people who attend protests tell their loved ones that they were out in public and get tested within three to seven days.
Many just want celebrate events, holidays
Outside of protests and riots, many people have just missed the feeling of being around others.
“We have strong needs to be with other people,” Lavine said. “For many of us that has been interrupted because we’ve been told the virus spreads from person to person.”
That was apparent during the summer holidays last year, when there were spikes after Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day.
Then there’s just the overall celebrations — there were many times over the last year revelers took to the streets and celebrated without wearing masks or social distancing.
Back in October, after the Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers won championships, Los Angeles Health Director Barbara Ferrer said anyone who celebrated with others without wearing a face covering or practicing social distancing should take precautions.
She attributed an increase in cases partly to gatherings for sports events and celebrations for the two teams. One member of the Dodgers even contracted Covid-19.
More recently, after Alabama defeated Ohio State in the college football national championship, hundreds of revelers packed several blocks of University Boulevard in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, celebrating the win on a strip known for its bars and restaurants near the western edge of campus.
Many of the postgame revelers were not wearing face coverings, images on social media showed.