In law enforcement theory, it’s called the Miami model, or “strategic incapacitation.” Sometimes it’s just the “hard hat approach.” That’s when police and other security services show up at mass demonstrations or protests in full riot gear—helmets, face masks, clubs, shields, body armor, chemical weapons. At the first hint of chaos, the police form skirmish lines to deny a crowd access to a space, and then advance those lines to corral and direct the crowd, pushing further with weapons nominally less lethal than guns, like tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and flashbang explosives. Since the violent protests at the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, the Miami model has become a standard response. Militarization of municipal police forces in the United States since 9/11 made it even more intense.
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The Miami model is terrible. It galvanizes even a peaceful crowd into rage, causes injuries and sometimes death, breaches trust in law enforcement, and results in lawsuits against cities and police departments. Also, it seems likely to be an excellent way to accelerate the spread of the deadly pandemic disease Covid-19.
Pandemics are always political—especially Covid-19. It makes poor people and people of color sicker and kills more of them than anyone else. Now those politics are intersecting with nearly two weeks of nationwide protests, after Minneapolis police officers choked to death a handcuffed, unarmed African American man named George Floyd—and as people show their anger and hopes for an end to centuries of systemic racism and police violence. The brutal police response to protests against police brutality may exacerbate a disease that disproportionately affects the people already disproportionately affected by police brutality.
Covid-19 is a new disease, and scientists still don’t completely understand how it spreads. Absent enough specific epidemiology, and without a useful drug or vaccine, public health workers have fallen back on generic advice for the control of respiratory infectious diseases, all the social distancing stuff you’ve heard again and again.
Protests seem like they’d break all those rules, don’t they? People can try to stay six feet apart. They can wear masks. It seems true so far that the virus doesn’t transmit as well outdoors. But large crowds and loud talking seem to help transmission. So it might be possible the risks of infection during a peaceful outdoor protest are less than, say, on a cruise ship or at a home for care of the elderly. But the risks are still there. Mass gatherings have always been at risk for disease outbreaks—gastrointestinal ones when the water supply is dicey, and respiratory ones because of their mode of transmission. All kinds of illnesses, including another coronavirus, MERS, have been a concern at the Hajj pilgrimage. The 2008 World Youth Day festival in Sydney, Australia, famously had an influenza outbreak. CES, San Diego Comic Con, and South by Southwest always send people home sick.
Yet public health experts haven’t told people to stay home. Quite the contrary. “We know people want to protest. We encourage people to go to protests, because this is a national tragedy, and we need to have our voices heard. But if we’re going to do it, let’s do it safely,” says Peter Chin-Hong, a physician at UC San Francisco who specializes in infectious disease and was among the first of more than 1,000 public health experts to sign an open letter supporting the protests. In the infectious disease community, Chin-Hong says, “we’re all generally socially minded. We started talking about the idea of race and how those people who are going to protests—a lot of them are the people who have increased morbidity and mortality from Covid in general.”
Other voices in the public health community were even louder about the calculation. Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, sparked a political backlash when she wrote on Twitter that “the public health risks of not protesting to demand an end to systemic racism greatly exceed the harms of the virus.” Conservative commentators called out the disparity between that position and the more disapproving one public health experts seemed to take on the “re-open” protests a month ago advocating for the lifting of anti-Covid measures.
But those are very different protests, and they provoked very different responses. The re-open protesters were generally whiter, often heavily armed, and were met with a muted police response, or none at all.
That difference—which stems from politics and police policy—has a direct bearing on epidemiology, too. Law enforcement mostly didn’t engage with the re-open protesters, possibly because of the politics of those protests, possibly because the risk of harm to police officers was greater with all the guns floating around. The police may also have been more fearful of contagion in early spring, when infection rates were higher in some places. “Police often end up relying on mass arrests in these types of incidents, and I think they were worried about filling up the jails with people who might have the virus,” says Edward Maguire, a criminologist at Arizona State University who studies the tactics police use at protests. “But, boy, did that change as the nature of the protest changed.”
Once the protests were about the police themselves, in many places their tactics shifted from hands-off to the Miami model. “The protests were about them, and from what I hear from the people I know in the policing world, the level of anger and hostility they’re perceiving from the crowd is much greater,” Maguire says. “I’m not saying it’s right—in fact I think it’s a miscalculation—but in the mind of a police officer, that triggers officer safety concerns. And with officer safety concerns comes violence.”
The specific nature of that violence is almost tailored to spread a respiratory disease. This is all a bit hypothetical; it can take anywhere from two or three weeks for infected people to get sick and get confirmatory test results, and it’s still too early to see outbreaks or spikes with epidemiological connections to protests. Plus, many places where protests have taken place were already seeing a rise in infections, the result of the mid-May easing of shelter-in-place rules. But here’s the idea: Tear gas makes people cough, so even if they have Covid-19 but are asymptomatic or presymptomatic, now they’re spraying virus-laden droplets into the environment. Tear gas and pepper spray make it almost impossible to breathe while wearing a mask, so those come off, increasing other people’s likelihood of inhaling those small particles. What might have been a lower-risk context becomes a high-risk one, primed to become the sort of “superspreader event” that has characterized Covid-19’s worldwide spread. “You take a smaller-risk thing, and multiply it by time,” Chin-Hong says.
And if any of the police tactics include mass arrests or detainment, the risk is even greater, because it’s back to the classic bad-news situation for Covid-19: big groups spending long periods of time in enclosed spaces. This was already a problem in jails, even before the protests. “In the presence of a pandemic, arresting and incarcerating someone unnecessarily can turn into a death sentence, not just for the people arrested but the jail staff, the court staff, the family members of the staff, and the protesters,” says Steffie Woolhandler, a public health professor at City University of New York’s Hunter College who studies infectious disease and prisons. “This is a doubly-serious human rights violation.”
Here’s where some of the arguments over a double-standard between the re-open protests and the racism-and-brutality protests break down. The re-open protesters mostly went unmasked, it seemed—after all, they were in some respects protesting the guidelines that people should wear masks. But police didn’t Miami-model them into respiratory distress and paddywagon rides downtown. Risk: mitigated. Sort of.
Police tactics at the antiracism protests, on the other hand, may have increased the chances of infection for everyone there. “They ought to be working to minimize the risk to the protesters, but instead they completely ignored the overall risk to them and the rest of society,” Woolhandler says. “Rather than them honoring social distancing, they’re getting into confrontational situations that put everyone at risk, including them.”
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The tragedy is, things didn’t have to go down this way. “This is a very specific problem. Cops know how to police a Million Mom March, right? They’re showing up to a march like that and taking photographs with the people marching. They approach those types of events where the perceived danger level is minimal with a sense of calm,” Maguire says. “And cops know how to handle riots. They know what to do. They’ve practiced their formations, their less lethal weapons use, their tactics, use of barriers. Where they’re falling apart is, how do you respond when you have something in between?” They’re defaulting to dispersing those crowds as if they were violent, unlawful assemblies, even when they’re mostly peaceful (until the police start lobbing chemical weapons).
Covid-19’s spread has been patchy, with tall spikes in some places and flatter curves in others. It is, in the words of one epidemiologist, “spatiotemporally heterogeneous.” Not a wave, but lots of squalls. The crowds at the antiracism and antibrutality protests have been much the same—broadly, people exercising their constitutional rights to try to change a manifestly broken system, with some smaller number using that as cover for vandalism or theft. If the police wanted to decrease the risk of disease transmission at the protests, they could—but of course the fact that most police forces aren’t, that maybe they don’t know how, is part of what the people are protesting. And in a couple of weeks, after whatever Covid-19 virus got out there has had time to incubate in the bodies that protesters put on the line, everyone will know just how bad that mistake was.
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