(Updated as of Sunday Evening, April 26, 2020, revising death and confirmed cases since published print version, Friday, April 24, 2020)
By Julie A. Werner-Simon, former federal prosecutor & Fellow, Constitutional Studies at Southwestern Law School
We are deep into April. The Santa Monica City COVID-19 Response Dashboard (updated daily at https://www.santamonica.gov/coronavirus), reports that Santa Monica has 154 confirmed COVID-19 cases. The Los Angeles Public Health Department, which keeps its own dashboard of up-to-date tallies for Los Angeles County, (including those of the City of Santa Monica), reports (as of April 26, 2020,at 8 p.m. PST) 20,417 confirmed cases and 942 deaths “in the county.” http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/media/Coronavirus/. Only Long Beach and Pasadena report their numbers of COVID dead: so far, it’s 29 in Long Beach and 30 in Pasadena. Other than those two places, it is hard to get a handle on where in Los Angeles County people are dying. The City of Santa Monica does not report how many have died here.
The Santa Monica Response Dashboard, however, does contain two multicolored charts: one showing the Los Angeles County COVID cases and deaths, and the other showing just Santa Monica’s confirmed cases of COVID infection. The Los Angeles County rate-of-confirmed-cases graph (in bright yellow) is ominous, climbing ever higher. Santa Monica’s confirmed-cases-graph (in bright blue) mirrors Los Angeles’. We have our own escalating trajectory.
With all this as a back-drop, and as a former federal prosecutor, now a constitutional studies instructor, (currently teaching law students on-line from the quiet of a bedroom closet), I took interest in the news coverage of COVID restriction protestors. The protests, first in Michigan and Ohio, and now crisscrossing the country in states as diverse as Idaho, Pennsylvania, and Texas have become outdoor-forums where people (most without masks) congregate closely, chant in unison, and hold signs (with a few carrying weapons, and many with MAGA hats and Trump 2020 placards). They are vociferously opposing social distancing, science, stay-at-home orders, and governmental regulations of all sorts.
Despite the ever-increasing number of deaths and the major uptick in the rates of infection, on Friday, April 17, 2020, over 100 people took to an intersection in downtown Huntington Beach, California, one of our sister-beach towns, to protest Governor Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home orders. The seemingly all-white protestors carried American flags and signs extolling the importance of the constitution and constitutional rights. One man in a mask held a sign aloft with the words: “COVID-19 is a lie!”
This take-it-to-the-streets anti-government protest was not limited to Southern California. A rally of this kind took place on Monday, April 20, 2020, in Sacramento, outside of the state capitol building. The protestors there too appeared to be white, with many wearing articles of red, white, and blue clothing, and some carrying American flags and signs with fervent messages such as: “Fear God, Not COVID,” “the Media is the Real Virus” and “You don’t own me!”
Evidently, they had not listened to the President’s prepared speeches from the White House like the one on Thursday, April 16, 2020, in which he backtracked on his assertion that the president has absolute power vis-à-vis the states.
Our commander (having been refreshed about the content of the 10th Amendment of the Bill of Rights which gives certain powers to the states) read his prepared comments on that Thursday. The President explained that the federal government will defer to the states on “re-opening” the country in “a safe, structured and responsible way”. The president also intoned that the country would be best served by a gradual three-phase re-opening plan focusing on “hard, verifiable data” consisting of what the health officials have advised to include: teleworking, sheltering-in-place, social distancing, sanitizing surfaces, as well as testing. He urged governors (stating that he has great relations with Democratic and Republican governors alike) to craft “phased and deliberate” approaches to opening their economies.
Our nation’s commander-in-chief, within hours, departed from the briefing room script and tweeted out a succession of “call-to-arms” charges against states with Democratic governors. Liberate Minnesota was quickly followed by Liberate Michigan, and then Liberate Virginia, with the added warning that Virginians’ gun rights were at stake. The president at the next White House briefing, Friday, April 17, 2020, called the people taking to the streets (who he had observed on TV footage bearing confederate flags, machine guns, military surplus olive-green flak jackets, and signs like “Heil Whitmer” alluding to the “female governor of Michigan,”) as “very responsible people.”
The president stated: “I see where they are . . . I see the way they are working. They seem to be very responsible people to me. But they’ve been treated a little rough.” But by Monday, April 20th, the president, in another prepared speech from the White House, resumed his measured words concerning the economic reopening of America. He stated that reopening would occur with “careful hygiene, social distancing, and other measures.”
The president’s economic advisor, Stephen Moore (a member of the President’s Back-to-Work Council) put an end to any confusion about the president’s actual sentiments. Moore clarified that the president’s tweets (the one’s many view as encouraging insurrection against state government authorities) are about liberty.
Moore, the president’s failed appointee to the Federal Reserve Board (having dropped out of the running due to disclosure of Moore’s incendiary comments about race to include “kicking out a black family, the Obamas, from public housing” aka the White House), called the COVID protestors: “modern day Rosa Parks, protesting against injustice and the loss of liberties.”
Our president no longer needs to dog-whistle. The message is not in his printed scripts read at the White House COVID daily debriefings, nor is it next to his signature on the COVID relief checks. It, like the virus, is in the air. It is transmitted through his fingers in his tweets. Our commander has harnessed the power of groups who do not believe in public-safety-for-all but only in the view that I-get-what-I-want-when-I-want–it. Consequences to others be damned. The view espoused is from the top down.
So to all of those “down-with-government” folks (the state “liberty” militias, the my-way-or-highway fundamentalists who insist on in-person-church services, to the anti-vaccine protestors who have joined in the fray,) to all of you, I say give back your stimulus checks. Donate the funds to our first responders and to our hospitals.
They, “cloaked” in a protective-gear doctrine stemming from early colonial America and enshrined in the 10th Amendment, are ensuring our public health and our safety. They will be cleaning up the wreckage from your failure to see and understand that ensuring public health is the duty of all of us who comprise “the public.” It is just as much my liberty right, as theirs, to be free from exposure to those who devalue science. Constitutional rights are shared by all of us. They are not absolute, nor are they solely for the loudest of the rabble. We all now know this absolutely.
Julie A. Werner-Simon
Former Federal Prosecutor, 1986 – 2015 including positions as:
Senior Litigation Counsel of Major Frauds Section &
Deputy Chief, Organized Crime Strike Force
Fellow, Constitutional Studies, Southwestern Law School