Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess: COVID-10 and Civic Unrest - The Situation in Early June 2020

By Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

Our immediate goal in writing this series of posts is to help our society chart a wise and equitable path through an extremely turbulent time.  We also hope that these posts will be of continuing value as a kind of case study that demonstrates how insights from the conflict and peacebuilding field can help societies better deal with their most difficult problems. Future readers will, of course, need to understand the context in which these posts are being created. Accordingly, we are including this article which summarizes the situation that we now face. 



This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative / COVID-19 Blog


As I write this post, we are about three and a half months into the COVID-19 pandemic here in the United States—it started in China about a month earlier. We are told the pandemic will end when we reach "herd immunity," which will occur when about 60% of the population has become immune to the disease, either because they have had it and recovered, or because they have been vaccinated, which at the very best, will take 12-18 months. This means that we are facing a protracted pandemic in which many more millions will be infected and a substantial percentage will die or suffer debilitating long-term illness.

The pandemic has already caused over 100,000 US deaths (40,000 more than the war in Vietnam).  It has also decimated the economy as almost everywhere went on "lockdown" for at least a month—often much more—ordering everyone except "essential workers" to stay home and all but "essential businesses" to close.  This has resulted in very high unemployment numbers (the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the current U.S. unemployment rate to be 14.7% as of May 11, 2020, while two months earlier it had been under 4%).  Schools and daycares closed, so children missed out on education and peer interactions, and their parents also missed peer interaction, while often trying to juggle childcare, home schooling, and the risks associated with their jobs (if they were not lucky enough to be able to work from home). (I say this in past tense, although these challenges are continuing for meny people.)

Many people are calling for cooperation and helping one's fellow citizens, but others, including the Trump Administration are using this event as an opportunity to drive the escalation spiral further to "mobilize the base." 

The reports of psychological depression and anxiety are soaring, as are the risks of a financial crisis to rival the Great Depression.  There is also the real fear that our dysfunctional Federal government will be unable to agree on legislation that preserves the financial livelihoods of those whose lives have been torn apart by the pandemic. And, while many people are calling for cooperation and helping one's fellow citizens through the crisis with as much skill and compassion as possible, the Trump Administration seems more interested in winning this fall's election through its unique brand of divisive politics focused on avoiding responsibiliy; blaming others; issuing orders that inhibit, delay, or prevent effective response; and driving the escalation spiral, in an effort to "mobilize his base."

Within this context, on Monday May 25, 2020 an unarmed African American man, George Floyd, was taken into custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota and was pinned to the ground by a white officer who, by kneeling on his neck, killed him, despite the fact that Floyd repeatedly cried that he could not breathe. The event was videoed by a bystander and was released on social media for the world to see. Protests broke out shortly thereafter in Minneapolis, and have since spread across the U.S. and around the world. 

While many of the protestors are peaceful, others are not, and violence between protesters and the police became widespread At least six people were killed and many more injured as of Wednesday June 3.  Stores were looted in many cities, others were set ablaze, as were police vehicles and police stations. In Minneapolis, there are calls to eliminate the police department, even though they responded quickly by firing the four officers involved and calling for an F.B.I. investigation.  (And the officers have now been charged with murder.) 

Despite the quick response of the Minneapolis Police Department, in the first week after the killing the protests and violence continued to spread and escalate, driven not only by angry citizens who have had enough police violence against blacks (this was only the latest of many such incidents), but also by anger about systemic racism and inequality more broadly.  The heavy-handed response of many police departments to the protests and rioting also drove the escalation spiral.  There were also reports suggesting that the violence was also being carried out by common opportunistic criminals, as well as white supremacists, and possibly, "organized crime, outside instigators and, possibly foreign instigators" (as the Minneapolis mayor tweeted on May 30).  And, rather than being a calming influence, President Trump chose to respond aggressively to the protests and violence, repeatedly threatening to send in the military to quell the violence, and tweeting "when the looting starts the shooting starts" which was widely seen as encouraging further violence.   

The George Floyd killing, together with COVID-19 created a particularly incendiary situation and the two crises will likely feed upon each other.

Put together with COVID-19, this created a particularly incendiary situation. People were already desperate from the losses experienced from COVID; they are now doublely desperate.  And the two crises will likely feed upon each other.  If the experts' call for social distancing is, indeed, necessary to slow the spread of COVID, the global protests are likely spreading it much further.  This is going to cause more death, more shutdowns, more desperation. This, unfortunately, is laying the groundwork for more civil unrest in, as we have said elsewhere, a positive-feedback system or rapidly escalating spiral. 

On a more positive note, the character of the protests changed in the second week with a dramatic reduction in the number of violent incidents, an expansion of the number and size of protests, and the degree to which the demands of the protestors were being taken seriously.

The open question is whether the energy shown around issues of policing (defining the protests narrowly), racism (defining the protests more broadly), and inequality more generally (defining the protests even more broadly) will continue to have traction in the days and months ahead.

  A significant number of cities are talking about "defunding" or "revamping" or otherwise transforming policing in their cities. Notably, front page news coverage is now on proposals to reform policing, not just on the protests, and COVID-19 is back in the news, as is a bit of coverage of other issues—such as climate change. 

It seems clear that the effects of COVID-19 will be with us for a long time.  The open question is whether the energy shown around issues of policing (defining the protests narrowly), racism (defining the protests more broadly), and inequality more generally (defining the protests even more broadly) will continue to have traction in the days and months ahead. The other question, of course, is how well we can come together to address these issues while also minimizing the impact of the pandemic and helping each other (across our many political divides)  through the inevitable difficulties we all face.