Pandemic April 2020. A man is cited for riding a paddle-board off the coast of California. A father is “detained” for playing catch with his daughter in a city park in Colorado. Police in Kentucky record license plates of cars in church parking lots on Easter Sunday. Businesses are ordered closed around the country, and in some places, “non-essential” items (like gardening supplies and child safety seats) in large department stores are cordoned off and forbidden to be sold.
And of course, gun shops and ranges in many areas have been ordered closed and off-limits.
Around the country, governors, mayors, sheriffs, and other officials, have instituted highly restrictive, blatantly unconstitutional orders. In too many cases, those orders are being actively enforced by police, and in some cases, the National Guard.
The Governor of Rhode Island banned visitors from New York and called out the National Guard to help man checkpoints on highways into the state. When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo threatened to sue Rhode Island for targeting New Yorkers, the RI Governor shifted the policy to ban travel from any state. He doubled down by having officers drive through neighborhoods and go door-to-door looking for out-of-state license plates and “foreign” visitors. When discovered, these “aliens” were ordered to either leave the state or go into strict quarantine.
What’s really disturbing about these incidents, is that police and National Guard personnel are not only obeying the orders, they’re doing so enthusiastically, with no sign of doubt or resistance.
In the Colorado case, officers who weren’t wearing face-masks or gloves, first ordered the man and his family to leave the park, saying that the park was closed. The man argued that he and his family were harming no one, was not near any of the other people using the park, and should not be ordered to leave. That appears to be the point that the officers started taking the matter personally, demanding that the man – who happened to be a former State Trooper – present ID [read show us your papers], which he refused to do, and then handcuffing him. Then holding him in the back of a patrol car for about 15 minutes, while they checked with their supervisors.
In Raleigh, North Carolina, the State Capitol Police decided to break-up a protest at the State Capitol. Over 100 people had gathered in the area of the Capitol, primarily in their cars in a parking lot, to protest the Governor’s “stay at home” order. It’s not completely clear who decided that the protesters needed to be dispersed, but we would hope that the chief or the ranking officers, or at least some of the line officers, might have said;
“Wait a minute… The right to protest is a cherished, fundamental right that’s enshrined and protected in both the U.S. Constitution and the North Carolina Constitution, so as long as the protesters are peaceful, orderly, and avoiding coughing on each other or people in the area, we can’t interfere.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t their take on the situation. They declared that the protesters were violating the Governor’s order – the order they were there protesting – and told the protesters to disperse, threatening arrest for anyone who failed to obey. They then waded into the gathering, issuing more threats and arresting one middle-aged woman, as she shouted, “God Bless America!”
In the aftermath of that, the Raleigh PD came to the defense of the State Capitol Police, by tweeting out a statement that “Protest is not an essential activity.”
The legal repercussions from these incidents and others like them will undoubtedly play out for years to come. Scholars will debate the nuances of arrest or citation for engaging in an activity, in violation of sweeping restrictions, and the legality of those restrictions. There will also be debate over whether the whole pandemic fear was overblown from the get-go, whether it was significantly moderated by government shut-down orders, or whether it was actually moderated by the voluntary actions of individuals. It’s anyone’s guess how all of those arguments might be resolved if they ever are.
What we do know is that cumulative cellphone location data shows that people reacted almost the same in states where the government took early restrictive action and states where the government was slow to take action. In all cases, the data shows people staying home more, limiting travel, and avoiding crowded places, with movement charts and timelines aligning almost perfectly whether the individuals were under government orders or just responding to the news. That’s a very important observation.
Right now, as it looks like the nation might have turned the corner on the disease, with declining numbers in every region and people feeling the pinch of forced unemployment and confinement, there’s a lot more talk about lifting restrictions and getting back to work. Curiously, a lot of that talk is coming from Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gavin Newsom of California, echoing what President Trump was saying – and being roundly ridiculed for – three weeks ago.
Polling has also flip-flopped on the issue over the past few weeks, going from about 75% of respondents saying they support the continuation of the restrictions, to about 75% now saying that it’s time to start ending the restrictions.
Interestingly, it’s the “liberal,” sector – the folks who are fond of calling conservatives “fascists” and “authoritarians” – that is still clinging to demands that the government tell them what to do. An informal internet poll on the Microsoft News site showed that a full 59% of over 25,300 respondents, agreed that people should be fined or charged for violating government-mandated social-distancing restrictions. Only 39% disagreed with that idea.
In the long-run, America, and the world will be spending a lot of time looking back on the events of the past six months, trying to figure out what was done right, what was done wrong, and how to handle things better next time.
Within that analysis must be the question of how far police will go in following orders from on high. We saw it during the Katrina disaster, and now we’ve seen it widely in response to the COVID-19 scare; police at all levels tend to simply do what they’re told, even when they know, or should know, that what they are doing is wrong.
That’s a serious concern, and it needs some serious discussion and evaluation. I thought the excuse of “just following orders” had been done away with in Nuremberg.