On March 29, the New Orleans Police Department, a police department with a generations-long history of misconduct and racially disparate treatment, issued an arrest warrant for Black residents Cecil Spencer and Clifton Smith for violating the city’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order. Mr. Spencer had organized a second-line celebration to honor the lost life of a loved one and refused to end it when ordered to do so. Mr. Smith was the leader of the brass band that led the second line.
For those unfamiliar, a second line is a centuries-long Black New Orleans cultural practice with direct roots to West Africa, where we honor our dead by celebrating their life in the streets (often in a part of the city where the recently departed ancestor lived or a place they were known to frequent). Social aid and pleasure clubs (working-class Black mutual-aid organizations that were started to sustain Black communities well before mutual aid became a trendy leftist organizing tool) also second line on certain Sundays throughout the year.
In recent years, this cultural and spiritual practice, along with Mardi Gras Indian culture, has been increasingly criminalized and surveilled. This criminalization and surveillance of Black cultural practices is occurring in a post–Hurricane Katrina context where the Black people who built and continue to sustain this city (from building the French Quarter to the food, the music, and even our accent—none of it would exist without enslaved Africans and their descendants) have gotten the memo: We want Black culture and what you can produce for the economy, but we don’t want you or your well-being.
While the NOPD chose to issue arrest warrants for Spencer and Smith, the response to white people violating the stay-at-home order of Gov. John Bel Edwards has been very different. White Baton Rouge–area pastor Tony Spell, after holding several church sessions, was finally charged on March 31 with violating the governor’s stay-at-home order. The police made it clear they had known of his multiple church sessions but chose not to enact arrest for several days. It’s worth noting that although Spell had been in violation of the state order for several days before the second line, he was not arrested until two days after the second line.
Anti-abortion, pro-gun, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards reinforced this disparity by calling the second line “grossly irresponsible,” language commonly used when Black people are held personally responsible for systemic or institutional failures. This is an all too common example of the ways our state and local governments continue the racist narrative that Black people need regulation and policing for the public “good” of order and safety. Even when white people are policed, we can be assured the state will not go too far.
In a majority Black, majority service-industry city such as New Orleans—where a large number of Black residents work low-wage service jobs that are currently deemed “essential” (grocery store workers, health care and hospital workers, sanitation workers)—Edwards’ message is clear. When Black people, especially Black women (as so many of the “essential” jobs are worked by us), are benefiting the economy and providing labor in service to the wealthy and middle class, it is OK to be out of our homes, but when we engage in a Black cultural practice that sustains and fortifies us, it is now a criminal act. It is clear that an “essential” worker is just a euphemism for a “disposable” worker. Even in a pandemic, we don’t seem to own our bodies.
The underlying issue is not that white people need to be policed to the same degree Black people are—nor am I minimizing public gatherings as sites of possible COVID-19 transmission (they certainly are)—but that Black individual decisions are used to justify the Black community’s conditions in a way that is not true of white individual decisions. Incidents like the second line are solely used to justify the large numbers of Black people dying from COVID-19, as opposed to addressing the macro conditions that are making us sick: no rent freezes, no personal protective equipment at work, increased policing, and racist health care, just to name a few. Again, we see scapegoating of individuals instead of holding the state responsible to stop enacting policies and practices meant to quite literally kill us.
Criminalization and COVID-19
It should come as no surprise that Louisiana, though a relatively small state, ranks in the top 10 of states with high COVID-19 rates. Because our state is small, this means a higher percentage of Louisiana residents are testing positive and dying. It should also come as no surprise that Black Louisianans, particularly Black New Orleanians, are dying at rates disproportionate to our overall population, much like disproportionate incarceration and HIV rates. We must make the connection that a state that until recently incarcerated more people than anywhere else in the country (and therefore the world) is also in the top five states for new HIV/AIDS cases. This is the context in which our communities are contracting and dying from COVID-19.
“When white folks catch a cold, Black folks get pneumonia,” says Lakeesha Harris, director of reproductive health and justice at Women With a Vision, Inc., in New Orleans. “The prison industrial complex and white supremacy has always utilized moments of great travesty to heighten the policing of Black, Brown, queer, trans, and poor bodies. COVID-19 is no exception to this rule.”
From the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic, community organizers and advocates demanded the release of prisoners and immigration detainees, because we understood that cages are petri dishes for a virus like COVID-19 to spread. While there has been lip service to releasing some pretrial detainees in New Orleans, only a few of our community members have come home.
To talk about the criminalization of COVID-19, we must also talk about the criminalization of poverty. Rent, electricity, water, and other bills remain due and there has yet to be emergency legislation from our governor or our mayor that would change this reality, so of course people are still working and continuing to put themselves at risk. If our elected officials were really about flattening the curve, our state would pass measures to ensure Louisiana residents could actually stay at home without fear of losing their home or being without food, water, electricity, etc. Instead, our state government continues to encourage residents to report people violating stay-at-home orders (much like BBQ Beckys, let’s expect a rise in COVID Karens!) and could not wait to assert that abortion services are not essential services and therefore will be unavailable for the foreseeable future.
Locally, the New Orleans government announced that starting April 21, they will conduct traffic checkpoints to monitor seatbelt usage and will use these as an opportunity to “verbally provide information regarding the current stay-at-home order.” Black residents know better and are rightfully worried.
Chad Morris, non-medical case manager with Frontline Legal Services, shares his concern that this “presents an opportunity for law enforcement to abuse their power on those who are already impacted by police brutality.” In his work, some of his clients are undocumented, and he is concerned this will be another reason to stop and detain them. Much like how Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee breaches were excuses to permanently change the Black presence in New Orleans, we can see COVID-19 is a similar opportunity.
In summation, COVID-19 may be a new virus, but the criminalization of our communities is not new. This is the moment to continue to point out the inability of our governments to solve the problems it has created, to hold them to the fire to make it better, and to continue to take care and provide for each other.