For people who work in the HIV field, criminalization is a very old and well-known concept. Since nearly the moment the public learned what HIV was, there have been efforts to demonize, lessen, and suppress the rights of people who are living with the virus. The same goes for groups of people who are perceived to be more likely to have or transmit HIV.
The result: Fear. Stigma. And, inevitably, the creation of laws that are intended to protect society from HIV—but which only serve to harm our country by turning humans against humans, and by shoving down the very people who most need to be supported.
We’ve seen it all before. And as the coronavirus pandemic bubbles through the U.S., we’re beginning to see it all again: Efforts to judge, separate, and litigate people because of a biological infection. We know we can do better as a society—and, in the HIV realm, we’ve learned how to fight back against these efforts.
On April 16, TheBody hosted a livestream panel discussion entitled “Policing Pandemics: Criminalization From HIV to COVID-19.” We invited four pillars of HIV advocacy to speak with us about our current moment, offer guidance on what to do next, and answer questions from the audience:
Breanna Diaz, the policy director at Positive Women’s Network-USA
Catherine Hanssens, the executive director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy
Trevor Hoppe, an assistant professor of sociology at University of North Carolina-Greensboro and the author of Punishing Disease: HIV and the Criminalization of Sickness
Andrea Ritchie, a researcher at the Interrupting Criminalization Project, as well as the author of Invisible: No More Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color
The panel was organized and moderated by Kenyon Farrow, TheBody’s senior editor, and Mathew Rodriguez, our associate editor. Here is a transcript of that 90-minute conversation, which has been edited for clarity. (You can also replay the webinar immediately below.)
Before Coronavirus, a History of Criminalizing Disease
Mathew Rodriguez: Trevor, a lot of people may not know that before HIV, the U.S. does have a history of criminalizing disease, illness, sickness—and you cover some of this history in your book Punishing Disease. Can you tell us about the history of using epidemics or pandemics as a way to stigmatize or criminalize certain groups or populations or communities?
Trevor Hoppe: Definitely. Thanks Mathew. So I’m a sociologist, and I study the criminalization of disease, particularly HIV. But in my work, I’ve gone back and looked at the broader history of how we tend to blame people we don’t like in the face of public health threats.
HIV is not unusual in the fact that it’s all this way to blame, particularly gay men, but also sex workers, injection drug users, many other groups of disliked, marginalized communities. So I just want to walk us through, if I have time, four little vignettes through history that will show how blame has functioned and had shaped public health response in problematic ways, to help us think about how it can go wrong—essentially, when we try to blame, and we don’t do real public health practice.
I’ll start by taking us all the way back 120 years ago to San Francisco, when there was an outbreak of bubonic plague.
Health officials responded to that threat in a racist and xenophobic way by selectively quarantining Chinatown in that city and explicitly exempting non-Chinese businesses and neighborhoods. I’m glossing over so many things, but just this little tiny little vignette: It shows us how racism and xenophobia can kind of creep in and fuel public health response in ways that are irrational and ultimately ineffective.
A second story that people are pretty familiar with is Mary Mallon. She was a cook in New York City in the early 1900s who was a carrier of typhoid. You may know her as what the Journal of the American Medical Association named her as: Typhoid Mary.
She was identified after infecting a number of clients with typhoid. She shed the bacteria on her hands. She was a carrier, she wasn’t sick herself. She was quarantined for many years, ultimately, until she passed away from the disease.
We all kind of know that story loosely, right? It’s kind of shaped how we think about blaming and disease. What we don’t know is the other people at the time who were also typhoid carriers, who also exposed other people, and who also could be Typhoid Mary but aren’t.
One in particular that I think is compelling is that of a German baker—confectioner; candy maker—Frederick Morris, who was quarantined at the very same time. Mary Mallon was on North Brother Island, but because [Morris] was a father and a skilled worker, they let him go. They let him off the island, and he wasn’t quarantined for the rest of his life like Mary was.
I think it’s no mistake that we don’t know Typhoid Frederick. Right? That’s not how we remember it. We remember it as a woman. And so gender can also reinforce these efforts to blame.
Again, glossing, very big: Next, to Seattle in the 1950s. There was a tuberculosis sanitarium, Firland Sanitarium, and it was built to house what they called the most recalcitrant patients—they use this term also today. Tuberculosis patients—if you don’t know, tuberculosis is hard to treat, even today with antibiotics, and patients have to continue taking medicine for a long time, even though they might start to feel well.
What is curious about Firland, in practice, is that only one group of people wound up there, and that was poor alcoholics. Homeless alcoholics from one neighborhood, perhaps ironically called Skid Row, from Seattle. And so in this way, quarantine became almost like a form of punishment for alcoholism and poverty. It reminds us of how class inequality can really shape our response to infectious disease.
Finally, fourth, I just want to bring us to 1987 San Francisco. This is a story—a s many of us are [working] in HIV, we know this story well. It’s Patient Zero, right? This is the alleged “Columbus of AIDS” who brought HIV to America. Or at least that’s what we were told.
There's a reason we were told that story. It was about blame. It’s because Randy Shilts was putting the finishing touches on his book And the Band Played On, which many of us have read and was widely read at the time.
What is less known is that the publisher pushed him to create this character of Patient Zero as a way to drive sales, because it kind of fanned this fear and stigma in society against gay men—in this idea that we could pin the blame on AIDS on a promiscuous gay flight attendant.
[It] was so salacious that it made the book a bestseller. And so again, we can see how sexuality can creep in and reinforce calls to blame.
These little vignettes all remind us of how we have continuously blamed people we don’t like for the spread of disease. Sometimes this has a vague, tangential relationship to reality, but often it’s just a knee-jerk response based on prejudice and fear.
And I’ll just leave you with one last little picture. That’s of a president giving a press briefing with a speech in front of them with the word “coronavirus” crossed out and replaced with the words “Chinese virus.”
As a sociologist, it’s pretty rare for us to get a peek inside someone’s head to see their intents, because we’re only left with their written word or their spoken word. But here we have his notes in his speech—President Trump’s notes in his speech. And so we can see there was an intentionality behind that phrasing.
It wasn’t a mistake or a slip of the tongue that we ended up with this term “Chinese virus.” He promoted it with some intent behind it. I think, again, this reflects this broader history of this impulse to blame here. He wants to blame China. Whether it’s because of this broader political struggle he’s caught in with China or because of a xenophobic or racist impulse, whatever the case, clearly blame is shaping his response. And it’s nothing new.
I think that hopefully that prance through history will help us remind us that “Chinese virus” is not an accident. It is shaped by stigma. It is shaped by fear, and it looks a lot like history. And I hope we can do better. Because that blame—that seed of blame—is the first step towards criminalization; that’s the germinating—that’s where criminalization fosters, where we blame, and the next step is to punish.
And so I just hope that that little history can help remind us of this broader struggle that we’re in. It’s not just about nationality, but also gender, sexuality, race, and class.
Kenyon Farrow: Thank you so much, Trevor.
The Impact of Criminalization: From HIV to Coronavirus
Kenyon Farrow: The next question is for Catherine. Catherine, you worked as an attorney for people living with HIV since the early days of the epidemic. Can you talk a little bit about the impact of criminalizing HIV exposure or nondisclosure, and the laws that you know were created in the wake of the epidemic and the impact that those have on people living with HIV? But also what you're thinking about what they mean in the current landscape around coronavirus?
Catherine Hanssens: Yes Kenyon, I'm happy to—but I’d like to start out, if I may, just thanking Trevor for his prance, as he put it, through history. I'm underscoring a couple of things that I think are important to remember.
We often nowadays talk about having a public health, rather than a criminal/legal, response to HIV and other diseases. And I think Trevor's synopsis reminds us that public health police powers can often be every bit as repressive with less due process in the criminal law.
An embrace of due process and human rights isn't necessarily a core part of public health institutional training. So I think when we refer to public health, we have to be really mindful of the need to monitor those kinds of responses as well.
To your question, Kenyon: I started this work representing incarcerated people in 1984, which I did for the first 10 years of my career as a lawyer. I had done that kind of work for years before law school. In fact, it was the experience of doing work in places like Holmesburg and Graterford prisons in Pennsylvania that made me want to become a lawyer.
It's in that context where I saw my first cases of AIDS—particularly in Bergen County Jail. Bergen County, being the richest, whitest county in New Jersey and one of the richest in the country, where they were housing people double-celled in small cells without hot running water. And where the inmates that were believed to have AIDS were down in a basement section of that. What I learned from that work has remained relevant to me to this day.
When I moved on to work for local and national HIV and LGBT organizations, frankly, they didn't have any interest. Those organizations had no interest in incarcerated populations. And I think perhaps that was based on the class background of most of those who worked in them. They didn't really believe that HIV in prisons and jails had anything to do with queer people or their mission.
And when, after many years, HIV and queer organizations started to engage in [fighting against] HIV criminalization, I think the prevailing perception was that white gay men were most at risk, and a disgruntled lover away from being a convicted felon. And that was not the case. That is not the case.
In all the places where we have real comprehensive data, we've learned that from California to Florida, the vast majority of convicted felons under HIV criminal laws have been women of color who are sex workers, except in Missouri where it is men of color who have altercations with police and corrections officers.
Those are the facts. And we're not talking like a little bit, like a 51%. We're talking about 70 something percent to 95%. Those are the people who are targeted. I think we're going to see the same thing with COVID-19 prosecutions.
I think the second-most important takeaway, at least for me, from the history of the work that I've done over the past few decades is also still applicable, and that's: When you try to create a solution to a criminal legal system problem by focusing on one identity or one disease, and you make it about you—in HIV for example, creating legal reform based on whether or not viral load is suppressed and whether you're infectious, whether or not you are additionally disfavored by being a sex worker—then you are going to have the unintended collateral consequence of giving a green light to those who are left behind, coded along with other diseases that already have been criminalized.
It's an easily transmitted disease. So sex workers who are already treated as disease vectors are no doubt going to be doubly at risk when we talk about COVID-19 prosecution.
So I guess the question that I pose for all of us is: What does a narrow focus on HIV law reform based on things like incorporating compliance with a doctor’s prescribed treatment regimen, or a suppressed viral load, or lack of infectiousness, going to do for folks like that?
Mathew Rodriguez: Thank you Catherine.
The Perils of On-the-Ground Policing of Pandemics
Mathew Rodriguez: Next we’re going to turn to Andrea Ritchie of the Interrupting Criminalization Project. Andrea, one of the things that we want to talk about today was the transformation of public space into heavily policed space.
You have examples here in New York city of now people are being fined up to $1,000 for not socially distancing. Just today, [Governor Andrew] Cuomo said that face masks are required in public, without really any follow up about what that means, about how that’s going to be enforced.
We know implicitly it’s going to be enforced—stories like in Philadelphia where a man was pulled off of a SEPTA bus for not wearing a mask; two instances where people have been harassed by police for wearing masks in certain spaces like grocery stores, because it was covering their face and they couldn’t see who they were.
What do you think is the most important thing for people to know about on-the-ground policing during a pandemic?
Andrea Ritchie: Thanks. I think that it looks like policing in any other context, but expanded and exponentially both more dangerous and more expensive.
As you’re talking about the policing of public space, that’s certainly been an issue since police existed. In fact, police—in addition to being slave patrols and controlling the movements of indigenous people—were created to police public space and to keep them free and safe for middle-class white women, basically.
And one of the things they created the police for was to keep public spaces free from disease. And ugly laws seeking to ban people with disabilities from public spaces were some of the first municipal laws that were passed. So this is simply providing more fuel to that fire, and amping up that fire.
It’s also looking very much like the policing of HIV has generally. We’re seeing patterns that are very similar to what we know as “broken windows” policing, or policing of public order, where certain groups of people are identified as inherently disorderly, inherently to be removed from public space. Now they’re also being branded as inherently diseased—or potentially diseased, and to be removed from public space.
Those are the same people, right? Groups of youth hanging out outside; couples hanging out outside. We saw it. We’ve seen arrests in New York City of people who are outside with the person they live with being told to separate by police officers. And when they didn’t: a very violent arrest, and a very dangerous arrest, putting someone in much more risk of infection through contact with police and in a jail cell than being within six feet of their fiance who they actually live with.
We’re seeing youth in parks being targeted. We’re seeing essential workers being targeted, as you said, for getting on buses and in subways in New York City, where Cuomo just also recently put 500 more officers. So that was “broken windows” policing before, and now, being deployed as covert policing.
Catherine mentioned the policing of people in the sex trades. One of the first arrests for potential transmission in France was of someone in the sex trade, simply for testing positive—as many people in the sex trade who test positive for HIV faced enhanced penalties in the U.S. as well as in some states being required to register as sex offenders. So we’re seeing, again these various, we’re seeing homeless people or houseless people, or low-income people on the street, who in fact can’t follow a public health guidance for many reasons, then being harassed and targeted and swept up in sweeps.
We’re seeing businesses being targeted much as in the context of HIV. Then it was bathhouses; now it’s businesses of people of color, right? It’s particularly migrant businesses—and businesses that are within grey areas around what’s [considered] essential and what’s not—being targeted.
And we’re seeing similar patterns around alleged transmission. People who cough—or are accused of coughing—in the direction of police officers are being charged with assault on police officers. And being accused of coughing in the direction of other people are being charged with terroristic threats.
We see that often, people living with HIV, when they come into contact with police officers, being charged with all kinds of horrific things just by virtue of the cop having disease phobia, HIV phobia, and acting on it—both in terms of physical violence, as we saw during ACT-UP demonstrations, and in terms of charging people with assault on a police officer or attempted assault for allegedly coughing, spitting, et cetera.
And we’re seeing that happening in policing in the context of COVID as well. We’re seeing, as Catherine mentioned, that police have more power. Not only are they enforcing now random rules, like stay six feet apart whether you live together or not, whether you’re married or not. But they also have a lot more power and exceptions under the Fourth Amendment.
Someone asked in the chat whether we’re seeing quarantine as punishment. It certainly can be used as punishment, and certainly people are being punished for not complying. A woman in Quebec, in Canada, for instance: Stepped outside her door—probably because she was, just, from being in the same [four] walls—didn’t necessarily come into contact with anyone, but was immediately arrested for stepping outside her door. Police are being stationed outside people’s doors.
So there’s ways in which quarantine can be discriminatorily deployed in the ways that Trevor was talking about, but also enforced through policing.
I just wanted to close by saying that I’m concerned about the future of surveillance, and we can talk more about that in terms of how people will be policed for being outside. There are many scenarios that are being floated that sounded like science fiction two minutes ago, and now are just reality, right? Like having an antibody [inaudible] and have an antibody passport to step outside, and being policed based on whether you have one or not.
That’s already happening in other places in the world: using apps, assigning you risk levels, and then determining whether you can enter or not enter spaces based on your assigned risk level—based on your temperature. Which, you know, people can run fevers for lots of reasons—and some disabilities or some conditions, you’re frequently running a fever, right? So to be denied access to public space based on physical condition is something that we’re concerned about.
And obviously, rendering private information public—which, again, happens in the context of HIV surveillance, and that we’re now seeing: People who have tested positive, the notion that their health information could suddenly be—and their very personal information, about where they’ve gone and who they come in contact with, becoming public.
Also, seeing increasing requirements: I think, Mathew, the example you gave of Black folks risking arrest for wearing a mask and arrest for not wearing a mask is very real in New York City. In fact, there’s still a law on the books in New York City about appearing in a mask in a public space. It’s not commonly enforced except against protesters. But now that seems to be another thing that someone could be charged with, at the same time as being charged with not wearing one if they don’t.
As places are thinking about relaxing or lifting restrictions—and then, with the knowledge that they’ll come back again, as different waves of this pandemic move through us—I think we’re going to see more and more of this enforcement, and that it’s going to be driven by three things:
One, the healthcare providers calling for more enforcement, because the healthcare system can’t manage. So the fact that our healthcare system is so under-resourced will then be used to police people.
[Two,] it’ll be driven more by calls by individuals. In that way, it’s kind of like what Catherine was mentioning: You come into contact with someone, or someone sees you, and decides you’re not following the rules as they think you should be. Already in New York City, there’s been over 5,000 calls to 311 [the city’s non-emergency information hotline] by people trying to call on their neighbors instead of talking to them and asking them what they need to stay inside, or having a conversation with them.
[Three,] this push to reopen the economy is gonna lead to intensified policing in the name of getting the situation in a place where the economy can be restarted.
So we’re going to need to be really vigilant on all those fronts, and there’s some actions that are being taken I’m happy to talk about later.
Kenyon Farrow: Thank you so much, Andrea.
How Criminalizing Viruses Hurts Marginalized People
Kenyon Farrow: Breanna, as we know, policies around HIV criminalization—as all of our panelists have just elucidated—are meant to control bodies of people living with HIV, particularly people of color, queer folks, trans folks, women, and sex workers as mentioned. How are we already seeing coronavirus criminalization affecting marginalized groups, from your vantage point? What is some of the work that PWN is starting to ramp up around decision?
Breanna Diaz: Yeah, thanks. You know, a lot of the co-panelists have already highlighted specific examples of criminalization, policing and surveillance. The way that we’ve been tracking it at PWN is kind of two buckets of criminalization.
One is through the use of the enforcement of shelter-in-place orders where they exist at the local or state level. And the second bucket is the use of existing criminal statutes. Which I think are two buckets that are familiar to the HIV community, with the creation of either new HIV criminalization laws or the use of existing criminalization laws to police and criminalize our population.
With the enforcement of shelter-in-place laws, I know Catherine and Andrea have already mentioned a couple of examples. But, you know, we’re seeing a really alarming rate of Black, brown and POC [people of color] communities [audio cuts out] seeing in criminal responses where they’re trying to adhere to shelter-in-place orders and guidance issued by the CDC or state public health agencies, like for wearing masks or bandanas.
Here in Virginia, it is a crime to cover a substantial portion of your face with a mask or bandana in public places, yet grocery stores—you know, gas stations, anywhere—is requiring you now here in Virginia to cover your face. And already we’ve had a Black man be policed in a local grocery store for adhering to the Virginia shelter-in-place order yet somehow also violating state law.
There’s also a huge fear of increased policing and criminalization for housing-unstable people, who truly have nowhere to go when there's a shelter-in-place order. So far there hasn’t been enough response, a sufficient response by state or federal agencies for housing-unstable people.
In the other example, of existing statutes used to criminalize right now: For example, we saw in Chicago, Illinois, a man who was arrested for reckless conduct for just coughing in the direction of cops standing at a front desk in Chicago. There is no proof that this individual had COVID-19 at the time, and there is no proof of this individual, even if they did have it, that it was transmitted to any of these officers standing away. Yet this person has been charged with reckless conduct.
There’s plenty of examples, and they keep popping up daily. And we’re not seeing proper response here; just further criminalization.
Another thing that we’re seeing amongst marginalized populations is—as the other panelists have touched on—is the use of surveillance. This is a major concern right now: As you know, states are collecting data on who has COVID-19. There’s a lot of fear around data sharing with specific law enforcement agencies.
Right now, Alabama and Massachusetts decided to respond to the pandemic by sharing the addresses of people that have COVID-19 with first responders. The logic underlying this initial emergency policy was, well, we’ve got to protect our first responders from getting COVID-19. It’s just the safety and wellbeing for all.
But this policy really threatens the patient privacy rights of these individuals. There’s no way to ensure that this data will be secure, that it will not be hacked or accessible to anyone outside of first responders. It also is predicated on a deep misunderstanding—and now-outdated understanding—of COVID-19, because we know that some people can have it and be asymptomatic.
These two policies are problematic. Yet police officers in other states and counties—for example, in Minnesota, police departments are requesting that this type of data sharing exists. We’re also seeing the use of cell phone tracking data be used to monitor individuals.
We’re also seeing, now, the use of ankle monitors right now in Kentucky: They are using ankle monitors to track people who have COVID-19 or share space with someone who has COVID-19. And if that individual defies a quarantine order, Kentucky courts are ordering that that individual will be shackled with an ankle monitor to track our every movement.
So that’s a lot of stuff that we’re seeing that is disproportionally impacting all the marginalized communities you said, and then some.
What we’re seeing here at PWN is, we are a largely Black and POC membership. Also we know, because women with HIV are already living on the brink of survival when it comes to poverty—or relying on a safety net that is constantly just getting dismantled under this [presidential] administration—that our community is under crisis and fighting for survival.
We’re balancing not only the further criminalization, policing, and surveillance of our communities; we’re also trying to live with additional responsibilities and burdens, whether that’s taking on additional family care responsibilities or losing income to our house, we still try to provide all these necessities for themselves. So we’re seeing a lot all at once.
I think there’s some things that we can do as organizations and as HIV advocates. PWN recently drafted a letter that was signed on by over 100 local state and national organizations that work with these marginalized populations. We had specific asks that we want to see included in the next relief package brought by the U.S. government.
Some of those asks are such things as: We want federal funding to states and local governments, but they should not be contingent on states adopting laws criminalizing COVID-19. This is pretty reminiscent of the Ryan White [CARE Act] funding.
We’re also asking for such things as privacy on data sharing. As I mentioned, since data sharing is growing between state public health agencies and law enforcement, there’s a very real fear for marginalized populations that their safety is at risk. And it’s critical that, [for] any funding that be dispersed to states, that there is some sort of privacy protection with that data.
What Can the HIV Community Do About Coronavirus Criminalization?
Kenyon Farrow: Great, thank you all so much.
I want to open it up again to the panelists—to give you a chance to say other things that you thought of during the other presentations that you want to weigh in on, or things that you’ve been thinking about.
Catherine Hanssens: From speaking with a lot of folks over the last couple of weeks, it seems a lot of people that have been living with HIV for a long time are having serious PTSD reactions to this. And I think some of the things that Breanna described really underscore why that’s happening.
Most of us remember—in fact, some of this still happens—EMTs and police needing to know the HIV status of people they were going to, and also situations where somebody living with HIV revealed their status to emergency tech people arriving, and found that the service was refused. So there is a history of that. And in jails and prisons, corrections officers wanted to see HIV or fluid precautions stamped on every single file of anybody they were transporting. So there is a very sad, deja vu feeling around that.
Kenyon Farrow: You know, we’re in this moment that I find very interesting for those of us who have been working on or writing about or advocating about dismantling the laws that criminalize HIV for a long time. To see, with the coronavirus, a lot of folks who are doing other, broader criminal justice organizing work get interested or thinking about pandemics and the use of criminal statutes in this case.
I would also like to mention, too, that one of the things we haven’t really mentioned is: Just in the last probably five to seven years, we’re beginning to see right-wing pundits like on Breitbart use tuberculosis, or the threat of tuberculosis spread, as a reason to do all the things that Donald Trump and the administration eventually did in terms of the crisis that they created at the [Mexican] border last year.
Trump didn’t really use that, but we definitely saw that even before Trump was in office, that was beginning: Some of the language was about infectious disease as a means of explaining draconian immigration laws and policies.
I just want to hear from you all: What do you think are things that we all need to be doing—whether you see yourself as an HIV advocate, whether you see yourself as somebody who is more rooted in prison industrial complex organizing—to really begin to bring these two conversations, and advocacy, and movements together to deal with this impact of using infectious disease as a strategy of criminalization, surveillance and police?
Catherine Hanssens: I think we should be doing what we really should have been doing all along, which is [audio cuts out], reflect that in the actions that we take as part of larger justice and disability rights and anti-criminalization movements.
I don’t think it benefits us, people living with HIV, or the larger movements we’re engaged in to make any of this all about people living with HIV. Although of course we should make it about HIV in the larger context of what’s happening around all of these diseases.
I think it’s important for people to know and remember that there are federal—and in some places, states—but there are federal disability anti-discrimination laws that would, for example, prevent the [mis]treatment of people living with tuberculosis that Kenyon just described.
In fact, the very first case that the Supreme Court ever heard under the Americans With Disabilities Act was about a person living with HIV. And that case referenced an earlier case about tuberculosis. In both of those cases, the high court noted that there is nothing that engenders greater public hysteria, misperceptions, and wrong actions than the fear of infectious diseases, particularly when they’re poorly understood.
I think, in a parallel context, we at CHLP, along with some other partners in New York, just drafted a set of principles for allocation of scarce resources in times of epidemics, to make it clear that those kinds of decisions should be made by triage teams—and that people have to be very clear that perceptions about how resources are allocated cannot be based on biases of which we are not aware, but on perceptions of the values of somebody’s life, rather than whether somebody is going to benefit from an immediate treatment.
For example, access to a ventilator can’t be based on whether or not that person had a history of TB, or HIV, or is a person of color, or is a Muslim. We have laws that prevent that, and I think part of what we need to do is to insist on their current applicability, and look at what’s happening through that kind of a prism, and see ourselves in solidarity with other people that are going to be targeted.
I have no doubt that if a person of color rolls up in a wheelchair, missing a limb because of untreated diabetes, and needs a ventilator, that there are gonna be thoughts about putting that person at the back of the line regardless of whether they would benefit from that.
I think all of our systems operate in this way. The criminal legal system operates in that way. The care that prisoners get, and whether prisoners—somebody who is a felon is in need of emergency care—could be treated that way. We have to be aware of, and insist on, the application of laws that prevent discrimination against any of those people in those contexts.
Kenyon Farrow: Thank you. I see Andrea wanted to also respond.
Andrea Ritchie: I think back to the work that you’ve been doing since the early ’90s, Kenyon, for Project Unshackle and other places. And if you could go back and read everything Kenyon Farrow’s ever written—
Kenyon Farrow: [laughing] Early 2000s, not early ‘90s.
Andrea Ritchie: OK, sorry. That was me, not you, in terms of age.
But I do think that there has been a lot of increasing connection between movements of folks who have been looking at criminalization of HIV and then looking at issues of policing more broadly, and who’s targeted in the very ways that Catherine and others were just describing.
We’ve increasingly been thinking about—and some of us have been organizing around—how medical providers contribute to criminalization, and medical conditions contribute to criminalization, whether it’s through drug use, HIV criminalization, criminalization of disabled people, criminalization of trans people, criminalization of people who use drugs, criminalization of pregnant people.
There’s a growing understanding of intersections between criminalization and abortion; criminalization and healthcare access; in many different fields. Interrupting Criminalization has been facilitating some of those conversations and moving them forward. And of course, the American Public Health Association has really been trying to call attention to criminalization as a public health issue, and also interrupt criminalization in the name of public health.
I think we need to expand our frames in that way, and also come up with alternatives. I think what we’ve been saying—this is exposing a gap in our strategies. We’ve been saying drug use is not a criminal issue, it’s a public health issue, [but] without recognizing that public health, as an institution, has always been used to criminalize Black, brown, indigenous people, migrants, disabled people, people living with HIV.
Public health obviously is a desirable thing, but it’s also—in the way it’s been institutionalized and enforced in this country, in the ways that Trevor was talking about earlier—always targeted the people who are also targeted by policing. So I think we need to offer up alternate frameworks to decision makers to say, policing: not policing this.
Because the instinct of police, and I think we all carry in it—I saw somewhere in the chat box [someone saying], “I asked my grocery checker why they weren’t wearing protective gear I thought they should be wearing.” The more grief and loss and pain, we all suffer through this—and many of us at this point have lost someone, at least one person—and the more frightened we get from reading stories of people who’ve had it and knowing people who died, and also the more frustrated we get by how long we’re being asked to be inside, the more our instinct inside of us is going to be to call for more policing.
So I think we need to really challenge ourselves and our policy makers to offer other options that aren’t about surveillance and regulation. To say we’re not agreeing to the app that tells us whether we’re a risk at not; I’m not signing up for this in order to be able to go outside. I’m not going to fall into this categorization of people who are positive and people who are negative, which we’ve seen so much already in HIV criminalization.
It’s really about thinking about new ways of supporting each other to stay safe in this moment. And so that’s really where I want to invite our invitation. Definitely, we’re going to start tracking arrests in order to get people legal support; mass mobilization, track patterns, make systemic demands around how COVID is being criminalized and enforcement is going. I invite people to join those initiatives.
But I’m also inviting people to think about: What’s another thing that we could be doing in each of these situations that wouldn’t be calling the police or calling for more policing, calling for more surveillance, in response to fear in the same ways that we did around HIV?
Fighting Coronavirus: How Do We Encourage Personal Responsibility Without Causing Shame?
Mathew Rodriguez: I would love to ask a question, for whoever wants to jump in, that kind of goes off of what Andrea was just talking about at the micro level: the application of carceral logic and personal responsibility to conversations within our own life and within people who are around us.
How do we frame conversations about personal responsibility in time of COVID that do not shame, stigmatize or criminalize people for not doing what you think is the best form of public health thing? That’s something that I’m seeing a lot of online, is people policing other people’s behavior because they feel empowered to police others in the name of public health.
So I would love to bring it down for a second to a micro level, and talk about reframing, within ourselves, how we talk about this.
Andrea Ritchie: I think understanding how and why people might be doing things—and thinking also about the fact that for many of us, the state has always been a deadly and regulating and policing and surveilling entity, right? There’s always been a source of violence.
I know people on my block are like: I’m tired of being told what to do, by the police, by my probation officer, by my parole officer, by my child welfare person, by the child support person. And I’m not listening [audio cuts out] ever had my interest at heart. It’s always been about caging and criminalizing me, and disposing of me in the ways that Catherine was talking about. I don’t believe this is for me.
So I think even starting to understand what’s going on, and really coming from a place of curiosity and asking ourselves—even when I’m walking around the park and white joggers are blowing by me within six feet and I just want to scream and deck them—it’s like, well, what’s going on?
I’m a runner. I know when you’re in the zone, you’re in the zone, you’re in pain. What could we do? Could we create like a running lane for people? To be using our creative energy instead of defaulting to what is always our default—delegate it to someone else to regulate police and punish, call someone to handle it, or police it ourselves—and how could we come from a place of love and curiosity and recognizing that that actually doesn’t work.
The only thing that’s going to work is for me to talk to people and say, “Well why are you out here? Is there a way you could be out here in a different way? Is there a way that we could help keep you safe and meet your needs?” And to keep coming from that place no matter how frustrated we get.
I think that’s the challenge within, I think we have a lot to learn from people who work transformative justice around that, and so would urge people to check out some of those resources, which are really about understanding what’s happening, why—and what’s a way that we can approach this from a place of collective safety, where the person we think is doing wrong is also part of that conversation.
Mathew Rodriguez: Great. I just want to give Trevor a chance to jump in too.
Trevor Hoppe: Yeah. Just quickly, I would just say, social epidemics are social and not individual. So we have to recognize that people are acting not just as individuals, but as part of broader communities and as part of a broader environment.
I know it’s really human, when a coworker shows up to work sick, to think, you know, “That son of a gun.” That impulse to blame them and to punish them. But it’s harder to step back and think about, well, what are our sick leave policies here? What are the things that are enabling that person, or shaping that decision, and how could we change that environment in which they make that decision?
Because ultimately we’re not going to blame our way out of this thing. We’re not gonna punish our way out of this thing. It’s not individual. And blame is so individualized. We have to think socially.
Mathew Rodriguez: Do we want to start turning to some audience questions? Remember there’s a Q and A box if you want to ask anything. I’ve been looking through them all a bit, and we’re gonna choose some for our panelists.
There’s a question specifically for Breanna, then obviously other people can weigh in as well. Are there any comments on the disproportionate impact of intimate partner violence on women, and how stay-at-home orders pose a particular danger for women and others in those situations? Are there any resources?
Breanna Diaz: Yeah, good question. PWN will be releasing new resources, I believe tomorrow, on this very issue. It’s one that we’re definitely tracking, since it disproportionately impacts our membership as a national network of women and people of trans experience living with HIV.
I think the mixing of the criminalization and shelter-in-place orders—as people are having to leave their homes due to an abusive partner, they’re forced out, having unstable housing—that really puts them at a higher risk of being policed and criminalized for violating those orders.
We’re also seeing instances where people of trans experience that might want to have access to shelters, and if they themselves are victims of intimate partner violence, depending on where you live in this country, you may not have any protections on the basis of gender identity to be sheltered in the place that is consistent with your gender identity. I think that adds an additional burden onto that specific population and increases their likelihood of being further police and criminalized.
So yeah, it’s definitely an issue that we’re mindful of. We’ve provided some resources that are currently out on this issue in the chat box. And again, we’ll be releasing our own resources as soon as tomorrow on this.
Andrea Ritchie: Just to add to that, there are some exceptions in some of the orders—like Wisconsin and a few other places—to the stay-at-home rules for survivors of violence. But the requirement is that you have to be on your way to a shelter or to some kind of service. And as someone just dropped in the [chat] box, those are full.
They’re also places where—social distancing, like, I would be afraid to go. I was afraid to go into an elevator yesterday. I’d be afraid to go in a shelter. So how are we making other resources available for DV [domestic violence] survivors, instead of creating an exception without meaning if you can’t or don’t want to go to a shelter for whatever reason? Or can’t for because you’re trans, because you’re undocumented, because you trade sex, because you’re Muslim and the only shelter is Christian; there’s so many reasons that folks can’t go or don’t want to go.
What you might just need to do is walk around the block, or someone else might need to walk around the block, or something. I mean, not saying that’s the answer, I’m just saying sometimes it’s a safety strategy.
We need to be pushing on a systemic level for hotel rooms for healthcare workers, unhoused people, and survivors. We need to be demanding exceptions that don’t require you to pursue one avenue. And we need to be coming up with ways in our own communities to support survivors in this moment, because police are saying: “We’re not answering those calls, ‘cause we’re too busy trying to keep people six feet away in the park,” I don’t know.
But they’re not going to do the calls now, and they’re not enforcing orders of protection now. So we’ve created a situation where that’s all we’ve offered DV survivors, and now that’s not available. So what else can we offer as communities to support folks there?
How Can Public Health Researchers Help With Coronavirus Advocacy?
Mathew Rodriguez: We have a question here from a clinician and HIV researcher who wants to know: How can those of us who work in public health better use research to bolster this movement? We have a big platform, and I want to better use it to follow activists’ leads and promote HIV and COVID decriminalization.
Trevor Hoppe: I guess as the resident researcher, I’ll field that question. I don’t work in public health, but I know it’s always a struggle, because we’re operating in a world where things we publish happened a long time ago and it’s hard to act fast.
I would say: Get creative. Whether that’s through blog posts or other outlets, to find ways to publish that are nontraditional, to communicate important information to the public. Because no one is going to read your article six years from now about, you know, social networks and how COVID spread, right? It’s just not serving that function. It’s an important function, right—it’s science, it’s important; I don’t want to belittle it, I do this and all researchers do this—but we can find other ways to communicate quickly.
I know that’s hard, ‘cause we’re not trained to do it. But feel free to reach out to me, ‘cause I’m trying to explore this stuff too. So, I think, look at other examples that are out there. There are definitely examples of people acting quicker than academics typically would.
Andrea Ritchie: I think also a lot of folks are looking for public health researchers and practitioners to support their efforts to stop criminalization. So I know Legal Aid [Society of] New York City, for instance, is looking for signatories to a letter to stop the kind of enforcement that we’re talking about. And I think you can also step out and say what you don’t need to do research to say, which is a cop giving someone a ticket or arresting someone is creating opportunities for transmission, and that needs to stop.
Catherine Hanssens: Yeah. I think to that I would just add that, although I think we’ve all noted the serious problems in systems such as the criminal legal system and even the public health system can work, it’s really important not to reflexively villainize any of those folks, and to understand where the decisions to change those practices ultimately lie, and to find ways to work collaboratively with them.
In response to the question about public health research, what we would like to see is a productive, collaborative, appropriate relationship between law enforcement and public health, where public health stays out of law enforcement and law enforcement stays out of public health. And decisions about quarantining, or decisions about arresting people during a time when we don’t want folks crowded into jails for exposing people to something we’re trying to stop, doesn’t make any kind of logical public health sense. I think that is an area where people in the medical and public health field have far more credibility than people like that.
There are lots of ways to participate ongoing. The Center for HIV Law and Policy has an ongoing collaboration with the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, something which 10 years ago I never would have thought possible. But it has been hugely productive, and right now we are talking with them and with experts in correctional health care about how to proactively flag best practices and positive things that are happening to avoid exactly what most of us have just been talking about for the last hour.
Coronavirus and Disclosure Laws
Mathew Rodriguez: I think this one is good for Catherine, but once again, anyone is welcome to jump in. We have a few [questions], so answer the question as fully as you can, but we’re going to try and get through as many as we can before we let everyone go for their afternoon.
This question is: One of the things I noticed early on was disclosing individuals’ coronavirus status on the online platforms, especially well-known public figures. What do HIPAA laws have to say about what can and cannot be disclosed in the context of COVID-19? I don’t know the law literature that well. It’s one thing if someone personally discloses, but I noticed a lot of public outing going on. How might this impact criminalization in the context of quoted 19?
Catherine Hanssens: Following Matthew’s directions to be brief, HIPAA applies to health facilities that are in the business of maintaining medical records. They do not apply to the police. They do not apply to individuals.
Andrea Ritchie: And they don’t apply when there’s a public health emergency. And many of the quarantine laws make so many exceptions to laws, being like: If there’s a threat to a person, or to people, of spread of infectious disease, then there’s exceptions, unfortunately.
Catherine Hanssens: But that would not—that’s as long as it serves that purpose. That doesn’t mean that there’s no recourse; it’s just HIPAA isn’t one of them. And HIPAA has always had exceptions for law enforcement that you can drive a prison van through.
Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Hurt HIV Decriminalization Efforts?
Mathew Rodriguez: Our next question says: I’m worried that the COVID-19 epidemic will hurt our efforts with HIV criminalization reform. Do you have any advice for those of us working on the ground to end HIV criminalization and modernize related laws in this new COVID-19 era?
Catherine Hanssens: Well, one lesson here is: Don’t hinge your reform on intent-to-harm and criminal law procedures, and not on individual infectiousness. It’s something CHLP has been saying for a while, but I think there’s only emphasizes it.
This is not the last coronavirus we’re going to see [that] people are talking about when this is over. We don’t know that there won’t be another coronavirus epidemic before this one is over. So think big picture.
The immediate issue is: Who knows when the legislatures are going to be back in session. I think in some ways, what’s happening with the coronavirus underscores the importance of moving away from a carceral response. So I would recommend thinking about some of the extreme examples of what’s happening, how they fly in the face of public health, and that we don’t want to make the same mistake again.
One way to avoid that is to start repealing existing irrational criminal responses to disease, such as HIV criminal laws—which also, by the way, criminalize, in many states, hepatitis; and in some states actually criminalize exposure or transmission of tuberculosis.
Breanna Diaz: Yeah, I really want to follow that up: What can community do around this?
Catherine touched on how a lot of state legislators went into recess. For example, we have in Georgia, their HIV modernization bill passed the House, was on its way to the Senate for a vote, and the pandemic happened; and the Georgia legislative session went into recess, and now the bill is just sitting there. We don’t know what’s going to happen.
But there are really great ways that our communities and our existing HIV crim[inalization] coalitions at the state level can still do work via digital advocacy. That is something that PWN has definitely embraced and is utilizing, where we’re providing access to these digital organizing platforms to our membership, providing training on it, and doing what we can to provide education, communication, and new ways to organize online. To ensure that these great bills that do exist, or are currently in the making, still happen.
Because we don’t want the pandemic to undermine the years of work that our community has done around this issue. So that’s just one way that we are trying to respond in real time, now.
Additional Questions: Polio, Funding, and Data Sharing vs. Privacy
Mathew Rodriguez: There’s so many wonderful questions here. This is a question: Did Trevor’s research cover forced polio quarantines? Could he and other panelists speak to that disruption, and the holes in history left by death and criminalization that leave us without some of the most meaningful firsthand witnesses?
Trevor Hoppe: That’s a very interesting question. I can’t speak to polio specifically; it wasn’t one of the things that I covered in my book.
You can look through the legal code and kind of do an archeology of epidemics, ’cause with every epidemic, a new set of laws gets passed, from tuberculosis outbreaks to smallpox to other diseases. So I’m sure polio is also somewhere in the sediment there, but I’m not familiar specifically with the details of it.
Mathew Rodriguez: General question for speakers: How are you resourcing work focused on criminalization? Do you have any recommendations for funders, and how they can better support you at this moment?
Andrea Ritchie: I mean, in the same way as they always can: by moving money quickly, with not a lot of forms and reports. We’re literally responding—we’re all, in our own organizations, also coping with, you know, managing and surviving through this. So I really appreciate folks like Solidaire or Groundswell Fund, who have just been like: Just tell us your name, just say hi, just call, we’ll call you, just wave. Who are being really open, and automatically renewing grants for groups, and being like, you do whatever you need to do to stay safe right now; let us know later, maybe, what happened.
I think, particularly, moving funds to the things that are gonna support folks and keep them out of the clutches of criminalization, but also supporting folks who are advancing this demand that we imagine some different approach than criminalization—whether it’s through the public health system or policing.
And also: to speak out. I mean, foundations have a lot of power, and the big bullhorn, and they’ve used it in ways that have not been super helpful sometimes around fights against criminalization. So for foundations to say: We all need to be safe; criminalization is not making us safe; there’s so many examples throughout history, including HIV criminalization, that tell us this is not the way to go. We are investing in these approaches. We demand, and invite, government and other funders to invest in those approaches too.
Mathew Rodriguez: There’s a question here about the competing needs for, first, detailed disaggregated data to monitor for disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on marginalized populations, and the other need being protection from data sharing and exploitation that Breanna described. How do we balance those needs?
Breanna Diaz: Yeah. That is a valid need. We are already seeing a lot of issues. I think it’s only, like, less than a dozen states are actually sharing the segregated data showing the racial disparities on how COVID-19 is having a disproportionate impact on Black people. And the CDC is not really providing that data. So those are things, like data, that we should have access to; that should be collected.
However, our concern is rooted with that data sharing of names [and] addresses of those individuals with law enforcement. That type of data sharing is not necessary. It puts populations at risk, and it does nothing. It is not a proper health public health response.
So I think it’s collecting the data for public health needs, to track how this epidemic pandemic is impacting particular populations, and decoupling that with the data sharing with law enforcement. So those particular populations are no longer being highly policed and criminalized.
Catherine Hanssens: I would just say we’ve had the way to do that, always. Disease surveillance is nothing new—although, you know, folks that were promoting it at the very beginning, as Trevor probably realizes from his reading, were people that never thought they would be subject to surveillance. There are aspects of it that are great in small doses and not so great in large doses, or not so great uncontrolled.
It’s always been possible to do what disease surveillance is supposed to do, with limiting what place and how individually identifiable information is kept and shared. Part of the problem has been that with new technologies, there seems to be the belief that because we can do something, we should do something.
So when Apple, for example, gets involved in offering ways to monitor COVID-19, I get a little concerned. But I think there are models, and I think there are people in public health that are great resources for that, on how to monitor and how to get the data that we need without compromising individual safety in a variety of ways.
But I do think Breanna’s point—it’s something we’ve pressed the CDC to do for years, which is to require that any state that’s getting funding for disease monitoring and control create legal barriers between anything that’s collected for public health [or] individual health and law enforcement. There just has to be, in writing, a legal requirement that that sharing not happen.
Unfortunately, when laws like HIPPA pass, there is always somebody in there pushing for a law enforcement exception. We fought about that back when HIPAA was being proposed, but unfortunately it was a minority of folks in our business who were both paying attention to that and then actually thought it was something worth putting resources into.
Bridging the Gaps Between HIV-Related and Coronavirus-Related Advocacy
Mathew Rodriguez: This question says—and this is something I think I might weigh in a little bit too—but to Kenyon’s earlier question about bridging gaps between HIV advocates and criminal justice reform/prison abolition: I found this challenging. A lot of well-meaning folks think of HIV as history, something that was behind us, whereas COVID-19 is undeniably happening before us in this moment. How do we remind folks that HIV continues in the time of COVID-19?
Kenyon Farrow: I might weigh in on that too [laughs].
I think that there was a very early need online to say that the AIDS epidemic and the COVID pandemic were very different. That’s what I was seeing: There was a need to be like, no, we can’t conflate the two. But I think that there are a lot of useful ways to talk about the ways in which they do overlap, and they are concurrent pandemics.
The reality is that the U.S. is not a country that is very good at fighting pandemics, and the prevailing media narrative—because of films like How to Survive a Plague or something like that—might be that, you know, HIV was solved in the early ‘90s by a group of five cavalier white guys. But that’s not the reality.
For communities of color, I still see people—queer men of color, queer trans people of color—being diagnosed and dying from AIDS to this day. And I think that we have to challenge prevailing narratives that epidemics just stop one day. Especially because there’s still ‘80s-, ‘90s-level infection rates happening among young queer people of color and young trans people of color.
There are a lot of other ways that HIV, to me—criminalization is one of them. The way they affect, specifically, marginalized communities—we’ve already seen, in many jurisdictions, that COVID is disproportionally affecting poor Black people. That’s in Louisiana, that’s in Detroit, that’s in Chicago. I mean, the number of people—that’s already a reality.
So I think that’s just a larger question that people have: This idea that, because they no longer see it on the news or see it in the streets, that the pandemic is over. And that’s not the case.
So COVID, as far as I’m concerned: COVID and AIDS are concurrent pandemics that are happening in many places nationwide right now. And we should respond to them as such. What does it mean to be living in the time, not just of COVID, but the time of COVID and AIDS?
Kenyon Farrow: I would say, too, that I think some of this is also about the media and the press.
Think of how many pieces have been published in mainstream outlets lately talking about HIV and coronavirus. And all the people they’ve interviewed, it’s like the same five people from ACT UP, right? Some of whom I love and are friends of mine, so it’s not like, I’m not even necessarily shading them. But I’m just saying that that’s the construction, right?
They haven’t interviewed people who are Black who’ve been doing HIV work for just as long, or who are doing work now at the intersection. So I think that that’s a problem.
Frankly, another problem is I’m seeing: I’m going to call out some of the social justice groups that do racial justice work, or may work in specific communities on more broad issues, who are doing all these town halls and things about coronavirus and the concern, of which they frankly don’t do around HIV. Even HIV criminalization: They never would respond to my emails or calls about Michael Johnson or about Sanjay [Johnson], or about a range of people.
I think some of our organizations have some responsibility, and some real critique to bear, and they are kind of abandoning HIV as well—despite knowing people who do that work. But I see all this focus and concern around coronavirus. They just frankly don’t touch HIV. And some of them are run by Black queer folks, if I’m just being totally transparent. So you know, that’s that, and I’m gonna go back to being a moderator.
Mathew Rodriguez: I want to end on a different question, but I want to know if anyone can respond to this: Is there any task force coming together to approach [presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe] Biden’s people, both around this issue and HIV crim[inalization]? Does anyone know of anything?
Catherine Hanssens: I think the folks at TAG [Treatment Action Group] and Housing Works started a New York COVID-19 group that is primarily HIV advocates. It does seem to be almost exclusively people from the HIV advocacy community.
I would just say, in supporting what Mathew and Kenyon just said, that we also have to look at how much we have identified with and supported cross movements, and the extent to which other movements see us as part of it. I always felt that you don’t deal with HIV by dealing only with HIV, because of all of the gender and race and class issues that have been engaged with it. That I saw from the very beginning, working in prisons and jails. So there’s that.
I think that, frankly, there are some folks in that group that feel that there isn’t enough focus on HIV in that particular group. But I think [HIV] always has to be a part of that, for all the reasons that everybody on this call knows: People working on COVID-19 can learn a lot from how those who are working with HIV, from the early days of the epidemic—and what it meant to have to identify yourself in order to get services, what that meant to people in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and even into the 2000s and now.
As the First Coronavirus Curve Dips, How Will We Respond?
Mathew Rodriguez: We’re going to ask one last question. I think this is a good question to end on, because it’s asking: What are your thoughts on addressing the enormous tensions we are facing and will face as we determine ways to open up as safely as possible? So much of what I read in here is extremely authoritarian; are there alternatives you’ve thought of?
[This question] makes me think of something I think Breanna was talking about, that I wanted to ask about too. Let’s say we are in a time, in a few months or whenever, that Cuomo lifts [the requirement that] everyone has to wear a face mask—and then that’s the day that there is a Black or brown person wearing a face mask out, and all of a sudden they’re in violation of a state law saying [it’s illegal] to cover their face. What happens when we transition into that going-back-into-public phase?
Andrea Ritchie: I think, one, it’s going to be confusing. It’s going to be like: Well, which thing is lifted, which isn’t, and which county in which area, in which part of the country, and how, and why?
Then, unfortunately, as the scientists are telling us, this is going to keep coming back in waves, right? So then there’ll be new orders to go back inside. And at each iteration there’s going to be more instinct for enforcement in order to, one, make the economy—make the opening up possible, and two, as the waves come, and we’re being pushed back in.
I think the work that we’ve been talking about, about thinking about how to actually support people both in riding those waves and being flexible in terms of their—and also, there’s been more pressure to go outside the longer we’re cooped in, and the more economic pressure there is on us, the more we’re in violent situations at home, et cetera; the more we need health care for other things, the more we need access to things in the public world.
So, the more we’re able to prepare for the next wave with the kinds of supports people need in order to ride the waves until 2025—something I read this morning—the more we’ll be in a position to make that opening possible, and have it happen in the most just, generative, and corrective of the disparities this has exposed way.
Trevor Hoppe: I would just add to pay close attention to the discussions about fines and fees. I was just in touch with someone who’s at a policy institute working specifically on fines and fees, and they were very concerned about COVID-19.
As a sociologist who studies the history of infectious disease, I can’t imagine a world where there’s going to be widespread mass arrests of people violating certain orders. There will be cases, for sure. I think what we will see more of is widespread ticketing—that kind of sanctioning, that kind of policing—and that can have devastating effects for poor people and communities of color. We see that with the criminal justice system already.
So anytime you see a discussion about a $1,000 ticket or something, raise your hand and say, “That sounds like a terrible idea!” That cannot be—we’re not gonna ticket our way out of this epidemic either.
Just because someone isn’t thrown in jail doesn’t mean it can’t be a form of punishment. Also, later on, failure to pay fines and fees can land you in jail, ultimately, for failure to pay. So it can inadvertently become a kind of criminalization.
So pay close attention to those discussions, ‘cause I’m sure they’re coming.
Catherine Hanssens: I would also add, to those great points, to keep focused on those institutions where people of color [and] poor people are disproportionately represented, which is the criminal legal system, foster care systems, all of those systems. You’re going to—loss of benefits due to so many tickets from exposing somebody.
I think one of the most practical suggestions I would offer is to make a connection, as activists or a group of activists, with local public defender organizations. Those are the people that are going to see everybody who’s getting arrested, because they are the folks that are assigned to represent people who can’t afford an attorney.
I would contact local public defender offices, state or city level—the Philadelphia defender, or the New Jersey public defender, wherever you are. Find out what’s going on, what they’re seeing, and ask them what kind of community activist support would be helpful, because they generally are not able to represent 200 people and also do that activism.
I can say, from my past background of being in that situation, it was a wonderful thing when there were people outside of the public defender who wanted to do something; who would, based on what you told them, demonstrate outside of a prison or demand a meeting with the local prosecutor. You’re getting the best information about who was getting arrested and for what is going to be there.
Andrea Ritchie: I’m just dropping in the chat box my contact information. We’re trying to set up a legal hotline to support folks. We’re trying to set up this tracking mechanism. We’re trying to set up ways to also mass mobilize around individual cases and systemic demands. So I’m just going to drop that information in the chat box. Breanna’s part of this crew; so is Kenyon, and a bunch of other folks. So stay tuned.
Mathew Rodriguez: Breanna, did you want to add anything?
Breanna Diaz: I would just follow up with, echoing what everyone said: I believe a lot of the negative things that we’re seeing right now are in response to systemic issues we have in this country.
There’s a lot of issues when we have a political, economic, and social system rooted in white supremacy, and we’re seeing it rear its ugly headed a new way in this current pandemic. And I think it’s critical that we as advocates and organizations always respond to the direct asks of what community needs in this time.
I think Catherine gave a great example of building community with public defenders, or even prosecutors, asking them: “Don’t prioritize these types of charges right now. Our community cannot take any more incarceration. It cannot take any more fines for violating shelter-in-place orders.”
What Andrea said, with this current group right now: tracking these cases, providing direct legal help. Trevor, as a risk researcher, get us the data and let us use it in a way that we can build solid policies and laws at the local, state, and federal level that serve our community and not put them at further risk.
Mathew Rodriguez: I just want to thank all of our panelists for spending this time with us and giving of themselves and their wisdom so freely. Thank you so much for everyone who came out today to join TheBody as we hosted this forum. You can follow TheBody on Twitter and Instagram, and find us on Facebook as well. All of our panelists’ tags will be there as well, so you can follow them there.
Thank you again for being a part of this, and we hope to host more discussions about this and other topics in the future. Kenyon, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Kenyon Farrow: Just a quick thank you to the panelists, you Mathew [as] moderator, and also to our two other TheBody staff who are here with us: Myles Helfand, who’s the executive editor, and Daisy Becerra, who is our comms associate, who makes our Instagram and everything else look lovely—her great design skills, managing our social media. So thank you to them for their support and helping pull this together.
We will see you all soon. Thank you.
Resources and References on HIV and COVID-19 Criminalization