COVID’s aggressive social distance policing and racism: we need our public spaces to work for us, not be used against us
By Erin Lilli, M/MS.Arch
Once or twice a week my partner and I go the public park spaces of which we are fortunate to live very close to here in south Brooklyn. Hand sanitizer in tow, we keep our distance, I wear my mask during the walk, and we lay claim to an area of grass where I unskillfully kick the soccer the ball to him and do other exercises. It’s been liberating to do free-style exercising in the park—I’ll probably continue this once my gym reopens.
We park-goers seem to be spacing ourselves out in communal respect for social distancing and if a tinge of increased density is perceived—my partner and I leave. Let someone else enjoy that patch of park. In our experiences, so far, it hasn’t been a real problem staying six, ten, or twenty-plus feet away from anybody. More people are wearing masks now, but I find myself silently judging (I hate admitting this!) small groups and asking, “do they all cohabitate?”, “are these just four friends hanging out?!”. And then there is the frustration I vent to my partner when someone unnecessarily gets too close to us (again, I hate being like this, but…)—“Really, you literally have an entire field to walk and you stroll by unmasked, talking on your phone, that close to him?!”. Or, “really, you had to start walking to the exit gate and get that close to us right as we got there?!”.
The thing is—I don’t say anything. And maybe I should. I’d rather have a form of neighbor-to-neighbor communication or grassroots-based alternatives to dealing with community problems (not even to suggest that what I experienced constitutes a “problem” per se). Instead, we are continually disciplined from the top-down—quite literally, as I’ve witnessed low-flying NYPD helicopters surveilling our park spaces these past two weekends. Just this past Saturday, as we walked up the hill leaving the park, an unmarked police car drove slowly passed us on the pedestrian path heading down toward the fields. I don’t know what came of that. What I do know, is the sport field we have been using had its two main entry gates locked with closure signs mounted roughly 2-3 weeks ago. I guess folks weren’t social distancing enough? However, we and others slip through a side gate that remained unlocked; thus not forcing us park-goers onto lesser square footage and potentially raising the density of the other open fields.
I’ve been reflecting on the feeling of surveillance in my very white, very middle-class neighborhood and I know the city’s Black and Brown communities continue to feel the oppression of the surveillance state and aggressive policing tactics even during COVID. It’s as though social distancing, while crucial and life-saving, has been used as an excuse for more unnecessary, unsafe, and aggressive policing in the city’s public realm.
While gun-toting, non-masked, white people recently cram themselves together in their right to protest the government and the quarantine (and social distancing too I reckon)—with little or no police recourse—New Yorkers of color face a very different daily reality in our public realm perhaps best summed up by John Pavlovitz’s comment, “Only white people get to do this”.
Let’s grudgingly push past the obvious—a group of Black men holding rifles outside a government building would likely be met with a swift and dangerous police encounter AND the white nationalism fomenting during this crisis is deeply troubling on multiple levels. As we know, simply being Black is enough to rouse police intervention. And, I can’t help but think that many of those currently opposing the government, the quarantine, and the sacrifices we are making to control this pandemic would be singing a different tune if this were all in the name of a U.S. initiated war. I digress.
What we are witnessing in NYC’s public spaces, during COVID, is the already-over-policing of Black and Brown bodies and communities being compounded—especially with Cuomo’s call for more aggressive police action to enforce social distancing despite roughly 18% of officers being out sick. And this “aggressive” action is largely at the officers’ own discretion, too often meted out unjustly and typically unequally. A Brown child is forcefully restrained by cops for selling candy in the subway, a Black women is arrested with her boyfriend for being in a parking lot only then to be placed in a cramped, unclean jail cell. While cops “were enforcing social distancing measures” a Black man is attacked by an unmasked plainclothes officer while standing on a street corner as another man was violently taken down for having what appeared to be a bag of weed.
Generally, during COVID, our public spaces haven’t necessarily become unsafe in their own right—their physical infrastructures aren’t crumbling nor are they all suddenly and thoroughly socially devolving to become abandoned sites of violent vigilante justice or havens for brutal crimes. However, perceptions of who can occupy them, how they can occupy them, and who should maintain that status—during COVID—has left public space, and in turn ourselves, with a new level of unhealthy, unsafe, and unjust situations. Communities of color have long faced a double-edged sword when it comes to public space—while enjoying what public spaces have to offer (if they have access); they are vulnerable to police violence simply due to their race. Now they face yet another threat in public space—aggressive social distance policing whereby the officers themselves unnecessarily risk spreading the disease while evidence suggests that COVID disproportionately affects low-income and minority communities.
I don’t believe public spaces should be seen as sites of disease necessitating punitive measures to enforce social distancing. Right now, our public spaces should be seen as the assets they are—a space to breath and move, a respite from house mates and family, a place to exercise, or a spot to people watch from a distance—free of police hostilities and racism. During COVID, getting outdoors is critical for our mental health, but parks and quality open spaces face some closures and are not equally accessible across our city—another social inequity further highlighted by this pandemic.
We must enact a collective, social responsibility to protect our public spaces and in turn ourselves. We can and should do better to safely keep our public spaces for their best uses during this time of crisis and not let them or their users fall victim to aggressive social distance policing and racism. Public spaces are always contested spaces and we must do our part by watching police officers and holding them accountable. Public spaces must be enjoyed fairly, safely, effectively, with a recognition of others and their needs, and with the understanding that those who can, need to stay home right now as much as possible—but not all the time. While gathering in numbers should be discouraged, making this a law is not the answer. Hyper policing, jailing, or requiring fines during skyrocketing unemployment is unacceptable.
Living out this pandemic, as non-essential workers are hunkered down in their homes (some of them very small, some of them not homes at all), we not only recognize what public space does for our minds, bodies, and souls, but what it means politically. During and after COVID we must both protect our public spaces from oppressive policing and respect our public spaces through a responsibility to each other, as members of a society—no one is an island and this pandemic should be proving that more than anything.
Erin is a PhD candidate in Environmental Psychology at The Graduate Center, CUNY and a member of the PSRG.