Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Sep 3: Three studies report that inexpensive steroids are the most effective treatment to date for serious COVID-19.  Nineteen bioethicists outline measures for equitable distribution of limited supplies of any COVID-19 vaccine; the plan is called the Fair Priority Model. Rochester, New York, suspends seven police officers after video surfaces from last March of them pinning down a Black man who is , handcuffed, with a mask over his head.  Twitter and Facebook on flag tweets by President Trump repeating his call for Americans to vote twice, by mail and in person, to test anti-fraud measures in their states’ election systems. President Trump has privately said on several occasions that U.S. military personnel captured or killed in battle are “losers” and “suckers.” For example, in 2017, Trump did not attend a memorial for U.S. World War I dead at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery outside Paris because “it’s filled with losers” and “suckers.” Trump nonetheless, calls the reports that he has said these things, which are corroborated by The Associated Press and The Washington Post, “totally false.”

Sep 4: Multiple outlets corroborate the report (which the president has denied) that Trump has called veterans “suckers” and “losers.”  The Associated Press, The Washington Post, and even Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin reports that while planning a July 4th military parade, Trump was opposed to including “wounded guys,” saying, “that’s not a good look” and “Americans don’t like that.” President Trump directs White House Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought to “ensure that federal agencies cease and desist from using taxpayer dollars to fund” racial sensitivity training sessions, which he described as “divisive” and “un-American.” 

Sep 5: Protests continue. New York Attorney General Letitia James announces that she will set up a grand jury to consider evidence in the death of Daniel Prude, a 41-year-old Black man who suffocated in Rochester, New York, after police officers placed a hood over his head and pinned him to the ground during an arrest in March. Jacob Blake shares a video message from hospital bed (see below). Blake was shot seven times by police while his children watched last August in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He is paralyzed from the waist down and in constant pain. 

From the cutting room floor ...

Once taken into custody, Rob tells us that the police orchestrated his arrest in order to make him turn over his plans with the “Antifa.” The police played the “Good cop; bad cop” routine. They wanted him to divulge the organization structure, to name names. “Clearly, they perceived me as a leader,” Rob laughs. But you can’t be a leader of a thing that does not exist. “Sometimes I wish we could get coordinated…But these are just regular folks protesting against state violence used on regular folks.”

After he was arrested, neither good cop nor bad cop read him Miranda rights. He told them that he wouldn’t answer questions without a lawyer present anyway. So, they processed him by carting him, not to the large city jail, which was apparently reserved for COVID-positive inmates, but to one further out in an industrial part of the city.

I ask about his night in jail. “It was really, really bad,” he says immediately, his eyes foggy with fatigue and stress. “Just the complete lack of bodily autonomy, being given nothing, in this room with all these other people you don’t know. We didn’t have mattresses to sleep on. We didn’t have pillows or blankets. We didn’t have food until breakfast the next day. We didn’t have water, unless you want to drink out of the little bathroom faucet or the three small Styrofoam cups that were set on a ledge for the 30-plus people in the cell to share. There was one toilet that was exposed completely… When I generalize it out to how many millions of people are going through this on a daily basis, and how bad we have racialized this and aimed it at the poor, it’s just like, shit, man. I was radical about these things before, but the felt experience of it has been transformative.”

After a pause, Abe, the lawyer, replies, “Not a single bit of that was news to me.”

Rob continues, “It seems like everyone knows how f—ed up it is. But it is a system that has its own momentum.” It’s far more chaotic than a prison, and perhaps a worse place to be during a pandemic. Almost no one wore a mask, even though they were issued one with their sandals. Even the nurse whose job it was to check his temperature was not wearing a mask. When Rob questioned her about it, she angrily retorted that it was her “Constitutional right” not to wear the mask. She held her temperature gun so far away from him that there is no way she measured anything. “Hygiene theater” prevailed.

Overnight, Rob curled up in a corner of the concrete cell and tried to use his jail-issued sandals as a pillow, but he didn’t sleep much. The deputies reminded him and the other inmates on a regular basis “how horrible this is.” He was fortunate enough to be bailed out early in the “lottery” the next afternoon.

He and his wife—who just left her job to try to start a new career—are scrambling to collect the money to pay the retainer for a good lawyer, who says he will take the case despite having little sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement. As Rob put it, “At one point he called my actions on the street “childish and the acts of a p—y.” The attorney reminded Rob that this is exactly what the prosecutors will tell the jury. “They will say to the jury, “What if your wife was giving birth and this guy was blocking traffic and you couldn’t get through to the hospital?” That is the easy story that a prosecutor will tell. And you’re obstructing motorists why? Because you’re a f—ing asshole?”  Even the attorney thinks that it is a risk to go to a jury; even the attorney thinks that the prosecutor’s story is better.

On the one hand, Rob isn’t suffering the same treatment as other protesters over the last few months. He wasn’t roughed up, wasn’t thrown into a truly desperate financial situation.[1] But he’s scared.

Rob’s case is a startling demonstration of just how distorted our understanding is of what is happening this year. The US Crisis Monitor tracked over 10,000 demonstrations and protests across the United States since the killing of George Floyd. Fewer than 600 involved any sort of violence by demonstrators. What’s more, a high percentage of that violence appears to have been instigated by far-right agitators—Boogaloo, Three-Percenters, Hells Angels, Aryan Cowboys—not the BLM protestors themselves.[2] As Rob emphatically stated, his group assertively tamped down on even emotional reactions, like shouting at the police. When he was arrested, he was stopping cars so that protestors could cross the street. This comports exactly with all the protest marches I’ve been involved with this year or learned about from others in other cities. We march against police violence. We know that the police are not friendly to us marching against them. Why would we want to incite it?

There’s statistical information, and then there’s anecdote. I want to believe that the majority of educated people rely largely on the former and can see that protesters are only asking for police brutality to be curbed, in part by diverting funds from hugely swelling police budgets spent in part on military-grade hardware, and toward the kinds of white-collar professionals who can help vulnerable citizens without beating, shooting, or arresting them.[3] Nonetheless, despite the fact that the BLM marches this summer were some of the largest in American history, only a small fraction of Americans actually took part in them. That means that what most people “experience” is what appears on television and on social media. When the media proclaims that there is a terrifying organization called Antifa out there, that BLM protests are really just a cover for Antifa, and that American cities are on the verge of exploding into looting and violence, the under-informed power structures operate under that assumption. That’s the world into which Rob has been swept. Abe’s years of experience working with police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges in multiple cities at the municipal, state, and even federal level affirms this reading.

As we enter Labor Day weekend, it feels like America is turning another corner. The rush of empathy for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and so many others that translated into the BLM marches in late May has dissipated somewhat.[4] Most of the nation’s schools will be open by next Tuesday. Universities are already dealing with exploding cases of coronavirus. Some, like my own, shrug off the consequences for students, staff, administrators, and faculty. Telework is now firmly in place. Masks are either being worn or aggressively not. With most football out of commission, the news media seems to have one sport on their minds: a game that pits those who say, along with ESPN commentator Kirk Herbstreit that “we have to do better” against those who want “twelve more years,” of this.[5]


[1] Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve and Somil Trivedi, “Why Prosecutors Keep Letting Police Get Away With Murder,” Slate Magazine, June 5, 2020,

[2] Sam Jones, “US Crisis Monitor Releases Full Data for Summer 2020,” Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, August 31, 2020,


[4] Perry Bacon Jr, “Could A Backlash Against Black Lives Matter Hurt Biden? The Two Don’t Appear Linked So Far.,” FiveThirtyEight (blog), August 27, 2020,

[5] Jeff Sharlet, “‘Say 12 More Years’: At the RNC, Trump’s Authoritarian ‘Joke’ Slips Closer to Reality,” Vanity Fair, August 24, 2020,; Umut Uras, “Portland Police Make ‘multiple Arrests’ as Protests near 100 Days,” Al Jazeera, September 4, 2020,

Read more

Jacob Blake’s message from the hospital, September 5, 2020.

“Mussolini to Antifa: The History of Anti-Fascism,” Imperial War Museums, July 14, 2020, 

Trevor Noah, “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Antagonists of the Alt-Right,” The Daily Show, August 31, 2017,

Dave, Dhaval, Andrew I Friedson, Drew McNichols, and Joseph J Sabia. “The Contagion Externality of a Superspreading Event: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and COVID-19,” September 5, 2020, 73.
Innis-Jimenez, Micheal. “Open Letter: Stop Gaslighting Us.” The Crimson White (blog), September 5, 2020.
Sainato, Michael. “‘They Set Us up’: US Police Arrested over 10,000 Protesters, Many Non-Violent.” The Guardian, June 8, 2020, sec. US news.

Petersen, Anne Helen. “How The Antifa Fantasy Spread In Small Towns Across The US.” BuzzFeed News, June 9, 2020.

Mason, Katy Ramsey. “What the CDC Eviction Ban Means for Tenants and Landlords: 6 Questions Answered.” The Conversation, September 3, 2020.
Solomon, Isaac H., Erica Normandin, Shamik Bhattacharyya, Shibani S. Mukerji, Kiana Keller, Ahya S. Ali, Gordon Adams, Jason L. Hornick, Robert F. Padera, and Pardis Sabeti. “Neuropathological Features of Covid-19.” New England Journal of Medicine 383, no. 10 (September 3, 2020): 989–92.
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