WASHINGTON, D.C. – As people around the country are joining widespread demonstrations for racial justice and against systemic racism, U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Ranking Member of the Senate HELP Committee, and U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) are leading their colleagues in raising serious concerns with the Trump administration’s law enforcement tactics that may exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 and further worsen public health disparities as the nation continues battling this pandemic. They are also calling for strong protections to fully safeguard all personal and health data collected as part of the public health response to COVID-19, including whether individuals participated in demonstrations, to support efforts to track and prevent coronavirus cases.
There have been numerous reports of federal, state and local law enforcement authorities using excessively forceful tactics, including tear gas and widespread arrests, against peaceful protesters who are in many cases taking proper precautions, such as wearing masks and using hand sanitizer, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Reports indicate that on June 1, 2020, Attorney General Barr personally ordered the clearing of peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square in front of the White House with excessive force, including the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. Given that tear gas and similar chemicals induce coughing, the need to gasp for air, and a strong urge to touch one’s face, public health experts warn that their use should be avoided during this pandemic.
In their letter to Attorney General William Barr, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf, and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the Senators write, “As people exercise their constitutional right to protest, it is of paramount importance that you ensure that law enforcement authorities do not contribute to the COVID-19 pandemic by engaging in practices that increase the risk of coronavirus spread, and by taking additional steps to protect public health data.”
They continue, “To prevent increased risk of coronavirus transmission and to reduce unnecessary hospitalizations, we urge you to stop the use of chemical agents such as tear gas on protesters. Moving forward, we urge you to work to permanently eliminate the use of respiratory irritants including tear gas as a crowd dispersal technique given the widespread and long-term health impacts of its use.”
Public health and criminal justice experts have raised concerns about the practice of arresting or confining demonstrators, as well as the need to reduce the number of people held in federal, state and local correctional facilities. Reports indicate that law enforcement have frequently “kettled” protesters, keeping them in close proximity to each other for extended periods of time, without proper protective equipment or access to sanitation.
In response to this, Baldwin, Murray, Harris and their colleagues write, “Given the person-to-person spread of the coronavirus, and the significant number of COVID-19 outbreaks that have occurred in congregate settings, these tactics place demonstrators, law enforcement, and the public in harm’s way. We urge you to instruct your federal law enforcement agencies, and encourage state and local law enforcement agencies, to avoid arresting or confining demonstrators or anyone taken into custody in a manner that could increase the spread of COVID-19.”
The Senators conclude, “This is a critical moment for our nation. How our institutions respond will determine whether the coming weeks and months will lead to justice and unity, or discord and division. An aggressive and cruel response to people who are exercising their constitutional right to call for a higher standard in the fight for racial justice would only serve to aggravate a pandemic that is disproportionately hurting communities of color. We implore you to focus guidance for law enforcement on following public health expertise in responding to these protests, to instruct agencies to cease tactics that could heighten the risk of coronavirus transmission, and to swiftly protect all personal and health data collected as part of the COVID-19 response.”
The full letter is available here. Joining Senators Baldwin, Murray and Harris in sending this letter include Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Tom Carper (D-DE), Ed Markey (D-MA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tina Smith (D-MN), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).
This effort is supported by the ACLU, American Public Health Association, Association of American Medical Colleges, Justice Roundtable, Center on Law and Social Policy and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.
“We are fighting two intertwined pandemics—one with COVID19 and one of systemic racism—both of which are causing harm to communities of color. We must take steps to ensure that we dismantle structural racism while also protecting ourselves from COVID-19. We also must keep in mind the devastating impact of structural racism on health while we continue the fight against COVID-19,” said Malika Fair, MD, MPH, Sr. Director, Health Equity Partnerships and Programs, Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).
“We strongly support the right of all Americans to protest the injustice of racism and police violence in a peaceful manner,” said Georges C. Benjamin, MD, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association. “Now is the time to listen to these voices, not suppress them, especially with tactics that that might cause physical harm or increase exposure to COVID-19. We must all work together for change against the injustice harming our communities. We thank Senator Baldwin and the other senators signing the letter for raising these important public health issues with the administration.”
“We support calls for racial justice. We also stand with Senators Baldwin, Murray, and Harris in their appeals to protect demonstrators from the spread of COVID 19,” said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Law enforcement should not use techniques that increase the risk of catching this terrible disease, nor should they have access to any demonstrator information collected during contact tracing. The American people must not be forced to choose between their health and advocating for needed reform of the criminal justice system.”
An online version of this release is available here.