Anti-lockdown protests are not about freedom but about white, male privilege

In the US, armed groups continue to ‘protest’ (although threaten would be more appropriate to say) public authorities about lockdown orders. These groups are armed, they are white and they are dominantly male. The celebration of violence orchestrated in these protests make them extreme examples of showing off toxic masculinity. They are not in any way contributions to a democratic debate over the question how societies best get over the Covid19 crisis.

As the negative impact of the coronavirus lockdowns has been massive on national, local and household economies, and as we are seeing increasingly the negative impact on mental health, the question when and how to ease restrictions is indeed an urgent one. It is, however, not one about freedom vs. state oppression as, in extremis, US protesters want us make believe. The right to move around at their whim and will that these people are brutally claiming does not equate the general and universal claim to freedom of movement. What these people are screaming for is the white, male privilege to roam the streets at the expense of others providing and maintaining the social care that is essentially needed to allow this privilege. The large majority of women, people of colour or working classes have never had this ‘freedom’.

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The ethical question that is posed with the challenge of finding the right moment to ease lockdown restriction is whether the right to live of a range of vulnerable people in our societies is equal to the right of the majority to go out and to socialise at work, schools, or leisure. The virulence of the virus being such that the question of surviving disease and the right to live depends in an extra-ordinary fashion from the provision of life-saving medical care. It is the rapidity of the virus’s spread as well as of its ‘rampage through the body’ that requires that responses to this pandemic go beyond the ordinary epidemiological ‘some people will die’ approach. Under the condition of a functioning health care system and the obligation of this system to attempt saving every single life, an early easing of lockdown restrictions would mean that every dying person in overwhelmed and hugely under-equipped hospitals had to be told that they would be dying for the greater good of the majority of other citizens to get a haircut at the hairdressers, running their server heels off at a restaurant or stocking shelves in some unknown warehouse.

As this is obviously absurd, the other question would be if these same vulnerable people could be the only ones subjected to lockdown restrictions while all those who believe not to be threatened by the virus or who have good reasons to believe that they will not be infected would be allowed to go along their business. The ethical question then shifts to the question if the right of the majority to have their nails done by precarious immigrant women, babbling away entire days in call centres, or trading investment packages justifies effectively socially isolating and locking in a minority, those who by their health disposition are very likely to die from the virus. Which means whether the freedom of some to move around freely is more important than the freedom of others to do the same. Does the right of one person to go to work justify the locking down of a vulnerable person?

In the opinion of the right-wing militias that keep displaying their weapons in front of public authorities in the US, the answer to this is a clear ‘yes’. Yet, they do not think or say so because they have thought this through in any sensible way (if not for the improbability that they can think sensibly). They think or say so because this is how it always has been.

The freedom of white men to roam the city, to go out, to occupy public space through sports, hanging out or patrolling the street has always been predicated on explicitly or implicitly, factually and practically prohibiting women and people of colour to do the same. Socially different levels of freedom of movement have always been an indicator of unequal social power. Extreme inequality exists if a limited group of persons moving around do not have to give a sh** about others who could be negatively impacted by their absence from home and family or who experience their driving, walking, drinking, playing or even working outside as physical or psychological threats. Such inequality exists whenever or wherever the ‘freedom of movement’ of one group of people leads to their occupation of public spaces, of public discourse or of public forums that they had to violently take from others (who might be the rightful owners like the land that settlers had the freedom to take from native populations, or other potential occupants). For these people, the power of freedom of movement is the freedom not to care.

The white man’s power to ‘get their way’ has as necessary corollary that all those who have to take over the social care and looking-out-for-each-other roles that are indispensable for our societies to exist, cannot move around freely. Women and people of colour are bound by the obligation to care for children, elder or vulnerable, for their communities as they are bound by the obligation to respect, often at the risk of their lives, the restrictions to the times and places where they can be found outside their home. Having to stay inside in order to care for and even save other people’s and their own lives is the normal existence for most women and people of colour. What these gunmen are protesting therefore is not the loss of freedom but the loss of their privilege of white, male power as the Covid19 crisis has generalised and socialised the restricted mobility of a care society where every single person’s freedom is dependent on the well-being of the generalised and anonymous other. What they are protesting is that they have been made equal to the people whose mobility and freedom they have been ordinarily restraining when exercising their power over the outside and public space. By prominently displaying their weapons and staging their protests like military parades they are not indicating that they are willing to defend liberty as universal right but their determination to use violence to restore their power over others.

Their protests must not be confounded with the democratic debate over the question how to ease lockdown restrictions to alleviate the negative impacts on the economy, livelihoods and mental health, all the while protecting the most vulnerable in our societies. The masculine screaming over the ‘loss of freedom’, however, places such discourses at the outer limits or even outside the ethical limits of a democratic debate, even if not accompanied by open displays of means of violence as in the USA,  as the matter at stake for these people is not the welfare of the demos but, on the complete contrary, their oppressive, exploitative power over others.