Wyden, Colleagues Raise Concerns with Law Enforcement Tactics Increasing Spread of COVID-19 at Peaceful Protests
Senators’ letter to federal officials: “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.”
Washington, DC – U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden today joined with colleagues in a letter raising serious concerns to the Trump administration about law enforcement tactics that may exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 and further worsen public health disparities as the nation continues battling this pandemic.
“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,” Wyden and 17 other senators wrote Attorney General William Barr, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf, and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. “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,” they wrote.
The letter follows 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, 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.
“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,” they wrote. “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 also 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.
“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,” the senators wrote. “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.”
In addition to Wyden, others signing the letter led by U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Patty Murray (D-WA) and Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) are U.S. Sens. 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), 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.
The full letter is here.
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