Protests, Police Brutality, and COVID-19: Governor Patrick L. Deval’s Call for Risk-Oriented Policy and Making a Plan to Vote
By Ayah Mohammed Hamdan
“How should we try to understand the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and Brown populations?” In commencing the dissection of this complex, sobering topic, Governor Patrick Deval, the 71st Governor of Massachusetts uplifts the basic, foundational public health issues: generational housing insecurity, financial impoverishment, education inequities, social determinants of health, and the rejection of (the somehow still commonly-believed myth of) racial essentialism.
Interviewed by Dr. Sara Bleich, Professor of Public Health Policy and Management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Governor Deval shed light on the relationship between public health and police brutality against Black people in the United States. He also offered an assessment of how to leverage the increased visibility of the harms of police violence, furthered by the protests uplifting calls for social change and justice, after the murders of several Black people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Governor Deval served as a two-term Massachusetts governor, from 2007 to 2015. He is renowned for his leadership in the massive expansion of affordable health care to Massachusetts, state-wide promotion of clean energy and biotechnology use, and advocacy supporting investment in the public school system. Simply, Governor Deval made history. During his tenure, he brought the state to its highest employment rate in 25 years. As a politician, his perspective on the urgency to drive more transformative, risk-oriented politics comes at a critical point: fewer than four months before the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.
George Floyd’s Death: A Potential Turning Point for the Police System
Governor Deval echoed a sentiment shared by anyone, especially Black Americans, who is attuned to the history of enslavement, the prison industrial complex, and systemic racism: police violence against Black people in the U.S. is not new. Protests of the continued murders of Black Americans, especially this year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, have drawn increased attention to the deep roots of structural racism in U.S. culture and institutions. Given this, can social justice advocates and community organizers leverage the increased visibility to further spread awareness and drive positive change?
Since the Los Angeles Police Department coined the motto “to protect and to serve” in 1963, most police departments across the country have adopted it as their mission. This begs deeper analysis: to protect and to serve whom? Black and Brown communities in the U.S. do not feel protected by law enforcement; this sentiment is validated by evidence detailing U.S. policing’s violent history of patrolling enslaved Africans. Across the nation, advocates against police brutality have been calling on their government officials to defund the police force and allocate funding to community social services, public schools, and health clinics. Many are going even further to demand abolishing the police and carceral system. Police abolitionists do not see the redemption of a system that was designed to harm and punish Black people. As citizens around the country are being called to reflect on whether the police are actually capable of fulfilling the mission of protecting and serving people in the U.S., these words, commonly attributed to W.E.B Dubois, still hold true today: “a system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect”.
Another important topic that Governor Deval discussed validates the sentiment felt by many Black, Brown, and Indigenous people who are activists in and advocates for their communities. Governor Deval opined:
“…a lot of us have felt that business of having to put other people — white people in particular — at ease before you can have any conversation about race. I would get all these calls from friends of mine who were white, checking on me, as they said, after the George Floyd videotape was released and the activity on the ground…they all said they were checking on me. But some of them were really just checking on themselves. They wanted to be reassured that they weren’t the problem.”
Like Governor Deval’s friends, many white Americans have internalized the perspective that as long as they are not personally perpetrating racist attacks against Black people, then they are not responsible for the racism they see published in news headlines and reports. Racial justice scholars, thought leaders, and media figures are pushing for a shift in such understanding. Instead of focusing on how they can erase their guilt and stay within their comfort zones, white people should instead be engaged in transdisciplinary efforts that work on dismantling racist systems. White Americans benefit and profit from racism; until they become active in combating racism and reversing the impacts of white hegemony, then they are indeed a part of “the problem”.
Efforts toward justice should utilize strategies that reflect the beliefs and realities of the communities most directly impacted. For example, the voices and experiences of Black people should be at the center of efforts to address the harms caused by the police system. Given this, it is critical for non-Black allies involved in such work to be conscious of the burden this places on Black individuals. Non-Black people, white people in particular, need to carry the labor of dismantling racist systems, because as the prominent political activist, author, educator, and scholar Dr. Angela Yvonne Davis urges, “in a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist”.
Non-Black Americans should listen to, uplift, and promote Black individuals, scholars, activists, and politicians, while also acknowledging that fighting racism must be a community effort. Governor Deval affirmed that it is time to “jump past the business of trying to put each other at ease” and invest more energy into driving tangible change. Tangible change means eliminating racial and ethnic inequities in health care, addressing impoverishment, and getting at the root causes of academic achievement gaps.
Public Policy and the U.S. Presidential Elections
“These issues become issues at election time and then disappear in between elections. [But] those experiences are experiences of Black people for generations”. As a former Governor, Deval’s experiences allow him to underscore the importance of engaging public policy in addressing racial inequities in the U.S. beyond the direct impacts of COVID-19 and police brutality.
Any introductory course on public health will likely commence by outlining the social determinants of health. In order to achieve a state of complete and equitable public health, each aspect within the social determinants of health framework needs to be accessible and available to Black communities. Governor Deval insisted that this is not the reality in the U.S. Black people are not only harmed at egregious rates by the police force, and now, an infectious pandemic, but they also experience discrimination in health care insurance coverage, with the ongoing tension between universal health coverage and housing security, still seen via the impacts of redlining today.
U.S. public school classrooms teach children about the Reconstruction Era, celebrating it as the end of slavery and achievement of civil rights and justice for Black Americans. However, with such stark, obvious discrepancies in the “freedoms” offered to Black people still existing today, this yields the question — what more can be done? Governor Deval asserted:
“We’re going have to raise our appetite in public policy for innovation. And one of the things about innovation is that you have to also raise your tolerance for failure. Politics punishes failure. And so I think we’re going to have to get to a place where we are permitting at the public policy level, just as we do in the private sector, a willingness to try new things to get at root causes and try multiple things simultaneously…”
Protesting and voting in elections are two types of political engagement. Yet, there is an unfortunate parallel between these two methods; the consequences of each tend to unfavorably impact Black people in the U.S. For example, evident through the Civil Rights Movement, the Rodney King Riots, and the protests over the past several years asserting that Black lives matter, Black people advocating for their humanity have been targeted, arrested, and attacked by government forces in ways that white protesters have not been.
Holding politicians accountable for promoting just and fair policies is more attainable when officials in power hold equitable, nondiscriminatory values. Historically, the U.S. has seen voter suppression in ways such as shutting down polling sites in Black-majority neighborhoods so that people are deterred from standing in long lines to cast their votes.
In a system where so many barriers are already put in place to discourage voting, Governor Deval urged audiences to make a plan and be intentional about ensuring their votes are cast this November. Preparing to vote involves registering to vote, making a decision about whether to vote by mail or in person, researching the relevant deadlines, and learning about the propositions and candidates. Once candidates are elected, it is the duty of all the U.S. populace to ensure that those government officials deliver the promises they made.
Seeing the impacts of policy takes time. Seeking inspiration from John Lewis, Governor Deval rallies audiences to be active in taking risks in the policies and political outcomes that they expect from their government. He affirmed the urgency in taking action: be in a hurry and be incentivized by the desire to create a more just future for future generations to come.
Taking risks, taking chances, and being active in influencing transformative change were ongoing themes in Governor Deval’s talk. He left the conversation with inspirational words for those pursuing work in public health policy. He encouraged listeners to examine their “why”, or their purpose, for wanting to invest in leading political change. “If the best answer you can come up with is that you like to hear the sound of your own voice, do something else because that’s not what we need right now”.
Story written by Ayah Mohammed Hamdan, a S.M Epidemiology Candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, concentrating in Reproductive, Perinatal, and Pediatric Epidemiology. Ayah also serves as an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Fellow at Harvard Chan for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Born and raised in the Bay Area, California, Ayah holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Health from UC Berkeley. Ayah is passionate about leveraging technology to drive innovative ways of collecting maternal health data in low-resourced settings, both domestically and globally. She takes pride in her identities as a Palestinian, Muslim, daughter of immigrants, and former community college student. Outside of her research interests, she is involved in efforts to make higher education more accessible to historically excluded students.
Story edited by Sherine Andreine Powerful, MPH, a Doctor of Public Health candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. A Diasporic Jamaican, she received her Bachelor’s degree in Latin American and International Studies from Yale University and holds a Master of Public Health degree in Population and Family Health, with a concentration in Global Health, from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Her interests, centered around the English-speaking Caribbean, include feminist global health and development leadership; gender and sexual health, equity, and justice; and pleasure, healing, and liberation.