When Sandy Asirvatham’s 17-year-old son, Miles Donovan, expressed interest in attending a protest this week near their downtown Baltimore home, she appreciated that he wanted to demonstrate solidarity with those who are outraged over the death of George Floyd. But just hours before it started, she began to worry.
“I started fearing overzealous policing in the neighborhood and that Miles might get caught up in something even if he’s not a part of a group being violent,” she said. She also was nervous about him contracting the coronavirus and spreading it, having seen coverage of other rallies where “there wasn’t much mask wearing.”
She ultimately agreed to let him go but told him he needed to make sure his mask was always securely on his nose and that he should leave if he sensed anything was going awry. When he returned, she insisted he shower immediately and that he spend the next two weeks socially distancing from her and her husband. She thinks it was worth the risk.
“I’m almost certain that this will be a signal event in his life,” she said. Miles agreed. “It was amazing,” he said.
Quarantining with teens and young adults in a pandemic was already rife with challenges. But it’s become even more complicated in the many households where young adults are eager to join protests taking place across the country. While attending any protest carries risk, especially during the pandemic, there are measures young adults can take to reduce the potential for harm.
Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer at the University of Michigan and a professor of medicine at Michigan Medicine, is also the parent of two children ages 16 and 19. Though she worries about the risk of Covid-19 and the potential for violence in a crowd, “I also think it’s really important for young people to engage on an injustice. This will shape the rest of their lives in the same way it did with previous generations.”
She said in addition to wearing masks and carrying hand sanitizer or wipes, those attending a protest should keep moving, since being in a crowd makes it difficult to socially distance and increases risk of exposure. Avoid using drugs or alcohol as well, since “if you’re not in control, you’ll put yourself at higher risk.” She said it’s also important to “make good decisions about who you’re with” and attend the protest with those who agree to stay together as a group.
Having a plan that everyone in your group has agreed to “makes it so you’re not making impulsive decisions or being reactionary to what’s happening,” said Kristian Hernandez, a member of Democratic Socialists of America’s National Political Committee. Her organization has recommendations in its Guidelines for Safe Protesting.
Ernest Coverson, the End Gun Violence campaign manager at Amnesty International USA, adds that yelling can spread droplets. He suggests using signs, musical instruments or other noise makers instead. Carry a water bottle with a squirt top both to keep yourself hydrated and allow you to wash off your skin or eyes, if you are exposed to tear gas. Wet wipes may also help to wipe your skin or anything you are carrying. His organization’s Safety During Protest guide contains numerous additional recommendations.
Maria Salazar-Ferro, emergencies director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, suggests designating a meeting place for check-ins, since cellphone service may be spotty. Arthur Evans, chief executive officer of the American Psychological Association, said that parents should talk to their children about criteria for leaving a protest and make sure they have an escape route.
“These situations can escalate quickly,” he said. And teens, whose prefrontal cortex is still developing, may act impulsively. “If they play off their emotions, they could end up in a position where they put their safety at risk,” he said. The Committee to Protect Journalists has issued a safety advisory with numerous suggestions that could apply to young people wanting to stay safe.
While some young protesters may view getting arrested as a badge of honor, Dr. Malani said this isn’t the time to take that risk, since there has been a high incidence of Covid-19 in jails and “there’s a possibility we’ll see outbreaks from the arrests.”
Ms. Hernandez advises avoiding behavior that could be considered “escalatory,” like running or yelling, and complying with directives of the organizers. Respect curfews and avoid going around blockades that have been set up or venturing into areas designated restricted by police, she said.
Ms. Asirvatham said that the next time her son protests, she’ll make sure he has an app on his phone developed by the A.C.L.U. Called Mobile Justice, it allows users to record their interactions with the police and share that directly with the A.C.L.U.
As a child health advocate for the Washtenaw Health Plan in Ypsilanti, Mich., Kelly Stupple said that the risk of Covid-19 “is on my mind all the time.” Still, she was enthusiastic when her 17-year-old daughter, Leah Dewey, wanted to participate in a protest in Ann Arbor this week focused on injustices against black people. “I like the fact that she’s engaged in important issues like police brutality. I feel like she is growing into a thoughtful citizen.”
Leah didn’t consider herself politically active and had some concerns at first. “I was nervous because of this situation with the pandemic. The idea of social distancing is difficult to execute” in a protest situation, she said. Ms. Stupple urged her to wear a mask and be aware of her surroundings and to remove herself if she felt people were crowding her.
“She has enough anxiety about getting sick, so I trusted her to manage her body in a space with other bodies,” Ms. Stupple said. Leah said the event was peaceful and moving, and her mother noted that no one in her family is considered high risk, should they get the virus.
If a young person is vulnerable or lives with a family member who has pre-existing health conditions and is at higher risk of developing complications from Covid-19, Dr. Malani suggested considering alternative ways to make a difference without attending protests. Ejeris Dixon and Piper Anderson are both social justice organizers with pre-existing conditions that prevent them from attending protests. They joined with a group of other social justice activists and organizers to compile a guide for alternative ways to make an impact, called 26 Ways to Be in the Struggle Beyond the Streets. Being an emergency contact for those who are attending the protests is one option, Ms. Dixon said. Ms. Anderson said online fund-raising can be another important way to help with a cause.
Ms. Stupple said she’s proud of her daughter for pushing through her anxiety and personal discomfort to stand up for what she believes. She said she’ll continue to support her protesting — while ensuring she promises to take appropriate precautions.
“There will eventually be a vaccine for Covid-19,” Leah said, “but with these issues of civil rights and injustices for black and brown people, they will continue to go on. There’s not a vaccine for racism.”
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