Living in a Time of Two Plagues

As the U.S. death toll from Covid-19 approached 100,000—the largest country total in the world—the New York Times devoted four pages of its Sunday edition to cataloging the lives of 1,000 people who had died. Read together, the one-line obituaries amplified the fullness of the lives lost and gave voice to the vastness of the hole they left: “liked his bacon and hash browns crispy,” “saw friends at their worst but brought out their best” “renowned for her business making detailed pins and corsages,” “one of nine siblings,” “squeezed in every moment he could with his only grandchild.”

Through public memorials, the humanity of victims is held up as a mirror for the rest of us, even if we have not personally suffered a loss: we, too, love our children and grandchildren; we, too, love a good meal; we, too, have dreams and aspirations. When we identify with the victims, we find solidarity with the survivors. This solidarity—this sense of seeing ourselves in the life stories of others—is part of what compels us to wear masks and take other measures to stay healthy until there is a cure.

As part of a recent Family Day of Action sponsored by Boston-based Wee The People, I borrowed a bucket of chalk from my children and wrote the names of 42 people, each of whom died from police violence, on the sidewalk in front of my house. I found the work quite meditative—making sure to take my time with each name, choosing the right color, printing each letter large and clear, spacing the names just so. With many of the names, I recalled the moments when I first heard about this person—someone who had, until their death, been a stranger to me; whose memory was suddenly infused with generations of anguish; who was more than a symbol; who was and still is the son or daughter, father or mother, classmate or friend who was known and loved and sorely missed.

And as I etched their names into my sidewalk, with as much solemnity and tenderness as I could muster, I thought about how police violence and White supremacist violence—like Covid-19 and all of the epidemics that preceded it—is also a plague. Moreover, much like Covid-19 disproportionately affects ethnic minority groups, police violence disproportionately affects Black people.

An important part of building a movement to blunt the traumatic effects of White Supremacy and the plague of police violence—much like the movement to find a treatment and cure for Covid-19—is building a sense of solidarity with the victims and their families. The life stories of the countless men and women who have been victims of police violence deserve the same reverence we afford to the scores of victims of Covid-19.

And so, here are just a few:

George Floyd, 46, St. Louis Park, MN – “a big man with a heart to match”

Breonna Taylor, 26, Louisville, KY – “an accomplished EMT for the city of Louisville”

Darrien Hunt, 22, Lehi, UT – “a strong desire to join the Marine Corps and make his father proud”

Correy Jones, 31, Boynton Beach, FL – played drums for his church and in local bands

Megan Hockaday, 26, Oxnard, CA – mother of three

Jamar Clark, 24, Minneapolis, MN – had a “million dollar smile”

Amadou Diallo, 23, New York, NY – a Guinean immigrant with dreams of adventure

Keith Scott, 43, Charlotte, NC – liked to meet his son’s elementary school bus every afternoon

Laquan McDonald, 17, Chicago, IL – loved his younger sister, gave everyone a hug

Jordan Edwards, 15, Balch Springs, TX – a good student who liked to play pool

Tanisha Anderson, 37, Cleveland, OH – “slept every night in a bed with the family pitbull”

John Crawford III, 22, Fairfield, OH – father of two young sons

Bettie Jones, 55, Chicago, IL – mother of five, grandmother of 10

In addition to showing reverence for their lives, these people’s memories—as with the memories of those lost to Covid-19—are a call to action.

The earnestness and urgency that drive the search for a coronavirus treatment or vaccine should also drive our collective drive for anti-racist public policies. Because while empathy is nice, it is relatively hollow if it does not also lead to concrete anti-racist policies. At a rally of public officials of color, held recently in front of the Massachusetts State House, Representative Ayanna Pressley said the moment called for anti-racist policy proposals that were “precise and prescriptive because the hurt and harm and the injustices that have been put on us were very precise, were very prescriptive, were very targeted.” Pressley is the co-author of a bill that would increase federal oversight of policing. Looking at policies enacted at the state and local levels, the campaign to end police violence Campaign Zero cites research on the effectiveness of community oversight boards, an end “broken windows” policing, and limits on use of force practices. Reforms like these are not just good public policy; they are, in a very real sense, a cure for a plague that continues to claim more than 1,000 lives each year.

Someday, hopefully soon, we will be able to put our masks away and gather in a group of people without fear and look back with relief and sadness at the Plague That Was Covid-19. This hopeful future will be in no small part thanks to the efforts of hundreds or thousands of medical researchers, doctors, and nurses who are now working tirelessly to find treatments and a vaccine for Covid-19. Without a similar effort, fueled by the same solidarity with victims coupled with a deep sense of outrage and urgency on the part of public policymakers, we will still be here in 12-18 months mourning the lives lost to police violence.