Deja Gaston and Alex Murphy: Coronavirus protesters demand ‘liberty’ at the expense of the rest of us

It was troubling to see the “Utah Business Revival” protest that took place at Washington Square in Salt Lake City last weekend.

It was troubling because this protest seems to have emboldened reactionary, anti-science fringe movements even as health experts continue to show the need for social distancing measures.

It was also troubling because four months ago at the same location, 100 police officers in riot gear dismantled a demonstration featuring a diverse coalition of working-class activists and homeless people. Those demonstrators made demands for better conditions for the homeless. The protest was nonviolent and featured free first aid, daily meals and winter supplies for those in need. Yet the Salt Lake City Police Department suppressed it as if it were an armed occupation.

Saturday’s event featured a speaker who actually once led an armed occupation — Ammon Bundy. Also of note is that the event, which brought over 1,000 people into one of the most infected zip codes in the state, was organized by a former Salt Lake City Police Department officer who was placed on leave for anti-LGBTQ bigotry. Despite these details, as well as a sea of “Don’t Tread on Me” flags wielded by a nearly all-white audience, the event was tread on by no one. The police had almost no presence at the event at all, much less a suppressive one.

Highlighting the disparity in police response is not to call for more aggressive policing. Instead, it points out that, as much as they say otherwise, the police do take sides. They are a plainly political organization that upholds racism and the dominance of property owners.

What was particularly troubling about Saturday’s event were the demands made under the guise of “individual liberty.” Business owners demanded that the county allow them to force their employees back to work before it is safe. Landlords demanded that the state allow them to aggressively collect rent again. Middle-class suburbanites demanded that service workers be able to start serving them again. These are the demands of a plummeting middle class that is trying to keep up with an impossibly rich, exploitative class — at the expense of everyone’s health.

Instead, working people must make demands that acknowledge the needs of those who are most at risk. Essential workers, who are largely low-income and nonwhite, don’t need more businesses to open back up. What we need to fight the virus is sick pay, 100% unemployment insurance, a moratorium on rents and mortgages, a release of huge numbers of incarcerated people to prevent virus hot spots, secure housing for all and free COVID-19 testing and health care.

Rather than demand liberty for the individual, it is time to fight for liberation of the many — including communities of color, unsheltered people, older Americans, incarcerated people, students and all poor and working-class people.

Deja Gaston

Alex Murphy

Deja Gaston and Alex Murphy are Utah community organizers and members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.