By Jesse Robert Lovejoy
The last time this happened was 50 years ago. The president and the generals appeared on TV nightly, reporting scores of victories and overwhelming body counts. The media bought the story. Vietnamese villages were incinerated, and towns were carpet-bombed. Thousands of young Americans bled and died in the rice paddies. The public’s questions went unanswered. Antiwar protests started small and kept growing. Americans figured it out. The war was unwinnable, and the human cost was staggering. The government persisted, but public opinion swung around; millions marched. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, the National Guard opened fire on protestors at Kent State, and the dam burst.
It happened again on May 25th in Minneapolis. After decades of witnessing unarmed African Americans tragically killed by police, the heartless suffocation of George Floyd horrified and galvanized the country. The dam burst, millions marched, and America changed.
Response to the coronavirus also reached the tipping point. When the virus hit last winter, people understood shutdowns were necessary to avoid the collapse of inadequate and undersupplied hospitals. Millions of Americans bore the cost in lost jobs and lost savings, but infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths plummeted. The media adored the experts, but the experts had forecast millions of deaths and were baffled. At least the governors did something.
Reopening has not gone well. The process requires flexible and courageous leadership by state governments, and a sense of what people have learned and how much pain they can endure. In New York, this has been hobbled by overreliance on experts, lack of common sense, rigid rules, and fear.
Governor Cuomo failed to perceive the frustration and anger of New Yorkers and didn’t push to get them back to work as fast as possible. Illogically, he applied the same laundry list of “metrics” in rural upstate as in dense New York City. The shutdown has stretched on for more than three months past the peak. With infection rates down to about 1 percent, what’s the point?
The governor lost credibility, dodging blame for his tragic nursing home blunders. He went to Washington, but rather than asking for reimbursement of New York’s costs, he argued for his party’s national priorities. He gave longwinded daily lectures on the importance of government, but failed to notice the burning frustration and anger of millions of out-of-work and locked-down New Yorkers. The tragic killing of George Floyd threw gasoline on the fire.
The suffocating shutdown of neighborhood businesses dragged on and on, while tens of thousands of protestors were permitted to march and looters dealt a crushing second blow to minority-owned businesses. Absorbed in his metrics, Cuomo maintained the lockdown. Mass protests were fine; work, worship and a beer with friends were dangerous and illegal.
Government at all levels has lost tremendous credibility. Reform of police practices has been delayed for decades by state and local politics and police unions. In Washington, congressmen and senators posture for the cameras but refuse to act. Racist attitudes persist with tragic results. The response by government to the virus has also been misguided. Public health officials overestimated the long-term impact of the pandemic, and governors ignored the long-term impact of personal isolation, unemployment, and recession. Now, they tell us the right to protest is more important than health considerations, but the right to worship or make a living is not. Is this public health advice, or is it just politics? On Friday, June 26th, a federal district court in Albany lifted the ban on religious assembly and gave us the answer: it’s politics.
As they did 50 years ago, Americans have figured it out, stepped in and taken charge. Millions are marching. Opinion has turned around. The George Floyd killing has already brought real change. Policing practices and legal protections are rapidly being reformed. The killings must end.
Government of the people, by the people, and for the people is alive and well.
Jesse Robert Lovejoy, a lifelong New Yorker, worked in law and finance for over 50 years in Manhattan. Currently, he operates a personal consulting business.