Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The clash over shelter-in-place rooted in slavery

By john a. powell

The frightening demonstrations occurring outside state capitol buildings across the country in which right-wing hardliners are demanding governors lift shelter-in-place orders present a danger that goes far beyond immediate public health concerns.

What we’re witnessing in fact threatens to dissolve whatever social cohesion we’ve managed to maintain as a country and ignite a new civil war over who we are as a nation, and who belongs in it.

The demonstrators, many toting assault rifles, are presenting themselves as defenders of individual liberty, even if it comes at a cost to society and threatens the lives of others.

President Trump’s call for these demonstrators to “liberate” states led by Democratic governors trying to contain the spread of the coronavirus essentially amounts to an incitement to violence, one that has the potential to escalate very quickly and lead to devastating consequences.

An overly simplistic framing presents the conflict as one between freedom and equality, as if these were two mutually exclusive values. But that story lacks historical perspective.

The debate over freedom and equality is one that has been rooted in dominance and white supremacy since the foundation of America, and this deadly struggle has persisted to this day without resolution.

Prior to the Civil War, slaveholders believed that liberties guaranteed in the Constitution extended to their rights to own slaves. Efforts to abolish slavery and pursue equality thus violated their freedoms.

President Abraham Lincoln, in his famous Gettysburg Address, was critical of the Constitution’s failure to more forthrightly deal with equality. In calling for a “new birth of freedom,” Lincoln was implicitly criticizing the Constitution for failing to recognize equality as a foundational value, in part because of the institution of slavery.

He recognized that there was a path forward in which freedom and equality were in fact complementary, where one value does not inhibit the other.

Later efforts to pursue equality were deliberate in invoking freedom, too.

In the 1950s for example, an impetus for the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to desegregate public schools was the international embarrassment in how this country treated black people. Segregationists opposed integration, claiming it would interfere with the freedom to send their children to all-white schools, but ultimately our competition with the Soviet Union in international public opinion meant we needed to make concessions.

While we can be critical of the way the Soviet Union invoked the concept of equality to institute collectivism and concentrate state power, it nonetheless forced us to confront extreme inequality in our own country, and proved that we could pursue freedom and equality simultaneously.

The 1960s “freedom riders” who demanded civil rights and desegregation were also deliberate in how they framed their struggle. To achieve equality, the movement was really demanding equal freedom for people who were never considered worthy of it. The very concept of democracy from the Greeks was based on the idea of equal citizenship.

Progressive social movements continued to pursue freedom and equality as complementary values in later decades in the struggles for rights of women, LGBTQ people, immigrants and people with disabilities.

But with the election of Ronald Reagan, and later the fall of the Soviet Union, we’ve been witnessing a resurgence in radical individualism, and a backlash to perception of freedom and equality as values that go hand in hand.

The questions surrounding our response to the pandemic throw these issues into sharp relief, even if we may not be aware of the long, historical struggle. Some may feel they have a right to do what they want without government interference. But one does not have the right to threaten, harm or kill others.

We do want and need to protect our autonomy, but that desire must be tempered with our interconnectedness and equality. Our society and history demand that we be responsible for ourselves and to each other, and government has a pivotal role to play, even if it sometimes fails by inaction or overreaching.

The government is the backstop for maintaining the balance and complementary arrangement between these core values.

Equality should not be confused with collectivism, and liberty should not be confused with the right to harm others.

When we emerge from this pandemic, our country will undoubtedly experience a new birth as called for by Lincoln. But what this birth gives rise to depends on how we respond now.

We have another chance through our response to the pandemic to rethink who is included in “We the People” named in the Constitution, and to give meaning to the Declaration of Independence by pursuing a new birth of freedom grounded in belonging, equality and a true democracy.

This is not a left or right issue. This is America at its best.

This opinion piece was originally published on the San Francisco Chronicle's Open Forum.