‘You can’t really observe social distancing’: M’sian on US protests amid a pandemic

People protesting against police brutality at Santa Fe. Photo: Ricky Lee / Facebook
People protesting against police brutality at Santa Fe. Photo: Ricky Lee / Facebook

The death of American George Floyd has sparked protests and “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations across the United States in the past week, with thousands taking to the streets to speak up on institutionalized racism and police brutality.

Some appeared violent while others, like the ones that took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico, have so far been “peaceful,” Onysha Boak told Coconuts KL recently. The 21-year-old is a liberal arts student at the St. John’s College and had chatted with us to share about life at where she is at the moment. We spoke to her days after a protest took place just outside the Plaza, a historical landmark in the city. 

Onysha Boak (right) tells Coconuts KL about the current situation in the US over a Skype interview
Onysha Boak (right) tells Coconuts KL about the current situation in the US over a Skype interview

“There was just a small group of a few hundred, compared to Minneapolis where they have many thousands of people showing up,” she said. The Kuala Lumpur student moved to the capital in 2018 to pursue her studies. Since the COVID-19 outbreak had shut campuses in the state, her college friends have gone back to their respective hometowns and attended protests there. 

Floyd, an unarmed black man, died in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25 after former police officer, and white man, Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck, suffocating the 46-year-old. Chauvin has since been charged with second-degree murder on June 3.

The incident, which was captured on video, resulted in nationwide protests and demonstrations and reigniting the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. In some cases, luxury stores were looted. 

‘Peaceful’ protests; slowing down of services

In Santa Fe, nearly 2,000km away from Minneapolis, the police have been “pretty chill” when patrolling protests, Boak said. This is a world of a difference from what happened in Lafayette Square, Washington D.C previously, where police had fired tear gas at thousands of people. 

“The police were just sitting around and watching the protests happen,” Boak said, referring to the protests that took place last Wednesday at The Plaza, the Roundhouse, aka Santa Fe’s state capital building, as well as the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Ongoing protests in Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico, began May 31, while Santa Fe has seen at least three protests so far. 

Boak said that most of the protesters knew about the protests through social media platforms, like Facebook events. She is looking forward to the next event.  

“They can follow their local ‘Black Lives Matter’ chapters or other activism groups,” she said. 

Police vehicle on the road. Photo: Matt Popovich
Police vehicle on the road. Photo: Matt Popovich

Boak lives in a remote part of Santa Fe, where life is not as greatly affected by the protests but has definitely seen better days. 

“A lot of services have been slowing down, like mail and delivery services, due to the protests. There have been curfews placed on certain cities,” she said.

Minneapolis, where Floyd died, along with New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington DC, were among the cities with curfews ranging from 7pm to 9pm.

“Some people have had their businesses broken into or looted, and their buildings burned down,” Boak added. Several big and small businesses were looted amid riots, but it was unclear whether the looters were protesters too. 

Protesting during a pandemic

Protest in Santa Fe on May 29. Photo Ana G Y Reinhardt / Facebook

With COVID-19 still claiming lives in the U.S, the nationwide protests may have happened at a very unfortunate time. More than 100,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S so far. But Boak believes that they were just waiting to happen since race-related issues had not been properly handled by the police. 

“The protests needed to happen in the middle of a pandemic to make sure that people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor could get justice,” she said. Breonna Taylor is another African-American who was killed on March 13 when she was shot eight times by police who mistook her home for a drug front.

Boak also noted that only some protesters would wear masks, making these demonstrations possible breeding grounds for the coronavirus. 

“You can’t really observe social distancing at protests,” Boak said. “What’s worrying also is that because the police have been using tear gas on the protesters, and tear gas actually makes you sneeze or cough.”

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