COVID-19 and Unrecognized Realities Experienced by Black People

By Roi-Martin Brown, COVID-19 Equity Response Team

Face coverings help protect our community from COVID-19. Unfortunately many members of the Black community are concerned that wearing face coverings may lead to dangerous and harmful encounters with law enforcement or other community members. Racism influences perceptions of face coverings and those wearing or not wearing them.

After rounds of engagement and feedback from community partners, the decision was made to roll out the face covering policy as as a directive, not an order, so as to prevent further policing of black and brown communities or perpetuate further acts of racism.

However, in recent days and weeks, Black men and women wearing or not wearing a face covering have experienced racial profiling, and racist and violent behavior. Wearing a face covering or not wearing one is no justification for attacking or brutalizing people of color in King County.

Since the first contact of Native People with Europeans in this region of the Salish Sea, people of color living here constantly have to remind, negotiate, fight, and legislate for equality, equity, and the promotion and protection of their rights and safety. Some of these historical events, policies and impacts include:

Many of our family members, friends and neighbors remember this history. No community has been excluded or untouched by racism, bigotry and colonialism in King County. However, some history is much more recent. Three such recent events that directly involved and changed Black lives in the Seattle area are examples of institutional and systemic violence and discrimination against Black people, and are context to considerations of safety and risk for Black people in daily life.

July 9, 2014 William Wingate, a 69-year-old Black male, was arrested by white Seattle Police Department (SPD) Officer Cynthia Whitlatch while walking on Capitol Hill in Seattle using a golf club as a cane. While the Officer claimed that Mr. Wingate was swinging his cane at her, the video evidence from her patrol car disputed her statements. The Police Department later fired Officer Whitlatch and apologized to Mr. Wingate who was awarded a jury settlement for racial discrimination. Officer Whitlatch’s termination was later reversed to a retirement and settled with an agreement for 100k in backpay

Beginning on April 6th, 2017 4 men of color accused then Seattle Mayor Ed Murray of sexually molesting them when each of the men were teenagers in the 1980s. The majority of the men were Black. The Mayor remained in office with general political and professional support until resigning September 13th, 2017 after a fifth public accusation. This incident is representative of patterns of systemic and institutional failure to acknowledge accusations and act to repair harm caused to Black people.

On July 18th, 2017 Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant Black woman was killed by two SPD Officers in her apartment in front of three of her four children while experiencing an incident of mental distress. Ms. Lyles had called 911 for assistance.  In each of these cases, process for acknowledgement, accountability and redress moved slowly and members in the Black community expressed a lack of trust in the reaction and response of local government.

Many people outside the Black community and other communities of color are not aware of the thoughts, deliberations and pre-planning that Black people and other people of color must consider before, during, and after they enter public places. Because of the very real threats to safety and security that exist in the form of systemic and individualized bias, violence and harm perpetrated on Black people and communities – seemingly simple public health advice and practice is not so simple.

It’s important to acknowledge that Black people, and particularly Black men, are stereotyped and treated as threatening when just living their lives. Interactions and relationships between the Black community and systems of policing, safety and public health often exist without trust because of legacies of oppression and the ongoing “unmattering” of Black lives by the work of white supremacy.

The health and wellbeing of Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) relies on being able to exist in public and private spaces without confrontation, intimidation or harm, whether or not they wear a face covering. Something that currently is not assured and with deadly consequences. We all need to feel safe and valued in the communities where we live, learn and work during these challenging times.

Now that face coverings and masks are a part of our new normal, we have to educate our community on how to wear them properly to be safe. In addition, we have to educate people with power to not see Black and Brown people, especially Black men, as a threat for wearing a face covering in public to protect themselves and those they love.”

Michelle Merriweather, President and CEO, Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle

About Roi-Martin Brown

Born and raised in Seattle’s Black community, the CD in the mid-1950s, my parents introduced me to community activism. In the mid-1960s, they hosted community meetings in our home to stop the R. H Thompson Expressway construction through the black community and participated in the 1966 boycott to desegregate Seattle Public Schools. These events helped to form my belief in Positive Resistance and community activism to this day.

Further reading:

Credits: The video was written and produced by Roi-Martin Brown and Christopher Bhang with acting by John Miller. Special Thanks to the King County Equity Response Team.

Originally published on June 3, 2020.