While 10 days of protests following the police-caused death of George Floyd have largely replaced COVID-19 as the news story of the moment, Bill Maher sees a direct link between the two.
Shutting down much of the country during the coronavirus pandemic, the Real Time host argued during a panel segment on the show, motivated more protesters to take to the streets. That added influx has complicated the local community response and increased the burden on police.
“When you coop people up with no hope and no jobs, why not go out in the streets?” Maher said. “I wonder what America will look like. What do police departments look like if they have to fight this all the time?” Picking up a theme Maher has hit relentlessly during shows broadcast from the leafy expanse of his backyard on LA’s West Side, he groused, “This reckless experiment of closing down an entire country for months at a time is not going to look good in the future.”
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At other points in the show, Maher described the protests as “justified” and did not expressly conflate looting with peaceful protests. He categorically rejected the response of many Republicans, who have called for a War on Terror reaction to protests, including the use of military troops. Still, Maher’s main point was that one traumatic event in the country led to another.
Former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele, who joined the virtual panel with Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks, disagreed with Maher.
“They’re not out there protesting about opening up our economy,” he said. “They’re out there protesting about the murder of this man and the impact it’s had on our civil society. But they’re wearing their masks. There’s still this consciousness, even though we’re not talking about COVID-19, it’s still in the back of their minds as they’re marching and protesting.”
Brooks said the economic collapse during the pandemic created “dry tinder” that was ignited by the series of video-captured racial incidents culminating in Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25. However, “I don’t think it was the shutdown as such” that intensified the protests.
Two factors have come into play, Brooks said. “First, the virus has disproportionately affected people of color and the poor,” she said. “If it were a bunch of white GOP voters in the suburbs dropping dead from COVID in massive numbers, then maybe the White House’s response would have been different.” That realization, she added, has created a “baseline stress” that has been expressed during the protests.
Additionally, the tens of millions of job losses since March have hit workers of color hardest, or placed them in risky positions on the front lines of the pandemic.
Maher said that while media emphasized the milestone of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, 100,000 small businesses have been lost during looting in recent days, many of them owned by minorities. “It’s always about what in the long run is going to cause the most death,” he said, before rattling off talking points seemingly cribbed from the “liberate” playbook. Hospital-acquired infections, he said, for example, kill more Americans each year than COVID-19 has.
“We seem to have just focused on this one thing,” Maher said. “It wasn’t inevitable that the economy be shut down. … We’ve had pandemics before.”