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A Season Of Pain: Protesters Risk Coronavirus To Demand An End To Police Brutality

Thousands demonstrated in from of St. Louis City Hall and marched through downtown Sunday June 7, 2020, with calls for police reform.
File photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
The killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville by police have sparked protests around St. Louis. Protesters say the coronavirus pandemic and police killings have highlighted the inequities in the black community.

Before 19-year-old Sydney Alexander goes out to protest in the St. Louis area, she makes sure she has all of the protective gear necessary to prevent contracting COVID-19.

That means wearing a mask and gloves and trying her best to remain socially distant from others. As an African American woman whose father contracted the coronavirus in April, she’s afraid. But she’s determined to make her voice heard because she’s tired of hearing about and watching horrific scenes.

For Alexander, this season of pain points to a difficult reality for black people.

“Are you going to be killed by the virus, and that’s a big if, or are you going to be hurt or brutalized or killed by the police?” Alexander asked.

The protests in St. Louis started just as officials ended the stay-at-home orders to keep people home to stop the virus. 

But after Louisville police officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor in her apartment in March and a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in May — as three other officers stood by — many St. Louisans saw no choice but to join nationwide protests to demand that police stop killing black people. But many are still worried about the virus.

In St. Louis, African Americans make up more than 60% of coronavirus cases. In St. Louis County, African Americans are nearly four times as likely to become sick from COVID-19 as white people are. Health officials say health, economic and social disparities have long put black people at a high risk for disease.

Nationwide, African Americans are more than twice as likely to be killed by policethan whites. A 2018 Washington University study shows that nearly 60% of black women killed by police in the U.S. are unarmed.

“I think that the bias and the prejudices that are both in those systems and in those, those places really have affected the African community detrimentally, historically and even today,” Alexander said.

The marches have brought many people together in crowded spaces where it’s hard to stay six feet away from others.

Greta Henderson (right) dances with protesters on Friday, June 5, 2020.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Greta Henderson, right, dances with protesters on Friday.

Health experts say the protests are unlikely to cause an immediate spike in coronavirus cases.

“If we do see increases in cases due to large gatherings, and I think we can anticipate that there will be increases in cases, not specifically due to the protests necessarily but due to reopening of businesses and relaxation of some of the stay-at-home orders,” said Dr. Hilary Babcock, an infectious disease specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

Babcock recommends protesters wear masks, use hand sanitizer and keep their distance.

It’s advice many are heeding. Greta Henderson was marching in the Grove on Friday in memory of her son, who was stabbed and killed almost 10 years ago. She was determined to be outside to call for better policing. Like others, she hasn’t forgotten about the virus.

“It's killing our people, and it’s really the young people that say it’s not nothing,” said Henderson, 65. “I tell them you need to wear your masks, and if you see people dying and if you don't wear your masks, you’re going to take it home to your older parents.”

Many protesters around St. Louis have been wearing masks and other protective gear. Henderson said she’s pleased to see that when she’s in the streets. So she has no plans to stay home. 

Anthony Doss attends a protest in the Grove to oppose police violence. Hundreds of St. Louisans attended the same protest. June 5, 2020
Credit Chad Davis | St. Louis Public Radio
Anthony Doss attends a protest in the Grove to oppose police violence. Hundreds of St. Louisans attended the same protest.

Doctors say the protesters have a point, and many say they understand why people are risking their health to express their outrage.

“We definitely as infectious disease physicians recognize that COVID-19 is a public health crisis,” Babcock said. “But [we] also recognize that structural racism and police violence are also public health crises and certainly understand the need for people to react.”

African Americans and other protesters in St. Louis say they want to see better health care. But they demand that police stop killing black people. That’s what brought 36-year-old Anthony Doss out to the Grove on Friday. He said he’s glad to see so many people protesting to compel change in the St. Louis region and the nation, even though the virus is still a threat.

“It is a double whammy,” Doss said. “They claim that we are at high risks, but heck, black people in general are at high risk every day when we wake up just because society doesn't look at us like we look at ourselves.”

Given what’s at stake, Doss said he’s going to rejoin others in the streets in the coming week.

Follow Chad on Twitter:@iamcdavis

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Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.