Followership in a Time of Crisis…the Virus Crisis – VI

This is the sixth in a series of posts that explore followers in a pandemic – this pandemic. During the coronavirus crisis leaders have been regularly, even relentlessly examined, explored, deciphered, and dissected. The American obsession with the American president, Donald Trump, has been especially virulent, as if he alone is solely responsible for everything bad that has happened, and for that matter everything good. In other words, as is typical, followers, in this case Trump’s followers, have been ignored. More precisely, they have been ignored not in individual instances – but as a group. They have been ignored as a group that was deeply involved in bringing us to this point – and now in our frantic effort to cure what ails us. Each of these posts is, then, intended as a corrective. A corrective to the misleading, mistaken idea that our fixation on Trump is warranted – as if he were not just the leading actor but the only actor. In brief, if there is blame, blame must be shared.  

VI – The Protesters

Protesting during a pandemic is hard. I do not refer to protesting online, or to bitching and moaning in private to friends and family. I refer to the old-fashioned kind, when protesting meant taking to the streets to send signals, aural and visual, that made clear just how furious you were, how very, very furious, about whoever or whatever your gripe.  

Recently, famously, were enormous, repeated protests like those in Hong Kong, against the long arm of the Chinese government. Also recently were similar protests in Peru, in Lebanon, in India, in Chile, in France, and in other countries around the world, each one a reflection of extreme dissatisfaction by some individuals and groups with someone or something. In the wake of the pandemic, however, these protests have come almost to a halt. Hardly any marching or mobilizing, hardly any rioting or rallying. Instead people are hunkered down in their homes, forbidden by their governments to congregate, most in any event discouraged by the dangers of the virus from doing anything other than what they are being told.

To be sure, there have been some exceptions to this general rule – protesters have not been silenced altogether. Chilean activists have projected images of crowds on to empty streets. In Hong Kong, a union of medical workers went on strike to take issue with the government’s response to the outbreak. And, as Erica Chenowith and her colleagues have pointed out, during the virus crisis protesters, activists, have found new ways of expressing their angers and frustrations. There are walkouts and car caravans. There is crowdfunding and mask-making. There are technologists developing new ways of checking individual temperatures and monitoring high-risk areas, and experimenting with drones to deliver supplies.

In the United States have also been sporadic, episodic protests that more closely resemble the old-fashioned kind – though only occasionally have they involved large numbers of people gathering in proximity. In general, protests engendered by the pandemic have fallen into two categories: those against big business and those against big government.

The first group of protesters consists in the main of underpaid and undervalued employees demanding improved working conditions – especially in corporate behemoths such as Amazon and Walmart. While the chorus of their complaints has not been large, loud, or disruptive enough to penetrate the body politic, it has been persistent enough to garner some attention in the press, some attention among the public, and some attention by their employers who incline to straddle the line between punishing the dissidents on the one hand, and giving in to their demands on the other.

Amazon, for example, fired a warehouse worker in New York City, Chris Smalls, who helped lead a walkout on Staten Island. Though the company denied firing Mr. Smalls for political activity, it has a track record of doing what it legally can to preclude its workers from publicly taking issue with company policy or in any was organizing. Some Amazon workers terminated during the pandemic claimed to have been singled out and, ultimately, pushed out because they pressed for better workplace conditions. Amazon, in turn, has continued to insist they were fired because they violated unrelated company policies.  Meantime, sometimes, Amazon workers are getting an important ally – the law. Case in point: New York State. On April 22, Letitia James, the state’s attorney general, sent Amazon a letter that read in part, “While we continue to investigate, the information so far available to us raises concerns that Amazon’s health and safety measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are so inadequate that they may violate several provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.” In France, incidentally, the law is much clearer about who is responsible for what. In response to concerns raised by Amazon employees through their union representatives (yes, their union representatives), a judge found in favor of them and against their employer. Amazon was effectively forced to rectify working conditions at several warehouses rendered unsafe by the coronavirus crisis. As is the company’s wont, its first response to the judge’s ruling was to scream bloody murder. It’s second response was to enter detailed discussions with Amazon employees about how to improve workplace safety.

Walmart has similarly suffered the slings and arrows of bad publicity when a small number of intrepid employees spoke publicly about what they claimed were unacceptable working conditions. Early in April a 21-year-old cashier at a Walmart in New Orleans, Maya Smith, walked out of her workplace in protest. She aired her grievances against Walmart on New Orleans Public Radio, claiming that the company forbade its workers to wear masks and gloves, even those who “interacted with everyone” and had to “touch everything.” “It’s really unsafe and unsanitary to be working in those conditions, knowing what’s going on,” she charged.  

Ms. Smith is indicative of countless women and men in similar situations. People who are essential workers – but who nevertheless are low wage workers not afforded even the few scant health care protections recommended by government agencies during the virus crisis. Walmart is the largest employer of African Americans and Latinx workers in the country. The problem is, of course, the usual one. Even in the best of times, not to speak of during a pandemic, low wage workers organizing on their own behalf is difficult, extremely difficult. Union membership now is small, and Income inequity has increased during the time of Trump, not decreased, which makes it even harder for workers like these to fight for their rights. There are organizations such as United for Respect (UFR), which describes itself as a “multiracial national nonprofit organization fighting for big and bold policy change” that will improve the “lives of people who work in retail.” But the mountain it hopes to scale is high. Safe to say that while UFR protesters have made a very, very small dent in the nation’s conscientiousness, on the nation’s conscience, they are not in any case on Trump’s radar.

Protesters that are on Trump’s radar are some like those in Michigan who in mid-April decided they were tired of their governor, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, telling them what to do and when to do it. They were tired, in other words, of being told to stay in the house and away from work until such time as the government rescinded its restrictions. In fact, so many were so fed up that thousands clogged the streets of the state capitol, Lansing, demanding they be free to get out and do what they want when they want. The Washington Post described the scene this way: “They drowned [the] downtown in a cacophony of honking. They blared patriotic songs from car radios, waving all sorts of flags from the windows – President Trump flags, American flags and the occasional Confederate flag ….   Many got out of their cars and crashed the front lawn of the capitol building, with some chanting, “Lock her up!” and “We will not comply.”

The protest in Michigan – which was not, incidentally, the only one of its kind – was large enough and noisy enough to get the nation’s attention. Though a majority of Michigan residents continued to support Whitmer’s handling of the virus crisis, right wing groups promoted the event through e mails and social media posts, Fox News covered the event all day long including in prime time, and, in spite of the fact that the protesters in Michigan flagrantly violated his own administration’s guidelines, President Donald Trump could not help himself.  He could not resist. His inordinately divisive tweet? “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”   

Again, pandemics and protests are not natural allies. Protests suffocate when they are deprived of fresh air. And protestors stay away when a virus requires they stay in. Still, “not natural allies” does not mean outright enemies. Low wage workers are being heard at least by some of the people some of the time. And as it turned out, those protesters in Michigan were at the vanguard of men and women nationwide itching to get out and “open the country back up.” Think of them as Trump’s troops – shouting from the streets of Lansing that which even he dared not shout from the corridors of Washington power.  

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