Chicago activist Samer Owaida speaks about staying safe while protesting in the pandemic

BLM I can't breathe sign
A protester in Lake View, Chicago holds a sign reading "I can't breathe." The phrase has become a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.

By Cheyanne M. Daniels
Medill Reports

The killing of George Floyd in May triggered a global response against police brutality, and activists across the country have organized protests and rallies in almost every major U.S. city. But the COVID-19 pandemic has added a challenge for activists trying to mobilize while keeping participants safe from infection.

In Illinois, the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) has worked through these new challenges by requiring masks at all gatherings and encouraging participants to protest out of their cars.

Activist Samer Owaida’s leadership within CAARPR highlights the complexities of organizing a protest in a pandemic, particularly when many participants are from communities most susceptible to the coronavirus.

According to the Center for Disease Control, Latinx people are four times more likely than white people to contract the illness and Black people are approximately five times more likely than white people to contract COVID-19.

Owaida spoke to Medill Reports about the importance of speaking up even in a health crisis.

When it was created in 1973, the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression’s mission was to free Black activist Angela Davis from prison. Today, CAARPR’s mission is to give communities control of the police and provide a better representation of Black and other minorities in all levels of government. How has your organization drawn attention to police brutality after the murder of George Floyd?

One of the biggest demands that we’ve been pushing for is Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC). We want civilians to be able to hold the police accountable. As civilians, we fund the police. If it’s funded by our money, we’re demanding some stake in that. CPAC has been gaining a lot of attention, with a lot of aldermen pushing Lori Lightfoot on passing it.

How did you take precautions to keep participants from contracting the coronavirus when protesting by its very nature requires a large group?

First, at protests I’m part of, masks are mandatory. And we have people come in cars, which is the preferred method of protesting. Secondly, we are always providing resources to get tested. If I’m correct, early research has shown that protesting has not led to an uptick of COVID-19 infections.

How have you factored in that many of your participants come from communities who have been more affected by the virus?

When protests started taking place, there was Black leadership present at all of the planning meetings. But we all agreed that we didn’t want Black people on the front lines to deal with both the police and COVID-19, because we know that these two forces are killing innocent Black people at higher rates than anyone else. At many protests, if there’s not a lot of Black organizers on the front lines, it’s because they’ll be in the middle of the march or at the end of the march to offer them some kind of protection.

What is your response to those who say protesters are putting others in danger by potentially spreading the virus?

We’re not protesting just to protest. We’re protesting to bring about structural change in this country. The real question is, why are people going to bars and going to Disney World? If we could replace “Why are people protesting?” with “Why are you going to Disney World?” I think that we would start seeing different results.

How can those who feel unsafe about attending a protest in the pandemic contribute to CAARPR’s mission?

We created a toolkit for people to access on Google Drive. It was designed so that anyone from home could call up Lori Lightfoot’s telephone line with demands to support CPAC. We recognize that we’re in a pandemic, so we can’t expect everyone to be out there with us, but there’s something for everyone to do.

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a reporter for Medill based in Washington, D.C. You can follow her on Twitter at @CheyannaMarie97

Photo at top: A protester in Lake View, Chicago holds a sign reading “I can’t breathe.” The phrase has become a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.(Max Bender/UPSPLASH)