Black lives matter. They matter more than social distancing.
That is why Denver Mayor Michael Hancock locked elbows and marched with hundreds of demonstrators Wednesday. Photos show no space between Hancock and others in hand-in-hand, elbow-to-elbow and shoulder-to-shoulder contact.
Meanwhile, restaurants throughout Denver and the rest of Colorado struggled to survive severe restrictions on the right of customers to assemble. It is time to enforce the law — namely the First Amendment — and stop ruining the lives of people who depend on businesses surviving.
Mayor Hancock, who is black, has undoubtedly experienced the unjust treatment minorities too often endure from a small percentage of cops who operate with prejudice. He has good reason to join peaceful protesters. Like nearly everyone, Hancock is morally outraged by the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white Minneapolis cop who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Demonstrations across the country have shown Americans care more about justice than safety. As shown by Hancock and others, social distancing is a lower priority than the need to gather and march in defense of rights.
We should support them. The message is too important to be silenced by a disease with a 1% fatality rate, at most, among those who contract it.
From a legal perspective, peaceful demonstrators — which does not include criminals throwing bricks — stand on solid ground. The First Amendment guarantees “the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” and nearly all law enforcement officers are sworn to uphold the Constitution. Nothing in the Constitution establishes a germ exception to the First Amendment. Nothing in the Constitution expressly grants governments the authority to separate individuals who choose to assemble. Nothing in the Constitution makes public health the highest priority. Nothing in the Constitution, by any stretch, limits or prioritizes the reason for a peaceable assembly.
The right to assemble applies to demonstrations against police misconduct. It no less applies to people who assemble for happy hour and pizza. As it applies to assembly, the law is content-neutral.
Despite this matter of legal doctrine, regional and statewide assembly restrictions are hurting Colorado restaurants and other small businesses. One-size-fits-all occupancy limitations work for some while destroying others.
The Colorado Restaurant Association told a Gazette reporter about 400 restaurants have permanently closed across the state, unable to survive the costs of COVID-19 mandates. The association predicts 50% of restaurants will fail in the next three months, unable to recover from the financial devastation of assembly restrictions. In nearly all business, survival depends on “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”
The killing of Floyd quickly made COVID-19 a secondary concern. Even the Denver mayor, who has shuttered and restricted thousands of businesses, made this clear when he joined a dense crowd that reduced 6-foot social distancing to mass physical contact.
This could be a good thing. Mental health experts expect a spike in 2020 suicides as a result of loneliness and lives ruined by the COVID-19 closures and distancing mandates. They observe a rise in substance abuse and mental illness.
As the killing of Floyd reminds us, our civil rights — those protected by law — matter. Only in a country that cherishes civil rights, as in the right to assemble, can we gather in the streets to insist that black lives matter. Ultimately, as displayed by the public and authorities, individual rights matter more than public health protocols intended to fight a virus.
We have unofficially dispensed with social distancing throughout much of the country because Americans will not stand for a system in which black people live in fear of the police. We have used our God-given, legally protected right to assemble and criticize authority. This makes our country great.
There can be no moral equivalence between the righteous protesting of Floyd’s murder and the right to sell cheeseburgers. But in the eyes of Lady Justice, all peaceable assembly is equal. She is blind to the morality of our motives. As we fight for equal justice, we must be consistent. That means liberating businesses and consumers to self-regulate and assume the risks of a highly survivable contagion. Restore the right of the people to peaceably assemble for any reason they choose, whether or not it feels virtuous.
Let George Floyd’s death matter by improving the country he loved. We can do so by restoring an unwavering, indiscriminate defense of liberty and justice for all. That means cherishing freedom more than safety.
The Gazette Editorial Board