One of the unsettling trends to emerge from these lockdowns is the penchant for some public officials to encourage snitching on neighbors and businesses that don’t comply with social distancing rules or whatever edict a governor or mayor decides to promulgate on a given day.
This week it was Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who, like many other governors across the country announced a partial reopening of his state as the spread of the coronavirus slows. But Polis wasn’t content simply to announce the new guidelines. He had to lecture Coloradans on their behavior and warn them he might yank the reopening if they don’t behave.
“If we slack off, if Coloradans let up, if less people are wearing masks when they are in public, if stores aren’t being careful and personal services aren’t being careful about following the guidelines that we put out today, then it’s likely that additional restrictions might have to come back,” he said.
For one thing, Polis shouldn’t be obsessing over what safety measures business owners put in place—they’re not children, they can figure it out—he should be watching hospitalizations and COVID-19 fatalities. Remember that the entire purpose of lockdowns and social distancing wasn’t to stop the spread of the virus but to slow it down so hospitals wouldn’t be overwhelmed.
That’s the metric that matters, and Polis, like other officials lately, is subtly trying to move the goalposts. (In a guest op-ed for the Denver Post, he suggested his social distancing orders might have to remain in place until there’s a cure or a vaccine, which “could take months, even years.”)
But Polis went one step further and said people should report businesses that aren’t doing what local public health officials and the Colorado attorney general say they should do. “We know that the people of Colorado will tell us if there’s a store that’s not implementing social distancing.”
This isn’t just infantilizing and un-American, it’s insulting to businesses that are trying to weather an unprecedented economic crisis, and it’s insulting to the tens of millions of American who have become unemployed thanks to government-enforced lockdowns.
Polis isn’t alone in his fondness for snitching. New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who recently issued a disturbing warning to the city’s Jewish community that they’d better not gather in large groups or he’d have them rounded up, set up a 311 “snitch line” earlier this month so neighbors could inform on one another. It didn’t go well.
The idea was to have New Yorkers “snap a photo” of businesses that weren’t social distancing. Instead, trolls flooded the line with dick pics and Hitler memes, so the city shut it down.
In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti made headlines in early April when he said “snitches get rewards”—his awkward, unfunny play on “snitches get stitches.” To the snitches, he said, “We want to thank you for turning folks in and making sure we are all safe.”
Do We Really Want to Call the Police On Each Other?
The problem with this attitude from elected leaders is that it trickles down to law enforcement authorities, who get it into their heads that every order that issues forth from a mayor or governor, however unconstitutional, unenforceable, or outrageous, must be legal and therefore must be imposed on the public.
That’s how you get scenes like the one that played out in Wisconsin recently, in which the police came to a woman’s home and told her to stop letting her daughter play at a neighbor’s house because the governor said so. Note that the woman refuses to give the officers her last name, asking them to cite what law she’s broken. They can’t, and eventually they just leave.
I understand what's going on, but honestly… "stop having your kid go by other people's home!" is not an order a police officer should ever be authorized to give.
She let her kid play at a neighbor's house. I'm sorry, no.
Fuck all the way off.pic.twitter.com/EWUZ7kXWt3
— Jason Howerton (@jason_howerton) April 29, 2020
This is also how you get police officers in Laredo, Texas, going undercover to arrest two women last week for the crime of operating a home beauty business. How did the cops find out about these criminals? An anonymous tip.
Thankfully, not all law enforcement agencies are so eager to harass their fellow citizens. In Houston, Texas, a county commissioner tried to promulgate an order that everyone must wear a facemask or face a $1,000 fine—never mind the insult of imposing thousand-dollar fines during an economic downturn and mass unemployment—but the Harris County police refused to enforce it. Instead of handing out tickets to people without masks, they handed out masks.
But what’s astonishing about the Houston case, and all the others over the past month, is that the elected officials in question have been actively seeking to get the police involved where they’re not needed. Encouraging people to rat on their neighbors (instead of, I don’t know, talking to them politely?) encourages a police response, which means an implicit threat of violence and the possibility that things might go terribly wrong.
‘The People Are Primarily Responsible For Their Safety’
Look, I get it, social distancing and stay-at-home orders are important and we should all try our best, within reason, to follow them. But the facts are what they are: stay-at-home orders haven’t had much effect on outcomes so far. As Jordan Schachtel noted recently on Twitter, the handful of states that never issued stay-at-home orders have fared better than those that have.
Partly that’s because the states that didn’t issue orders have fewer big cities and more rural, dispersed populations. But they are all dealing with coronavirus cases, including some fatalities. The difference is, leaders in those states made a decision to trust the common sense of the people about how to protect themselves and their families.
As South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem put in at a press conference this week announcing her “Back to Normal” plan, “Ultimately it is the people themselves that are primarily responsible for their safety. They are the ones who are entrusted expansive freedoms. They are free to exercise their rights to work, worship, and to play or to stay at home and to conduct social distancing.”
South Dakota never issued any lockdowns or stay-at-home orders and has fared just fine, which goes to show that Americans don’t need the police lurking around our front porches or chasing down lone runners on the beach for most people to be smart and do the right thing. What we definitely don’t need right now, with tens of millions struggling to provide for their families and cope with a pandemic amid rising tensions, is more snitches.