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COVID-1984: Have Americans Become Too Complacent in Our Liberties?

Alongside the coronavirus, another pandemic is gripping our country, one that we will feel the consequences of long after we reach herd immunity. I dub this pandemic COVID-1984, and I fear it will rot the roots of the Tree of Liberty. The consequence will be a government emboldened by a passive citizenry. One of the most surprising aspects of our current situation is how willing people have been to report their fellow citizens to authorities for the most minor and meaningless offenses. I used to wonder how people in authoritarian countries like Stalinist Russia and Maoist China went along with those cruel regimes. It turns out a tiny bit of fear is all you need to be a successful dictator. And now it’s all the easier to report your neighbors for reading alone on the beach with tip lines. 

Even as governors and judges begin to lift stay at home orders, mayors are extending them. A county judge issued a temporary restraining order against Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s stay at home order. Only a day later, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced her intention to enforce the stay at home order regardless of court orders. This reminds me of a quote from Andrew Jackson, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it,” a declaration made after the Supreme Court handed down a decision he did not like concerning the eviction of Native Americans from their land. It appears Mayor Lightfoot intends to follow Jackson’s example by ignoring judicial authority in favor of evicting the people of Chicago from earning an honest income. More recently, she told her constituents, “don’t make us treat you like a criminal… we will take you to jail, period,” even as she got her hair cut against her own order. 

Oklahoma City’s Mayor Holt contemplated extending the city’s shutdown past the governor’s reopening orders, backing off only after realizing there was no point when Bethany and Midwest City were reopening. However, it is still important to note his inclination was to continue the shutdown, and he would have if not for the towns within Oklahoma City opening. Tulsa’s police department announced that while the city is opening up, they will strictly enforce social distancing guidelines. But not with warnings, instead they’ll issue citations and arrest anyone who breaks social distancing protocol. 

On April 14th, the Raleigh police department broke up a protest against the shutdown. When pressed for a reason for stopping the protesters, they claimed, “Protesting is a non-essential activity.” Aside from constitutional concerns, it’s folly to let the government dictate when citizens are allowed to protest the government. This isn’t the only instance of police cracking down on first amendment rights. In Greenville, Mississippi, cops broke up a drive-in worship service, based on an order from the town’s mayor. They threatened $500 fines to anyone who did not comply, despite churchgoers following CDC guidelines, keeping their windows up, and keeping distance between their cars. After a lawsuit and intervention from Attorney General Barr, the order was revised to allow drive-in service as long as the windows were rolled up. In Kentucky, Louisville’s mayor attempted to do the same. It took a federal judge to block the order. 

The mayor of Jackson, Mississippi issued a ban on open carry of firearms in the city,  claiming this power comes from the authority vested in him through emergency management statutes invoked to combat the spread of coronavirus. It’s unclear to me how banning firearms has any effect on the spread of a virus. This is a textbook example of a politician using a crisis to push his political agenda. The Mayor and City are being sued over the order.

New Orleans’ Mayor Latoya Cantrell, is requiring businesses to keep logs of all their customers. The information will be used to track down people who may have come in contact with anyone infected. She calls this the city’s new normal. Cantrell’s office has not released specifics on how they will enforce this new order. It is also not clear what they will do with citizens when they do track them down. A move like this raises privacy concerns and raises the likelihood civil liberties will be violated. 

Many states and cities forced closures of barbershops and hair salons because getting a haircut is supposed to be dangerous. However, in multiple cities, police departments have exempted themselves. ‘Do as I say not as I do’ is a classic in the tyrant’s handbook.  In Florida, Police Chief Velazquez defended the action as necessary for officers to project an image of command and authority to the public. If good grooming habits are all that is needed to keep the peace, then would it not follow that a well-groomed populous would be extra lawful? By such logic, mandating everyone gets a haircut might do just as much good as shutting down hair salons. Next thing you know, hairstyles will be dictated.

Two women in Laredo, Texas were arrested in an undercover sting operation for offering illegal beauty services. They are facing fines of $2,000 and/or 180 days in jail for having the gall to offer to paint nails in exchange for money. There are better uses of the police's time than this, especially considering just days later, a Texas mayor from a different city was caught going to a salon to get her nails done. While she apologized and the district attorney’s office launched an investigation, no charges have been brought against the mayor or the salon owner. Perhaps if the two women from Laredo had offered their services to their local politicians, they would have been free to carry on making a living.

Shelley Luther, a Dallas salon owner, was arrested at the end of April for opening her business early. She could have avoided jail time if only she admitted how selfish she was for wanting to feed her kids and employees. Her response to the judge’s request was, “I have to disagree with you, sir, when you say that I’m selfish, because feeding my kids is not selfish, I have hair stylists that are going hungry because they’d rather feed their kids. So, sir, if you think the law is more important than kids getting fed, then please go ahead with your decision, but I am not going to shut down the salon.” For this, she was sentenced to a week in jail. But fret not, she merely needs to apologize to the judge and county “as publicly as she defied them.” It seems to me Judge Moyé cares more that a mere plebian didn’t bow to his will than he does about punishing her for defying lockdown. Shelley Luther and her employees are in the same boat as tens of millions of other Americans who were forced out of work by their elected officials. The difference is she didn't roll over and take it. Fortunately for Luther, she was released thanks to an order from the Texas Supreme Court.

Gabrielle Ellison, a bar owner in Odessa, Texas, attempted to open her bar before the state permitted bars to open. In order to help her struggling employees. She was arrested along with peaceful protestors from the Open Texas movement who gathered in support. Local police were so unnerved by her insolence they responded by sending in a SWAT team complete with decommissioned military armored cars in an absurd overreaction. 

There was a point in our history when Americans would not have tolerated such behavior from the government when we stood up to tyranny. The founding fathers fought a revolution against the world’s most powerful military in the midst of a smallpox pandemic. While some states are beginning to open up again, I fear the damage has been done. We have set a precedent for accepting tyranny in exchange for the illusion of security. This didn't have to happen, and it doesn't have to happen again. If the American people stood up like Shelley Luther and said, "Enough is enough, we're going to continue living and go back to work," they couldn't shut us all down. While the political class deserves the blame for the actions they’ve taken, the American people are responsible for silently accepting these little tyrants for this long.

Spencer Cadavero is Research Associate at 1889 institute and can be reached at

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute. 

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