Society can address COVID-19 without authoritarianism
The test of one’s convictions when it comes to civil liberties has never been how vehemently you defend opinions or behaviors you agree with. It has always been how fiercely you will go to bat for your opposition’s right to be wrong.
While I condemn those who needlessly flout quarantine recommendations, putting themselves and others in harm’s way, I do not believe this crisis, nor any other, gives our government the power to restrict our people’s freedoms to assemble, to earn a living, and yes, sadly, even be stupid and reckless.
I’m no COVID hoaxer, nor am I downplaying the horror of 306,000 deaths in our country. Since the start of the pandemic, I (and everyone in my immediate circle) have followed strict social distancing recommendations to the letter. My job is fully remote, I wear a mask everywhere on my infrequent outings, and I believe fully in the recommendations of leading epidemiologists and so on.
I am simply firm in my belief that there is no threat, no matter how grave, that is justification for the cavalier abandonment of individual liberties.
I believe Gov. Gavin Newsom has egregiously overstepped the bounds of his office and is pushing law enforcement to pivot from recommending distancing and dispersing gatherings to potentially arresting those who do not comply.
While I applaud the intent of the stay-at-home orders, I despise the whiff of authoritarianism in their proposed enforcement.
Gov. Newsom would like nothing better than for us to inform on our neighbors for committing no crime. Bad leaders have always promised safety in return for the surrender of freedoms. Let’s not fall for it this time.
I commend the growing number of local California sheriffs who are openly refusing to use their power to enforce Gavin “French Laundry” Newsom’s stay-at-home orders on individuals.
Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub has said, “Our approach is one of educating the public of the health orders and encouraging compliance with them. Enforcement has always been an option for our staff to use with considerable discretion. However, our primary goal is to seek voluntary compliance whenever possible.”
Sheriff Don Barnes of Sacramento has said his office will not answer calls to enforce mask compliance. “Due to the minor nature of the offense, the potential for negative outcomes during enforcement encounters, and anticipating the various ways in which the order may be violated, it would be inappropriate for deputies to criminally enforce the Governor’s mandate. Accordingly, the Sheriff’s Office will not be doing so.”
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco has gone even further, stating his department will not be “blackmailed, bullied or used as muscle” to enforce the governor’s orders, accusing “extremely hypocritical” Newsom of a “dictatorial attitude.”
I implore everyone in Santa Barbara County to voluntarily comply with the best recommendations coming from epidemiologists and experts, but there is a vast chasm between doing something because it’s the right thing to do, and doing so out of fear of reprisal from the state.
I call on Sheriff Bill Brown to issue a similar statement making it clear that the governor does not have the power to strongarm county law enforcement into curtailing Californians’ free assembly or our citizens’ ability to safely and responsibly keep their businesses afloat.
History is full of ambitious men using the excuse of crisis to seize too much power, from Julius Caesar to Joseph McCarthy. Two things can be true at once: The COVID pandemic can be clear, present and dire, and our civil liberties can still be worth protecting.
The path between tyranny and tragedy is and has always been a narrow one: individual and community responsibility.
So if you see someone behaving in a way you find dangerous and irresponsible, say something — loud and clear. But giving someone a stern talking to and inviting agents of your government to arrest them are not the same. Don’t let Gov. Newsom off the hook for his baldly autocratic assumption that you are too fearful to know the difference.
The author lives in Santa Barbara.