Inspired by the Council’s Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology, we ask prominent scholars to select a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. In this installment, Victor M. Rios (professor of sociology and associate dean of social sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara) spoke with Jonathan Hack (program officer, SSRC Anxieties of Democracy program) about the interplay between Covid-19 and the protest movements that are demanding social and equitable change in America.
Jonathan Hack (JH): What moved you to select this image and what does it communicate to future researchers?
Victor Rios (VR): When I saw that image, it reminded me of what America witnessed in the 1940s when Black war veterans came home after fighting in World War II. They won a world war and liberated Europe, but when they came home they were still steeped in the Jim Crow world. They were denied civil liberties, barred from benefiting from the GI Bill, and put in a situation where they were unable to provide for their families because of racism. They helped to form the civil rights movement. This is what some scholars have called a double victory. They won a war abroad and then came home to help start the powerful movements for justice.
Fast forward to today. You have this image of a Black father, his son sitting on his shoulders, and he has to fight a double battle: one to keep his son and family healthy from Covid-19, the other fighting for justice as a Black man in American society. This image represents how both the American ideals of freedom and recent notions of a welfare state have failed. These protests against “law and order,” policing, and state-sanctioned violence against Black men, in particular, but also increasingly against other populations (Black women and other men and women of color), are responses to the investments society has made in the punitive arm of the state rather than in health care and social welfare.
This picture highlights all of these contradictions in our society. Here is this man who should be quarantining with his son or walking with him in a park, protecting him from Covid-19, who instead is compelled, because of state violence and social inequalities, to carry him around to protest injustice.
The final element of this image is that you see police officers who are unprepared to police protests; they don’t know how to handle civil disobedience, so their response is to point their weapons at civilians. In essence, it highlights incompetence. The state does not know how to engage with, how to interact with, marginalized populations, forcing these populations to find their own justice against elites who choose not to represent them.
Here is a little boy in a Batman costume, dressed as a superhero out to save the world. Why should it be on his dad’s shoulders to save the world for his child? Why should it be on this child’s shoulders to fix what should never have been? That said, there is optimism here—that one day, we could look back and think of this as a double victory. When that little boy grows up he’ll be able to say, “That was my dad. My father helped with a movement that stopped state violence against marginalized populations, and I was upon his shoulders.”
JH: Do you think that Covid-19, coupled with these demands for social change, will push society to rethink the welfare state and engage in difficult conversations?
VR: Certainly. Covid-19 has, despite all the negatives, hyped up the social movements of our time. There is so much pent-up energy given the lack of social interactions. People are isolating and isolated, and then all of a sudden there’s an explosion of protests. People want to go out and be part of this group. We want to be together. Our serotonin levels increase when we are physically around other people, not through Zoom, but physically together. This lack of physical interactions, combined with the slow and terrifying murder of George Floyd by a police officer, hyped up the movement, bringing out those who might otherwise have refrained.
The movement had gone through several phases before the point it is at now. The birth of Black Lives Matter, at least as it is being articulated, was in 2014 with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. At the time, it was localized. We saw protests in New York City, the Bay Area, and a few others, but it wasn’t quite a national movement. It had yet to turn into a cultural revolution.
Couple this pent-up anger with the isolation placed on society by Covid-19, and now we are seeing a movement against state violence bringing more populations into the conversation and to the cause than before. We are seeing a cultural revolution where many are joining in to protest and seek change.
The flip side is that these protests, these gatherings, impact Covid-19, or at least how we navigate social interactions when we are told to limit them. Protesters are finding ways to be in groups, but wear their face masks and try to do the right social distancing things, given the need for mass action to affect change. The protests have allowed us to say, “There are ways to gather. There are ways to build community. Even in the midst of a pandemic.”
Finally, I think this image reminds us to teach our children. Here you have a father teaching his son about injustice. He’s there standing on the street with his son on his shoulders. He’s showing him how to speak up for justice. Maybe he has no choice but to be walking on this street with his son. In any case, he is learning what is just. Unfortunately, the police in this image are also teaching him that they are a terrifying force that is not on his side but instead are pointing guns toward him and his father.
JH: Are you optimistic for the future?
VR: Absolutely. When that little boy is twenty-five he’s going to say, “I was on my dad’s shoulders and he was part of a movement that changed our society. We succeeded in eradicating racist policing and in defeating a pandemic.” I am hopeful that we will see changes in how society treats the health and well-being of marginalized populations. I believe we will see new models for addressing criminalized behaviors. This movement has shown that we need to rethink budgetary allocations. We need more social welfare programs, more social workers instead of police officers responding to calls that have nothing to do with crime.
And we’ll be able to say we defeated Covid-19. We learned how to live with it, we learned how to overcome, we developed vaccines and therapies to combat and manage it. We are now a healthier society that has invested more capital in people and less in state violence and policing.
This conversation was conducted on July 6, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.