Where Do Protections Start and Our Rights End When it Comes to the Government and COVID-19?

The U.S. hasn’t seen a pandemic at this level in recent memory, something made clear by the discombobulated response from the government — one that has stepped too far over the line when it comes to our constitutional rights. Everyone in the country is legitimately scared, both due to the severe and deadly nature of this virus, and by the way our government has chosen to respond to it. Yet despite these fears, we cannot let the president and his administration steamroll our rights and freedom (while continuing to push their political agenda) in the name of “helping” the American people, especially when the results of their policies will do anything but help.

As the virus spreads throughout the country, the Trump administration has been pushing for new powers under the guise of assistance, though their requests and actions fall incredibly short of that goal. According to a report from Politico’s Betsy Woodruff Swan, the DOJ has asked Congress to let district court chief judges pause judicial proceedings “whenever the district court is fully or partially closed by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation.” It would also give them the power to detain people indefinitely without trial during these emergency times.

As Executive Director of an organization that works to preserve democracy while exposing undue influence, I’ve seen what happens when too much power combined with ideological sway bleeds into the judicial system. Unchecked influence and dark money donations allowed folks like Leonard Leo and the Koch Brothers unfettered access to George Mason University Law School program. This has resulted in a direct impact on the judicial system: a recent study comparing opinions issued by judges before and after attending one of George Mason University’s judicial trainings concluded that attendance at just one of the programs led judges to issue longer prison sentences and overturn regulations protecting workers and the environment.

Now, with the DOJ’s request, they would be giving more power to judges for an uncertain amount of time, which would impact everything from pre/post arrest, pre-trial, trial, and post trial procedures. Somebody could be arrested yet not be brought before a judge until the court decides the emergency time is done, resulting in jail time with no set end in sight. This overreaching of power infringes on basic civil rights and is absolutely frightening.

We’re not just seeing this breach of rights in the judicial system. States are using this time of panic and crisis to pass bills unrelated to COVID-19 under the guise of helping infrastructure (that isn’t being impacted). So far, three states have passed legislation that adds criminal penalties for those protesting against fossil fuel infrastructure. Kentucky, South Dakota, and West Virginia all greenlit laws that further protected gas and oil pipelines as critical infrastructure while hiking penalties for protest to a variety of fines, including a whopping $20,000 one is West Virginia.

In education, the new COVID-19 stimulus package gives Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos the right to provide waivers to states for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a move that could cost students with disabilities access to an equitable education. With DeVos’ track record of slashing budgets when it came to students with special needs, it’s more than likely that she would allow states to neglect students who will need the most attention as learning modes and norms change under these new circumstances. These students deserve the basic right to education, not extra challenges and barriers.

At this moment, our opposition is using the current public health crisis as a cover for seizing more power and further infiltrating our democracy. While communities are struggling to gather their strength during this crisis, environmental protections are being attacked, court powers are shifting into unconstitutional territories, and K-12 education is under attack while teachers are still being held to punitive testing standards by the Koch network’s own Betsy Devos.

If this crisis has shown us anything, it’s that we, the global community, have to place people over profits and disrupt the agenda of corporations because our government certainly isn’t doing it. Now is not the time to cower in the corner, but to be bold and speak out against basic rights being trampled. If we allow the yard line to be moved when it comes to our rights now, we may never recover.

Jasmine Banks
Executive Director of UnKoch My Campus

Jasmine Banks is a former non-profit co-founder, digital organizer and strategist, Chief Marketing Officer, and small business owner. As a first-generation high school and university graduate, she understands the critical role that all education plays in shaping our democracy. Jasmine joined UnKoch My Campus as a digital organizer. Her exceptional leadership with the digital program led to her promotion as Executive Director. Jasmine’s strategic approach, in all of her organizing, is to center the most vulnerable communities impacted by structural oppression.