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'Protest' Or 'Party'? Sociologists Weigh In On How Stay-At-Home Violations Are Perceived

Protesters outside of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, left, and attendees of the gathering in Over-the-Rhine. [AP / YouTube, screen grab]
Protesters outside of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, left, and attendees of the gathering in Over-the-Rhine.

For the last month, the Tri-State has been living under stay-at-home orders.

In mid-March, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio governors ordered school buildings and non-essential businesses to close in hopes of curbing the spread of COVID-19.

During that time, some large gatherings have continued, including a crowd in Over-the-Rhine and protests at the Ohio Statehouse, despite health professionals warning of the risks.

Public officials and bystanders have responded differently to both situations.

The man responsible for livestreaming the OTR gathering and repeatedly saying, "This is what we think of coronavirus," was arrested for violating the stay-at-home order and later released from jail. A Hamilton County judge dropped some charges against him but other charges are  still pending.

Lawyers and scholars say the man was unfairly targeted because he's black. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, as of early last, week 20 people were charged with violating the governor's order;  14 of them are black.

Meanwhile, conservative groups have orchestrated anti-lockdown protests - and President Donald Trump has encouraged them - with little to no repercussions for the protestors, some of whom ignored social distancing orders. 

WVXU separately interviewed Miami University Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Professor Rodney Coates and Associate Professor of Sociology Stephen Lippmann. You can read Lippmann's email responses to our questions below; and listen Coates' analysis by hitting the play button below.

They discuss why people aren't following the orders; why the responses to these violations look and sound different; and how we can expect people to respond once orders are lifted.

The interviews have been edited for clarity.

The Statehouse protests and the Over-the-Rhine gathering have notable differences in what took place and how officials responded to people disobeying the order. Does class, race or location play a role in how public officials respond?

Stephen Lippman: The different responses to these two kinds of gatherings could be for the following reasons:

  • The race of the participants: when members of marginalized groups gather in urban neighborhoods, the gathering is more likely to be viewed as a threat to the status quo. Marginalized groups are more likely to be surveilled, controlled, and disciplined (as indicated by more dramatic policies and trends, like "stop and frisk," incarceration rates, etc.).
  • Media definitions: the gathering in OTR was described in many outlets as a "party," while the gatherings at city halls, state buildings, etc., have typically been described as "protests." Framing the gatherings in these ways grants legitimacy to one (protest) but not the other (party).
  • The "protests" were also legitimized by leaders, including President Trump, who urged them on. 
  • The nature of the gatherings also explain the different degrees of legitimacy they’re granted.  Organizing at a government building bestows political legitimacy on a gathering, while gathering on a street is less legitimate. Especially in OTR, where people may be quick to associate these gatherings with earlier disturbances.

What does the large numbers of people abiding tell us about our society?

Lippmann: That despite the disproportionate focus on those not abiding by the guidelines, most people seem to understand the nature of the pandemic, its seriousness, and how it's spread. We by and large understand that the sacrifices are necessary to prevent a bigger catastrophe. 

It also may be explained by the rapid expansions of government support programs: the stimulus checks, changes in unemployment coverage and the like, make it easier for more people to isolate themselves without completely threatening their livelihood. 

In what ways do stay-at-home orders allow us to re-evaluate our future?

Lippmann: Crises, especially prolonged ones like these, obviously provide us with the time and circumstances to re-evaluate many aspects of our lives: the importance of our relationships with other people, our consumption and spending habits, the importance of community in our lives. In a perfect world, we will carry some of these lessons with us well after the pandemic is under control, and we will live healthier lives in healthier communities. However, it's often hard to sustain these changes: despite the unity after 9-11, for example, we are arguably more politically divided now than ever before.

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