Who Gets to Be Free Right Now?

Conservatives say they just want "freedom" from the lockdowns — but they don't actually want it for everyone.

This week, historian Ibram X. Kendi published a piece in the Atlantic titled “We’re Still Living and Dying in the Slaveholders’ Republic.” The piece explores what it means for President Trump and his followers to demand “freedom” during the coronavirus pandemic. Right now, we are witnessing a battle between two concepts of freedom: the “freedom” to work and go out in the world versus the freedom to not get infected and die.

I recommend reading Kendi’s article in full, but here’s an excerpt connecting the ideology of the slaveholder and their “freedoms” to how we see this amorphous understanding of freedom applied to the pandemic today:

Slaveholders disavowed a state that secured any form of communal freedom—the freedom of the community from slavery, from disenfranchisement, from exploitation, from poverty, from all the demeaning and silencing and killing. The freedom from. The freedom from harm. Which is to say, in coronavirus terms, the freedom from infection.  

The slaveholder’s freedom to seceded from Lincoln’s “house divided against itself”—divided between the freedom to and from. Memminger was named the Confederate secretary of the Treasury. Americans went to war. Americans are still waging this same war, now over COVID-19. There is a war between those fighting to open America back up for the sake of individual freedom, and those fighting to keep America closed for the sake of community freedom. A civil war over the very meaning, the very utility of freedom.

It’s a deep and fair comparison — as states led by Republican governments continue to reopen businesses without a modicum of preparation for what is to come, we’re left to question who is able to exercise their right to stay healthy and survive. Georgians are now able to go to gyms and Missourians can go to their salons and South Carolinians can go to beaches. On Friday, people in my home state of Texas will be able to join them. They are free to move about as they once enjoyed. But what about the people who wish to be free of the harm caused by these behaviors, whose survival may depend on not contracting the coronavirus?

For some, the freedom to go to the zoo is greater than another’s freedom from death.

As Kendi writes, “Damn community control if it is not supporting the freedom of the individual to harm the health and wellness of the community. Damn stay-at-home orders restraining the individual for health of the community. The individual is king.”

This is the narrative that Republicans and the “lockdown lifters” have spun for weeks: that their right to do as they please trumps the right of others to stay healthy. For these protesters and their government leaders — a majority of them white and the latter completely upper class — this is their civil rights moment. In their mind, the right to exist in a restaurant free from harm that others do to you because of the color of your skin and the right to exist in a restaurant during a pandemic because you’re unconcerned with getting yourself or others sick is one and the same.

And they’ve already found their “Rosa Parks.” I wish I was kidding with this analogy, but I kid you the fuck not.

This is Shelley Luther. She’s a hair salon owner in Dallas who was serving a seven-day jail sentence for opening her business in defiance of stay-at-home orders. In April, she was cited and received a cease-and-desist letter for doing so. She tore up the letter in front of TV cameras, saying she kept her shop open because she and her hairstylists needed to feed their families.

Luther has gone viral across the conservative corners of the internet. They see Luther as their hero, fighting a government that continues to oppress people who want to cut hair in order to feed their families. At her hearing on Tuesday, Luther valiantly declined to apologize and keep her shop closed until it was allowed to open (literally this Friday) in exchange for forgoing her jail sentence. “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 the salon,” she told the judge. Brava.

Luther said she received a federal loan for her business on Sunday, but beyond that I do not know her financial situation. For the sake of her argument, I will give her the benefit of the doubt that this is all she could do to keep her livelihood afloat. But even if that was the case, it should have never come down to Luther becoming so desperate as to risk her health, and the health of her her family and her clients, in order to feed her kids.

Luther’s salon is in Dallas, which is the county with the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in Texas. If Trump or Texas Gov. Greg Abbott cared about people like her and many others who have been furloughed, laid off, or forced to shutter their businesses, they could have done something to expand public assistance. If they cared about community freedom, they could have avoided this altogether. But they do not. Instead, they are knowingly risking the lives of some people, including Luther’s, to protect their financial interests and the interests of other powerful people. The freedom from sickness against the freedom to prosper. Abbott admitted it himself:

It has become more convenient for them to make Luther a martyr. Abbott and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton and Sen. Ted Cruz have all come out in support of Luther, along with Reps. Chip Roys and Dan Crenshaw. Patrick said he would pay Luther’s $7,000 fine, and would — lol — offer to take her place by going on house arrest for a week so that she could go back to work. On Thursday, Abbott changed his executive order to remove jail time as punishment for violating the order, retroactive to April 2. Before noon, the Texas Supreme Court ordered that she be released from jail.

“Criminals shouldn’t be released to prevent COVID-19 just to put business owners in their place,” Abbott tweeted on Thursday morning. Of course, this is a show. In Texas, thousands of people remain incarcerated or in immigration detention. They are extremely vulnerable to contracting and spreading the virus. Abbott and Patrick have not shown any sympathy for their plight; in fact, Abbott moved to make it harder for prisoners to be released during the pandemic. The state is also woefully behind on testing for COVID-19 in prisons.

Their concern for civil liberties is also conditional. In 2018, for instance, Crystal Mason, a woman from Fort Worth, was sentenced to five years in prison for voting in the 2016 presidential election. She was out on supervised release for a conviction related to tax fraud, and didn’t know she wasn’t allowed to vote. Her appeal was denied in March.

It’s a show, but it worked. A GoFundMe campaign set up for Luther by some entity called “Woke Patriots” has raised more than $500,000. On Wednesday night, protesters and InfoWars staff showed up at the home of Dallas County Judge Eric Moye, who sentenced Luther to her week in jail. Luther may have meant well, but her actions have been co-opted by people whose desires negate communal freedom entirely — who care for political theater instead of for the welfare of Luther and people like her.

To be clear, it’s wrong to jail someone for doing what Luther did, and we must release all prisoners and detainees. No one should be subject to the virus spreading through Texas prisons and detention centers right now. But what does it say about our love of freedom if a white woman jailed for violating state orders during a viral outbreak is released and is supported by the most powerful people in the state, while thousands more brown and black Texans remain incarcerated or detained in what are surely far more dangerous conditions during a pandemic? What does it say about who is allowed their freedom right now? The situation is all the worse because Abbott is pushing up “Phase 2” of Texas’ reopening plan by a week. If we see a spike in cases next week, it will be too late to reverse this damage. It is all, at the very least, so fucked up.

On Friday, hair salons like Luther’s will be allowed to operate across Texas once again. Perhaps by then she will have been interviewed by Fox News and the Today show for her patriotism and bravery. She will be held up as someone who fought the law and won — not because of her whiteness and the Republican establishment’s desperate need to personify an economic victim of the pandemic, but because she wanted to feed her kids.

Luther’s supporters in Texas and beyond will forever frame her as a hero. Not as someone who was selfish to believe that her own suffering was exceptional and mattered more than anyone else’s; nor as someone who risked the health of however many clients and their families and hers, because her freedom to conduct her livelihood mattered more than their freedom from illness; nor even as someone who was perhaps forced to act on her selfishness because our state and federal governments couldn’t be bothered to protect and provide for her and her community; but as someone who represented the most basic ethos of Americanism: that the lives of an unknowable number of other people are less worthy of survival than one person’s ability to thrive.

Perhaps this was always how it was going to shake out. Our country has always been defined by our collective failure to look beyond personal liberties and value collective freedom and safety. The only difference is that this pandemic will give us the metrics to understand just how deadly our aversion to community freedom really is.

Photo via Dallas County Sheriff's Department, Remix by Samantha Grasso