We are in the midst of a global pandemic, and our communities are deeply and directly affected. We, a coalition of Bay Area organizations and inter-regional allies, are committed to working diligently to ensure that the repercussions and reverberations of COVID-19 do not lead to more harm and violence in our communities, but instead offer an opportunity to reshape our relationship to safety.
On the one hand, as we have seen around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic can and has led to a consolidation of state power, increased police militarization, expanded surveillance technology, and a drastic restriction on civil liberties. On the other hand, COVID-19 has revealed yet more clearly the cracks in the current system, specifically exposing policing and incarceration as a public health hazard; we have a responsibility to keep our most vulnerable community members, incarcerated folks and those most at risk of state violence, safe during these times while taking the necessary steps to ensure ongoing community safety against state incursion and police violence. We denounce and resist the former outcome, and are committed to realizing the possibilities of the latter.
Before we continue, we want to be clear that we do support the collective care measures being taken in our community. We do believe in the absolute necessity of responsible physical distancing, of people making decisions to close their businesses, offices, and schools to ensure our communities’ wellbeing. We have attached a series of mutual aid resources and guides at the end of this document for your reference.
This being established, Governor Gavin Newsom has already publically stated that he is ready to institute martial law, or discretionary military rule, and suspend fundamental civil liberties with threat of force if it becomes “necessary.” We believe this is never necessary.
In countries such as Italy and Israel, the governments have appropriated the data of residents to expand their surveillance capabilities and track people through their locations and interactions, claiming this can help contain the virus. Amidst the COVID-19 outbreak here in the Bay Area, the Vallejo Police Department is already trying to become the fourth with a cell site simulator, spending almost $800,000 on an apparatus that pretends to be a cell phone tower in order to capture users’ signals and track their devices. We believe this is a fundamental infringement on human liberties, that these governments are exploiting COVID-19 in order to enact policies that people would not otherwise accept, and that this is therefore a dangerous step towards fascism. We believe that true containment of the virus comes through universal healthcare, testing, and treatment, housing, strong communities and social fabric, education, and grassroots mutual aid.
Here in the United States, the Maryland State Police Superintendent and local police departments have already threatened to arrest people for defying an executive shelter-in-place order, with punishment of up to one year in jail. Here in the Bay Area, the San Jose Police Department has made similar threats. We recognize this as an utterly nonsensical, violent, and counterproductive measure towards stopping the spread of COVID-19.
We understand that policing, prisons, jails, and detention facilities are always inherently public health hazards. Overcrowding, lack of sanitation, poor medical care, poor nutrition, and a high-stress environment are some of the factors that make incarceration dangerous for our community members. These circumstances are greatly amplified because of COVID-19.
We also recognize the way in which policing, prisons, jails, and detention facilities are disproportionately violent to Black, Brown, immigrant, gender-variant, neurodivergent, chronically ill and disabled, houseless and housing insecure, and poor people, and how because of structural, historical, and environmental racism and oppression, these community members are also more likely to be immuno-compromised or suffer from respiratory illness, which further compounds and amplifies the risks of COVID-19.
In the circumstances of this outbreak, prisons, jails, and detention facilities become incubators of disease, and every person inside becomes vulnerable if one person is infected. We reject the repressive and inhumane responses of cutting visitation, increasing the use of solitary confinement, cutting programs and instituting lockdowns (where people are kept in their cages without recreation time, meal times, canteen, and limited shower time), and decreasing medical staffing. These measures not only drastically decrease the quality of life of our loved ones inside, but also put them at grave risk of death in a pandemic situation.
We believe that the way a society takes care of its most adversely impacted community members is a measure for the wellbeing of the whole. This, too, is only made clearer by COVID-19. As staff, guards, volunteers, and people in custody cycle in and out of prisons, jails, and detention facilities they can bring the illness in, where it will rapidly circulate and wreak havoc, only then to be brought out again in another cycle of people to spread farther into our communities. This is what we mean by incubators of disease. Prisons, jails, and detention facilities put all of our lives at further risk in a pandemic situation.
Sheriff Ahern in Alameda county, along with other counties around the state and country, pressured by public outcry and inside organizing, has released 314 people formerly held at Santa Rita, 247 with modified sentences and 67 on their own recognizance. This is not enough. The jail population in Santa Rita is still almost 2500. Those being released are also not provided with housing or other resources despite the shelter-in-place order, putting them further at risk of COVID-19 and repeated police violence. While claiming to reduce the amount of intakes, Santa Rita is still booking almost 50 new people a day. This is too many. Not only this, but the Sherriff has exploited the shelter-in-place ordinance to try and quickly and quietly pass an $85 million dollar budget increase for 263 new officers, all while everyone is in desperate need of aid. This is unacceptable, and we reject the possibility of having more officers on our streets and in our communities.
In order to keep our communities and all of our community members safe from COVID-19, we must decarcerate. In order to maintain this safety and ensure our communities’ ongoing wellbeing and autonomy, we must reject any proposals to extend the state’s surveillance and punitive apparatus further into our communities in lieu of incarceration. We must reject data appropriation and geo-tracking, ankle monitors and e-carceration, facial recognition, and other digital or surveillance infringement technologies.
To keep our communities safe in these ways, we invite you to stand with us. We are in full support of the policy outlines, demands, and statements made through the Humane Outbreak Response network. We encourage you to read, sign, share, and support the resources that have been compiled by the Justice Collaborative, and these petitions and statements about the urgency to end ICE detention as a public health necessity, institute rent, mortgage, and utility moratoria to protect workers, and cancel student loan debt. We are in solidarity with the incarcerated community members in Santa Rita who filed a grievance on Monday, March 16 demanding improvements to their inhumane conditions given the threat of the novel coronavirus, and ask you to make calls to ensure that these demands are met, as well as stand with incarcerated people in other regions for their safety and ours. Additionally, if you’re looking for further resources on general social solidarity and grassroots mutual aid, we recommend this national compilation, this one specific to the Bay Area, this one tailored for undocumented folks, and this one for incarcerated people.
Together we can not only get through this, but build safer and stronger communities in the process. Thank you for reading and sharing.