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To infect and serve: The cop vaccine crisis | Will Bunch Newsletter

Plus, did AL governor really invoke ‘60s segregationists to fight Biden mandate?

A survey of San Diego police officers show that 90% oppose vaccine mandates.
A survey of San Diego police officers show that 90% oppose vaccine mandates.Read moreSan Diego Union-Tribune / MCT

Autumn is in the air! Or it was, briefly. This weekend brought the predictable rites of mid-September, from the sad annual remembrance of the 9/11 attacks to a Phillies’ pennant-race collapse and the wild optimism of a first-game Eagles win that has some fans pricing out Super Bowl LVI tickets. But now ... back to a heat wave and the new normals of the 2020s.

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Police resistance on vaccine mandates proves many cops don’t care about public safety

Portland, Oregon, may be the American city most associated with constant chaos in the 2020s, with its frequent protests by the extreme left and right and spasms of violence, but its police want people to know they’re in control — of their own affairs, anyway. In recent weeks, cops in the Pacific Northwest city have been criticized for not responding to recent street clashes. But Portland law officers did manage to take down one political figure — when they successfully told Mayor Ted Wheeler to take his vaccine mandate and shove it.

With the delta variant of the coronavirus exploding nationwide, Wheeler last month declared that city police would be part of a statewide vaccine mandate for health workers handed down by Oregon’s Democratic governor. But when Portland’s police union blasted the move and insisted many officers would quit the force rather than get the jab, city attorneys sheepishly said cops might be legally exempt from such a mandate — and Wheeler backed down.

The win for Portland cops over their boss and, arguably, public safety (including their own) is part of a full-blown revolt nationwide, not just in Oregon — where a statewide cop union and scores of firefighters and troopers are suing Gov. Kate Brown over vaccines, and where one now-suspended state police officer filmed a video in his cruiser, in uniform, blasting those who get the shot “out of fear.”

This week, six Los Angeles police officers sued their city over its mandate, calling it a scheme to “embarrass, humiliate, shame and deprive [their] liberty...” In New York City, city officials who initially wanted a straight-up vaccine mandate agreed after heavy police union pressure to also allow for weekly testing of unvaccinated officers — yet the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association is up in arms over even that. Angry cops and their unions are threatening legal action across America from San Jose to Cincinnati, often in the overwrought verbiage of right-wing resistance.

The head of Chicago’s police union, John Catanzara, seemed to capture the zeitgeist of this growing cop counter-revolution when he said: “We’re in America, goddamn it. We don’t want to be forced to do anything. Period. This ain’t Nazi (bleep)ing Germany, [where they say], ‘Step into the (bleep)ing showers. The pills won’t hurt you.’ What the (bleep)?”

» READ MORE: Why do police unions talk and act like the Mafia? How can we stop them? | Will Bunch

That’s an outrageous statement, but there is also something tragically sad about the massive resistance among U.S. rank-and-file police to getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, it’s been estimated that at least 300 police officers have been killed by the virus, more than all other causes of active duty deaths combined. Yet despite their elevated risk of exposure while out patrolling the streets, in many departments only about half or fewer of officers have taken the free and readily available vaccines, Instead, growing numbers of cops echo misinformation about the coronavirus widely circulating on social media.

The seemingly cultural resistance among police officers — given a loud voice by their union leaders — is deeply troubling on several levels. The fact that city leaders from Portland to New York City have so caved to police union pressure — on what’s literally a life-or-death matter involving the health of citizens — is doing nothing to dispel the wider fears of creeping authoritarianism within an American police state where armed men in uniform are ruling the streets.

Cop unions have already relied on political intimidation and decades of police-friendly legislation to beat back many of the radical reform proposals made after millions took to the streets to protest 2020′s police murder of George Floyd. Their show of force in fighting vaccine mandates puts this crisis of public authority in stark relief.

But the sweeping mandate resistance also raises the question: Who do the police even work for? Refusing to get the shots which so far have proven both safe and remarkably effective in fighting the virus suggested that many — not all, but way too many — officers care most about their personal freedom to own the streets as they please, with little regard for the health and safety of the citizens they come in contact with. Their unwillingness to protect their home communities from a killer on a loose — the coronavirus — confirms 2020′s harshest criticisms of America’s cops. Does “Blue Lives Matter” really mean that only “blue lives” matter?

Scores of cops are threatening to quit their jobs — even surrender their potentially lucrative pensions — rather than get a COVID-19 shot. In a moment where America should already be radically rethinking public safety — with fewer warriors on the beat and more caring first-responders like mental-health workers — we ought to let them walk. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to not only meaningfully defund the police, but to get rid of problematic officers.

Yo, do this

  1. The Ted Lasso effect feels in full bloom at the start of Only Murders in the Building, the new Hulu limited series which merges a prime-time-TV-caliber murder mystery, a gentle but needed spoof of America’s addiction to true-crime podcasts, and the boomer nostalgia pairing of Steve Martin and Martin Short with singer Selena Gomez replacing Chevy Chase as the third amiga. The kickoff episode moves a little slow — like its presumed audience — but the appeal of its two former wild-and-crazy guys endures.

  2. They might as well hand out next spring’s national magazine awards right now, because they all should belong to Anand Gopal of the New Yorker for his tour de force of investigative journalism called “The Other Afghan Women,” which looks at how 40 years of non-stop fighting capped by “the American war” devastated the countryside of Afghanistan. Gopal’s interviews with anguished mothers who lost as many as a dozen relatives during America’s 20-year intervention is 100 times more informative than the steady flow of retired generals on U.S. cable news.

Ask me anything

Question: Why do reporters feel the need to ask certain politicians if they will accept the result of an election before the results are in? It happened again, this time with the potential recall in California. — Drew McQuade (@creekmud) on Twitter

Answer: Drew, you’ve seized on a true dilemma: How to handle the growing dominance of the GOP’s “Big Lie” around voter fraud in America — the latest conspiracy theory in which journalists must decide whether to ignore a fast-spreading falsehood, with the idea of not giving it oxygen, or confronting it head on. I think the current crisis poses no alternative to fighting lies with facts. Here at home, The Inquirer has taken a stand by refusing to call the Pennsylvania Legislature’s unwarranted review of the 2020 election “an audit,” since the process in no way resembles a valid audit. A new kind of journalism to defend the truth is slowly emerging.

History lesson

President Biden’s more aggressive approach on the COVID-19 pandemic, including vaccine mandates for federal workers and large and mid-sized employers, has sparked a furious Republican backlash (albeit mostly verbal ... for now). Their reaction carries many echoes of how the American South responded to a stepped-up federal role toward ending racial segregation in the 1950s and ‘60s — a movement that came to be dubbed “massive resistance.” Alabama’s Republican Gov. Kay Ivey is a case study: She’d broken ranks with many of her GOP colleagues earlier this summer by lashing out at her state’s unvaccinated people, but has now shifted with the political winds. “You bet I’m standing in the way,” she tweeted Friday in response to Biden. “And if he thinks he’s going to move me out of the way, he’s got another thing coming. I’m standing as strong as a bull for Alabama against this outrageous Washington overreach. Bring it on.”

» READ MORE: Live free and die: Inside the bizarre political philosophy of America’s unvaccinated | Will Bunch

You know what other Alabama governor built a national reputation for “standing in the way”? The 1960s segregationist George Wallace, who famously stood in a “schoolhouse door” at the University of Alabama in 1963 in what amounted to a nationally televised stunt to show his opposition to enrolling its first Black students. Incredibly — if that throwback allusion wasn’t enough — Ivey’s vow to be “as strong as a bull” also reminded readers of the era’s other leading Alabama politician against racial progress: Birmingham police leader Eugene “Bull” Connor, whose men attacked 1963 civil rights marchers with dogs and fire hoses. Ivey’s words made clear how vaccine resistance is rooted in the same impulses that once battled Southern integration — a warped definition of “freedom” that really aims to lock in privilege for white people.

Inquirer reading list

  1. In America’s tangled modern history, there’s more than one important anniversary. In my Sunday column, I looked at the overlooked and vitally important legacy of the Occupy Wall Street protests that launched 10 years ago this Friday. Wrongly spun as a failure by the end of 2011, the veterans of the movement never stopped working and have put issues like canceling student debt and the $15 living wage on the front burner, while building democratic socialism into a political force.

  2. Over the weekend, I wrote a column digging into what appears to be the worst blunder of Joe Biden’s eight-month presidency, the Aug. 29 Kabul drone strike meant to stop “a terror attack” that apparently killed a U.S.-allied aid worker and seven children instead. I dug deeper into the hubris of America’s need to project power and military control in the world, and the tragedies from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan that have resulted. Hopefully, the senseless death of Zemari Ahmadi marks a turning point.

  3. My home county — Delaware County, Pa., better known as “Delco” — has been having quite a moment in 2021, largely thanks to HBO’s Mare of Easttown which portrayed the middle-class suburb as a land of colorful, vaping Eagles fanatics addicted to Wawa coffee and hoagies. Reality, as always, is more complicated. Delco was ruled by corrupt GOP machine politics through 2019 and has long had a nightmare criminal justice system; this week, The Inquirer’s ace injustice reporter Samantha Melamed toppled another domino when she exposed the county’s long history of jailing people with mental health problems rather than seeking proper help. Citizens rarely learn about these kind of problems without a strong local news org with the resources to expose them. Support the power of local journalism by subscribing to The Inquirer.