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How to join the protests without risking COVID-19

People protest in Kansas City, Mo., during a

People protest in Kansas City, Mo., during a unity march to protest against police brutality following the death of George Floyd on June 3, 2020. There are ways to have an impact on social and racial justice without risking infection during a public protest. Credit: AP/Charlie Riedel

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The many demonstrations on the streets of the U.S. fill me with both hope and dread. Maybe you feel the same way: Like me, you are pleased that so many people are motivated to protest unjust behavior by the police. Yet you are also worried that the demonstrations themselves will lead to a further spread of COVID-19.

More COVID-19 cases would kill more people, and African Americans die disproportionately from the disease. They also suffer a disproportionate financial burden from the economic slowdown caused by the virus. This pandemic really must be brought to an end sooner rather than later.

So if you wish to have an impact on social and racial justice, but don’t feel comfortable protesting in public, what else might you do? The good news is that you have a lot of options.

The first option is to vote, and not just in the national presidential election. Most police matters are governed by state, county and municipal governments, and turnout in those elections is abysmally low. Estimates for voting rates in city elections, for instance, range well under 30%.

Yet voting alone is not enough to effect meaningful change, especially since Americans are increasingly voting in local elections according to their national partisan affiliation. Fans of President Donald Trump will vote for the Republican as mayor, whether or not they know much about the person. Democratic voters will do the same for the Democratic candidate.

You might be inclined to follow that path, especially if you have strong feelings about politics. In reality, if the police issue is a priority for you, you should consider cross-party voting — especially if the candidate has a strong record and platform on police issues. America needs a political system under which political candidates compete on the basis of the police-conduct issue, rather than one that takes partisan loyalty for granted and thus erodes accountability.

Your next course of action might be to familiarize yourself with policing issues. There is a whole host of questions about policing and how it might be improved. For instance, should there be more female police officers and police chiefs? Should officers be required to live in the same communities where they work? How might police training be improved, and should there be greater access to psychological care? Have police unions grown so strong that they can protect “the bad apples” from facing the appropriate charges and tribunals? If so, how might they be reformed? How should outside monitors of police behavior be organized and funded? Should policy and incentives be changed so that police officers are less focused on making such a large number of arrests?

To improve the situation on the ground, we need to figure out the answers to such questions, or to learn the answers that already exist. Not everyone needs to be up to speed on the various statistical studies, but a critical mass of informed citizens will be necessary to educate (or serve on) the various public councils and boards that have jurisdiction over these issues.

You could try to be one of those people, because right now they are in desperately short supply. That course of action would be much more effective than simply complaining that a great injustice is being done. No matter what their party affiliations, most Americans are willing to support the idea of a more just and effective police force.

Most Americans are not, however, going to turn completely against the police. There is only so much negative rhetoric they are going to swallow, even when such rhetoric might be true. To put matters in perspective, in a recent poll most Americans favored sending troops to the current demonstrations, including almost half of Democrats.

So you may not want to just vent your outrage on social media. For one thing, many posts come across more negatively than their authors realize, and they tend to spur similar posts by the other side, thereby negating their original intention.

That said, if you can publish a reasonable-sounding piece in a quality outlet, even if only a letter to the newspaper, by all means do so. In that case, the more specific and actionable your recommendations, the better. They are more likely to translate into actual political changes.

However you decide to participate, it’s always a good idea to educate yourself on the issues and to focus on concrete steps that stand a chance of finding majority support. You don’t have to be out on the streets right now to make that work.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”

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