In the sweltering heat of late afternoon, I walked up to a grassy patch in front of the Central Bucks School District Administrative Building, for a July 27th press conference representing concerned medical professionals and parents in the district, in anticipation of the School Board’s vote on the “Health and Safety Plan.”
At the last minute, after checking my phone, I crossed out “34” and replaced it with “36” (“an average of 36 COVID-19 cases per day, which represents a continued upward trend in Bucks County”). I wanted to present the most up-to-date information available because as repeatedly stated by local public health officials, “data drives decisions.” In fact, we had created a toolkit of facts and figures, along with the hand-drawn signs by the high school students in attendance, who showed up for the matters that would impact them the most. We were confidently well-prepared for difficult questions, but laughably ill-prepared for the ensuing chaos and vitriol.
From the very first, we were outnumbered. Within seconds of opening, the speakers at the podium were circled by people holding their own “no mandatory masks” signs over us. Our reasonable offer to share space and time without interruption (turn-taking, as we teach children) was brushed aside, because the intention, it seemed, was not to have a conversation but to disrupt.
I stepped away shaking and shaken.
Since that revolting display of violent rhetoric hurled at us, refrains of “our community is divided” and “parents are on two sides” have echoed through news and social media.
There are no “two sides” to this.
Reconciliation and finding true middle ground occur when there is an understanding of what went wrong. Let me break this down.
We all want our children to return to school safely and in-person. The disagreement was with the contents of the “Health and Safety Plan,” a six-page document where the only mitigation strategy against COVID-19 was trying to maintain three feet of distance between children, with a post-it to review it as a monthly agenda item (reminder, case rates are changing day-to-day). There was no mechanism for disease reporting or contact tracing (“data drives decisions,” is hard without data, quite the catch-22), there were no triggers for changes. At every doctor’s visit, patients are given a discharge plan for follow-up — … please return if … please be concerned if … things are better if … Where was that language in “Health and Safety Plan?” Asking for metrics and mitigation measures based on AAP, CDC, and the Pennsylvania Department of Health guidelines is reasonable.
The deep horror was reserved for the following – while live-streaming their entirely self-proclaimed victimhood and oppression, members of groups like “Reopen Bucks,’ “Parents Have the Right to Know,” and perhaps others, screamed obscenities at three pediatric health professionals and a high school student. We were called many other things: murderer, Hitler, and illegal aliens (three of us were women of color). We were told to “die.” A woman ran toward me with an outstretched arm, and I thought she was going to hit me (a nearby friend blocked her approach).
WHYY’s Emily Rizzo reported, “One crowd member, a white woman, swiped at Kevin Leven, who is Black, while he was holding a microphone for one of the pediatricians speaking, Dr. Anushka Vis[wana]than. As Viswanathan spoke, the woman yelled, “murderer!”
Our student speaker asked for decorum because “this policy is about students … and [she] would like it if no one would yell at [her].” She was met with even louder jeers, because “this is a press conference,” as if that excused the abhorrent behavior. While sharing how her family members in India died of COVID, voices in the crowd shouted that they “don’t give a shit.”
There were so many aggressions directed at the speakers, that it would be exhausting and demoralizing to describe them all here. And so emboldened was this crowd that they acted this way, in public and in full view of cameras. I know nothing about the interior lives of the people in the crowd that day – yet, as an organized group in public, their resemblance to a mob was uncanny and unnerving.
The first amendment protects your right to free speech. But it does not make you more right, more ethical, or more kind. And nor does it give one license to rewrite history as has been occurring since July 27th, adding insult to our experience. Let me break this down.
On one hand, three pediatric medical professionals and one student spoke eloquently and rationally about facts, guidelines, and personal experiences. On the other hand, grown adults belonging to ironically named groups claiming to “protect kids,” tried to intimidate, bully, and silence a child for exercising her first amendment right to free speech.
We now have a vaccine against COVID-19. And even though we (individually and as a medical profession) anticipate continued harassment by these groups, bringing their hateful rhetoric and actions to light is the only inoculation we have against bullying.
There are no “two sides” to this.
Anusha Viswanathan is a pediatric infectious disease physician.
Image credit: WHYY