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California's coronavirus quarantine protests show the state's conservatism is still infectious

The idea of California as a state with a large number of anti-science conservatives doesn't fit either our self-image or our reputation. Yet here we are.
Image: Protesters call for stay-at-home orders to be lifted in Los Angeles on April 22, 2020.
Protesters call for stay-at-home orders to be lifted in Los Angeles on April 22, 2020.Frederic J. Brown / AFP - Getty Images

The California Department of Transportation owns dozens of vacant homes in northeast Los Angeles, but on Monday it ordered homeless families who occupied 12 of them to leave — though they moved in just before Gov. Gavin Newsom issued his March 19 order requiring the state’s 40 million residents to stay home to avoid spreading the coronavirus. The families are part of a grassroots movement called Reclaiming Our Homes, an organization many outside of our state might think of as typical of liberal California.

But even as those activists fight for security, shelter and, in effect, protection from the virus, hundreds of other Californians have willingly left the safety of their residences over the past week to protest the state’s stay-at-home order and demand that beaches and parks reopen. (The California Highway Patrol said, after protesters at the state capital violated social distancing guidelines on Monday, that they would stop issuing permits for protests on state property.)

They want, their signs said, to go surfing, elect President Donald Trump for four more years, and to recall Newsom; they don’t want tyranny or vaccines, declared other placards. One woman, whose picture went viral, stood outside a Huntington Beach Baskin Robbins (clearly open for take-out) with a sign that said "Give me liberty or give me death" — though, perhaps, it's fair to say that an inability to get her roots touched up was not exactly what Patrick Henry had in mind in 1775.

Similar protests have been seen elsewhere in the country, apparently encouraged by a network of right-wing organizations that support a smaller federal government. Though they involve a small number of people compared to the 72 percent of Americans who support continuing stay-at-home orders until medical experts say it's safe, these rallies have become fodder for conversations about the nation’s supposedly interstate culture wars.

For instance, articles in both Time and The New York Times examined how conservatives in states like Michigan, Texas, Colorado, Ohio and Kentucky have demanded that churches reopen, gun shops be deemed essential businesses and abortions be halted during the pandemic, while all but ignoring the California protests. Discussing the rallies to reopen the country, “The View’s” Meghan McCain said Monday, “There seems to be this, again, culture war between people in the middle of the country and people on the coasts.”

But California isn't the outlier state it's often portrayed to be, and the protesters here aren't particularly different from their counterparts elsewhere: They are largely white, lean conservative and say that sheltering in place is hurting their bottom line (or at least their beauty regimens).

And, their signs all seem to have the same subtext: Why should they be inconvenienced by COVID-19 when they don’t belong to the communities most likely to die from the illness? After all, it’s hard to overlook the fact that the protests to reopen businesses didn’t begin until after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that African Americans were disproportionately contracting and dying from COVID-19.

In some states, including California, Latinos have been hard hit by the coronavirus as well. Asian Americans, meanwhile, have been the targets of hate crimes in the wake of the pandemic because the outbreak began in China, and more than a third of these anti-Asian hate crimes occurred in California, according to the group Stop AAPI Hate, which has collected data on the incidents. (Even before the pandemic began, hate crimes were rising and white supremacist rallies were being held in parts of California, such as Orange County, where multiple reopen protests have taken place.)

Of course, the idea of California as a state with a large contingent of people who would say, as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did, that "there are more important things than living," doesn't exactly fit either our self-image or our reputation.

Described by The Wall Street Journal as the “far left coast” and by Newsom as a state “guided by science,” California has been praised for shutting down early, and residents were supposed to have handled the stay-at-home order as gracefully as the state’s leadership has. While tens of millions of Californians have done just that, a small but vocal slice of the population — including churches that have refused to shut down — has done the opposite. Some belong to fringe groups, like the anti-vaccine Freedom Angels, which organized Monday’s protest at the state capital in Sacramento. Others simply belong to some of the whitest and wealthiest communities in California, like Encinitas, San Clemente and Huntington Beach.

The lockdown, of course, is not the only coronavirus policy issue that’s prompted a conservative backlash against the governor. When Newsom announced on April 15 that California’s $75 million Disaster Relief Fund would support 150,000 undocumented immigrants in the state who’ve lost work during the pandemic and are ineligible for federal unemployment benefits, the outcry from state conservatives was fierce; it was that decision, not the lockdown, that prompted the recall signs at the reopen California protests. (Of course, those who object to the governor’s decision likely don’t know or don’t care that these workers contribute $180 billion annually ​to California's economy.)

But the Venn diagram of people who don't want the state to provide any material support for its hardworking undocumented residents and who view state business closures to mitigate a pandemic as an unacceptable infringement on their right to infect others harks back to the conservative politics of 1990s California, revealing that some Californians have never let go of the conservative ideas that roiled the state in the past.

It was under Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994 that Californians, and not their elected representatives, passed Proposition 187, a ballot measure that was designed to deprive undocumented immigrants of public education and medical treatment, and force teachers and health care workers to report children, as well as the sick and injured, to immigration authorities to ensure speedy deportations. The courts ultimately deemed the law unconstitutional, so it never took effect.

Despite never being in force, Prop. 187 had far-reaching implications in California and across the nation. The passage of such a regressive act by voters has been widely credited with politicizing a generation of Latinos, turning California into a solidly blue state after two decades of consistently backing Republican presidents. But the proposition nonetheless influenced the development of similar laws in other states, such as Arizona’s SB 1070 in 2010 and Alabama’s HB 56 in 2011, both of which have faced legal challenges.

And in the years that followed Prop. 187, despite being a so-called liberal state, voters in California went on to pass a ban affirmative action (1996), a ban on same sex marriage (2008), and reaffirm portions of its 1994 three-strikes law (2012), none of which would be out of place in any so-called red state.

As a "nation state," which Newsom is fond of calling it, California has always contained multitudes. It is home to coastal elites, sure, but it also includes rural communities without clean drinking water and housing insecure families, like the members of Reclaiming Our Homes. California, after all, has the dubious distinction of ranking first in the nation in poverty. Along with the right-wing contingent, these are the “Californias” that get short shrift in the national imagination.

But the conservatives who feel free both to defy stay-at-home orders and to risk spreading an illness that puts essential workers — farm workers, grocery store clerks, bus drivers, nurses — most at risk shouldn't actually be shocking, given the series of regressive laws that a majority of voters here have ushered in over the past 25 years. And they shouldn't be erased from our state's narrative if we want those referendums stopped in the future.