The spiteful horns of the unhelpful

April 23, 2020 1:11 am

Protesters wave signs and honk their horns near the Virginia State Capitol, during a “Reopen Virginia Rally” in Richmond, Va., April 22, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

They came. They honked. They went.

A few hundred protesters, in a demonstration that appears to be linked to a conservative push to make some political hay out of stay-at-home orders and social distancing shutdowns and egged on by cynical Virginia politicians and President Donald Trump, cruised around the Virginia Capitol Wednesday, laying on their klaxons during the General Assembly’s reconvened session.

Add it to the list of disturbing and bizarre signs of our times: pro-Trump demonstrators blasting a Democratic governor for adhering to the social distancing policies and guidelines for reopening the economy published by … the Trump administration.

But let’s leave logic aside, as the president’s supporters have been doing for years.  The anti-illegal immigration president who employs undocumented immigrants. The business wiz who wrecked a string of enterprises. The tough guy who dodged the draft. The choice of righteous evangelicals whose personal life is … far from godly. I could go on, but you get the point.

Fortunately, according to polling, most people appear to recognize that the measures aren’t some plan to subjugate us all but necessary to contain the spread the spread of the virus and avoid swamping hospitals. For a sobering counterpoint to the “Don’t Tread on Me” nonsense on display in Richmond Wednesday, consider that in New York City they were stacking bodies on top of each other in refrigerated trucks and digging mass graves before deciding they would freeze some of them instead.

Protesters wave signs and honk their horns near the Virginia State Capitol, during a “Reopen Virginia Rally” in Richmond, Va., April 22, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)

Nearly two months after Trump said the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States was “going to be down to close to zero” there are more than 800,000 cases and close to 45,000 deaths as of Wednesday.

Reasonable people can disagree on how far social distancing should go and whether it’s unfair to let state monopolies like liquor and the lottery remain in business while others that could conceivably adhere to social distancing remain shuttered. There are valid critiques of Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, which was been slow to act and opaque with information and has yet to adequately explain why Virginia testing, so crucial to getting back to a semblance of normalcy, continues to lag other states.

Railing about tyranny and promoting conspiratorial garbage isn’t the right way to make those arguments.

But I’ve already spilled too much ink on that lot.

Rather, as I tried to listen to the House of Delegates livestream over the blaring of stupid, spiteful horns, I thought about something that made a big impression on me during my nearly two and a half years in Pittsburgh.

Protesters argue during a “Reopen Virginia Rally” in Richmond, Va., April 22, 2020. Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury

Fred Rogers, known to millions as Mr. Rogers, was inescapable in the Steel City, where his nationally televised children’s show was filmed between 1968 and 2001. His words of wisdom about “looking for helpers” inevitably made the rounds in times of tragedy, so much so that it became a meme, even criticized as dangerously tranquilizing when used by adults in a childish attempt to inoculate themselves against a frightening and flawed world.

There have been massive failures that left us collectively unprepared to respond to this pandemic, contributing to the angst that good-faith protesters (I assume at least some must be) feel about social distancing shutdowns, financial insecurity and the general helplessness that afflicts many of us as we we watch the mounting death toll and spread. And there is no escaping the horror and the heartbreak.

But as we watch incredulous as some of our fellow Virginians and Americans rage against the very measures intended to save the lives of themselves and their families, it’s worth remembering that there ARE lots of helpers, from the delivery drivers working long hours to bring packages and food to our doors, grocery store staff and convenience store clerks, food processing workers, funeral home employees, trash collectors, police, firefighters and EMTs, and, most importantly, the scientists and doctors developing tests, treatments and vaccines.

Instead of the former, let’s focus on the latter, those tending to the living and the dead. The ones who are helping.

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]