Freedoms Don’t Have to Be Muzzled Just Because You’re
Wearing a Mask
By John W. Whitehead
“If 2019 was the year of the street protest, of tear
gas and rubber bullets,
2020 might be the year the street protest died,
or perhaps fell into a deep sleep, and went online.”—Journalist
April 28, 2020
- Despite all appearances to the
contrary, martial law has not been declared in America.
We still have
may act as if its police state powers suppress
individual liberties during this COVID-19 pandemic, but
for all intents and purposes, the
Constitution—especially the battered, besieged Bill of
Rights—still stands in theory, if not in practice.
federal and state governments have adopted specific
restrictive measures in an effort to lockdown the nation
and decelerate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the
current public health situation has not resulted in the
suspension of fundamental constitutional rights such as
freedom of speech and the right of assembly.
that’s not to say that the government has not tried its
best to weaponize this crisis as it has weaponized so
many other crises in order to expand its powers and
silence its critics.
All over the
country, government officials are using COVID-19
restrictions to muzzle protesters.
matter what the protest is about (church assemblies, the
right to work, the timing for re-opening the country,
discontent over police brutality, etc.): this is
activity the First Amendment protects vociferously with
only one qualification—that it be peaceful.
peaceful protesters mindful of the need to adhere to
social distancing guidelines because of this COVID-19
are being muzzled, arrested and fined.
For example, a
Maryland family was reportedly threatened with up to a
year in jail and a $5000 fine if they dared to publicly
protest the injustice of their son’s execution by a SWAT
If anyone had a
legitimate reason to get out in the streets and protest,
it’s the Lemp family, whose 21-year-old son Duncan was
gunned down in his bedroom during an early morning,
no-knock SWAT team raid on his family’s home.
It was 4:30
a.m. on March 12, 2020, in the midst of a COVID-19
pandemic that has most of the country under a partial
lockdown and sheltering at home, when this masked SWAT
team—deployed to execute a “high risk” search warrant
for unauthorized firearms—stormed the suburban house
where 21-year-old Duncan, a software engineer and Second
Amendment advocate, lived with his parents and
entire household, including Lemp and his girlfriend, was
reportedly asleep when the
SWAT team directed flash bang grenades and gunfire
through Lemp’s bedroom window.
killed and his
in the house that morning, including Lemp, had a
No one in the
house that morning, including Lemp, was considered an
“imminent threat” to law enforcement or the public, at
least not according to the search warrant.
Now what was so
urgent that militarized police felt compelled to employ
battlefield tactics in the pre-dawn hours of a day when
most people are asleep in bed, not to mention stuck at
home as part of a nationwide lockdown?
police, they were tipped off that Lemp was in possession
So instead of
approaching the house by the front door at a reasonable
hour in order to investigate this complaint—which is
what the Fourth Amendment requires—police instead
strapped on their guns, loaded up their flash bang
grenades and acted like battle-crazed warriors.
This is the
blowback from all that military weaponry flowing to
domestic police departments.
This is what
happens when you use SWAT teams to carry out routine
what happens when you adopt
red flag gun laws,
which Maryland did in 2018, painting anyone who might be
in possession of a gun—legal or otherwise—as a threat
that must be neutralized.
flag gun laws allow the police to
remove guns from people merely suspected of
theory it appears perfectly reasonable to want to “stop
dangerous people before they act,”
where the problem arises is when you put the power to
determine who is a potential danger in the
hands of government agencies, the courts and the police.
this is the same government that uses the words
“anti-government,” “extremist” and “terrorist”
the same government whose agents are spinning a sticky
behavioral sensing warnings, flagged “words,” and
“suspicious” activity reports using automated eyes and
ears, social media,
behavior sensing software,
and citizen spies to identify potential
This is the
same government that keeps re-upping the National
Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which allows the
military to arrest and detain American citizens with no
access to friends, family or the courts if the
government believes them to be a threat.
This is the
same government that has a growing list—shared with
fusion centers and law enforcement agencies—of
ideologies, behaviors, affiliations and other
characteristics that could flag someone as suspicious
and result in their being labeled potential
enemies of the state.
Let that sink
in a moment.
believe in and exercise your rights under the
Constitution (namely, your right to speak freely,
worship freely, associate with like-minded individuals
who share your political views, criticize the
government, own a weapon, demand a warrant before being
questioned or searched, or any other activity viewed as
potentially anti-government, racist, bigoted, anarchic
or sovereign), you are most likely
at the top of the government’s terrorism watch list.
as a New York Times editorial warns, you may be
an anti-government extremist (a.k.a.
domestic terrorist) in
the eyes of the police if you are afraid that the
government is plotting to confiscate your firearms,
if you believe the
economy is about to collapse
government will soon declare martial law,
or if you display an unusual number of
political and/or ideological bumper stickers
on your car.
say, if you happen to be passionate about the
Constitution and a vocal critic of government
corruption, you’ve already been flagged in a government
Now Lemp is
dead and his family is devastated, outraged and
desperate to make sense of what appears to be an
insensible act of violence resulting in an inexcusable
loss of life.
in these kinds of shootings,
government officials have not been forthcoming with
details about the shooting:
police have refused to meet with family members, the
contents of the warrant supporting the raid have not
been revealed, and bodycam footage of the raid has not
order to voice their objections to police violence and
demand answers about the shooting, Lemp’s family and
friends planned to conduct an outdoor public
demonstration—adhering to social distancing
guidelines—only to be
threatened with arrest, a year in jail and a $5000 fine
for violating Maryland’s stay at home orders.
Yet here’s the
thing: we don’t have to be muzzled and remain silent
about government corruption, violence and misconduct
just because we’re wearing masks and social distancing.
That’s not the
point of this whole COVID-19 exercise, or is it?
While there is
a moral responsibility to not endanger other lives with
our actions, that does not mean relinquishing all of our
in how you exercise your freedoms, but don’t allow
yourselves to be muzzled or your individual freedoms to
no one wants to talk about individual freedoms when tens
of thousands of people the world over are dying, and yet
we make right now—about freedom, commerce, free will,
how we care for the least of these in our communities,
what it means to provide individuals and businesses with
a safety net, how far we allow the government to go in
“protecting” us against this virus, etc.—will haunt us
for a long time to come.
At times like
these, when emotions are heightened, fear dominates,
common sense is in short supply, liberty takes a
backseat to public safety, and democratic societies
approach the tipping point towards mob rule, there is a
tendency to cast those who exercise their individual
freedoms (to freely speak, associate, assemble, protest,
pursue a living, engage in commerce, etc.) as foolishly
reckless, criminally selfish, or outright villains.
is true, but not always.
As I make
clear in my book
Battlefield America: The War on the American People,
there is always a balancing test between individual
freedoms and the communal good.
What we must
figure out is how to strike a balance that allows us to
protect those who need protecting without leaving us
chained and in bondage to the police state.
We must find
ways to mitigate against this contagion needlessly
claiming any more lives and crippling any more
communities, but let’s not lose our heads: blindly
following the path of least resistance—acquiescing
without question to whatever the government
dictates—can only lead to more misery, suffering and the
erection of a totalitarian regime in which there is no
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is
founder and president of The
His new book Battlefield
America: The War on the American People
is available at
Whitehead can be contacted at email@example.com.
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