New York city, NY, USA, Statue of Liberty with sun in background, 11,3,2022.

Sweet Land of Immunity

By Teneille Brown

We opened up
On the backs of our workers
The country’s gravel, its highways
Paved with dead bodies
That kept the cars and trucks moving

Don’t cry for the risks we were asked to take
swaddled in lies
they hushed us like babies
ignoring people of science
when the bough was breaking—broke.

Instead, cry, the beloved companies,
the nervous CEOs who demanded immunity
not just protection to make reasonable mistakes
in the face of uncertainty,
but a Monopoly pass to
be unreasonable.

As if it weren’t already impossible to hold
power accountable—
did we even know we had rights to plead?
Could we ever have hoped
to make it to a jury
to even partially subdue
the corporate ramparts
so gallantly streaming?

But in the crisis,
immunities rained down,
Tossed freely around like candy at a 4th of July parade
Most healthy, smiling faces in the crowd got some
just raise your hand
going once, going twice…
to the nice gentleman who donated.

Taffy for the nursing homes,
lollipops for the device manufacturers…
the pharmacies,
the hospitals,
the corporate sugar rush
will last beyond the pandemic
everything packaged in a Red Cross wrapper
so we could tell ourselves they were helping the heroes.

Somehow, we read the banner wrong,
got it twisted
thought the safety net
should be catching the wrong people and things.

We stepped over and on the ones who needed it most
the poor, the sick,
the hospital workers,
those preparing our food
gave them their own loud parades
at 7pm, every night in Manhattan
with whistles and TikTok tributes
but so very, very unrewarded
no music or candy
just the “freedom to work”
replacing theirs
with ours
stacking up golden
hollow versions of them on pedestals
to later knock down dramatically
when they asked us to wear masks.

The flipside of individual liberty
is loneliness—its own kind of oppression.

We were free
to sew our social fabric with one hand and one thin thread
without child care
without a classroom
without a community, we unraveled.

in shelters made of straw
and then blamed
when the predictable and persistent wolves
blew our house in.

But aren’t you lucky?
What’s behind door number two is a prize
we gave YOU
a no-expense paid trip,
a tort remedy
that hopefully you will never have to use
because we firmly believe that the wolves can be trusted
to protect you.
You’re welcome.

that almost all of us
go away bruised
and empty-handed.

that you must prove
to the King
that Humpty was pushed
instead of falling
from his ramshackle city walls.

that you need to wait for your loved ones to be broken
and then after a few years of fighting
tired to your bones
you might-just-might (but probably won’t) get some money
to put the pieces together again
because we somehow believe
the fairytale
that money makes us whole.

But in the midst of this chaos,
you were likely robbed of even that
because all the king’s horses and all the king’s men
are immune
even when they were reckless.

You are not wrong
to be puzzled
by our bootlegging concepts from Kings
corporate empires and things
we were meant to reject.

Was it hopelessly naïve,
to think
that the sweet land of liberty
would extend beyond that first wave
of pilgrims?

Perhaps, perhaps.

But there was a moment
when the governors and policymakers had choices
and at every turn
they chose profits
over people.

Giving all of the bricks away,
to the piggies, the powerful
the ones who took few personal risks
who for hundreds of years have been claiming that the sky would fall
if you gave paid leave
or living wages
and then suddenly were fine
when they had to be.

We hear all of the reasons—
for protecting the not-sovereign sovereigns:
“governments must have discretion”
(to injure their people)
“separation of powers”
(must be unchecked by courts)
after all, they are politically accountable
(a bald lie at worst when the actors are unelected, and
magical thinking at best
when we live in gerrymandered, Citizens-disUnited districts.)

Maybe it’s been too long,
we forgot the lyrics and
perverted the song
My Country Tis of Thee,
sweet land of liberty—
for the rich and afraid.

Teneille Brown is a Professor of Law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law and an adjunct in the Department of Internal Medicine/Center for Health Ethics, Arts, and Humanities (CHeEtAH). Read more about immunity from liability in the COVID-19 pandemic in Brown’s article, “When the wrong people are immune,” published in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences in 2020. 

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

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