New York City, New York/USA June 2, 2020 Black Lives Matter Protest March demanding justice for George Floyd and other victims of police brutality.

The Centrality of Social Movements in Addressing the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Malia Maier and Terry McGovern

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in higher rates of family violence. For advocates and funders, this provided important opportunities to partner with movements, including racial justice, Gender-Based Violence (GBV), Reproductive Justice, and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) movements.

We interviewed 24 GBV and SRHR service providers, advocacy organizations, and donors throughout the country to understand how the pandemic and concurrent racial justice movements were impacting critical GBV and SRHR services.

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Pulse oximeter used to measure pulse rate and oxygen levels in use on a person's finger.

‘I Can’t Breathe’: Racism in Medical Technology

By Aziza Ahmed

When Black Lives Matters (BLM) activists say “I can’t breathe,” they are acknowledging that breathing is not simply biological — it is enabled or disabled by law and politics. They are right.

In fact, the legal and political environment shapes and legitimates the very tools we use to monitor our capacity to breathe.

The racial justice uprisings and the COVID-19 pandemic have inspired advocates, scholars, and researchers to examine the assumptions about race that have embedded themselves into these tools — the medical technologies we use to measure if, and how, a person is breathing and absorbing oxygen.

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Police car.

Blurring the Line Between Public Health and Public Safety

By Jocelyn Simonson

Collective movement struggles during the twin crises of COVID-19 and the 2020 uprisings have helped blur the concepts of public safety and public health.

These movements have shown how all of our public health and all of our public safety suffers when we use the police, prosecution, and prisons to solve our collective problems. Their collective resistance to the status quo underscores how these terms — public health and public safety — too often carry with them an exclusionary understanding of which “public” matters.

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Los Angeles, California / USA - May 1, 2020: People in front of Los Angeles’ City Hall protest the state’s COVID-19 stay at home orders in a “Fully Open California” protest.

Social Distancing, Social Protest, and the Social Constitution of a New Body of Law

By Lindsay F. Wiley

COVID-19 mitigation orders, court decisions adjudicating challenges to them, and legislation adopted to constrain similar orders in the future are constituting a new body of law governing social distancing.

The emerging law of social distancing is vital to the future of public health. It also offers more general lessons about how law interacts with individual behavior, social norms, and social contestation of what we owe each other as members of a community.

Social protests — including massive protests for racial justice and against police violence as well as much smaller anti-lockdown protests — are playing an important role in these developments.

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St. Paul, Minnesota /US - June 4, 2020: Police throand protestors during the protests following the murder of George Floyd.

Research and Regulation of Less-Lethal Projectiles Critically Needed

By Rohini Haar and Brian Castner

In 2020, the use of less-lethal weapons in the United States, already overused, took a sharp upturn during the police response to the Black Lives Matter protests. In response, last month, the U.S. House of Representatives formed a commission of inquiry to investigate the health effects of one such weapon: tear gas. Such research is welcome and badly needed. However, tear gas is only part of a larger story. While well-intentioned, the House missed an opportunity to address a wider and more dangerous issue: the use of “less-lethal” projectiles against crowds.

In protecting basic human rights and civil liberties, it is critical to better understand and regulate projectiles — they are dangerous and poorly studied weapons.

Regardless of their specific characteristics, all less-lethal projectiles work by the same principle: they inflict blunt trauma, pain, and intimidation on individuals, while attempting to limit the chances of death or disability as compared to live ammunition. While the weapons certainly do cause shock and pain, avoiding death and disability has not been so straightforward.

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Man holds up a sign at the Black Lives Matter protest in Washington DC 6/6/2020.

How Social Movements Shape the Law to Address Health Disparities

By Aziza Ahmed

We are facing a health crisis in America. In thinking through the causes of health disparities, a now well-developed body of public health law scholarship focuses in on the central issue of law as a social determinant of health. This scholarship examines the issue of how legal rules can determine health outcomes. Property laws that explicitly or implicitly discriminate against minorities, for example, often result in poor Black communities living in neighborhoods in which they may be more exposed to pollutants, resulting in higher rates of breast cancer or asthma. Or, immigration practices, including ongoing profiling at the border, as well as detention practices, may have mental and physical health impacts.

What is missing from legal scholarship on the social determinants of health is an account of how communities respond to change the legal environments that have the effect of producing poor health outcomes. In other words, how do communities demand a better legal system with regard to health inequality? Here, we must turn to social movements who often drive our national conversation on access to health care by doing the hard work of identifying, naming, and drawing attention to the complexity of issues that people face.

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Black Lives Matter To Human Research–Lessons From ‘On The Run’

On-the-Run-w-Goffman

By Michele Goodwin

In her recent publication, On The Run, University of Wisconsin sociology professor, Alice Goffman writes about embedded research from 2002-2007 in a “ghetto” community she names 6th Street (located in Philadelphia).  The African American residents of this community are mostly poor and tethered to the  criminal justice system as parolees, on probation, and in and out of jail.  Goffman’s human research subjects comprised the jailed, imprisoned, and minors–IRBs generally describe these populations as “vulnerable.”

On The Run is hailed as original, creative, and transgressive because of Goffman’s lengthy stay in such a descriptively chilling, dangerous, and Black neighborhood–where frequent gun battles teach kids to dive for cover, the women are teen mothers or crack addicted, and law enforcement incessantly polices the community. Indeed, she moves into the neighborhood and lives with three of the 6th Street boys.  Much could be gained from documenting the challenges in such a community, particularly given the troubling patterns of mass incarceration in the U.S.  However, the book raises questions about what represents credibility, quality, and rigor in social science research; the book lacks an index, bibliography, and meaningful citations.  I write about these concerns and more in a forthcoming Texas Law Review essay, which can be found here.

Reviewers lauded the rigor and ignored ethics of the book, agreeing with Goffman’s Princeton advisor, Professor Mitchell Duneier, and his NY Times assessment that  “[t]he level of immersion is really unusual,” because “[s]he got access to the life of the ghetto and came to understand aspects of it we don’t ever get to see.”  Yet, therein resides a significant problem. Fascination with the ghetto and perceptions that life in inner-cities is so bad that researchers can’t possibly expose those human subjects to risks and harms may have blinded the book’s many reviewers to the fact that Black lives matter, including in human research.  It might have also implied a lower standard for rigor; it is rare that an academic book lacks a bibliography and index.  Goffman also destroyed her field notes. These concerns becomes starkly relevant when she writes about her desire and collaboration with “Mike” to kill a man from the neighboring 4th Street.

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