By Zain Lakhani, Alice Miller, Kayla Thomas, with Anna Wherry
When it comes to public health intervention in a contagion, policing remains a primary enforcement tool. And where a health state is intertwined with carceral logics, enforcement becomes coercive; emphasis is placed on the control of movement and behavior, rather than on support and care.
Our experience in New Haven during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic well illuminates this, while also revealing a logic of exceptional force lying dormant in municipal health practices.
Attending to the local is all the more important, albeit difficult, for fast moving and intensely quotidian practices, as COVID in the U.S. seems to be settling in as a pandemic of the local.
Our experience as activist-scholars working with a New Haven-based sex worker-led harm-reduction service and advocacy group, SWAN, suggests that by focusing on municipal practices, we can better understand what public health police power actually is. By orienting our scholarship toward the way social movements engage with local politics, we can then address how these police powers complicate the ability of those most at risk of both disease exposure and police abuse to engage with local authorities. Absent this engagement and critique, progressive policies for constructive state public health powers may be more vulnerable to attack from the right.