A New Meaning for “States Rights”: Community Sovereignty for Health and Safety

Most of us remember at least vaguely the constitutional admonition that any authority it does not explicitly assign to the federal government, “are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” (Amendment X, to the Constitution of the United States of America)

We also remember how southern politicians weaponized the principle of “states rights” in their quest to suppress the individual and group rights of Black citizens. Today, racist Republican politicians deploy diverse tactics designed to suppress voting by Black folks.

A Pandemic of Public Health Failure

Because of the gross federal failure to execute a national plan to protect the public from the COVID-19 pandemic, a dangerous new situation has arisen that calls for states to exercise their authority to protect the health and safety of their citizens. As a recent summary of what scientists have learned about the novel coronavirus now ravaging the nation, reported on Medium, offers a rather mild statement of the problem:

“Science has been largely ignored or applied half-heartedly at the federal level and in many states, and unless something changes, experts don’t expect the pandemic to let up.”

Unfortunately, that is an understatement. For reasons entirely political, seasoned with gross ignorance and indifference to the suffering of Americans, the Trump administration has dismissed science, promoted bogus and even dangerous “cures” for which no evidence exists and it has abandoned the federal responsibility to execute a national plan to control the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. The pandemic is a national problem; the virus is indifferent to borders.

New COVID-19 cases, US vs. Europe, to June.30,2020_IMG_1733The stark contrast in the trajectory of this pandemic in other nations compared to the public health disaster in the US is nothing less than shocking, if not surprising to most epidemiologists. Since the virus knows no national, state, or municipal boundaries, and because so many people travel within and between US states, only a nationally coordinated effort to stop the spread can be effective. The federal failure has caused great suffering and death.

Another Gross Federal Failure

The death of George Floyd at the hands of racist police in Minneapolis triggered a wave of protest of a level and kind the nation has not seen since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Even so, the level of multi-racial, multi-ethnic diversity among the protestors is unprecedented.

As John Lewis put it, “This time is different.” Centered on the Black Lives Matter movement, racially diverse peaceful demonstrations over the months since Mr. Floyd’s murder have continued to demand the transformation of law enforcement institutions and practices.

As with any large protest movement, occasional incidents of looting and property damage have occurred at the fringes. Some were white nationalist attempts to discredit the protestors. In another vein attempt to play to his racist white-nationalist base, Trump has sent in unidentified federal “officers”—better described as secret police—ostensibly to protect federal property. But they have focused on attacking peaceful protestors outside federal jurisdiction with tear gas, pepper spray, and “non-lethal” projectiles to foment discord and incite civil conflict, first in Portland, then in other cities, but only those with democratic administrations.

In gross violation of the law and tradition, Trump has usurped local authority to manage public safety in municipalities, inserting his violent secret police into local law-enforcement jurisdictions. The goal? Simply to create an unstable situation he can exploit by appearing to quell civil unrest and “control crime,” branding the non-violent protestors as rioters, “violent anarchists,” and criminals. In the context of a false narrative of suppressing fictitious violent populations of “criminals” that Democrats have “failed to control,” he has even suggested the possibility of postponing the November presidential election (illegally, since only Congress has that authority).

Human Sovereignty and Hierarchic Authority

As a matter of principle, political authority in a democratic republic must come from the people. Yet, in the US—touted as the exemplar of democracy for the world to follow—the corporate state has inverted the lines of authority, retaining only the hollow forms of democratic process. While some areas of authority remain with the states and municipalities, many have come under attack when politically expedient.

In their pandering to the perversity of the pretend president, some Republican governors have issued executive orders prohibiting city or county authorities from taking reasonable steps based on medical science–such as wearing masks in public–to protect the public health in their jurisdictions. What justifies that pretention of “higher” authority?

These developments call out for rebellion. Mayors, county commissioners, and governors with a modicum of common sense should defy these illegitimate “orders” and attend to the health and safety of their citizens by taking appropriate public health measures, without “permission” from an aspiring national dictator or his lackeys.

I can find no justification in history or in political science for overruling local authority to assure community health and safety. The only assertions of such hierarchical authority in human history resulted from superior military power, excused by various bogus ideological claims, such the “divine right of kings,” or the “need” for “national unity” under the rule of a dictator who overthrew the previous regime by military force.

Politicians everywhere should attend to the well-being of their citizens and explicitly reject the pretend president’s attempts to install a personal regency over the remnants of our democratic republic. That is what the writers of the US Constitution would have us do.


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