News Story from Interview
Judge Lina Hidalgo concerned about potential outbreak, second shutdown following protests in Harris County
Harris County, Texas, Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a Monday press conference she’s worried large protests could lead to a new wave of COVID-19 cases that would force a second shutdown.
“We’re just teetering on the edge of an outbreak,” she said.
The protests began last week when George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died after a former Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Floyd grew up in the Third Ward of Houston, the largest city in Hidalgo’s jurisdiction. Thousands have gathered across the nation to demonstrate since Floyd’s death, raising concerns about the coronavirus spreading.
Hidalgo, the county’s top administrator and director of emergency management, said a second wave of infections due to the protests, in-person graduations or any other gatherings would oblige her to recommend another shutdown.
“That’s catastrophic for the economy,” she said. “That’s not what I want, you know, I want the economy to open safely, but that’s not what we’re doing right now.”
Danielle Ompad, an epidemiologist at New York University, said attending protests poses inevitable risk. Asymptomatic demonstrators could be unknowingly spreading the virus, which is thought to be airborne. And yelling, especially in close proximity, makes the spread even more likely.
Tear gas and pepper spray, which police have used throughout Texas, also put people at higher risk of infecting others, Ompad said, since those hit with the spray often cough, spit and vomit.
After days of rallies, Tuesday marked the largest single-day increase of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Texas since the start of the pandemic, according to analysis by the Houston Chronicle.
Ompad said black people and other people of color, many of whom are protesting, are also being infected and dying from the coronavirus at higher rates than white people.
Hidalgo, a 29-year-old progressive Latina who was elected during a blue wave upset in 2018, has advocated for using county funds for social justice initiatives such as criminal justice reform, but she’s also commandeered a flurry of aggressive social distancing and stay-at-home policies.
Texas’ governor struck down an order Hidalgo issued that would have fined residents $1,000 for not wearing masks in public, but the judge is still urging her constituents to wear masks, social distance and protest virtually if possible.
“The protests have shown, a little bit, the extent to which the ‘Stay inside, wear a mask, don’t go outside’ was somewhat situational,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said.
The demonstrators’ grievances, which center around institutionalized racism and police brutality, are very real, Hidalgo said, and a few organizers of the Floyd protests are her friends. But she wants protesters to keep the context of the moment in mind.
“I do want to make sure that folks continue to remember that we’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s killed 100,000 people,” she said, referencing the number of coronavirus-related deaths America surpassed at the end of May. “Every contact we have can make the difference between life and death to somebody.”
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is juggling disasters
She sat behind a curved behemoth of a desk emblazoned with the seal of Harris County, Texas. Five men, each old enough to be her father, sat to either side. Lina Hidalgo called the meeting to order.
She spoke with the control of someone distinctly aware of the eyes on her, someone who knew each “like” and “um” would be picked apart, that each stumble was being noted. A cell phone rang, playing a snippet from the Harry Potter soundtrack. Hidalgo laughed.
It was January 2019 and the first session of commissioners court that she would run as the newly elected county judge. Despite its name, the position is not one of judiciary power. Instead, it put the progressive then-27-year-old in charge of a county with a population larger than 25 states and a yearly budget that could purchase several private islands.
She beat out Republican Ed Emmett, a then-69-year-old who was Harris County judge for more than a decade, for the position of the county’s top administrator. She was the first woman and first Latina to win the role.
“When she filed, no Democrat thought a Democrat could win,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. “Nobody thought Ed Emmett could be defeated.”
A decade prior, Hidalgo pulled off a similar feat, her friend Valentin Bolotnyy recalled.
As a freshman at Stanford University, Hidalgo applied for a leadership position in a large student organization focused on civic and political engagement. She was the youngest applicant. She also didn’t have any relevant experience.
She got the job.
Harris County engulfs Houston and has a population bigger than the city of Los Angeles. Emmett had been the comforting face who ran the post-hurricane press conferences for nearly 12 years. Hidalgo was a young Colombian immigrant who had never governed.
In her first year, she was accused of a lack of leadership after a chemical plant fire, criticized for canceling plans to build a new juvenile detention center in favor of repairing the old one and called countless names online. She weathered floods and tropical storms and was chastised for not seeming sure enough of herself in public.
Hidalgo was in charge of emergency management, and there was always going to be another disaster — maybe a hurricane to crack open Houston’s concrete ribcage or a flood to hold its head underwater. She would be its face.
She had seen and studied calamity. Hidalgo’s family left Bogotá, Colombia, during the violent drug wars of the early 2000s. Her honors thesis adviser at Stanford recalled Hidalgo’s paper investigating why the Tiananmen Square protests failed while those at Tahrir Square led to the fall of the Egyptian president. After graduating, she moved to Thailand to work for a press freedom nonprofit shortly before the Royal Thai Armed Forces launched a coup.
But the initial crisis she was charged with this year didn’t involve overthrowing a government or assassinating a drug kingpin. She hadn’t prepped for a pandemic.
But before the coronavirus claimed the life of a single Harris County resident, Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner declared a state of emergency, shut down city-run events and closed bars and restaurants. Shortly after the county’s first reported death on March 19, they issued a stay-at-home order — more than a week before the state did the same.
Skeptics called Hidalgo’s aggressive moves an overreaction. Public health experts praised her.
She issued an order mandating that anyone not wearing a mask in public be fined $1,000. The state’s lieutenant governor lambasted her on Twitter, calling her an “AOC acolyte.” Police unions and conservative talking heads sued. Gov. Greg Abbott overruled the order within days.
New case rates in Harris County appeared to plateau toward the end of May. Then another genre of tragedy called Houstonians to the streets.
Hidalgo watched the protesters gather. She was nervous.
She’d spent months pleading with her constituents to stay inside, wash their hands and wear masks. Now thousands were marching.
She wanted to protect them from a virus that could flood their lungs or sever their oxygen supply or switch off their organs one by one. But they were worried about a different threat.
Just four days after Hidalgo extended Harris County’s stay-at-home order through June 10, a man who grew up in Houston’s Third Ward died in the custody of Minneapolis cops. Video showed an officer kneeling on the neck of 46-year-old George Floyd for more than eight minutes. “I can’t breathe,” he could be heard saying over and over.
A distraught city — and nation — organized against institutionalized racism and police brutality.
Hidalgo pledged Sunday to continue working to dismantle racism in her county and to hold law enforcement accountable. Any other time, she said she would have been out with her community. A few organizers of the Floyd protests were her friends. She has lain on the ground and marched gripping signs and shouted that she couldn’t breathe.
But for months, she’d been begging Harris County to stay inside.
“Every day she’s saying, ‘Practice social distancing. Wear your face covering.’ And she’s got to hold true to that,” Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia said.
So she did.
“I respect her decision to not be at the rally,” Garcia said before he joined Floyd’s family in a peaceful march Tuesday afternoon. “I know her heart will be front and center.”
Hidalgo knows the protests, in-person graduations and other gatherings could start a new wave of infections.
Her social distancing directives have been widely criticized from the right, and now voices on the left are saying leaders’ anger over the brutalization of black bodies should outweigh their fear of getting sick. Oil costs are tanking, hurricane season is coming and Hidalgo is running for re-election in 2022.
She knows she will be judged by the actions she takes now.
“I just want the legacy to be that we prioritized human life,” she said Monday. “If the legacy’s really short because I lost, that’s OK.”
Columbus artists look for nonphysical ways to protest, grieve as virus fears continue
Wednesday morning in downtown Columbus, Ohio, a bike cop brushed cleaning solution over a spray-painted “Fuck 12” in front of the Ohio Theater. As he tried to clean the words from the wall, the precision of his strokes made it look like he was the one spreading the message.
To his right, sprawling murals created by Columbus’ artists kept watch, their paint still drying. Across the nation, George Floyd’s face looked out from screens and shirts and the sides of buildings, eulogized in pixels and thread and paint.
The 46-year-old black man died last week after a Minneapolis cop knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Floyd, who was known to many as a gentle giant, had been accused of passing a fake $20 to buy cigarettes.
Then came the clouded skies — the ones police pumped full of tear gas. A week of fire smeared across front pages. Glass was shattered and bodies were bruised as distraught Americans marched, rallied and rioted.
Artists sloshed and spilled their feelings into their work. Many creatives marched alongside the revolutionaries who screamed for change and risked their physical safety to achieve it. But as some artists in Columbus and around the nation scrawled some of Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” across their cities, others were still self-isolating.
Ohio’s death toll from the coronavirus passed 2,000 Tuesday as protesters marched down High Street. They gathered in the thousands, winding through the streets of a city whose police force killed 27 black people from 2013 to 2019. The Columbus Division of Police killed 40 people total in that timespan.
At-risk Ohioans weighed complacency in institutional racism and police brutality against the risk of catching a virus that could kill them.
Asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers could be unknowingly spreading the virus through the rallies. Protesters could be taking it home to their families. The crying and coughing and vomiting brought on by tear gas and pepper spray could increase the risk of spread.
“It’s not for me as a non-black person to tell somebody that they shouldn’t be protesting,” New York University epidemiologist Danielle Ompad said. “That being said, it is not 100% safe.”
But there are ways to be heard from inside, too. So Columbus’ quarantined artists got to work.
Elaine Kohler didn’t know how to feel Friday, so the mosaic artist started smashing planters.
It had been a whole work week since Floyd was killed, and the nation had mobilized — all the way to Clintonville, her mostly white Columbus neighborhood.
But 29-year-old Kohler lived with an immunocompromised family member and couldn’t risk wading into the crowds that amassed downtown. She felt guilty for not showing up.
The planters were sizable, glazed blue and coated in algae fuzz. She cleaned them carefully before hurling them at the driveway.
Usually she would sand down the rough edges and slot the pieces together, giving the shards of forgotten items new lives. But this week, sitting down to make something new felt indulgent and unhelpful.
So Kohler, who believes Van Gogh was right when he said there is nothing more artistic than to love people, looked for a way to protest from home.
She’s selling pieces from her eccentric collection — iridescent skeleton hands throwing up peace signs and mosaic uterus end tables that go for more than $200 — for donations to groups that support bail funds and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I’m just trying to do what I can with what I have,” she said.
The neck of the line-drawn man in the middle of the piece had been grotesquely elongated, and though the work was abstract, his face was unmistakable. George Floyd gazed out from the screen.
Columbus-based digital artist Sonny Lee L, 45, isn’t big on physical protesting, and he certainly didn’t feel like he should carry signs through the streets during a pandemic.
There are other ways, he said.
Days after Floyd’s killing, the artist sat down to draw “The News Never Seems To Change (Like A Riot).” Atop what might have been Floyd’s brow, the brightly colored piece reads “Weapons Grade Laughter.”
Lee L’s work draws largely on that of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a black neoexpressionist known for his raw, graffiti-like style. Basquiat’s “The Death of Michael Stewart” protested the death of a young, black graffiti artist.
A medical examiner testified Stewart suffocated to death. A witness told the court he saw police put the 25-year-old in a chokehold with a nightstick.
Basquiat’s piece has hung in the Guggenheim. But COVID-19 shut down galleries globally, so Lee L’s work lives online.
He sees putting his work in front of the eyes of unsuspecting scrollers as a new-age kind of graffiti.
“You can put a piece of art that’s kind of subversive and weird in the middle of that and kind of screw with that dynamic,” he said. “I really like that idea.”
Kylee Smith didn’t feel safe enough to protest in person. Between the pandemic, the police violence and the thousands of miles between her and her family, it didn’t feel like an option.
As a young black woman, she’s scared. But she’s also proud.
Smith is a Master of Fine Arts candidate at Ohio State University. She’s a dancer and creative who works exclusively with black women in her choreography and runs a literary blog where she reviews books by and about black women.
“The art I make is always political,” she said. “I make work for women who look like me.”
Smith tried to get the message out that she would make signs for those marching, but no one got back to her, so now she’s working on gathering supplies to make protest safety kits.
If the studios were open, she could dance with her community. Instead, she’s thinking about planning an online, black-only improvisation jam focused on dance rituals of grief and healing.
She feels like something is beginning, and she doesn’t want to watch it pass because some invisible terror locked her inside.
“Art is not negligible or unimportant, even in a time that’s physically so tense and uncomfortable and difficult,” she said.
But she’s not ready to create. She knows dancing will unravel her emotions in a way she doesn’t have the capacity to handle right now.
“Making dance is largely a part of my grieving process,” she said. “If I’m being honest, I haven’t allowed myself to really feel all of the grief yet.”
The boarded-up windows of downtown Columbus looked like an invitation. As the National Guardsmen leaned against their Humvees on Wednesday morning, chatting, artists unpacked ladders and paint from idling cars.
Art and activism cannot be untangled.
Keith Haring’s little dancing figures were mobilized during the war against AIDS. Diego Rivera plastered anti-capitalist murals across public walls in Mexico. A photo of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running, clothes burned off from a napalm blast, forced Americans to see the horrors of the Vietnam War.
Now, as a pandemic blurs the dos and don’ts of physical protest, artists scramble to parse their new place in the world of activism.
Black faces looked out from the confines of the boards protecting the Ohio Theater. Painted fists punched toward the sky. Just past the theater, three portraits of George Floyd kept watch. A halo hovered over the first, an exclamation point over the second and over the third, a crown.
Messages from the night before remained in some places. “Will you kill us?” one asked.
The paint was proof of those brave or healthy or angry enough to join the movement outside.
Artists like Kohler, Lee L and Smith plodded on, stuck inside but determined to make a change in their own way.