Los Angeles: Why politicians' COVID bullying attacks will work

Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti has learned how to govern like a third-world dictator.  His threat to shut down the water and power to large house parties that violate the city's coronavirus guidelines is right out of the totalitarian government handbook.

In the mid-1980s, I spent my junior year abroad in Sierra Leone, West Africa with the open mindedness and youthful optimism that define many American college students.  I learned many things, including the fact that America was unique — we could never tolerate the corrupt and tyrannical behavior that defines most third-world governments.  So I thought.

Living on a foreign college campus, where only those from select families and tribes were permitted to attend, I found myself among the intellectual elite.  University students were usually at odds with the president for life and his government, often willing to stage protests and write underground newspaper columns attacking the corruption.  But things in Freetown were surprisingly quiet and peaceful despite being one of the poorest places in the region.

At the university, it was not uncommon to have no electricity or water, sometimes for many days.  When I asked why, I was surprised by the shrug of shoulders and resigned response.  I was told the government controls students (i.e., potential overthrowers) by shutting these down so the students don't get too comfortable and start to focus on the problems surrounding them.  It was a surprisingly practical and effective tactic.  As soon as word was out that students were up to something, you could hear the groans across the campus as the electricity went off.  In my American idealism, I was appalled that a government would blatantly abuse power this way and that the population had grudgingly grown to accept it.  How could a people not protest this sort of control, especially against a leader in a country that was too poor to supply its police with ammunition?  Wow, how lucky I felt to be from a country that respects the freedom of its residents to live as they choose.  Or so I thought.

Starting on Friday, Mayor Garcetti announced that the city would shut off the power and water to houses, businesses, and other venues that violated the strict corona virus safety guidelines.  This is in response to a large house party that police attempted to shut down.  It turns out these parties are cropping up because the bars and nightclubs are closed as the city institutes greater restrictions as reported cases increase.  It comes at a time when police are overwhelmed by protests decrying police brutality and the destructive looting and rioting of businesses and neighborhoods.  At a time when municipalities are actually defunding and reducing police resources, cities are desperate for new methods of enforcement and control.

And it will work.  In the Third World, which is what many of these cities have come to resemble, practical and authoritarian solutions prevail, especially when there is no one to enforce the rule of law.

The rule of law is precisely what separates us from many third-world dictatorships.  But application of the rule of law can be slow, cumbersome, and expensive, and these mayors know this.  In the end, homeowners and businesses might prevail with lawsuits and constitutional claims, but only if they have the resources to pursue them. 

What is interesting is that this tactic isn't being used to stamp out real crime.  It is, like in Sierra Leone, a method of intimidation and control.  Garcetti's declaration was focused almost exclusively on the party's violation of social distancing and coronavirus guidelines.  It was not a direct response to the deadly shooting that occurred at the party after the police failed to shut it down.

If police know that a building or warehouse is used to manufacture drugs, store illegal weapons, or house sex-trafficking victims, why aren't more of these places shut off in the name of public safety?  Why is this threatened only when people attempt to engage in otherwise normal legal activity that contradicts arbitrary and draconian rules limiting social and economic behavior?  Mayor Garcetti's declaration is not limited to house parties.  It is clear that he could use this to shut down a restaurant, a political rally, an entertainment or sports gathering, or even a church.  It is not clear if Angelenos are reassured that there will be a process including a warning system that would give offenders a chance to comply.  By requiring such places to pay fines, expensive resumption of service fees, and possibly go to court, the legal costs alone to fight this would destroy their owners.

So these petty, third-world gestures will work.  And what then, if the people of L.A. or wherever else just shrug their shoulders and accept that it is not worth the fight? 

Image: Eric Garcetti via Flickr (cropped).

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