When Caroline Taylor first considered whether to attend a protest in the wake of George Floyd's killing, she was apprehensive. She has elderly family members, some of whom have preexisting conditions, and she worried about catching and spreading the coronavirus.

But for Taylor, and many others, the protests are about much more than just police brutality. They're also about the lingering racial disparities and economic inequities that have resulted in vastly higher rates of death among black residents in Louisiana from the coronavirus than people of other races. 

To Taylor, the pandemic has revealed more reasons to protest. 

“At this point, African Americans are disproportionately affected by everything. We can’t just let one thing trump the other," she said at a protest on Friday, wearing a KN95 mask. "We’re protesting all inequalities."

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The May 25 killing of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer have inspired millions nationwide and thousands in Louisiana to emerge from quarantines and take to the streets in the midst of a global pandemic.

State and local medical experts have warned the string of protests in Baton Rouge and New Orleans could derail the progress the state has made when it comes to mitigating coronavirus. 

Susan Hassig, a Tulane epidemiologist, said the protests show a deeper problem with testing for coronavirus. Even if someone protests in a large crowd one night and gets tested the next day for coronavirus, their results are likely to be negative, she said.

Even the most rapid testing for coronavirus cannot detect when someone has been infected until a few days afterward, she said.

"I’m really worried about the protest marchers," Hassig said. "While most of them have been wearing masks, they’re yelling, shouting. They’re probably shedding virus if someone in the crowd is infected."

Still, protesters wonder: If not now, when?

“Unfortunately, this virus isn’t going away. If people would rather us stay home and do nothing, I can’t sit and let that happen," said Aleah Harris. 

East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said she understands the passion that's driving people to risk their health in order to join the protests and speak out against decades of racism and inequities. 

"As someone who grew up in the '60s, I've seen people risk their lives for what they believe is right and just," said Broome, who is the first black woman to hold the city-parish's top position. 

Broome, who spoke at a protest on May 31 attended by more than 1,000 demonstrators, described Floyd's killing as a tipping point for a community that has long struggled for equality. 

"We know we're in a pandemic, but we can't just put this on hold. It's a situation where people feel moved at this moment that you have to deal with it," Broome said. 

Masks are commonplace in the protests. Broome's office handed out face coverings to attendees of the May 31 march. Organizers for demonstrations along Siegen Lane have also taken to handing out surgical masks to anyone who doesn't have one.

But not everyone is complying, and given the very nature of protesting, few are able to socially distance themselves in the throngs of attendees at marches and demonstrations over the past week. 

"As African Americans, we really don't get the luxury of choosing which battle to fight," said Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks, who's also black. "Those are the hard choices we have systematically faced our entire existence as people in this country."

"The pandemic didn't come first, it came in the middle of the fight regarding police brutality," she added. 

At a hearing of the state's House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, concerns over whether the recent protests would cause a spike in coronavirus cases were posed to officials with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary of the state health department, told state leaders it's hard to predict given the large gatherings that occurred locally and in the rest of the country over Memorial Day weekend. 

"There is a risk," he said. "(But) there's a risk any time people are coming together, even as we are reengaging the economy."

Antoine Pierce, who attended a protest in Baton Rouge on Friday and is challenging Sen. Bill Cassidy in November's election, said the willingness of attendees to risk their lives to protest speaks volumes to the severity of the issues at hand.

"People are stuck between two choices: they can risk their lives and be quiet, or they can risk their lives to try to save their lives. I think people will always choose the latter," Pierce said. 


Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com