Estorga: Legitimacy lost: Why COVID-19 laws meet such resistance
Health officials from across the Bay Area gathered Monday to deliver a shelter in place order to Bay Area residents, an order aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Photo by Katie Lauer.

The crisis of authority is not unique to California or COVID-19. The question is not even new to government itself. In fact, the question about if, when and how an authority shall govern dates back to the origins of human life. This conundrum is not about Dr. Sara Cody, it’s about trust in an imperfect government and a test of legitimacy.

The situation involving disruptive disobedience, like nearly every other human situation, is not simply about listening to people’s’ words or tracing their actions. Instead, it’s about hearing what they are sincerely saying and understanding their message. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen populations, including here within the Bay Area, struggle with questions about exactly how prominent (or intrusive) government rule should be.

We are not unique in asking these questions; even the greatest philosophers struggled with this puzzle. These questions are repeatedly put on display throughout our country with contentious arguments about new legislation and countless appeals to the United States Supreme Court. I doubt we will ever resolve the debate with any earth-shattering clarity – which is okay.

I have spent my career in two professional circles: one as a practitioner and the other as an academic. The practitioner in me knows that a police officer is not the same as a police chief, and that neither of those are a military general, and that nothing is the same as the president of the United States. However, the academic in me knows those differences don’t matter. They are all “the government.” And when someone interacts with any public official in any capacity, they are simply interacting with “the government.”

With that said, it’s also important to acknowledge that “the government” has an incredible, and sometimes devastating, record of imperfectly using power. Look at the conversations our society is having about the Black Lives Matter movement. On one hand, our community is proving, time and time again, that there are moments where “the government” should not be blindly trusted – whether that’s a bad cop somewhere, an impotent District Attorney or an ignorant elected official. And on the other hand, at
the very same moment, our community is being asked to cope with a global pandemic by yielding unprecedented power to that very same authority – “the government.”

This brings us to an incredibly important question: Why does it matter that a police officer does the right thing? The answer is simple: In addition to all those ideas about respecting the value of every single person’s life, it’s also because another government official, like a Public Health Officer, might one day need cooperation from society.

The government is facing a crisis of legitimacy. The disruptions we see throughout our communities, and resistance to authority, is simply a reaction to a history of absolute power being irresponsibly yielded. And when those sensors go off, our instinct tells us to revert to our primal needs for safety and security – even if the reaction is disjointed, slipshod or inconvenient.

This theatre of disobedience isn’t about Dr. Cody or any single public official. It’s not even about a series of confusing or inconsistent laws, and it’s not about failed leadership in our state and nation. It’s not even about an unwillingness to be governed.

The cries are agitating by design and are a reaction to a crisis of authority. And while rules are certainly a staple of democratic societies, so too are disruptive pleas for a more perfect union – a union with responsible, balanced and humble authority.

Casey Estorga is an adjunct professor at Gavilan College and teaches courses in Political Science. He wrote this op-ed in response to an op-ed by Larry Gerston titled “The cost of harassing COVID-19 health professionals.”

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