A Great Talking Machine — Vaccine Exemptions, Police Accountability, Structural Racism

“A great talking machine whose grinding gears drowned out the insidious truth of administrative continuity” was how the historian Lynn Hunt described it — the paradoxical language of revolution and disruption and cataclysm, when nothing much of anything ever seems to happen.

Yes, the state is proving that it can spend breathtaking amounts of money, but unlike say 60 years ago, I don’t think anyone has any expectation of more than incremental change on the dollar — perhaps because the currency of politics these days is not accomplishment, but instead the measure of just how much annoyance and outrage a piece of legislation or turn of phrase can cause members of the other party, even at the expense of getting things done.

In Connecticut — with significant majorities in the House and Senate, and the governorship – the Democratic side finds itself in the even more absurd position of blaming its legislative failures on the party entirely out of power, even as they fight among themselves on passing legislation. Of course, there are plenty of human failures to go around.

Case in point was the rush to pass House Bill 6423 – legislation to remove nonmedical exemptions for childhood immunizations to attend public and private schools. 

Make no mistake, I am a strong proponent of near universal vaccinations. But with the rate of COVID-19 vaccinations in the state of Connecticut reportedly dropping 30 percent in recent weeks – and the state likely still far short of where we need to be to prevent another outbreak of the virus — you have to wonder why exactly anyone felt the need to pick a separate fight on the topic at this particular juncture, other than to elicit predictable howls and protests from the right. Mission accomplished.

As for vaccinations? The legislation actually broadens the medical exemption and doctor discretion – likely encouraging the junk medicine favored by many on the left, and some on the right, who fret ‘Big Pharma,’ and a variety of debunked medical links to autism sparked in part by two-decade-old fraudulent claims by Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist.

To make matters worse, legislators adopted a ‘hurry up and wait,’ approach by stoking vaccine hesitancy and then granting a permanent exemption down to a kindergarten class that won’t graduate until 2033.

The result (does anyone doubt) far fewer COVID vaccinations, a rise in bogus medical exemptions, an ineffectual broad-brush approach to a problem that state data clearly show was real, but (at least before this legislation) discrete.

I wish I could say better about truly generational legislation on police accountability passed last summer which somehow managed to be fought mainly over a real issue – qualified immunity – that state law can only marginally change given that it’s a federal doctrine established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Harlow v. Fitzgerald.

As the great majority of Republicans in the legislature last year dug in their heels over qualified immunity, I’m curious what would have happened if Democrats called their bluff and simply removed the provision.

Meanwhile, perhaps the most consequential portion of the legislation – the mandate for local police departments to equip their officers with body cameras – has been hamstrung by a town-by-town piecemeal approach to storing and releasing the footage to the public.

In the case of Old Saybrook Police Department, at least two news organizations, including CT Examiner, have pending complaints with the state’s Freedom of Information Commission regarding the refusal by the department to release camera footage, on the grounds that the footage did not involve an arrest (a standard that the department has apparently implemented intermittently).

But aren’t cases without arrests – that have not benefitted at least from due process – at the heart of police accountability? 

For the all the spending in Hartford, nowhere could the legislature better turn talk into positive action than by taking the costs and administrative burden out of the hands of towns by storing, processing, and releasing the footage on the state level. Instead, the state has done the opposite.

And in Old Lyme, the local Democrats have introduced a resolution on structural racism – supported by a letter from the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme that unfortunately confuses the issue and the public with talking points that have more to do with the history of racism than systems of racism. Unsurprisingly, the local Republicans have refused to sign on.

Make no mistake our reporting amply evidences that Black deaths from COVID, in childbirth and healthcare cannot be explained only by personal failings or income disparity. Black businesses did not have adequate access to federal pandemic aid due to long-standing distrust and disconnection from the banking and the financial sector. These are significant issues, among others, that need to be addressed on the state and federal level.

But locally? Excuse us if we can’t get as excited about a resolution that does nothing (circling back to Lynn Hunt) to change anything. Now instead if the local Democrats had proposed re-purposing the $2.5 million of funding intended for the pet project of a crumb rubber playing field – what better symbol of inequity during a pandemic – to fund instead scholarships to Lyme-Old Lyme schools, or some other cause that might help families coping with the high cost of living in Connecticut, now that would be worth talking about.

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