On systemic racism in law enforcement: “I doubt it.”
Sen. Ron Johnson on Friday acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic is “the most significant event in my lifetime” but insisted that the federal government does not need to send another round of stimulus checks to struggling Americans and inaccurately claimed masks are not very effective at stopping the spread of coronavirus.
“Moving forward, what we can’t afford is to spend more money that’s misdirected,” Johnson said in comments critical of both the general $1,200 stimulus check included in the federal coronavirus relief package and the bungled Paycheck Protection Loan program.
Johnson spoke during a virtual Friday afternoon luncheon hosted by the Milwaukee Press Club in which he fielded questions from reporters. Wisconsin’s Republican senator has been criticized for his generally nonchalant attitude toward the coronavirus pandemic, even earning scorn from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top epidemiologist.
Johnson did little Friday to indicate his stance has changed much as he advocated for a faster reopening of the economy, played down the effectiveness of masks, and said he wants schools open in the fall.
“Masks are definitely a courtesy,” Johnson said. “There’s a fair amount of information out there that says they’re not particularly effective at preventing you from getting the disease. They may be pretty effective if you were to cough or something and you may be asymptomatic, so I certainly wear a mask in any kind of tight social situation, or if I go to grocery stores or anything. It’s just the smart thing to do.”
Approximately 125,000 Americans have now died of the virus, more than 2.4 million have been infected, the virus is having a massive surge throughout the country as states begin to reopen businesses and social activities, largely against the advice of health experts. There have been more than 26,000 cases and 760 deaths in Wisconsin.
Immediately after Johnson acknowledged the virus continues to pose a threat and will be one for the foreseeable future, he insisted that states have been too heavy-handed in implementing safeguards that likely saved millions of lives.
“COVID’s never going away,” Johnson said. “We’re seeing that uptick. That’s something we should be definitely concerned about. So, I think we went too far (with shutdowns). But as I also said early on, nobody wanted to underreact. We have to recognize the cost of overreacting. The chance of getting it just right was zero. We had no chance of getting it just right, but in hindsight, I think we overreacted, and we need to factor that in as we move forward.”
In regards to schools, there has been little research on coronavirus in children, and it’s still not entirely clear how it can affect children or be transmitted by them. Johnson said he was concerned about the impact of a lack of in-person learning on children — an aspect of the pandemic that has indeed exacerbated existing achievement gaps.
“We need to understand the human toll of the economic devastation of keeping schools closed … I think it would be crazy to not completely open up our school systems,” Johnson said.
The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction released school-reopening guidelines last week, advocating for shortened weeks in which only half of the student body would be present in the building, or weeks in which students would alternate between two days of in-person instruction and two days of virtual learning.
Johnson did not go as far as Rep. Tom Tiffany, Wisconsin’s newest Republican Congressman, who wants to federally defund schools that do not fully reopen in the fall.
Asked about the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing protests against police brutality and calls to defund the police, Johnson was dismissive. He said “you simply can’t defend” the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minneapolis police, but implied that such brazen acts are isolated incidents.
“Is there a problem with law enforcement? I think there is, but by and large I’m a real supporter for our men and women in blue … I also am reluctant to second-guess what happens in a particular situation,” Johnson said. “You see these videos — again, I’m not defending what happened in Minneapolis; we saw the longer video that was reprehensible. But, oftentimes you see a little snippet.”
Despite overwhelming proof that racism pervades policing, Johnson said racism was prevalent in the nation but denied that police were perpetrators of it.
“Is racial discrimination systemic throughout law enforcement? I doubt it,” he said.