Here come the Social Distancing Police.

They don’t carry badges, they don’t wear uniforms. They are not actual police officers, and no one is going to formally deputize them. But they are watchful, and alarmed, mostly disgusted and, though it’s hard to see at times, idealistic. Even well-meaning. They don’t like what they see, and they hate what they must do but — YOU! Your shopping cart! It’s TOO close! SIX FEET! Some shout, some gesture and expect you to get the point. Some call actual police, phone an aldermen, even email their park district.

Many others, they head for Facebook, Twitter, the neighborhood app Nextdoor, where they register horror — a lack of consideration they just witnessed by a fellow Chicagoan. They wonder why everyone is suddenly a jogger. They report coffee houses for a lack of masks. They call 311 to report 12 people sitting a little too close on the grass in a park.

They are you, they are us.

And I wish they were me, I wish I had it in me to call police or post an angry Facebook tirade about the kids playing basketball next door who don’t belong to the same family. I wish I could release the hounds. But I hesitate. The social distance police hesitate, too. I know this because I’ve been talking to them. Ultimately, they act. They will report you.

Shame, they understand, is powerful.

Take Claire Ewing of LaGrange. On a nice spring day last month she went for a walk with her husband and was stunned by “what basically looked like a block party, that people didn’t have the self-control or community spirit to consider their neighbors.” Her mother-in-law was home, in self-isolation after traveling from California. It felt personal. “I don’t usually do these things, normally I just let stupidity pass. But this is a community at risk. This felt irresponsible.” So she posted a note on Nextdoor. And more than 160 comments later, she’s become “aghast” at how often she gets told to mind her business.

Take Jack Stanley of Western Springs.

As “the designated grocery getter in the family,” he found himself realizing that “people just went out, congregated, just because it was a nice day.” He went to Facebook to “call people out,” for treating stay-at-home orders as an impromptu vacation. Sometimes he reminded them in person. He learned: “People around here, their appetites for putting themselves out for others, it’s limited.” Then, soon after, he landed on the receiving end: His neighborhood held a thank-you night for its medical workers. Everyone stood at the ends of their driveways, cheered and sang. A day later, a photo of the event appeared on Facebook, calling him and everyone else out for, well, being out.

He jokes that he now feels like a grumpy old man.

Some might use other names, like tattletale, busybody and snitch.

But there’s also: civic-minded, and socially responsible. Busybodies of the world, unite! You now have the backing of government and medicine, eager to employ your finest weapon: peer pressure. Chicago police have made more than 7,000 stops since March 25 (when the department began tracking) about a lack of social distancing or failure to wear masks. Many of these dispersals were the result of anonymous tips by concerned citizens. “Someone is not, for lack of a better word, a rat if they show a concern for their fellow citizen,” said Thomas Ahern, a spokesperson for the Chicago Police Department.

Sure, but then why aren’t we all doing it?

To be fair, many are reporting on their neighbors. If we’re worried state-wide lockdowns are just another step on the road to a surveillance state — as many state-house protests insist — we’re not showing it. We have reported that too many people were waiting for pizza in Elgin, and too many people were playing cards (without masks) on the South Side. We have reported too many restaurant workers congregating at a TV and too many people lined up outside an ice cream truck. We have reported on smoke shops and yoga studios staying open. We have called out track practice in Norwood, people holding balloons in South Chicago, a pool party (with DJ) in the South Loop, nine kids on a beach in Edgewater, a softball game in Mayfair. And those are just police calls.

“The calls we’re seeing here come from people who seem genuinely scared,” said Evanston Police Commander Brian Henry, “and they’re calling with a sense of duty.”

Or, they’re going online.

Reading through community Facebook pages, merely logging into Nextdoor, one might assume that we are living in a dystopia, that nothing can be done for man, all is lost. “I for one will still badger and shame any unmasked runners,” writes an Edgewater resident on Facebook, which gets this reply: “Please don’t harass strangers who are also trying to survive …” (To be fair, runners in Chicago don’t have to wear masks unless they cannot maintain six feet.) There are pleas for civility. On Nextdoor, I ran across: “There is no need to start drama. … It is not worth it to reprimand every non-compliant person.” Which, etiquette-wise, is right, said Jessica Lieffring of The Polite Society, a Chicago-based etiquette training business. “Etiquette is the guidelines we follow to make others comfortable.”

Except Rachel Blomstrom is not worried about making the non-compliant comfortable.

She replied to that person who wanted an online cease-fire towards compliance. She wrote: “It’s not about drama, it’s about manslaughter.” Blomstrom lives in Rogers Park; she moved there a year ago from Texas. “I was the punk rock chick in school who wrote ‘Anarchy’ on my notebooks and called out the teacher when they got an answer wrong.” Then she served in the Navy. She’s called 311 on local supermarkets, and posted online that people were coming too close; she’s even stopped joggers and told them to put on a mask. She told me: “Guy says ‘It bothers me.’ I go ‘That’s your problem. It shouldn’t be everyone’s.’ I try to be the person I am, I’m not going to get bolder behind a keyboard. My neighbors, I see them on the street, even after they say nasty stuff to me. I didn’t think they’d flip out the way they do online, just being encouraged to stay safe.”

You’ve probably heard of “Karen”? That somewhat derogatory, sexist label that’s been floating around to describe a very concerned woman who will not let anything go? (The Washington Post said the prototypical Karen is “the one asking to see your manager.”)

Rachel’s a proud Karen.

But only during a pandemic, she adds.

Maria Hadden, alderwoman for the 49th District (which includes Rogers Park, a neighborhood hit hard by the pandemic), said that she’s had a fair number of constituents calling to report a lack of social distancing. “And many of them are not the kind who would normally call the authorities on anyone. Some are really angry and righteous, but a lot of them, when I’ve called them back to follow up, you notice patterns, they had someone close who’s died in the pandemic, they have a personal relationship with someone sick, or a husband or wife is out every day as an essential worker. You hear a struggle, just to make a call, but you also hear how serious this is.”

Early into Illinois’ state-wide social distancing, Heather Beckstrom of Bolingbrook noticed a car full of teenagers pull alongside her. “I work in statistics and probabilities and I assure you the probability all of these kids are living together was slim.” So she posted about it on Nextdoor, “partly hoping some parents would wonder about their own kids.” She’s a researcher at a pediatric center; her mother works at an urgent care facility and her stepfather has ongoing medical issues. “I’m not shy, I’m the one who calls 911 to report if someone is swerving on the highway. But in general, if a person is doing something that harms themselves? I would likely not call them out. I don’t need that drama. Right now though? I see people socializing, it feels like a slap in the face.”

To be fair, the social contract feels more inconsistent than usual right now.

A 311 call made in Chicago to report a lack of social distancing will get patched to 911, because the reported action is considered life threatening. Meanwhile, one state away, in Michigan, police departments have asked their residents not to flood 911 with social-distancing violations. In some places (New York, Kentucky, Minnesota), there are dedicated tip lines for reporting noncompliance; in others (Chicago), 911 is the default. Not to mention, if you already believe that having to wear a mask is a loss of personal liberty, what do you make of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio telling his constituents “we need those photos (of social-distancing violations), we need those locations so we can enforce right away”? Or Massachusetts nursing home residents who, as reported by the Atlantic, were threatening to circulate a list of “noncompliant” fellow residents?

You could go online, rant about spying.

America has a rich, centuries-old tradition of “lateral surveillance,” which is what Oregon State University professor Joshua Reeves calls the act of citizens reporting on fellow citizens. He wrote a smart 2017 history on the subject, “Citizen Spies: The Long Rise of America’s Surveillance Society,” charting everything from colonial vigilantes to the early days of Neighborhood Watch in 1972 to the post-911 mantra of “See something, say something”; in the 1960s, the Chicago Organization of Radio Operators — that is, CB devotees — were enlisted as “the eyes and ears” of the Chicago Police Department. You might even say those memes of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, watching sternly from windows, storefronts and neighborhood bushes, have made her the spying-in-chief.

But then, surveillance is hardly unique to us.

During this pandemic, the Chinese government had offered cash rewards for reporting on violators; a New Zealand website for noncompliance tips crashed from over-use.

In Toronto — where the city’s official tip line was quickly nicknamed “the snitch line” — Regina Rini teaches morality in the philosophy department of York University. She imagines “that there are those who see (reporting on noncompliance) as justice for those who’ve been free-riding on the rest of us. But my response would be, it might be better to be merciful. Especially when you consider the social differences involved.”

For instance, in Chicago, as documented in the Tribune, many police stops related to social distancing have happened in black communities; yet about half of noncompliance dispersals originated with a tip, according to Ahern of the CPD. Two of Chicago’s highest-profile violations have been inside marginalized communities. Footage from a packed Northwest Side house party became briefly an international story, while video of a Jewish Orthodox wedding in West Ridge that spilled into a street also went viral.

“I have little patience for calling the police on young people who are not social distancing,” said Rev. Ira Acree of the Greater St. John Holiness Baptist Church in the Austin neighborhood. Everyone sees this (noncompliance) in every neighborhood, I see mostly white people on the North Side and in suburbs not wearing masks. They are just as vulnerable. I would suggest they call elected officials and advocate for resources and more testing first.” Likewise, when asked about Jewish Orthodox communities being singled out (here and New York), Shlomo Soroka, director of government affairs for Agudath Israel of Illinois, said he believes in calling police to report social-distancing violations, but “there is no question we’re unfairly targeted by an ignorance and mistrust that scrutinizes certain communities while overlooking the very same thing in others.”

So far, enforcement has been mostly education-minded, said Ahern of the CPD. An officer reminds the person or group reported of asymptomatic carriers and stay-at-home orders; despite thousands of dispersals, only about 40 related citations and 20 arrests were made in Chicago from late March to early May. Similarly, the Chicago chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has not yet any complaints about social-distancing. A spokesperson says that, right now, it still seems like a philosophical concern.

Reeves, the Oregon-based author on citizen surveillance, said vagueness is often what happens when the government asks its constituents to serve as an extension of the law.

“In fact, having a citizenry call each other out doesn’t enhance intelligence in most cases,” he said. When a government not eager to come off like Big Brother asks its people to spy on each other, those people often feel uneasy with the request, and community trust breaks down. “Things may turn against officials.” Last month the Western Springs Rotary Club posted a picture on Facebook of village leaders with donated food for first responders. Everyone in the image wore a mask. But no one was six feet apart. The first comment on the post asked: “Where is the social distancing?”

A Facebook group in Norridge posts pictures of teenagers hanging out non-compliantly, and asks where their parents are; a woman in the parking lot of a Westmont grocery store threatens to post the picture of a man who threw sanitary gloves on the ground.

Problem is, shame doesn’t always work.

Lindsay Wiley, a law professor at American University focused on public health, has studied shame and health initiatives, such as campaigns centered on smoking and vaccinations. She said normalizing social actions — not smoking in restaurants, exercising — works better than campaigns, which backfire. “In the pandemic, the early emphasis was individual behavior, washing hands, staying apart. Reporting others who don’t may be a way of feeling a control at a scary time. But it can lead to assuming some communities don’t do their part: ‘That won’t happen to me, I’m good.’” Indeed, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last month found 53 percent of Americans gave themselves an “A” for social distancing, but only 35 percent gave their neighbors an “A.”

We can’t go on together, with suspicious minds.

Yet expect disparities to climb as summer approaches, as we go outside, as calls to reopen get louder. Dennis Moore is co-owner with his wife Mardi of Scooter’s Frozen Custard in Lakeview. They’ve been open. He’s also been visited by Chicago police, who tell him they’re getting complaints of people eating inside, not social distancing, not waiting six feet apart. He says that none of it is true, that police always give a thumb’s up — and Mayor Lightfoot herself drove by recently and gave a thumb’s up. Never mind he has ongoing medical conditions, he says. “We don’t take chances.” He suspects who is complaining but he not entirely certain. He wants to show them the reality. He wants to meet his accusers.


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