(above) Seattle women during the 1918 flu outbreak
One might expect that the Covid-19 pandemic has nothing to do with US gun culture. After all, this is a war being fought at the viral level, with scientists struggling to develop a vaccine and essential workers as exposed front line troops while others remain under quarantine to slow the spread. But this is still America, where the 2nd Amendment creeps through any door left even slightly ajar.
Massive job layoffs highlight every divide across society and because this catastrophe has pushed the domestic unemployment rate over 14%, here’s an economic confession: I’m a commercial fisherman who often spends months in the Gulf of Alaska and currently works for the facilities department of a housing nonprofit. As long as appliances break, plumbing leaks and electrical systems fail, I’ll be repairing them. Of course, exposure to building residents puts my household at greater risk. The cruel reality is, many desperate people I know from affected industries would happily trade places to gamble their lives (plus those of loved ones) against paying rent and bills.
Therefore, I’m fortunate my paycheck hasn’t decreased as so many others desperately hope unemployment benefits will kick in while strained food banks now supply their families. It’s easy for tech sector employees and upper class professionals to work from home and stay safe, yet entire less fortunate industries have completely vanished. No surprise many among the laid-off lower class resonate with Right-wing agitators calling the epidemic a hoax or spreading other dangerous conspiracy theories.
It’s a convenient shift in reality for White Nationalist and other fascist groups who have surged since the 2016 election. Their xenophobic aims translate neatly into a world increasingly unfriendly toward outsiders, exemplified by President Trump ignoring accepted science based terms in favor of “Chinese virus” amidst a flurry of racist attacks targeting Asians. Right-wing rallies now call for ending stay-at-home orders, where marchers demand they be allowed haircuts in salons and venues be opened once again. Feigned concerns about disease transmission provides an easy smokescreen for anti-immigration measures that long predated Covid-19.
(above) 1919 ad from the San Francisco Chronicle
This is far from an unprecedented phenomenon. During the 1918 global flu pandemic, some Americans formed an Anti-Mask League, held large protest meetings and a bomb was even intercepted en route to a leading public health official. But support for protecting communities also ran strong. Fines were handed down against individuals who flouted mask ordinances and those who refused to pay or resisted found themselves arrested. In one instance, a San Francisco health officer shot and wounded three people after being assaulted while performing his job. Conversely, in today’s climate, several people have been attacked for either wearing masks themselves or simply requesting others do so. One store employee was apparently murdered after asking a patron to comply with company mask policy.
(above) from the San Francisco Chronicle in 1918. Let’s bring back “mask slacker.”
In the vein of so many recent Right-wing actions, anti-lockdown protesters now often bring rifles and publicly parade around wearing tactical gear. It must be unsettling to spend so much time and money in preparation for battling sinister forces, but instead find themselves facing overworked nurses and doctors. These medical professionals were generally unarmed, though at least one nurse stood up against the masses endangering her community with a holstered pistol on display.
(above) Arizona protesters vs. nurses
It’s all far removed from apocalypse scenarios long fantasized about in media and literature. Crafters fabricating masks on sewing machines out of scrap material to supply their co-workers aren’t obvious heroes for those who expected such roles would be played out by patriotic men with AR-15’s. One Right-wing figure I follow on the internet openly bemoaned his sorrow that the end days had seemingly arrived but without zombies or terrorists for him to shoot. I’m glad my original firearms training came from Leftists who taught me that guns form an important part of the activist tool box… but not the only one. Instead of flaunting firepower, my neighborhood quarantine actions have involved less sensational tasks such as building community relationships and sharing frozen fish from last summer’s catch.
(above) armed protesters outside the Michigan capitol building
However, such productive activities are less displayed in some quarters. On the most overtly militant front, armed protesters invaded the Michigan state capitol building, threatening lawmakers and waving anti-quarantine signs. It seemed they had taken a page from Black Panther tactics over fifty years before. The important difference being, when Black activists did the same thing in California to protest state sanctioned terrorism against their communities, political forces (including the NRA and then-Governor Ronald Reagan) immediately pushed through tighter gun control legislation. Less reported, was that following the Michigan occupations, one Black state Democratic representative refused to be intimidated and showed up at work surrounded by supportive citizens carrying rifles.
Still, the big picture remains grim for communities of color. Not only are infection rates higher because of greater job exposure and lower quality medical care, but law enforcement crackdown bias as well. The divide is especially obvious in hot spots like New York where likely well over 20,000 people have died. Under such drastic conditions, quarantine measures are especially serious and face covering remains mandatory. Yet cops in White communities have responded to lawbreakers by handing out free masks. The same activity in Black parts of town saw violators met with no such charity and at least one incident of police violence.
The pandemic has also proven useful to gun control groups, who always find images of militia types effective fundraising tools and aren’t above distorting a medical crisis to push their agenda. For example, in late April the Brady organization sent out an email decrying how some firearm retailers had adopted a drive-through model, claiming “guns should not be sold like fast food” and that this allowed “the quick, curbside pick-up of guns.” Of course, they didn’t mention that federal background checks still apply and while individuals might pick out a shiny new revolver while cruising by, they couldn’t take it home any sooner. The reality is, massive increases in purchases have caused delays making guns slower to own than ever before. One friend of mine recently bought his first pistol and took most of a week before being approved. Historically, a more typical wait in Portland is 10-20 minutes.
Covid-19 has highlighted social problems that long existed and simply amplified them. Police brutality, emboldened fascist activity, the growing wealth divide and skewed access to health care. None of these grim realities should be new information. Yet perhaps the most saddening element on display is how many Americans feel even the simple act of wearing a mask to be overly burdensome. President Trump and his staff refuse, even after outbreaks affecting the highest levels of government. On any list of sacrifices, this surely requires the least effort. Their symbolic value carries great weight, besides helping reduce the spread of disease.
Like the armed nurse who donned her mask while facing down anti-quarantine protesters, we can be prepared on multiple fronts and take a stand against harmful ignorance. Jobs come back and money can be earned again but lost human lives are gone forever. So wear masks with pride, demonstrating that some folks still care about making the world beyond themselves a better place. It’s a more necessary idea than ever.