Over the past few weeks, hundreds of thousands of Americans have taken to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd and the centuries of systemic racism that led up to it. Millions more watched.
Among the countless questions that have reverberated throughout the last few weeks of turmoil—how we can eradicate anti-Blackness, what (if any) role cops and jails have in our society, what kind of world do we want to live in—one particular question has ceaselessly rattled my brain: Why the hell won’t law enforcement wear masks?
Consider this picture of national guardsmen on the front page of the New York Times last Thursday, this picture of mysterious unidentified “Federal forces” in Washington DC, or the pièce de rèsistance that set off my obsession, this video of an NYPD sergeant rushing into a crowd of protestors, then coughing for the camera, his face mask conveniently below his chin. These are only anecdotes, but they illuminate a larger trend. I’m not the only one to notice.
So, what’s the deal? And why does it matter?
Well, there’s this virus going around, and it’s a bad one. But, for a while, it was like we all forgot it was happening. Visual whiplash hardly describes it. After three months of seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing but isolation, suddenly the channel on our big national TV changed. Images, videos, and reports of massive gatherings flooded our screens and our national conscience. People shoulder-to-shoulder, buildings on fire, tear gas, rubber bullets, chanting and singing and screaming, and police, always police. Yes, the channel changed, but the other show never stopped playing.
By-and-large, the fight against the coronavirus has been a fight in the dark. Even now, there’s not a lot that we know for sure. But we do know that outdoor gatherings are safer than indoor gatherings. We know that distanced interaction is safer than non-distanced interaction. Despite the earlier catastrophic position from the WHO, we now know that masks work.
And so, the mind-bogglingly dangerous choices by police during the protests—locking people in cramped cells without masks, using tear gas in the middle of a pandemic that directly attacks the lungs, and, of course, not wearing masks—are not only maddening, they’re revelatory.
These decisions reveal the apparent absolution of law enforcement from any sense of a mutual obligation. Masks are more than a symbol—they really, really work—but they’re a symbol nonetheless. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, in an appeal to transit riders to wear masks, specifically called them signs of “respect” for the “nurses and doctors who killed themselves through this virus to save other people.” Ultimately, it’s a cloth buy-in to a social contract, one where we all agree to try and not get each other sick, to do our minimal part. The same departments that arrested, beat up, and dragged (mostly Black and brown) people off buses for not wearing masks in months prior, were largely unwilling to wear masks themselves. So, when officers put each other in danger, put themselves in danger, and put protestors in danger, you have to wonder who exactly they’re protecting and serving.
Even beyond the rift between people and the state, these choices reveal a deep rift within the state itself. We can think of the state as having two arms. One has the power to police and punish, the other, the power to care and provide for its citizens. Consider the abject failure of the latter in recent months: our failure to stop the virus from getting here, our failure to test and treat individuals, our failure to mobilize resources, our failure to even acknowledge the virus’ severity, and the complicity of every level of government in allowing people to think it’s going away. Now consider the overwhelming strength of the state’s other arm, the arm with the fist. Consider the images of police in full riot gear, of tanks and helicopters, of bloated budgets and all-too-powerful unions. Not only are cops’ disregard for basic public health measures symptoms of a divide between law enforcement and citizens, but even between one arm of the state and the other.
After all, May 25 was a turning point for two reasons. One, a police officer senselessly murdered George Floyd and the brutality was caught on video. Two, it was Memorial Day.
As Americans watched one theatre of society unfold on their TV screen, another unfolded around them. By Memorial Day Weekend, all fifty states had begun reopening despite a majority-upwards case trend. States with earlier reopenings, like Texas and Florida, have since exhibited record numbers of new cases, and 21 states have seen an increase in their average daily new cases. But was anyone watching? “For two weeks, this is really all we’ve covered,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson began his June 11 segment, staring into the camera next to a cherry-picked highlight reel of burning buildings and smashed glass in a rare moment of self-awareness.
Political scientist Benedict Anderson argued that national identity is inseparable from mass communication; the media permits imagined communities of thought and belonging, allowing people who might never even meet each other to feel as if they are collectively part of something bigger than themselves. Twentieth-century media theorist Marshall McCluhan called this phenomenon of growing interconnectedness via media the “global village.”
Now, more than ever, we experience the world through mass communication. And through the window of your Twitter feed and the TV news, you might think that every single person in the global village was out shoulder-to-shoulder at a protest. But, while hundreds of thousands marched, millions more watched… taking to the beach and the casino and the Olive Garden. When everyone loosens their belt an inch, it’s easy to be caught with our national pants down.
It’s unreasonable to blame protests alone for the uptick in cases, as it is to assume that any questioning of the protests’ safety must be an attack on what they stand for. It’s reasonable, however, for people to be confused—skeptical, even—about what the rules around social distancing and masks and the virus really are, and why.
Consider viewers of near-opposite political persuasion and the conclusions they might come to. We know there’s a substantial (partisan) overlap between people who support and trust the police, and those who are skeptical of lockdown measures (and even masks). Imagine you’re in that group: you trust the police, you don’t trust masks. You see images all day, every day, of police without masks. What do you conclude? Consider the opposite: you trust masks, you don’t trust police. What do images of maskless law enforcement tell you? Either way, distrust and division grows deeper.
But my point is not that we have to defeat division itself. There is no happy medium between racism and anti-racism, fascism and anti-fascism, anti-blackness and anti-anti-Blackness. And the solution is not a mask-wearing cop photo-op.
The point is that we need to trust our institutions, but first we need institutions worth trusting. Attaining either is contingent on, at the bare minimum, a cogent sense of reality, one where our understanding of “health and science” is not atomized from “police and race relations,” a reality where we don’t talk about these things—and the media doesn’t cover them—like separate, impermeable spheres. A media ecosystem that allows an unprecedented life-or-death health crisis (which was always political) to be “replaced” by a political crisis (which was always life-or-death) is the same coverage that allows (non-Black) people to think that, once the cameras stop rolling, the crisis is over.
How we get to this world, I’m not sure, but masks are a place to start.