A Brief Criminal History of the MaskRoundup
tags: public health, urban history, public safety
Melissa Gira Grant is a staff writer at The New Republic and the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work.
Last week, Jennvine Wong, staff attorney for the Cop Accountability Project at the Legal Aid Society, told me there were cops walking around outside of her Brooklyn apartment who weren’t wearing masks. It was notable, since it was just a day after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a mandate around mask-wearing inside stores to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a separate order requiring everyone over the age of two to wear a face covering in public if they couldn’t keep six feet of distance from others. “If you’re going to be in public, and you cannot maintain social distancing, then have a mask,” he said. Police would apparently be enforcing these orders after they went into effect the following day.
The maskless cops stood out for another reason. “There’s also an anti-mask law on the books,” Wong explained, meaning that once the governor’s order went into effect, mask-wearing was now officially mandated and prohibited. “How are individual officers going to be enforcing this new executive order?” she asked. “And how is that going to play out with the existing anti-mask law?” Another question follows: Will they be enforcing it equally in every New York neighborhood, among all New Yorkers?
Laws prohibiting mask-wearing, on the books across the United States, passed in some states as a response to the Ku Klux Klan. New York’s law was different. Sam Feldman, an appellate public defender, noted this history on Twitter: Prohibitions on mask-wearing in New York were a direct response, in 1845, to anti-rent riots. The riots were “a widespread resistance to farming rents assessed by large estate owners,” as Ruthann Robson, a constitutional law scholar and professor of law at City University of New York, wrote in her book Dressing Constitutionally.
From broken windows to the war on drugs, the New York Police Department has a long record of racist enforcement. Now, with the competing mask mandates, “How is that going to play out specifically in communities of color?” Wong asked. “You may have young black men, for example, who are already concerned about wearing a face covering that isn’t immediately obvious as a surgical mask, because they are worried about being targeted by police. People have been hassled in other places for just that thing.”
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