Anti-mask protests have racist underpinnings

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: White man in mask that has been cut open raises his hand during protest Wikipedia Commons

Shahab protest raises concerns

The rise of anti-mask protests around the city, province, and country have been startling. Given the gradual growth of these protests in the United States, it is not a surprise that they’ve started to take shape around the world.

The protesters often argue that the reason they’re activists is because the arrival of mandatory mask laws “infringes on their rights” and, in some cases, “makes it harder to breathe”.

While many studies have shown the benefits of wearing masks in public, anti-maskers have attempted to showcase that masks are “unsafe” as well as an infringement on their rights. Many protesters have claimed that masks create a risk of “inhaling” or “choking,” although there is scant evidence to support this other than it primarily being an issue with toddlers, who are typically exempted from masking. As many people have pointed out, surgical teams operate in masks for hours at a time without asphyxiating.

However, as these protests begin to rise in the new year, an alarming trend has emerged: the anti-mask protests often become racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic. But the real question is: why?

In analyzing the United States Capitol riots that took place on January 6, we not only see the direct ties to discrimination, but also how this violence affects us here at home. The Capitol riots are clear example of the racial prejudice found in the anti-mask movement. 

The Capitol riots were not specifically an anti-mask protest. The swarm of Donald Trump supporters were contesting the results of the 2020 presidential election. However, the anti-mask ideology was clearly present in their behaviours, becoming intimately linked with white supremacy. The crowd, which didn’t wear masks or social distance (a contrast to many of the Black Lives Matter uprisings that took place throughout the summer and fall), also wore sweatshirts that mocked victims of Auschwitz and waved Confederate and Nazi flags.

In Regina, Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province’s chief medical health officer, had around a dozen white people show up in front of his private residence on January 23 to protest restrictions imposed by the government. Dr. Shahab told CBC News that the protest not a surprise, and that the attack was related to “QAnon” – a far-right white supremacist group that was involved in the Capitol riots – and “anti-masker protests” that have occurred across the province. The fact that Shahab is racialized and that the protesters tracked down his home address and gathered outside his residence, rather than at the Legislature or the offices of an MLA is a reminder of the racism that is at the root of these protests.

In an article written for the Gauntlet, journalist Karabee Batta discusses the privilege factor that is often ignored when discussing anti-mask protests. Batta notes that wearing a mask is not just an act of safety, but “symbolises protecting oneself and others around you,” making it a statement of respecting and fulfilling societal obligations, which is contrary to the white supremacist (and Western) ideology of individualism.

Some people have pointed out the contrast between the complaints of white anti-maskers, who claim their breathing is being restricted, and the actual lived experience of Black people, who all too often find themselves being literally choked to death by law enforcement.

While the Regina Police Service has stated that they are looking further into the matter to see if additional action is required, no one has been charged with harassment or trespassing and it seems unlikely that anyone will be. Some argue that this alone is concerning, as it has been documented and stated that QAnon ideology – well-documented as a violent hate group – was involved. That alone should be worthy of further consideration in terms of legal and police action.

Premier Scott Moe has stated that the incident was “unacceptable, sickening and wrong” and encouraged law enforcement to continue looking into the matter. Regardless, Dr. Shahab is to be relocated in hopes of avoiding future harassment while still being able to carry out his duties.

While instances like these are still developing, the need for action to be taken to prevent further action is more than necessary.

The connection between racism, white supremacy, and anti-mask protests are intricately wound, but not inherently linked. It is up to us to ensure hatred, racism, and supremacy don’t settle into our society and culture.

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