When I leave the house these days for a relatively brief walk in the outside world, I wear a mask but also the fearsome hoodie to protect against the Oregon weather. I have on sweatpants because COVID is like a bad breakup that's contagious. I'm a black guy, but you'd think that during a zombie apocalypse, people would freak out more over the zombies than me but the “new" normal has retained some crappier parts of the “old" normal.

Last month, for instance, police officers in Wood River, Illinois, asked two black men wearing surgical masks to leave a Walmart because they were apparently “violating a city ordinance against wearing masks in businesses." The state's first reported coronavirus case was in January. This was just a week after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised wearing masks when riding public transit or shopping. (Oh, and the officer was mistaken about Walmart's policy regarding masks, so there's that.)

In Miami, a black doctor who tests the homeless for COVID-19 was detained by police while wearing a protective mask. There's growing concern that black people, who are already disproportionately at risk from the coronavirus, are choosing not to wear masks in public. The last thing anyone wants right now is to draw the attention of some common George Zimmerman on his way to a “Reopen America" protest.



Fortunately, Sen. Kamala Harris is on the case. Harris, along with Cory Booker, Mazie Hirono, Ben Cardin, and Dick Durbin, sent a letter Friday to Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray — at least half of whom are honest. The senators asked that federal law enforcement agencies provide anti-bias training and guidance to the police. We might have a COVID-19 vaccine available in over-the-counter chewable tablet form before cops are collectively less racist, but this is still worth demanding.

From the letter:

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice issued guidance to expressly reaffirm the federal government's "deep commitment to ensuring that its law enforcement agencies conduct their activities in an unbiased manner." This guidance also clarified that "[b]iased practices . . . are unfair, promote mistrust of law enforcement, and perpetuate negative and harmful stereotypes. Moreover—and vitally important—biased practices are ineffective." The Justice Department should send instructions to state and local law enforcement, consistent with this existing guidance. But recent cases also highlight the need for additional guidance on bias and enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic. If communities of color—especially African American communities—feel at risk of disproportionate or selective enforcement, they may avoid seeking help or adopting precautionary measures recommended by the CDC. This, in turn, could have dire public health consequences—especially given that COVID-19 is already infecting and killing African Americans at alarming and disproportionately high rates.

The letter also noted that four Philadelphia police officers dragged a black man off a city bus because he wasn't wearing a mask. Yes, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf had asked citizens to wear cloth masks whenever they leave the house, but there might be better ways of resolving this, especially when there was genuine confusion on the issue thanks to conflicting CDC guidance. So far cops haven't roughed up any of the fools gathering in large crowds demanding access to hair salons.

Ultimately, if black people feel safer wearing masks in public, it'll help keep everyone safe. The police might have to just unlearn what a troublemaking thug looks like in the age of COVID-19.

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle. Tickets are on sale now for his latest Nordo collaboration, "Curiouser and Curiouser," an adaptation of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." It promises to feel like an actual evening with SER (for good or for ill).

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