There are a very few glimmers of light to come out of this pandemic. One such glimmer is the amount of catcalling and street harassment many of us experience on a daily basis has gone down significantly in part due to mask wearing (no one can see if we’re giving them a begrudging smile or not), and for those of us fortunate enough to be working from home, there are simply fewer opportunities to be harassed.
Recently, though, my near forgetting of nonconsensual communication evaporated. If we’ve caught a break from men who feel entitled to our time, we’re now subject to a new type of aggressor: Anti-maskers. Though most Americans regularly wear masks in businesses and stores, the few that refuse are a small but angry bunch — even given the president’s bout with the virus.
There came a point in the pandemic when I needed to fly, and, taking all necessary COVID-19 precautions, made the trip. On my way through SeaTac Airport, a tall man in front of me took notice of me and held up a small notecard. It read: “GOVERNORS CAN’T MAKE LAWS” (referring to the mask mandate instituted by Gov. Jay Inslee).
I rolled my eyes and moved past. As soon as he saw I’d read the card, though, this man began to follow me and calmly recite the same variation of words over and over.
“You are being conditioned. You are part of a psychological experiment. Governors are usurping the power of the state.”
I sped up my pace through masked clusters of people. My heart beat frantically.
“You are being conditioned. You are part of a psychological experiment. You are being poisoned by your own oxygen.”
He harassed me from just past my gate all the way to baggage claim, until he found another woman traveling alone to repeat the tactic on.
I snapped a photo and reported him to airport security, but by then he was just another white guy with a backpack, disappearing into a crowd of people at Arrivals.
Reports of anti-mask harassment have become commonplace on social media, in the news and in conversations among friends. In my networks alone, stories range from a woman at the dog park who is admonished by anti-mask advocates for “being a sheep,” then called a racial slur, to customers in stores who politely request their fellow shoppers don a mask quickly becoming the victims of verbal abuse.
A genderqueer person on a plane who asks the people nearest them to put masks on is met with profanity..
Because the federal government has failed to instate a mask mandate, the burden of rule enforcement falls onto the workers who engage with the public every day — workers who are majority female, according to Data USA, and faced with consumers used to a “customer is always right” attitude.
In a recent Service Employees International Union (SEIU) poll, 44% of McDonald’s employees report being verbally or physically assaulted after confronting customers who were not wearing masks. While the offenders are mostly white men and women, the recipients of their fury tend to be women and members of marginalized groups (LGBTQ populations and people of color are disproportionately represented in the service industry). I can’t help but wonder: Would all these angry people so readily direct their ire at white men?
It’s one thing to protest in the streets against wearing masks, if that’s what pseudoscience compels someone to do. It’s another to intimidate vulnerable individuals to unleash a personal and political vendetta against public safety.
My airport experience could have been worse, and it wasn’t. I’m privileged to have avoided any disturbing anti-mask encounters until I chose to travel. But it’s nauseating to know that all of these violent, threatening actions are spurred on by a man who holds the highest power in this country — and if those actions escalate in any way, that same man will surely take the side of the offender.
It took a pandemic for me to nearly forget harassment is a thing. And it took a pandemic to remind me that the president and his followers will continue to callously utilize sexism, racism and fear to further a dangerously anti-science agenda.