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Is the proposed ban on wearing masks in public directed toward Black people?


Is the Republican legislative drive to ban wearing medical masks in public directed towards African Americans? Dawn Blagrove, an attorney and executive director of Emancipate NC, thinks so.

“What happens is that every time our General Assembly...criminalizes more behavior,” Blagrove said, “ultimately - when the Palestinian protests die down - the people who bear the burden of those new crimes are Black people, and that is the problem.”

Atty. Blagrove added that “…Black people are disproportionately stopped by law enforcement more than White people, often by 10 times or more.

The N.C. NAACP issued a statement prior to N.C. Senate passage last week saying that the measure is “a dangerous bill that threatens the fundamental right to protest in North Carolina.”

“HB 237 seeks to intimidate and silence marginalized communities, particularly Black, Indigenous, and people of color, who rely on protest to make their voices heard and hold those in power accountable,” said N.C. NAACP President Deborah Dicks-Maxwell in a statement.

“This legislation seeks to impose severe penalties on protesters, particularly targeting those who block traffic or wear masks,” the statement read. “By criminalizing these protest tactics, the bill aims to silence marginalized communities and stifle legitimate expressions of dissent.”

There is also concern that the amended bill also criminalizes people who must wear medical masks to protect themselves from dangerous infections, but Republicans disagree.

“This bill really is not trying to address healthcare issues that individuals may have – chemotherapy or other immunocompromised-type situations,” said Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson. “I understand why that may concern them… this was not a problem pre-COVID.”

Republican lawmakers have claimed that the amended HB 237, the “Unmasking Mobs and Criminals” Act, is directed towards giving law enforcement more teeth when arresting protestors on the street or on college campuses. GOP lawmakers claim that police and district attorneys will be able to use their discretion in distinguishing medical patients and peaceful demonstrators from masked troublemakers.

The original law was passed in the 1950s to prevent the Ku Klu Klan from wearing their hoods publicly. A medical exemption was added in 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic hit North Carolina.

Most people who wore medical masks pre-pandemic had no idea that technically what they were doing was illegal. Senate Republicans last week, in an effort to get tough in the aftermath of the recent UNC-Chapel Hill campus Pro-Palestinian protests, passed an amended version of HB 237 removing the medical mask exemption, and sent the measure back over to the House for concurrence.

Republicans claim removing the medical mask exemption is needed to better fight crime.

Sen. Lisa Grafstein (D-Wake), however, disagrees, saying giving law enforcement, or even shop owners that much discretion is dangerous.

“The fact is this would criminalize that process,” Grafstein said. “There’s not really a way to distinguish when someone walks in [a business] whether they are wearing a mask for specific health reasons … One of the things that we see in the disability community is people being quizzed over why they’re behaving in such a way — why you need X, Y or Z. There are requirements under federal law about what you can and cannot ask people about their disability, and to me it opens up a tremendous problem for storekeepers for law enforcement to get into the business of discussions with shoppers or people on the street about why they’re wearing a mask and what their specific health condition is.”

On Tuesday, House Speaker Tim Moore’s office said House Republicans will not pass the Senate version of the HB 237 as is, so the bill will go to a conference committee.