North Carolina Republicans’ mask ban is aimed at silencing Gaza dissent
Thibault Camus / AP

Some say the U.S. is now in the “post-COVID” era, but for many people with health vulnerabilities, masks are still a necessity. So why is the North Carolina House of Representatives trying to ban them?

Republicans in the state claim they are simply going back to pre-pandemic norms, and nothing will really change if their proposal becomes law. If we take into consideration the current political atmosphere and the timing of the bill, however, we must ask what their true motives are for such an extreme measure.

House Bill 237, titled “Unmasking Mobs and Criminals,” proposes criminal charges and fines against individuals who choose to wear masks, with no exemption for health conditions.

It would make wearing a mask a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by six to 18 months of probation and fines, with harsher punishment with successive offenses. It will give employers the freedom to decide whether they want to declare their businesses mask-free, but should they choose to allow masks, workers are still subject to the law if caught wearing a mask while off the job.

The law also penalizes demonstrators who block emergency vehicles, though there have been no documented cases of that specific offense occurring in recent protests. While members of the state legislature contend the bill is designed to “protect the community,” there has been a large outcry from the citizens of North Carolina, as well as from disability and free speech advocates, who rightly see the proposed law as a violation of constitutional rights.

While it’s true that North Carolina has had criminal statutes that prohibited wearing masks, hoods, and other devices that conceal one’s identity in certain places since 1953 as a means of combatting the criminal activities of the KKK, this proposed mask ban has nothing to do with such purposes.

The bill serves a dual purpose.

  • First, it feeds into the far-right COVID conspiracies that mobilize Republican voters just months before the pivotal November elections.
  • Secondly, and more immediately, it is another political tactic to criminalize and silence protesters opposing the ongoing genocide in Gaza, which is being funded by the United States government.

Thousands in North Carolina, in addition to millions of people across the country and around the world, have been using their voices and lawful right to protest and passionately advocate against the U.S.-sanctioned genocidal violence and destruction being carried out by the Israeli government against Palestinian civilians.

Not too long after the Gaza encampments began popping up at universities, including UNC and Duke, Republicans put their bill on the agenda.

From the bill’s title to the comments Republican legislators have uttered in support of it, the sponsors want to imply that anyone who wears a mask, especially while protesting, is seeking to conceal their identity in order to commit a crime. Of course, there are plenty of reasons someone might wear a mask.

Most people wearing one need it due to being immunocompromised, which makes it much easier for them to catch illness and face possible health decline more severely than the average healthy individual. There are also other safety concerns that might motivate ceasefire supporters to wear a mask: Numerous pro-Palestine demonstrators have lost jobs, been kicked out of school, or been doxxed.

The bill passed 30 to 15 along party lines, with Democrats attempting and failing to make tweaks. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper can use his veto power, but the North Carolina GOP has a supermajority, which renders his veto power useless in instances such as this.

We will likely see this legislation be challenged in court, but this bill, like many others around the United States, speaks to the treacherous decline of our democracy. They prove how much we need to continue using our voices and our ballots.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the views of its author.

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Heather French
Heather French

Heather French is an activist and writer in North Carolina.