The mood at the December 16, 1918 meeting of the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco was tense. The main topic of discussion was reinstituting a mask ordinance in the city to prevent transmission of an outbreak of influenza. The plan being discussed had been written behind closed doors by the city’s business leaders who were concerned the outbreak would harm the tourism that was crucial to their businesses. Dr. William Hassler, the city’s Health Officer, was impatient and threatened to take drastic actions himself if the Board of Supervisors failed to reinstitute the ban. At this threat, a Mrs. C.E. Grosjean, a self-proclaimed representative of the “indignant citizens” of the city, proclaimed that the people were against the mask ordinance and moreover against the domination of Dr. Hassler over their lives. The next day, a bomb was left on Dr. Hassler’s doorstep, which at least he attributed to people upset with the mask ordinances.
In January of 1919, Mrs. Grosjean went a step further and helped form an “Anti-Mask League” to oppose the second mask ordinance. The group consisted entirely of women, who claimed the mask was not only ineffective at preventing the spread of the disease but further was itself unsanitary. Their president was a Mrs. E.C. Harrington, a suffragette and advocate of labor union rights, also being president of the San Francisco Working Women’s Club. She was stubborn and tough, having declared herself beholden to no party or political machine and having passed an exam of 80 rapid fire questions to become a lawyer when other applicants were only subjected to 20–30 questions. And she had reasons other than questionable speculation on epidemiology to oppose the mask ordinances. On the first day of the second ordinance, police arrested 186 people, releasing most on a $5 bail (modern equivalent of $75). Schools and other workplaces were shut down without relief to those who worked there, and workers were expected to wear masks while patrons were not.
Those were the anti-maskers of the early 20th century. Here are the anti-maskers of the present:
While sharing the pseudo-science and demand for personal liberty of their early 20th century counterparts, the modern protests are almost entirely far right wing movements, from the Orthodox Jewish protesters in Brooklyn to white nationalists in California to the militia movements in Michigan and Texas. While there are some statements and gestures to working class advocacy (i.e. “All Jobs Are Essential” above), a lot of the protests are championed by a small business ownership class that increasingly has come to dominate Republican Party politics, upset that lockdowns and mask ordinances have usurped their capitalist authoritarian control of their bars, jetski suppliers, World War II paraphernalia stores, and assault rifle depots.
Rather than protesting policing, many of these protests feature signs like “We Back the Badge” showing allegiance to the modern police forces. How the police have been enforcing the ordinances has been a concern mostly of the same Leftists that support mask ordinances. While again there are some working class people at these anti-mask protests, it is decidedly not a movement of the working class, let alone one advocating for the working class.
Which raises the question — who does represent the working class struggles during COVID-19 in the way that the Anti-Mask League in San Francisco tried to do in 1919? Americans are in fact not very divided when it comes to supporting mask mandates, and notably this poll’s sample, while not listing income demographics, did consist mostly of demographics that are disproportionately working class, i.e. high school education and people who have had to work outside the home during COVID-19. If wearing or not wearing a mask is not so much a class-based concern during COVID-19, what are the concerns that working class people have?
The answer is, unsurprisingly, economic. 25% of adults in the US are struggling to pay bills, which increases to 46% when looking at those making less than $39,800 a year. While much ado has been made about the ~$100 billion paydown in credit card debt (less than 1% of total credit card debt), rates of credit card chargeoff (when the lender demands the full balance of debt owed and does not extend further credit) are at the highest level since the economy fully recovered from the Great Recession in 2011. The paydown on credit card debt per person is about ~5% of the overall debt of each person. While government relief, especially unemployment through the CARES Act, has mitigated the blow to financial security, poverty still increased, showing that even that hard won relief was not enough. In short, the decrease in debt is offset by a increase in poverty, particularly because that decrease in debt includes many well-off people paying down their debts.
Working class people have had a harder time regaining unemployment during the pandemic, and even more difficulty reversing decreases in work hours overall. An astonishing 93.5% of people in food assistance programs report food insecurity, and food insecurity doubled for all households, the worst impacts on households with children. While unemployment has fallen considerably, it is still twice what it was prior to the pandemic and with governments considering and instituting second or even third rounds of lockdown measures, the recovery in employment could falter or even reverse. A majority of working class parents have concerns about obstacles for remote education of their children. COVID-19 has had widespread psychological harm for working class people: “88% reported poor sleep, 83% were experiencing high levels of anxiety, and 70% said the pandemic was causing symptoms of depression.” All of these COVID-19 related harms to working class people are happening in the face of a much smaller impact on the wealthy, and with the billionaire class actually increasing its wealth by almost $1 trillion.
So who is advocating for working people and addressing these concerns? President-elect Biden claims that he will extend unemployment and creates jobs through a public works program. It is unclear whether this extended unemployment will include the supplement, but even if it did, this was a measure that failed to prevent an increase in poverty. While Biden promises that he will make good union jobs, it appears his public employment program will only be for work related to fighting COVID-19, and that any other job creation that will allegedly happen will be through bailouts to “Main Street” businesses. One would think the myth that bailing out businesses creates jobs, let alone union jobs, would have been put to rest by the protracted recovery from the Great Recession, but the myth appears to be alive and well in the forthcoming Biden administration.
In short, President-elect Biden’s plan seems to only be as ambitious, and maybe even less ambitious, than the CARES Act passed under President Trump. Real advocacy for the working class does not accept policies that fail to prevent their disenfranchisement. And nowhere in Biden’s plan, despite gestures to inequality, does Biden pledge to hold the ultra-wealthy accountable for their greed during pandemic or to force them to pay for a recovery. As has often been the case for working class people in the U.S., the people in power cannot be counted on to advocate for them, and the working class must advocate for itself.
Luckily class-oriented organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America have increased in electoral power and membership. The Democratic Party establishment, of which Biden is a longtime member, is desperate to spin Bernie’s lost to Biden in the primary and the close margin of the 2020 presidential election as reason to abandon democratic socialism and move to the right, touting figures like anti-abortion zealot John Kasich. But the Democrats’ narrow vision has always been the weakness that DSA has exploited to build its power and the power of the working class. Because DSA has been organizing the working class on all the issues discussed above, from eviction defense to schooling during the pandemic to mutual aid to labor organizing for essential workers during the pandemic. The election does not change it; the work continues unabated.
I began this post talking about anti-maskers because they loom large in media and public consciousness not only as a political movement but as a threat to our safety and well-being. And it is certainly true that people not wearing masks do generally endanger others. The CDC recently shared a study that increasing universal masking by 15% could prevent the need for lockdowns. But the uncouth actions of the anti-maskers are mostly a danger to themselves and their families and are hardly the greatest threat to working class people over the next year. That’s what I found interesting about the Anti-Mask League of the early 20th century — rather than opposing the mask ordinance based solely on anti-science and culture war type beliefs, they saw the business leaders and government of San Francisco enacting an ordinance that led to mass incarceration of working class people and fought back. The burden of fighting the pandemic was put on working class people without democratic decision making. And that is happening in our current pandemic as well, not because of Donald Trump or the fringe anti-mask zealots, but because of the dictates of capitalism, that unemployment must be maintained to be a threat to keep working class people in line at work, and that wealth exerts a gravity-like pull on wealth so that the wealthy accumulate more wealth and the poor lose what little they have, particularly in times of crisis. Obnoxious and personally irresponsible anti-maskers do not control the economy that is putting the burden of COVID-19 on the working class.
And as corporations and those who run them gain more and more control over what we see every day on social media, we must resist treating anti-maskers as the easy scapegoats they are and as the media constantly encourages us to see them as. At best these media depictions obscure who really has the power, at worst they create a largely fictional white trash character whose moral failings are responsible for the pandemic. If we want to organize working class people, we have to always cut through the sensationalist images of reactionary buffoonery to the somber and often unseen decisions in capitalism most responsible for the harms of the COVID-19 pandemic.