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With — or without — a mask, communities of color fear unequal enforcement during pandemic

Some have been harassed or handcuffed for wearing masks as protection, and others are being criminalized for not wearing one.

People wait for a distribution of masks and food from the Rev. Al Sharpton in the Harlem neighborhood of New York after a new state mandate was issued requiring residents to wear face coverings in public due to the COVID-19 coronavirusBebeto Matthews/Associated Press

On Wednesday, Massachusetts becomes the latest state to require that residents wear masks or face coverings to combat the coronavirus. In announcing his executive order last week, Governor Charlie Baker said, “We view it as common sense.”

When the Rev. Irene Monroe heard that, she asked, “To whom?”

“I see it — and maybe it’s extreme — as an unstated, sanctioned form of stop-and-frisk by cops of vulnerable populations like Black and brown people,” said Monroe, a longtime civil and LGBTQ rights activist and cohost of “All Rev’d Up” on WGBH.

“It troubles me because it’s a no-win situation,” she said. “There’s criminalization if you [use a mask]; there’s noncompliance if you don’t have one. It’s insidious. There’s a quagmire it puts us in, an added stressor in trying to survive a pandemic in which even . . . its guidelines don’t have us in the equation.”

Masks will be required in places where maintaining 6 feet of social distancing is not possible, Baker said. The order excludes children under 2 years old, anyone unable to wear a mask due to a medical condition, or those otherwise exempt from state Department of Public Health guidelines. Failure to comply with the mask requirement can result in a civil fine up to $300, though the governor says enforcement will be left up to cities and towns.


Several communities, including Somerville, Cambridge, Lawrence, and Watertown, also have $300 fines, but more stringent requirements than the state, demanding masks even when social distancing is possible. In Peabody and Winthrop, punishment for noncompliance can be as high as $1,000.

Nationwide, some Black men have been harassed or handcuffed for wearing masks as protection — suspects simply for trying to adhere to an order. Last month, six senators, including Ed Markey of Massachusetts, sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr and Christopher Wray, the FBI’s director, stating, “We urge your agencies to immediately provide training and guidance on bias, policing, and disproportionate or selective enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic.”


Black and brown people are also being criminalized for not donning masks. Last month, a Black man in Philadelphia was dragged by police from a bus because he was not wearing a mask as required by the city. After a video of the incident went viral, officials amended the requirement.

In New York last weekend, a severe contrast in policing was again evident. In parks, lots of white people, not all wearing masks or practicing social distancing, relaxed undisturbed in the sun. Elsewhere in the city, people of color were roughed up as police investigated violations of mask and social distancing requirements. A young Black man who verbally defended the group was threatened with a Taser, then pulled to the ground by an officer who punched him and planted his knee on the man’s neck.

Mayor Bill DeBlasio of New York called the video “disturbing.” That’s what excessive, unequal policing looks like for people of color, and the coronavirus is amplifying it.

To be clear, Monroe supports efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. For weeks, she has had an intimate and heartbreaking view of the pandemic as she has officiated funerals for victims of COVID-19, many of them people of color. As is the inevitable case nationwide, the disease is infecting and killing a disproportionate number of Black and brown Massachusetts residents.


That grim fact is a direct result of this nation’s entrenched and systemic racism. Those same factors can feed the unequal enforcement of guidelines ostensibly designed to keep us all safe.

“I’m already doing funerals, a lot of them for Black and brown people, as a consequence of COVID-19,” Monroe said. “I don’t want enforcement of this mandatory requirement to wear masks to be another deadly consequence of COVID-19.”

Of course, masks are necessary in this pandemic. Yet a remedy that’s a mild inconvenience for some can become, if enforced disproportionately, as potentially harmful in communities of color as the disease itself.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.