There’s already plenty to file under “COVID-19 and Gender.” For months now, the media and academia have examined how patriarchy and public health have been at loggerheads over pandemic safety efforts, from the macho disregard for hand-washing recommendations to the militant, armed response to Michigan’s stay-at-home order in April.
Now Tucson takes its place in that growing file, thanks to a congressional candidate and his cohorts. While many spent Juneteenth and its neighboring days reflecting on the history of slavery and the systemic racism that remains today, others obsessed over a different notion of oppression.
Protesters used a confrontational tactic described as “intimidation” by Tucson’s mayor.
Joseph Morgan, who is running in the GOP primary to represent Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District, has spent recent weeks calling public health advocates “Big Brother” and characterizing Tucson city government as a monarchy. Along with that, he co-opted the “My Body, My Choice” dictum of the reproductive justice movement, a slogan he repurposed as a signal of noncompliance with public health advisories. Morgan is appalled at the idea that a deadly pandemic, which by the end of June had brought more than 119,000 deaths to the U.S., should merit any precautions that don’t fit his personal whims and anti-science politics.
Facing off Over Face Coverings: Harassing Tucson’s Mayor
On Thursday, June 18, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero signed a proclamation calling for the use of face masks in public, citing the alarming increase of COVID-19 cases in Pima County, from 2,382 at the beginning of the month to 4,329 at mid-month. In response to that rise, the proclamation mandated that Tucsonans follow CDC guidelines and use cloth face coverings to slow the spread of infections.
Morgan, whose campaign Facebook page is full of regular ridicule of COVID-19 concerns, quickly became a voice of opposition to the mask mandate — and a loud and influential one at that. Morgan was soon using Facebook as his platform to organize a protest, a call to action that was echoed on MeetUp as well. On the following Saturday, when the mandate officially took effect, a post in MeetUp’s “Tucson Trump MAGA” group announced, “Protest today w[ith] Joseph Morgan [at] mayor [Romero’s] home.”
Late that afternoon, Morgan and his group arrived at Mayor Romero’s house, bearing signs that were strong in hyperbole but weak in fact-checking. One sign warned, “Wearing a Face Mask Suppresses the Immune System.” It’s a claim from a viral Facebook post that has been roundly rejected by credible sources. Another sign proclaimed an “Inflated COVID Death Rate,” an accusation that Snopes places in the realm of fantasy.
As if the questionable claims weren’t enough, so was the choice of venue. Arizona law prohibits residential picketing — or protests in front of private homes — declaring it a “class 3 misdemeanor” when someone “engages in picketing or otherwise demonstrates before or about the residence or dwelling place of an individual.” Romero later called the rally an act of “intimidation” that put the health of her family and the public at risk during a pandemic.
Hitting Home: Bringing Harassment to Abortion Providers’ Front Doors
A broader look at Morgan’s views might explain his choice of venues that weekend. Morgan spent the next Saturday with an anti-abortion group, and that movement has a long history of using residential picketing to harass its enemies.
The tactic was one that grew rampant in the early 1990s when Operation Rescue hatched its “No Place to Hide” strategy. The group was behind some of the decade’s most infamous anti-abortion tactics, including many clinic blockades where they frequently clashed with police and counter-demonstrators. Under its new strategy, Operation Rescue began to target the private homes of abortion providers. Before long, the aggressive tactic prompted legislatures around the country to pass laws against residential picketing.
Arizona has banned residential picketing since 1977, but in the mid-1990s, an anti-abortion activist challenged the statute in court. Fleeta Baldwin was arrested in Phoenix on May 1, 1993, while picketing the home of Frederic Stimmell, an obstetrician and gynecologist who provided abortion services. Baldwin challenged her resulting conviction, claiming the statute violated her religious liberties and her right to free expression.
The Arizona Court of Appeals shot down Baldwin’s argument in 1995, countering that prior case law upheld the constitutionality of reasonable limitations on protest activity — and that privacy concerns were sufficient cause for keeping rallies away from residential targets.
Hate in the Time of COVID-19: Morgan’s Mission and Trump’s America
But a time-tested and court-tested law wasn’t enough to stop Joseph Morgan. Being asked to wear a hand-sized piece of cloth for 15 minutes at the grocery store is a crisis to him, and crises demand swift and bold action.
Whether it was coincidence or a cue taken from seasoned activists, Morgan’s anti-abortion sensibilities would place him square in the territory of “No Place to Hide” veterans, the people who wrote the playbook for the kind of intimidation he and his cohorts directed at Mayor Romero.
Morgan told a candidate forum in January, “I believe Planned Parenthood is the evilest organization on Earth today.” On his campaign website, he compares legal abortion to “unchecked euthanasia.” He consistently downplays the breadth of Planned Parenthood’s health services so that he can reduce his position to a simple equation: Planned Parenthood equals abortion — and abortion is bad!
Morgan, like a lot of opponents of pandemic safety measures, has stolen a four-word phrase from reproductive justice advocates: “My Body, My Choice.” In so doing, he has taken what was meant to empower women and weaponized it to weaken public health guidelines. Morgan and company don’t seem to care that people have died by the thousands from the novel coronavirus, and they don’t seem to care that they are amplifying a double standard: When the question is abortion, they believe a pregnant person should let legislators make their decisions; but when the question is masking up to control a deadly pandemic, the decision is theirs, and theirs alone.
Morgan seems to have a political philosophy rooted in another four words: “Because I said so.” He displays the same me-first, deep selfishness of many Trump-era Republicans, who put ideology before science — and put themselves before the common good. Near the end of June, the Pew Research Center reported the latest findings on the political divide over COVID-19. While 77% of Democrats felt concerned that they could spread COVID-19 with an asymptomatic infection, less than half of Republicans shared that same worry.
Putting on a mask might get in the way of Morgan’s desire to project confidence and be a contrarian to liberals — so it isn’t going to happen, even as Arizona runs dangerously low on ICU beds amid a surge in COVID-19 cases. The day Morgan showed up at Mayor Romero’s house, 85% of the state’s ICU beds were in use, and that percentage has been climbing in subsequent weeks.
As long as we live under an openly racist, openly misogynist president, conservative politicos like Morgan seem content to let inflammatory rhetoric and confrontational tactics stand in for reasoned debate. Trump didn’t win by having the best ideas but the most provocative insults, from “nasty woman” to “Pocahontas.” Trump’s victory ushered in a political moment for the GOP in which trolling has replaced diplomacy and arrogance has replaced erudition. In this era of playground politics, Morgan has joined the race against three other candidates in the Republican House primary for Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District.
Morgan’s positions stand in sharp contrast to voter views. A Hill-HarrisX poll in May found that 68% of registered voters support mask mandates to slow the spread of COVID-19. A poll last year by PBS NewsHour, NPR, and Marist found that Morgan’s abortion views are likewise out of step. A majority of respondents opposed any new restrictions on abortion, and fully 86% supported abortion any time the life or health of the pregnant person is at risk.
Whoever wins the August 4 Republican primary will most likely face Democratic incumbent Ann Kirkpatrick in the general election. Rep. Kirkpatrick describes herself as “proudly pro-choice” and earned the endorsement of Planned Parenthood Action Fund in 2016. Let’s hope Kirkpatrick can put playground politics to an end in November.