The Here & Now

What to make of the latest viral anti-mask video, this one at a Santa Cruz Trader Joe’s?

THE HERE & NOW: A year into the pandemic, we’re still seeing anti-maskers parade around in public spaces — like in a now-viral video at the Trader Joe’s in Downtown Santa Cruz. It’s yet another dangerous example of the division in our country, Lookout correspondent Wallace Baine opines in this column.

“Here we go. We’re at Trader Joe’s.”

So says a man’s voice, presumably behind a cellphone camera, following about a dozen mask-less people approaching the entrance of Trader Joe’s on Front Street in Santa Cruz.

What follows is about seven minutes of chaos and disruption, captured on video and posted on social media, showing a group of proud but myopic Americans exercising their right to put defiance over science.

The video of anti-maskers descending upon Trader Joe’s — posted recently on a well-known subreddit social media channel that’s followed by millions nationally — brought on a tidal wave of comments and reactions on Monday in keeping with the perpetual state of division and hostility that is the basic fact of political life in the U.S. in the 2020s.

Watching the footage of people serenely wandering the aisles of the store as if it were just another day in 2019 — while cutting in front of masked people waiting outside and ignoring alarmed grocery workers inside — I couldn’t help but pick up a similar energy to the protesters who invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Granted, picking up a package of Dark Chocolate Honey Grahams (with Sea Salt) isn’t quite the same as looting the office of the Speaker of the House.

In the incident Sunday evening outside Trader Joe’s, the group didn’t enter the store, but stood outside for about four...

But the sense of entitlement, the casual assumption that the store, its employees, or customers had no rights worth respecting in the face of their “statement,” and the privileged certainty that crimes such as trespassing, looting, or shoplifting didn’t apply to them — all that had the ring of the familiar for anyone who saw Jan. 6 unfold.

What gives this whole movement — if, in fact, it deserves that term — particular traction in Santa Cruz is how anti-mask “scam-demic” protesters cleverly have appropriated the language of progressivism to exercise their rights to ignore the rules the rest of us have agreed to follow. They talk about protest and dissent, peace and love, in the name of subverting the public health mandate to wear a mask. The “Free Hug” anti-mask activists that weekend strollers on West Cliff Drive have encountered are masters at this kind of passive-aggressive muscle-flexing.

At one point in the Trader Joe’s video, a maskless woman strolls through the store shouting “God bless you” and another one whispers “we love you, we love you” to beleaguered grocery employees as if potentially spreading an airborne virus is the same as parading around topless at Woodstock — Oh, you poor oppressed squares just don’t get it. Suddenly, we’re all living in a Kurt Vonnegut novel.

Generations of a very American form of individualism has delivered us to a place where defiance is the primary mode by which many people construct their lives; this isn’t, after all, the first anti-mask incident broadcast around the world. Frankly, defiance is fun, in an adolescent sort of way. But it’s also a token of privilege, to expect to flout rules and not face consequences. Absent a coherent and ethical principle behind it, defiance is little more than a temper tantrum.

Today’s anti-maskers are poised to become tomorrow’s anti-vaxxers. Neither the virus nor the insistence that it is all a scam is going away anytime soon. And “protests” like the Trader Joe’s incident are going to become more prevalent if the rest of us can’t figure out a way to effectively react to them.

“My officers, we’re past the point of discussion, we’re at the point of enforcement,” Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills...

The long threads of comments to the videos posted on various social media platforms suggest that public opinion is still very much against the anti-maskers. Many people came out in support of the put-upon workers at TJ’s, many more hurled epithets at the maskless melon-shopping mob.

Of course, no one shot a video of the masked folks standing in socially distanced lines outside in the parking lot, playing by the rules, doing what must be done to get back to a normal world.

As the “protesters” are leaving the store, some of them carrying their not-quite-paid-for goods, one of the maskless shoppers wishes the employees “peace and love,” while one of the TJ clerks, in his familiar Hawaiian shirt, shoots them the middle finger.

In the normal world, such an act would be a mini-scandal against the store. In this crazy upside-down Vonnegut world, most of us stand behind the guy in the Hawaiian shirt.

You can watch for yourself below: