On Friday, state Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) wore a protective mask on the Senate floor which appeared to have a Confederate flag design, following right-wing protests against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer which featured Confederate flags, AR-15s and Nazi symbols.
Zorn initially defended the mask in media interviews, but then apologized on Twitter Saturday morning.
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who is heading a state panel on racial disparities in COVID-19, didn’t hold back in an interview Saturday evening with the Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC, calling the mask “appalling and disgusting.” Gilchrist said he believes the Senate should censure the senator.
Sharpton noted the Confederate flag is a symbol of “those that wanted Blacks enslaved and lynched.” He asked Gilchrist about the “backlash” to measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Michigan, noting that there have been protesters at the Capitol with “racial signs and racial symbols.” Sharpton also brought up Zorn’s mask and asked Gilchrist what he thought about it.
“I mean, Rev. Sharpton, as someone who has fought for civil rights for his entire life, I know you certainly get sick of this every time you see it. And as a Black man — as the first Black lieutenant governor in the history of the state of Michigan, as the first Black person to preside over the Michigan Senate — it was appalling and disgusting to see a Confederate flag chosen as the face mask of a sitting state senator.
“And then to see those Confederate flags and Nazi swastikas in the Capitol shows you what this was really about. This was not about protesting orders to stay home and stay safe [during COVID-19], because the science shows that that’s how we will actually get ahead of this virus. This was about politics; this was about partisanship. That was a [President Donald] Trump rally. People were there brandishing automatic weapons; people were there were barehanding candy to children who then could take the virus back into their communities across the state of Michigan.”
Gilchrist called the protestors’ actions “irresponsible” and said that “unfortunately that recklessness has been made space for by the recklessness of the … state Senate of Michigan.
Sharpton asked Gilchrist if the Senate should “censure or denounce” Zorn. The Advance reached out to a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) on Saturday to see if the chamber would take action against Zorn, but had not yet received a response.
“I’m disappointed that the Senate Republican leadership has not done that yet,” Gilchrist said. “And I hope that they step up and do the right thing, because to to openly choose to wear a symbol of bigotry, hatred, oppression, racism in this moment when people need to come together in the state of Michigan and across the country is reprehensible and unacceptable. This is the time for unity. It is everybody versus COVID-19; we need all hands on deck. And to choose to do something like that sends the absolute wrong message.”
Michigan has 37,203 cases of COVID-19 and 3,274 deaths as of Saturday afternoon. African Americans are roughly 14% of the state population, but compose 33% of cases and 41% of deaths. Sharpton asked what the task force can do to “flatten the curve of racial disparities” in health care.
“Well, first of all we have to act quickly because people are losing their lives every single day,” Gilchrist said. “And one of the things that’s been so dangerous about this virus is that some of the people who are doing those jobs that are critical to protecting and sustaining life — people who are working in grocery stores and people who are bus drivers — these are people who are having an increased risk of exposure to the virus. So we need to work to make sure they’re getting exposed less, put protocols in place to help save them from that exposure.”
Gilchrist noted that people “fighting with persistent army, like a lot of Black people are in the city of Detroit,” can’t afford to buy hundreds of dollars in groceries and then not go back for a month.
“So you’d have to get on the bus and go to the grocery store every two or three days, exposing yourself, exposing the bus driver, exposing the grocers,” he said. “And so we need to make sure that the safety net will work for these people to protect us from this virus.”