The "It's a free country," retort loses its appeal when the clauses and exceptions that condition the "free" are glaringly obvious. As we prepare ourselves to sustain the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, people are looking for ways to practice anti-racism and carry on the message in every part of their daily lives.
Youngstown, Ohio Taco Bell employee Denzel Skinner says he was fired after refusing to take off a face mask that simply read: "Black Lives Matter." Skinner had been working at that Taco Bell for eight years. And like clockwork, the internet is celebrating a #TacoBellIsOverParty.
According to WKBN 27, the restaurant's air conditioning was broken and the surgical masks Taco Bell provided made it especially hard to breathe, so Skinner wore his own. When his manager demanded he take it off, Skinner thought of the on-going protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd and felt compelled to take a stand.
Mask policies vary from state to state, but Taco Bell requires all employees to wear masks and gloves at all times. Because some places are experiencing mask shortages, employees are welcome to bring their own, as long as they are cleaned daily and properly cover their noses and mouths.
Skinner shared the company's mask policy announcement with 21-WFMJ, nowhere is there any mention of letters or messages.
Skinner recorded his exchange with a fellow employee, presumably his manager, and shared it on social media. In it, Skinner sits in a car, still wearing his mask while a voice outside the car tells him, "you can't bring politics into the building." Skinner replied, "Bro, I'm not bringing politics in. This is what I stand for." Then the person said, "I’m just doing my job," and Skinner asserted, "I'm doing mine too. And I'm standing up for my people."
Skinner said during the Facebook Live that he was asked to leave and not come back.
In a statement to 21-WFMJ, Taco Bell said it was "disappointed to learn about the incident" and that the company is working with the franchise owner to learn more about what happened. Then, in a statement to USA Today, the company lamented, "We believe Black Lives Matter. We were disappointed to learn about the incident that took place in Youngstown, OH."
Refinery29 reached out to Taco Bell for further comment and will update this story when we receive a response.
This highlights the tension many workers across the country are having to contend with. Companies and managers want to reap the benefits of Black labor, but they would rather have Black workers be silent, a-political bodies that simply produce. Many employers and managers ask that politics not be brought into the workplace, but this stems from a white-centric perception of politics as some intellectual endeavor you can choose to engage in whenever you like. Yet for most people — women, non-white people, queer people — it's not about politics, it's about lives. And right now, it's about Black lives, as Skinner said: "I'm not bringing politics in. This is what I stand for."