The uproar over Zorn’s mask was the latest example of pushback to coronavirus restrictions becoming entangled in other conservative causes and culture wars. Protests around the country denouncing stay-at-home orders as oppressive have featured Confederate flags, with one Republican Party official in Wisconsin reportedly urging participants to leave the flags at home — along with AR15s and AK47s — to “control the optics.”
Zorn’s apology came after intense criticism, including from fellow lawmakers and the state’s lieutenant governor. Some found the mask pattern particularly offensive given coronavirus’s outsized toll on African Americans in Michigan and around the country, a reflection of deep-rooted inequities.
“I’m sorry for my choice of pattern on the face mask I wore yesterday on the Senate floor,” Zorn tweeted Saturday. “I did not intend to offend anyone; however, I realize that I did, and for that I am sorry. Those who know me best know that I do not support the things this pattern represents.”
“My actions were an error in judgment for which there are no excuses and I will learn from this episode,” he added.
Saturday’s apology didn’t mention why Zorn initially denied wearing a mask with the Confederate flag pattern, when a WLNS reporter asked about it after Friday’s session.
Zorn said the mask sewn by his wife would probably “raise some eyebrows” but looked similar to Tennessee’s and Kentucky’s flags.
Tennessee’s flag is red, white and blue like the Confederate flag, but its pattern is different. Kentucky’s flag is blue, has a seal and says “united we stand, divided we fall.”
And Zorn said that even if the mask was a Confederate pattern, the flag is a part of “our national history.”
“It’s something we can’t just throw away because it is part of our history,” he told WLNS. “And if we want to make sure that the atrocities that happened during that time doesn’t happen again, we should be teaching it. Our kids should know what that flag stands for.”
Asked what the flag stands for, Zorn said it stood for the Confederacy.
When reached by The Washington Post on Saturday for comment, Zorn’s office referred to his tweet.
Among the Michiganders who quickly took to Twitter with criticism was state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, a Democrat who said Zorn’s mask wasn’t representative of the northern state’s history.
“Even if it’s questionable … if people have to ask … don’t. Don’t wear anything resembling a Confederate flag,” she tweeted. “As an elected official. In the state Capitol. On the Senate floor. During session.”
Others pointed to the higher fatality rate from coronavirus for African Americans, who make up 14 percent of Michigan’s population but more than 40 percent of the deaths there.
Garlin Gilchrist, Michigan’s first black lieutenant governor, called Zorn’s choice of mask “appalling and disgusting” in a Saturday appearance on MSNBC. He noted the swastikas that also appeared last week at a protest of Michigan’s stay-at-home order.
“To see those Confederate flags and swastikas in the Capitol last week shows you what this was really all about,” he said. “This was not about protesting orders to stay home and stay safe. This was about politics and partisanship. That was a Trump rally.”
As protests against coronavirus-driven restrictions continue to draw big crowds, despite polling showing most Americans support continued stay-at-home orders, some have defended the Confederate flags popping up at some rallies.
Brian Westrate, the treasurer of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, told attendees of a Madison rally not to bring the flag in a post in a private Facebook group, the New York Times reported. But he said he was not motivated by concern about what the symbol represents.
“I well understand that the Confederacy was more about states’ rights than slavery. But that does not change the truth of how we should try to control the optics during the event,” he said.