ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — A Benton County Justice of the Peace (JP) said wearing a mask is similar to wearing a burqa. She said, in her opinion, it’s more of a political statement to silence people.
JP for Bella Vista, Michelle Chiocco spoke at the Republican Women’s meeting on Wednesday, June 17, where she also said, “we are in the middle of a coup and we have a limited time to fight it.”
Governor Asa Hutchinson said he had not seen the video when asked about burqa versus face mask. But, he said, “this reflects that people have different views on masks and that we need to preach the message that it’s a public health issue and not a political issue.”
In the video, Chiocco said she rarely gets emails, but now she’s getting hundreds just in the last few days about current event topics — defunding the police, Washington County’s 287(g) program COVID 2.0 and alternative ways to vote.
Young Democrats of Arkansas shared the video via Twitter showing Chiocco holding a mask and what appears to be a burqa.
Statement from Young Democrats of Arkansas’ Vice President Micah Wallace:
“As Arkansans are dealing with record unemployment and a global health crisis, Justice of the Peace Michelle Chiocco’s comments are both scientifically inaccurate and blatantly Islamophobic. Benton County doesn’t need elected officials at any level throwing around blatantly false and xenophobic attacks against already marginalized groups. Local politicians directly impact our day to day lives, and this type of rhetoric reflects poorly on our community and state. Young Democrats feel incredibly appreciative that Democratic Party of Benton County Chair Kelley Boyd is running to fill this seat on the Quorum Court.”
BENTON COUNTY JUSTICES OF THE PEACE
The quorum court is a legislative body of the county government. There are 15 members (Justices of the Peace) who are elected to two-year terms. Each JP represents a district of about an equal population. The County Clerk serves as the secretary of the Quorum Court, according to the Benton County website. Chiocco’s term finishes at the end of the year.
The Arkansas Association of Counties (AAC) does not regulate county of district officials’ behavior. “Each elected body — whether the county judge or the quorum court — is an independent arm of local government,” according to AAC Communications Director Christy Smith. “Each elected official is responsible for his or her own behavior.”
The AAC’s mission supports and promotes the idea that all elected officials must have the opportunity to act together “in order to solve mutual problems as a unified group,” according to its website.
A niqab covers the face except for the eyes and is worn by some Muslim women, again, according to a Merriam-Webster dictionary definition.
Chiocco’s response via email to KNWA Friday night, June 19
I held up a niqab and a mask, and said, “These two are not as far apart as you think.” It was not my intention to compare religions, only the cloths that could be construed as a symbol of silence—of freedom of speech lost.
In our current environment, I have not been the first to draw an analogy to cloth face coverings that symbolize oppression and can be seen to stifle and chill speech. No rightful government has the authority to suspend our natural rights, but as our brothers and sisters of color have helped make us aware in the past few weeks, symbols of oppression have powerful chilling effects on the rights of the oppressed, and it takes loud voices and hard work to insist that our human rights be respected.
My comment referred to the totalitarian regimes where women are forcibly silenced and are required, with violent consequences for disobedience, to wear an object that covers their faces. The object that they must wear is a potent symbol of their forced silence. In the context of a women’s political meeting, I was also making reference to our shared experience of struggling to have our voices heard, and watching in horror as women in other parts of the world have their voices actively and violently silenced.
As free citizens, in a nation whose founding documents protect the right of free speech, we are facing government mandates to wear objects to cover our faces. Individual concerns, questions, beliefs, and values are being overruled. Those who exercise their free speech to raise questions and concerns about the scientific or legal validity of mask requirements are being ostracized or ridiculed.
In fact, other basic Constitutional rights such as the freedom to assemble, the freedom to gather for worship, and the right to file a grievance and petition our local government were all suspended in the name of the covid response.
I believe that we are facing an urgent ethical question whose symbolism goes far deeper than the “face” of the issue: are we a nation that respects the choice to wear or not to wear a mask (as we should respect anyone who chooses to wear or not to wear religious garments); or are we a nation that shuns and invokes legal punishments against those whose individual needs or convictions lead them not to cover their faces?
As a woman, I recognize the amazing amount of challenges we have had to overcome throughout our history. We have fought for the right to be heard, the right to vote, the right for equal pay, and to speak our minds without fear of threat. The MeToo movement has continued recently to work tirelessly for that equality.
Again, I did not mean to offend, it was a passionate comparison of a cloth versus a cloth and the potential loss of our freedom of speech.
Michelle Chiocco, Justice of the Peace District 10