Anti-mask politician compares herself to civil rights icon Rosa Parks, sparking anger and support

Temecula City Hall
Temecula City Hall (Google Maps)

A Temecula City Council member who compared her fight against face mask mandates to Rosa Parks’ bus demonstration for civil rights has touched off a weeks-long controversy in the majority-white Riverside County city where residents are sharply divided over the comments and Black community members have expressed anger over the remarks.

The council member, Jessica Alexander, a staunch anti-mask Republican, has not addressed the issue since an April 13 council meeting when she brought up the civil rights icon while expressing opposition to masks at in-person council meetings.

“Look at Rosa Parks. She was accommodated to the back of the bus, but she finally took a stand and moved to the front because she knew that that wasn’t lawful. It wasn’t truth. So she took a stand. At what point in time do we?" Alexander said. "I’m getting to the point where I'm getting accommodated in my office. I feel like I'm getting pushed to the back of the bus."

The controversy, which festered for weeks and was used as fodder on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" Tuesday night, intensified after the latest council meeting.

During Tuesday's meeting, additional time was dedicated to reading public comments on the issue, which was first reported in the Press-Enterprise. The comments ranged from calls for her resignation to support for her rejection of mask use.

“Her rants reeks of white privilege," one commenter wrote.

"Respect Jessica Alexander as our elected official, and discourage the rhetoric that she is ‘culturally insensitive,'" wrote another.

Corey Jackson, co-director of the Moreno Valley-based Center Against Racism and Trauma, said in an interview that she should address concerns over the remarks.

"Her comments were very painful to the African American community, and as elected officials, if we make comments that cause trauma to another community we have to own it and we have to seek to remedy it," Jackson said. "People need to be careful when they try to invoke the words and experience of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and all others.

Some called for her to attend diversity training through the city's Race, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Commission and at least one resident asked that the other council members denounce her comments.

After the public comments, most council members focused on the topic of a face mask mandate itself. Mayor Maryann Edwards emphasized that Temecula has not issued a mandate and that residents have the “freedom to do whatever they want.” Current mask-wearing guidance has been issued by the state and was most recently updated Tuesday to align with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's new recommendation that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear a mask outside unless they're around strangers.

But Council Member Zak Schwank directly addressed Alexander and urged her to apologize for her comments.

“Wearing a mask is not a civil rights issue, it’s not a battle, it's not a civil rights battle. Equating the two is offensive," Schwank said. “I think we can all agree, from the people we heard tonight and the emails we received, that the community is disappointed and hurt by your comments.... We need to be more mindful that we represent the entire city, not just a certain fraction of the city."

Alexander did not respond to a request for comment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected Black and Latino communities, a reality that some public commenters addressed in condemnation of Alexander's remarks. Temecula has a majority-white population. About 68% of residents are white, and about 4.6% are Black, according to the most recent available U.S. census data.

This isn’t the first time that the Temecula City Council has drawn concerns over racially insensitive comments, as residents pointed out during public comment and in a public Facebook group dedicated to bettering police interactions with people of color.

In June, shortly after the police shooting of George Floyd, former mayor and current Council Member James Stewart wrote in an email that he didn’t “believe there’s ever been a good person of color killed by a police officer.”

Stewart later said that the email, dictated via voice memo, mistakenly included the word “good,” and that his comments were specifically in reference to his belief that no person of color had been killed by police in Temecula or Riverside County.

Soon after, Stewart resigned as mayor.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.