A “Right to Shop”?
You’ve probably seen lots of them by now. Videos of people having public meltdowns in private businesses, because they’ve been told to leave the business for not wearing a mask during a time of global pandemic. Sometimes they overturn something on their way out. Sometimes they assault a worker. Sometimes they are arrested. Oftentimes, they yell something about their rights being violated … about their right to shop or their “right to commerce”.
For me, the experience of watching these videos is an exquisite joy. To begin with, I love seeing some of these anti-maskers getting a little of their just desserts. I also love the irony. No doubt, most of these people are politically conservative. And I imagine that many of them are the types who at one time supported the right of business owners to refuse service to LGBT folk or criticized the integration of public facilities as federal overeach. They’re now on the receiving end of some of their own arguments.
They’re also experiencing the harsh reality of the institution of private property.
It will come as no surprise to many people of color and many LGBT people that, in the United States, there is no legally recognized “right to commerce” or “right to shop”. Businesses which are “open to the public” are nevertheless private property, and as such they may exclude anyone for any reason other than certain protected categories—and even that restriction can be circumvented by manufacturing superficial reasons.
That many people believe that they have a right to shop is revealing. For one thing, it highlights how commerce has trumped practically every actual civil right in the public consciousness. For another, it exposes the privilege of a lot of people—middle-class, hetero-/cis-, White people—who have never before had to worry about being excluded from a business before.
In the U.S., such people have enjoyed an ability to move around in public and open-to-the-public spaces, while many others have not. I am one of those multiply-privileged people. For most of my life, I felt free—entitled actually—to go just about anywhere, except someone’s residence and or their yard. And even then, I didn’t have to worry about getting shot just because I was on someone else’s property.
A Fence in the Wilderness
One summer, though, something clicked in my brain while we were visiting relatives in the Rocky Mountains. …