At the end of April, Shelley Luther, the owner of a hair salon in Dallas, headlined an “Open Texas” rally in the town of Frisco, speaking to a crowd of about 250 who had gathered in front of the city hall. The crowd was raucous—some carried Trump campaign flags while others waved yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” flags, standard paraphernalia at these morbid protests demanding an end to stay-at-home orders around the country. Few, of course, were wearing masks; people felt free to stand close to others and cheer; almost all who gathered were white.
Luther was there to speak about what she viewed as a violation of her rights: in defiance of both the state Governor Greg Abbott’s order closing non-essential businesses and a Dallas County directive she had reopened her beauty parlor, Salon À La Mode, that week. A Dallas County judge, Clay Jenkins, had sent her an order to once again close her salon, a directive that Luther had ignored. On the day of the “Open Texas” protest, Luther strode onto the stage, her highlighted blonde hair partially pulled back and a black blazer over her hot pink t-shirt.
“I just want to say I’m not anyone special. I just know that I have rights, you have rights to feed your children and make income, and anyone that wants to take away those rights is wrong,” she said to cheers. (Apparently, these rights extended to taking a cruise, which she did in March, even as the pandemic was raging.) Luther referenced her father, who had been in the Marines. “He did not leave our family when we were little and barely see us growing up for this crap to happen,” she said forcefully. We need to “take our country back,” Luther said.
“Tear it up!” someone called from the crowd, and Luther did just that, before flinging the bits of paper into the audience, to huge cheers. “Come and get it, Judge Clay Jenkins,” Luther shouted into the microphone, making a play on the state’s unofficial motto, “come and take it.” It would have been more appropriate for Governor Abbott to be the target of her ire—it was Abbott, after all, who had issued the state’s order to temporarily close businesses like her salon. But her logic was clear: Jenkins was the official who had called on her to close up shop, it was an easier narrative to shift the blame onto a Democrat than to question the state’s Republican governor. “Come and get it. I will not shut my salon,” she added.
What happened next made Luther a conservative martyr and hero—the following Tuesday, the city of Dallas filed for and received a restraining order against Luther when she ignored yet another cease-and-desist letter. After she continued to keep her salon open, arguing that “what they’re doing is totally unconstitutional,” she was arrested and was sentenced to seven days in jail, along with a $7,000 fine. By then, Luther’s story had spread throughout the rightwing ecosystem, with regular mentions on Fox News, a visit from Sarah Palin to the salon, and donations flooding in from around the country to a fundraiser that had, curiously enough, been set up for Luther days before she spoke at the Frisco protest, one that ultimately raised more than $500,000. While Luther consistently argued that she needed to reopen because her stylists were going hungry, and she needed to pay not only her employees but her bills, in reality, she was in a very different financial situation—in addition to the money raised through her online fundraiser, Luther had received a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, which should have allowed her to continue to pay her employees, even with her salon closed.
No one should be serving jail or prison time in the midst of a pandemic that has ravaged through correctional facilities; it’s equally true that Luther, unlike the vast majority of the state’s incarcerated people, received extremely special treatment from the trifecta of idiots who sit comfortably at the top of the state’s political food chain, a fleet of Republicans who rallied to her defense, ignoring the inconvenient fact that the orders she was defying came from them.
Attorney General Ken Paxton demanded her “immediate release,” describing her jail time as a “political stunt,” and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick engaged in an actual political stunt by paying her $7,000 fine and volunteering “to be placed under House Arrest” in her place. (I suppose going to jail would have been a step too far even for Patrick, a man who has repeatedly offered to die to save the economy.) Governor Abbott, attuned as always to the direction conservative winds are blowing, reversed his previous decision to keep salons closed and allowed them to reopen earlier than originally planned, and also modified his original executive order to, in his words, “ensure confinement is not a punishment for violating an order” and made it retroactive, freeing Abbott from her seven-day sentence. Luther was no “hardened criminal,” he wrote, she was a “business owner,” a revealing statement that demonstrated a very specific idea of whom he classifies as lawful.
On Thursday, Luther was freed; on Friday, Ted Cruz stopped by her salon for a haircut.
That Luther has now become a conservative hero is no surprise. The formula to become such a martyr is easily replicated, if you fit the mold (white and, ideally, if you’re a woman, blonde): engage in wildly irresponsible, or racist, or sexist behavior, and then frame the subsequent pushback as a personal and political attack, an affront to your freedom. During the covid-19 pandemic, one of those core freedoms has been the right to get a haircut and highlights.
If a wide swathe of Americans has grumbled about their inability to go to the salon during the pandemic, it has to an overwhelming extent been white citizens who have framed their inability to maintain their personal grooming as a political attack on their civil liberties. Undergirding the wildly malleable nature of conservative white grievance is what the New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, writing about the anti-lockdown protests, described as the twin meanings of whiteness: the ability to be free from “domination and control” and its flipside, the “right to control the presence and the lives of nonwhites.” Bouie continued: “More than just burdensome, the restrictions become an intolerable violation of the social contract as these Americans understand it.”
How else to understand why hair salons and the right to continue operating, if you’re an owner, or to step through a salon’s doors and get a wash, a cut, and foils, if you’re a patron, have now become a rallying cry, marking the hair salon as the latest setting for the rightwing culture war? “I want a haircut,” read the protest sign of a middle-aged blonde white woman with the exact haircut one would expect, clutched at a rally in a well-off Wisconsin suburb demanding that her governor lift his stay-at-home order. She might as well have written, “I’m okay with others dying as long as I’m able to get my split ends trimmed.”
There is something luxurious about the process of getting an expensive haircut, or a manicure, or a massage. For some, particularly black women, a sharp hairstyle is an expression of identity and confidence in a world that too often tries to deny you your humanity.
But where many view a trip to a salon as precisely that—a luxury, a time for some rare pampering—for the well-off conservative woman, it’s a basic God-given right that should never be denied. (Black women, after all, have not been out on the streets protesting for their right to get their hair done.) As one anonymous stylist and owner in Georgia told the New Yorker, “It’s pretty damn silly, insisting on a haircut right now. But, you have to understand, my clientele is very privileged. To them, this is a very big sacrifice, to go without a haircut.”
From this warped perspective, isn’t Luther an essential worker? Her story, perfectly engineered to generate rightwing outrage, tracks neatly into two parallel storylines pushed by the right—that temporarily pausing some businesses is a violation of civil liberties, and that the real pain of the covid-19 pandemic is our inability to work, narratives that allow conservatives to refigure orders meant to keep people safe as tyranny. Small businesses are being hurt by these orders, so the story goes, which hurts both the owners and their workers. It has a kernel of ugly truth, but it’s a truth that only exists because our political elites, Republicans as well as a fair share of Democrats, have refused to push for the necessary financial support for families and small businesses that would actually allow us to weather the pandemic safely, without worrying about how to pay the bills.
But Luther is doing just fine. The same can’t be said for others for whom the decision to reopen or to go back to work is fraught with bad choices. As Heather Manto, the owner of a salon in Austin, put it, “We’ve all gone six weeks without any money. We’ve had so little support through this whole thing because we’re service-based.” Manto added, “For a lot of contractors, there’s no health benefits and no retirement plan. I make what I bring in. What do you do if you’re living paycheck to paycheck?” That’s a question Luther has probably never asked herself.
Correction: A previous version of the post identified Clay Jenkins, who is white, as black. Jezebel regrets the error.