Last month, while the federal government was still pursuing felony riot charges against some Trump inauguration protestors, US Congressman Daniel M. Donovan opened a new front in the battle against radical left-wing protest in America. That's when the Republican, who represents parts of South Brooklyn and the cop haven that is Staten Island, introduced a bill to the House of Representatives called H.R. 6054. The proposed law would enhance penalties for anyone who interferes with another person's "protected rights" while wearing a disguise. After news of the bill made its way onto some subreddits on Tuesday, it spread across Twitter, causing a fair number of activists across America to exert a collective: "What the fuck?"
After all, it's pretty clear whom something called the "Unmasking Antifa Act of 2018" is meant to target.
"H.R. 6054 takes a pro-fascist stance in its very name, and doubtlessly in its enforcement," Carmichael Monaco, a member of the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council, a New York City-based activist group, told me Tuesday. "In the current political climate, antifascists who speak out against fascism, racism, xenophobia, etc. are routinely harassed, threatened, and attacked by the far right, often supported by the police, who are notably exempted here. Families and friends of antifascists also become targets of far right violence. The wearing of a mask is an act of self-defense often necessary to ensure one's right to free speech."
(After publication, a Donovan spokesperson emailed the following statement from the Congressman: "My bill expands upon long-standing civil rights statutes to make it a crime to deprive someone of Constitutionally-guaranteed protections while masked or disguised. Americans have the natural right to speak and protest freely; it is not a right to throw Molotov cocktails and beat people while hiding behind a mask.")
Unmasking laws are not a recent invention, and in fact, it's technically been illegal to wear a mask in Donavan's home state of New York alongside at least one other mask-wearer since 1845. That's when tenant farmers donned calico gowns and feather masks in an uprising against their landlords who were trying to evict them. According to the Wall Street Journal, these rebels tarred and feathered people and even murdered a sheriff. Later, unmasking laws would be used to combat the Ku Klux Klan in states like Alabama, where it's been illegal to wear a mask outside of certain holidays since 1949. Georgia also has an anti-masking law designed to protect against the Klan.
That rarely applied 1845 New York state law was cited as basis for arresting some masked Occupy Wall Street protestors in 2011. But the new and worrying trend here for people like Monaco is the strategy of repurposing a tactic meant to fight racists for the arrest of people on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum. This isn't just speculation: In August 2017, an Arizona lawmaker said he wanted to use unmasking laws to go after Antifa protestors by explicitly comparing them to the KKK.
"The thugs wearing masks and throwing things at police officers and breaking windows and robbing and pillaging while wearing masks and hoods are the equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan," state representative Jay Lawrence told the Arizona Capitol Times. “Now, there are no hangings of white people, yet.”
The bill stipulates that if someone is engaged in an act of property destruction while wearing a mask, they will have two years added to whatever terms of imprisonment they receive. Meanwhile, the maximum additional penalty they would receive for any other crime—or just "oppressing or "intimidating" someone enjoying their constitutional rights—is 15 years.
Mark Bray, a professor at Dartmouth who studies human rights and radical politics and wrote a history of the antifa movement, said the general sentiment among people he'd spoken to about H.R.6054 so far was that it was using "antifa" as a selling point; a lot of people don't understand what the movement really is. "It's a law that threatens to clamp down on direct action politics more broadly," he told me. "I think it sets a disturbing precedent."
This post has been updated to include a statement from Congressman Donovan.
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