While politically motivated violence in the U.S. has been an overwhelmingly far right phenomenon, Republicans around the country are building up credibility with their base by playing to false fears about masked leftists. State bills are popping up that attempt to rein in the use of masks or face covers during protests, either by increasing penalties for actions taken while wearing a mask or banning the public use of masks altogether.
Oregon Republicans recently introduced House Bill 4126 on January 22, which increases penalties if “A person commits the crime of riot if while participating with five or more other persons the person engages in tumultuous and violent conduct and thereby intentionally or recklessly creates a grave risk of causing public alarm.” The bill is a part of a wave of panicked responses to the growth of mass protest movements, particularly those ascribed the anti-fascist or “antifa” label because of their messaging in opposition to the far right. State Rep. Sherrie Springer, who introduced the bill, was clear to the Oregon House Committee on Judiciary that House Bill 4126 was a response to the proliferation of news stories about antifascist demonstrations.
Portland has become a flash point of battles between far right groups and anti-fascist community groups, with many in the latter groups donning masks during demonstrations for fear of being publicly identified and targeted for violence.
An Effort to Win Favor With Conservatives
State Representative Springer is appealing to her base in a way that is common for conservative legislators in blue states. In Oregon, the Democratic Party has a supermajority, meaning that they are able to pass their political agenda with little to no opposition from the right. Oregon is split down the middle, with urban areas in Portland, Eugene and Bend driving politics left for the state, while the rural areas that make up the majority of its land mass lean much more Republican. This is where the far right militias occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Sugar Pine Mines — a region where antifa has become a useful scare word.
In 2018, Republican state senators fled the state to break quorum so that Democrats could not pass a relatively moderate cap-and-trade climate bill. They did this with the support of militias, which rallied at the capital and threatened to shut down the state government, offering the senators their armed protection. Oregon State Sen. Brian Boquist even threatened to murder Oregon state police officers who were tasked with tracking down the elected officials and returning them to work, saying, “Send bachelors and come heavily armed. I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon.”
The state saw a repeat of this stalling tactic most recently on February 24, when Republican legislators, followed by their Senate counterparts, walked out of the Capitol to break quorum to stop a similarly moderate cap-and-trade climate bill from passing. This has left a lot of bills and budget decisions in limbo, particularly around delicate child welfare programs, but this is the new strategy for how to create bonds with their radical right-wing constituencies when they do not hold enough power to push through their agenda.
While all of this feels specific to the Oregon context, it is a model that is becoming increasingly common across the country. The Republicans pushing the de-masking bill are doing so to appeal to their base in lieu of substantial legislative wins. These Republicans have learned to speak the language of the radical right and make symbolic gestures toward their base to win primary races. In this sense, antifa is an easy tool to manipulate an audience that has forged its beliefs about the potential threat of left-wing protesters through far right websites like Breitbart and Rebel News. The fact that the bill does not address any real threat of violence doesn’t matter because that was never the point; it’s merely political theater.
Compounding the situation, the de-masking bill was introduced in Oregon at the same time as a proposal to ban facial recognition technology, which has created apprehension on both sides of the aisle. Protests across the country continue to grow as the Trump administration steamrolls over civil rights, and cities are considering how to adapt, with many using every tool at their disposal to control expanding demonstrations. Portland has been of a mixed mind about this, and has used heavy-handed policing to break up demonstrations during the past three years. Facial recognition could prove an appealing tool in the eyes of the city’s law enforcement. If this becomes the case, then a de-masking law would be necessary to actually use such technology for investigations and prosecution.
Civil Rights Groups Push Back
Antifa has become an easy trigger point for conservatives who see this amorphous movement as the shock troops of political correctness and “cancel culture,” even if that characterization is based on caricature. While the far right has been responsible for dozens of murders and terror attacks over the past few years, no such murders or attacks can be attributed to anti-fascists. The management of protesters has less to do with the potential threat they present, which is minimal, and much more to do with the public performance involved in positioning oneself against them.
As masks, which are not inherently linked with violence, are a common feature of protest movements, measures like these are likely to have a very real chilling effect on protests. Legal language that singles out the commission of a crime in an overly broad way could rope in a range of protest behaviors, including nonviolent civil disobedience. Protests historically skate the line of legality, their disruptive nature often challenging systems of power. Those sitting-in or blocking traffic while wearing masks could end up facing serious prosecution for simply engaging what have been historically common tactics.
Zakir Khan, the chair of the Oregon chapter of the Center for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), says we ought to be celebrating anti-fascism rather than demonizing it. “As our federal government further descends into fascism, we need both people and institutions to stand against that. Many anti-fascists have repeatedly come to the aid of the Muslim community in the wake of a startling rise of hate crimes,” Khan told Truthout. “We think the function of [House Bill 4126] is to 1.) enhance penalties for those seeking face privacy; 2.) demonize anti-fascism; and 3.) to dismantle Oregon’s civil rights protections to further incarcerate more people.”
CAIR-Oregon joined several advocacy organizations in opposing the measure, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oregon, the Carceral Tech Resistance Network, the Latino Network, Native American Youth and Family Center, the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the Oregon Justice Resource Center.
“This legislation only serves to undermine one of the few ways Oregonians have to protect ourselves from state repression of our right to free speech,” stated PopMob, a Portland-based community group, in a press release condemning the bill. “Anyone who has ever attended a mass mobilization in downtown Portland has seen that little more than blocking a street can cause the police to declare a ‘riot,’ providing an excuse to use chemical weapons, mass arrests, and other extreme tactics against community members exercising our right to free speech. Police tactics have become increasingly militarized; HB 4126 would further weaponize the courts to criminalize essential community self-defense. Threats of harsher sentencing would dramatically threaten our fundamental rights to privacy and protest.”
These laws have also historically been applied selectively, particularly with social movements out of favor with law enforcement. In Virginia, some protesters wore masks during a January pro-gun rally in which thousands “open carried” at the state capitol to protest new firearm regulations, even though the state has a statute against protesting while wearing a mask. Law enforcement officials, however, did not interfere, except in one case. That leeway, though, has not been extended to left-leaning protests in the state. For instance, several people counter-demonstrating a neo-Confederate rally in 2017 were arrested on the anti-mask law, which was, ironically, enacted to combat the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s.
In situations where protesters are concerned with their privacy and security, particularly when white nationalist groups have singled out individuals as targets for violence, many could become too frightened to protest at all. The white supremacist organization The Base, for example, recently targeted a couple in Georgia that they believed were anti-fascist activists involved in a local organization, and plotted to break into their house and murder them in their sleep. Georgia has an anti-mask law that leaves many activists open to identification in the same environments where their support for anti-racist causes have left them vulnerable to becoming potential targets.
“It is important for the Portland mayor to use her bully pulpit to oppose the rise of the far right and to support those who organize to protect our neighbors under attack from their hate. I believe it is my obligation to stand with my community in opposing this bill,” says Sarah Iannarone, who is a candidate in Portland’s mayoral race. “Far right extremism is on the rise throughout the world and Portland is a national epicenter of this troubling trend. Instead of sending heavily armed officers to escalate situations in which our community takes a stand against hate, we have an opportunity to come together to show the world what it means to say that hate is truly not welcome in our sanctuary city.”
CAIR-Oregon, PopMob and others have jumped into action, asking the bill’s opponents to call their local legislators and ask them to vote against the bill. The ACLU of Oregon ran a petition amplifying the constituencies of a few key Democrats running for re-election in upcoming primaries in an effort to more effectively leverage their base of support. In a February 20 hearing, 10 groups including the ACLU presented a public letter to the legislative committee considering bringing the bill to the floor for a vote. “This bill will only serve to ramp up charges, frighten defendants into accepting plea agreements, and lead to longer prison sentences,” the letter stated.
Oregon civil rights groups’ quick mobilization worked: The bill died in the House Rules Committee on February 21. Still, State Representative Springer was ultimately able to send an effective signal to her hard-right base, and can now argue that the liberal establishment has crushed her effort to “protect” them.
The reality is that legal maneuvers like anti-mask laws obscure who is actually responsible for the bulk of politically motivated violence in the country: the far-right. Instead of going after masks at public demonstrations, politicians would do better to address the root causes of political attacks by undermining the conditions that cause hate groups to form in communities.
The recent high-profile trial of Jeremy Christian, who was found guilty of an anti-Muslim hate crime in which he murdered two people on a Portland train in 2017, most effectively underscores the disingenuousness of such efforts. One can hardly compare the protest activities of masked Portlanders to the viciousness of such racist attacks. The purpose of these measures is not to confront violence in the streets but to exploit hyper-partisanship in a bid for re-election.