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Anti-Mask Laws Target Gaza Protests, But They Threaten All Progressive Movements

Several states are considering expanding bans on public masking as a means to repress protest.

A pro-Palestinian activist takes part in a protest to mark the 76th anniversary of the Nakba in the Queens borough of New York City, on May 15, 2024.

Across the United States, right-wing legislators are targeting protesters who oppose the genocide in Palestine by resurrecting laws against wearing face masks in public. In North Carolina, the Republican-backed “Unmasking Mobs and Criminals Bill” was approved by the state Senate last week and headed to the state House this week. Fresh anti-mask efforts are also underway in Ohio, Texas and Florida. These laws threaten to effectively criminalize anyone attempting to protect themselves — whether from political repression or airborne illness.

The North Carolina law would expand the state’s existing anti-masking law by removing the exception for public health. That means people could be prosecuted for protecting themselves from COVID — and of course, implicitly, it means that police will have another excuse to target Black and Brown people, poor people and activists.

And, while it can already be unsafe for disabled and immunocompromised people to participate in public demonstrations, this change would essentially criminalize the ability for people with escalated COVID risk to go out in public at all. “This bill also threatens the lives of many who are disabled and living with chronic illness,” said Quisha Mallette, an attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center, at a public hearing on the bill last week. “If I were not permitted to wear a mask in public it would greatly limit which spaces I could visit. For me this is an access issue.”

In addition to donning masks for COVID safety, many Palestine solidarity protesters also mask to avoid doxxing and surveillance.

Democratic North Carolina Senator Natasha Marcus, speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, questioned whether Republicans were truly worried about masked mobs. “Or is this, more likely, a desire to score some political points with the anti-mask crowd during an election year, at the expense of vulnerable people?”

Ironically, many anti-mask laws were originally passed to discourage the KKK from terrorizing people while disguising their identities. While today’s targets of the laws are largely student groups and anti-genocide encampments, the original targets were actually threatening others’ safety while hiding their faces. But criminalizing the KKK’s mode of dress did not stop them from organizing, and has repeatedly put free speech advocates in the awkward position of defending the group’s right to demonstrate.

Any effort at criminalization can too easily be turned on the most vulnerable, as we see now with mask laws. That dynamic should only reinforce our collective insistence that criminalization cannot make our communities safer.

These laws threaten to effectively criminalize anyone attempting to protect themselves — whether from political repression or airborne illness.

While the KKK anti-mask law has been widely reported by news media, the first anti-mask law was an 1845 New York state law that targeted an organized movement of tenants known as the “anti-rent” movement. These demonstrators rose up against corrupt landowners who were locking farmers into expensive, often lifelong lease contracts, which the tenants had to pay to get out of. When a few failed crop years left the farmers unable to cover rent, they plunged into debt. They began to protest, sometimes in elaborate disguises and sometimes by taking up arms. While the state moved to criminalize appearing in disguise in public, the movement nonetheless won the fight: in 1846, New York declared the land barons’ practices out of bounds and officially ended “all remnants of feudal land ownership” in the state.

At least 18 states had some kind of law criminalizing face masks on the books prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 — and it wasn’t until well into the outbreak that New York decriminalized masking to avoid contradictions in the law, given that the state imposed public mask mandates. Other masking laws, such as the one in North Carolina, have always made exceptions for public health. Some states’ rules also include religious exemptions, and exceptions for those who are performing in the theater.

Criminalization of various kinds of clothing goes beyond anti-mask laws, and beyond Republican leadership, too. Democratic legislators also call for criminalization when it suits them. Just earlier this year, the city of Philadelphia made it illegal to wear ski masks in public, in spite of challenges from free speech advocates and a lack of evidence that mask bans prevent violence or create safety. Beginning in the late 1980s, as mass criminalization of Black and Brown youth was ramping up, several cities and towns passed ordinances against sagging pants in public. And so-called “cross dressing” was banned in dozens of U.S. cities as early as 1848 in an effort to criminalize gender nonconformity, an effort that continues to this day. Muslims in hijab as well as Sikhs mistaken for Muslims have been targets of racist violence, particularly since 2001 when the state stepped up surveillance of Muslim communities and the media promoted anti-Muslim sentiment. And of course, racism against young Black people wearing hoodies is part of what led to the tragic death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012 — his shooter, George Zimmerman, claimed to see him as suspicious for simply walking through the neighborhood with his hood up.

The history of anti-masking laws only reinforces why criminalization will never uproot police or white supremacist violence.

Now more than ever, we must be vigilant about the escalating efforts to criminalize protest and scapegoat already vulnerable communities. Mask bans, even when supposedly aimed at bad actors like the KKK, will never make us safer, and they will invariably be invoked to target the most marginalized and to derail protest movements. Beyond protests, these laws muddy the waters around public health. Under the North Carolina law, a person who is wearing a mask for COVID safety reasons while allegedly committing another crime (whether related to protest, or a common misdemeanor or felony) could also face more severe sentencing. These laws also make protesters more vulnerable to facial recognition technology, doxxing, and an often irresponsible news media that publishes people’s faces without their consent.

Anti-racist advocates including the Southern Poverty Law Center have opposed mask bans even when they targeted the KKK, because they limit freedom of speech and expression. The history of anti-masking laws only reinforces why criminalization will never uproot police or white supremacist violence. Sweeping efforts like this reveal our collective interest in disability justice, police and prison abolition, queer liberation, and the vigilant protection of the right to protest — and exist — dressed exactly as we wish. This should be a clarion call to all communities who are targeted to stand together in collective opposition.

And, hot tip: the North Carolina law, if passed, will still contain an exception for “traditional Halloween costumes in season,” Mardi Gras, theatrical performances and masquerades. Please, mask up, get fancy as needed — and stay in the streets.

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