A New York Republican congressman has introduced an “unmasking” bill—a practice historically used to combat members of the Ku Klux Klan—transparently targeting members of the Antifa movement. The bill would make the act of wearing a mask at a protest a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
The bill, which was introduced by Staten Island congressman Dan Donovan, makes its target crystal clear: it’s called the “Unmasking Antifa Act of 2018.”
The legislation, which was introduced and referred to the House Judiciary Committee on Sunday, reads (emphasis added):
Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, while in disguise, including while wearing a mask, injures, oppresses, threatens, or intimidates any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both.
So setting aside the insanity of such a draconian punishment—a maximum possible penalty of 15 years in prison and/or an unspecified fine for wearing “a mask” while expressing your right to free speech under the First Amendment—the language of the bill is also ludicrously broad. How can you begin to cleanly define what qualifies as an act that “oppresses” or “intimidates” ANY PERSON AT ALL, even among people who are counter-protesting, say, a literal Nazi march? Aren’t those people we should feel comfortable challenging, particularly when they deign to step out in public? And what exactly qualifies as a “mask”?
As the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote, many unmasking laws were passed in the mid-20th century in response to violence by the KKK:
At least 18 states have “anti-masking” laws that make it a crime to wear a mask in public. Most of the laws were passed between the 1920s and the 1950s, in reaction to waves of violence perpetrated by the Klan.
Public officials argued that the laws were needed to protect the public from Klan intimidation and violence and that banning masks would aid law enforcement in identifying criminals.
But now, such laws are routinely used against protesters on the left, particularly members of the decentralized anti-fascism movement, who often wear masks to avoid being identified by law enforcement or targeted by white supremacists. Back in April, for instance, police in Georgia cited a 1951 state law, which was intended to combat hooded KKK members, as a rationale to arrest around 10 people who turned out to protest a neo-Nazi rally.
While Donovan has a long history of introducing futile legislation that goes nowhere, make no mistake: Republicans are still obsessed with the specter of Antifa, and they’ll happily steamroll over your civil liberties to end this perceived threat.