Masked Up for Protest

Do concealed identities embolden the violence?

Would the elimination of masks at Portland protests make demonstrations more peaceful? That was the suggestion of Police Chief Danielle Outlaw in response to violence that has been occurring at political rallies and demonstrations in recent years, in which right-wing participants, and left-wing counter-demonstrators, have been engaging in bloody street brawls.

Mask-bans are nothing new in the United States, with around 15 states and some counties and cities having some kind of regulation on the hiding of faces during a protest. Many of the anti-mask laws around the country were passed in response to a wave of violence perpetrated by Ku Klux Klan members wearing hoods between 1920 and 1950. Dr. LeRoy Haynes, a black pastor and the chair of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, pointed out the stark contrast between the peaceful, non-violent heyday protests of the 1960s civil rights era he’d participated in since he was 13, in the tradition of the philosophies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., compared to today’s both right-wing and left-wing counter protestors having been documented wearing masks and occasionally engaging in violence with each other.

“We were willing to be beaten if it was needed…we never wore masks, we wanted people to see that we were willing to take an open stance and see our face in those situations,” Haynes said.

When multiple groups, including the right-wing Proud Boys, a designated hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center known to strike up violent conflicts in Portland, and left-wing counter protestors known as antifascists or Antifa clashed last month, bloody fist fights broke out during what police called a “civil disturbance.” Three arrests were made and several injuries reported.

Video footage of conservative writer Andy Ngo getting assaulted and pelted with milkshakes from what appeared to be mask-clad Antifa sparked nationwide backlash and criticism of Portland Police Bureau and Mayor Ted Wheeler.

Outlaw proposed making a law making it illegal to wear a mask while a crime was being committed to help reduce the violence at future protests.

“Legislation would really be helpful prohibiting the wearing of masks during the commission of a crime…If you knew that you can be easily identified, do you think you would be as inclined to commit that act of violence or commit that crime personally?” Outlaw asked at a press conference a few days after the clash.

Haynes told the Portland Observer that he wouldn’t have a problem with police implementing a mask ban for people committing crimes, but urged that such a proposal should not “impinge upon the rights of citizens to march and to peacefully assemble for their grievances.”

“We would’ve not had the 1964 Civil Rights bill, the ‘65 Civil Rights bill, the end to Jim Crow, without marches and protests,” he explained.

John Parry, a professor of law and associate dean at Lewis and Clark Law School, said he understands the frustration the police have in terms of quelling the violence at protests and agreed that “the best way to do it, if you’re going to do it, would be to specifically link the mask wearing to the commission of some other crime, and perhaps a crime of some seriousness.”