City councilors debated banning face masks at protests in Boston on Monday. The proposal was submitted in response to the Straight Pride Parade in August, where protesters were arrested and four police officers were injured.
The counter-protesters directed their rage at the police through acts of spitting, throwing cups of urine, and throwing bleach solution, according to Timothy McCarthy, councilor of 5th District of Massachusetts and the sponsor of the proposal. Many of them were emboldened by anonymity provided by facial coverings, he said.
“I think the whole straight pride thing was silly and pointless myself, and I have no doubt there are some people that had an agenda there that I don’t agree or support,” McCarthy said. “But the First Amendment—if it is to apply at all—must be applied and respected by law.”
McCarthy identified the radical counter-protesters as a part of the Antifa group and said their violence should not be protected by masks from legal accountability. He quoted the state of Virginia’s code 18.2-422 that bans the wearing of facial coverings on any public property or private property without consent of the tenant.
The rule has exceptions, McCarthy said, including holiday costumes, professional equipments, medical equipments, religious wears, among other forms of headwear.
There is an escalating trend in organized violence against police during public demonstrations, said William Ridge, superintendent of the Bureau of Field Services at the Boston Police Department. The protesters’ acts threatened the safety of both the police and the public, he said. Police were trained to specifically pinpoint and arrest agitators during demonstration, but with masks, such violent protesters could easily blend into the crowd to avoid legal consequences.
Preston Horton, deputy superintendent of Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, said that tracking down aggressive protesters is more difficult if they are wearing masks.
Several others city councilors voiced support for a ban or regulation, including Ed Flynn from District 2, Mark Ciommo from District 9, Kim Janey from District 7, Michael Flaherty of At-large, Lydia Edwards from District 1, and Frank Baker from District 3.
Janey said that although she supported the ban, she feared that the rule would be applied unjustly toward people of color. Edwards, though supportive of the proposal’s intent, furthered the concern with questions about where the line between preventing anonymous violence and protecting identities of peaceful protesters can be drawn. She pointed out the existing state laws that put extra criminal charge on those arrested with masks on. Edwards questioned Ridge about why a ban was needed, given the existence of similar laws on the state level.
“How quickly a slippery slope in terms of civil liberty could happen,” Edwards said.
Ridge responded that the existing laws failed to impose any deterrence on aggressive acts. He asserted that a ban was necessary to deal with the rise in organized violence directed at the police.
During public testimony, many citizens spoke against Ridge’s description about the danger police faced. They said that the violence was exaggerated, that the police were well-armed against any possible violence, and that the police were rough in their treatment of the protesters. Many condemned this ban as a significant step in the direction of demolishing First Amendment rights and civil liberties.
“The freedom enshrined in our Bill of Rights won’t be taken away in one fell swoop,” said Mary Landale, an activist from Watertown, during public comment. “Rather, they will disappear quietly, in small incremental bits, in response to things that seem like common sense and good ideas at the time.”
Featured Image by Jonathan Ye / Heights Editor