Boston city councilors agreed today to consider drafting an ordinance that would prohibit protesters from wearing masks or other identity-hiding disguises at political protests - with the proviso that exemptions be considered for religious or medical reasons.
Councilor Tim McCarthy (Hyde Park, Mattapan, Roslindale) pointed to the masks he said protesters against white nationalists wore during and after the pro-Trump Aug. 31 march and rally. He said that when protesters hide their identities while packing razors and other weapons and keys to undo handcuffs, "these aren't the norms of our society." He said what happened on Congress Street "is not First Amendment speech, that is violence."
Many of the people arrested that day, however, were not masked.
Even Councilor Josh Zakim (Fenway, Mission Hill, Back Bay, Beacon Hill), long considered one of the council's most active civil-rights activists, said he would be willing to consider such a measure, provided it could be enforced fairly against all protesters, not just against people voicing a particular viewpoint.
For example, while McCarthy is only angry with left-wing protesters, these masked right-wing protesters at a June 30, 2018 march on the Common for immigrant rights, who were surrounded by police to keep them separated from immigrant activists:
Zakim said he had serious reservations at first when he read McCarthy's proposal, and noted that anonymity has been part of some Boston protests dating back to the Tea Party. But he said that after doing some historical and legal research, he discovered that many existing anti-mask laws elsewhere came as a reaction to violent protests by the Ku Klux Klan.
Although he did not formally "sponsor" McCarthy's measure, as other councilors did, he said he would love to take part in discussions - as long as they are about the issue in general and not cast solely as a reaction to the Aug. 31 incident.
At the pro-immigrant rally, police eventually escorted the masked right wingers off the Common and then used bicycles to block Bowdoin Street on the side of the State House so that they could disappear:
Councilor Lydia Edwards (East Boston, North End Charlestown), also noted the anti-Klan nature of many existing anti-mask laws, and cautioned that simply banning masks wouldn't be enough. She noted the right winger recently ordered sent away for using a car to murder a protester in Charlottesville, VA did not wear a mask - and neither did the people who participated in the anti-Semitic tiki torch parade before Heather Heyer was murdered.
Both Zakim and Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George said it would be important that any ordinance respect people who cover their faces for religious or medical reasons. "I worry about the role of religious attire" being affected by any law, Essaibi-George, whose father emigrated here from Tunisia, said.
The council formally sent McCarthy's proposal to the council Committee on Public Safety, which he chairs. The next steps will be for him to set a date for a hearing at which experts and members of the public can testify. The committee would then draft a proposed ordinance for the full council to consider.