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MA state senator looks to ban face covering by protest groups such as Antifa

Sen. Dean Tran of Fitchburg wants a ban on face covering at public events by violent protest groups such as Antifa. [Sam Doran/Telegram & Gazette/TNS]

Following a weekend that saw three dozen people arrested when counterprotesters and police clashed here, one state senator is proposing to make it a crime for protesters to cover their faces during public events.

Four police officers were injured and 36 people were arrested Saturday after a series of fracases between law enforcement and protesters demonstrating against a straight pride parade that wended its way through downtown. Many of the protesters, some of whom were affiliated with the leftist group Antifa, wore bandanas, masks or other items to shield their faces.

“It is time, federal, state, and local to make it illegal to cover your faces in public events and demonstrations. A danger to public safety and our police officers,” Sen. Dean Tran, a Fitchburg Republican, tweeted Monday along with a cover of Sunday’s Boston Herald, which showed a man with a bandana around his neck being carried away by police officers. “No one or group is above the law.”

Tran told the News Service on Tuesday that he has been concerned about violence erupting at protests and demonstrations around the country, and was “frustrated” by what he saw on the news out of Boston over the weekend.

“I’m a big supporter of the freedom to assemble, but the freedom to assemble does not guarantee you the right to disguise yourself and inflict harm on others,” Tran said.

Most of the three dozen people arrested at Saturday’s events are charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Nine people face charges of assault and battery on a police officer. Some advocacy groups, including the Boston chapter of Democratic Socialists of America and the local anti-fascist group Solidarity Against Hate Boston, have argued that the police initiated the violence and have documented their complaints with video.

Tran said footage of violence at rallies and protests around the country, some of which have involved Antifa and affiliated groups, got him thinking about legislation to prohibit covering one’s face at a protest.

“I’ve seen actions that have been taken by Antifa and I compare those actions to the same actions as groups like the KKK,” Tran said, referring to the Ku Klux Klan. “We’re in a different era; back then the KKK did not agree with other races and they used violence to convey their messages. Now we’re seeing groups similar to that, and that is the Antifa, now they use the same tactics but against people who don’t share the same beliefs and views.”

The Boston Herald reported Monday that a self-identified Antifa member said at the Saturday demonstration that violence was a necessary response to the straight pride parade and that the protesters dressed strategically to try to avoid consequences of the violence.

“We’re covered in black so when we attack these guys we can’t be prosecuted,” Jon Crowley told the Herald. “They are fascists, 100 percent. How else are you going to get them to shut up?”

Tran said he and his staff have been discussing a potential bill to ban face coverings for several months.

“We are in the process of devising the correct language to file our bill. We want to make sure we will not infringe upon people’s rights to assemble and their rights to express themselves,” Tran said. “We want to make sure the public safety is secured and provided.”

The senator said his bill will “absolutely” have an exemption for Halloween or other events at which people traditionally wear masks or other similar apparel. Tran said he is considering limiting the prohibition in his bill to events that require a municipal permit, as Saturday’s parade did.

Asked about the worry among some activists that the government could retaliate in some way against people who protest against the government if it is able to capture surveillance images of each protester’s face, Tran said that should not be a concern.

“If you practice peaceful demonstration, you should have nothing to worry about. But if you have an intention to go out there and inflict harm on others, then, of course, you should be worried that the government will take every action to prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.

Tran added, “If everyone practiced tolerance, we wouldn’t have to witness violence in any capacity.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts did not return a News Service inquiry seeking reaction to Tran’s proposal. Tran’s tweet drew at least one supporter in the Massachusetts political world — Boston City Councilor Tim McCarthy responded to Tran’s tweet with “Agreed!”

Some states have strict anti-mask laws, some of which were put on the books in response to the KKK. Massachusetts already has a law related to “disguises to obstruct execution of law, performance of duties, or exercise of rights.”

The law, which falls under the same chapter as things like resisting arrest and providing a false name to law enforcement, calls for a fine of up to $500 or imprisonment for up to a year for anyone who “disguises himself with intent to obstruct the due execution of the law, or to intimidate, hinder or interrupt an officer or other person in the lawful performance of his duty, or in the exercise of his rights under the constitution or laws of the commonwealth, whether such intent is effected or not.”

In 2010, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences sought to impose a new policy that would ban any head covering that obscured a student’s face while he or she was engaged in student activities. The policy was condemned, including by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, as an infringement on the religious rights of students.

About a week after announcing the new policy, MCPHS amended the policy to include an exception “for medical and/or religious reasons,” CNN reported at the time.


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